“Never look back,” we’re advised during one of the more ravishingly poignant moments in Follies, the 1971 Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical that forces its legions of fans to do nothing but look back in longing/regret/even folly at lives wrongly or at best half-lived. Was this production better sung than that one? Starrier? Campier? Each Follies exists to stir the pot containing all the ones that came before it, so I will say this about Dominic Cooke’s gorgeous revival, running through Jan. 3 on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage: I have never until now come across so emotionally supple and complete a Follies and can pronounce quite firmly that I doubt I ever will again.
That does not mean that it is necessarily the most alluringly sung. Imelda Staunton doesn’t sound like Barbara Cook (or even Julia McKenzie) and never will, remarkable talent though she obviously is, while Janie Dee’s comparatively restricted vocal register doesn’t particularly matter when her acting and dancing are so exact. Across the board, Cooke, making his musical theatre debut with this of all shows, if one can imagine such a thing, mines the devastating emotional landscape of a musical about wreckage on all fronts – political, architectural, social, sexual. This isn't a concert of Follies, it's the thing itself.
The fact that the “Follies” sign on view as we take in Vicki Mortimer’s mournfully elegant set comes by evening’s end to register the single syllable “LIES” locates in a single masterstroke the governing authority of what may also be the last major Follies that Sondheim, a few years away from 90, will get to experience. In which case, all the more reason to cheer and cheer again a staging that appreciates afresh the singular dramatic architecture of the show and grabs at its pathos and power from the inside out.
Follies as often as not hangs on a parade of women of a certain vintage who are brought before us in one last hurrah, our jubilant response to their footwork added to at every turn by an awareness of who these gals were in real life in their heyday. Not here. And even though I would have loved the frisson that might have been afforded had McKenzie, say, been given one of the specialty numbers (she would do – and in her day has done – a killer “Broadway Baby”), Cooke’s casting isn’t particularly about trading on past associations, however stupendous McKenzie was as Sally Durant Plummer in this musical’s 1987 West End premiere. (She and Dolores Gray as Carlotta were Mike Ockrent's production’s joint standouts.) What the director does instead is turn a show steeped in reflection on roads not taken and dreams deferred into one long and sustained dialogue between past and present, the vaunted “ghosts” of this musical’s governing concept more like shadow selves who are with us every step of the painful, passionate way.
The result, to pick one example out of many, means that “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” here becomes a number specifically about the middle-aged Phyllis Rogers Stone – racy yet cold – and her contrastingly innocent yet questing (and “drab”) 21-year-old self: Dee, a knockout dancer, shares the stage with Zizi Strallen as her younger self, and even when the conjoining of character isn’t quite so evident, Cooke and his cunning choreographer, Bill Deamer, keep the characters’ younger equivalents somewhere within the wide shot. Think of it as Follies in a sort of Proustian Panavision, lives played out in parallel so that the reckoning with the self is never allowed to quit.
Both the central male roles are unusually well taken, which is nice given the number of times that the attention in this show is focused more or less entirely on the leading ladies. I’d never heard of Peter Forbes before, but the Scotsman makes an absolutely ideal Buddy: kind yet weak, well-meaning yet in thrall to a wandering libido that in his “folly” leads to a phantasmagoric trio in which he is joined for the number by two men in drag. Forbes sings with a ready authority as, needless to say, does three-time Olivier Award-winner Philip Quast, on furlough from his native Australia to play a Ben of searing power: a potentate in the bedroom and the boardroom whose overriding impotence leads to the onstage breakdown that is shivery to behold, no matter how many times one has seen this show.
The specialty numbers don’t rely on vaunted figures from a British audience’s collective cultural past, though Dame Josephine Barstow makes of the older Heidi a woundingly admonitory apparition matched in power by the hell-for-leather guttural brio of Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta. Her “I’m Still Here” begins conversationally only to end with Bennett blasting a lifetime of hard-won achievement into a heedless void.
Indeed, and odd as it may seem, I couldn’t help but think while watching Follies at this address of many of the classic plays that have occupied the same auditorium, among them King Lear and its defining question, “Who is it who can tell me who I am?” Is that not precisely the same question that courses through the show-stopping “Who’s That Woman?”, the ensemble number here led by Dawn Hope (an erstwhile British Lady Day, well before Audra McDonald on the West End this past summer). The answer, come the song’s tumultuous finale, is that the woman in question, like it or not, is “me,” in a show that demands that we all peer hard and long at ourselves even as we seek salvation from the ravages of the self in the glittering yet grievous realm of art.