An audience, rightly, cushions each of these veterans in affectionate swoons, and as the number here most deserving of that embrace, “Who’s That Woman?” does indeed receive the biggest hand. Built around Terri White’s brassy Stella Deems, the number is danced by several of the ex-showgirls alongside the costumed ghosts of their former selves, who otherwise float on and off the stage throughout the night.
Carlyle choreographs the song for White, Peters, Maxwell and the other women as a vigorous tribute to older womanhood — a sign, no doubt, of our empowering times. I recall it having a far more mournful context in the original production, staged by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett. You sensed in the pairing of younger and older selves the profound ravages of time.
Attending the reunion has opposite effects on the show’s leading characters: It acts as a kind of truth serum on Phyllis, whose songs are bitter and confrontational, while it serves as a hallucinogen for Sally, who becomes enveloped in the delusion that her old lover Ben will leave Phyllis for her. For Sally’s condition to seem credible, there needs to be some spark between Sally and Ben, and unfortunately, ignition never takes place. The vocally impressive Raines is a bit too stolid and earthbound as Ben; you don’t quite believe, when he sings the softly plaintive “The Road You Didn’t Take,” that he ever really questions the one he took.
Burstein, on the other hand, offers an understatedly precise portrait of Buddy, a performance that grows as the evening unfolds. Buddy’s frustrated longing for Sally has never been expressed quite so beguilingly; his pain is laid persuasively bare in Burstein’s galvanizing turn in “Buddy’s Blues,” the garish “Loveland” comedy number he performs with the sterling Kiira Schmidt and Jenifer Foote.
Maxwell, too, is working at an elite level. Model-svelte in an exquisitely draped gown by costume designer Gregg Barnes, her sputtering Phyllis delivers a marvelously anguished version of the toxic “Could I Leave You?” Later, she infuses “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” her steamy “Loveland” dance number, with a sultry physicality.
The actors playing the central couples’ younger selves — Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott, Nick Verina and Christian Delcroix — carry off sprightly the pair of witty duets embedded in the “Loveland” quartet, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.” And working in aesthetic concert with set designer Derek McLane, Barnes executes his vision of rhinestone heaven in the outfits for the titular “Loveland,” the manque Ziegfeld Follies-style number that launches the evening’s exciting final movement.
Schaeffer staged “Follies” at his own theater, Signature in Arlington, with far less success in the early 2000s. He’s come a long way with this new production, a testament to the extraordinary challenges and rewards the musical presents. And while this may not be the “Follies” of a Sondheim-ophile’s dreams, it will hold you for 21
2 of your more invigorated waking hours.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Warren Carlyle; sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Kai Harada; music direction, James Moore. With Michael Hayes, David Sabin, Susan Watson, Terrence Currier, Florence Lacey, Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through June 19 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit
or call 202-467-4600.