BWW Review: THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES at Goodspeed Opera House
Every once in a while, a person is born who is destined to influence the world in ways yet to be seen. Sometimes these men and women are born into a position of power, such as a king or queen, and other times they do whatever it takes to become great and powerful business or political leaders on the backs of others. But once in a blue moon there comes a man who gains fortune and fame for simply being someone who people connect with, who speaks the truth, and who does his best to make the world a better place than he left it. One such man is the sage from Oologah ,Oklahoma, William Penn Adair Rogers. As time passes, fewer and fewer people are alive who had first-hand experience reading Will Rogers' column, listening to him on the radio, or seeing his films. It is for that reason, that we are lucky a show like THE Will Rogers FOLLIES exists, and even luckier that Goodspeed Musicals chose it for the opening production of its 2018 season. Telling his life story over the course of a Ziegfeld follies extravaganza (another thing that many today have no memory of), this dazzling, colorful, and heartwarming musical takes audiences on a journey from rags to riches with America's "Cowboy Philosopher".
THE Will Rogers FOLLIES sports an amazing musical theatre pedigree - with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a book by Peter Stone - and was inspired by the actual words of Will and Betty Rogers. This production shines in the Goodspeed Opera House space, emphasizing the personal connection between Will Rogers (David Lutken) and the audience. Considering the setting of the play is supposed to be onstage at a production of the larger-than-life Ziegfeld Follies telling Rogers' life story, I was curious how that would play in the smaller space at the Goodspeed, but it works just marvelously. The stage is primarily one large staircase that is used many times throughout the show to great effect, especially during the many numbers featuring the Follies girls in over-the-top costumes (more on that later.)
The real heart of the show, however, is Mr. Lutken's portrayal of Will Rogers. He is honest, gentle, funny, and extremely talented. His folksy voice is absolutely perfect for Will's songs and he even plays harmonica, banjo and guitar (during the extremely moving second act number, "Look Around"). But Mr. Lutken's talents aren't limit to the musical - he spins a rope with ease and pulls off some very impressive tricks during the show. There are many moments throughout the evening that you forget that you are not actually in the presence of the real Will Rogers, Mr. Lutken is that convincing. If that weren't enough, Mr. Lutken brings current events to life with a classic Will Rogers sensibility by reflecting on that days' edition of The New York Times, the same way Will would have 80 years ago. And the bit still works, keeping the audience laughing and smiling at how little has changed with the world since then.
And though THE Will Rogers FOLLIES is, of course, all about Will Rogers, the rest of the cast are equally stellar, including an amazingly talented ensemble. Catherine Walker, as Will's wife Betty Blake, is stalwart, strong and supportive of the showbiz life that she never wanted. Her second act torch song (on top of a piano, naturally) "No Man Left For Me" displays Ms. Walker's powerful voice and she is the dose of reality in Will's crazy world. David Garrison is hilarious as Will's father, Clem, popping up throughout the evening in a variety of interesting roles. And as Ziegfeld's Favorite, Brooke Lacy is a beacon of joy anytime she is onstage. In classic Ziegfeld fashion this is often with fewer and fewer clothes on, but Ms. Lacy sells it and is effervescent anytime she has the spotlight. Rounding out the cast are Dewey Caddell as Wiley Post who pops in every once in a while to remind the audience of Will's fate, and the Rogers children (Ben Stone-Zelman, Riley Briggs, Brendan Reilly Harris, and Nathan Horne) who do a great job whenever they are featured. Finally, Broadway veteran, and Connecticut native, James Naughton, lends his voice to the role of Florenz Ziegfeld who barks orders from his office high in the balcony.
The creative team for THE Will Rogers FOLLIES bring their various skills to make this show a true gem. Director Don Stephenson recreates some of the iconic Follies moments while also delivering classic Will Rogers vignettes similar to his many stage and radio performances. Kelli Barclay's choreography is thrilling and energetic, especially the numerous tap numbers (such as "Will-a-mania") and the rousing and choreographically creative, "Our Favorite Son". As noted earlier, Walt Spangler's simple, yet effective set relies on the central staircase but with some amazing additions when needed (a period perfect moon, for example, for "My Unknown Someone"). Ilona Somogyi's absolutely fabulous costumes are worth the price of admission alone. She captures playfulness in the dance costumes, but her real coup-de-grace are the over-the-top dresses in typical Follies fashion (especially during "Presents for Mrs. Rogers"). Finally, Michael O'Flaherty once again brings the highest quality musical direction to this production. His small, but mighty orchestra (hidden under the stairs) gives brilliant sound to Mr. Coleman's score.
Goodspeed Musicals made an excellent choice opening their 2018 season with THE Will Rogers FOLLIES. This show does it all - it entertains, thrills, touches you emotionally and most importantly, leaves you knowing more about a great American figure (and not to mention puts a huge smile on your face.) The show only runs until June 21, though, so don't miss your chance to see this great piece of theatre at the Goodspeed!
THE Will Rogers FOLLIES runs at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through June 21, 2018. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). For more information, call 860-873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is located at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT.