Only a few years ago it would have been almost unthinkable for an amateur company to have tackled Sondheim with all those difficult key changes and shifting time signatures not to mention numbers which are often a unique cross between classical recitative and lyrical rock music. Now, standards are soaring so high that West Wickham Operatic Society’s Follies is the second very creditable non-pro Sondheim show I’ve seen in a month.
And of course – Follies, that famous 1970s reunion of a pre-war group of dancers – is, in many ways, a perfect choice for a company such as WWOS because beyond the four huge, challenging principal roles there are lots of cameos, solo songs by all sorts of people and plenty for everyone to do as well as masses of ensemble work. Rehearsal schedules must have been a nightmare to organise but convenient for the many performers who wouldn’t have been needed to attend as often as some shows and roles would require.
Scenery hired from Scenic Projects created a splendidly louche, passé atmosphere with three blocks each created from metallic filigree and providing balconies to gesture from and steps to sweep down. And there’s a deal of grandiose sweeping in this show as each middle aged character is, famously, represented by a younger on-stage incarnation of her (and in two cases him) self 30 years or more earlier.
Tracy Prizeman as Sally Durant Plummer really plumbs (no pun intended) the depths of her troubled, needy character who thinks she wants something better than her long term marriage. Her account of Losing My Mind in Act two is beautifully sung and underpinned with some poignant acting.
There was an extraordinarily accomplished job from Danielle Dowsett, the show’s co-director and choreographer, who sang the role of Phyllis – a programme change announced at the beginning. She brought elegance and flair as well as being no mean tap dancer and treating us to a lovely rendering of The Story of Lucy and Jessie.
Both lead men – Kevin Gauntlett (who also co-directs) as Buddy and Gary Glaysher as Ben Stone adeptly bring out the complexities of their unhappy characters and both sing well.
Amongst the cameos Josie LaFitte is a spikey, convincing Solange and Emma Brack has tremendous fun with Broadway Baby and brings it off to perfection with a bespectacled twinkle and jerk of the hips.
One of the best things of all in this enjoyable show is the 17-piece orchestra under MD, Anne Greenidge. They are seated upstage and you can see the glinting of trombone slides and the movement of bows through the gaps in the set which adds a quasi magical effect. They make a pretty good job of Sondheim’s complex score too.