Liz Robertson, Philip Quast, Maria Friedman, Tim Flavin, Kim Criswell, Meg Johnson, Patrick Mower, Bonaventura Bottone, Wendi Peters, Liliane Montevecchi, Imelda Staunton, Josephine Barstow, Angela Rippon, Richard Calkin, Trevor Macdonald
The ArtsEd (London) Musical Theatre
The Follies Concert Orchestra
Staged and Choreographed by Bill Deamer
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 4 February, 2007
Venue: The London Palladium
Originally mooted in 1965 by playwright James Goldman when he read a newspaper story about the Ziegfeld Girls Club, “Follies” was initially a difficult show to get off the ground. It started life under the title ‘The Girls Upstairs’ but was shelved when producers David Merrick wouldn’t and Leland Hayward couldn’t raise the money. In the meantime Stephen Sondheim wrote two more shows, “Do I Hear a Waltz?” and “Company” before he returned to “Follies” as it eventually became in 1971 after many rewrites.
The cast included many old-timers from vaudeville, music-theatre and the cinema such as Mary McCarty, Dorothy Collins, Alexis Smith, Ethel Shutta, Fifi D’Orsay, Gene Nelson and Yvonne De Carlo. However “Follies” never made back its initial money because, with 22 numbers, a huge cast of over 50 including principals and their younger ‘ghost’ selves, plus choruses of singers and dancers, the show was very expensive to run. It cost and lost a fortune and it was doubtful that it would ever come to London. In fact it took 17 years before we saw it here, in a Revised Version with new songs by Sondheim and a slightly different book for its stars, Diana Rigg, Daniel Massey, Julia Mackenzie, David Healy and Dolores Gray. Since then it has been revived again at the South Bank in 2002 and even in a tiny fringe theatre in Clapham.
Other productions have been staged along the way, however, including one in Los Angeles, which also had a concert version with Barbara Cook, George Hearn and Elaine Stritch, part of which was televised in the UK. Elaine Stritch was to have appeared in this Palladium production of ‘Follies in Concert’, held in aid of the Starlight Children’s Foundation and Kingston Hospital Cancer Unit Appeal. However, nobody could not have cheered her replacement, the irrepressible Kim Criswell who received the loudest applause for her performance of ‘I’m Still Here’, a sort of showbiz anthem that is at the heart of the musical.
The show takes the form of a reunion of old and retired showgirls, the Dimitri Weissman Girls, who meet on the last night of an old theatre due to be turned into a parking lot. They get together, talk over the old days, remembering the good and the bad, sing a few numbers, and generally have a fine time. But, for two couples things have not been too good. Phyllis and Ben Stone are stuck in a loveless and childless marriage that seems to be going nowhere. Sally and Buddy Plummer are in a similar fix, especially when Sally reveals she has always loved Ben. Goldman has said that: “the whole notion of a reunion, particularly involving people who haven’t seen each other in a long time was a situation that was fraught with emotional possibilities … the whole subject of unfinished business in our lives.”
The book and songs provide a moving message about it being unwise to go back – unless you are sure that things are still the way they were. Sondheim’s songs also pay tribute to the classic song- and show-writers of the era from the 1920s to the 1950s, with pastiche numbers of Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others. Here they were staged and choreographed by Bill Deamer with all the panache of the original production but minus the extravagant settings. The montage of songs, ‘Rain on the Roof’, ‘Ah, Paris!’ and ‘Broadway Baby’, were delivered superbly well by Wendi Peters, Richard Calkin, Liliane Montevecchi and Imelda Staunton. Other highlights included Meg Johnson as Stella Deems leading the company in ‘Who’s That Woman?’, Angela Rippon flashing her pins again in the ‘Bolero D’Amore’ dance number, Maria Friedman’s compassionate singing of ‘Losing My Mind’, Liz Robertson asking her husband ‘Could I Leave You?’, and Tim Flavin singing and dancing up a storm in ‘Buddy’s Blues’. There was even Dame Josephine Barstow offering ‘One More Kiss’.
Now that “Follies” is something of a cult show, this one-off performance suggests it doesn’t need a fully staged production to make it work. Perhaps, though, it’s time for another revival proper of this great Sondheim musical.