Music Theatre

Follies in Concert review [Melbourne 2016]

Superb direction and electric performances makes this presentation of Follies in Concert far more than a rose-tinted trip down memory lane.

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 David Rogers Smith, Loveland

One of Stephen Sondheim’s most luscious, melody-packed scores, Follies is very close to the heart of many a music theatre devotee. As well as the usual intricate, psychological, fiendishly difficult Sondheim songs, there are a host of glorious pastiche numbers, written to recreate the highly hummable songs of vaudeville and revues.

At a thirty-year reunion to farewell the soon-to-be-demolished theatre, a gaggle of aging showgirls gather to reminisce about their heyday in the Weismann Follies. James Goldman’s book focuses on the central love quadrangle of Sally, Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, as well as providing snippets of anecdotes for the supporting characters, who enliven proceedings with their nostalgic hit tunes.

Apart from a fabulous collection of stars, this season of Follies (the fourth that I have seen in Melbourne) is set apart by the crystal clear, and highly affecting, storytelling. With limited stage space, no sets or props and just modern evening wear as costumes, Tyran Parke’s direction brings the pain and regret of the central two middle-aged couples vividly to life.

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 David Hobson

While it is usually the pretty young leads who do all the kissing and hugging in musicals, Follies features passion and longing from real adults, each played brilliantly here. Sally (Lisa McCune) hopes the party will provide the chance to escape her dull husband Buddy (David Hobson) and reunite with Ben (Philip Quast), who is married to Phyllis (Anne Wood). Act one ends with an extraordinarily romantic performance of duet “Too Many Mornings” from Quast and McCune, leaving Sally to finally get her kiss from Ben as their respective spouses watch.

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Lisa McCune

Parke makes excellent use of the younger “ghosts” of the adult characters, particularly in the dissolve to fantasy sequence “Loveland,” in which the older characters angrily berate the four younger incarnations for the mistakes they made with their lives.

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Sally, Buddy, Phyllis, Ben

The resounding impact of the subsequent breakdown of each character during Loveland makes the sequence far more than a showcase for the actors. Hobson surprises with a lively vaudevillian turn in “Buddy’s Blues.” McCune brings a haunting stillness to “Losing My Mind.” In sparkling red gown, and surrounded by a whole bunch of boys, Wood sizzles as she sings “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” Quast is devastatingly convincing as Ben stumbles his way through “Live, Laugh, Love.”

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Anne Wood, The Story of Lucy and Jessie

 

Looking winsome and petite, McCune portrays the vulnerability fragility of Sally and her driven, blinkered love for Ben. Turning on the charm when Buddy is in public view, Hobson also shows the dread and boredom Buddy carries. Looking as glamorous as a star from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Wood spits out withering zingers as Phyllis, continuing that style as she sings her shattering ultimatum to Ben, “Could I Leave You?” Singing with his sumptuous burnished baritone, Quast conveys the hollow disillusionment of a man who has everything and nothing simultaneously.

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Philip Quast, Live, Laugh, Love

The four leads are very well supported by the talented performers playing the younger versions of each role: Jenni Little (Young Phyllis), Lachlan Graham (Young Ben), Rowan Witt (Young Buddy) and Sophie Wright (Young Sally).

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Young Buddy, Young Sally, Young Ben, Young Phyllis

The only actress to feature in all four Follies stagings seen in Melbourne, Margaret Haggart sings “One More Kiss” with exquisite delicacy, supported beautifully by the powerful high notes of Madeleine Featherby as Young Heidi.

Debra Byrne is sensational as Carlotta, giving a vivacious, heartfelt rendition of iconic diva anthem “I’m Still Here.”

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Debra Byrne

A series of toe-tapping tunes are heard in quick succession in act one as party guests let loose with their trademark numbers. A sparkling Patti Newton tries to carry Emily and Theodore’s “Rain on the Roof,” but is let down by a stiff Bert Newton not pulling his weight. Natalie Gamsu brings European flair to Solange as she sings “Ah, Paris!” Legendary performer Nancye Hayes imbues Hattie with a devilish twinkle, bringing down the house with “Broadway Baby.”

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Bert Newton, Patti Newton

Playing star tenor Roscoe, David Rogers Smith provides soaring, rock solid high notes as he sings “Beautiful Girls.”

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 David Rogers Smith, Monica Swayne, Loveland

The act one highlight, and arguably the highlight of the night, comes as the women try to perform a favourite old company number. Vocal powerhouse Queenie van de Zandt leads showstopper “Who That’s Woman” with a merry sparkle, imbuing the lyrics with their full meaning. Visualizing themselves in their youth, the eight older women are joined by their younger counterparts, and Kelly Aykers’ wonderful tap choreography builds to its zenith.

FOLLIES IN CONCERT 2016 Who's That Woman

Musical director Stephen Gray leads a sterling orchestra of 24 musicians, which performs on stage behind the actors. Sondheim’s score sounds thrilling with this lavish treatment.

The first full production for Storeyboard Entertainment, the high quality of Follies in Concert augurs well for future seasons. For a show that can often be just a featherlight collection of great tunes, the layers of meaning exposed by Parke’s direction add significantly to the attraction of this starry staging.

Follies in Concert plays two more performances at Melbourne Recital Centre on Wednesday 25 May 2016.

Photos: Jeff Busby

13 replies »

  1. Hi Simon,

    I fell in love with Follies after seeing the PBS taping with Barbara Cook, George Hearn, Lee Remick and Mandy Patinkin on Channel 2 about a thousand years ago. The Production Company version I saw in 2008 was terrific, too.

    Thank you for your review.

    Cheers for now.
    Nick

    • Thanks Nick. I’m trying to work out from your comment if you were there last night. I really hope you this Follies.
      The 1985 concert in NY is the gold standard, but the concert last night was definitely better than other versions because the direction was so strong. I have been thinking about it over and over all day. I really loved it.

  2. Thanks Simon, I really enjoy your reviews. You come across as a critic who loves the theatre and it’s players and your criticism is constructive rather than bitchy or snide. What a fantastic line up of musical theatre stars!! I can’t believe Sydney is missing out on this. If it was a longer running show I would have made the trip. I’ve loved the work of all these performers. Every minute of Debbie Byrne’s Fantine was burned into my memory bank at an early age, never to be supplanted by any other Fantine, as good as they have been over the years. McCune’s reprisal of Hello Young Lovers was another favourite and don’t even get me started on Phillip Quast. All the rest are wonderful too. Hopefully, there will be a recording of the show – fingers crossed.

    • Thanks for your kind words Justine.
      It certainly was amazing to see Philip Quast and Debra Byrne on stage together last night. And Lisa McCune was heartbreaking as dear Sally.
      It is a shame for Sydney to miss this event. It totally exceeded all my expectations. I would also love there to be some sort of recording of this show. I have my fingers crossed with yours!

  3. Why is that we hardly ever get Australian recordings of musicals? Nor is there much on Spotify. It makes me so mad!! I don’t care if the Broadway casts are considered the best. If I’ve enjoyed a musical to the extent I’d be prepared to fork out for the soundtrack I want to hear the Australian cast. I don’t suffer from the national cultural cringe and I love our performers – most of them anyway. I don’t think I’m alone here!

    • I’m with you on this Justine. There was a time when some recordings were made and I cherish the ones that I own in my collection. The best arrangement would be if shows could be recorded in the theatre (as can be done in a couple of London theatres) then released on iTunes. Surely the option to have digital releases is a big money-saver over producing actual CDs!

      • I thought the movie version of Les Miz was absolutely diabolical. Imagine if there was a live recording of our recent superb production as an alternative!! Wishful thinking I know – but oh . . . The wasted opportunities!! And I read somewhere that they had done a live recording of the Sydney production of South Pacific – that it had even been announced to the audience b4hand. What happened I wonder? Did someone forget their lines, or fall off the stage? I was really looking forward to that because I got an understudy for Kate Cerebrano (could have been worse I guess) and I’m a big fan of hers. Don’t worry, I’ll give you a break with the comments after this – I’m off to work. Thanks for your generous replies though – such a gentleman!

      • A live recording of South Pacific would have been very desirable. And you are right about our Australian cast of Les Mis. At least we have the solo albums that some of those brilliant performers recorded. Maybe it will take for a hit new Australian-written musical to open for our local stars to be recorded in a cast album

  4. Thanks for this review, Simon, and especially for including Jeff Busby’s gorgeous photos.

    As for recordings of Australian productions of overseas shows, well, it’s often a nightmare legally, even if technology has made it easier than ever. I was once Musical Director for a Sydney production of an Off-Broadway show, and we made a live recording, and started selling it in the foyer. But it turned out our producer hadn’t negotiated the rights. The CD was promptly withdrawn and deleted.

    To release a new recording of a show like Follies, Les Mis, South Pacific etc, you’d have to have started negotiations years ago, and so I include cast recordings of original Oz musicals in my prayers every night. As you yourself pointed out, Simon, ‘Ladies in Black’? Anyone?

    • Thanks Peter. Hope you had the chance to see Follies in Concert. I was so glad that a relatively small production went all out in etc orchestra like that. The score sounded terrific.

      That deleted off-Broadway cast recording must be quite a collector’s item for anyone who was lucky enough to buy a copy before it was withdrawn!

      Australian cast recordings are some of the most cherished albums in my collection. The incredible cast in the Australian cast recording of Nine. The sensational full dance arrangements in the Australian recording of Anything Goes. The historical success of Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert (John Farnham et al). I offer up my prayers with yours for a Ladies in Black recording – at least the rights for that show should be easier to organise!

  5. Hi Simon
    As a father of one of cast in her first professional gig, I can say it’s nothing short of brilliant.
    We were moved over the course of show by the strong performances of not only the major stars but the whole production including the orchestra.
    To come from Queensland to see such a show was sensational
    Thank you for your summary

    • Hi Scott, thanks so much for this comment.
      How wonderful for Katrina to work with such legendary performers for her professional debut. I am sure she learned a great deal from her co-stars and gained many happy memories.
      I watched Follies a second time and it was just as incredible. Director Tyran Parke did a fantastic job.
      Looking forward to seeing what Katrina does next.

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