“Bigger than a Buick.”
That’s a line from “My Favorite Year,” the Dougherty-Flaherty-Ahrens musical running through this weekend at Fort Lewis College. It’s repeated more than once and gets a laugh every time. For anyone who remembers 1954 and its Fords, Chevys, and Pontiacs, details matter.
Directed by Theresa Carson, the production delivers an immediate WOW-factor with a big opening number featuring what seems to be a cast of thousands. In the middle of that urban chaos, Benjy Stone (the engaging Gustavo Palma) unfolds the story of his favorite year. He’s an aspiring writer on TV for “King Kaiser’s Cavalcade of Comedy.”
The arrival of an aging film star to fill a guest spot is the hinge that drives the whole musical. Alan Swann (the talented and resourceful Harrison Wendt) bedazzles everyone until he collapses in an alcoholic daze. Benjy’s assignment is to monitor Swann through rehearsals until the live show wraps.
The quirky 1992 Broadway musical is based on a 1982 film starring Peter O’Toole as Swann. It’s character-driven and a natural for college drama and music departments. With a cast of 25, FLC auditions drew students from many different departments. That’s the beauty of a small liberal arts college. Like athletic teams, theater productions bring students together from many realms and create a sense of community and purpose.
Sophomore sociology major Wendt plays Swann with verve and style. He hails from Minnesota and years ago performed with the award-winning Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company. That experience shows as he inhabits an outsize celebrity on the skids. Loosely based on Errol Flynn, Swann undergoes the most change in the musical. Wendt convincingly illuminates both Swann’s surface sheen and soulful regret.
For all of Swann’s star power, the musical is a true ensemble effort.
From the beginning, Benjy sets the tone of a bittersweet memory piece. It’s 1954, his favorite year. The brief spotlighted narrations function as transitions to various characters and subplots.
Benjy and K.C. Downing (played with wry restraint by Hallie Denman) have an awkward office romance. Denman’s clear soprano and comic timing add a winsome quality, especially in a duet with the hilarious Sydney Johnson as Alice Miller, the role inspired by Imogene Coca from Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”
Two senior theater majors make the most of their outsize roles. Luke McCauley’s versatility bellows forth as King Kaiser, an off-stage tyrant and on-stage comedian. Erin E. Natseway emerges as nothing short of latkes with sour cream. She plays Benjy’s Jewish mother. Belle nudges Benjy to invite Swann to dinner in Brooklyn, and the whole family shows up to kibitz and kvetch.
Credit Director Carson for craftily energizing this smart and funny production. Her experience as a fight choreographer injects humor and surprise into the Three Musketeers TV sketch
Choreographer Judy Austin has a pitch-perfect sense for shaping small and big numbers: subtle gestures, flashy line formations, inventive tableaux and the organized chaos that suggests Times Square. Austin’s complex family dance sequence in the Brooklyn apartment unfolds to klezmer music and concludes with Swann being hoisted up on a chair a la a Jewish wedding. Brilliant, funny, memorable.
Music Director John O’Neal conducts and plays drum set in his onstage orchestra with zest. The music underscores a lot of dialogue and directly leads into song. A few moments needed tuning, and sometimes overwhelmed the singers, but overall, the onstage band supported 1954 well.
Costumer Jane Gould has pulled together costumes for ’50s cops, chorus girls, sailors and working stiffs. Singing coffee cups deserve a shout-out and so do Swann’s vests, Benjy’s saddle shoes and Belle’s rhinestone-studded eyeglasses.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.