Here’s how “The Will Rogers Follies” ropes you in.
The boisterous bio-musical, with a bouncy score by Cy Coleman and snappy lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green was a Tony-winning Broadway hit in 1991. It first came to Connecticut on tour in 1993 with Broadway star Keith Carradine still playing Rogers.
Goodspeed Opera House is presenting a rare revival of “Will Rogers Follies” starring David Lutken (Carradine’s Broadway understudy) through June 21. Lutken has starred in several productions of the show in recent years.
The sheer scale of the show makes it hard to produce. It’s also hard to master some of the vaudeville routines, especially Rogers’ famous rope tricks.
Will Rogers, the “cowboy philosopher,” was a major vaudeville star of the 19-teens and ’20s who went on to star in dozens of movies, write a syndicated newspaper column, have his own radio show and hobnob with several U.S. presidents. Rogers died in 1935 while flying to Alaska with famed aviator Wiley Post. His name endures, emblazoned on many buildings and streets (especially in Oklahoma, where he was born in 1879) and associated with such charitable organizations as the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation and the Will Rogers Institute.
But his life and work are less well known these days, nearly a century after his greatest stage successes.
How to enliven the Will Rogers story for a new age? That’s where the ropes come in.
“The Will Rogers Follies” eases audiences into the story of Rogers’ Oklahoma upbringing, stage and screen stardom, political influence and tragic death by framing it in the lavish spectacle of Flo Ziegfeld’s Broadway “Follies” revues, which were all the rage from 1907 to 1931 and were considered the pinnacle of vaudeville stardom. Rogers appeared in six separate editions of the Follies between 1916 and 1925.
His special shtick: rope tricks. He twirled a lasso while spewing current-events commentary worthy of today’s comedy news shows such as “The Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight.” Rogers was affable, not mean-spirited. He helped place news events in context.
David Garrison, whose career breakthrough was as another vaudeville superstar — Groucho Marx in “A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine” — plays Clem Rogers, Will’s father.
“It’s not a show that gets done a lot,” Garrison says by phone during a break in rehearsals for “Will Rogers Follies.” “There’s a lot more in it than I expected. Peter Stone, who wrote the book for it, is a master craftsman — he also wrote ‘Titanic.’ He manages to find a way to educate audiences about Will Rogers as well as teach them about vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies.
“… My character, Clem, has a high gloss of vaudeville, which won’t work unless the whole show is very grounded. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but comedy is a serious business. Clem makes a lot of jokes in this show, based on the exasperation that happens with sons and fathers.
“... I did some research on Clem. He’d had six daughters before having Will and wanted him to go into the family business. He never saw him perform, and would send back gifts.
“They were both very stubborn. … Also, Clem had a very dry sense of humor. The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree.”
So “Will Rogers Follies” finds a frolicsome, fun-loving format to tackle some dramatic issues of life, death and family.
“There’s slapstick on top, which makes it funny and identifiable,” Garrison says.
Plus, the actor adds, “at some time or another, everyone does twirl a rope.”
To teach rope-twirling to the cast, the Goodspeed enlisted someone who is a direct descendant of vaudeville traditions. Keith Nelson is the co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, an adorably coarse and provocative New York-based ensemble that has brought such fine arts as juggling, fire-eating and rope tricks into 21st century clubs and theaters. Connecticut saw a lot of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, when the company played such diverse venues as the Tune Inn punk club in New Haven, the Yale Cabaret and the Temporary Autonomous Zone in New London.
The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is still active — they even have a Western-themed show, “Buckaroo Bindlestiff’s Wild West Jamboree,” which features rope and whip tricks — but Nelson and his circus comrades are also in demand as a teacher of vaudeville specialties. “We’ve taught plate-spinning and whipcracking for productions of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’” he says.
Nelson went to Goodspeed rehearsals in hopes of teaching everyone in the cast enough that there could be a big full-cast rope-spinning finale in the show. A handful of the performers, he says, excelled at the tricks and use ropes elsewhere in the show. He didn’t have to train the show’s star at all.
“David Lutken learned from the best rope-spinner of our lifetime, Vince Bruce,” Nelson says. Bruce, who died in 2011, was in the Broadway cast of “Will Rogers Follies” and toured internationally. “He was the best,” Nelson says. “He taught a lot of the greats.”
Nelson considers a rope to be “one of the more difficult variety show props, up there with five-ball juggling.
“It needs a lot of practice. It can get very frustrating. You’re dealing with a prop that stays limp until you’re working with it. It’s bending, shifting, knotting up. Getting the right wrist and finger action is difficult. So is moving your body to spin it right. The body and the floor are constantly getting in the way.”
What does Nelson think of Will Rogers’ rope tricks? “Will Rogers was phenomenal. He made this film, “The Roping Fool,” that shows him in action. He was doing stuff that people can’t work today.
“He was also alive in an era when comics were allowed to have a voice, and weren’t censored. He could be listened to by every politician. He was one of the jesters who was able to make fun of the kings and would be allowed to keep talking.”
THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, A LIFE IN REVIEW plays through June 21 at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Starting May 17, there are also 2 p.m. Thursday matinees. There are no Sunday evening performances after May 13. Tickets are $29 tO $79. 860-873-8668 and goodspeed.org.