Goodspeed’s Will Rogers Follies Entertaining though Flawed

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Will Rogers Follies
David M. Lutken. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Will Rogers is a name that may be unknown to many, but he was one of the first political satirist in American media. A genuine cowboy from Oklahoma, he rose from doing roping tricks in vaudeville to starring in the Ziegfeld Follies and moving to Hollywood for films and a radio show. His folksy demeanor let him get away with skewering all political elements.

The Will Rogers Follies – A Life in Review­­ – now at Goodspeed through Sunday, June 21 gives us his life as if Ziegfeld himself was presenting it.

Though the show won multiple Tony awards including Best Musical in 1991, no one would say this is a perfect or great show. It is blessed with a delightful score by Cy Coleman (music) and Betty Comden & Adolph Green (lyrics).

The book by Peter Stone has some problems and it is incumbent on the director, in this case Don Stephenson, to draw attention away from the weak parts. Unfortunately Stephenson does not really succeed in the first act.

The opening is dynamite; we are at the Ziegfeld Follies and see two big production number, “Let’s Go Flying” and “Will-a-Mania.” These reflect Rogers’ championing of air travel and his enormous popularity. But when Rogers enters, things slow down. We get too much exposition even though there are two more numbers, “Never Met a Man” which is based on Roger’s statement that he never met a man he didn’t like and “Give a Man Enough Rope.”

From there we get more exposition about his birth – which delights his father who already has six girls, his desire to go to Argentina as a cowboy, his return and his meeting of Betty. From there it is on to vaudeville working his way up the ladder until he gets an offer from Ziegfeld. His act is doing some rope tricks and chatting with the audience. He developed the habit – done in this production – of reading the daily newspaper and making satiric comments on many of the political doings.

Betty and he marry, but Ziegfeld, who is a disembodied authoritarian voice (James Naughton) at times during the show postpones the actual wedding because in his Follies, the wedding always ends the act.

Act two continues the arc of Rogers’ increasing popularity. He goes to Hollywood to make films, has a popular radio show, writes a daily newspaper column and appears seemingly everywhere. Betty is not happy about his constant working and absences; but this is hardly a major problem. The show ends with the death of Rogers in 1935 while flying with well-known aviator Wiley Post in Alaska.

What makes this show enjoyable are not always the elements that relate most directly to Rogers’ life: the multiple numbers staged as Ziegfeld Follies numbers, and the constant presence of an attractive female character named “Ziegfeld’s Favorite” who introduces scenes and numbers. What doesn’t work is the running gag about Wiley Post – he pops frequently saying “Let’s go flying” with Rogers responding “Not yet.”

These disparate elements – Will Rogers’ rather normal life despite his fame (no divorces, no substance abuse, apparently no diva personality) with the extravagance of the Follies – are not always a match made in heaven.

Yet, The Will Rogers Follies has so many positive elements that at least in the second act, you can overlook its flaws.

David M. Lutken as Rogers will slowly get into your heart. He gives us the down home style (perhaps you can think of Andy Griffith or Jim Nabors), while singing very well and doing rope tricks. He even plays the guitar. Anyone who doesn’t like him has a stone heart.

Another standout is Brooke Lacy as Ziegfeld’s favorite. She isn’t just a showgirl parading around. Lacy gives her a personality using a smile and a wink. Plus she also sings, dances and does a few rope tricks of her own.

David Garrison also stands out as Clem Rogers and a variety of other characters. Each time, he not only gets our attention but gets a laugh. Although Garrison is an established musical performer, he only gets two numbers – “It’s a Boy” when Rogers in born and a reprise of “Will-a-mania” toward the end. Each scores.

Catherine Walker, another established musical performer, does as much as she can with the role of Roger’s wife, Betty. The character is very stereotypical – loyal wife and mother with little growth or dimension. But with her lovely soprano voice, she is effective in “My Unknown Someone” and “No Man Left for Me.”

Ilona Somogyi must have had a blast creating the many costumes reminiscent of the Follies. They were terrific. Walt Spangler has created a set that can change from the Follies stage to a farmhouse. Jay Hilton’s sound design works very well; in this show the orchestra is hidden under the stage.

Kelli Barclay’s choreography manages to combine the show dancing with more folksy elements, and vaudevillian dancing.

No one would claim that The Will Rogers Follies – a Life in Revue—is one of the great musicals of all times. The Goodspeed production gives us moments of pure delight but at other times fails at masking the show’s essential flaws.

Yet, it is still an enjoyable and tuneful evening with splendid production values and some excellent performances.

For tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06


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