MATTHEW WOLFSON is uninspired by a performance which doesn’t do justice to its writing.
ADC Theatre, 7.45pm, Tuesday 23rd – Saturday 27th April, £10/8
Follies is a complicated musical written with emotion and calibration, but success depends on the skilful singing and subtle acting of the performers to do the writing justice. This was not the case here. If you like musical theatre, Steven Sondheim, or serious writing, this show is worth the price of admission. If not, you may leave after two long acts feeling you’ve wasted your money and time.
Follies presents four people in later middle age looking back to years of youthful courtship and marriage, trying to figure out why things have gone so wrong since. The four, Sally and Buddy Plummer and Phyllis and Ben Stone, reunite at a Broadway theatre where the women once performed high-end vaudeville acts and met their husbands.
It’s a nostalgic atmosphere, but Sondheim’s too incisive to get caught up in sentiment. Instead, the reunion becomes an exercise in sifting through false memories to find the real ones, as the characters work hard to locate the precise points at which they made their crucial decisions in order to understand how their premises could have been so misguided.
Ben, an ambitious young man who’s become an extremely successful older one, chose to marry Phyllis, a sensible, uneducated woman who respected his dreams is too aware of how they have turned false on him. But Ben was also playing around on the side with Sally, a dreamy, impulsive girl but a less reliable a partner. So instead of Ben, Sally had to settle for Buddy, a genial salesman who’s moved her all over the country.
Exploring their relationships allows Sondheim the chance to generate astounding lyrics, especially regarding Ben and Phyllis. When Ben says, looking back on his life, “you take one road, there isn’t time for any more,” we hear the tones of baffled regret that an older man uses when he sees what his ambition means he can and cannot do. When Phyllis speaks of his “sullen, injured stare,” she’s speaking lovingly to a husband whose great expectations and complicated disappointments have blinded him to his biggest asset – her. There are few lyricists, living or dead, who could write with this restraint and immediacy.
The problem is that the production doesn’t measure up, particularly in the first half, which is filled with uncertain singing, cluttered ensemble pieces and, most significantly, underdeveloped acting. Sondheim may have mostly avoided the nostalgia trap, but the performers do not, since (with the notable exception of Trenetta Jones’ multi-layered turn as Phyllis) they choose to play their characters on exactly one note. In a particularly miscalculated performance, Antonia Grantham plays the once-dreamy, now-dissatisfied character of Sally, as the perpetually wide-eyed ingénue. Steven Waring’s Buddy is serviceably garrulous, but perhaps too reliant upon salesman routine. Matthew Chancellor poignantly shows how Ben’s become a man on auto-pilot, but he freezes up during the songs, which are crucial for developing the character. The show careens into melodrama, and complexity appears only in the lyrics.
The second half improves, thanks to a series of more traditional musical theatre numbers allowing both ensemble and main cast to work more comfortably. Jones, Waring and Chancellor perform lively solo pieces, and the four actors playing their younger, more innocent counterparts do justice to two songs, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow and Love Will See Us Through. But by this point the weight of the first half will probably have deadened most audiences. This is a particularly difficult show to pull off, and it’s unfortunately obvious when a production doesn’t succeed.