The Kennedy Center’s grim and glittery new revival of “Follies” takes an audience halfway to paradise. As itineraries go in the musical theater, that’s no insignificant distance.
Blessed with some crackling performances — especially by a broodingly luminous Jan Maxwell as a leggy ex-showgirl licking her wounds, and by Danny Burstein playing a hapless onetime stage-door Johnny — the luxe treatment of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s landmark ’70s musical of shattered midlife illusions has its share of startling delights. Chief among them: the show’s final 20 minutes, when we ascend with the main characters into an ironic vaudeville dreamscape of assorted neuroses — the most intoxicating articulation of the musical’s “Loveland” sequence that I’ve ever seen.
The evening’s most celebrated player, Sondheim standard-bearer Bernadette Peters, may simply be too inspirationally fit and fabulous (at 63, no less) for the role of Sally, the chorine-cum-drab-Phoenix hausfrau who arrives at a reunion of the Weismann Follies girls in hopes of reclaiming the love of her life. (She actually has a lyric in which she bemoans her girth. Ha!) But Peters does make sense of the psychic breakdown Sally undergoes, culminating in a stunningly emotional rendition of Sally’s “Loveland” torch song, “Losing My Mind.”
The pluses do ultimately outpace the minuses in this production in the center’s Eisenhower Theater, at $7.3 million the most lavish ever created for a theater in Washington, and one that reasserts the Kennedy Center’s claim to being a premier outlet for Sondheim’s work. And yet director Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Warren Carlyle still have some troublesome casting and integrative knots that need to be untied in this magnificent heave of a musical, at once thrillingly adventurous, hypnotically melodic and narratively tortured.
“Follies,” which had its official opening at the center Saturday night, concerns itself essentially with disintegration: In a crumbling theater, a gaggle of aged former stage beauties gathers for the reunion, at which the marriages of the two central couples — Maxwell’s Phyllis and Ron Raines’s Ben, and Peters’s Sally and Burstein’s Buddy — are falling apart. Back in 1971, when the visual virtuosity and conceptual framework of “Follies” set high-water marks for Broadway artistry, the show seemed at least in part a metaphor for a nation enmeshed in a war in Southeast Asia that had exhausted the faith of many in the country’s institutions. The women were displayed less as exemplars of survival than decay. If the characters of “Follies” were not aging gracefully, neither, it appeared, was America.
We take our cynicism so for granted nowadays that the bickering and complaining in “Follies” come across as rather humdrum. “We don’t do things; we say things,” Phyllis whines about the suspended state of animation in which her marriage languishes. The surfeit of such exchanges brings an airlessness to Act 1 that Schaeffer has been unable to overcome; many instances arise when you find yourself willing conductor James Moore to strike up the luscious, 28-piece Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra — and not just because of Sondheim’s achingly introspective score, which easily ranks among the most sublime he’s ever written.
Though Schaeffer’s first act begins promisingly, particularly in the smooth rendition of the wistful memory song, “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” the show trips over some of the musical’s most entertaining detours, the solos apportioned to the former Weismann girls who’ve interrupted retirement to reminisce. At times, it feels as if some performers, knowing too well that Sondheim songs are actor-friendly, overdo the dramatics. This particularly afflicts the British show-tune chanteuse Elaine Paige in a too-heavily-embroidered rendition of the cabaret classic “I’m Still Here.”
The appealing Linda Lavin could afford to take her foot off the gas pedal just a tad in “Broadway Baby,” a number that already has all the nostalgic acceleration it needs. The nightclub legend Regine is accorded a cameo singing “Ah, Paris!” that confers Gallic authority on the character of Solange LaFitte. She just appears to need more rehearsal.
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 www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.