The best excuse for watching a pile of old musicals on DVD is that you are swotting in preparation for a Sondheim. Then on to Cambridge for the Pied Pipers production of his 1971 elegy on the lost world of the fictional Weismann's Follies.
A musical must be accessible and Stephen Sondheim follows this rule but his intricate writing can be appreciated better if you already know about the world he set the story in. In 1971 this was part of common consciousness but that was itself 42 years ago; there is a danger that a musical about people confronting their own pasts sometime in the 1960s might itself have become a ghost.
Because he's a genius Sondheim foresaw this and also had some luck in the emergence of the video industry. Old musicals don't die although they sometimes go in to limbo. The references are always available now but he made sure he put enough in to the script even if you have never watched one. The tour de force of Loveland where the couples collide with their own memories and act out their own personal folly through popular genres of songs is breathtaking but could be baffling if you can't just let go and wallow in the lyrics. The plot is going on under there, you just have to wait until it re-emerges. The production has always divided critics, though. I think some of this is simply that Brits are sympathetic to meditations on faded glamour whereas Americans see it as a reproach.
The premise is simple; a reunion of the old Follies performers, most of them female, takes place before the theater is pulled down. There is unfinished business between some of them. It has to be finished that night because there will never be another chance. Thus the stage is set as a splendid but decayed theatre; high American Gothic. It is a ghost of the real Zeigfeld Theatre, pulled down in 1966. They will do one last performance.
Designers Andrew Feathertone and Sarah Phelps get this right when they show the damaged fabric of the theatre. The 1971 designs suggested a space which was was nearly gutted, but that would not distinguish it from any other warehouse.
Director Jacob Allan has to manage a complicated stage where the memories of showgirls past parade along the balcony like shades of Hamlet's father along the battlements of Elsinore. The younger selves of the key characters step out of the past either to show us what really happened, or sometimes to show us how they remembered it. Not necessarily the same thing.
This is not a minimalist production; although there is only one set there are numerous costume changes for the secondary characters and intricate choreography to bring the past and present characters to the right places on the stage, capturing the spectacle of the Follies. This is particularly successful in the big number "Who's that Woman?" where a tableau flows in to a tap dance which involves all the women, past and present.
As the company is fantastically devoted to performance they all give Sondheim's words the clarity they deserve but two interpretations stand out. Kirsty Smith as Solange, the French diva (who may or may not ever have been French) conveys all the flinty determination of a woman with her own brand of perfume to sell. She produces a gem in Ah, Paris!, which she delivers just fractionally flat in the correct stage-French style, the method by which millions of people have been convinced they are listening to a sophisticated Gallic chanteuse. Everything about the character is perfectly observed, right down to the dress ring over her elbow-length gloves.
Stephen Waring as Buddy Plummer has to do a superb acting job because unlike most of the other characters Plummer is not a performer. An oil engineering salesman, yes, but essentially he plays the civilian on a stage full of combatants. Even Ben Stone, played by Matthew Chancellor, is a literate, articulate character used to operating on a par with the intellectual elite in society. Waring has to portray the moderately successful ordinary guy, middle-America rather than Washington. He is therefore given one of the most tongue-twisting pieces to perform in a vaudeville number, The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues whilst doing a galumphing chase dance with the fantasy versions of the women who are driving him mad.
Full marks to the Pied Pipers for this ambitious staging. At time of writing there are only two tickets left so you'll have to lobby them to give it another outing.