Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Follies tells the story of an epic reunion party hosted by Dimitri Weismann (Louis Parnell), a sort of stand-in for legendary impresario Flo Ziegfeld. Weismann was the producer of Weismann's Follies, an annual spectacle of showgirls and songs that ran between World War I and World War II. But in 1971, when the show is set, the theatre is scheduled to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. Now he wants to give the showgirls one more chance to see each other–and the decaying Weismann Theatre–before the wrecking crew begins its work.
Follies begins with its feet firmly in the past: a bevy of showgirls (well, five) in gorgeous, sparkling, silvery-white leotards and opulent feathery headdresses and trains converge on the stage as the overture plays. These young women represent some of the characters who will soon appear as their much older selves when Roscoe (Frederic Winthrop), the Follies' emcee sings "Beautiful Girls" as the women enter, one by one, down a staircase at stage left.
The heart of the story–and there's plenty of story, as well–is centered on two couples: Sally Durant Plummer (Natascia Diaz) and her husband Buddy Plummer (Anthony Rollins-Mullens); and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Maureen McVerry) and husband Ben Stone (Chris Vettel). Sally and Phyllis were best friends back in the day, as were Buddy and Ben. Ben has become a wealthy politician and philanthropist, while Buddy is a struggling traveling salesman. Neither of their marriages is what one would call ideal, for fidelity is a foreign concept to both men, and Sally and Phyllis aren't angels, either. But Diaz and McVerry are both terrific in their roles. Diaz's voice is rich and multi-layered, able to give us all manner of color and tone. McVerry, a Bay Area veteran, impresses not only with her voice, but also her acting skills, especially in the act one closer, "Could I Leave You?," her performance of which teases, cajoles and ultimately rages with passion. Rollins-Mullens' voice is so powerful and his phrasing so elegant, I'm shocked he's not a Broadway baby himself.
Adding color and vibrancy to the proceedings are the other showgirls. Solange La Fitte (Jill Slyter) is a coquette who has a very French sense of superiority, which she expresses in the delightful song "Ah, Paris!" Hattie Walker (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), a brassy dame with a voice to match–and a string of five ex-husbands–gets one of the best songs of the show, "Broadway Baby," and Cone delivers it with the energy and joy it deserves. Then there's Carlotta Campion (Cindy Goldfield), the showgirl who made it big in movies and TV, and she gets an even better song, the survivor's anthem "I'm Still Here." Goldfield, one of the Bay Area's greatest talents, does that rare thing: takes a song that's been done by some of Broadway's biggest stars (Carol Burnett, Elaine Page, Elaine Stritch, Christine Baranski, and Betty Buckley) and gives us her own personal take on the tune.
The set, by Bill English (who also directs) and Heather Kenyon, is magnificent: simultaneously grand and dumpy, and situated on a turntable to reveal the action–and there's lots of it–going on backstage. English uses the flexibility of this set to full advantage, keeping the story rocketing forward. The first act, over an hour long, simply flies by. The costumes by Abra Berman are nothing short of perfection. The showgirls get the splashiest togs, but every cast member seems perfectly suited to what Berman has chosen for them–even helping us keep track of the couples through subtle matching of colors, as with Phyllis's brilliant solid yellow gown and husband Ben's yellow-patterned tie and pocket square.
Given the challenges the SF Playhouse teams faced in getting Follies on the boards after multiple COVID breakouts, "I'm Still Here" feels a bit like it ought to be the theme of this production. But it is here, and you should get yourself down to SF Playhouse to revel in this wonder of a show in a top-rank production.
Follies runs through September 10, 2022, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$100. For information and tickets, please visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call the box office at 415-677-9596.