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With a multigenerational cast of 21, some particularly labyrinthine Sondheim lyrics, and one of the more unorthodox narrative structures in Broadway musical history, it’s taken Follies over a half-century to hit the boards in San Francisco. The Bay Area’s first-ever professional production of the 1971 backstage psychodrama about a late middle-age reunion of Ziegfield-style showgirls decades after their days in the kickline marks a major achievement for The San Francisco Playhouse and its artistic director, Bill English, who also helmed the show.
There are plenty of goosebumps in store for audiences, not least of which are those raised by the grand ambition and determination required to mount this near-mythical colossus in the midst of a pandemic: The production not only had to recast multiple roles as its run was repeatedly rescheduled from a planned 2020 debut, but even this week’s official opening came after two postponements due to COVID in the company.
No Tea, No Shade:
The anginal heart of Follies is the relationship of two struggling married couples — former chorines Sally (Natascia Diaz) and Phyllis (Maureen McVerry) and their husbands, Buddy (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) and Ben (Chris Vettel) — who effectively provide a musical theater counterpart to the quarrelsome quartet of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All four characters are brilliantly played with palpable neuroses, each unpredictably swinging between comic and creepy extremes. McVerry, a stalwart of stages on both coasts, provides a running subtext to her lines with perfect wrist flips and eyebrow arches. And Rollins-Mullins undergirds unfaithful Buddy with empathic humanity that shines through even his nastiest outbursts.
A younger actor shadows each of the central foursome, playing earlier more idealistic versions of the same characters, frequently on stage alongside their elder selves. It’s a tricky conceit, but director English not only keeps things clear but along with choreographer Nicole Helfer, leverages these duos to create some of the evening’s most moving moments. When Buddy and his younger self (Chachi Delgado) dance with imaginary partners while singing “The Right Girl,” the self-realizing romance between man and boy across time feels more honest and rewarding than either’s fantasy of coupledom.
Sally, Phyllis, and three other former showgirls perform a Busby Berkeley-esque stopper with time-warped mirror images of their own in “Who’s That Woman,” the younger actresses in costume designer Abra Berman’s spectacular white-feathered headdresses and sparkling bodysuits.
Each of the secondary characters — among them those three other women, the impresario behind their long-ago spectacle, and the emcee who warmed up their audiences in the 1930s and 1940s — seems eager to share their own story but, for the most part, offers just the slightest summary. In combination with some redundant (though terrifically executed) late-in-the-evening novelty numbers about the main foursome this makes the show feel somewhat lopsided, a problem long noted by critics — and a lesson that seems well-learned by the show’s original co-director and choreographer Michael Bennett, who four years later would stage the more tidily democratic A Chorus Line.
Let’s Have a Moment:
Two phenomenal Sondheim soliloquy songs that many audience members will likely be familiar with but may not realize come from “Follies” earned admiring gasps and clenched fists of emotion from the crowd: “I’m Still Here,” delivered with jaded panache by Cindy Goldfield in the role of movie star Carlotta; and Diaz’ spookily unhinged rendition of Sally’s “Losing My Mind.”
The Last Word:
To see Follies is like spotting the Bigfoot of Broadway history. It’s the stuff of legend, even when it lumbers a bit. The San Francisco Playhouse production more than does justice to this elusive classic of the Sondheim canon.
Follies plays at the San Francisco Playhouse through September 10, 2022.