At the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., a rare production of FOLLIES is drawing a New York crowd. Lovers of this Sondheim/Goldman musical can not pass up such a grand opportunity. Eric Schaeffer directed and Warren Carlyle choreographed as good a production as I have ever seen and this was production number four for me. FOLLIES is the kind of show that continues to fascinate, but rarely satisfies everyone on every level––too much can go wrong, or if not go wrong exactly––too much can fail to live up to one’s expectations. The big four this time were pretty darn good with Bernadette Peters heading the troupe as Sally, Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, Danny Bernstein as Buddy and Ron Raines as Ben.
The physical production gave us a properly singed and crumbling empty theatre setting––a shroud lifting to reveal the ghosts of the theater at the top of the show. Set Designer Derek McLane added a mylar curtain for “Who’s that Woman” and a beautiful textured archway of flowers for the “Loveland” sequence. This was all fairly simple, but add to that Gregg Barnes’ fantastic period “Ziegfeld” inspired costumes for the ghosts––absolutely stunning and as haunting as a faded photograph from “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919.”
Just in case the reader has no idea what this show is about, the concept is a reunion of the “Weisman Follies” cast members––all fifty plus years old––on the evening before the old theater that housed the annual revue is to be torn down to be replaced by a parking lot. The guests all reminisce about the old days and perform numbers that they used to do––albeit with lyrics that say a lot more about their true lives. The two main couples recount their history and we find out that two of them married the wrong person. Their lives are falling a part and the reunion brings up a lot of unfinished business. The show switches back and forth between honoring a faded type of show business that flourished between World War I. and World War II. and the trials and tribulations of the main two couples.
Most of the fun is had from the performances of the many elderly ladies who step forward to entertain again. There is always a double layer to this aspect of the show when people like Linda Lavin, Florence Lacey, Terri White, Susan Watson and Elaine Paige are involved. There is the nostalgia of the actual star performing for us layered on top of their character’s story. With unknown actresses, these roles would lose several degrees of potency. Terri White stopped the show with “Who’s that Woman” in an exciting tap dance staging involving the young ghost version of each lady dancing in reflection and White’s big booming voice filling the Edision Theatre. Elaine Paige as Carlotta got plenty of mileage out of “I’m Still Here” and her high belt is still pretty spectacular. Linda Lavin was cute with “Broadway Baby” and still knows how to sell a number. Opera star Rosalind Elias gave a moving rendition of “One More Kiss,” which in a way, is the theme song for the show. Singing in counterpoint, Leah Horowitz helped make the number truly beautiful with her delicate and clean soprano. The only big disappointment of the evening was Régine as Solange. She might actually be French, but her rendition of “Ah, Paris!” was a bore. Where was Leslie Caron? Sadly, no one applauded for the entrance of Susan Watson as Emily Whitman. But then, she’s been out of the scene since the days of No, No, Nannette and she was the original Kim in Bye, Bye Birdie. Her duet with Terrence Currier, “Rain on the Roof,” was very sweet.
As for the big four: Peters seems at home with Sondheim and delivered a very moving “Losing My Mind.” I have not been a fan of hers based on her past three Broadway outings, but here her particular quirks and bag of tricks did well for the character. Jan Maxwell turns out to be a surprisingly good singer and survived the rigorous choreography in her “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” number, keeping up with a group of well trained chorus boys. Her performance of “Could I Leave You” was a ferocious show stopper. Danny Bernstein was as perfect a Buddy as I have seen and summoned up a little Bert Lahr in his rambunctious delivery of “Buddy’s Blues.” Ron Raines retains his expert musicality and strong baritone, serving the material best with “The Road You Didn’t Take” and “Too Many Mornings” in the first act.
This Kennedy Center production is quite an event, with the full orchestration sounding better than ever as directed by James Moore. Yes there are mutterings about it moving to Broadway, but don’t get excited until you see the marquee go up, because it is a big endeavor. Also, save for the sets and costumes, it is likely that a somewhat new group of ladies will have to be assembled at the point when a production could actually open in New York. For now, a half day bus or train trip to Washington D.C. will bring you a healthy dose of Broadway magic.