Review of The Will Rogers Follies, Goodspeed Theatre
Will Rogers, once upon a time, was one of the most famous Americans alive. He was part Cherokee and became known as a performing cowboy—on radio, in Wild West Shows, on vaudeville, Broadway, and in films. He was a commentator too and columnist, often sniping, in a witty and down-home way, about the issues of the day and about politicians, the perennial laughingstocks of U.S. news.
Rogers’ popular stint in Ziegfeld’s Follies, a cowboy among showgirls, is recreated, tunefully and tongue-in-cheek in The Will Rogers Follies, now at Goodspeed, directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Michael O’Flaherty and choreography by Kelli Barclay. A fond look back at a brand of Americana that has a certain pertinence today, The Will Rogers Follies was a big Broadway success in the hands of Tommy Tune back in the early ‘90s, with Keith Carradine in the title role. At Goodspeed, the razzle-dazzle of what feels like a precursor to every Vegas and television Variety show is abetted by David M. Lutken’s engaging and easy-going enactment of Will Rogers, rope-tricks included.
The great strength of Rogers’ brand of humor is that it never talked down to “average Americans,” seeming to impart a wisdom derived from homespun common sense. Rogers’ tendency to take shots at those aspects of daily American life that still plague us—the two-party system and those who flourish in that system, and the knee-jerk aspects of news coverage—makes him a welcome voice in our day. His manner, in Lutken’s hands, is casual rather than tendentious, with a low-key delivery that takes every aspect of life in stride—and that includes jokes about his eventual death in a plane crash with friend the pilot Wiley Post.
Lutken, who I saw play Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez, a show he devised, at Irish Rep in New York, brings a similar folksiness to the role of Rogers. He has a clear, no-frills singing voice, and immediately warms up the audience by commenting on the stories in a current newspaper. There are similarities between Guthrie and Rogers inasmuch as both believed in the United States as, potentially, a force for good often kept from its best by the specialized interests of those who use government to promote power and wealth for themselves. Both are images of the “common man” (though both were very uncommon in their talents and accomplishments) that are helpful to offset the general cynicism and idiocy of our times.
In the show, the story of Rogers comes out in snippets, with songs that keep the Variety show aspects of the musical front and center. As “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” Brooke Lacy is a delight in a role that oozes the kind of sexist casting that Florenz Ziegfeld (voiced with imperious élan by James Naughton) promoted relentlessly. Rogers never lets us get comfortable with the cheesecake, as he tends to shake his head over Flo’s favorite’s every appearance. And yet the display of the feminine physique is key to what makes the show a “follies.” The dance routines and the “living tableau” are part of the charm, and this show will keep a grin on your face, though it never quite stuns or amazes the way some dance routines at Goodspeed have.
To change focus from the chorus girls in Ilona Somogyi’s eye-teasing costumes, Peter Stone’s book plays up Will the family man, with emotional coloration by Catherine Walker as Betty Blake, who becomes Will’s oft-neglected wife. Their kids also get into the act and there’s even a collective rope-trick number in Act Two. It’s a very old-fashioned entertainment, a period-piece looking back at an older period.
As is often the case with stories of the famous, the first half plays better as it seems that every celebrity is more interesting on the way up than when in demand on all fronts. The interplay between Lutken’s Rogers and the other characters—such as his amiably put-upon father, Clem (David Garrison)—keep things bouncing, as Rogers has a gift for ribbing others’ pretensions and for calling it like he sees it, and that includes the hokeyness of the Follies themselves. The best aspects of the show are Lutken’s natural aptitude for the part and the way the action is commented on as something of a relic that has its place in a nostalgia for an Americana all but lost. Michael Clark’s projections help to recreate a sense of the era when Rogers was consulted by presidents and provided bi-partisan chiding of the show-biz aspects of our press and government.
Genial, nice to look at, with songs that serve the story but have little strength on their own, The Will Rogers Follies gives us a likeable version of the man who never met a man he didn’t like.
The Will Rogers Follies
Book by Peter Stone
Music composed and arranged by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Original New York production directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune
Inspired by the words of Will and Betty Rogers
Music Director: Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographer: Kelli Barclay
Director: Don Stephenson
Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Projection Design: Michael Clark; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer: Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Rope Trick Supervisor: Keith Nelson; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman
Cast: Michael Biren, Ella Briggs, Riley Briggs, Aaron Burr, Dewey Caddell, Mallory Davis, Sarah Fagan, Kaitlyn Frank, Brad Frenette, David Garrison, Brendan Reilly Harris, Patrick Heffernan, Nathan Horne, Brooke Lacy, David M. Lutken, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kelly Sheehan, Ben Stone-Zelman, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Catherine Walker, Caitlin Wilayto, Borris York, and James Naughton as the Voice of Ziegfeld
April 13, 2018