Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review : Colonel Moseley reviews "Follies in Concert"

This was written in February 2007 and is taken from my reviewblog


There’s no denying it, the first two months of the year are grim. No amount of reality television or celebrity ice skating can lift the post-Christmas gloom. I was thinking that the Mem and I needed a lift when I spotted the advert for Follies in Concert at the London Palladium on Sunday 4th. February; it was to be one evening performance and would benefit the very worthwhile Starlight Children's Foundation and Kingston Hospital Cancer Unit Appeal.

The Mem and I admire Stephen Sondheim’s work and love Follies most. It depicts a reunion of several decades’ of performers from Weismann’s Follies on the stage of his theatre, just before its demolition.

The show has everything: humour, success, failure, delusion, love and regret…the lot. Its songs reflect the history of musical theatre from Lehar to Rogers and from burlesque to torch song. It addresses time passing, the reality and illusion of past and present, sanity, disappointment and the way we mislead others and ourselves. It epitomises the term bittersweet.

We have seen the show several times: a glitzy all-star version at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, Paul Kerryson’s absorbingly understandable interpretation at Leicester’s Haymarket and a truly authentic production in the run–down Belasco Theatre on Broadway.

We have the CD of most Sondheim productions, but our favourite remains the gala production of Follies in Concert at the Lincoln Centre in New York starring the legendary Barbara Cook and the divine Lee Remick. The concert featured some truly marvellous moments, including Elaine Stritch bringing down the house with the definitive performance of Broadway Baby.

Our seats at the Palladium were in the third row centre of the royal circle with an excellent view of the stage. The audience was a mixture of those that attend glitzy charity galas, friends of the musical – and many of Dorothy – and Sondheim aficionados (which other, more worldly, bloggers call anoraks). Whatever their origins, they made an appreciative audience that helped the evening go with a swing.

The staging was simple and effective. A runway crossed the back of the set, leading down one side to stage centre with a flight of ten or so red-carpeted steps. To the rear was the orchestra with a clear performance area at stage-front. Another runway went into the audience around the edge of the empty orchestra pit.

During the overture, the cast sauntered into the reunion, meeting and greeting and forming excited little groups.Trevor McDonald set the scene authoritatively as the radio announcer and Patrick Mower took control as a larger than life –and dare-one-say, a tad hammy – Dimitri Weismann. He soon called on Roscoe to welcome the Weismann Girls in his inimitable manner. Bonaventura Bottone set the standard for the evening’s singing with a crystal clear rendition of Beautiful Girls.

To my delight the audience responded by loudly applauding each of the former follies girls as they processed down the stairs to centre stage, reaching a glorious climax involving the entire company.

Once the cast was assembled, relationships were revisited and old illusions explored, particularly as between the four principals: Buddy, Ben, Phyllis and Sally.

Maria Friedman was a plausible Sally Durant Plummer, gauche and provincial and still manifesting the thwarted passion of decades before. As Benjamin Stone, Philip Quast was credible as materially successful but ultimately exploitative and shallow. Liz Robertson was a cool and sarcastic Phyllis. Tim Flavin's Buddy was a convincingly seedy salesman seeking comfort in the arms of his mistress.

Sally and Ben’s first duet Don’t Look at Me was crisp and lucid and set the scene perfectly. The same applies for the Waiting for the Girls Upstairs involving the principal quartet and their younger selves, excellently played by Neil McDermott, Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Summer Strallen and Rachel Barrell.This first half was given even greater impetus by the montage of follies songs performed by “old girls.

Wendi Peters and Richard Calkin got this segment on the road as the Whitmans with a spirited version of Rain on the Roof, including a very accomplished soft shoe shuffle. It evoked Comden and Green’s classic version at Lincoln Centre, but was better phrased – which is high praise.

This was followed by a saucy Ah, Paris! by the ageless, indomitable - and scene stealing - Liliane Montevecchi, reprising her Solange. It was sassy, camp and a huge success with the audience, which was by now fully warmed-up.

Then came Broadway Baby – to this show what the soliloquy is to Hamlet. Imelda Staunton, in a fetching new-wave, mid-calf gown, carried a great burden of anticipation, not least because La Stritch herself had been advertised initially to appear in this production, albeit as Carlotta rather than Hattie.

Given Miss Staunton’s talent, no-one had cause to worry. She carried it off with aplomb. Her version wasn’t all pauses and deadpan a la Stritch, but a feisty driving number more suited to a pocket battleship. It roared to a climax that merged with the reprises from the two other songs.

I always think this is a shame since Hattie loses the opportunity to bask alone in the glory of a really great moment of musical theatre. I guess there’s a moral in that somewhere…even if I’m not sure exactly where.

After the wham-bam of the montage comes a more reflective section with a stunning The Road You Didn’t Take from Ben. Philip Quast’s precise diction and tasteful phrasing gave the lyric even greater clarity and relevance. The flooding orchestration always reminds me of Debussy at his most lyrical. Here, I commend the orchestra and particularly its woodwind section.

There followed a touching and real In Buddy’s Eyes from Maria Friedman. The aching void of Sally’s suburban existence was painted as vividly as the flowers in her garden. I loved Maria's interpretation of the song; it moved me as much as Barbara Cook's.

The contrast of light and shade continued with a show-stopping Who’s that Woman (the Mirror Song) led with drive by Meg Johnson as Stella Deems. The line of mature hoofers was joined by most of the company and danced and sang their hearts out to a joyous, if exhausted, climax and tumultuous applause. Who said you could never remember the tunes in Sondheim shows?

The first half ended with a tour de force I’m Still Here from Kim Criswell as Carlotta Campion. I remember years ago sitting in the front row of the Shaftesbury listening in awe as Dolores Grey triumphantly sold this number, sitting nonchalantly on a bar stool following a leg injury.

On this evening Kim Crisswell was more mobile and built the number to a massive crescendo and thoroughly deserved the huge ovation that followed.

Act II began with the exotic Bolero D’Amore superbly performed by Paul Killick and Alison Epsom. The Mem still speaks fondly and distractedly of his shirtless paso from Strictly Come Dancing.

They were joined by Angela Rippon with dress slashed to the thigh. She danced very expressively in Mr Killick’s safe and expert hands and her marvellous legs went on as far as they did in that Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show all those years ago.

Ben and Sally’s Too Many Mornings was, for me, the highlight of the concert. The song is complex and seems part conversational and part thought process. Here Maria Friedman and Philip Quast seemed to have a telepathic synchronicity which gave the duet a real pace and fluidity, as though it was one voice. This allowed the emotion to flow with a rapture that captured the fleeting magic of transitory passionate love. This quality is difficult to set to music and sing - or even describe.

Buddy’s opportunity to describe and justify his attitudes and behaviour came with The Right Girl. Tim Flavin attacked the song with the requisite American macho drive. This rollicking exposition of men’s needs was counterbalanced with a delicate duet, One More Kiss between Heidi Schiller and her young self, which evoked the fragility of old age and vigour of youth. The older soprano looks on as the ravishing voice of her twenties soars exquisitely; she is proud yet wistfully concludes “never look back”. This was a touching and apt duet, beautifully performed by Josephine Barstow and Charlotte Page.

The bittersweet of One More Kiss was followed by the bitterness of Could I Leave You?  in which Phyllis, tired of Ben’s philandering, explains a few home truths. She adroitly outlines the futility of their existence together and ultimately leaves him hanging as to whether she will or will not take him for every cent he has - in the American way of divorce.

Liz Robertson handles a very convoluted and very Sondheim lyric masterfully: her breath control and phrasing were superb.

The final Follies section of the show follows the high camp Loveland sequence. The young Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally scampered through You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow and Love will see Us Through. Their singing, acting and movement were of a high order.

Similarly, Tim Flavin attacked The God-Why-Don’t-You- Love-Me Blues with élan, ably assisted by Emma Cannon as Margie and Charlie Bull as Sally. The combination of verbal gymnastics and hoofing, making full use of the runway at the front of the stage, worked well.

The ribaldry of Buddy’s Folly was followed immediately by the quiet madness of Sally’s. Maria Friedman walked demurely to the top of the staircase and sang what is perhaps the ultimate torch song Losing My Mind with aching poignancy. The number was moodily staged and lit and created a lasting memory.

Piling one contrast after another, Phyllis’s Folly took the form of an upbeat vaudeville number telling the Story of Lucy and Jessie with male dancers. Liz Robertson managed yet more tongue twisting lyrics in breathlessly long phrases admirably and the audience roared.

The Follies concluded with Ben’s Live Laugh and Love. Again, Philip Quast mastered a difficult lyric with some high kicking and suffered the mental breakdown that brings the proceedings to a close.

Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally return home with their spouses crushed and numbed by the experience of being confronted with their past and the cold reality of the present: it wasn’t pretty.

At the end of the show the audience gave the cast a deserved standing ovation. The quality of singing, acting and dance was consistently high and the story-line was clearly presented. With relatively little rehearsal, the performers had been able to provide a thrilling evening.

I always think Follies is like the best work of Dennis Potter such as Pennies from Heaven or The Singing Detective. Memories are powerfully evoked by songs or what Noel Coward called cheap music. Such songs can often help us block-out or distort what actually went on.

Paradoxically, they can also trigger memories which help us recollect or work out the past.The truth about the past isn’t always pleasant, particularly when the sugar-coating is removed, but it’s still the truth and that’s what we are ultimately searching for. Quite often the discovery is painful or traumatic. We are left dazed and have to lick our wounds and work out how to deal with tomorrow – just like Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally at the end of Follies.

Follies deals with some big issues and yet still moves and entertains; that’s why it is my favourite musical.

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