Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 7, 2018

REVIEW: Goodspeed Opera House, The Will Rogers Follies

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT
through June 21, 2018
by Rebecca Phelps

“Will Rogers Follies” says it all. If you are a fan of either the Ziegfeld Follies, or Will Rogers, you will love this show. Originally directed and choreographed on Broadway by Tommy Tune in 1991, the musical won five Tony Awards.

Headlining Goodspeed’s production is David Lutken, who nails the role of Will Rogers with his confident, yet homespun, “aw-shucks,” self-deprecating and loveable performance in this vaudeville style musical. Lutken inhabits Will Rogers to a tee with his ad-libbing and dialoguing directly with the audience from today’s headlines of the New York Times, not to mention his rope tricks, guitar, banjo and harmonica playing, tap dancing, and transcendent singing. It seems that Lutken can do it all…but I guess he had a lot of practice understudying the role when it was on Broadway!

The show is staged as a series of vignettes, performed “Follies-style,” telling the highlights of Will Rogers’ life, marriage, family, climb to fame and ultimately untimely death in 1935, at the age of 56 and the peak of his career.

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The production is executed with flawless execution by a talented ensemble of dancer/singers, along with Catherine Walker as Betty Rogers (Will’s wife and the love of his life), and David Garrison as Clem Rogers (Will’s judgmental father). Especially entertaining is Brook Lacy as “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” the character who doesn’t need a name, but who “performs” every time she enters the stage by removing another article of clothing, mugging the audience, by drawing attention to herself with pure sex appeal; no need for dialogue or character… just as Mr. Ziegfeld wanted.

Goodspeed is a perfect venue for a smaller sized show where every component of the production is visible and audible in this beautiful little jewel-box of a theatre. There is essentially no set, but with creative lighting by Rob Denton, and lots of projections displaying headlines and scenery from the early 20th century, there is no need. The requisite wide staircase takes up the entire stage for the ensemble to dance and for the showgirls to descend in their glamorous gowns. In contrast to Wills’ farmy, cowboy looks, the Follies are creatively costumed in spectacular, colorful and sometimes scanty outfits, designed by Ilona Somogyi  - at times the costumes becoming the show itself.

The excellent pit band, led by Michael O’ Flaherty, in his 27th season at Goodspeed, is conveniently located underneath the staircase.