Any production of “Follies,” Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s massive and masterful 1971 musical about former follies girls and their husbands reuniting at their former theater on the night before its destruction, is a cause for celebration and must be seen by Sondheim fanatics.
Back in 2002, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. staged six Sondheim musicals (“Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “A Little Night Music” and “Passion”) for its summertime Sondheim Celebration. A Japanese-language production of “Pacific Overtures” was thrown in too.
But “Follies,” considered by many to be one of the finest and most ambitious musicals ever written, had just been revived on Broadway in a production that was both downsized and critically lambasted. Besides, “Follies” was probably too big to be just part of the Sondheim Celebration.
Now, nine years later, the Kennedy Center has finally returned to the Sondheim repertory to present an eagerly anticipated, lavish and starry revival of “Follies” led by Bernadette Peters, Elaine Page, Jan Maxwell, Linda Lavin, Terri White, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines, alongside many other Broadway veterans. Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Sondheim-friendly Signature Theatre Company in D.C., has staged the production.
As the curtain rises, it is apparent that the derelict theater is haunted by the eternally young ghosts of showgirls, who will now be joined by their older selves. Sally (Peters), who married salesman Buddy (Burstein) and became a depressed housewife, still harbors
long-held feelings for her former beau Ben (Raines), who picked Sally’s sarcastic gal pal Phyllis (Maxwell) as his wife and has since become a rich, emotionally distant diplomat. While the other guests drink, mingle and swap life stories, these four individuals are forced
to confront the lies and regrets on which they have built their adult lives.
Unfortunately, Schaeffer’s staging is workmanlike, lazy and marked by an ugly set design. “Follies” has a tricky book that can feel one-dimensional if not done well. Here, you sense that the lead performers would benefit from a director who could better emphasize the complex character relationships. Schaeffer is also unable to integrate the ghosts with the rest of the cast, leaving just a handful to linger mindlessly above the cast throughout the show.
But with the exception of Regine, who is just pitiful in “Ah, Paris!,” the lead performers are sensational while performing Sondheim's songs. One particularly special moment is “Who’s That Woman?,” in which choreographer Warren Carlyle more or less recreates Michael Bennett’s original choreography of former showgirls performing one of their old songs alongside their former selves. White, who made a strong impression in the recent Broadway revival of “Finian’s Rainbow,” leads the brilliant ensemble number with triumphant energy.
Peters, who recently starred in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” fully captures Sally’s tragic innocence and sweet exterior, and her performance of the torch song “Losing My Mind” is vocally transcendent in spite of a lack of staging. Burstein is perfectly cast as Buddy, bringing the character’s pent up anger to manic heights in “Buddy’s Blues.” Maxwell, who is better known as a dramatic actress, proves that she can handle a demanding musical theater role as well. Page, considered Britain’s most well-known musical theater actress, delivers a fiery and confident rendition of “I’m Still Here” as the actress Carlotta.
Considering the production’s large scale and the disappointing quality of Schaeffer's staging, it is probably not a likely candidate for a Broadway transfer. Moreover, the Kennedy Center’s revival of “Ragtime,” which did move to New York two years ago, quickly flopped.
So to play it safe, all Sondheim fans are urged to take the bus or train to D.C. before it is too late. If just for the sake of hearing Sondheim’s absolutely glorious score with a full-size orchestra, the Kennedy Center’s production should not be missed.
If you go: “Follies” plays at the Kennedy Center through June 5. 2700 F S, NW in Washington, D.C. 1-800-444-1324, kennedy-center.org.