Show review by Anthony Brown
Cirencester Operatic Society perform Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”
Sondheim is often compared to Marmite, you either love it or you hate it and as a huge fan of Sweeney Todd I sat in the very warm auditorium and waited with much excitement.
Having been to the Barn Theatre many times before I expected the Operatic Society to undertake this production in the same way as many previous productions but I was immediately struck by the extension to the stage and the unusually small band. The introduction of new blood “Bob Hills” as Director and “Jessie Thompson” as Musical Director have obviously made their mark and the opening of this production does not disappoint.
Not knowing the story of Follies one could spend a long time reading the programme between numbers or you could enjoy the music of Sondheim filling the hall so beautifully. The characters of this work return to a rundown theatre just as the it is about to be bulldozed into a parking lot, we hear the mature actors of today sing the songs of their yesteryear with the actors on stage playing both young and old – the way this was done was excellent.
It can be easy in Amateur Theatre to use the chorus as spare bodies to boost the sound but here was a production where neither was required, every member of the cast had a character with well thought out movement and choreographed dancing. I particularly liked the “Waiting for the Girl Upstairs” number where the four main characters were joined by their four younger counterparts and the harmonies this made was superb. One of the few criticisms I have of this production is using the auditorium as an exit for the actors, unfortunately with a wooden floor and noisy feet it sometimes spoils the start of the next number and you lose the element of surprise as you can hear the next actor arriving.
Both principal ladies deserve special praise “Alison Canning” sang and acted exceptionally well throughout and she tackled the well-known song “Losing My Mind” very well indeed, Elizabeth Gravestock looked stunning and sang her difficult and wordy songs with precision and finesse. Complementing the ladies was “Robert Desmond” and “Paul Skidmore” both skilful actors who helped the audience keep up with the twists and turns of the plot and added lots of humour.
For me it was a show of two halves – the second half didn’t quite feel like it was the same show, maybe it was the plot or maybe it was just Sondheim but the music and the energy of the cast shone through. All told it was a very enjoyable night so hats off to all of the cast, who were accompanied by talented musicians and supported very well by the technical team all of whom were under the leadership of Bob.
Long may Cirencester Operatic Society put on productions such as this and if you missed it you missed out so see them again next time.
FOLLIES. The Barn Theatre, Cirencester. May 23rd
Director: Bob Hills
MD: Jessie Thompson
Choreographers: Beth Cox and Rachel Wright
This was not a show I was familiar with, although as the show progressed I realised I recognised some of the musical numbers. As is often the case with Sondheim this was a very complex show, with difficult music and although the basic story is fairly simple, the way he tells it, interspersing the present day characters with their younger selves, was at times confusing; I think I got there in the end. As you entered the Theatre the open set with dramatic lighting created the atmosphere of the soon-to-be-demolished Theatre of the story.
The opening was effective with the ‘ghosts’ of the showgirls assuming lovely poses during the overture. They were lit in such a way that you knew they were not real; and when they mingled with the guests you knew the guests were unaware of them. The set was simple but well designed, providing a variety of entrances, exits and levels; it had been well dressed with old lamps and distressed furniture. Using the auditorium for many of the entrances and exits helped to keep the pace moving on this small stage and drew the audience more into the show. However I do wish it had been done quietly, as the noisy clumping of shoes, as the cast passed was very distracting and I missed bits of dialogue. The costumes were a major contribution to the show with the glitzy outfits of the showgirls and the glamorous gowns of the former showgirls all trying to outdo each other, providing a stark contrast to the Theatre where they once performed. On the whole makeup was appropriate but I think some of the former showgirls could have been aged a little, as they all looked far too youthful! The sound was mostly good although there were one or two gremlins in the system. The lighting had been designed and operated really well and enhanced the production. A point I would make is that the actors and the moving lights were not always co-ordinated and so the lights were a little late, leaving the actor in darkness until the light caught up. The choreography was interesting and within the ability of the company, I think it stretched some of the cast but they rose to the challenge.
The routine, ‘Who’s That Woman?’ where the ex-showgirls join in was very well executed by everyone, but I wondered if it should have been so polished for the ‘oldies’. Musical Director Jessie Thompson had made a good decision to use a reduced orchestration, as there was a good balance between music and voices. She had obviously worked hard with the cast and instrumentalists to deliver this complex music in a meaningful way. There were some lovely musical moments both from the company and individuals. The diction was excellent throughout, which is essential to any musical, but especially to this with its complex story.
The Principles brought a wealth of emotion to their songs and the harmony singing was strong. The prospect of performing a Sondheim Musical had obviously generated much interest and attracted new members. The show has a large number of principles, with twelve of the characters also having a younger version. Roles had been well cast with some excellent performances. The most challenging roles were those of young Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben, as they required discipline in many aspect of theatrical performance. Director Bob Hills is to be congratulated on making sure his cast used the small stage to the maximum effect, creating interesting pictures and encouraging everyone to develop well rounded, individual characters, who all worked well together. Whether or not your audiences followed and understood the action they certainly enjoyed the music. What an anti-climax the ending is, no fault of the production just the way it is written. I found it a difficult show to take in in one viewing and would like to see it again to fill in the gaps! Congratulations to everyone in producing a most enjoyable Show.