Follies Comes to the Kennedy Center

Believe it. “Follies” is no folly. It’s a big deal.

It’s a big deal for the Kennedy Center, where a ground-up, full-blown revival of the groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musical is now on stage at the Opera House through June 19. It is the culmination of four years of planning, effort and work.

It’s a big deal for director Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director of the Signature Theater, who is practically a Stephen Sondheim godson when it comes to all things music and staging of the reigning monarch and legend of the American musical.

It’s a big deal because “Follies” was a big deal for Sondheim; he took a giant step forward in his creative control for this show, not only writing the lyrics, but composing the music. The net result was a string of musicals that have made Sondheim a giant and innovator of the American musical theater.

It’s a big deal because the content-and-concept laden “Follies,” first staged by Harold Prince in 1971, was a uniquely Sondheim kind of musical, with its story of members of a former Zigfield-type follies reuniting on the eve of a theater demolition, past theater glory, and what happens to divas and stars when the spotlights shut down. It is a musical driven as much by the characters as the music. The original featured song and dance man Gene Nelson, movie star Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins. The musical received seven Tony Awards, including Sondheim’s first for best original score.

Ron Raines stars as Benjamin Stone, and longtime Washington favorites Terrence Currier and Frederick Strother grace the stage in this production.

It’s also a big deal for Lora Lee Gayer who plays Young Sally and Christian Delcroix who plays Young Buddy.

Everybody’s heard and read about the ladies of “Follies,” mainly Bernadette Peters, Janis Paige and Jan Maxwell.

You may not have heard of Gayer and Delcroix, but they’re also critical elements of the show, a connection to the past for the main characters, alter egos that drift in and out of the show, sometimes sharing the stage with them.

For Delcroix, the process was probably filled with less angst than facing Gayer. “Danny and I had already worked together in ‘South Pacific’ at the Lincoln Center, so we knew each other, had been on the stage together before,” said Delcroix, who grew up in Pittsburgh and lives in New York. “So we could talk about the parts, who they were, what a young Buddy might be like. We had a pretty good rapport right off the bat. That’s an advantage.”

Delcroix acknowledged that playing the small part of the professor at Lincoln Center in the original cast of the smash hit revival (a touring company played the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this winter), was a big break. “That was a wonderful experience and chance for me. Now I’m in this terrific musical by Stephen Sondheim. You can’t get much luckier than that.”

For Gayer, who plays young Sally, the challenge was a little different. “Bernadette Peters is a legend. She’s one of the biggest stars in Broadway history. So yes, I didn’t know what to expect initially,” she said. “I was a little intimidated, sure. But she is really wonderful to work with. She’d make suggestions about the character, about what she might have been like. She is the expert when it comes to Sondheim”

Gayer graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a BFA in Musical Theater. “I did Rapunzel in ‘Into the Woods,’ so that helped in dealing with Sondheim’s music, which is very difficult and challenging to sing,” she said. Gayer has played Roxie in “Chicago” and Mrs. Gottlieb in Sara Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cellphone.”

For the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser and Schaeffer, “Follies” marks a return to the works of Sondheim, by whom they’ve done very well. “Follies” was one of the few missing entries in the hugely successful Sondheim festival several summers ago, which included “Sweeney Todd,” “Company” and “A Little Night Music.”

Schaeffer put himself and the Virginia-based Signature Theater on the map with a smash production of “Sweeney Todd” years ago, and he and the theater never looked back, gaining a national and international reputation as interpreters of the Sondheim songbook and playbook, while forging a permanent presence with productions of edgy, sharp, contemporary musicals, including the works of Kander and Ebb as well as new shows like “Glory Days.”

“Follies” not only features legends in the flesh as characters, but in some ways it’s a bittersweet tribute to the musical stage. The irony is—as is sometimes the case with Sondheim—the original production had a relatively modest run of 522 productions. But this show, with songs like “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” and “Too Many Mornings,” acquired—as is often the case with Sondheim—a sure footed afterlife with concerts and successful revivals, including a 1985 Lincoln Center Concert version, a 1987 West End production, a 2001 Broadway revival, another West End revival and a New York City Center Concert in 2007. The Lincoln Center concert starred Barbara Cook as Sally, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, and Lee Remick, and also included Carol Burnett, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Liliane Montevecchi, Elaine Stritch and Phyllis Newman—one of those wish-you-could-have-been-there casts.

“Follies” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through June 19.

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