REVIEW: “The Will Rogers Follies” at The Goodspeed Opera House

REVIEW: “The Will Rogers Follies” at The Goodspeed Opera House

Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal is fond of reminding New York audiences that there is good theatre happening everywhere across the country. 

Taking his cue, I recently ventured to East Haddam, Connecticut where The Goodspeed Opera House presents “The Will Rogers Follies: A Life In Revue” through June 21st.  Tri-state theatregoers looking for a delightful weekend jaunt should pay a visit themselves, for Goodspeed gives this knockout musical a top-notch production, teeming with glitz, glamour, heart, and an infectiously folksy charm guaranteed to inspire genuine smiles of joy.

With each passing year, the memory of Will Rogers (1879-1935) sadly slips from the national consciousness, but few Americans of the 20th century, or any century for that matter, had more claim to embodying the spirit of the nation—its past, present, and future—than he, the Oklahoma-born, part-Cherokee cowboy, philosopher, humorist, newspaper columnist, star of stage, screen, and radiowaves and friend to railway bums and kings who toured five continents, ran for president in 1928, and died tragically in a plane crash over Alaska. 

So singular, varied, and truly American a life he lived, it’s no surprise that it was catalogued and celebrated in a 1991 musical comedy—perhaps the most American form of entertainment—brilliantly crafted by composer Cy Coleman (“Sweet Charity”), lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“Singin’ in the Rain”, “On the Town”), and librettist Peter Stone (“1776”), which, beside from being supremely entertaining, has the fortuitous side effect of educating audiences about a fascinating figure of America’s cultural history who is in danger of being forgotten.

In a triumph of content dictating form, “The Will Rogers Follies” tells the life of erstwhile Ziegfeld Follies star Will Rogers as a Ziegfeld Follies revue, complete with such classic staples as a courtship rendez-vous on the moon, a wedding to cap act one, a Wild West “living tableau”, copious tap dancing, and a chorus of dancing girls descending a staircase dressed as various jewels—all calculated to give contemporary audiences a teasing glimpse of what it must have been like to see Rogers’ famed act at the Palace Theatre in New York in 1916. 

That act began as a series of rope tricks honed in his time as a cowboy and traveling circus performer; as the lore goes, one night on the vaudeville circuit an onstage mishap caused Rogers to make quick banter with the audience, which led to the creation of his homespun media persona as the simple, but wise “part-time Cherokee” cowboy philosopher of the American plains. 

“All I know is what I read in the papers”, Rogers would quip atop his most famous act in which he’d read from the daily newspaper, offering wry commentary on the headlines.  Played with aplomb by the perfectly-cast, Texas-born folk music maven David Lutken (“Woody Sez”), the newspaper bit occurs early on in this show and becomes a transcendent moment of theatrical magic. 

The spirit of Rogers is conjured to the present as Mr. Lutken jokes about the intransigence of Congress and buffoonery of the president; after properly skewering 2018, he requests an older newspaper, then another, until he’s back at 1931.  Both reassuring and unnerving, the names and situations have changed, but the jokes are the same.  It is remarked of Rogers, “he told us the truth, and made us laugh at it”.  That gift—and its demand—never goes out of style.  

Mr. Lutken is backed by a vigorously talented ensemble of nine whose alchemy somehow makes their ranks, not to mention the quaint but tiny stage of the Goodspeed Opera House, seem twice the size.  That’s thanks to Kelli Barclay’s never rote choreography and Walt Spangler’s smart and evocative set design consisting of a stage-wide procession of stairs (a must for any Ziegfeld production) and an extended apron overtaking the orchestra pit (the eight-piece band is situated under the stairs, and sounds great). 

Under the helm of director Don Stephenson, every moment and performance of the show speaks with a single voice and sensibility, the “show-within-a-show” construct never losing its bite.  A gorgeously voiced Catherine Walker as Betty Blake (Rogers’ wife), somewhat stubbornly sings her first solo upon a Ziefgeldian moon, then relishes an act two torch song atop a piano; Broadway veteran David Garrison also shines as Clem Rogers (father of Will) and in a series of ever-diminutive smaller roles, from accompanist to butler, a nod to Florenz Ziegfeld’s notorious frugality. 

The production feels as lavish and well-appointed as any on Broadway, an impressive feat unsurprising for one of the nation’s foremost regional theatres.  The historic Goodspeed Opera House was built in 1876 and has operated as home to over 250 musicals since 1963, 21 of which have transferred to Broadway.  If you’ve never been, plan a visit; you cannot go wrong with “The Will Rogers Follies”. 

Will Rogers famously said: “I never met a man I didn’t like”.  As Mr. Lutken sings a song of the same name, in pieces throughout the show and as a whole in the end, it’s hard not to be moved by the sentiment—one our bitterly divided nation certainly needs right now.

Bottom Line: The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut presents a first rate production of “The Will Rogers Follies” starring a perfectly-cast David Lutken; marvelously staged, choreographed, and designed, this high-energy 1991 bio-musical—performed as a Ziegfeld Follies revue—was brilliantly crafted by Broadway greats Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Peter Stone, and feels every bit as lavish in the intimacy of this venue as any show does on Broadway.

The Will Rogers Follies
The Goodspeed Opera House
6 Main Street
East Haddam, CT 06423

Runtime: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
First Performance: April 13, 2018
Final Performance: June 21, 2018

Upcoming productions at Goodspeed include “Oliver!” (June 29-September 8) and “The Drowsy Chaperone” (September 21-November 25).

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tl;dr for June 4th