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Follies: a rare chance to experience a deservedly legendary musical - tidbits - MyGayToronto

Follies: a rare chance to experience a deservedly legendary musical
By DREW ROWSOME
12 January 2018.

Seen all my dreams disappear,
But I'm here.

Follies is one of the musical theatre's most extraordinary scores. Try not to start humming, or more likely belting, just from reading the titles of some of the songs that have become standards: "I'm Still Here," "Broadway Baby," "Losing My Mind," "In Buddy's Eyes," "Could I Leave You?" etc, etc. But Follies is also one of the least-revived musicals, mainly because of the expense: aside from the necessary opulence, the cast of the National Theatre, London production with which we are concerned here, numbered a mere 37.

Follies opened on Broadway in 1971 and was a financial failure but an instant cult phenomenon. The songs were performed not only by cabaret and popular artists but also by every theatre student with a desire to be au courant. A 1985 staged concert featuring Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Mandy Pantinkin, George Hearn and an unforgettable Elaine Stritch, was recorded, became a hit, and was where I first encountered the music and lyrics of Follies. I never dreamed that I would actually get to see a production. 

Cineplex Events has been screening a series of stage productions filmed live, and the National Theatre's Follies is one of the more notable. The first screening in November, had satellite transmission problems so was rescheduled for January 11 and again for January 20. Musical theatre fans, Stephen Sondheim fans and every cultured gay man should treat themselves. It is extraordinary. And, tragically, a rare opportunity.

Follies begins at a reunion of the showgirls of the Weismann Follies in their old theatre that is about to be, and appears to already be in the process of being, torn down. We see the ghosts of the showgirls in their prime and also the hag horror splendour of what they have become. Bitchy grievances are aired and the arch camp dialogue almost matches the nasty wit of the lyrics. The first half gives several of the women a showstopper, with Di Botcher delivery a feisty faux-innocent "Broadway Baby," and Tracie Bennett (Mrs Henderson Presents) absolutely slaying in a gut-wrenching defiant rendition of "I'm Still Here." Both songs are anthems of show business survival, both of these versions are definitive.

And when the showgirls recreate their infamous "Mirror, Mirror" number and launch into "Who's That Woman?" to be joined by the ghosts of their showgirl selves: it is spinetingling, rousing and irresistible. The large ensemble flows through a revolving set and the '70s fashions mixed with the old style Broadway glitz is innocence and dreams doubly lost, nostalgia with a knife.

Interspersed throughout Follies, and meant to be the main dramatic thrust, is the reunion of the showgirls Sally and Phyllis and their husbands Buddy and Benjamin Stone. The quadrangle is complicated, fraught with angst and drama, and though astoundingly performed, just not as compelling as the showgirls' stories. When the 'love' story takes over in the second half, Follies becomes problematic and very bleak. Sondheim traditionally has a dim view of love and relationships, in Follies it is positively nihilistic. The vaudevillian-themed climatic numbers include the couplet, "Love will see us through/'Til something better comes along" and ends with the hopeful note that, "Life is empty, there is no hope. We just have to make it."

But the songs are glorious, the production values are breathtaking and Imelda Staunton will break your heart. Janie Dee is a magnificent monstre sacre with more quips and putdowns than even a drag queen should be allowed. Peter Forbes is a lovable louse and Philip Quast embodies the deep-voiced DILF that should be resisted but is too desirable. Their counterpart younger selves are all stunning and dance divinely but one of the themes of Follies is the glory and horror of age, and that years of living do not necessarily impart wisdom, so they are shallow ghosts, pretty and glittering and fabulously false.

That is probably the other reason that Follies is so infrequently revived: it is tough emotional slogging, especially towards the end. But the not particularly pleasant people are extraordinarily performed and we all know that happy endings are much rarer than musical theatre would have us believe. I wish I had been able to see Follies live - the electricity is there on the screen but the actual contact must have been unforgettable - but if this is as close as I ever get, I count myself lucky.

Follies screens on Sat, Jan 20 at select Cineplex theatres. cineplex.com

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