The power of Stephen Sondheim’s masterful musical “Follies” is how its characters examine their lives over the course of a lifetime, entering the twilight of their existence that often burns white-hot with regret.
San Francisco Playhouse’s stellar production of such a Sondheim classic, directed smartly by artistic director Bill English, looks at the lives of a group of aging showgirls, who gather at their old Broadway theater before it’s torn down and relegated to the scrap heap of history. The aura that surrounds these women is an exercise in unwavering confidence and a commitment to hang on no matter how many years roll by – notice how each saunters down the stairs donning a sash that indicates which year their greatness was unveiled.
What is divinely fascinating in the piece, Sondheim’s work paired with a stellar book by James Goldman, is how the show reminds us that time does not in fact heal all wounds. Often, examining the past means to cackle at the folly of youth, but where the truth lies is in how those choices built years ago attacked every ounce of confidence that one may possess today.
Sally (Natascia Diaz) and Phyllis (Maureen McVerry) carry the heavy lifting of the narrative, as well as engaging in one of the longest-lasting conflicts. Sally’s husband Buddy (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) and Phyllis’s husband Ben (Chris Vettel) are serial lecherers, and a fling between Sally and Ben years ago still carries powerful and devastating longing, a desire that Ben never wished to carry forth.
It is in these subtle performances that are awash in gargantuan choices where “Follies” feels special. Losing a giant such as Sondheim has put his work into another stratosphere of legacy, and taking in such a story at this time, it’s hard to not feel the presence of such a legendary mind.
The production’s hallmark is in how it is unified smartly with oodles of heart, each element of a musical carrying nice details. It’s a unique style of show, where the largesse comes into conflict with a stage as intimate as San Francisco Playhouse’s “Empathy Gym,” and the many tableaus are married sweetly and poignantly with Nicole Helfer’s choreography that is equal parts showcase and storytelling.
So many of the show’s signature hits, which I have learned of recently as someone who did not grow up with this show, are accounted for splendidly here, preciously discovered. Lucinda Hitchcock Cone’s “Broadway Baby” is a delight. Diaz’s multiple soliloquies break hearts, in the brutally crushing “In Buddy’s Eyes,” and her final folly in “Losing My Mind.” And Cindy Goldfield does great work as seen-it-all pillar Carlotta Campion to bring forth “I’m Still Here,” speaking on behalf of those who might feel they are being kicked to the curb, making way for smaller, younger and cheaper.
The sounds of Dave Dobrusky’s live band keeps the action moving with sounds that are staples of Sondheim’s work. The various leitmotifs and commitment to savory dissonance, leading to a whopping heap of emotional resonance is why Sondheim feels different. Abra Berman’s period costume design fluctuates between old and older, a world where past glory meets present heartache. All of this comes alive on a deeply rich set design by Bill English and Heather Kenyon.
As is the case with most Sondheim pieces, it’s the man himself that by default is the star of the show, and his work is executed nicely here in many tender moments. Taking in something like “Follies” means to take in theatre history, and the mammoth, passionate energy that is put out feels organic.
If you want to do Sondheim correctly, you can’t fake that passion. Fortunately, no one is fakin’ in this production.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Francisco Playhouse presents “Follies”
Book by James Goldman
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
The Word: It’s hard not to be taken by the history of theatre as one watches a signature Sondheim piece, San Francisco Playhouse’s grand production hitting many right notes.
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes with an intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $100
For tickets, call (415) 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org