Review Roundup: FOLLIES, Starring Imelda Staunton, Updated!
Follies just opened at the National Theatre.
1971, New York. There's a party on the stage of the Weissman Theatre. Tomorrow the iconic building will be demolished. Thirty years after their final performance, the Follies girls gather to have a few drinks, sing a few songs and lie about themselves.
Including such classic songs as Broadway Baby, I'm Still Here and Losing My Mind, Stephen Sondheim's legendary musical is staged for the first time at the National Theatre.
Tracie Bennett, Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton play the magnificent Follies in this dazzling new production. Featuring a cast of 37 and an orchestra of 21, the production is directed by Dominic Cooke (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom).
Let's see what the critics had to say!
Matt Wolf, New York Times: As ever with this show, one listens in wonder. The score is so rich that no sooner has a certain number registered as a favorite, another comes along to supersede it. (I remain partial to "One More Kiss," the baleful, Franz Lehar-inflected duet that contains the lyric cited above.) And yet, as directed in a remarkable musical theater debut by Dominic Cooke, whose experience in the American repertoire includes banner revivals of Arthur Miller and August Wilson, "Follies" is here revealed afresh to be considerably more than the sum of its ravishing melodic parts. The beauty comes embedded in - intermingled with - the bleak.
Marianka Swain, BroadwayWorld: Theatre has a long memory. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 musical has been through myriad incarnations, donning and shedding numbers, an interval, an ill-conceived upbeat ending, and yet the original vision has lingered. The show now comes to extraordinary life in a blockbuster National Theatre revival that proves Follies isn't just still here - it's thrilling, heartrending and utterly vital.
Michael Billington, The Guardian: ...Dominic Cooke's superb revival, reverting to the structure of the 1971 original and ditching the optimistic conclusion that marred the 1987 West End production, gives this bleakly festive musical a poetic unity I didn't realise it possessed. The paradox is that Cooke achieves unity by stretching, to the limit, the show's obsession with duality...Cooke's real breakthrough, however, is to suggest that every character in the show is haunted by the ghosts of the past, something that is true even in the celebrated pastiche numbers...Imelda Staunton is unforgettable as Sally, presenting us at first with a cheerily smiling soul: her delivery of In Buddy's Eyes, in which Sally self-deludingly believes she is adored by her husband, had a radiant happiness that brought a lump to my throat. By the end, as she sings the Gershwin-influenced Losing My Mind, Staunton shows that Sally is a lovelorn wreck as her voice seems to dissolve on the song's final syllable.
Mark Shenton, London Theatre: Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 Broadway masterwork Follies is a literally overwhelming experience. I cried from virtually the beginning to the haunting end of this evocative portrait...Director Dominic Cooke and choreographer Deamer happily make many good decisions on the roads they choose to play this journey on, bringing haunting echoes of the past into play along with the close-up emotions of the present. The National's utterly spectacular production...is also about glorifying the Broadway musical...Philip Quast...is simply breathtaking, owning the stage with his resonant baritone and wounded performance as the troubled Ben. As his wife Phyllis, Janie Dee is pure class...Imelda Staunton's Sally is absolutely heartbreaking with "In Buddy's Eyes" and devastating in "Losing My Mind."
Sarah Crampton, WhatsOnStage: The value of Dominic Cooke's perceptive production for the National Theatre, which returns to the original book, is that it establishes the greatness of Follies once and for all thanks to four illuminating and dazzling central performances and a thoughtful approach which strips back familiar songs to reveal them in different lights...Cooke emphasises - on occasions over-emphasises - this dual structure, the constant intrusion of the past into the present...Its strength lies less in its spectacle than in the calibrated detail of every single performance, the way each turn in the spotlight becomes an admission of self...Nowhere is this dramatic truthfulness more vivid than in the playing of the central quartet.
Ann Trenerman, The Times: Early on in this tribute to the old-fashioned Broadway revue, a character exclaims: "It's the cat's pyjamas." And so it is. This production is wildly traditional by the National Theatre's standard and the costumes, especially, are a joy. So this particular pair of cat's pyjamas would include a white ostrich feather headdress, balanced out by a tutu-type skirt of the same, with a galaxy of diamante in between. Imelda Staunton is the star we've all come to see but Follies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a script by James Goldman, is an ensemble piece, with no fewer than 37 performers, not to mention a 21-piece orchestra.
Tim Bano, The Stage: Along comes the National Theatre's production, then, plopping itself into the Olivier after the two critical duds Common and Salome, and leaving in its wake a churning, frothing mass of excitement and audience expectation. The 1987 West End production closed because producer Cameron Mackintosh claimed he could not find anyone good enough to replace McKenzie, Rigg et al. It's taken 30 years, but it was worth the wait. This isn't just triumphant, it's transcendent.
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph: I can't imagine Sondheim shedding any tears backstage at the National, playing host to a superlative revival by Dominic Cooke (the first major one in London since 1987), except those of happy gratitude. His reputation is now second to none, and Follies has long since joined the pantheon of his acknowledged master-works. But it must be satisfying, all the same, to see audiences rising to their feet at the end.
Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail: Regret, nostalgia, decay, failure: despite Dominic Cooke's spirited production (well over two hours with no interval), the pessimism, particularly about love and marriage, never quite convinces. But there are enough vignettes, not least from the wonderful Dame Josephine, to make the evening linger in the memory.
Matt Truman, Variety: Guess that's why they call him God. Stephen Sondheim's paean to old Broadway, "Follies," hasn't had a full-bodied British revival since its West End premiere 30 years ago. With a cast that includes Imelda Staunton, director Dominic Cooke's lavish, languid staging - his first-ever musical - showcases its riches, letting "Follies" stretch out in full on the vast Olivier stage. Played in designer Vicki Mortimer's crumbling Broadway theater - its brick walls half-bulldozed, its stalls swallowed by rubble - it lets old ghosts mingle with lost souls and becomes much, much more than a mere memory play. Instead, it grows into something far more profound - a philosophical meditation on the passage of time and the agonies of aging.
Paul Taylor, Independent: The excellence of Cooke's staging is immediately apparent. In the number "Beautiful Girls", these now more matronly ladies process down a vertiginous fire escape rather than the ritzy staircase of yore and as each of them poses on the top landing, her younger counterpart climbs in over the mound of rubble (wrecked red plush seats etc) further back. Pang-inducing, spine-tingling and droll. In the symbolism of Vicki Mortimer's splendid design of two huge shattered brick walls that bisect the circular, revolving stage, the theatre's demolition is already well underway.
Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut: Actually genuinely nicknamed 'God', Sondheim really is peerless. But he's still very hard to get right: it's easy to get bogged down in the intellectualism of it all. But get him right Cooke and co do - the NT seems to have pumped half of the year's budget into it. 'Follies' is no folly but a perfect, devastating evocation of the pain of looking back. Plus: tap-dancing!
Sarah Hemming, Financial Times: Cooke's production seems to haunt the vast recesses of the Olivier stage. Before we meet the veteran Follies dancers, gathered for a valedictory party as their old theatre is demolished, their former selves drift through the rubble. Gorgeous, gauzy creatures in fragile headdresses, these spectral showgirls pick their way deftly through the tattered theatre like exotic wading birds (Vicki Mortimer's costumes are exquisite). They linger throughout, sometimes shifting through ghostly routines in the dusk at the back of the stage (pinpoint choreography from Bill Deamer), sometimes gazing in wonder, reproach or disbelief at their older, lumpier counterparts.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson