By James V. Ruocco
The well-heeled period ambiance of The Ridgefield Playhouse lends itself nicely to the HD on-screen encore presentation of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," which was originally staged at London's National Theatre from August 17, 2017 through January 3, 2018 with a cast that included Imelda Staunton, Tracie Bennett, Janie Dee and Philip Quast.
This revival of Sondheim's 1971 Broadway musical not only pays homage to the man himself, but marvelously fuses the ghost-like memories and angst and pain of James Goldman's original story with an obsessive, showbiz duality and poignancy that gives this incarnation a superior thrust and drive that lets it breathe and gesticulate like a long lost friend you want to cheer, embrace and applaud with sustained excitement and enthusiasm.
Then and now, "Follies" concerns itself with the grand yet final reunion of the legendary follies showgirls who have come together in a big, rundown Broadway theater with their friends, husbands and lovers right before it is to be demolished and transformed into a parking lot. Set in two different time periods - 1971 and 1941 - it smartly reviews and portrays the lives, loves, memories, disappointments, compromises and musical tributes of the older characters with those of their younger selves.
Here, that tear-stained doubleness, edge and loss of one's dreams, hope and confidence heightens the musical's intensity and regret with such accomplished procurement, everything that Sondheim and Goldman set out to say and tell never once gets lost in this splendid, showstopping revival.
Staged with acute splendor, magic and bluster by director Domenic Cooke, this "Follies" is wisely performed without an interval to interrupt the dramatic story at hand. His concept, framed impeccably by smart camerawork, editing, close ups, long shots and reaction shots heighten the musical's twisty, emotional and romantic sub plots, the choreography and a musical score that shows Sondheim at his very best. As "Follies" unfolds, there's real thought behind every single move, syllable, dissolve and dilemma, offset by deluded glamour, divide, truth, lies, breakdowns and romantic awakening. No camp. No overplaying. No padding. No baggage. This "Follies" will have none of that.
The Sondheim score (he did both the music and lyrics) - an achievement in itself - contains several showstoppers including "Losing My Mind," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," "I'm Still Here," "In Buddy's Eyes," "Broadway Baby," "Too Many Mornings" and "Could I Leave You?"
As musical director, Nigel Lilley doesn't opt for nostalgia by leaving this revival locked in the memory of its days on Broadway back in the 1970's. Instead, he brings Sondheim's pulsating score into the 21st century with a reworked invention, pulse, command and individuality that makes it sound brand, spanking new. Completely in sync with Sondheim's expressive mindset, he allows his musical score to breathe, beguile, astonish, entice, cajole and echo the pulsating notes, the haunting sounds, the merry skips, the delicious beats, the frenzied panting, the twisty malevolence and wonderfully timed festering and gentleness the composer/lyricist has created. At the same time, there's a freshness to all of the songs and orchestrations that Lilley elicits with the irony, wit, heft, loft and dark memory of its iconic creator. That said, the incredible sound system at The Ridgefield Playhouse heightens the massive sound of Lilley's orchestral showmanship.
The cast - Imelda Staunton, Tracie Bennett, Janie Dee, Philip Quast, Peter Forbes, Dawn Hope, Di Botcher, Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen, Fred Haig, Alex Young, among others - tackle the material (song, dance, character and dialogue) with excitement, purpose, conviction, radiance and dazzle. All of them not only make this "Follies" unique, but one that lingers long after the final curtain has come down.