Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ is a musical all about performers at the end of their careers, traditionally a showcase for the most distinguished and well-loved actresses and actors of the time. Here, Karen Rabinowitz, course leader of the postgraduate diploma in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music has put on a production cast entirely from students, a group of performers just starting out. Sheer folly? Well, we were too busy enjoying ourselves to notice.
Having enjoyed the RAM’s Tommy the previous day, we weren’t sure whether this show would be able to live up to its high standards – our expectations were exceeded on all fronts. We could quite easily see this production being dropped straight into the West End, with only eyebrows being raised about the youth of the cast. Having said that, it worked for Bugsy Malone.
The musical itself is a slow-burner, and at first it is unclear where the drama will arise in the apparently chaotic party scenes, with characters coming and going and various turns being performed. Yet slowly and surely, the frustrations and ‘follies’ of the four main characters emerge, as we start to see behind the sparkling ‘eyes, lips and teeth’ of these plucky women. In this context, Sarah-Jane Price’s cherubic rendition of ‘Broadway Baby’ is a gem of a song, perfectly illustrating the desperation and inability to let go which seems to have wrecked the two central marriages. The pace builds relentlessly as the relationships are played out in song, with Dom Hodson as Ben starting out in smug one-dimensional denial with ‘The Road you Didn’t Take’, and ending with the frantic ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ and the collapse into self-doubt. Having given us a taste of dance-based craziness in ‘The Right Girl’, the high point of this emotional roller coaster comes with James Wolstenholme’s performance of ‘The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues’, as Buddy weighs up the merits of his wife and mistress. Brilliantly executed as a vaudeville parody, Wolstenholme somehow combines youthful energy with the weariness and exasperation of middle age. As Sally, Lucie-Mae Sumner has the difficult task of following this with the iconic ‘Losing My Mind’, which she carries off beautifully. Completing the quartet is Helen Woolf as Phyllis, the embittered, emotionally abandoned wife of Ben. She sticks the knife in with chilling precision in ‘Could I Leave You’, before delighting us with the brilliantly choreographed song and dance number ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’, where we get a glimpse of the Phyllis that might have been.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge is ‘I’m Still Here’, given that so many divas of stage and screen have used it as a signature song. Of all the songs in the show, this is the definitive anthem to survival. Clearly still young and glamorous, Louisa Farrant gives a cabaret-style delivery of the song which inevitably feels like a flashback, but is no less effective for that. And if you’ve ever wondered about some of the more obscure references, Sondheim.com have kindly provided a translation.
This was our first ‘Follies’ and it was a welcome opportunity to hear the songs in context, having previously been aware of them only as standalone numbers. Every aspect of the production was outstanding and we look forward to a cast re-union in thirty years’ time.