Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Follies (National Theatre Broadcast)

You just never know how something is going to hit you. Last night I saw the National Theatre Broadcast of Follies with five friends. Among us, we have easily seen 80 live performances of Follies, including the original, the one in England in the 1980s with Diana Rigg, the concert version with Barbara Cook, Roundabout's, Encores!'s, the one with Bernadette Peters (in D.C. and in New York), Signature's (Arlington, VA), St. Bartholomew's, Paper Mills's, and a couple up in the Berkshires, many of them multiple times. We could probably perform the damn thing.

Photo: Johan Persson

We sat in a row. And the three of us sitting to the right liked it, and the three of us sitting to the left hated it. It was as though a line had been drawn in the middle, and we had completely different experiences on either side of it. (With one exception: we all loathed Tracie Bennett's version of "I'm Still Here.")

You never know.

What's particularly interesting is that we agreed on many of the pluses and minuses; they just added up differently in our heads and hearts.

I am happy to report that I am one of the three who liked it. A lot! For me, the bottom line is that the production got the Follies gestalt right, so I assessed its strengths and weaknesses in that context.

Strengths first:

  • Peter Forbes made a perfect Buddy. I believed everything about him, felt the complexity of his feelings for Sally, and was really impressed with both "The Right Girl" and "Buddy's Blue's."
  • I thought Imelda Staunton was excellent and that she nailed "Losing My Mind." This was astonishing to me as I hated her Mama Rose so much that I had to quit the Gypsy broadcast only a few songs in; it was actually causing me pain. 
  • Although Janie Dee made some odd choices, I liked her performance overall. I liked how her voice remained brittle even as her face softened.
  • Philip Quast was a solid Ben.
  • Josephine Barstow broke my heart as Heidi. Many of the Heidis I've seen sang "One More Kiss" so purely that they seemed untouched by aging. Barstow sang it with a sense of personal loss and even anger that really worked for me.
  • Much of the scenery and costumes and make up was just right.
  • It was Follies! It has those songs! Those orchestrations! That flawed and weird and always compelling book! One of the best musicals ever written!

  • The ghosts were overdone. Instead of being ephemeral, more memory than reality, they were altogether too present.
  • The camera work left a lot to be desired. I will never understand why broadcast producers make the decision to pull away from a performer's face during a big solo. And in this case, they pulled hundreds of feet away, as though we were suddenly in the fourth balcony. Nobody wants to be in the fourth balcony, and nobody wants their experience of a show interrupted in that way again and again.
  • Some of the cast's American accents did not work. At all. 
  • It lacked the brilliant and heartbreaking dance by Vincent and Vanessa and Young Vincent and Young Vanessa, which is in many ways a microcosm of the whole show.
  • Much of the scenery and costumes and make up was wrong or slightly off. In particular, Sally should not have worn a dress that could be seen as green, as it was by a few of us. It makes it weird when she sings "I should have worn green."
  • The poster is ugly.
Mostly, I'm just glad and grateful that this record of the fabulous Follies exists and that people can see it for $25 rather than the enormous cost of today's live musicals. I wish every show would be filmed!

Wendy Caster
(back of the balcony, full-price ticket)

Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Dominic Cooke. Cast: Julie Armstrong (Christine Donovan), Norma Atallah (Emily Whitman), Josephine Barstow (Heidi Schiller), Jeremy Batt (Chorus Boy) Tracie Bennett (Carlotta Campion), Di Botcher (Hattie Walker), Billy Boyle (Theodore Whitman), Janie Dee (Phyllis Rogers Stone), Anouska Eaton (Young Emily), Liz Ewing (Company), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Solange Lafitte), Peter Forbes (Buddy Plummer), Emily Goodenough (Showgirl), Bruce Graham (Roscoe), Adrian Grove (Sam Deems), Fred Haig (Young Buddy), Aimee Hodnett (Young Hattie), Dawn Hope (Stella Deems), Liz Izen (Deedee West), Alison Langer (Young Heidi), Emily Langham (Young Carlotta), Sarah-Marie Maxwell (Young Solange), Ian McLarnon (Company), Leisha Mollyneaux (Young Stella), Gemma Page (Sandra Crane) Kate Parr (Young Sandra), Philip Quast (Ben Stone), Edwin Ray (Chorus Boy), Gary Raymond (Dimitri Weismann), Adam Rhys-Charles (Young Ben), Jordan Shaw (Chorus Boy), Imelda Staunton (Sally Durrant Plummer), Zizi Strallen (Young Phyllis), Barnaby Thompson (Chorus Boy), Christine Tucker (Young Deedee), Michael Vinsen (Chorus Boy) and Alex Young (Young Sally). Designed by Vicki Mortimer, with choreography by Bill Deamer, musical supervision by Nicholas Skilbeck, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, additional orchestrations by Josh Clayton, musical director Nigel Lilley, lighting design by Paule Constable and sound designer by Paul Groothuis. 


Harold W said...

The show was sublime when seen live. Some of the elements you list as weaknesses worked beautifully. A film version simply cannot replicate the magic that results from choices made for live staging.

Wendy Caster said...

I could not agree more. But sooooo glad it exists