There’s something almost subversive about Stephen Sondheim's "Follies."
The 1971 musical, which has been given a sizzling revival by the Kennedy Center, is held together by only the slenderest threads of a plot, as bare-bones as the scene for the action –- a run-down, empty theater, where an assortment of performers from the venue’s glory days gather for one last reunion before the place is demolished.
Most of that plot gets packed into the second act, throwing off the structure. Several numbers in the show seem almost arbitrarily tossed into the mix, spotlighting characters we don’t really know anything about and who then disappear.
So why the heck does “Follies” work so well, touch so deep?
A big part of the reason, of course, is Sondheim’s score, with its ingenious mix of pure-Sondheim and homage to other songwriters. That mix produces a constant aural rush, heightened by each telling melodic and harmonic twist.
There’s a strange power, too, in James Goldman’s book, which convinces us that we don’t really need a lot of story, a lot of details. All of the characters who stop by to toast bygone days in that dilapidated theater are types firmly embedded in the collective consciousness of every devoted follower of theater and movies.
We know these people, or wish we did. We grew to love show business because of people like them. We want them all to be happy, because they made us happy so many times. We’re fascinated by their pain, their hollow marriages; we’re touched by their perseverance. Even those who get only five minutes or so of stage time in "Follies" reveal a lot, and leave a lot behind.
This new, potentially Broadway-bound staging looks ...
terrific, with a richly atmospheric set by Derek McLane and often sumptuous costume designs by Gregg Barnes (it’s easy to see the money in a production with a reported $7 million price tag).
The vibrant cast, directed with a generally effective touch by Eric Schaeffer, can really dig into the material. Many of the participants seem to convey rich chapters of autobiography just by the way they make their entrances at the start of the show, how they go about taking “one more glimpse of the past.”
“Follies” is, at heart, a ghost story. Spectral, sumptuously dressed chorines wander about, not always to interesting effect (would ghosts have to bend to fit their massive headdresses through tight spaces up on the catwalks, as they do here?). And all of the veteran entertainers sipping champagne in the theater where Dimitri Weismann (David Sabin) started his “Follies” in 1918 can’t help but feel like ghosts of themselves, confronting memories of past triumphs and backstage romances.
The primary focus is on Sally and Phyllis, who were appearing in a 1941 Follies when they were courted by Ben and Buddy. Sally married Buddy, but never stopped carrying a torch for Ben, who married Phyllis and no longer seems to know why.
All four go through what Sondheim describes as “a group nervous breakdown” during what may be the show’s most daring segment -- “Loveland,” an extended fantasy scene where the old magic of the Weismann Follies springs to prismatic life in costume and song. (The money in the Kennedy Center production drips marvelously throughout “Loveland.”)
As Sally, Bernadette Peters is, as always, an arresting presence. Her acting is tellingly nuanced, especially during the most emotionally naked scenes. The Gershwin-esque ballad “Losing My Mind” puts a strain on her light voice, but Peters knows how to milk every line for its lyric power (on opening night, tears in her eyes added to the effectiveness).
Jan Maxwell gives an inspired performance as Phyllis, offering many a rich detail, dramatically and musically. She produces an incendiary peak of intensity in the bitter song hurled at Ben, “Could I Leave You?”
Ron Raines uses his golden baritone to often exquisite effect as Ben. He’s first and foremost a singer; his warm, ripe tone and eloquent phrase-shaping count for a lot. His acting may not go deep, but Raines still reveals the character’s conscience-challenged nature. Danny Burstein’s dynamic, incisive portrayal fleshes out vulnerable, confused Buddy.
In nearly every case, the great vignettes in “Follies” find compelling protagonists. As Carlotta, Elaine Paige gets what is probably the musical’s best-known song, “I’m Still Here,” the ultimate anthem of show-biz longevity.
She has a field day with it, riding the melodic line with an infectious energy and producing loads of vocal shading. The sly way she puts a bluesy spin on her tone for the line about having “sung the blues" is but one example of the interpretive flair. (Paige’s performance earned the longest, heartiest ovation on opening night – talk about a crowd-pleaser.)
Linda Lavin, as Hattie, knocks one nearly as far out of the park with a delectably colorful account of “Broadway Baby.” She’s still quite the dynamo.
Terri White also has energy to spare as Stella, leading the way in the amusing "Who's That Woman?" number. There are effective contributions from Christian Delcroix (Young Buddy), Lora Lee Gayer (Young Sally), Kirsten Scott (Young Phyllis) and Nick Verina (Young Ben).
In the operetta-style “One More Kiss,” seasoned mezzo Rosalind Elias, as Heidi, may encounter some unsteady intonation, but the vocalism has expressive weight and the wistful look on her face speaks volumes. Leah Horowitz sings sweetly as Young Heidi in that number.
Another longtime singer, Régine, is not exactly in peak vocal form as Solange; she pretty much makes a mess of “Ah, Paris,” but there's something oddly endearing about her determination. Susan Watson and Terrence Currier do a nice turn as an elderly, sprightly vaudevillian duo.
James Moore conducts the prismatic score with obvious affection and draws bright, sure playing from the orchestra – the finishing touch on this loving revival of Sondheim’s brilliant contribution to musical theater.
"Follies" runs through June 19 at the Kennedy Center.
PHOTOS (by Joan Marcus) COURTESY OF THE KENNEDY CENTER