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Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ Is Back, at Once Bleak and Beautiful

That’s certainly true of the two central couples — former showgirls and their stage-door Johnnies — whose toxic marriages are soon laid bare. Sally (Imelda Staunton) married the philandering Buddy (Peter Forbes) and left New York to fester in Arizona and fight with her sons, leaving the childless Phyllis (Janie Dee) to embrace the kudos and cachet of Manhattan society in the company of the successful ex-politico, Ben (Philip Quast).


Imelda Staunton in “Follies.”.

Johan Persson

What’s done is done, you might think, but not for Sally, who has spent 30 years pining for Ben, who in turn is locked in verbal combat with Phyllis. (Their barbed repartee could come right out of an Edward Albee play.)

Fold in the ever-attendant presence of all the characters’ younger selves — more shadows on this occasion than ghosts — and you have a deeply adult musical that careers toward disaffection and distress, though period-appropriate specialty numbers keep this gala from becoming a requiem.

Many of these songs have become stand-alone mainstays in the decades since “Follies” first opened in New York, winning seven Tony Awards but losing all of its near-$800,000 in production costs — a fortune at the time. (Portions of this musical are among the smarter aspects of the largely misbegotten “Prince of Broadway,” the current Broadway revue honoring the original director of “Follies,” Harold Prince.)

But even here, Mr. Cooke and his keen-eyed choreographer, Bill Deamer, see to it that Mr. Sondheim’s peerless capacity for pastiche delivers as so many revelations of character, not just as one isolated turn or another. It helps that the musical director Nigel Lilley’s 21-strong orchestra delivers the score with unusual luster: the brass section, by way of example, sends Buddy’s revelatory “The Right Girl” soaring.

A suited, spectacle-wearing Di Botcher charges hell-for-leather through “Broadway Baby,” her powerhouse vocals accompanied by a face riven with desperation and fear. Similarly, the 2012 Tony nominee Tracie Bennett (“End of the Rainbow”) starts the anthemic “I’m Still Here” in conversation with her fellow celebrants, but they soon disappear, leaving the diminutive titan to roar the self-assertion of the title into a forbidding void. (By contrast, the ever-tricky “Ah, Paris!” gets the better of Geraldine Fitzgerald, and the usually charming “Rain on the Roof” seems to be over before it has started.)

I’ve rarely encountered a “Follies” in which the four leads are so comparably well played. Ms. Staunton, of course, is no stranger to Sondheim after her feted turns in “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy,” the latter with its score by Jule Styne. Her Sally offers a study in psychic depletion from her fretful arrival. Whispering the word “tomorrow” as if she might not make it through today, one finds resonances of her bruised if far more bellicose Martha, whom this protean performer played earlier this year on the West End in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”


Fehinti Balogun, left, and Ben Whishaw in “Against.”

Johan Persson

Ms. Dee’s Phyllis suggests a society matron gone hollow who finds release only once the show shifts gears into the climactic (and surreal) “Loveland” sequence. At that point Vicki Mortimer’s grandly decaying set is transformed into a playfully curtained and airy landscape that allows Ms. Dee to kick up her heels on “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” Phyllis’s bravura reflection on her own divided self.

Mr. Forbes may be the least well known of the principals but his exceptionally well-sung Buddy hints at this two-timing salesman’s unexpected reserves of strength, even as Mr. Quast’s storied vocals remind us once again of the incisive power of an Australian performer too rarely seen these days in Britain. Collapsing in alarm at the wreckage he has made of his life, Mr. Quast’s Ben transmits a sense of self-asphyxiation that, as is the way with “Follies,” leaves an audience catching its breath, as well.

There’s no intermission in “Follies,” which is at it should be (and was back in 1971). But I did notice a few walkouts at “Against,” the intellectually challenging if dramatically piecemeal play from the American writer Christopher Shinn, at the Almeida Theater through Sept. 30.

Running close to three hours, “Against” tells the picaresque tale of a vaguely Jesus-like billionaire by the name of Luke (Ben Whishaw), who roams the United States in search of places marred by violence — no shortage of those, alas — so that he can spread his good word.

But who is Luke, really? It’s hard to say beyond the fact that people talk quite a lot at him and he is unfailingly earnest and polite in return. What results is a sequence of face-offs, each of which feels as if it might make its own play without adding up to much by the end of the questing, shaggy dog story on view.

On the other hand, watching Mr. Whishaw play so essentially reactive a role with the kind of easy charm you don’t learn in drama school, I kept thinking of the passive-seeming Bobby in Mr. Sondheim’s immediate precursor to “Follies,” “Company,” and how good Mr. Whishaw might be in that role. If “Against” is finally too evasive, Mr. Whishaw’s prospects as ever appear limitless.

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