Garrett Stack's Theater Reviews

I use a 5-star rating system: 
*  don’t bother
**  some redeeming qualities
*** pretty good especially if you like who’s on stage 
**** excellent artistically and technically 
***** one of those must see shows (rare rating)

"Will Rogers Follies"

** You know the expression “give a man enough rope and he’ll hang himself.” Fittingly, this applies to musicals: “give a show enough rope…”

The Will Rogers Follies is currently on stage at Goodspeed. This 1991 Broadway musical has quite the pedigree with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a book by Peter Stone, with choreography and direction by Tommy Tune – not to mention the six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Score, Choreography and Direction. Keith Caradine mesmerized audiences with his gentle, unforced, homespun portrayal of Will Rogers. So what happened?

Goodspeed’s production got off to a good start with the first reveal of the chorus girls’ airplane-winged-costumes in Let’s Go Flying followed by the rousing audience grabber Will-O-Mania. Will, played by David Lutken, appears after those numbers and delivers a lengthy monologue that draws on today’s headlines, literally that very day’s headlines. He makes his point about how politics and people never change as he reads newspapers from 2018 and the 1920’s and ‘30s. It was witty and fresh. Plenty of political humor. Thought we were heading into an exciting show that was smart, a little edgy and very entertaining.
Oops. After the first 20 minutes or so, the rope tricks started with Will and the Cowboys singing Give a Man Enough Rope. Entertaining at first but then brought back again and again and again. Way too much rope.

The show fell flat in spite of the beautiful Ziegfeld Follies-inspired costumes by Ilona Somogyi and Rob Denton’s great lighting. The music just sat there and did nothing. All I could do is muster up some polite applause.

The moon number that featured Will’s onstage wife Betty Blake, played by Catherine Walker, struck me as disjointed and lifeless though it had all the trappings of Ziegfeld. The Will Rogers Follies’ setting is one long journey with flashbacks through a Ziegfeld Follies production that ultimately starred Will Rogers in real life. The voice of Florenz Ziegfeld comes from the dark balcony, a-la-Funny Girl, who barks directions to the onstage performers. Perhaps that was the problem. The original production had a cast of 40. It was big. It was the Follies. Confined to Goodspeed’s small stage the illusion of a Ziegfeld production got lost. 
A running thread was the appearance of Wiley Post portending disaster is on the horizon: “Let’s go flying, Will.” He piloted the plane that went down with Will and him.  Like the appearance of the grim reaper, once is enough.

And another thing. Act 2 has one of the most famous and difficult precision hand-slapping, thigh-slapping, hat-tapping, leg-kicking routines ever staged. Thank you, Tommy Tune. It is a show-stopping highlight that’s part of Our Favorite Son. For some reason director Don Stevenson chose to mount this routine with the performers sitting on the front of the stage with their legs hanging over the edge rather than on the full-stage-width stairs that are a permanent part of the set – as was done on Broadway. The issue here is, because of Goodspeed’s un-raked, flat-floor orchestra section, no one in the entire area can see any of the precision work, except the hat-tapping. The best part of the show, lost. Directors take note: when there are actual people sitting in seats, it’s even hard to see dancers’ feet on the Goodspeed stage, let alone feet hanging over the edge of it.

I already mentioned the two good opening numbers. Two hours later at the end of Act 2, after being constantly teased by guitar riffs and melodic strings throughout the show, we finally got the payoff with Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like. Lutken, who understudied and played the role on Broadway, delivered that song, the show’s biggest hit, at the level of interest and quality we had been waiting for. However, it was too little, too late.
That’s how I saw it.

The Will Rogers Follies
Goodspeed Opera House
East Haddam, CT
Performances: Wednesday – Sunday
Through June 21, 2018

 "Come From Away"

*****  I don’t know about you, but I feel we are living through terrible times. It’s us vs. them. Them vs. us. The word we is absent. The word help is stricken. The phrase give a damn is obsolete.

On Broadway an antidote to this poison has come from away. People are sucking up this antidote like precious morsels of food in a famine.

I will start at the end and tell you why this is so. At the end of the brand new Broadway musical called “Come From Away,” the last note was sung, the lights went to black, in two seconds the cast assembled in one line on stage and the lights came back to full. In a massive spontaneous roar, the capacity-plus crowd leapt to its feet and cheered, wept and hollered. What is all this about?

On the surface “Come From Away” is a new musical that tells the story connected to 9/11/2001 when 38 jumbo trans-Atlantic jets heading to the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, Canada. Gander, a town of just 10,000, had 7,000 stranded passengers sitting on the tarmac.

In a spontaneous, unquestioning act of selflessness, the Newfoundlanders took 7,000 tired, hungry, scared people into their towns, their converted schools-turned-shelters, churches and their homes. The 7,000 passengers did not even know why they were forced to land in Gander. It would be five days before the US airspace reopened.  The unfolding story of those five days is what “Come From Away” is about.

Below the surface, this show is the inspiring story of human beings at their best – the ideal demonstration of peace on Earth, good will toward men. The cast of 16 is an ensemble effort with everyone and no one being the “star.” This cast plays myriad characters. At first they’re Canadian residents getting the news at Tim Horton’s that 38 jets are about to touch down, then passengers and crew on the plane. Then local officials like the teacher, the police officer, the mayor, the school bus driver, the air traffic controller, and the veterinarian. And then on to individual characters with their own unique true stories. All this is tied together with music, lyrical narrative and stagecraft that propels the story without letup. 

There are laughs of course, sighs and sadness, but throughout the entire 100-minute, no-intermission show we wept tears of joy for witnessing human behavior at its best. Let me repeat that, human behavior at its best.

Come from away, wherever you are, and don’t miss this true story that explodes on Broadway. Act fast.

"A Bronx Tale" 

**** A Bronx Tale is a new musical, an adaptation of the 1993 film of the same name, with music added by the very capable Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. Worth noting, the film was directed and starred Robert De Niro. De Niro joins Jerry Zaks in directing this stage version. 1950s Bronx streets protected by the Italian-American mob set the scene for conflict between good and bad, crime vs. morality. Racial tensions, choosing to do the right or wrong thing, and looking beneath the surface of somewhat familiar characters fill the plot. With a cast of 30, powerful performances by the leads, something to say, and a score that is very accessible make this a good bet for a night out.

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