London — The face of musical theater is changing. And, what is surely no surprise by now, it is the British who are leading the way. Speaking awhile back about the recent shift of the world's musical capital from New York to London, stage choreographer Gillian Lynne (``Cats,'' ``Starlight Express'') put forward the view that there's a generation of artists in Britain today who have grown up under the same stage influences and share remarkably similar ideas about the direction they think musicals should take; they are, in a sense, acting as creative catalysts for one another. Miss Lynne was referring to such people as composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, director Trevor Nunn, lyricist Tim Rice, designers John Napier and David Hersey, and perhaps most important of all, mold-breaking producer Cameron Mackintosh.
Indeed, it is the 40-year-old Mackintosh who, six years ago, was virtually the only person to believe in Lloyd Webber and the concept of ``Cats'' enough to sacrifice his shirt (plus a modest portion of his mother's savings) to get the show off the ground. ``Cats'' went on to be the biggest box office success since ``Les Mis'erables'' hit the scene two years ago - another Mackintosh long shot that initially no London theater would touch. By the end of this year, ``Les Miz'' will be playing in 11 countries and is set to overtake ``Cats'' as the top stage money spinner of all time.
Even so, when Mackintosh approached New Yorker Stephen Sondheim about mounting the composer/ly-ricist's ``Follies'' in London, a work that was, 16 years ago, cut short on Broadway without even coming near to reclaiming its money, eyebrows were raised. Was this one gamble too many for the derring-do producer?
Apparently not. ``Follies'' just opened at the West End's Shaftsbury Theater and seems likely to become the No. 1 hit of the year here.
``Follies'' is a consummate blend of Broadway pizazz and British panache. Extensively reworked, storywise, from what was originally seen in New York, including the addition of four new songs, ``Follies'' is about a reunion of Broadway chorus girls at their old theater 30 years later, shortly before the nostalgic stage is to be torn down.
But ``Follies'' is not simply a thinly disguised excuse to re-create the lush numbers of yesteryear, `a la Flo Ziegfeld and Busby Berkeley. There is, in fact, surprisingly little of that. This is much more a tale of the follies of youth - not to mention middle age - than a showcase for high-kicking chorines.
Centered around two couples - Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben - ``Follies'' traces their early years, when Buddy and Ben were stage door Johnnies waiting for their two long-legged glamour girls to finish their curtain calls. In the show, intelligently directed by Mike Ockrent (``Me and My Girl''), the couples' younger selves intermingle on stage with the people they have now become. Chorus girls in full feather gracefully flit among the scaffolding, ethereal visions of the past silently watching the future unfold before them.
Julia McKenzie as Sally is, quite simply, dynamite. A well-known face to British audiences, this talented person acts, sings, and dances her heart out. When, for example, we learn of her unrequited love for smoothy Ben and the brief secret romance they once had, and, upon seeing him again, she sings the love song ``Losing My Mind,'' it's a poignant delivery that's hard to forget.
A surprising move in casting is Diana Rigg in the role of Phyllis. Miss Rigg, who plays the cool New York socialite married, not very happily, to stockbroker Ben, sings and dances with admirable ease.
Then there's American stage star Dolores Gray, who has been brought over to belt out the big show-stopper, ``I'm Still Here.'' And, let me tell you, stop the show it does.
Daniel Massey and American actor David Healy play Ben and Buddy, respectively. Though a bit weak in the singing department, they are wholly competent in their roles generally. In any case, this is ladies' night.
And Stephen Sondheim's. While the dialogue between the numbers (by American writer James Goldman) is only so-so, Sondheim's lyrics literally make the show. These are songs about love, longing, and the harsh realities of living, with no punches pulled. They may not be very hummable - that's not Sondheim's style - but their words are the epitome of directness and simplicity.
Producer Mackintosh said recently that he believed ``Follies'' didn't succeed 16 years ago because the show was ahead of its time. If the current response of London audiences is anything to go by, surely now its time has come.