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Theater Review: “Follies” at the Kennedy Center

Crowd-pleasing Sondheim gets an elaborate staging from Signature’s Eric Schaeffer

Bernadette Peters in "Follies" at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Joan Marcus, image courtesy the Kennedy Center.

**** out of four

Washington theatergoers have been trained to value intimate, small-scale productions that focus on voices and lyrical content rather than spectacle. In recent years, no one has been a better salesman of small than Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer. But it’s the very same Schaeffer who brings us this summer’s spectacular, $7-million production of Follies, complete with a cast of Broadway stars and more glitz than we’ve seen in Washington in a long time.

Follies is Stephen Sondheim’s paean to Flo Ziegfeld, the Broadway legend who created elaborate productions in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s the story of a reunion of former follies girls, including Sally and Phyllis, who married their stage-door swains and lived not-so-happily ever after.

Sondheim must love mature women; he writes fantastic songs for them. From “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Company to “Send in the Clowns” in A Little Night Music, he always saves the best lines for the ladies. So it’s not surprising that a show about aging showgirls would have several showstoppers. Broadway veterans Linda Lavin and Jan Maxwell each get one. British import Elaine Page gets one. Terri White gets the knockout number, “Who’s That Woman?” Bernadette Peters has to wait her turn, then shines with the touching “Losing My Mind.”

One guy gets a star turn, too. Danny Burstein (Buddy) has two terrific songs in Act II and he slams both home.

This is Sondheim at his best—with the complicated melodies and clever lyrics that speak to real emotions. No clichés need apply.

Eric Schaeffer gets credit for a fabulous show. Sometimes bigger is better, no matter what they say in Shirlington.

“Follies” is at the at Kennedy Center through June 19. Tickets ($45 to $150) are available at the KenCen’s Web site.

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