The Will Rogers Follies, a life in revue, by Peter Stone, Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Music by Cy Coleman. Directed by Don Stephenson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
David M. Lutken (Will Rogers) with Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Mallory Davis, Sarah Fagan and Kelly Sheehan; photo: Diane Sobolewski
"something. . .to look at"
David M. Lutken and David Garrison; photo: Diane Sobolewski
Way back in 1991 at the Palace Theatre in New York City, "The Will Rogers Follies" opened with a replacement star, Keith Carradine, and became a hit; it went on to win the Tony Award for best musical and five others as well (with competition like "Shogun," "Nick and Nora," and "Miss Saigon" there wasn't much choice to make). Carradine replaced John Denver who walked out after being insulted by the author and I thought then, and think now, that he took the opportunity to remove himself from what perceived as a major embarrassment. I never understood why this show received so much praise and in the new production at Goodspeed Musicals I am still confused about this show's implied importance.
I always hope that a new look at something will give me a new perspective, but in this case it hasn't really worked. There is much joy in the mudville of an Oklahoma cowhand becoming America's first stand-up comic. There is an almost epic delight in the ensemble musical numbers which change our view of musicals into one celebrated nearly a century ago by Florenz Ziegfeld, the off-stage hero of the piece. There is so much talent on the stage in Connecticut that you leave the building with their images and their voices still singing through your brain. But there's just no show in the show.
From the first moment of the play you know the ending. It's a tragic ending, but not to the show, only to the show's main topic, Will Rogers. It's something you cannot get away from for it crops up over and over again, a book device that, frankly, should have been excised from this revival. Not that Dewey Cadell's performance as Wiley Post isn't a good one, it just is a constant downer.
Similarly the extremely talented David Garrison as Clem Rogers, Will's father, is a delight not to be missed - ever, in anything - but his appearances always trigger the negative in the show, a disapproving parent, a man who will not understand that he has given life to a talent unlike any other. For his son, Will - beautifully portrayed by David M. Lutken, a Keith Carradine clone in appearance - his father is a challenge that cannot be met with force and so their relationship, while central to the plot, becomes increasingly frustrating.
In the role of Ziegfeld's Favorite Brooke Lacy is a captivating, glamorous showgirl presence who adds a lot to the overall feeling of this revival. Her exit kicks threaten to become tiresome in their repetition, but she foregoes them eventually and certainly a very viewable talent who sings and dances a lot better than any "favorite" of the historic producer was ever known to be.
The four kids who play Rogers' children were terrific: Ben Stone-Zelman, Riley Briggs, Brendan Reilly Harris, Nathan Horne. James Naughton's voice appears at regular intervals as Ziegfeld himself talking from his office at the rear of the New Amsterdam Theatre (or heaven, perhaps) and is nicely accented into a Melvin Douglas-like tone. The evocation of his historic Living Tableau was fun to see as well.
Much of the credit for the fun of this show goes to the costume designer, Ilona Somogyi, who has brought us the looks of an era long gone and done it with style, wit and fervor. Rob Denton's lighting works wonderfully throughout keeping things real and alive even when dealing with the dead. Walt Spangler's set is very reminiscent of the original, works well, but adds little to the show in terms of any sort of reenvisioning. In many ways it holds to the Goodspeed tradition of reproducing rather than reinventing.
Kelli Barclay's choreography is spirited and true to period with lots of tap-dancing and chorus-line kicks and an almost too stage-bound version of Busby Berkeley combinations. Don Stephenson's direction of the play was sometimes a bit lackluster but kept the show moving along as it need to do.
David M. Lutken (Will Rogers) and Catherine Walker (Betty Rogers); photo: Diane Sobolewski
The show is most alive in the scenes between Will and his ladylove, Betty Blake, played beautifully by Catherine Walker. She has the most amazing smile and she uses it perfectly as Will changes her moods, her mind, her attitude. She and David M. Lutken seem an ideal stage couple as his off-hand style of line delivery and her controlled emotional speeches meet in conversation, rather than dialogue, and their relationship grows accordingly. As his girlfriend she is important to him, but as his wife and mother of his children, she takes on a special significance reflected more in their scenes than in her songs.
The plot songs are weak in this show, certainly not the best of Comden and Green. She sings a blues, "No Man Left For Me," in act two, presented as a theatrical example (Helen Morgan on the piano) and though she sings it beautifully, it has very little impact. This is not because of the performance but simply that there is no there there. She does much better near the end of Act One with "My Big Mistake," but once again it is a temporary response and never makes much of an impression. The actress deserves better material, but this is what the authors have given her and she does everything possible with the material.
While Lutken does a nice impression of Will Rogers there was something so soft and easy about the man (see him in the first version of "State Fair" for example), so very natural in his delivery that it is hard to make a man like that seem as important as he must be in this musical about him. The subtitle of the show explains it all: a life in revue. We are not really reviewing his life and his impact, we are seeing him in light comic vignettes surrounded by production numbers and that is what constitutes a "revue" in the Ziegfeld Follies sense. Lutken is excellent with a lasso, he sings a lot like Denver/Carradine, he smiles with unforced charm and presents the Carradine long and lanky look, rather than the Rogers short and stocky one. He is the show. He is very good at it, too. I just wish there was a show for him to perform rather than just vignettes with very little to take home and sing along with a day later.
The Will Rogers Follies plays at Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT through June 21. For information and tickets call the box office at 860-873-8668 or go on line at www.goodspeed.org.