The pluses do ultimately outpace the minuses in this production in the center’s Eisenhower Theater, at $7.3 million the most lavish ever created for a theater in Washington, and one that reasserts the Kennedy Center’s claim to being a premier outlet for Sondheim’s work. And yet director Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Warren Carlyle still have some troublesome casting and integrative knots that need to be untied in this magnificent heave of a musical, at once thrillingly adventurous, hypnotically melodic and narratively tortured.
“Follies,” which had its official opening at the center Saturday night, concerns itself essentially with disintegration: In a crumbling theater, a gaggle of aged former stage beauties gathers for the reunion, at which the marriages of the two central couples — Maxwell’s Phyllis and Ron Raines’s Ben, and Peters’s Sally and Burstein’s Buddy — are falling apart. Back in 1971, when the visual virtuosity and conceptual framework of “Follies” set high-water marks for Broadway artistry, the show seemed at least in part a metaphor for a nation enmeshed in a war in Southeast Asia that had exhausted the faith of many in the country’s institutions. The women were displayed less as exemplars of survival than decay. If the characters of “Follies” were not aging gracefully, neither, it appeared, was America.
We take our cynicism so for granted nowadays that the bickering and complaining in “Follies” come across as rather humdrum. “We don’t do things; we say things,” Phyllis whines about the suspended state of animation in which her marriage languishes. The surfeit of such exchanges brings an airlessness to Act 1 that Schaeffer has been unable to overcome; many instances arise when you find yourself willing conductor James Moore to strike up the luscious, 28-piece Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra — and not just because of Sondheim’s achingly introspective score, which easily ranks among the most sublime he’s ever written.
Though Schaeffer’s first act begins promisingly, particularly in the smooth rendition of the wistful memory song, “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” the show trips over some of the musical’s most entertaining detours, the solos apportioned to the former Weismann girls who’ve interrupted retirement to reminisce. At times, it feels as if some performers, knowing too well that Sondheim songs are actor-friendly, overdo the dramatics. This particularly afflicts the British show-tune chanteuse Elaine Paige in a too-heavily-embroidered rendition of the cabaret classic “I’m Still Here.”
The appealing Linda Lavin could afford to take her foot off the gas pedal just a tad in “Broadway Baby,” a number that already has all the nostalgic acceleration it needs. The nightclub legend Regine is accorded a cameo singing “Ah, Paris!” that confers Gallic authority on the character of Solange LaFitte. She just appears to need more rehearsal.