Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters

It’s been nearly three decades since Bernadette Peters sang blithely, on Broadway in Sunday in the Park With George, about how fun it would be to be a Follies girl. Now she finally is one, a showstopper in Jungle Red and the unmistakable star of Follies from the instant of her first entrance.

Which isn’t quite right, as it happens, for the character of Sally Durant Plummer, disaffected Phoenix housewife and long-retired showgirl. In Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s splendid sprawl of a musical, she’s returned to New York on the eve of a rotting show palace’s demolition for a reunion of old castmates at which she expects to see a now-famous old flame—and steal him away from her erstwhile best friend. This being a meditation on decay and disappointment from the composer of Passion and the writer of The Lion in Winter—and Sally being the lady who’ll eventually sing “Losing My Mind”—it will come as no surprise that for her, being a (fading) Follies girl is significantly less fun than you might imagine.

So no, Sally probably shouldn’t be quite the player that Peters’ put-together initial presentation suggests. But that’s an easy fix: Make that hot-dammit dress one degree less dynamite, a touch more discount-rack than designer, and you’re most of the way there. Besides, there are bigger traps in Follies than falling too hard for your star, and the emotional satisfactions of the luxurious $7.3 million production at the Kennedy Center suggest that director Eric Schaeffer has avoided most of them.

Not all, though: The show’s small village of a cast makes populating the ranks of former Broadway babies a tricky proposition, and for every Linda Lavin (game and engaging as the earthy Hattie) and Elaine Page (iron-lunged and Mae West-like as indestructible movie star Carlotta Champion, who’s now and forever Still Here), Schaeffer has recruited a Régine, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. The nightclub legend, who’s purported to have invented the discotheque in 1950s France, struggled with both the lyrics and the melody of “Ah, Paris” on press night. Happily, a cult icon of another stripe—Rosalind Elias, the 82-year-old mezzo-soprano who created one of American opera’s broodiest tragic heroines in Samuel Barber’s suffocatingly Gothic Vanessa—delivers with tremendous grace later in the evening as an ancient Viennese singer who once consorted with Lehar. (Or was it a Strauss?)

Schaeffer has always had an eye for imagery, and the spacious oddity that is Follies gives him plenty of opportunity for picture-making. The showgirl ghosts who famously haunt that crumbling theater drift constantly through the assembled partygoers, languid Erté chorines in some remembered halflight heyday. After intermission, when the story swoons into the Technicolor hallucinations of what’s called the Loveland sequence, the Eisenhower stage is suddenly a rose-colored sea of beads and bangles and tulle. The Act 1 tap extravaganza “Who’s That Woman” puts a bevy of aging hoofers (led by Terri White’s amiably majestic Stella Deems) through muscle-memory paces until their younger selves dance out of the cobwebbed wings to join them, building to a bit of kick-line razzle-dazzle that had the opening-night audience roaring.

Luscious as the design and the playing are, they’re not a patch on the riches of the leading performances. Peters emerges from behind the façade of that dress in due time, shading her essential vulnerability with a desperate, dangerous blend of pure need and poisonous delusion; when Sally sings about how happy she is, knowing she’s always beautiful “In Buddy’s Eyes,” you get the awful sense she’s protesting a little much. Danny Burstein, appealingly schlubby as the alienated, unfaithful husband who’s the subject of that tune, fires his own number on the subject (“The Right Girl”) with a crackling energy that’s part rage, part self-loathing, only to flip that mix on its head in the brittle yocka-yocka vaudeville of “Buddy’s Blues.”

Speaking of brittle, Jan Maxwell’s Phyllis isn’t. She’s steel in silk, this long-suffering, perfect-hostess wife of a diplomat-turned-tycoon who’s been sick of her for years, and when she’s had enough pretending, she delivers Sondheim’s wrathfully witty “Could I Leave You?” like it’s a street beating. And then, almost but never quite, she breaks—and watching her spackle furiously over the cracks in that magnificent façade is likely to be the most wrenching, complicated 15 seconds you’ll ever see on the musical stage. Bernadette Peters may be the name star, and God knows she’s a singular talent, but people cheered their faces off for Maxwell at the curtain call. They were right to do it.