Follies @ the Kennedy Center

Follies is one of those unexplained phenomena that should blow into your life every five years or so. It should drop from the slipstream of some magical zephyr or UFO, settle in one place just long enough to break your heart and rattle the rooftop on its beams, and then quietly blow out again, leaving behind a trail of trampled glitter and a thousand marabou feathers, along with an echo that will ring out slowly, slowly, over the next five years, Just like this... It happened just like this....

If you love Follies, you understand: it's a rare but intense condition. It's grand and glorious and bold and messy and weird, some things about it never work and some work almost too well, and if you love it you love it because of all of these things, because it aims so big and so high and so wide that even when it falls, it's just a different kind of flying. And when it soars—when the ladies vamp and the horns rise and the violins dip and sway—you think, Yes. If it came around too often, I would never go back to real life.

If you're like me, you love it when, as here, some performances shine and others barely register. (Who is this "global celebrity" playing Solange? Did she really invent the discotheque? Would you call what she's doing "singing"?) You love that Bernadette Peters ("petite, sweet-faced, still remarkably like the girl she was thirty years ago") takes the stage like a scrappy little terrier, decked out in a decidedly un-Sallylike bull's-eye red to convince herself she can finally wrestle that dream to the ground (she can't, and her "In Buddy's Eyes" suggests that she already knows it). You love the way Jan Maxwell's Phyllis pushes and pulls at the same time, gliding through life by habit yet clearly lost, and the way Elaine Paige actually lives up to her billing ("The First Lady of British Musical Theatre"!) while still making you believe she's... what? Southern? I couldn't tell, I was just glad she nailed those end notes & nailed 'em hard: bam bam HERE! bam bam HERE! bam bam ... HERE!!!!!!!!!! Glamour Cat indeed.

You love that quality in Linda Lavin's delivery, the one that laces every line with a wink, a punch, and a tear, plus a shot of whiskey to wash it all down with. (Solid gold! says I.) You love how Danny Burstein visibly deflates even as the spotlight lingers at the end of "Buddy's Blues." (Does the name "Buddy Plummer" not tell you all you need to know about the life prospects of this character? "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" says I. See also: Robert "Bobby" Cobb.) You love that Ron Raines can holler "I DON'T LOVE ME!" and make it sound like a regret, as well as an honest surprise.

And oh, how much you love it when Terri White steps to the foot of the stage and shouts, "Hit it, baby!" with just enough brass and gumption to steal the whole damn show and stuff it in her pockets. Maybe if you're like me you'll smile and cry through that number, at all these crazy sad old dames trying so hard to catch and hold on to the beautiful girls they remember, to the little lies that they've told, the chances they've missed and the ghosts that surround them.

Most of all, though, you love the ghosts, those ageless goddesses hovering up in the rafters, clinging to the rails, slipping from darkness to shadow in that eerie half light, a hint of silver here, a glint of sparkle there: conscience, guide, demon, cautionary tale, reminder, ellipsis, exclamation point, pause. Relentless and sure, they drift and stop, start and wait and listen. Just like this, they sigh in the wake of that music. It happened just like this....