PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Maximum Nostalgia: “Follies” at SF Playhouse

By Mitchell Field

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical “Follies” first opened April 4, 1971. It was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, won seven, and has enjoyed many revivals.

During her 1987 West End performance, Eartha Kitt sparked a comeback and went on to perform her own one-woman show to sold-out houses after “Follies” closed. Several songs from the show—“Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Losing My Mind”—have become standards.

…an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

The latest version of “Follies” arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse July 20, after five years in development and delays due to Covid. The show had never been performed in its entirety by a professional troupe in The City, according to director Bill English, also co-designer of the show’s imposing set and projections with Heather Kenyon.

Phyllis Rogers Stone (Maureen McVerry*, center) reckons with life’s choices through ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie,’ accompanied by (L-R) Jill Slyter, Chachi Delgado, Anthony Maglio, M. Javi Harnly, Cameron La Brie, and Ann Warque. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

Set as a reunion of past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies,” (a musical revue based on the Ziegfeld Follies, that played in that theater between the world wars) in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theater, the show focuses on two mature married couples at the reunion: Buddy and Sally (Anthony Rollins-Mullens and Natascia Diaz, respectively) and Ben and Phyllis (Chris Vettel and Maureen McVerry, respectively).

Sally and Phyllis were once showgirls in the Follies; both marriages are in trouble. Ghosts of former showgirls as youngsters glide through the crumbling theater without being seen by the revelers. Thus begins a series of musical numbers performed by the Follies’ many veterans, exploring their lives and desires, while “invisible” younger performers mirror them in counterpoint. Other ghosts from former shows appear and the characters try to recapture their youth in re-creations of past performances.

The ghosts of Follies past (L-R: Catrina Manahan, Samantha Rose Cárdenas, Ann Warque, Danielle Cheiken, and Emily Corbo) welcome you to Dimitri Weismann’s theater. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

Broadway producer/director Hal Prince said of the show: ” ‘Follies’ examines obsessive behavior, neurosis and self-indulgence.”

Spirited, emotional and touching musical numbers performed by a perfectly-cast blend of seasoned professionals and talened newcomers fill this production with energy and verve, as do many lively and dynamic dance routines.

While the book by James Goldman is thin on plot, as one of the show’s characters opines: “Facts never interest me, what matters is the song!” Originally a one-act show, “Follies” was later expanded into two acts. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t until the second act that I fell in love all over again with ‘Follies’.” This reviewer concurs.

As with several Sondheim shows, the second act is often “where the beef is.” The second act of “Follies” is wildly divergent from the first, as in “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods.” In “Follies,” the first act is primarily the introduction of characters and their back-stories. It’s a lot of exposition in the midst of glittering showgirls and assorted middle-aged matrons at the reunion party. Either by design or possibly due to opening-night nerves, act one got off to a stilted start, making the second act all the more spectacular.

Benjamin Stone (Chris Vettel*, center) reevaluates his priorities during ‘Live, Laugh, Love,’ accompanied by the Follies company (L-R: Emily Corbo, Anthony Maglio, Samantha Rose Cárdenas*, M. Javi Harnly, Catrina Manahan, Chachi Delgado, and Danielle Cheiken). Photo courtesy SF Playhouse. (*Equity Actor)

In the ‘Loveland’ scene, (“the place where lovers are always young and beautiful, and everyone lives only for love”), Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy, perform in a dream-like pastiche of vaudeville-style numbers in which each acts out their own particular folly.

The scene culminates in total hysteria, as the characters reveal their true emotions for all to see, before returning to the theater, the end of the reunion and the rest of their lives.

A long odyssey for SF Playhouse, “Follies” is an enormous undertaking for any theater company, requiring a large cast of triple-threat performers. The late critic Martin Gottfried wrote: “Follies is truly awesome and, if it is not consistently good, it is always great.”

This production lives up Gottfired’s description. Expertly directed by Bill English, with gorgeous costumes by Alba Berman and choreography by Nicole Helfer, it’s an awesome, great, and exhausting show, done with San Francisco Playhouse panache!

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Contributing Writer Mitchell Field is an actor and voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle based in Marin County, California.

Contact: mitchfield@aol.com

 

ProductionFollies
Written / Music byBook by James Goldman. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru September 10th, 2022
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!