It’s not the air-conditioning causing goose bumps at the Eisenhower Theater. Instead, chills of pleasure are induced by director Eric Schaeffer’s deluxe, star-packed production of Follies, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s milestone 1971 musical about spectacle and specters from a distant past—a past that may not have been entirely real.
A reported $7.5 million has been lavished on this musical about illusion and middle-aged disillusionment and while the subject matter may be somewhat somber, there is nothing even remotely subdued about the show’s visual and aural aspects. Among them, the spot-on 28-piece Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by James Moore, that brings exhilarating precision to Mr. Sondheim’s sublime score and Jonathan Tunick’s supple orchestrations. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are over-the-top Ziegfeldian and Derek McLane rings the entire Eisenhower Theater in funereal draping that echoes the crumbling interior of a once-grand theater realized onstage.
Follies also features dazzling performances. Bernadette Peters, dewy and trim at 63, may physically be a stretch as Sally, the dishwater-drab Phoenix housewife attending a reunion of the Weismann Follies girls in New York to see the old place before it is turned into a parking lot. The guests at the reunion include not only former chorines and stars from revues past–who make their entrances with that distinctive, majestic showgirl walk in the song “Beautiful Girls”—but also the ghosts of their younger selves, who wander the catwalks and backstage area like restless ghosts. Many other critics have said that the presence of the phantom showgirls slows the show down, especially the first act, but to me having them haunt the theater and wordlessly observe the old and young selves move from glamour and endless possibilities to shattered illusions and narrowing choices heightens the musical’s elegiac atmosphere.
Sally also pins her hopes—as well as her sanity and flagging marriage to Buddy (Danny Burstein)—on acting on her long-held torch for Ben Stone (Ron Raines, a leading-man smoothy), a one-time stage-door Johnny who jilted her for fellow show girl Phyllis (Jan Maxwell). But Miss Peters brings such an aching, persistent sadness to the role and a sense of an unfinished woman who will never be complete that you fall for Sally, deluded as she may be. Miss Peters’ vocals are rich and assured, starting with the vulnerability of “In Buddy’s Eyes” and the soaring duet “Too Many Mornings” and reaching an emotional crescendo in the second act’s “Losing My Mind”—a song that contains possibly that most heart-breaking line in history: “You said you loved me./Or were you just being kind?”
As Sally’s sophisticated foil, Miss Maxwell is lethally chic in Halston-style gowns with haute couture bitterness to match. Yet, Miss Maxwell shows that Phyllis’ beautiful, brittle shell has been carefully constructed out of old wounds and slights, most of them inflicted by her husband Ben, a successful businessman and emotional vampire who drains bed partners, spouses and friends to temporarily slake the emptiness inside. Miss Maxwell raises the bar on the showstopper “Could I Leave You” by fusing unleashed fury and affection as she unloads years of toxicity on her husband and also gives a knockout rendition of the delectable tongue-twister “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” You’re not even dissuaded by the fact male chorus dancers leap almost desperately into the air to detract from Miss Maxwell’s limited gifts in the dancing department.
Mr. Burstein is a triple threat—stylish dancer, expressive singer and emotive actor—as Buddy, a lifetime second-banana to Ben who expresses his frustration in convincing and complex ways, especially in the numbers “The Right Girl” and the blistering “Buddy’s Blues.”
The sheer starpower of these performances almost disguises some of the more trite elements of the book and the realization that the marriage troubles of Ben and Phyllis or Sally and Buddy are not terribly compelling. Just when you start to reflect on this matter, another glittering number appears and you forget all about it for awhile.
The first act focuses on the reunion, as the old girls trot out their old tricks with varying levels of dazzle. Regine, playing the French chanteuse Solange LaFitte, muddled the words to “Ah, Paris!” and seemed under-rehearsed. Linda Lavin milks “Broadway Baby” for all its worth and then some, to the point where you wonder why she ever considered the song such a hard sell. As Carlotta, the movie and TV star, Elaine Paige seems oddly contemporary, lending a lackadaisical, conversational patter to the brassy anthem “I’m Still Here.”
Terry White lends infectious energy to the bone-shaking vocals to “Who’s That Woman?” and this enviable vitality may be a testament to “60 is the new 30,” but much of the poignancy of the song is lost when you can barely tell the difference between the senior hoofers and their younger selves. High marks, however, go to the actors portraying the blasts from the past, from the Amazonian show girls and particularly to Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott, Christian Delcroix and Nick Verina as younger versions of Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben who intriguingly mirror the mannerisms and spirit of the older performers.
In the second act, any misgivings about this production of Follies vanish during the brilliant Loveland section, a fantasy sequence set in a flower-bedecked archway that resembles a floral tribute to the Looney Tunes logo and where the main characters convey their mental angst through traditional song-and-dance numbers.
The performers reach such extraordinary levels in Loveland that you wish the whole show possessed this crackling, full-throttle power. The baggy-pants buffoonery in “Buddy’s Blues” takes on acrid dimensionality as Mr. Burstein mock-cavorts with the Young Sally (Jenifer Foote) and his young mistress Margie (Kiira Schmidt) in a music hall setting. The youthful versions of Phyllis, Ben, Sally and Buddy deliver a garish Valentine in “You’re Going to Love Tomorrow” and Mr. Raines brings depth to the dissipating bubbliness of “Live, Laugh, Love.”
Is Mr. Schaeffer’s Follies swoon-worthy from start to finish—perhaps not. But given the challenges of the material, this may not be possible. Yet, the Kennedy Center’s production does capture the ability of memory to make you feel at once exultant and rueful—and like memories, you just don’t want to let go.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Goldman
Music Direction by James Moore
Choreography by Warren Carlyle
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Erich Schwartzel . Pittsburgh Post-GazetteGary Tischler . GeorgetownerBrad Hathaway . Mount Vernon GazetteJonathan Padget . MetroWeeklyTrey Graham . Washington City Paper
Missy Frederick . DCistTim Smith . Baltimore SunSusan Davidson . CurtainupBrian Scott Lipton . TheatermaniaBen Brantley . New York TimesPeter Marks . Washington Post