Royal Festival Hall, August 2002
Review by Emma Shane
© August 2002
Just what does happen to sweet talented young chorus girls, such as Ziegfeld Follies Girls, or The Muppet Show’s assorted creatures (for example Annie Sue Pig), when they grow up? This revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, about a group of such chorus girls having their first and last reunion in the ruins of their old theatre, attempts to answer that question. It is a reunion full of the young ghosts of our stars themselves, and the roads they didn’t take.
The show opens in the rundown, about to be pulled down, Weissman Theatre, and over the overture an assortment of ghosts in Follies costumes dance. The show proper starts with the entrance of Sally Durant Plummer, an excellent role for Kathryn Evans. Her husband, Buddy, didn’t want her to come tonight, but she wanted to come. It is not long before other ex-Follies girls begin to arrive for the reunion. One of the most noticeable of these is Phyllis Rogers Stone, described by her husband Ben Stone as “An extraordinary woman, endlessly exciting; well if you are going to have a character who is meant to be “An extraordinary woman”, then it makes sense to have “An extraordinary woman” to play her, and this production has cast a real gem, the endlessly exciting amazingly talented actress-singer-and-puppeteer Louise Gold. Phyllis is a loud quick witted sophisticated wisecracker. One of this multitalented performer’s greatest gifts is her ability to deliver her lines wonderfully well, this is probably helped by the fact that her comic-timing is about as near perfect as you can get, and she projects a loud clear speaking voice. Few actresses have the ability to speak ironic comedy lines as well as Louise Gold can. The principle quartet is completed by the arrival of Sally’s husband Buddy Plummer, who has spent most of the day up there in a plane. Here too is another perfect piece of casting, the outstanding actor, famously dumped by Broadway (earlier this year, allegedly for not being funny enough), good old reliable Henry Goodman. More old-girls: Solonge La Fitt, the film star Carlotta Campion, the delightful Hattie Walker, Heidi Schiller, Stella Deems, the miscellaneous Christine, and funny little vaudevillian Emily Whitman, played by: Anna Nicholas, Diane Langton, Joan Savage, Julia Goss, Shezwae Powell, Paddy Glynn, and, West End stalwart Myra Sands, have arrived, in the case of Stella and Emily with their respective husbands. Hattie has had five husbands, all of whom died (they were given to living fast exciting lives riding motorbikes and such like). Demitri Weisman himself, played by Russell Dixon, enters and proceeds to welcome them all here, and using a bit of the staircase set, with Roscoe (Paul Bentley) to bring them on, most of the old-girls make an entrance, Beautiful Girls. It is great to see this number, so often attempted in concerts and revues, most notably Side By Side By Sondheim, here in its original setting of faded glory entrances. For once Louise Gold actually manages to get through the number without making all that much of a spectacle of herself.
Now for the first time in years Sally finds herself encountering Ben, a
man she was once in love with. Then his wife enters “It’s Sally isn’t it?”
“Phyllis” says Sally greeting her onetime best friend and flatmate. Sally
did the cleaning and Phyl the cooking (“baked beans and peanut butter
sandwiches”), and Sally never did make the beds, I found myself
wondering if this was a dig at Kander And Ebb’s Two Ladies?
(A song which coincidentally Louise Gold has recorded, also as the one
who does the cooking!) Their lives have taken very different paths, as the
reunion continues, various pairs of the quartet continue to encounter each
other, Ben tells Buddy that Phyllis is “An extraordinary woman”, Ben and
Phyl snap wittily and both hold their own on the stage. Ben encounters Sally
and thinking of the old days they duet Don’t Look At
Continuing the reunion now is a chance for some of the bit players to
shine, with their solos. First up, a pair of slightly dotty retired
vaudevillians Emily and Theodore Whitman (played by Myra Sands and Tony
Kemp), Listen To The Rain On The Roof. The number is an
affectionate little well performed vaudeville piece, all be it one that seems
to get a trifle buried within the rest of the show, although Myra Sands’s
singing voice is pleasantly distinctive. Next is Solange La Fitte with Ah,
Having had a bit of light relief, now it is back the reality of gloom and irony, and Ben and Sally. First of all Ben, wondering why he didn’t marry Sally, The Road You Didn’t Take. Although David Durham’s singing was adequate, coming so soon after Broadway Baby the number was a bit on the unremarkable side. Ben in particular is still being plagued by the ghosts, how he spurned Sally in favour of Phyllis. The ghosts vary in how convincing they are. Emma Clifford’s Young Sally is a simple daffy empty-headed girl, and it is easy to believe how she has grown into Kathryn Evan’s Sally in terms of personality. Hugh Maynard’s Young Ben seems to be rather unsure of where he is going, but then again perhaps there is some point to this, although we never really quite understand how Ben got to where he got, does it have something to do with Phyllis? As he said earlier “She’s an extraordinary woman”. And what of Young Phyllis herself, Kerry Jay successfully captures the character’s Muppet-like cuteness, she is a sweet talented young girl who is not without her own streak of ambition; Rather similar to The Muppet’s Annie Sue Pig (especially in the Leo Sayer episode of The Muppet Show). It is a quality that her older counterpart, Louise Gold, always seems to have possessed, and to this day it can still manifest itself (at least whenever Ms Gold gets her left hand up a cute puppet). Thus it is believable that she will grow into a warm witty wisecrackering bitch who isn’t actually a bitch. There is only one quality that Kerry Jay’s portrayal seemed to lack, the character is ambitious, and promises she will educate herself, but her ambition only shows itself in her acting with Young Ben, in the chorus line she does not push herself forward as much as I would expect. In her older incarnation Phyllis dominates almost any scene she is in, in a way that her young counterpart does not. But that is not really Kerry Jay’s fault. Louise Gold has an almost unique ability to grab a scene and make herself noticed, almost subconsciously, it is a trait she was quite possibly born with, certainly, on film and TV, I have only come across one other actress (from a whole generation before Louise’s) who possesses quite that sort of trait, and even then not to the extent that Louise Gold does.
Phyllis continues to explain to Buddy how she became an artiste with her life. She talks about her life with Ben, they’re careful with their colours, and about how she had a lover once “His name was Jack, I think. He played the drums.” From one half of the dysfunctional couples to the other, Sally tells Ben about her life with Buddy, and Kathryn Evans now changed from belter to (Jermone Kern Operetta-type) soprano, sings In Buddy’s Eyes. She sings the number well. Then a surprise entrance from Phyllis. A surprise because I have never before seen the commanding Louise Gold convincingly sneak up behind another character (in a manner similar to a certain actor who can really play creepy well, perhaps she took a leaf out of his book!). Phyllis and Sally nearly fight, but decide not to. This is interrupted by the arrival of the other old-girls, lead by Stella, and the suggestion they should have a go at doing a number. “If you can, I can.” says Phyllis, who really seems to be entering into the spirit of the evening. One of Louise Gold’s great gifts as an actress is to play a girl who dragged herself up in society, possibly by marriage, but who somehow never quite looses her roots, and is still game to let her hair down. It is a quality that stood her in sterling stead in Mamma Mia (especially doing Dancing Queen and Super Trouper, Tanya would never have been convincing at persuading Donna to do a number at the hen night without it). Here in Follies that quality again makes her perfect casting for her role. Thus does Stella lead the other old-girls in Who’s That Woman. It was a brilliant number, and wonderful to see them all together. Myra Sands dances well, she is a lovely graceful little dancer, but has the misfortune to be at the wrong end of the line during the first section to get herself noticed, as most of our attention is, somewhat unintentionally, directed towards the other end of the line, where tall magnificent Louise Gold can’t help dominating the action. Well she probably could help it if she really tried, but actually one doesn’t want her to sit on that natural tendency to shine, because she wouldn’t be truly to herself if she did. The old-girls are soon joined, in the line behind them, by their ghosts, and before very long each is partnering her ghost, then for the middle part of the number the ghosts take the front of the stage, and for a time the number looks rather more convincingly like a chorus line, with no particular person shining, least of all Kerry Jay’s Young Phyllis. For the final part of the number everyone swaps round again, there are also a few changes in position, so that now Myra Sands is thankfully on the other side of the stage, close to Louise Gold, and thus it is actually possible to pay attention to her performance. It’s curious indeed the things a performer’s body won’t forget. Out of the old girl’s Myra Sands, Kathryn Evans and (surprisingly) Louise Gold have among the best footwork, while when it comes to putting arms into the number effectively Louise Gold’s big definite well defined movements win hands down, even showing the young ghosts how this should be done.
With the reunion in full swing there are many opportunities for people to meet who haven’t seen each other in years. One of the most memorable moments in this respect is when Emily Whitman introduces herself to Phyllis Rogers Stone, the girl who used to have a mirror next to hers in the dressing room. Phyllis seems to be in rather an angry bitter mood anyway, at first she pretends to ignore Emily or not to recognise her, finally unable to ignore her she acknowledges her and rasps “You never liked me. I never liked you either.” It was a marvellous moment of table-turning between two stalwarts of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Lost Musicals. After all, how many times in those shows has Myra Sands played a character who did not like one of the leads, so often played by Louise Gold? This is followed by the dysfunctional couples quarrelling, again. Buddy praises Sally, Ben hardly seems to have noticed Phyllis in the number, she has a few cutting remarks about that. Finally Buddy confesses to Sally about his mistress Margie. Then Phyllis challenges Ben to do something, like take a lover, her language seems to shock him (like it used to before he taught her not to use bad language) he exits, and she turns to a waiter (played by Matthew Attwell) and asks “I don’t suppose you play the drums?”
Now Carlotta, the film star, finally unburdens herself, I’m Still Here. Although Diane Langton sang the number reasonably well, her diction wasn’t too great, and the number didn’t quite manage to be the showstopper one expects it to be. It came across perhaps marginally better than when Cleo Laine did it in the Side By Side By Sondheim 25th Anniversary Gala, but somehow wasn’t quite as effective as some performances (such as: Millicent Martin’s on the Side By Side By Sondheim original cast album, or Louise Gold’s tour de force in the 1999 Chelmsford revival of Side By Side By Sondheim). Part of the problem with this song is that it is done so often in concerts, reviews and cabarets that it is hard for anyone to really make it their own. Another difficulty is it’s positioning in Follies, so soon after the brilliant display of talent in Who’s That Woman? Indeed one of the few awkward things about Follies is the book’s construction. In the musical comedies of the 1930’s and 40’s (such as: Anything Goes, and, Du Barry Was A Lady) the musical numbers, and the comedy dialog, were evenly spaced throughout the show. If a number or scene by one principal (such as Ethel Merman) looked like becoming a showstopper, than it would immediately be followed by something irrelevant, to bring the audience down to earth before the next principal came on. Follies is a complete contrast to all of this, although James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim, accomplished writers that they are, have almost certainly done this deliberately, the first half of the first act is almost a drama devoid of songs, the second half of the act is a surfeit of star turns one after another after another. There is no balance. This means that each principal has to work doubly hard to make his or her bit have an impact, and with performers such as Henry Goodman, Louise Gold, and, Joan Savage around this becomes very difficult indeed. The plus side of this is that because the book does not aide them, every performer is treated equitably and for those performers who really are outstanding their talent will triumph. It is just a bit unfair on those who aren’t quite as good, but hey that’s life. The act ends with Ben and Sally together, and one little inconsistency in this production’s script, Ben complains about Phyllis’s cold blue eyes (the actress playing her has sparkling brown eyes). The pair sing Too Many Mornings. They sang the song pleasantly, and it was nice to finally see it in context, but one is left to wonder: Are they drunk? Are they about to elope? Will we find out in the next act?
Act Two opens where the first act ended, with Ben and Sally together. Buddy enters, and finds them. Then Sally tells Buddy that Ben is going to marry her. Buddy does not believe this, but he is torn. Torn between Sally and his own bit on the side, Margie, The Right Girl. Whatever Broadway thinks of this actor, we certainly had the right man for the number. Good old reliable Henry Goodman proved to be fantastic, singing and dancing like anything, and of course his diction is excellent too. The other notable point about this number is Tiffany Graves’s graceful dancing. This is followed by two of the old girls, Carlotta and Phyllis with Ben and a young waiter, they have been seducing in their arms (which reminded me a bit of Tanya and Pepper in Mamma Mia). Carlotta is having some difficulty explaining to Ben that it is only a fling. Phyllis is rather luckier in having found a Kevin, the young waiter (well portrayed by Matthew Attwell) who is used to playing around, she confides how she always wanted to have a son, and then complains that he is making her all wet, to which he hotly protests that she started it. Although it is Louise Gold’s scene, Matthew Attwell successfully manages not to get too overshadowed, so he will probably go far.
On with the plot, and a moment we’ve been building up to, Phyllis tells Ben she doesn’t want to go on living like this. Ben tells Phyllis his life with her is worthless. Her reaction is a surprise, Could I Leave You? This number has been done impressively many a time in concert and revue. Now it is Louise Gold’s opportunity to finally flash into action and make it all her own, which of course is exactly what she does, building up to a crescendo of anger and then ending surprisingly softly. It sounds like she is almost crying. Like a lot of Sondheim, this is a difficult song to sing clearly, but her diction (which is often her weak point) is nowhere near as bad as it has sometimes been, in any case it is an awful lot better than some of her co-performers in this production. She also seems to have to fight the orchestra a little, as they played too loudly and a touch too fast (she is not a natural fast tempo singer), but she is an experienced performer, and she manages to handle the situation. The really great thing about her performance is that although she has almost certainly been around performers such as David Kernan and Lorna Dallas, amongst others, when they’ve performed the number, she does it in her own way. For example, whereas most contemporary singers will sing the line “not to give those dinner’s for ten elderly men from the un” in a very flowing manner, with a pretty even emphasis on each word, Louise Gold is a refreshing change in that she sings it with very strong distinct emphasises on certain words, namely the rhymes, so that it comes out as “not to give those dinners for TEN ELderly MEN from the UN”. But then one of Louise Gold’s great assets, as a singer, is her ability to sing a number in a way that is completely independent of anyone else’s way of performing it, rather like an embroidery worker being independent of printed transfers and designs.
It is hard to follow a show stopping sort of performer, One More Kiss, Heidi’s number with her ghost failed to make much of an impression, although the singing by Julia Goss and Philippa Healy, and performance by Julia Goss and Pippa Raine was entirely satisfactory. Ben is still being plagued by the ghosts, and here we have a reprise of Young Phyllis promising to study and educate herself. Whereupon all four members of the quartet ended up fighting with their respective ghosts, especially Phyllis, who seems to be trying to slap her’s, almost as if she is trying to show her ghost what is missing from her character. In the very last performance she actually grabbed her shoulders and shock her.
This is followed by another surprise, well it’s a surprise if you don’t
know the plot, a sort of grand finale, albeit one that starts half way through
the second act,
Now it’s good old reliable Henry Goodman’s turn again, this time with another Follies number that has become something of a classic Buddy’s Folly: The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues. This number, especially thanks to Side By Side By Sondheim, has been given many incarnations, here it is in its original form. Henry Goodman is on sparkling form, and carries the entire number, I am afraid the young girls, Tiffany Graves and Emma Clifford were not as successful, mainly because they lack experience. Tiffany Graves was the better of the two, although her interpretation of the choreography seemed a little over the top, but that could be the direction. Emma Clifford simply doesn’t have the kind of amazing TV comedy experience (such as: TW3, and, The Muppet Show) that some of the number’s Side By Side By Sondheim incarnations (such as Millicent “Millie” Martin and Louise “Lulu” Gold) were lucky enough to get. But thanks to Henry Goodman’s sterling performance, what a wonderful performer he is, the number manages to go down pretty well.
Kathryn Evans’s turn comes with Sally’s Folly: Losing My Mind. In sharp contrast to her earlier performances she seems a trifle stiff, but perhaps that is no bad thing (one wouldn’t want her to overdo the madness). This is another often-performed song that it is again wonderful to have put back in context. It has worked very well in performed in Side By Side By Sondheim by a character who appears to be a bereaved widow. But its original context is that of a girl married to the wrong man, she loves a man married to someone else. Kathryn Evans an excellent singer-actress, gives the song everything it requires and brings it home.
As Kathryn exits we have the real surprise hit of the show, a
rarely performed Sondheim gem, that somewhere along the line even got dropped
from Follies. In the darkness someone steps out of the wings and
turns to take their place. The stage lights up, immediately our attention is
immediately drawn to the audience’s left, where on the front corner of the
stage a stunningly costumed mature girl, holding a cane, is standing with her
back to us. She gives a distinctive little wriggle with her bottom. Then Louise
Gold turns to face us and launches into her piece de resistance Phyllis’s
Folly: The Story Of Lucy And Jesse. It soon becomes apparent to the
audience that Lucy and Jesse are pseudonyms for Sally and Phyllis. To be
sitting here watching her do it is rather like watching the character Jerry
Allan perform a really good number in the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band,
only about ten times better, not least because of the dancing. Dressed in red
and black show dress, and matching shoes (the right one is black and the left
is red), Louise Gold looks absolutely amazing. Until now her beautiful
svelte figure and wonderful legs had been hidden under a long evening dress.
Now at last this 5ft9” tall stunning star really looks like a mature follies
girl. The number suits her talents brilliantly. Musically it is just the sort
of light Cole Porter or Irving Berlin type number she excels in
performing. The kind of thing that in years gone by could have been well suited
to Judy Garland or Ethel Merman. But we don’t need
The last of the quartet is Ben’s Folly: Live Laugh And Love. Phyllis, going off stage, sort of introduced it, initially by calling “Good luck big boy”, he needed it. Later in the run this changed to “It’s easy, all you have to do is remember the words” which worked slightly better, in that it was more in keeping with Louise Gold’s excellent portrayal of Phyllis verses David Durham’s Ben. Although I am sure David Durham tried hard, his number doesn’t quite come off. The chief problem is that no one (except possibly Henry Goodman) could follow Louise Gold’s stunning performance. He winds up on the floor crying, for Phyllis. It is over, Sally is also crying, for Buddy. He is right there and takes her in his arms, ready to take her home. Ben is still crying for Phyllis “I’m right here” she says, with real warmth in her voice, and kneels down beside him. One of Louise Gold’s outstanding qualities as an actress is that she can portray a woman who is outwardly a rich superbitch, but who deep down possesses humanity and a warm heart of gold. It is not an ability that very many actresses have (Anna Chancellor and probably Louise Plowright are among the few I can think of who can do this), although there are many roles for older woman (such as: Gussie Carnigie in Merrily We Role Along, Tanya in Mamma Mia and of course Phyllis Rogers Stone in Follies) that require it. Ben is helped to his feet by Phyllis’s strong left hand. Thus we come to Follies’s rather surprising ending. Ben and Sally depart with their respective spouses, and the four young ghosts can finally gather round and extinguish the light. Now all that is left is the bows, and an encore of Beautiful Girls, danced by the older girls. For much of this number they parade with their arms above their heads, as though they were holding up Follies-style headdresses or some such. Louise Gold is the only one of them who is really convincing, which is hardly surprising given that she is the only one with the requisite muscle memory (although in her case that is from grappling with puppets rather than headdresses).
In terms of design there are some elements of this production which do
not seem to have gone down terribly well with the audience, thus some
observations are perhaps necessary. The set although to some eyes a little over
the top, in terms of bits of scaffolding and plastic all over the stage, and
jutting out into the auditorium, to give the image of the interior of a run
down theatre was quite impressive, regardless of whether one actually liked it,
personally I did not mind it. However, I felt that, except for
Overall it is an excellent production, one well worth witnessing.
Obviously some turns are better than others, although it is worth seeing for
the restored and stunningly performed, Phyllis’s Folly: The Story Of Lucy
And Jesse alone! Some people have complained that the production does
not contain a stellar cast, as promised. In fact the production is not without
performers of note. They may not necessarily be the hugest names in the
business, but if you look under the surface they have solid reputations as real
troupers. For example Paul Bentley was an Oliver nominee for his role of
Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore. Many of the performers do have
a variety of numerous