“Why the heck does Follies work so well?” asked Tim Smith in The Baltimore Sun. This 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical, which is getting a lavish revival at Washington’s Kennedy Center, “is held together by only the slenderest threads of a plot”: A group of former musical performers reunite and reminisce at a grand old theater that’s about to be razed. As an inert first half gives way to a technically challenging second, some Sondheim songs “seem almost arbitrarily tossed into the mix.” But oh, what songs they are. It helps, of course, that key numbers are sung by Elaine Paige, Linda Lavin, and the always-arresting Bernadette Peters. Such stars “convey rich chapters of autobiography just by the way they make their entrances.”
A few of the show’s big numbers take the audience “halfway to paradise,” said Peter Marks in The Washington Post. Strikingly draped in red, Peters may be “too fit and fabulous” for the role of Sally, a showgirl turned housewife who is hoping to reunite with an old flame. Yet as her character’s breakdown “culminates in a stunningly emotional rendition” of the torch song “Losing My Mind,” she makes every line compelling. A “broodingly luminous” Jan Maxwell, meanwhile, is exquisite as the showgirl who married Sally’s crush decades earlier. Yet even with all its star power, this production still has some “troublesome” narrative knots that need to be untangled.
In fact, “it wasn’t until the second act that I fell in love all over again with Follies,” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. This section is the hardest to get right: It’s a fantasy sequence in which the two unhappily married central couples “more or less lose their sanity in a series of production numbers that suggest earnest collaborations between Florenz Ziegfeld and Sigmund Freud.” Oddly, it is in this world of make-believe “that every single person became real to me.” As one poignant Sondheim showstopper gives way to the next, you realize why Follies is “one of the greatest musicals ever written.”