In a 2003 foreword to Ted Chapin's fantastic book Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich asks this of the love-it-or-hate-it Stephen Sondheim show Follies: ''Is it really a great musical, or merely the greatest of all cult musicals, the most fabulous of self-indulgent failures? Or might it still be unfinished, awaiting the perfect script revision, the radical new staging no one has yet thought of?'' To both queries, I say yes. It is really a great musical...and it might still be unfinished.
The new revival of Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 musical, which takes place at the 30th reunion of a group of ex-showgirls in an about-to-be-razed theater, has gone from good in its summer run at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center to very good in its current incarnation at the Marquis Theatre. It's amazing what little things like the restoration of the ''Rain on the Roof''/''Ah, Paris!''/''Broadway Baby'' medley will do. Not to mention replacing ex-disco queen Regine with the fantastic Mary Beth Peil (The Good Wife) as the French glamazon Solange LaFitte.
This lavish production helmed by Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. highlights only the strengths of the show. They begin with Sondheim's songs, including some of the most lush ballads he's ever composed (''Too Many Mornings,'' ''In Buddy's Eyes'') and the most bitter anthems (''Could I Leave You,'' ''I'm Still Here,'' the latter performed by dynamite British diva Elaine Paige). There are also the extravagant fantasy sequences (Gregg Barnes' ''Loveland'' costumes are pure shimmery, sequined bliss). And there's the interplay between the regret-filled, middle-aged married couples rich but disconnected Phyllis and Ben (Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines), more provincial yet equally despondent Sally and Buddy (Bernadette Peters and Danny Burstein) and their hopeful younger selves (Kirsten Scott and Nick Verina, Lora Lee Gayer and Christian Delcroix). Given the show's many virtues, it's hard to believe that Follies won seven 1972 Tony Awards yet lost Best Musical to the rarely-heard-from-since Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Then again, Tony voters love a warm, fuzzy show preferably with a happy ending and no one could ever call Follies warm. Most of the showgirls are inching their way toward the grave, some faster than others; both husbands and wives are just a little dead inside, some more than others. Ben, for instance, is probably the most emotionally numb. (Raines, regrettably, takes his characterization a little too literally; he sings gorgeously, but projects all the sensitivity of a corpse.) They're serial adulterers, emotional wrecks, and at least one is likely in need of some serious psychotherapy. Yet to the actors' immense credit, they all capitalize on their characters' humanizing moments particularly in their second-act numbers recreating an imagined Follies production.
For years, Burstein had been a reliable, if unremarkable, musical-theater actor. Then in 2006, he put on a pompadour and a thick Spanish accent in The Drowsy Chaperone and emerged as a first-rate comic character actor. In 2008, he put on a grass skirt and a coconut bra in South Pacific. Last year, another pompadour and Spanish accent in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Now, he has landed his best role to date a leading man who gets a scene-stealing vaudeville number (''The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues'') and he milks every moment...as a man in a striped suit, plaid vest, and oversize bowtie rightfully should.
Meanwhile, Peters the star of such Sondheim shows as Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and, recently, A Little Night Music lends an almost frightening acuity to ''Losing My Mind.'' The melody may not be in her wheelhouse, but her rendering is entrancing; truly, there's no better interpreter of Sondheim's oeuvre. And Maxwell effortlessly takes Phyllis from ice-queen to firecracker in ''The Story of Lucy and Jessie''; while her choreography has been streamlined it's now closer to Michael Bennett's original (more hands, less backup-dancer business) it still doesn't show her off as it should. Nor does her costume, which has mysteriously acquired more fabric. No woman especially one with Maxwell's incredible legs would wear a midi-skirt in her song-and-dance fantasy.
I won't bore the uninitiated by comparing, contrasting, and breaking down the content of this revival versus previous productions. But for my part, this is the best Follies I've ever seen. (Full disclosure: I never saw the original, save a few video clips; I'm going on the fine but underwhelming 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse version, the terribly depressing 2001 Roundabout revival, the terrific 2007 Encores! concert, and, of course, the Kennedy Center staging in May.) Is it perfect? Of course not. But I'm not sure any Follies ever could be. The show's beauty, I suspect, lies in its imperfection. A–
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000)