London Palladium • 4 February 2007 • 7:15pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman.
Musical Director: Richard Balcombe. Directed and choreographed by Bill Deamer. With Maria Friedman (Sally), Tim Flavin (Buddy), Liz Robertson (Phyllis), Philip Quast (Ben), Kim Criswell (Carlotta), Imelda Staunton (Hattie), Liliane Montevecchi (Solange), Meg Johnson (Stella), Josephine Barstow (Heidi), Bonaventura Bottone (Roscoe)…
The first time I ever attended a performance of Follies was on December 8, 1996 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It was a concert performance taped for later broadcast by BBC Radio. Although the licensed concert version of Follies has a somewhat bastardized libretto (adding a completely unnecessary radio broadcaster, changing the dialogue and adding a reprise of “Waiting For the Girls Upstairs” at the end), I was thrilled by the experience. The atmosphere in the theatre was electric beyond description and the roar that overcame the auditorium when Stephen Sondheim came to bow at the end will always remain in my memory as a spine-tingling moment.
Seeing this performance of Follies in concert almost exactly ten years later at the similarly-sized London Palladium and with a similarly stellar cast was a bit like a trip back in time. And although I had seen six other productions of Follies in the meantime, the show once again struck me as an irresistible masterpiece of contemporary musical theatre.
Although the show started awkwardly with the audience failing to respond to Maria Friedman’s entrance, it then quickly gathered steam and the high points would be too numerous to list.
As soon as she started singing “Don’t Look at Me,” it became ovious Maria Friedman would be a fine Sally from a dramatic point of view. True, her voice is thin, but Friedman wisely uses it as a sign of her character’s frailty. In “In Buddy’s Eyes” and in “Losing My Mind,” she managed to continue treading the fine line her voice allows her. I have to admit there were a couple of times when I wished her voice had been a little more powerful, though.
Tim Flavin looks a bit too young to me to play Buddy, but he managed to give some interesting substance to what I consider to be the least satisfactorily written character of the main quartet.
Nobody could doubt that Liz Robertson would make a suitably dry Phyllis. And she was in good voice, too. Her “Could I Leave You?” was very good… and she did great with my favourite (music-wise) song in the score, “The Story of Lucy And Jessie” — although she left most of the dancing to the ensemble.
Philip Quast is the one I feel like bestowing the most praise upon. Not only has he got a gorgeously silky voice, but he also played his part wonderfully, ending with a blood-curling nervous breakdown. It was a shame he was not 100% comfortable with his songs — he fell behind or ahead of the music several times — because his would have been a definitive performance.
The four young counterparts were excellent. I believe Adam-Jon Fiorentino as Young Ben is the one who impressed me most (plus he’s drop-dead gorgeous, which didn’t spoil anything).
As for the older parts… can you spell “wonderful?” Their only problem was that some of them didn’t quite look old enough, but apart from that, what a riot they were.
Liliane Montevecchi couldn’t help it: she had to do a few high kicks while walking down the stairs! Her ”Ah, Paris!” was a hoot, mainly because she has now become like a caricature of herself… and God does it work!
Imelda Staunton was nothing short of breathtaking in “Broadway Baby.” She may have had the evening’s second most gorgeous voice after Philip Quast’s. It’s a shame she felt she had to make some minor alterations to the music as written — although, to be fair, that was the case for almost everybody else. But it’s a much bigger shame we don’t get to see her doing musicals more often. The world is all the poorer for it.
Meg Johnson was excellent leading the company in “Who’s That Woman?” Again, they left most of the dancing to the young ’uns, who were quite excellent mostly.
Kim Criswell’s “I’m Still Here” was so enthusiastically received I thought the applause would never end. Deservedly so.
After the interval, the performance started with a superb staging of the “Bolero d’Amore” starting with a somewhat young Vincent dancing with a young partner before swapping her for the older Angela Rippon (Vanessa), who danced magnificently with him.
Another wonderful scene took place when operatic legend Josephine Barstow came to sing “One More Kiss” with her younger counterpart.
The only thing that annoyed me was the very un-theatrical ending of this version, with everybody staying on stage singing a reprise of “Waiting For the Girls Upstairs” instead of giving the play a proper denouement. They could have done all the reprises they wanted after that.
But that’s only a minor quibble. The evening was fantastic and I hope there will be yet another one as exciting ten years from now.