By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated May 23, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
Joan Marcus

Every composer has a problem show: the one that's beloved by fans, yet tricky to cast, design, and stage without earning the ire of those aforementioned admirers. For Stephen Sondheim — who's provided the music and lyrics for such celebrated musicals as Company, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, and Into the Woods — it's Follies, his flashback-filled nostalgia piece from 1971, a bittersweet vaudeville-style procession of stunning showgirls and revolting truths.

No production could possibly live up to the legend in Follies fanatics' minds. Yet the current (mostly satisfying) revival at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, running through June 19, comes close: It has director Eric Schaeffer — who curated the 2002 Sondheim Celebration in the capital and whose Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., has gained renown for its Sondheim stagings. It has a $7 million-plus budget, a 40-member cast, and a 28-piece orchestra. Most important, it has the gorgeous Bernadette Peters, that marvel of Mother Nature, the original star of Sunday in the Park… and Into the Woods, who last summer made a splash replacing Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music. Unfortunately, it also has pacing problems, and a first act that's nearly wholly devoid of emotion.

A gaggle of former Weismann (read: Ziegfeld) girls belting out their famous solos in rapid succession — often accompanied by the younger, slimmer, far more scantily clad versions of their former selves — has never yielded major drama. However, the show's first act usually produces a show-stopping number or two. Alas, save for Linda Lavin's delightfully droll "Broadway Baby," the character numbers land with a resounding thud: French performer Régine — the inventor of the discothèque (who knew?) — exudes ennui through every gravely line of "Ah, Paris!" And self-described "First Lady of British Musical Theatre" Elaine Paige is simply too glam to pull off Sondheim's gritty paean to showbiz-survival, "I'm Still Here." (She also apparently left her enunciation in England.)

What little plot there is in Follies springs from the decades-old love triangle between ice queen Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), her playboy husband Ben (Ron Raines, a very fine singer who lacks a certain charisma), and Sally (Peters), who's still pining for Ben after all these years. Where does that leave Sally's husband, Buddy (Danny Burstein)? Singing the blues…literally: Burstein — a fine singer but an even better physical comedian — is in slapstick heaven chasing a couple of chorines during "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues," part of the second act's brilliant "Loveland" vaudeville sequence.

Schaeffer's Follies — like most productions of Follies, for that matter — finds its rhythm after the intermission. It's all-singing, all-dancing, and all-feeling: I thought no one could top Donna Murphy's "Could I Leave You?" in the 2007 Encores! staged concert version of Follies, but Maxwell delivers the most blistering rendition I've ever heard. And just wait until she lets loose in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie"; I won't give it all away, but the number involves a flaming-red dress, chorus boys, and a cartwheel. Peters is, as you might expect, flawless; she barely moves during the unrequited-love anthem "Losing My Mind," except, perhaps, to blink away the tears. You may find yourself doing the same. B

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