Follies***** (Royal Albert Hall)

Posted: April 29, 2015 in Music, Theatre

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I was privileged to see the 1987 production of Follies, which enjoyed a run of over 18 months at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and I have been longing for it to be revived ever since. If nothing else, this concert staging was a reality check, showing exactly why I have been disappointed for so long and why, faced with the economics of modern commercial theatre, a future revival is very unlikely. What producer will take a risk on a show with almost 20 solo singing roles, a large singing/dancing chorus and a score which requires a full orchestra? This early Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) musical, sandwiched between Company and A Little Night Music, is set in 1971, the year when it was first staged. A derelict New York theatre is about to be converted into a parking lot and the former impresario holds a cocktail party for the stars of his spectacular Follies revue from 30 years earlier – a cue for nostalgia and sentimentality by the bucket load and for a return to the golden era. The principal characters are two couples who re-ignite their tangled past relationships and come face to face with their younger selves. The older versions were played here by Christine Baranski and Alexander Hanson, Ruthie Henshall and Peter Polycarpou. British musical theatre fans are well familiar with the last three, who all did what we know they can superbly, but it was the divine Baranski who stole the show, delivering lines of withering sarcasm as if they were written for her and making us think that there is no other actor anywhere in the World who could ever play this role again. This is a show in which the songs overwhelm the book (written by James Goldman) to such an extent that the book gives up at the interval, thus making the usual criticism of concert stagings – that they diminish the impact of the drama or comedy – pretty irrelevant. This, plus the show’s fragmented nature, means that concert staging may even reveal Sondheim’s masterpiece in a better light. The production, directed by Craig Revel Horwood, made imaginative use of four moveable oblong “doorways” and had, as would be expected, plentiful dancing (choreography by Andrew Wright); if the dancers seemed slightly under-rehearsed, it mattered little because their musical numbers are all about spectacle. Behind them, the City of London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Gareth Valentine. The large company included a variety of well-known names to suit different tastes (or not) and several who it was pleasant to discover are still alive. Performers such as Russell Watson and Anita Dobson have always been outside my personal radar, but the former nailed Beautiful Girls emphatically and the latter, singing and tap-dancing her way through Who’s That Woman with girlish glee, was an absolute knockout. Stefanie Powers donned the guise of a French madam and put her Hart into Ah Paris, Lorna Luft belted out Broadway Baby in a style that would have made her mother proud and Betty Buckley rattled the old Albert Hall’s foundations with the perennial showstopper I’m Still Here. Hanson and Henshall duetted beautifully on the haunting Too Many Mornings and the latter made Losing My Mind even more heartbreaking by reining in her trademark emotional anguish. Eventually, Baranski brought the house down, leading the chorus on The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie and finding time to conduct the orchestra as well as sit in the audience taking selfies. There were many, many more highlights contributing to an unforgettable occasion which, sadly, is not likely to be repeated any time soon.

Performance date: 28 April 2015

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