Phone rings, door chimes, in comes Rosalie…

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It works.

If, like me, you had big doubts about whether a revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth‘s seminal 1970 musical Company set in the present day and with the central character’s gender flipped from male to female was a viable idea, let go of them. To say Marianne Elliott‘s extraordinary production – and bear in mind that this is a show I know backwards, forwards, and inside-out, and I’m picky – succeeds triumphantly might be the understatement of the year. Well, the theatrical understatement of the year, anyway, because “Boris Johnson is a morally and intellectually bankrupt attention whore who is motivated only by his own pathetically naked ambition to be Prime Minister” is a given. It’s not simply that Elliott has done a superlative job of staging the show, or that she’s assembled an unimpeachable cast, although she’s done both. Somehow, with the help of a very light sprinkling of new lyrics from Mr. Sondheim and almost no changes to George Furth’s dialogue, she’s managed to take a show that these days feels like a period piece (and frankly only really works when you set it in 1970), relocate it firmly in the present, and make it seem absolutely up-to-date and absolutely fresh, even to someone (well, me) who is very familiar indeed with the material. And on top of that, it’s probably as funny a production of the show as you’re ever likely to see.

So what has changed? Other than the gender of five characters, not as much as you’d expect. Company is an episodic piece, a musical constructed by Sondheim, Furth, and director Harold Prince around a series of vignettes about marriage written by Furth, in which a 35-year-old single man looks at the lives of his friends and tries to decide whether he’s ready for a committed one-on-one relationship. Structurally, it’s (mostly) a series of self-contained sketches linked by songs, rather than a traditional linear narrative (it is, however, neither “plotless” nor “formless“, as misguided theatre critics have sometimes described it). That makes it easier for Elliott to flip the genders of a few characters, since each scene is relatively self-contained; each vignette shows the central character – Bobbie here, not Robert – interacting with either one couple or one romantic partner – which means that changing one of the couples into a gay couple and Bobby/ie’s three girlfriends into boyfriends has no knock-on effect in the surrounding scenes. Sondheim has rewritten the lyrics for Someone Is Waiting so that Bobbie ticks off the names of the husbands among her married friends rather than the wives, and there are a few small changes in the breathless, breathtaking pre-wedding-jitters patter song Getting Married Today, particularly among the lines for the church soloist. We’re in the present, not 1970, so in Another Hundred People “my service will explain” is now “I’ll text you to explain”. With two of the married couples among Bobbie’s friends – Jenny and David, Peter and Susan – the dialogue has been flipped between the wife and the husband, so that the women take the stronger role in the conversation with Bobbie. A (very) few lines have been tweaked elsewhere; very, very little of Furth’s dialogue has been changed (he’s unavailable for rewrites, having died in 2008), and with the exception of Someone is Waiting and a prominent joke in Barcelona,  that’s also true of the lyrics. There are a few adjustments here and there, but this is not a wholesale rewrite.

We’re starting from the mid-90s revised text, so Joanne doesn’t get to say “everybody else here is just Lois and Larry Loser” in the opening scene; the production keeps Marry Me a Little, which this edition of the script rather awkwardly shoehorns in at the end of the first act, but (mercifully) drops the second-act scene in which one of the husbands makes a gay pass at Robert, which has never worked in any production I’ve seen that included it. There are new orchestrations by David Cullen (for a band of 14, positioned on a bridge high above the stage) which iron the very-early-1970s Bacharach-and-David-with-a-master’s-degree sound of the Jonathan Tunick originals out of the score. That’s a loss; the original orchestrations are terrific, and far more distinctive than Cullen’s work here, but they’d jar in a production set in the present. All things considered, given that the production switches the gender of five characters, there is astonishingly little rewriting. Any number of musical revivals have put an established text through more revision to less effect, even if they haven’t gone as far as changing the gender of any characters; very few of them have matched Elliott’s achievement here, in terms of making us see very familiar material from a completely different perspective.

It’s not just Elliott’s achievement, of course, because she’s pulled a set of magnificent performances out of her cast. The karate scene – or rather, jujitsu in this production –  has probably never been funnier than it is in the hands of Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes; you might be most familiar with Giedroyc from her work as a TV presenter (with or without Sue Perkins), but she’s a formidable comic actor with spectacular timing,  she knows her way around a pratfall, and at one point she manages to make a three-act play out of the word “manicotti”. Spokes is just as funny, and then brings a lovely melancholic ambivalence to Sorry-Grateful at the end of the scene. Can Mel Giedroyc sing? Well, nobody is going to be pestering her to record a Giedroyc Sings Gershwin album, but her character doesn’t have a solo number and she more than holds her own among the ensemble, including in the technically-tricky opening number.

Elsewhere there are standout turns from Daisy Maywood as Susan, who finds happiness in her marriage only after she and her husband divorce, and particularly from Alex Gaumond and Jonathan Bailey, the (now) gay couple who marry (offstage) at the end of the first act. Gaumond is sweet without being cloying, and Bailey’s Jamie elevates neurosis to an art form and delivers a tour-de-force performance of Getting Married Today that brings the show to a juddering halt, mostly so the audience can catch their breath because they’ve been laughing so hard – although while Bailey is great, credit here should also go to Daisy Maywood’s pricelessly-funny, sung-to-the-rafters turn as the church soloist whose soprano commentary links the song’s verses.

Matthew Seadon-Young, George Blagden, and Richard Fleeshman are terrific as the three boyfriends – Theo, PJ, and Andy, taking the place of Kathy, Marta, and April, and their You Could Drive a Person Crazy deservedly brings down the house. Blagden’s PJ is a too-cool-for-school Englishman In New York, and it makes total sense to hear Marta’s lines about Fourteenth Street being the centre (sorry, center) of the universe being delivered by an outsider with all the zeal of the most enthusiastic convert to the religion of New York. Fleeshman’s Andy – a slightly dim, slightly off-beam flight attendant – proves he can be superb when he has good material to play with (Fleeshman was bland in The Last Ship and dreadful in Ghost, and in both cases the writing let him down), and he finds laughs in the butterfly monologue that I’ve never heard before.

And then there are the production’s heavy-hitters: Patti LuPone as Joanne, the acerbic, wealthy, much-married Lady Who Lunches whose proposition pushes Bobbie towards a decision at the show’s climax, and Rosalie Craig as the unmarried woman at the centre of the show. LuPone is a problematic, sometimes too mannered, sometimes very undisciplined performer who can be astonishingly good when she’s on her best behaviour and equally astonishingly self-indulgent when she isn’t; here, she is, and she’s flawless, spitting one-liners with laser-guided accuracy and – for once in her career – singing all the consonants in the lyrics in her numbers instead of steamrollering them into the ground.

Changing Bobbie into a woman also brings a fascinating shift in emphasis to the final section of The Ladies Who Lunch; in other productions, I’ve always felt “here’s to the girls who just watch…” is the point where Joanne moves from picking off targets to self-laceration. Here, that comes a little later, and LuPone’s Joanne is clearly including Bobbie in the “girls who just watch”, which ties neatly in to the later part of the scene where she accuses Bobbie of observing life rather than participating in it. It also slightly changes the emphasis of Being Alive, the Great Big Solo in which Bobby – usually – comes down in favour of a committed relationship. In this interpretation, it’s less about committing to a relationship than about choosing to be open to every possibility instead of watching from the sidelines. The ending of Company, to a greater or lesser extent, always feels like a bit of a cop-out – in most interpretations of the material, Being Alive is a rather more affirmative statement than the character has earned by that point, and the moment of realisation in the previous scene – “but who will I take care of?” – comes out of nowhere. Elliott’s version doesn’t entirely paper over the cracks in that section of the show, but it comes closer than most; seeing Joanne accuse Bobbie of “just watch(ing)” a couple of moments earlier – and seeing Bobbie recognise the accusation – is a minor change, but a valuable one. Another change: this Joanne, perhaps disappointingly, doesn’t make a gay pass at Bobbie, but instead offers to set Bobbie up with her husband (the line is “when are you and Larry gonna make it?”). You might expect the ick factor here to be through the roof, but actually it works: LuPone’s Joanne knows exactly what she’s doing in this scene, and it isn’t trying to set up an affair between her husband and her friend. She’s being deliberately provocative to push Bobbie into making a choice; LuPone is very good indeed on the line “I just did someone a big favour” at the end of the scene. It’s perfectly possible to play Joanne as just a loud, rich broad – plenty of people have – but LuPone (and Elliott) dont’ fall into that trap. LuPone’s Joanne is a lot cleverer than she lets on, even when she’s blind drunk.

Rosalie Craig brings real (and surprising) star presence to the role, makes perfect sense of the revised script’s conception of Bobbie as an independent woman questioning whether she’s ready for commitment, and does a gorgeous job with her songs. She’s great, but she suffers a little from the problem that has plagued nearly every man who has played the role before her: Bobby/ie is the normative figure linking a parade of supporting characters who are all basically colourfully-drawn caricatures and who get most of the show’s best lines. With the single exception of Daniel Evans in a revival at the Crucible a few years ago – a much bleaker take on both the character and the material than this production offers – Craig comes closer than anyone I’ve ever seen to creating a version of the character who doesn’t fade into the background against the supporting cast; that she doesn’t quite get there is attributable more to the writing than to anything she brings to the role. She’s wonderful – but she’s wonderful as a character who sometimes seems to exist as a series of bland feeder-lines, and that’s been a problem in every iteration of Company’s script.

As for Elliott’s staging, it’s full of surprises, and so is Bunny Christie’s set. Neon-edged rooms slide across the stage, recede into the distance, and pop up from the stage floor. People appear seemingly out of nowhere (the clever illusions are by Chris Fisher) and disappear in a split-second when your attention is directed elsewhere (watch out for the church soloist’s second and third appearances in Getting Married Today). Liam Steele’s choreography finds witty substitutions for the iconic moments from the original production – the pat-a-cake “tap-dance” in Side by Side by Side is particularly effective – and the rearranged Tick Tock ballet, a Multiplicity-inspired dream sequence in which multitudes of Bobbies contemplate marriage and motherhood with each of her three potential suitors, works very well indeed, and more than justifies its place in the show (in the original version it’s a solo dance performed by the actress who plays Kathy, and these days it’s often cut). The pace never flags, everybody understands the tone and the rhythm of the show they’re in, and the show – still in previews when I saw it – moves with a confidence that can only come from a director whose grasp of showmanship is as firm as her ability to get to the heart of a scene, or to guide the actors to the biggest laughs. This is a dazzling jewel of a revival, the work of a director, a creative team, and a cast who love the material and know how to get everything they can out of it. There are no caveats here; flipping the gender of the show’s central character was a gamble, but the gamble has more than paid off. Every word, every beat, every second of this production makes the material seem newly-minted, even if – like me – you know the show so well that you remember half the dialogue before the actors do. My only complaint – we’ve established by now that I’m picky, haven’t we? – is that nobody has announced a cast album yet. Or a movie screening. Or a Broadway transfer, because work this good deserves a longer life than twelve weeks in the West End.

And yes, of course I’m going again before it closes. I hadn’t booked a repeat visit before I saw it – as I said, I had doubts – but I have now. If you love this material as much as I do, you’ll need to see this more than once.

One more thing: Patti LuPone provides the taped pre-show announcement about mobile phones and recording devices, and it’s a stroke of genius. It more than winks at her rather combative track record of dealing with interruptions from the audience, and it gets (and deserves) a big laugh. Pay attention… and do as she says, particularly if (like I was) you’re sitting within spitting-range of the stage.

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The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened?

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Imperfect but wow. Sensational but flawed. A set of dazzling performances, but there’s a good reason nobody owns up to the (atrocious) sound design in the programme. Any revue based around Stephen Sondheim‘s body of work is going to entail a series of trade-offs, and that’s certainly true here: this concert presentation at the Royal Festival Hall, based on a revue conceived by James Lapine that played on Broadway in 2010, draws from a body of work that by now is more or less inarguably without peer, but Sondheim’s songs are almost all so tied to their original contexts that it’s difficult for them to achieve the same impact when they’re performed as part of this kind of retrospective. The evening’s great triumph is that the six singers here – Liz Callaway, Damian Humbley, Tyrone Huntley, Claire Moore, Julian Ovenden, and Rebecca Trehearn – are such thrilling performers that they manage, more often than not, to make songs we’ve heard a million times before sound absolutely fresh. The evening’s great pitfall, on the other hand – I mean, apart from the frequent glitches in the sound system – is that while it does succeed in making these songs work in a new context, they are rarely as effective as they can be when they’re performed in the shows they were written for. As I said, there’s a trade-off: the evening is simultaneously wonderful and a bit of a bumpy ride.

The gimmick, as in this revue’s Broadway incarnation, is that Sondheim’s songs are linked together using video clips of interviews with the man himself, projected on a screen above the stage. The clips, for the most part, are chosen well (the screen, in a space the size of the Royal Festival Hall, could usefully have been a little larger), and Lapine has done an intelligent enough job of sequencing the clips to take us from Sondheim’s childhood and the beginnings of his songwriting career through his gradual rise to success and into a (very, very careful) discussion of which works feel most personal, which songs are autobiographical (almost none of them), the influences that shaped his career, and so on. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, although the segues between the video clips and the live singers sometimes feel a little abrupt, but the biggest problem with Lapine’s concept is simply that the audience for this kind of event is self-selecting. If you’re the kind of person who is going to go out and possibly travel some distance on a Thursday night to hear an orchestra and six singers – fabulous singers, all of them, but not Streisand-level stars – perform this material in concert, you’re probably the kind of person who already identifies as more than a casual Sondheim fan. If you’re already the kind of fan who would attend this kind of event, you’ve probably read at least some of the material covered in the video clips. You’ve probably read at least one of the books about him (it’s likely you’ll own at least a couple), seen at least one of the TV documentaries, and that means you’ll already be familiar with a fair amount of what he has to say in the clips Lapine has chosen here. It’s undeniably moving to see Sondheim talk about Oscar Hammerstein II, or about his reverence for the teaching profession, and there are some fascinating details here and there, like the conversation he had about marriage with Mary Rodgers as he started to write the score for Company. Sometimes, though, the clips undercut the music they’re supposed to introduce. We see a clip in which Sondheim tells us Assassins, in one respect, is the show he’s proudest of, because it’s the show that ended up closest to the vision he and John Weidman, his collaborator, had when they were writing it, and that it’s the only show he’s never had the urge to go back and change. Great, fascinating, but that clip is used to introduce Something Just Broke, which was written some time after the show’s original production closed, and (crucially) after the script had been published, and introduced in the London production a couple of years later. Granted, that’s a tiny detail – but this, essentially, is a show for Sondheim geeks (I wear the badge with pride, deal with it), and that’s precisely the audience who will pick up on that kind of trivia.

In fact, although it wasn’t precisely conceived as such, the concert’s greatest strength, perhaps ironically, turns out to be the way it celebrates Sondheim’s music. After a career littered with reviews that praise his lyrics at the expense of the melodies they sit on, in a revue in which we’re shown a series of clips where he discusses the craft of lyric-writing, the nature of collaboration, the need to focus on specific details in order to tie song lyrics into the dramatic scene they’re intended to serve, it’s refreshing – no, more than refreshing, it’s downright wonderful – to attend an event that puts his music centre-stage, even if there’s a bit too much talking around the edges. Because what this evening reveals – partly thanks to Keith Lockhart’s sensitive conducting, partly thanks to the sixty-five musicians in the BBC Concert Orchestra, partly thanks to Michael Starobin‘s orchestrations, partly thanks to the six wonderful singers at the front of the stage, but largely thanks to Sondheim himself – is that this music is glorious. We’re so used to hearing these songs in their original contexts, where they usually arrive accompanied with a lot of other information that the audience has to process simultaneously, that it’s easy to underestimate Sondheim-the-composer. The entr’acte – an orchestra-only arrangement of Kiss Me from Sweeney Todd, is as exciting as anything you hear all evening, and with this company of singers that’s saying a great deal.

All six, of course, get at least a couple of moments to shine. Liz Callaway kicks things off with a haunting, pristine rendition of Take Me to the World, from an original TV musical called Evening Primrose; it’s almost twenty years since I last saw her live (in Sibling Revelry, her cabaret show with her sister Ann Hampton Callaway at the Donmar Warehouse), and her voice is possibly even lovelier now than it was then. Damian Humbley, standing in at very short notice for another performer, takes the opportunity to remind us why his Franklin Shepherd, Inc. is probably now the definitive rendition of the song. Tyrone Huntley builds a careful, thoughtful Being Alive that manages to make the song’s climax moving rather than melodramatic. Julian Ovenden’s Finishing the Hat is as good a performance as the song has ever had. Claire Moore offers a haunting, haunted In Buddy’s Eyes. Best of all, for my money, is Rebecca Trehearn’s masterful take on the (very) difficult I Read from Passion. It’s far from the easiest song/aria/whatever to make work as a concert piece, but she succeeds triumphantly; it’s one of those performances that raises goosebumps, and someone – soon, please – has to cast her as Fosca in a full production.

There are ensemble performances too, of course, although there isn’t a chorus, and the six singers work beautifully together; the concert’s song list, though, is possibly as interesting for what it doesn’t include as for what it does. Only one of the three shows for which Sondheim wrote only lyrics is represented here, so there’s nothing from Gypsy or Do I Hear a Waltz?. West Side Story is represented not by any of the famous solos or duets, but by a jazzed-up four-part arrangement of Something’s Coming. It’s pleasant enough, and flawlessly performed, but it seems to have wandered in from a different set-list. There’s nothing from Pacific Overtures, very little from Sweeney Todd, one-and-a-bt songs from Into the Woods, only two songs from Follies – but four songs from Passion, five from Merrily We Roll Along, and we even get The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened in each of the (somewhat different) versions heard in Bounce and Road Show. In terms of showing us Sondheim’s range as a composer, the decision to use so much material from his lesser-known shows pays off in spades – but again, it means the show is possibly best appreciated by geeky superfans (as I said, I wear the badge with pride). In terms of the wider public, there are plenty of songs in the catalogue that are more familiar than much of what we hear (some of them were included in this revue’s original Broadway incarnation). What you also won’t hear is God, the wittily self-deprecating Act Two opener Sondheim wrote specifically for this revue’s Broadway production, and that’s a pity: it might have served to puncture the aura of REVERENCE that comes from having each successive musical number introduced by a very, very serious interview clip from the master himself.

The concert format, too, is somewhat distancing: none of the six singers has any trouble projecting their personality right to the back of the room, with no thanks to a schizophrenic sound system whose levels were frequently all over the place, particularly in the first half, but most of these songs were written to be staged rather than sung from behind a music-stand. The rudimentary direction is by Bill Deamer, and he’s drawn a superlative set of performances from these singers, but it’s all rather static, which is probably inevitable given the incredibly rushed timeframe in which this kind of event tends to be put together. And of course the biggest downside of privileging the music over the lyrics, unfortunately, is that the concert gives less of an impression than it might of what a funny writer Sondheim can be. As I said, inevitably this kind of event is going to involve a series of trade-offs. In this case, you trade some of the wit in favour of a revelatory performance of some of the music. If that trade doesn’t appeal, you’ll need to hold your breath until Follies comes back to the National next year. If it does, and you track down the radio broadcast, you may still be sorry-grateful (although the sound problems, fingers crossed, should have been resolved); the concert’s format may not entirely work, but the performances are sensational. And did I mention that Rebecca Trehearn’s I Read was worth the ticket price, the train fare, and the hotel bill? One more time: someone please cast her as Fosca. Stat.

 

 

 

Dazzling jewels by the score

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Yes, I went back.

It’s still breathtaking, I still have some reservations about some specific choices, and some elements made a little more sense the second time around. So… random thoughts, because it’s been a long week and I’ve written about this production already.

  • Follies is an incredibly complex piece, and there is never going to be an absolutely perfect production of it. On second (live) viewing (I saw the NT Live screening too), this comes as close as anyone is likely to manage these days – provided you’re willing to go with Dominic Cooke’s choices.
  • The single greatest achievement of Cooke’s staging is that he appears to understand the rhythm of the piece, and therefore stages the show as a constant tapestry of action taking place all over the derelict Weismann Theatre rather than as a succession of scenes taking place on the Weismann Theatre’s stage.
  • The character work, right across the cast, is enormously detailed, even though the script basically gives us a parade of archetypes. That was true at the last-but-one preview, and the performances have only got stronger since then. Every single detail, even those that go against the way this material has been played in earlier productions, can be justified by the text, and every single actor is listening. That doesn’t happen as often as it should when everybody’s a few months into a run.
  • Imelda Staunton’s Sally is possibly (even) more startling now than it was the first time. Her Sally is no simpering, deluded romantic. She’s full of resentment, she drinks, and she’s fuelled by her barely-suppressed rage – but based on information we’re given in (this version of) the book, it’s a plausible interpretation. This Sally could very believably get on a plane and fly a few hundred miles to pick a fight with her children.
  • I’m still not won over by this production’s staging of Losing My Mind, but I was somehow far more moved by the moment this time than I was back in September. That might be because this time I was sitting close enough to see the whites of Ms. Staunton’s eyes, rather than halfway back in the circle, or it might just be because I wasn’t seeing it for the first time. I still think the song (and the character) really demands a lusher singing voice, and that the moment works better when the song is performed rather than acted, but when you cast a Sally whose singing voice isn’t up to doing the heavy lifting in this number there are inevitably going to be compromises.
  • Sally’s dress in the book scenes is blue. It looked blue from the circle, it looked blue from the front stalls… but somehow it looked a bit more teal-ish in the NT Live screening.
  • Philip Quast’s breakdown at the end of his big Loveland number is better now – much better – than it was in September. Other people have made larger acting choices in that moment, but Quast’s Ben appears to deflate before your eyes.
  • At some point before the NT Live screening last month, the two men playing “Margie” and “Sally” in Buddy’s Blues were replaced by women. It makes all the difference, the song now plays like gangbusters, and Peter Forbes is giving a very, very fine performance which has been somewhat overlooked by some critics in their rush to praise everyone else.
  • Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here is now simultaneously darker and more celebratory than it was the first time around, and it’s still an extraordinary performance. The prominent positioning of Young Carlotta watching the song from the side of the stage isn’t in the stage directions, but (still) works beautifully; this Carlotta appears to fling the final verse of the song at her ghost, and Young Carlotta stands, I think in admiration, during that final verse. Carlotta is the show’s survivor – the character who has somehow managed to break free of her past. I’ve never seen that come across more strongly than it does in this production.
  • The dialogue exchanges between Janie Dee’s Phyllis and Quast’s Ben are even more electrifying now than they were in September. This time, I was sitting in the front row; my phone was in my pocket, and I swear they recharged it.
  • Zizi Strallen and Alex Young (respectively Young Phyllis and Young Sally) are both superb. The actors in these roles are often overlooked, and they shouldn’t be.
  • Somewhere on Youtube, there’s a clip of Blythe Danner doing The Story of Lucy and Jessie in the 2001 Broadway revival. It will give you new appreciation for Janie Dee.
  • And speaking of Janie Dee and Lucy and Jessie, this time I really liked the inclusion of Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis in the number. Phyllis’s folly – her big problem – is the great big yawning chasm between who she was when she was in the Follies and the brittle sophisticate she’s moulded herself into. Of course it makes sense to put her younger self alongside her in her Follies number – and Dee and Strallen are sensational.
  • The Loveland drops don’t look as flimsy from the front stalls as they did from the circle.
  • Sitting a few feet from Josephine Barstow as she sang One More Kiss seemingly right at me was as transfixing an experience as I’ve ever had in a theatre. I saw the show on Wednesday afternoon and it’s now Saturday night, and I still have goosebumps.
  • I still don’t love Bill Deamer’s choreography for Who’s That Woman, and I particularly don’t love the part where the older women leave the stage and are ‘replaced’ by their ghosts – even though it makes sense in terms of the way this production uses the ghosts. There’s no faulting Dawn Hope’s performance, and the number still stops the show, but we’ve all seen Michael Bennett’s original choreography (other productions have used it and there’s footage on Youtube), and this just isn’t as effective.
  • The final scene is heartbreaking – not cheap, manipulative, let-us-all-now-shed-a-tear-for-these-people heartbreaking, but quite deeply moving, again in a way that it wasn’t in September (I mean, I found it moving the first time, but not that moving).

I thought the first time I saw it that this production would make fans of the show argue – and it has, and there are people who have loathed it. I think that possibly says something about the material: this show says something quite unpalatable about age and regret, and there are a lot of things in it that can justifiably be given more than one interpretation. Dominic Cooke makes a succession of very definite choices, and has his actors commit fully to the heightened, far-from-naturalistic tone of James Goldman’s dialogue. I found that choice enormously effective, but it’s a choice you’ll either buy or you won’t. For me, while I (still) don’t think everything about this production is perfect, I suspect it’ll be a very long time, if ever, before I see another Follies that’s as in tune with my personal reading of the text as this one is… so it’s a good thing I’m going back a third time before it closes.

The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

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No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

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One stepladder, other stepladder

allegro

Or, Southwark Playhouse‘s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s rarely-performed musical Allegro, which I saw last Saturday afternoon. Bullet points, because it’s been that kind of week:

  • Way back in 1947, Stephen Sondheim was famously a gofer on the original Broadway production. He obviously paid attention: it’s fascinating to connect the dots between this material and his later work.
  • It really, really, REALLY doesn’t play like a show from 1947. Or rather, in terms of the writing, it’s 1947 vocabulary constructed using syntax that, at the time, must have seemed quite alien in a Broadway musical. The writing throughout is very, very stylised, apart from in the major solos and duets; in particular, the show’s (spoken/intoned) Greek chorus lends the show’s storytelling an almost Brechtian air that would not necessarily have sat comfortably with an audience expecting to see another Carousel.
  • The score is wonderful. The show may not have found much success on Broadway, but it’s difficult to fault the music. The two big takeaway tunes – ‘So Far’ and ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ – are highlights, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. The choral writing, in particular, is often quite beautiful.
  • Hammerstein’s (original, not adapted from another source) story of a smalltown doctor making his way in the big city, on the other hand, is rather slight. We’re clearly supposed to infer that Joseph Taylor, Jr. is an Everyman figure and that the story of his life is supposed to carry some kind of metaphorical weight, but the sweetly charming first act doesn’t provide a firm enough foundation for the ethical dilemma the character faces in the later scenes in Act Two.
  • The Majestic Theatre‘s large, wide stage and proscenium arch also probably didn’t do the show any favours. Thom Southerland’s Southwark Playhouse production gains enormously from the small space: viewing Joseph Taylor, Jr. up close, it’s very easy to become invested in his story, despite the thinness of some scenes in Hammerstein’s book.
  • Southerland’s staging is more or less flawless. Using a traverse stage puts the action right in the audience’s lap, which with this material is an enormous advantage. The budget was obviously minimal – Anthony Lamble’s cleverly simple set consists of a couple of stepladders, a couple of interlocking planks, a moveable scaffold, and an assortment of wooden chairs – but Southerland and his choreographer, Lee Proud, turn simplicity into a virtue, keeping the show’s (almost) ever-present chorus in (almost) constant motion, so that there’s always something new to look at.
  • Never mind the tiny budget – some key moments are executed with considerable flair. The staging of ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is masterful: much of the song is sung from the upper level of a scaffold which chorus members move from one end of the stage to the other, above a line of umbrella-toting customers at (what I assume we’re supposed to infer is) a taxi rank.
  • The performances are impeccable, right down to every last member of the ensemble, and Gary Tushaw is an enormously appealing Everyman. The singing is superb, both from each individual principal player and from the chorus.
  • The production does very well indeed by the score’s two hit songs. Leah West’s ‘So Far’ is shimmeringly lovely, and Katie Bernstein’s sharply rueful ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is probably the evening’s highlight (or rather, afternoon’s highlight, I saw a matinee) – all the more remarkable given than she sings a good chunk of it while being trundled from one end of the stage to the other on top of a scaffold.
  • Ideal as the performances are, the cast can’t quite paper over the significant second-act cracks in Hammerstein’s book. Taylor’s big epiphany at the show’s climax is a huge dramatic outburst that the rest of the show doesn’t quite support – and because the scene, as written, doesn’t quite work to begin with, the actors, particularly Tushaw, push too hard, so that it feels like the show takes a sudden left turn from A Real Nice Clambake straight into Act Three of King Lear. The show, structurally, is far ahead of its time, and here is where it shows the most: what the moment needs, essentially, is something along the lines of Rose’s Turn, which was never going to be forthcoming from Richard Rodgers – at least, not in 1947.
  • Yes, every note of the big Act Two ballet is included. These performers mostly aren’t dancers, but Lee Proud gets a tremendously entertaining account of the title song from his cast. Again, the tight space probably helps.
  • There’s a band of 8, and I was never aware of the unpleasantly metallic sound of a synthesiser string pad, which is often a feature of reduced orchestrations in this kind of production.Mark Cumberland’s new orchestrations get an impressive range of colours out of this small band, and there’s sensitive music direction from Dean Austin. The chorus singing is impressively tight, the production is only very lightly amplified (you might question the need for any amplification at all in such a small space, but this theatre is housed in a former warehouse and I suspect the auditorium’s natural acoustics are somewhat challenging), and it’s thrilling to get to experience this score up close – at least, for musical theatre geeks like me.
  • It’s a nice feature of Southwark Playhouse productions that they bring the whole band, rather than just the MD, out to take a bow during the curtain call. The musicians are as important as anyone on the stage; in musical theatre, that’s too often forgotten.
  • In terms of bang for your buck, the Southwark Playhouse is a bargain. Tickets are £25, preview tickets are significantly cheaper, programmes are £3, drinks are very reasonable indeed. In this instance, for £25 you got a cast of 16 professional actors and 8 musicians – all of whom got paid – giving a thoroughly lovely account of a beautiful, rarely-heard score, directed by someone who is clearly an expert at getting the absolute most of out every penny spent on each production. Not only that, they do extremely impressive outreach work within their local community, particularly via their Young Company. In more ways than one, they do good work.

Overall? If Southerland and his cast never quite manage to convince you that you’re watching a lost masterpiece, it’s still wonderful to have the opportunity to hear this score in a theatre. It’s never going to be revived on Broadway or in the West End; while the show doesn’t quite work, there’s more than enough good in it to make it worth another look, and the score, as I said, is glorious.

I wish…

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If only the film had been as good as this. I’ve always loved the score of Into the Woods, but outside of the glorious original London production at the Phoenix, the show as a whole has never quite worked for me. It’s a terrific idea to take a selection of familiar fairy-tales, mix them up, and then spend the second act showing the consequences of everybody getting their wish at the end of Act One, but James Lapine’s book has always been problematic. The problem, simply, is one of tone: unless the second act gets really dark, the stakes do not seem high enough to support the climactic act of violence in the script, and it becomes a show about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a treacly, moralistic anthem as you move in for the kill, which probably isn’t quite the message the show’s authors intended. Unless you feel in the second act that the show’s characters are genuinely facing the apocalypse, the whole thing falls apart – but if you make the second act dark enough for the plot to make sense, the result (as at the Phoenix) is a show that’s too scary and upsetting for smaller children.

That given, director James Brining’s achievement in this dazzling, thrilling new production seems all the more remarkable. Taking his cue from the show’s finale, ‘Children Will Listen’, Brining’s masterstroke is to put children at the centre of his staging. Accordingly, instead of any kind of fairytale wood, this production opens in an infant school classroom (and ends in a post-apocalyptic hellscape), with children filing in to sit at their desks at the sound of the bell. The Narrator is the class teacher; at the end of the prologue, the kids line up, the Narrator hands them each a hi-vis vest, the classroom walls slide away, and the Narrator and the children set off on a field trip through the plot’s thicket of familiar and unfamiliar fairytales. At the end of Act One, with all the various fairytale characters having found whatever they wished for, the children end up back in the classroom, and the (surprisingly moving) final image of Act One is of the children dancing to the strains of ‘Ever After’ as the fairytale characters recede back into the woods.

This means, of course, that at the top of Act Two, the Giantess’s destruction – which, here, looks very much like a major earthquake – is visited upon a realistic classroom full of children as well as on the play’s various adult (or just-about-adult) characters, which considerably raises the stakes. The children are led back into the woods in search of safety along with everyone else, but when the Narrator disappears from the story halfway through the second act (in a coup-de-theatre nicked from/paying homage to Richard Jones’s original London production), they suddenly seem horribly vulnerable – which means the play’s ending makes a great deal more sense, because it’s far easier to rationalise that climactic act of violence when the safety of actual children, rather than just a prop baby, is at stake.

It helps, too, that the Giantess, in this production, isn’t simply an offstage voice; Rachael Canning’s puppet design – an outsized baby head and arms manipulated by three puppeteers – is supremely creepy, and the Giantess’s appearances are genuinely chilling. Throughout the show, Brining’s treatment of the fairytale setting tends towards the macabre, which again is the correct choice (the too-pretty, too-facile original Broadway production, which is available on DVD, is a sterling example of the pitfalls of making this show look too beautiful: it’s visually lovely, and the second act just doesn’t work on any level). At no time, here, are we in a literal wood. Instead, these woods are a strange landscape of swings, found objects, projected trees, and fragments of the school classroom. It’s an unsettling, disorientating environment (designed, along with the one-foot-in-the-real-world costumes, by Colin Richmond) in which anything can happen; by the climax of Act Two, it really does feel as if the characters (and the children) are facing the end of the world, and for the first time (that I’ve seen) since 1990, the show’s ending doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

Brining has also managed to elicit a superb set of performances from his ensemble cast, all of whom are drawn from Opera North’s chorus (the production, a collaboration between Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a side-project for the Leeds-based chorus, who are under-occupied while the company works through the Ring Cycle on tour). The singing is marvellous, of course, and so is the orchestra (somewhere backstage – the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre doesn’t have a pit – under the pitch-perfect direction of Jim Holmes), and Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics come across with admirable clarity; the acting, too, is excellent, to the point where it’s almost unfair to single anyone out for individual praise. That said, Claire Pascoe is a particularly memorable Witch whose ‘Last Midnight’ raises goose-pimples, and Gillene Butterfield (a lovely Julie Jordan in Opera North’s Carousel) is simply perfect as Cinderella. The children are adorable, Nicholas Butterfield makes an endearingly stuffy Narrator, and while the staging certainly gets very dark, everybody finds the laughs in the book and lyrics. It’s as good an Into the Woods as you could hope to see.

In fact, my only real complaint about this production is that I don’t have time to get back to Leeds to see it again. It’s to be hoped that Opera North will revive it at some point in the future, as they did with their Carousel; Brining’s endlessly inventive staging here surpasses even his extraordinary modern(ish)-dress Sweeney Todd three years ago, and it deserves a wider audience.

Here’s a little story that should make you cry…

Follies DVD

Or, a game of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The good:
There is now a production of Follies available on DVD (and that’s all I’m going to say about the show itself, because if you’re reading this you probably shouldn’t need a synopsis.)

The bad:
It’s the Opéra de Toulon production from two years ago.

The ugly:
The actor playing Buddy (Jérôme Pradon) is costumed in a bright red sparkly tuxedo with subtly clashing red trousers, and is forced to perform “Buddy’s Blues” in his underwear.

The good:
Charlotte Page as Sally and Liz Robertson as Phyllis. Two fine performances, and they deserve to be in a better production. Page’s ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, in particular, is absolutely haunting.

The bad:
The actress playing  Young Sally is a bit pitch-approximate, and for some strange reason is made up to resemble Siobhan Redmond playing Shona Spurtle in ‘The High Life’.

The ugly:
Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
There’s a large orchestra playing the original orchestrations under the baton of David Charles Abell, who is about as good as anyone in the world when it comes to this kind of material.

The bad:
The actors are stuck with the current licensed version of the text, which is significantly weaker than the 1971 original. For this, our thanks must allegedly go to James Goldman’s widow, who refuses to let any other version of the show be performed. Apparently she thinks her late husband’s work is better when it’s been disembowelled.

The ugly:
Really. Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
Charlotte Page’s Sally is probably the standout vocal performance here, but the singing is almost all excellent.

The bad:
You can’t always say the same for the acting, particularly from the people with bit-parts.

The ugly:
The same actor doubles as Roscoe and Max Deems. Max Deems only has about three lines – but for some reason the actor is forced to wear white face-paint, and looks as if he’s auditioning to play Ko-Ko in Jonathan Miller’s production of ‘The Mikado’ at the ENO. It just about works when he’s singing ‘Beautiful Girls’; in the subsequent scene, though, it looks odd.

The good:
Marilyn Hill Smith and Kristy Swift offer an absolutely ravishing ‘One More Kiss’.

The bad:
Solange is played by a man in drag (Denis D’Arcangelo) for no apparent reason; he does his best, but it doesn’t really work.

The ugly:
Marilyn Hill Smith’s lilac hair matches the fluffy hem of her gown.

And so on. It’s an odd, frustrating, sometimes very entertaining experience; the score, of course, is peerless, and it’s well played and often beautifully sung, and the power of the material does shine through here and there. Olivier Bénézech’s production, though, while obviously operating within fairly rigid budget constraints, is pretty much a two-hour parade of OMGWTF with a few good bits thrown in, and it says a great deal for the material, even in this weaker, revised version, that he and his choreographer (Caroline Roëlands)and set designer (Valérie Jung, whose designs for the Loveland sequence are the production’s lowest point) don’t manage to completely kill the show.

Unfortunately between them they very nearly kill ‘Who’s That Woman?’, which is usually one of the show’s great highlights; I can certainly forgive Roëlands for not using the original Michael Bennett choreography, which would perhaps have been too complicated to rehearse in what I imagine was a rather limited rehearsal period, but she simply misses the point of the number. The point of the song is to see the older characters singing and dancing with their younger selves; in what is supposed to be th efirst moment in the show where the past and present characters interact, Roëlands for some reason chooses to keep the ‘ghosts’ offstage until relatively late in the number. Instead we see video footage of the younger dancers projected on the back wall before they actually enter, and when they finally arrive onstage, they function more or less as a chorus line. If you didn’t know who/what they were supposed to represent, you might not guess; it’s not as if her choreography is particularly exciting to begin with, so as a result, the number that should be the show’s biggest showstopper falls flat.

The Loveland sequence, in terms of direction, is possibly worse. Musically, it’s a very respectable account indeed (we’ll draw a polite veil over Young Sally); visually, it’s a lurid day-glo nightmare of ugly projections and misguided costumes.

And speaking of the costumes, Sally enters at the top of the show wearing a green dress, which means that an hour later, in ‘Too Many Mornings’, she has to sing ‘should I have worn green?/I wore green the last time’ instead of ‘I should have worn green/I wore green the last time’. It’s a minor point, I suppose – but really, in the whole of the south of France, could they really only find Charlotte Page a green frock?

I could go on picking holes, but you get the idea – in many ways, this is as far from an ideal production of Follies as you could imagine. On the other hand… it’s a full production of Follies on DVD. It has the complete score, the original orchestrations, and a cast of good singers. The four principals are all in places undercut by the staging, but they all emerge with their dignity intact, and I’d be curious to see them all – particularly Page, who is good here and could be a very fine Sally indeed – in a better production. I even liked Graham Bickley (Ben), for only the second time ever (the first was as Signor Naccarelli in ‘The Light in the Piazza’ at Curve). Bénézech may botch some of the show’s big moments, but he does at least understand the basic rhythm of the scenes, and that they should cross-fade into each other so that the show never stops for a blackout.   Some of the earlier ensemble numbers, like ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, work very well, Julia Sutton’s ‘Broadway Baby’ is a delight, Nicole Croisille’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is a little eccentric in places but she gets away with it, and – have I mentioned this already? – there are 47 players in the pit, and the score sounds glorious. And above all, there is, thank God, no Bernadette Peters, whose jaw-droppingly awful performance as Sally on the show’s most recent cast album is even more misguided than Ms. Roëlands’s choreography for “Who’s That Woman”.

The bottom line: for the price of a DVD, if you love the material, this is probably worth owning.  If, on the other hand, I had shelled out for the cost of an expensive ticket plus hotel and airfare in order to see this production in the theatre, I imagine my response to it would be considerably less charitable.

Oh yes… and if you aren’t French, there’s a snag. The DVD is region 2 only, which is not an insurmountable problem, and it is not available for sale in English-speaking markets, which means you’re going to have to negotiate Amazon.fr, which only offers service in French.  Bonne chance!