Since its debut 40 years ago, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s wistful musical drama—set at a reunion of showgirls and stage-door johnnies in their now-decrepit, soon to be demolished theater—has often been called problematic for various reasons: its large cast; its initially intermissionless length; the unwieldy balance among its story lines, including a late fantasy sequence that can be a tough sell. As such, it’s relatively rare to see a full-scale revival of Follies; bare-bones concert productions are slightly more common.
In the first act of Gary Griffin’s stellar revival (which does use a momentum-slowing intermission), the romantic regrets of middle-aged former showgirls Phyllis and Sally and their husbands Ben and Buddy feel secondary to the momentary returns to glory of their elders. The latter include some jarringly original takes on now-standard Sondheim numbers, including Marilynn Bogetich’s determined and slightly bitter “Broadway Baby” and Hollis Resnik’s transcendently specific take on most-likely-to-have-succeeded showgirl Carlotta. Resnik turns the oft-showy “I’m Still Here” into an understated, clear-eyed anthem to resilience.
In the second half, however, during the full psychotic breakdown of that imbalanced romantic quadrangle, Griffin’s female leads justify their prominence. Susan Moniz’s Sally, who for 30 years has been nursing a spark for Ben even though she married Buddy, supplies a haunting summation of her trials in “Losing My Mind,” while Caroline O’Connor delivers a pair of showstoppers as Phyllis. Her “Could I Leave You?” is a calculated, pent-up list of grievances to Ben; “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” is an astounding display of dance and vocal skill in the service of the story. (If the work here by choreographer Alex Sanchez and costumer Virgil C. Johnson feels too Fosse-esque to fit with any of the show’s period pastiches, we’ll forgive it.)
Brent Barrett and Robert Petkoff as Ben and Buddy remain elusive, but that seems to be the authors’ shortcoming. Sondheim and Goldman’s work nonetheless achieves its goal: It makes us reconsider what we hold onto from our pasts, and encourages us to release it.