SCREEN: Follies – Cinema Nouveau
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
ONE of Stephen Sondheim’s most respected and lavish stage musicals, Follies was first staged in 1971, when it won seven of its 11 Tony Award nominations. It was recently revived at the Olivier Theatre in London, where, Playbill reported earlier this week, it will return in 2019 with cast changes.
Wonderful news is that the National Theatre Live film of the spectacular, highly acclaimed London production from last year is to have four screenings in South Africa from this weekend. These will be at 7.30pm on Saturday (February 17), 2.30pm on Sunday (February 18), then at 7.30pm on Wednesday (February 21) and Thursday (February 22), at Cinema Nouveua cinemas countrywide, and at the Ster-Kinekor commercial cinema complex at Gateway in Umhlanga.
I had always loved the hits from the show – I’m Still Here, Broadway Baby and Losing My Kind – but had never seen a production of Follies until I eagerly attended a special preview of the film in Durban earlier this week.
Running for 180 minutes without an interval, and also featuring short interviews with the great Sondheim himself and Dominic Cooke, the director of the London production, the film is an absolute must for anyone appreciating musical theatre.
This Follies is a stunner – featuring a cast of 37, an onstage orchestra of 21 musicians, costumes dripping with Swarovski crystals, a massive revolving set, and a stellar cast headed by standout performances from the unfailingly marvellous Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee.
They play leading one-time showgirls Sally and Phyllis, who are among a group of former stars of Weismann’s Follies, a musical revue that played between the war years.
The former colleagues gather now, in 1971, for a reunion party in a dilapidated Broadway theatre that featured their shows for many years, and which is set to close the following day to be turned into an office block.
As the performers recreate their old routines or sing their old songs, so the ghosts of their performing past constantly stroll or dance about the large set as well. Also, the lead performers’ younger selves (actors with very close physical resemblances to the stars) appear to eavesdrop and recreate important moments of yesteryear. It all leads to memories, secrets, a reviewing of old wounds and disappointments.
Both the outwardly exuberant Sally and the witty, seemingly cold Phyllis have troubled marriages – Sally being married to Buddy, a travelling salesman who is having an affair with a younger woman. Phyllis is married to self-absorbed politician Ben, whom Sally has never stopped loving since they had a fling in their youth.
How these characters interact and try to come to grips with their past and future, while other characters provide a parade of nostaglia, pulls the focus of a production for which Sondheim – whose credits include Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music – wrote music and lyrics. The musical’s book is by James Goldman.
The film has three-time Olivier-winner Philip Quast as Ben, Peter Forbes as Buddy, and two-time Olivier winner Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion.
Here, too, are Di Botcher as Hattie Walker, Dawn Hope as Stella Deems, Geraldine Fitzgerald as Solange Lafitte, Josephine Barstow as Heidi Schiller, Norma Attallah as Emily Whitman, Billy Boyle as Theodore Whitman, Gary Raymond as Dimitri Weismann, Bruce Graham as Roscoe, Alex Young as Young Sally, Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis, Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben, and Fred Haig as Young Buddy.
It has been reported that this revival of the musical marked the first fully staged London production to use the original Broadway version of the work.
Follies’ first London production in 1987 used a dramatically revised book and song list that presented a more hopeful story. It has been reported that director Cooke also revisited early drafts of Goldman’s book to restore dialogue and scenes unseen since the show’s 1971 Broadway premiere, along with returning to the work’s one-act structure