Big caveat: I am a Follies virgin as far as a staged production goes--listened for years, read my share, etc., but suffice it to say this is going to include a lot of half baked speculation of what Follies "should" be. Fair warning and all.
Its not a huge mystery why this show is problematic. The central story of Ben and Phyllis and Buddy and Sally--the now-tortured couples who met thirty years ago while the women were chorines in the last days of the fictional "Weisman Follies"--requires the highest caliber acting if it is to be believed amidst the book's flimsy framework. And then there is the massive score that demands its army of supporting players deliver the pastiche songs with such a range of particular shadings that the probability one production will get them all right approaches zero. And, perhaps most troublesome, the production numbers can't just coast along on empty dazzle, how they are presented and their effectiveness are integral to the success of the show.
The current Kennedy Center production, directed by Signature Theatre's Eric Schaeffer, does well on point 1, not so good on point 2, and quite strongly on point 3. And when it is firing on all of these cylinders--as it might more frequently in a less fallible world--it is truly a thing of terrible beauty.
Even by Sondheim standards, the four principals in Follies each has a daunting acting challenge. Among these, Sally, the 49-year-old living out a 19-year-old's fantasy world, is surely the heaviest lift, and Bernadette Peters follows her down the emotional rabbit-hole fearlessly. This is the Sally the book really asks for--damaged goods from the start and often an unlikable wreck, even as she breaks your heart. On the whole, this is a very successful interpretation, set back only by the fact that BP looks more spectacular than any downtrodden housewife has a right to. Also, the Act I numbers, particularly "Too Many Mornings", are clearly a bitch to sing, but they may lie in an especially unfriendly portion of BP's voice and she has not quite figured out how to navigate them successfully.
The slightly weak link among the principals is Ron Raines' Benjamin Stone. Raines brings a fine, strong voice to the part that makes Ben's numbers a lot more attractive than when done by an older voice (i.e. John McMartin on the OBC). But its also difficult to take his travails seriously--rather than a man thoroughly broken by the evening's end, this Ben doesn't seem to fully believe the claims to agony coming out of his own mouth.
Jan Maxwell's Phyllis and Danny Burstein's Buddy are recommended without reservation. Her "Could I Leave You" and his "God-Why-Don't-I-Love-You-Blues" (hon. mention to "The Right Girl") are probably the finest instances of the Sondheimian art on view in this production, each delivered with a blistering, spot-on intelligence.
On the second point: Can I make a somewhat glib blanket statement about the problems with the supporting cast? Older actresses may not be old enough to make Follies work properly anymore. The haunting magic of the show is rooted in a central conceit that is just a little bit grotesque: elderly people inhabited by the ghosts of their former selves to the point where they, and the audience, can't quite tell where the person ends and the ghost begins. The idea is that as we age we must learn to cope with our accumulated spectral pasts--the protagonists of Follies are pointedly middle-aged to explore the problems of succumbing too early to those ghosts against the backdrop of the older performers who may be in closer communion with them. But the dramatic effect of this contrast doesn't really take off when everyone onstage resides in that robust, perpetual middle-age which we now take for granted.
For instance, Linda Lavin sings"Broadway Baby" here as though she has no plans of quitting show business any time soon. Lavin sounds and looks great (in a classy purple cocktail outfit), and gives a stirring performance of the song, but that's just the trouble. "Broadway Baby" isn't a feel good showstopper to demonstrate the actress has "still got it"--set properly in the context of the show it should have clear pangs of discomfort, where the key lyric "Maybe someday/All my dreams will be repaid" is poignant and dark (though the degree to which the character delivering it is in on the irony may be ambiguous).
Unfortunately, this is largely the MO for all of the Act I character numbers, not least of all a very unconvincing "I'm Still Here" sung by Elaine Page. Schaeffer stages them as cute crowd-pleasers and the audience is duly pleased, but the thread of loss, wistfulness, delusion, and gritty determination that should run through these sequences and define the mood of the show is rarely found.
That leaves the final leg of the Follies three-legged stool: the production numbers. And on this count the Kennedy Center production does very well. "Mirror, Mirror" is an early success. A largely faithful recreation of Michael Bennet's original choreography (so I gather), the interplay between the ghost dancers and the aging stars is complex and fluid, producing the unnerving effect of the boundaries between past and present being crossed.
The main event--the Loveland sequence in which the leads' intractable emotional mess is transfigured into a half hour musical theatre extravaganza--is an acid delight from beginning to end, a winning spectacle that rivets your attention with its blend of bravado and emotional nakedness. The one weak link may be Peters' "Losing My Mind". She offers a devastating, emotionally fraught performance in line with the characterization she has marked out, but it feels out of step with the fantasy of "Loveland", where the characters are supposed to be burrowed into characters within themselves until Ben's epiphany breaks the spell. "Losing My Mind" should be Sally as wounded chanteuse, not Sally as wounded housewife.
Update: Just in case it's not clear, that IS a recommendation to go see the show. If it isn't quite the elusive unicorn Follies one dreams of, it is nonetheless a very serious, rewarding attempt to grapple with the show and one that invests the level of resources necessary to present a legitimate full-fledged production. Not to be missed if you love Sondheim and can manage (it closes June 19th)...