Review: Follies / Stephen Sondheim / National Theatre

Sondheim’s 1971 musical about a showgirl reunion in the remains of a theatre scheduled for demolition is a rich and complex story. The NT’s highly-praised production is a corker.

It’s also a show that demands considerable resources. It shines when design and stagecraft are given equal billing with the music. Many well-intentioned semi-staged productions have left me wanting. But the National Theatre’s 2017 production has resource, talent, and skills in abundance, something that guarantees it a place in the show’s history.

Imelda Stanton did what Imelda Staunton does best: agony plain to see, bottled-up bitterness, and crushing self-denial. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Losing My Mind. There were moments when I felt as though she was holding something back, when I wanted her to go full-throttle-bitter-and-twisted. But,

Opposite Staunton’s often skittish Sally Durant was Peter Quast’s silky-voice Benjamin Stone, a haplessly seductive man. Quast deployed a flawless tone in Too Many Mornings reminiscent of George Hearne just with the raspy edges smoothed out a bit.

Tracie Bennett’s depiction of Carlotta Campion in I’m Still Here channelled the queen of drink-addled characterisations Elaine Stricht, but went further to make the character her own, bringing out a hard-edged defiance and making it something to aspire to. Gritty and dark, Bennett sharpened the knife and twisted it slowly, giving the climax more menace than the unbridled sass I’d previously been used to. A delight.

Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer’s remarkable duet One More Kiss was the crowning achievement – a telling contrast of young and old voices which when combined in the final verse made for a magical creation.

A handful of Sondheim newcomers (those whose entry point has been Disney’s Into the Woods) berate the shows for being overly long. And as rich and satisfying a production as this was, there were moments when I felt like I was flagging (in particular during the sequence of follies towards the end).

I suspect that was down to the lack of an interval, meaning the two hour fifteen minute show felt like a bit of a marathon – a tougher-than-normal ask that paradoxically exposed those moments when the plot appears needs tightening.

But what kept things moving the energy in the music, powered by a nimble twenty-piece band whose precision epitomised the painstaking attention to detail every Sondheim fan demands.

This was a remarkable performance. No surprises – that’s what everybody’s been saying. And whilst you’ll probably be scanning for the required negativity in order for the review to appear ‘impartial’, the fact is there is nothing bad to say about it.

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Into the Woods (2015)

Nearly thirty years after Into the Woods premiered on Broadway, Disney’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s seminal work has opened in London this week. Emily Blunt and James Corden star with Meryl Streep leading as the Witch. Film versions of favourite films are always a risk for a fan. Did it hold up?

Er, yes. Of course it did. Thank God. Sweeney Todd on film was good but didn’t hit the target. Into the Woods did.

The cast is incredibly strong. James Corden has found his groove: the cutesy blundering TV persona is a thing of the past in this film. Corden has graduated.

Streep is good all the way through, but shines the brightest in the Witch’s Lament. Both her and director Rob Marshall must have known Sondheim fans would have original Broadway lead Bernadette Peters Witch in mind when they watched the film. Streep doesn’t usurp; she stands shoulder to shoulder.


Similarly, Emily Blunt playing the Baker’s Wife: she’s not trying to better the original Joanna Gleason. Both are owning it. Don’t make me choose between them.

Anna Kendrick plays an assertive Cinderella, while Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood reprises the sardonic delivery of the original Broadway cast’s Danielle Ferland. The line “You talk to birds?” is as funny now as it was when I first saw the show in 1997.

Honourable mentions for Christina Baranski as Cinderella’s Stepmother, and Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch as her step-sisters. Dark, mean and utterly self-absorbed. Fantastic hair.

Lucy Punch, Christina Baranski and Tammy Blanchard.

So that’s what all the fuss is about

A video has been doing the rounds of the opening of the semi-staged performance of Sweeney Todd featuring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. If you’ve not seen it – and even if you’re someone who expects Sondheim to be more ‘hummable’ – its definitely worth a look.

Terfel and Thompson are coming to ENO next year for a short run of the show at the London Coliseum. I’d previously decided on giving their stint a wide-ish berth when I discovered how high the ticket prices were. Sure there were some cheaper tickets at £10 and £25, but they were in the upper circle. Decent views saw tickets priced at £67 and up. I’m happy to fork-out for a fully-staged performance, but not semi-staged. I want more for my money. This view isn’t reflected in actual sales. Near capacity audiences now, even in those £155 seats.

The Lincoln Centre video hints at what all the fuss is about. It’s a playful unexpected opening for sure, but sure it will struggle to come anywhere near close as Chichester’s stunning production of Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball and Immelda Staunton.

Review: Sondheim Inside Out / BBC Concert Orchestra / QEH

 BBC/Chris Christodoulou
BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Two familiar Sondheim stalwarts were joined by two relatively fresh-faces and one recent graduate on the QEH stage for an enchanting mix of some of the composer’s finest songs accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 20 December 2013.

Watching the BBC Concert Orchestra play is to observe a band who clearly love playing the repertoire they have on the music stands in front of them. They’re not there to just ‘play the notes’. They immerse themselves in what’s going on to such an extent that the occasional swaying from one side to another isn’t so much unusual as de rigeur. And if they’re swept away by a particularly good solo performance, none of them hesitate to turn in their chairs and offer their grateful thanks.  Despite the considerable size of the group – 30 strings and a whopping 47 wind, brass and percussion – this was an intimate affair and the gig benefited from that no end.

Sondheim Inside Out_Maria Friedman_CR Chris Christodoulou (1)
Yes Maria. You’re fab. (BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

The near capacity audience helped, of course. Perhaps that should have been no surprise. Despite Sondheim naysayers who reckon the music is impenetrable (fools), a Sondheim programme with a classy billing like Kim Criswell and Maria Friedman (UK musical theatre royalty) is always going to pull in the crowds. And like the 2010 Proms birthday concert, the excitement such a crowd brings to proceedings only helps things along.

Sondheim Inside Out_Stuart Matthew Price_CR Chris Christodoulou
Stuart Matthew Price at the Sondheim Inside Out concert, singing the best song of all – Beautiful Girls. (BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Some comparatively unheard of numbers were included in what could so easily have been a fairly run of the mill programme: Everybody Says Don’t, March to the Treaty House (Pacific Overtures) and More (Dick Tracy).

These combined with a breathtaking performance of Losing My Mind by Maria Freedman (who with conductor Keith Lockhart set up the perfect conceit for the fiendishly difficult but a hugely entertaining performance of Getting Married Today), the devishly handsome Michael Xavier with his irresistible vocal hints of Mandy Pantinkin paired with the infectiously warm welcome of Laura Michelle Kelly’s in Happiness made the event a special mid-Sunday afternoon treat.

Much applause too to the Maida Vale Singers and Stuart Matthew Price who proudly stepped forward for the ultimate MC numbers Beautiful GirlsLovely work.

Laura Michelle Kelly with Turlough Convery. Laura's utterly gorgeous and fantastic. But keep an eye on Turlough. He's going to be something big.
Laura Michelle Kelly with Turlough Convery. Laura’s utterly gorgeous and fantastic. But keep an eye on Turlough. He’s going to be something big. (BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

The real revelation of the concert was recent Guildford School of Acting graduate and winner of the Stephen Sondheim Student Society award Turlough Convery (pictured above). One to watch. An impressively mature performance by someone who belies his age. His performance of Calm (Forum) was a study in concert-performance characterisation. Watch him fly.

Sondheim Inside Out_Maria Friedman 2_CR Chris Christodoulou

Sondheim Inside Out_Kim Criswell 2_CR Chris Christodoulou (1)

Filming underway for Disney’s production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods

An interview in today’s Guardian with actor James Corden about the TV programme he’s currently promoting ahead of its launch on 24 September – The Wrong Mans – has led to an exciting personal discovery: Disney is shooting a live-action film of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant Into the Woods.

Disney’s live-action production of Into the Woods was announced at the D23 Expo back in August.

Back in August at D23 Expo (left), Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production President (that’s got to be an impressive title to rattle off at cocktail parties) Sean Bailey announced the cast for Disney’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Rehearsals were already underway at that stage, with filming at Shepperton studios scheduled for late August/early September.

The cast list is impressive. James Corden is playing the lead role of The Baker opposite Meryl Streep as The Witch, no mean feat given that a great many Sondheimites will no doubt compare the film version with the seminal performance given by Bernadette Peters on stage.

Very good to see Brit-born Tracey Ullman in the role of Jack’s Mother. So too the hapless but lovable princes played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen.


The original cast recording of Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods is available via Spotify