Sondheim & Goldman’s Joyous Songs Evoke Musical Nostalgia
by Ian Waters
A surreal, pink light glimmers off showgirls in sequined leotards with beautiful smiles, who linger around San Francisco Playhouse’s stage like ghosts. They welcome us not just to the show, but to indulge in a delightful feast of nostalgia.
Written in 1971, “Follies” serves as a mesmerizing time capsule for composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s work. Sondheim deserves celebration as a stunning, witty lyricist who never shies away from examining musical theater, good and bad.
Here, Sondheim experiments with a love letter to musicals. “Follies” is jam-packed with songs evoking older trends, like the nostalgic “Rain on the Roof,” evoking catchy, repetitive songs with frequent kisses between lovers. The number charms us in its simplicity.
When former showgirls concoct a last reunion before their theater is torn down, they meet to relive old memories. They recall the “Weismann Follies” in its heyday. Reminiscences suddenly come alive in alluring pink hues, as the past floods the stage—reviving former heartbreaks and long-ago dances. Their memories dance alongside the present, blurring the line between memory and reality.
The highly stylized music is matched by Director Bill English’s strong hand, bringing simple settings to life on the rotating stage. The wonderful staging makes transitions between scenes thrilling, with dream-like speed.
Lighting designer Kurt Landisman’s fantastical colors mark the border between past and present. The S.F. Playhouse stage becomes a fantasy world of color and motion.
In a beautiful blue dress, nervous ex-showgirl Sally Durant Plummer (Natascia Diaz) arrives, pursuing former flame Ben, after 40 years. But he’s married, and so is she. Diaz brings a tragic edge to Sally, as her delusional pursuit inspires our pity.
As her “folly” fades away, Sally sings, “Losing My Mind,” a heartbreaking ballad about her unrequited love. Set against an empty backdrop, Sally’s aria helps us mournfully reminisce. Sondheim offers songs ranging from the modern musical theater’s origins in opera, all the way to new shows.
Sally’s crush Ben Stone (Chris Vettel) packs a buttery voice and a narcissistic, carefree manner. Vettel’s voice perfectly portrays the anguish of a man breaking down, as the reunion puts him face-to-face with his regrets over Sally. So many emotions, so little time.
Ben laments his choices and questions whether his “success” is worth it, in “The Road You Didn’t Take,” a tragic song about his own dissatisfaction. In Sondheim’s unique style, it reminds us to examine how we define success.
Choreographer Nicole Helfer treats us to a spectacle with “Who’s That Girl?” as five showgirls in bright dresses dance an old number. Their younger selves, all decked out in sequined leotards and feathered headbands, join them onstage. The ten women dazzle as they tap dance together, letting us know these women never lost their groove.
Sondheim’s and English’s love for musical history flowers in the passion and poise of each song and dance. Leaving “Follies,” I feel the desire to see it again, and to seek out other older works I’ve missed from long before my time.
“Follies”—book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Bill English, by San Francisco Playhouse. Info: SFPlayhouse.org – to September 10, 2022.
Cast: Caroline Louise Atman, Samantha Rose Cárdenas, Danielle Cheiken, Rene Collins, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, Emily Corbo, Chachi Delgado, Natascia Diaz, Cindy Goldfield,
Javi Harnly, Cameron La Brie, Anthony Maglio, Catrina Manahan, Maureen McVerry, Louis Parnell, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Jill Slyter, Chris Vettel, Ann Warque, Frederick Winthrop, and Eiko Yamamoto.
Banner photo: The ghosts of Follies past—Catrina Manahan, Samantha Rose Cárdenas, Ann Warque, Danielle Cheiken, and Emily Corbo. Photos by Jessica Palopoli