Theater Review: FOLLIES (SF Playhouse)

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by Chuck Louden on July 22, 2022

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


After over 2 years of all of us being confined at home watching endless hours of shows on Netflix sitting in our sweatpants, we’re all chomping at the bit to get dressed up and see live theater. Yet because of COVID, San Francisco’s first onstage adaptation of the musical Follies had a long journey to its opening night in mid-July 2022. SF Playhouse Artistic Director and company/co-founder Bill English (who’s also director and designer) came up on stage before the show to thank the audience for its patience. COVID challenges felled several of the 20+ castmates over the last few months. Actors had to be replaced and opening night was postponed several times, and English gratefully acknowledged for his cast and crew for their perseverance and hard work to make the opening night finally happen. And the show shows no signs that the opening had been postponed. All the actors are in it 100% and, boy oh boy, can they ever belt songs, even while executing Nicole Heifer’s amazing choreography; this is especially evident in the “Mirror, Mirror” tap routine.

Stephen Sondheim’s recent passing has made many of us nostalgic and anxious to hear some of his works on stage. With book by James Goldman and songs by Sondheim, Follies debuted on Broadway in 1971. Harold Prince and Michael Bennett were co-directors with Bennett choreographing. Featured among many legends were Alexis Smith and B-movie actress Yvonne De Carlo (better known as “Lily Munster”). Many of the songs that came to be classics were pastiches of the Golden Age of Broadway: “Losing My Mind”, Beautiful Girls”, and the aging Diva classic performed by every female singer over 50: “I’m Still Here”. While not a financial success in it s original incarnation, Follies has been seeing an upsurge in revivals.

The plot still is set in 1971 at SF Playhouse’s intimate 300-seat theater in The Kensington Park Hotel just off Union Square. Goldman’s libretto (“virtually plotless” according to Sondheim) takes us to a soon-to-be demolished theatre that was once home to the fictional Weismann’s Follies. Impresario Dimitri Weismann himself throws a reunion party, and a geriatric ward of antiquated thespians show up (alongside their ghostly younger selves) to belt out a song and belt down a drink. His erstwhile performers have gathered one last time to reminisce about those seemingly innocent times, but inadvertently think about both their futures and, perhaps, the rekindling of old flames. English’s clever turntable set a la Lés Miz had actors moving from one scene to another in character.

At the center are two couples: Sally Durant Plummer and her salesman husband Buddy, whose marriage has been, to say the least, an emotional disaster; and Ben and Phyllis Stone, who have all the surface graces of a financially successful pair but seem to have lost all real feeling between them. They get to the heart of the matter only after revealing their palpable angst and their secret fears, while events of their youthful dalliances are played out by the ghosts of their younger selves. In Act II, these couples play out their own follies in the elaborate “Loveland” sequence.

America was coming out of both the turbulent 60s and the Vietnam War, and in this terrific production, the metaphor for the collapse of American innocence and naivete is clear. In the Trump era, this message still resonates.

photos by Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse

San Francisco Playhouse
Tues-Thurs at 7; Fri and Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 (show times vary)
ends September 10, 2022
for tickets, call 415.677.9596 or visit SF Playhouse

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