The Will Rogers Follies at Goodspeed

 “Welcome to Katz Reviews. This is Ed Katz of Katnip Marketing- marketing consultant by day; theater and film critic by night- bringing my weekly review segment, Katz Reviews, here for you on WICC 600.

After reading ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ was coming to The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut- my mind immediately wondered who would play Will Rogers.

Having seen ‘Woody Sez’ at Westport Playhouse last year- which starred David Lutken as Woody Guthrie (you may recall I said he seemed born to play that role) I thought he could also play Will Rogers. And, lo and behold, here he is!

 David Lutken as Will Rogers

Lutken has this charming, “aw, shucks” persona that makes it easy for him to win over an audience. And the standing ovation he received the night I saw ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ shows he did, indeed, win them over.

If you wonder why Goodspeed would reach all the way back to the 1930’s to find this show to revive, well- listen to the dialogue as Will Rogers reads newspapers from 90 years ago and muses about politics and politicians and you will be amazed how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Somehow this package is all wrapped up in the kind of show Goodspeed usually does best: bright, fun, song and dance- and here with added rope tricks- that, while it could cross over to be corny, they still manage to pull it all off with a wink and tongue planted in cheek.

The creative team behind the show starts with the book by Peter Stone, who wrote the brilliant ‘1776.’ And the music was composed by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. These names are Broadway royalty- all are legends! But while ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ won several awards on Broadway, it is no ‘1776.’

Here the direction is by Don Stephenson and the nice choreography, which- appropriately- includes several fun tap dance routines, is by Kelli Barclay.

Though Rogers’ narration actually removes almost any level of suspense (because he tells you ahead of time when he will get married and even when and how he will die), the show is saying to the audience there is no need to try to build suspense for these events. They happened as parts of (his) life and the show is relating them to you just as it does his 2500-performance run in the Ziegfeld Follies, complete with more of his folksy wisdom and sayings- and those dazzling showgirl costumes worthy of Las Vegas.

 Brooke Lacy (front) as “Ziegfeld’s Favorite”

Those dazzling costumes- which deserve 5 stars on their own- are by Ilona Somogyi and they will amaze you how she completely rethought western cowgirl outfits to make them appear so sexy. The bold and bright lighting is by Rob Denton- who somehow manages to make Brooke Lacy, playing Flo Ziegfeld’s “Favorite,” sparkle in every scene and, when she is among the other Ziegfeld dancers, the lights that follow her still somehow shine a little brighter on her already radiant visage.

The female lead is Catherine Walker playing Rogers’ wife, Betty Blake, who is unfortunately relegated to spending much of her on stage time complaining to Will that he is almost never home and she and their four kids miss him.

 Lutken (far left) & Catherine Walker (far right). All production photos by Diane Sobolewski

So this show is not without its flaws. As I said, there is no real suspense. And, while much of it is charming, not all the folksy humor and jokes land well. Also, the long first act could be cut by about 15 minutes as it drags on with too much of the same thing. But Act 2 moves along at a better pace.

In spite of it being heavy on narration and lacking suspense, there are several thoughtful and amusing moments- many at the same time- as well as some great dancing… and those marvelous costumes… so I give ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ 3-1/2 stars out of 5. It runs at Goodspeed through June 21st. For more info go to Goodspeed dot org.

Catch my reviews right here this time each week and on my Facebook page and website, Katz Reviews dot com, where you will find all my WICC 600 reviews. This is Ed Katz talking theater for WICC 600!”

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