Don’t confuse “The Will Rogers Follies: a life in revue” with “Cabaret” or “Follies,” much less with “The Ziegfeld Follies.” Goodspeed Musicals’ production is friendly and good-natured but sexless and annoying. The show about the beloved comedian / commentator, whose heyday was the 1920s and 30s, is an empty vessel.
Unlike those first two shows, “Will Rogers” makes only a paltry attempt to dovetail musical scenes with snippets of the headliner’s biography. Instead of commenting on, or even illustrating Rogers’ life, this smart-aleck, self-loving show has musical numbers that exist in a vacuum.
Will Rogers was a Jon Stewart of his day, telling truth to power. He starts his act in “Follies” by reading the New York Times of whatever day the performance takes place. When he then reads a paper of 90 years ago, the parallels are unmistakable. Nothing much changes, except names of the falling and fallen.
A grade school dropout from Oklahoma, Rogers honed his talents for pithy remarks, many political, many still relevant. “I am not a member of any organized political party,” he said. “I’m a Democrat.” Or “Why sleep at home when you can sleep in Congress?” Or “If you ever injected truth into politics, you’d have no politics.” Or “No man is great who thinks he is.”
Punctuating his stand-ups with rope tricks, Rogers was folksy with an edge. When his soon-to-be bride labels him a “shiftless, uneducated, rope-throwing, no account, Cherokee and show business cowboy,” we get indications of a fuller personality, but we don’t get an “edge.”
What we do get are bits. Calling on the stunt pilot Wiley Post throughout the evening (“Let’s go flyin’, Will”), foreshadows the famous crash that killed both men. Rogers was 55.
There’s the hoary business of his wife’s pleading with the Ziegfeld star to stay home more often with her and their four children. There’s the re-appearance of Will’s late dad in various guises (labeling Ziegfeld as too cheap to hire more actors). There’s the running gag that Florenz Ziegfeld’s first name makes him sound female.
Luckily, Rogers is portrayed by David M. Lutken, so good in Westport Playhouse’s “Woody Sez.” He’s equally charming here as a hayseed with heart and intelligence. Roping in the audience with well-planted “ad-libs,” he’s an ingratiating sort.
He’d have to be to cut through Peter Stone’s book. Cy Coleman’s music and Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s lyrics, especially “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” and “Will-a-Mania” are catching.
Don Stephenson’s direction is efficient. Kelli Barclay’s choreography is amusing, although it’s a mistake to position the intricate “Our Favorite Son” on the stage lip instead of on one of the risers where it could be fully seen.
Catherine Walker seems uncomfortable as Will’s wife (there’s not much to chew on), while David Garrison cheerfully milks his roles as Will’s Pa and others. Brooke Lacy has a toothy smile as the irritating showgirl dubbed “Ziegfeld’s Favorite” and none other than James Naughton is the gruff (recorded) voice of Ziegfeld himself.
The skimpy ensemble does its best to suggest Ziegfeld’s spectacles as do Walt Spangler’s scenic design, Rob Denon’s lighting and Ilona Somogyi’s costumes. A word of praise for Michael Clark’s projection design and, as usual, for Michael O’Flaherty’s spot-on musical direction.
The original 1991 production won the Tony for Best Musical. At least it included a dog act.