By James V. Ruocco
At New York's Palace Theatre where "The Will Rogers Follies" made its Broadway debut back in 1991, the life and times of this storied entertainer, received the first-class treatment amid glitter, spectacle, razzle-dazzle and fitting theatricality.
Its conceit, the brainchild of Tommy Tune (director/choreographer), Cy Coleman (composer), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyricists) and Peter Stone (book), recalled the bygone era of Florenz Ziegfeld and celebratory vaudeville with a deluxe cast, headed by Keith Carradine, Dee Hoty, Cady Huffman and Dick Latessa. Theatergoers were also privy to the recorded voice of Gregory Peck as Mr. Ziegfeld.
It soared. It flied. It danced. It sung. It dazzled. It cajoled. It was good-time, old-fashioned Broadway musical theater of the very best kind. It happily pushed its adoring audience into candy floss delirium.
Transported to the Goodspeed in East Haddam 27 years later, using the same fantasy-like concept as the original Broadway musical, the effect is similar, but on a much-smaller scale.
Nonetheless, this flavorsome, brand new incarnation works its magic most advantageously using every color of the rainbow, evoking the glitter of a bygone era, its vaudeville, Ziegfeld grandeur, its tart and pungent exposition, its endearing story and star and its quick-witted political and social commentary.
It is fun.
It is inspirational.
It is delightful.
It is exciting.
It is emotional.
It is sentimental.
All of this...and more... is remarkably achieved by the show's exceptional creative team, while still delivering the emblematic story of Will Rogers from his birth to his untimely death at the age of 55. You're hooked and happily intrigued from start to finish. And yes, you'll probably want to see it again like so many others around you.
Staging "The Will Rogers Follies," director Don Stephenson brings this Tony Award-winning musical to life, without missing a single beat. Reimagining and reconfiguring the production to fit the intimate, historic Goodspeed theater and stage, the director loses none of the exuberance, sparkle and passion of the original Broadway production. If anything the Victorian ambiance of the theater and its pleasurable intimacy heightens the show's aura, its storytelling and its flavorful nostalgia.
Pacing, of course, is everything and Stephenson navigates his actors across the stage, from scene to scene and to each other, effortlessly and gracefully with absolutely no missteps. Under his directorial tutelage, no one has a problem with the material, their characters and their progression in the advancement of the story. Together, or individually, they exude the right combination of humor, sentiment and drive. They also make the corniest of jokes and overly played comic situations and shtick plausible, even though they know and we know, the writers are doing this deliberately. And therein, lies the fun.
As musical director and accompanist, Michael O'Flaherty does an incredible job bringing the Coleman, Comden and Green score to life. Backed by the Goodspeed orchestral team, he produces a rich, melodic and vibrant sound that reaches every single member of the audience and blends perfectly with the singing, the duets and the emotionally charged ensemble numbers.
The original musical score, which won a Tony Award for its creators in 1991, is hummable, pleasing and melodic fun. All of the musical numbers fit tightly and passionately into the framework of the story, including "Will-a-Mania," "The Big Time," "The Wedding," "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," "My Unknown Someone" and "No Man Left For Me." O' Flaherty augments their intended meaning, from clever, snappy and Ziegfeld-inspired to sardonic, witty, sexy and buoyant, perfectly.
Choreographer Kelli Barclay does exceptional work with the dances in "The Will Rogers Follies," which, on Broadway and on tour, were created by dance icon Tommy Tune. Taking her cue from the acclaimed choreographer, she pays homage to Tune, but makes the musical's fancy footwork all her own. All of the dances in the Goodspeed production are precise, physical, fluid and magical with tap dancing, lifts, kicks and turns, etc, done impeccably.
Barclay also exhibits a wonderful knowledge of musical hall staging, vaudeville staging and Ziegfeld Follies staging throughout the two-act musical. All three are as decidedly different as the choices she makes from formations and couplings, to line ups, left and right movements and synchronization. Her flair and force is unbeatable. The end result, of course, is ovation worthy and uniformly superb. The perfectly-honed "Will Rogers Follies" ensemble, willingly oblige.
The secret to the show's success lies in the charismatic charm, fluidity and magnetism of the actor cast in the lead role of Will Rogers. At the Goodspeed, David M. Lutken is more than up to the challenge. Stepping in the role made famous by Keith Carradine, Larry Gaitlin and Mac Davis, among others, Lutken is a genuine showman, entertainer and conversationalist.
Looking uncannily like a young Ray Bolger, he is bashful, playful, inspiring and wonderfully comical. He delivers the musical's satiric monologues about life, politics, Presidents, world affairs and all things local, with appropriate dash and agility. As a song-and-dance man, he readily adapts to the show's "Follies" format, his famous rope tricks, his ongoing celebrity status with audiences and the musical's juxtaposition in time concept, the latter, revealed through dates and dialogue, ranging from 2018 and traveling back in time to 1879, the year Will Rogers was born.
What stands out and elevates his performance to absolute brilliance is the spontaneity of it all. Yes, things are rehearsed, practiced and timed. But Lutken is such a natural, much like the character he portrays, there are times when you completely forget you're sitting in a theater watching a musical, performed in real time. Well done, Mr. Lutken.
In the role of Ziegfeld's Favorite, the show's glamorous, leggy and sultry emcee, Brooke Lacy makes you completely forget about the likes of Cady Huffman and Marla Maples who played the same part in the original Broadway production. Whereas her predecessors had "fun" just playing the role, Lacy, in turn, inhabits it, owns it and runs with it. Big difference!
Her engaging spirit and infectious personality keep what could have become a "second banana" role or something just one-dimensional in context, completely inspired, focused and thrilling. Elsewhere, her singing and dancing is unbeatable and true to both the Ziegfeld, vaudeville and musical hall traditions of yesteryear. We eagerly await her every entrance.
As Betty Blake, the wife of Will Rogers who loves her husband dearly, but wishes he would spend more time at home and less performing for sold-out audiences around the world, Catherine Walker is appealing, refreshing and vulnerable, which is exactly what the part calls for. Better yet, she and Lutken are well-matched, both as a couple and as performers. And vocally, she has the leading-lady ability to communicate and live within the world of song, naturally, powerfully and lovingly.
Musical theater is all about entertainment, dash, wit and musicality. At the Goodspeed, "The Will Rogers Follies" succeeds swimmingly. It is fresh, exciting and exhilarating. The feel-good energy displayed by the entire cast is absolutely contagious. The songs and dances unfold with just the right mix of dazzle, affection and verve. The comic plot, which purposely takes liberties with time, place, aging, happy endings and Ziegfeld showstoppers, revels in its unabashed silliness. And the jokes and jibes about newspaper headlines, both past and present, mixed with brilliantly-timed barbs about President Donald Trump is hilariously toxic, regardless of one's political beliefs.
In conclusion, the show, the first of three productions ("Oliver!" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" are waiting in the wings) to be staged at the Goodspeed this season, is the perfect show to jump start the 2018 musical series. It is fresh and strong enough to keep you thoroughly entertained from start to finish. And yes, it is absolutely not to be missed.
"The Will Rogers Follies" is being staged at The Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through June 21.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.