Updated: Jul 22
Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman were on to something when they wrote Follies. Often cited as among Sondheim’s top scores, Follies packs a heaping level of emotionally driven gravitas in its lyrics and scenes. The technical demands, especially the scenic and costume designs, draw the audience’s eye, especially in the dazzling follies numbers that conclude the musical. While San Francisco Playhouse’s production does not effectively present the gravitas embedded in the writing—based on the preview performance I attended--, there are several grounded and many eager performances which give this Follies enough momentum to feed the sway of romantic regret felt by the characters at the center of the story, thereby giving the audience time to reflect and see how they fit in the story.
(The Women of Follies; Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli)
A reunion at the Weismann Theater turns nostalgic and romantically sour for our leading quartet of lovers. A dynamite Nastascia Diaz and strong Chris Vettel lead as Sally and Ben, respectively. Sally and Ben, in their younger days, seemed destined to end up together. However, Ben ends up with Phyllis, played with comic excellence by Maureen McVerry, while Sally ends up with song-and-dance man, Buddy, played with earnest charisma by Anthony Rollins-Mullens. Vettel’s anti-chemistry opposite McVerry is peppered with a seasoned regret that is well-read and gives rise to Vettel’s infatuation towards Diaz’s Sally. Vettel’s “The Road You Didn’t Take” is a solid solo, allowing the audience to--while not necessarily rooting for him to leave his wife--understand where Ben is in his all-successful life sans finding true love. Diaz and Vettel team up for a swell “Too Many Mornings,” indicating that maybe they really will end up together by play’s end. Both Vettel and Diaz’s vocals pair harmoniously well and the acting chops are well-matched. “In Buddy’s Eyes” is in emotionally sure hands with Diaz emoting and singing a glistening rendition of the ballad. She gives every bit of vulnerability and pathos in her follies number, “Losing My Mind,” and stamps her performance with an outstanding finish to her arc in her final scene opposite Rollins-Mullens.
(Natascia Diaz (Sally); Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli)
The four adult leads are complemented by a solid quartet of their younger selves, namely Samantha Rose Cardenas (Young Sally), dance captain Danielle Cheiken (doubling as Young Phyllis and Young Heidi), Chachi Delgado (Young Buddy) and Cameron La Brie (Young Ben). These four give expertly nuanced and alluring performances to bring context and foreshadowing to the inevitable results of their adult counterparts. The younger four shine in a fantastic delivery of their follies number, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.” The older and younger quartets give a wonderfully enthusiastic “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” replete with subtext and energy that assuredly communicates the before and after for these lovers and friends.
(L to R: Cameron La Brie (Young Ben), Danielle Cheiken (pictured as Young Phyllis), Chachi Delgado (Young Buddy), and Samantha Rose Cardenas (Young Sally); Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli)
Featured standout performances come from Lucinda Hitchcok Cone’s Hattie in her leading of “Broadway Baby;” ensemble dancers Emily Corbo and Catrina Manahan steal the number as hilarious sidekicks to Rollins-Mullins in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues” follies number; and Jill Slyter, as Solange, along with ensemble dancers, M. Javi Harnly and Anthony Maglio, are stellar in “Ah, Paris!” In addition to Bill English’s expansive direction, Nicole Helfer’s choreography is outstanding; it builds well in the company numbers and gives visually invigorating stage pictures when appropriate. It’s not often one finds dance numbers that still tell a story, but Helfer’s choreography achieves this in every dance turn, with specific mention given to “Who’s that Woman?” where both the tap and the personality must come through, and both are on equal playing fields from start to finish.
(L to R: Catrina Manahan (Dancer), Anthony Rollins-Mullens (Buddy), and Emily Corbo (Dancer): Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli)
English and Heather Kenyon’s co-designed set gives way for lots of space for scene work and for Kurt Landisman’s excellent lighting design to give mood and intimacy to the scenes and songs. Abra Berman’s costume design does well for the period and giving the ensemble uniformity and the principals’ personality. Follies gives audiences a dazzling score, lyrics with depth, and relationship commentary which matures like any romantic connection does, and I applaud for San Francisco Playhouse’s cast, team, and crew for doing what is needed to ensure the message comes through in an affecting way.