Every musical is supposed to teach you something or share some important life truth with you. At least that's how I think about them. The lesson of "Follies" is that after you stop being a showgirl, life suuuuuucks and people suuuuuuck and you'll never be happy again and you'll just trudge through life counting time units in a deep dark depression. But with sequins! The new production of “Follies” at the National Theatre in London did what few productions of “Follies” are able to do: make me feel something besides boredom. Sure I felt a LOT of that – it’s not my favorite musical – but I also got EMOTIONAL. At SEVERAL points. Okay those of you who know me are probably saying to their screens ‘um you cry at car commercials tho’ and yes that’s true and valid but I don’t mean I cried, I mean like, I felt for these supremely unlikable characters instead of hoping that they all go to the bad place.
You think I’m done yelling but my neighbors can tell you that’s simply not true.
So you may have gathered by now that there’s no intermission, despite other productions of the show being two acts, and though they say the run time is 2 hours 15 minutes, it was closer to 2 hours 25 minutes till I got to go to the bathroom again. But even so, two hours without intermission is usually unheard of! The average act is an hour anyway so like stick in an intermission ya jackwagons! If I could punch a show in the face, I would. I guess I could punch whoever’s idea this was (it would not have messed up the narrative at all) but I don’t like violence. Unless whoever’s idea this was also happened to vote for Brexit, then we can talk. with fists.
Okay, let’s get back to the show itself. “Follies” is the beloved tragic musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman from 1971, about a bunch of old people who reunite at the NYC ‘Ziegfeld Follies’-type theatre where they once danced in the skimpiest yet sparkliest costumes with lots and lots of feathers on their heads, to say goodbye before it’s torn down. It’s thus a lot of reminiscing and the interpersonal drama that comes from a lifetime of memories, whether they’re accurately remembered or fabricated by time. Sounds like it’s for the “Best Little Old Foreign Marigold Hotel” crowd or whatever it’s called minus whoever Dev Patel brings in, right? Right. Story: When we were about to leave for the theatre, it was suddenly wintry and I had to pull my winter coat out of storage – where it had been vacuum-packed with BOY coats which means it smelled like boys’ college dorm floors. I know, horrid. I worried that it would smell so bad for whoever I’d be sitting next to, and Husband said “don’t worry they’ll probably smell worse from overdosing perfume [get it we’re making fun of old biddies]; it’s that kind of show, right?” “Actually,” I said, “it might be from the people onstage too.” Get it because it’s not only a show that attracts older audiences, it’s also a show about and starring old ladies and they wear too much perfume. At least the very waspy ones do. We’re mean I know but you know what’s even worse? Wearing perfume.
But not for the first 20 minutes or so. The opening is still mind-numbingly slow, as all the former Weisman girls arrive and marvel at how the theatre has changed and aged along with them. The National Theatre’s enormous size helps here, because the old theatre set rotates so you’re like ooh ahh and all the gorgeous showgirls of yesteryear prance about in their feathers and jewels. So “Follies” famously has the young versions of its core quartet onstage with their modern-day counterparts, showing what their history encompassed and what their relationships were really like back in the day. It enhances what we know about these connections and makes it all even sadder when you see how happy they once were. The rest of the ensemble comprises the young ghosts for all the other ladies too, but less conspicuously. In fact, I don’t even remember that the other women had ghosts follow them around in past productions, but here they undeniably were, decked out in their former glittery costumes and headdresses and heels while observing what they’ve become. But it was hard to miss here because it works so well. Some of the tiniest moments, not even front and center, that arose from this were the most moving in the show. Like as each lady arrives, her younger-self-ghost (I mean it’s not a ghost it’s a memory…ghost) finds her and shadows her and stuff. The oldest lady sings her old operatic number from the show with the help of her younger self (whose voice is stronger and can hit the high notes still), which was a very nice touch although it was part of the really boring section that gives too much time to unnecessary characters. My favorite ensembleghost moment was right at the beginning when one heard her name realizing that her current self has arrived and she moves up through the crowd to start ghostin on her and sees that she is now dowdy and quite stout and her face FALLS. You weren’t even supposed to be looking at that actress playing the younger self of this minor character and it was everything, so I hope whoever is in that ensemble track gets a cookie or something. So good.
And then the characters we’ve been waiting for arrive and at an applause break (the only time it’s okay to make short whispers in a theatre) Husband said to me “is that Imelda?!” I thought he just couldn’t figure out which one she was because she’s sporting a superfrump makeover for this role but he later clarified that he didn’t know she was in the show at all. Dude that’s why we bought tickets to this boring show! Anyway we meet Imelda’s Sally, who is so damaged that she made me super uncomfortable, in an appropriate way. She talks too fast and talks over herself somehow and is clearly not in a good state of mind and you just want to shake her and be like take a breeeeath. She married Buddy, her sweetheart (actually they call the boys who wait for the girls after the show their ‘stage door Jonny’ I am crying) from during her time in the theatre, who became some sort of overly friendly but kind of oily salesman while she raised their kids, kept house as they moved from place to place, and wasted lots of time thinking about her former love from the same time gasp Ben, who at the time was dating Sally’s bff Phyllis and now those two are married. I knowww. So Sally married Buddy but is still in love with Ben, Buddy has a long-time affair with a woman who loves him but he still loves his wife even though he doesn’t want to, Ben has affairs allatime and doesn’t know what he wants or who he loves because he hates himself (‘you cannot share real love until you love yourself’ –Rent), and Phyllis has lost all sense of joy because she hates Ben and hates what they have become and pretty much hates everything except super chic clothes and killer putdowns. Phyllis is the type of person that sharp-edged girls would be like ‘she’s my hero’ but she’s supes broken so like pick a different hero.
The whole first half hour or so is like a less fun version of the “Beautiful Girls” scene from “Singin’ in the Rain” which is the most useless thing ever, so you get that I was eager for it to end. Finally it gave way to some good music and some intrigue, as we learn the intricacies of their relationships, both in the past and present. And then Carlotta (Tracie Bennett) gives the best performance of the big song “I’m Still Here”, in which she shares how despite all the shit she’s endured throughout her long career she still clawed her way through and is, in fact, still here and still doing her thang and until I see something top her in the next few months I’m going to say that Tracie is going to win an Olivier for this. She was FLAAAAMES. I was so there with her. I LOVED how they changed up the usual staging of this number, from the usual plant-and-shout spotlight solo to having her begin seated, lounging, surrounded by seated ensemble members like she was a celebrity sharing stories with a group of adoring fans, and then having the ensemble disappear while she stood up and began to, well, plant and shout but it was amazeballs.
Carlotta’s fierce drive and determination to overcome whatever challenges she has faced in life contrasts with our main characters, who kind of flail about in misery and self-hatred. Especially Sally, who is really an extra sad sack in this one. She has a lot of lines about how she’s going to kill herself and how she’s going to die but for the first time I actually thought she might. Imelda is great as usual and made me feel sadder than ever for Sally - not because she can’t be with the man she loves (or thinks she loves or fondly remembers loving) but because she can’t snap out of it. Her duet of “Too Many Mornings” with Ben was not as enjoyable as I like it to be because her anxiety and discomfort made me uncomfortable, but that’s a valid choice. I didn’t like how she made some of the lines a little more comical than usual (her “I should have worn green” was like played for laughs but it’s sad!) but still she conveyed the necessary lovelorn damage. Ben shocked me, because I’m still not completely in on British theatre, so I didn’t know that the actor, Philip Quast, was kind of a big deal. Guys, he won the Olivier for best actor in a musical three times. How did I not know about him? And not only three times, but for the three BEST male roles in classic musical theatre – George Seurat, Javert, and Emil de Becque. I know. If I were a cop I would be asked to turn in my gun and badge right now. But yeah he was wonderful, in strong booming voice, as all Bens should be, that hides that he’s falling apart inside.
Peter Forbes’s Buddy was very good, but I am partial to Danny Burstein in all ways and I think his Buddy just can’t be beat – it made you feel for him in more complex ways than just ‘oh he’s funny and cheerful but also an ass but we still want him to be happy.” He made Buddy so real and damaged and lovable too, and while I didn’t wish Peter’s Buddy harm, I didn’t really care about him. Husband thought he was great so I think I’m just biased. Janie Dee’s Phyllis was perfection, dropping one liners like Obama drops mics. Even though she didn’t seem to be in good voice (a lot of breaking at times when it wouldn’t be an acting choice), her “Could I Leave You” was, again, flames. It’s a difficult song, as she’s pretty much sarcastically shouting to Ben, making it seem like she couldn’t leave him and their wonderful life but it’s sarcastic and it’s hard to sing sarcasm! But it was incredible.
Even harder to do is Phyllis’s “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”, but that’s because it’s kind of annoying and the lyrics are amateur for Sondheim. It’s a thinly veiled tale of how Phyllis and Sally always wanted what the other had and were jealous of each other but it has lyrics like ‘Lucy is juicy and Jessie is dressy’ erma gerd I feel like he wrote these lyrics on a dare and was like ‘watch they’ll still say it’s all genius!’ This song comes in the “Loveland” section of the show, which is always tricky. In Loveland, each of the four mains are forced to deal with what’s plaguing them in a follies (like vaudeville) performance. Phyllis’s, as above, is usually my least favorite and once you get the general concept of her song, they try to distract you with a big dance number. Janie did a great job dancing her ass off but I still feel blah about it. Buddy’s folly was better, in which he explains in a super cheerful clownish manner how he has “those god-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later blues”. The lyrics in this one are so clever and they present Buddy’s issues clearly, but after the first so-clever verse you’re like okay I get it, he wants what he can’t have and when he gets it he doesn’t want it. Ben’s and Sally’s follies won the show for me, though. Sally sings the famous “Losing My Mind” and Imelda put to bed all those haters who say that she’s not really so much of a singer. Her beautiful, heartbreaking rendition was what made me think to myself okay this is overall a great production. And Ben continued to surprise me with his “Live, Laugh, Love”, which was so perfectly done that his spiral and forgetting of the lyrics seemed real. The first break, I think a lot of the audience just thought he forgot the words and got frustrated (Husband did). That’s incredible! Ugh so good. I hate the whole Loveland conceit in theory but it’s always good once it gets started, especially if the actors follow through like these did.
Will you leave the theatre joyous and uplifted after seeing this production (any production) of “Follies”? Fuck no. It’s pretty much saying ‘you’ll never be as happy as you were in your youth and everything is terrible and then you’re old and you missed your chance.’ So not exactly a feel-good show. But this pretty flawless production will make you consider all the existential troubles of life that any good drama should leave you frantically worrying about. Plus sooo many feathers.
The Olivier Theatre at the National is a freaking barn so there's really no bad seat. It's so big that you can see no matter what. There are toilets in the hallways after your ticket is checked so that's better than some of the theatres in this complex. There were several signs that any bags bigger than like a sheet of computer paper would have to be checked so I took my coat off and held it over my bag so no one would see and I wouldn't have to comply with that noise. I like rules and regulations but not when they exist for no good reason.
Didn't for several reasons - this complex is super confusing and it's never worth it, and after seeing how mean these old ledges can be to each other I didn't want them to yell at me for taking up their time ah so scary.