May 26, 2011 at 3:17 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Rickety reunion

Bernadette Peters in ‘Follies.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy Kennedy Center)

Through June 19
The Kennedy Center

The applause begins early at the Kennedy Center’s lavish production of “Follies.”

It breaks out when the orchestra strikes up Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeous overture, and continues (loud and long) as well-known cast members like Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige and Linda Lavin make their entrances. There’s another burst when one by one these ladies and others playfully strike stagey poses harking back to their middle-aged characters’ long ago careers as showgirls.

Eventually the clapping sufficiently quiets for Sondheim and writer James Goldman’s 1971 musical to unfold.

On the eve of the demolition of his once grand Broadway theater, aging impresario Dmitri Weismann (local actor David Sabin) has gathered a party of former Weismann (think Ziegfeld) girls and their husbands beneath crumbly, gilt proscenium for one final reunion.

Two of the couples — Sally (Bernadette Peters) and Buddy (Danny Burstein), and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) and Ben (Ron Raines) – share a history beyond the old shows. Way back when, promising young Ben fooled around with Sally while engaged to Phyllis. Sally was in love with Ben then and remains so 30 years later. She unrealistically hopes the Follies reunion will serve to rekindle their passion and bring them together. For both couples, the evening plays out awkwardly to say the least.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party is taking a less (emotionally) messy trip down memory lane with some of the former Weismann girls performing their old numbers. As a has-been French songstress, Régine valiantly croaks “Ah, Paris!” Next up, a very energetic Linda Lavin delivers “Broadway Baby” in her own sort of offbeat, jazzy style. (Recall the theme song for Lavin’s hit TV show “Alice”? She sang that too).

In the well-received “Who’s That Woman?” Terri White, who is gay, leads some of the ladies (including a very agile Bernadette Peters) in a rousing tap routine. And finally former showgirl-turned-TV star Carlotta (Elaine Paige) directs “I’m Still Here” to a passel of beyond-charmed cater waiters sapping that visceral anthem of some of its punch.

Throughout the show, young actors playing the couples’ pre-jaded, circa 1941 selves weave in and out of the action. Also, tall lithesome showgirls from the theater’s glory days roam the stage in fabulous costumes designed by Gregg Barnes; and while these ghosts don’t create an especially haunting effect, their gravity-defying bodies certainly make a statement on the passage of time.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, the first act is a little uneven, but the second act is nearly perfect. Things really get going with the powerful “Could I Leave You?” in which Maxwell’s fabulously icy Phyllis finally goes off on her rich and wayward husband. Then it’s Schaeffer’s flawlessly staged “Loveland” sequence – a revealing glimpse inside the two couples’ heads (Sondheim is big on psychoanalysis) via a number of the very entertaining, vaudeville-style numbers including Burstein’s caustically comic “Buddy’s Blues,” and Peters’ heartrendingly sung ballad, “I’m Losing my mind.”

Looking great in a tight red slip dress, Peters doesn’t appear the depressed Arizona housewife that Sally has become, but nonetheless she convincingly portrays her character’s sadness and loss of judgment. Burstein is equally good as Sally’s devoted husband who used to wait eagerly for her to meet him at the stage door, and all these years later he’s still stuck on her.

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