The Kennedy Center’s revival of the Sondheim classic Follies has enough brilliance to be worth the top-dollar ticket price it commands (in fact, I spent my cab ride out of the Kennedy Center debating whether I could make it down to DC again before it closed). But probably just enough brilliance, as so much of the production falls terribly short. Though, for me, getting to see my first production of Follies, and to hear that score with a 30-piece orchestra would have been worth the price of admission. There is much to be admired beyond that.
Three of the four leads–Bernadette Peters as Sally, Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, and Danny Burstein as Buddy–are flawless. Ms. Peters, my favorite actress in American theatre, brings to Sally a similar quality as she brings to most of her roles, a heartbreaking vulnerability. Ms. Peters is not renowned for her versatility or chameleon skin. Looking stunning in Gregg Barnes’ curve-hugging costumes, this is a Bernadette we are very familiar with–and oh, she delivers. Ms. Maxwell is a commanding knockout in Phyllis, and Mr. Burstein brings an incredible warmth to Buddy. The fourth principal, Ron Raines, is sadly uninspired and boring as Ben, though not bad enough to drag down the other three.
For the production, I agree largely with Ben Brantley. The first-act plays at the pace of a wake–lifeless and slow, in act act that cause for lightning-fast pace, for one showstopper after another. Playing showgirls of yesteryear, Linda Lavin delivers a solid, if not altogether interesting, “Broadway Baby”. Elaine Paige’s “I’m Still Here” comes across as angry and bitter, and she throws away half the lyrics on very odd deliveries–when it comes to this song, I think we only need one Elaine. Regine’s “Ah, Paris!” is the lowpoint of the show, just painfully, loosen-the-collar, bad–it played like a Waiting for Guffman audition scene that wouldn’t end. Terri White fares the best, leading what was Act I’s only showstopper, “Who’s That Woman.”
Things get mostly better in Act II, especially in the Loveland sequence. Young Ben/Phyllis/Sally/Buddy are delightful, and come to life for the first time in “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”, Jan Maxwell shows showgirl tenaciousness in “The Story of Lucy & Jessie” even when the choreography is less-than-ideal, Danny Burstein is magnificent as the old-time song and dance man in “Buddy’s Blues”, and then there’s “Losing My Mind”. Probably Sondheim’s greatest ballad, I have never seen it performed just right. Every time I watch someone sing it on YouTube (which is more frequent than I should admit), something always rubs me the wrong way. Then, Bernadette Peters, performed it. In front of a backdrop of red roses, in a tight, simple black dress, Ms. Peters stands at the front of the stage and sings the words and notes on the page. She never moves her body, she never inflects her voice, she never “performs” in any noticeable way. It was perfection. As Mr. Sondheim has put everything that needs to be said directly onto the page, doing anything more is overkill. Should it be recorded, Bernadette’s version should go down as the official record of the Act II torch song forever and ever, amen.
However, all-in-all, Eric Schaeffer fails as a director of this piece, which is not entirely unforgivable. I’m having trouble thinking of a harder musical for a director–action on two planes of existence, what should be 10 showstopping numbers, and a cast of 40+. It is not an enviable undertaking. Visually the show largely works, with the exception of Natasha Katz’ terrible lighting design, which ruins more moments than it aids.
With the talk of a transfer, I hope that this production does not move to Broadway. A new director, designers, and a few members of this cast should ideally take a crack at it. Though, on second thought, that seems unlikely, and anything that allows me to hear Bernadette sing that song again is alright by me.