Director Bill English and his cast of collaborators waited three long years to present San Francisco’s first fully staged professional production of the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical from James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim. A tribute to the musical styles of the first half of the 20th century, Follies is a charming delight of musical numbers beautifully choreographed by Nicole Helfer, costumed by Abra Berman and orchestrated by Dave Dobrusky.
It is a Sondheim piece and as such much more than a musical review. The drama arc tells the story of two couples reunited after decades to celebrate the closure of their beloved theater of follies, which will soon become a parking lot. During the play, the marriages of the quartet will be contested, borders crossed, infidelities consummated. Choices made are questioned, regrets unearthed, all beautifully staged in parallel time lags between the glory days when the couples first met and their troubled present.
Bill English oscillates harmoniously between these two universes presented on stage with two casts: the youngest stars of the follies, the two beaus and the older versions of everyone nostalgic with nostalgia for faded glories. It’s a large, hard-working ensemble that intersects effortlessly through dialogue, song and dance. And there are plenty of memorable moments interspersed throughout both acts. Although many numbers lack the feel of Sondheim’s later material, it is interesting to see his take on vaudeville and madness styles (Sondheim refers to Follies like an orgy of pastiche).
There are several numbers from the supporting cast highlighting the aging former showgirls reunited for the finale night; “Ah, Paris! sung by the Parisian Salange (Jill Slyter), the excellent interpretation of “Broadway Baby” by Hattie (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) and Carlotta’s (Cindy Goldfield) touching performance of the Sondheim classic “I’m Still Here”.
The four main ones each get their share of highlights and give strong performances. Maureen McVerry digs her teeth into the juicy role of Phyllis Rogers Stone, a bitter, jaded wife fully aware of her husband’s complicity. When the going gets tough, she spits out her feminist diatribe in “Could I Leave You,” a scathing reflection on divorce.
Likewise, Sally Durant Plummer (three-time Helen Hayes Award winner Natascia Diaz) is married to her cheating husband Buddy and deeply in love with Phyllis’ husband Ben. Caught between her second-choice husband and Ben’s idealized life, she sadly sings “Losing My Mind.”
Buddy Plummer (Anthony Rollins-Mullens), like each of the other three, is painfully aware of Sally’s obsession. Cheating on her is his obligatory reward and in a comedic vaudeville number he expresses his dilemma in “The-God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues”.
Ben Stone (Chris Vettel) is the most “lost” character. Successful in business, he is hopelessly adrift in romance and self-esteem. In “The Road You Didn’t Take”, he sings about his regrets for the choices made.
The four young protagonists are worth mentioning: Samantha Rose Cárdenas as young Sally, Danielle Cheikin as young Phyllis, Chachi Delgado as young pal, and Cameron La Brie as young Ben. The four can act, sing and dance and represent the future of musical theatre. Louis Parnell plays promoter Dimitri Weismann, tasked with rounding up the old cast for one last hurrah.
Follies is big, splashy and full of Sondheim hits and themes of exploring difficult marriages and relationships. The SF Playhouse team under the direction of Bill English does it justice and maybe even more – setting the bar high for all future productions.
Follies until September 10, 2022.
Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli