The Tony Award winning “Best Musical” from 1991, “The Will Rogers Follies, A Life in Revue”, has opened the new season at Goodspeed Musicals. This is an uncharacteristically low-key revival for the East Haddam theatre which usually relies on far more boisterous and lavish musicals for its nostalgia-loving audience.
William Penn Adair “Will” Rogers was a huge stage and film actor in the 1920s as well as a vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist and political satirist whose wry commentary on all things Washington, D.C. are still relevant today. “The Will Rogers Follies”, with book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, takes the form of a showbiz story with theatre clichés firmly in place. It concentrates primarily on Rogers’ success as a vaudeville rope act with the Ziegfeld Follies detailing his relationship with his wife and children up until his untimely death in an airplane crash in 1935.
Directed by Don Stephenson, Goodspeed’s revival features the amiable David M. Lutken front and center in the title role. Lutken has recently been seen on Connecticut stages playing Woody Guthrie in the musical revue, “Woody Sez” and one could imagine the actor having a career just playing both Guthrie and Rogers for the rest of his theatre life. He can make witty lines like “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts”, as fresh as a breaking news report on CNN and his singing is both smooth and comforting. “Give a Man Enough Rope” and “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” are two of the better ballads he sings in a score that, otherwise, rarely rises above the mediocre.
Looking at the talent behind “Will Rogers”, it’s surprising how much of the musical’s book is banal and score forgettable. The show begins on a promising note with a snappily choreographed (Kelli Barclay via Tommy Tune) production number (“Let’s Go Flying”), but then slows down to mostly folksy ballads and familiar bromides. It is interesting to note that the musical’s Tony competition in 1991 was “Miss Saigon”, “Once On This Island” and “The Secret Garden”, any of which, it could be argued, were stronger candidates (well, maybe not “The Secret Garden”!).
In the uneven cast, scene-stealing David Garrison gets plenty of mileage (and laughs) in the underwritten role of Rogers’ critical father and is especially good in the second act when he returns from the dead to play new roles he finds demeaning. Brooke Lacy aggressively struts and poses as Ziegfeld’s Favorite and was definitely an audience favorite even if the sexism of the role is a tad out-of-date in the era of #metoo. Although a lovely singer, Catherine Walker is rather bland as Betty, Rogers’ long-suffering wife while the musical’s most thankless and annoying role, that of famed Aviator Wiley Post, is not improved by the casting of Dewey Caddell. A nice addition is the recorded voice of Broadway veteran and Connecticut actor James Naughton booming out Flo Ziegfeld’s off-stage lines with relish.
Given the setting is mostly the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies, Walt Spangler’s spare scenic design and Ilona Somogyi’s nothing-special costuming is a surprise while Michael Clark’s fine projections are often not seen to their best advantage on either the velvet curtain or wall backdrops. “The Will Rogers Follies” is not without its charms (Mr. Lutken is a key asset and the political humor still works), but this is not really Goodspeed at its finest hour.
“The Will Rogers Follies, A Life in Revue” continues at Goodspeed Musicals through June 21. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.