Nine years after impressing the theater world with its six-production festival of musicals by Stephen Sondheim, the Kennedy Center is back with the exclamation point — the colossal 1971 Sondheim-James Goldman tuner “Follies.” The lavish and entirely satisfying production includes a full orchestra, eye-popping designs and a 40-person cast headed by Bernadette Peters.
Eric Schaeffer, the a.d. of Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater who helmed the 2002 festival, returns to direct this melancholy turn about two loveless couples attending a reunion of entertainers at a theater where they once performed. Schaeffer does so in methodical fashion, building progressively to a crescendo exactly as Sondheim does with so many of his stirring melodies. Several show-stopping routines are provided by choreographer Warren Carlyle.
This $7.3 million revival, five years in the making, is endowed with a virtual embarrassment of riches, beginning with the cast. Along with Peters as the terminally remorseful Sally Durant Plummer, other principals are Jan Maxwell as the cynical and experienced Phyllis, Ron Raines as Phyllis’ self-satisfied husband Benjamin and Danny Burstein as Sally’s suffering hubby, Buddy. The show’s second tier of returning hoofers offers a real-life reunion of showbiz titans that includes Linda Lavin, Elaine Page, Rosaline Elias, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Florence Lacey, Regine and Terri White.
But first, the designs. Audiences arrive to find the entire Eisenhower Theater draped in dreary wall coverings as a prelude to Derek McLane’s imaginative sets that depict a tired theater primed for the wrecking ball. There’s a not-so-grand staircase for elaborate entrances, multiple levels of catwalks (some moveable) upon which ghostly Ziegfeld-like showgirls ceaselessly glide, and — whoa, Nelly! — a beyond-festive staging of act two’s glitzy “Loveland” show. Gregg Barnes’ costumes range from tasteful evening wear to envelope-pushing extravagance.
Considering the hefty talent assembled, one might fear an occasional overpowering of material. But except for the delightfully unbridled White, who portrays former dancer Stella Deems with irrepressible exuberance, performances are under tight control.
Peters is every inch the conflicted and naive housewife who still pines for playboy Ben, clinging to the fantasy that he’ll leave Phyllis for her. In her two big numbers, “In Buddy’s Eyes” and the torch song “Losing My Mind,” Peters exudes complete sincerity as she simply follows the music. There are also inviting glimpses of her trademark spunk. Peters looks terrific in a simple scarlet dress that contrasts beautifully with the muted tones of the disheveled surroundings.
Maxwell’s Phyllis plays the ultimate “cougar,” in today’s parlance. Elegant and self-assured, she is a gushing fountain of acerbic commentary. Her finest moment is the carefree Loveland number “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” danced to perfection with a handful of male partners. Burstein and Raines are equally dependable in their respective roles as frustrated husbands coping with unhappy marriages. Both excel in their numerous musical assignments, especially Burstein’s “Buddy’s Blues” with full orchestra powering beneath it.
Members of the supporting cast take full advantage of their limited moments under the spotlight. Paige throws a feisty earthiness into act one’s electric “I’m Still Here,” while Lavin also builds “Broadway Baby” to a rousing conclusion. Consider the 81-year-old Parisian nightclub doyenne Regine comically typecast as the aging dancer, Solange LaFitte. Her worldly number, “Ah Paris,” is hardly a stretch. Mezzo soprano Elias as Heidi savors the number “One More Kiss” with her young counterpart, Leah Horowitz.
And led by White, the gals are unstoppable in their delightful ensemble piece “Who’s That Woman,” which combines soft shoe, a dollop of tap and even a leggy chorus line. It’s a rousing testament to longevity as the oldsters are joined by their young counterparts.
Considering this “Follies” revival’s magical combination of ingredients, and the rarity of such a powerhouse production, Broadway-related discussions are certain to focus more on when than if. That’s just fine with Kennedy Center execs, even though the production’s been proudly mounted with D.C. audiences in mind.