A great Broadway revival can be an immensely compelling experience for obsessives and neophytes alike (see: Anything Goes). But the transfer of the Kennedy Center's production of Follies is less a great Broadway revival than a solid regional one. The score still shines and the key moments are all there, but awkwardly shoehorned into a drape-covered Marquis theater that comes off flat and cheap instead of grand and decayed. The ghosts of showgirls past who haunt the fictional Weismann Theater here seem less ethereal and menacing than bored, directionless and neutered.
To be fair, James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies is not easy. It boasts a seemingly thin plot—unhappily middle-aged Follies showgirls and their men return to a palatial, about-to-be-destroyed, theater to "glamorize the old days, to stumble through a song or two, and to lie about ourselves...a little."—serious Sondheim standards like "I'm Still Here," and "Losing My Mind" and a host of Broadway baggage. For some, nostalgia for this anti-nostalgia show is intense: Forty years after it premiered at the Winter Garden, generations of Broadway babies have ben weaned on tales of Harold Prince's statuesque, ghostly showgirls while listening to the wonderful 1986 concert recording. This new revival, like the 2001 revival before it, offers glimpses of the glories gone by—but only glimpses.
For a show with no real lead, Bernadette Peters is most definitely the star here. And on paper that is as it should be. Coming off her show-saving turn in A Little Night Music, with her wispy voice she seems like a no-brainer to play the sad, misguided housewife Sally. But her performance here feels slightly out of sync with her co-stars. She hits all her marks, but its like she's losing her mind in another show.
The rest of the cast works hard. It might have actually been more interesting to see Peters play the ice-cold, sophisticated Phyllis but Jan Maxwell does a terrific job. Her "Could I Leave You?" is chilling. Rob Raines and Danny Burstein do admirable work as the stage door Johnnies Ben and Buddy and the rest of the showgirls and their fellas are fine. No matter who performs it, "I'm Still Here" is a showstopper and Elaine Page gives it an Elaine Page-spin. Jayne Houdyshell nails "Broadway Baby" and Mary Beth Peil is charming singing of the charms of Paris. And despite lackluster choreography from Warren Carlyle, Terri White makes sure that the mirror-number "Who's That Woman?" still has sad, compelling soul.
It is hard to watch Follies at the Marquis knowing some of the roads they could have taken but that is by no means a reason not to go. Follies remains one of the great Broadway musicals, one that demands to be seen and discussed—not to mention tossed and turned over late at night.