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“The Will Rogers Follies”

Goodspeed Opera House

 

Goodspeed Opera House is currently presenting an altogether terrific and entertaining production of the musical, “The Will Rogers Follies.”  With a book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (all of whom won Tony’s for their work on the original Broadway production of this show), “The Will Rogers Follies” is a tuneful and bright experience, with a cast headed by the wonderful David M. Lutken, in the title role.  At the time that “Will Rogers” opened in in New York in 1991, it was largely considered just an okay musical, distinguished by the work of director/choreographer Tommy Tune.

However, as it turns out, seeing the show without Tune’s inventive staging and the individual stamp he put on every moment of the original production, “The Will Rogers Follies” turns out to be a pretty darn good musical, filled with delightful songs, funny jokes, and lots of juicy parts that the actors at Goodspeed Opera House take full advantage of.  So, by all means make your way to see this production of “The Will Rogers Follies,” for a truly exhilarating evening of song and dance.

It goes without saying that no staging of “The Will Rogers Follies” would ever possibly work without a distinctive performer taking on the part of Will Rogers.  As it turns out, Goodspeed has found the ideal actor in David M. Lutken.  Lutken actually has a long history with this show: he understudied the title role in the original production, as well as appearing in the national tour of the show.  It is saying a lot that David M. Lutken is just as great in this role as Keith Carradine was, when he starred in the original.  The authoritative Lutken sings the songs beautifully, gets laughs for the numerous jokes (including some new ones, aimed at the current White House administration), and is able to accomplish all the rope tricks required of the character.

In other roles, Catherine Walker is a good Betty Blake, the wife of Will Rogers.  She is very pretty, delivers her numbers in a highly attractive fashion, and partners Lutken perfectly.  If there were moments in which I missed the creator of this role, Dee Hoty (especially in my favorite song in the show, “No Man Left for Me”), Walker does just fine in the part.  Playing Ziegfeld’s Favorite, Brooke Lacy is just as irresistible and sexy as Cady Huffman was in the Broadway production.  Lacy is a treat to watch, leads the opening number, in particular, spectacularly, and she makes her every moment onstage count.

As Will’s father, Clem, David Garrison brings a great deal of musical comedy expertise to his part, has a terrific singing voice, and is also very funny (especially later in the show, when he is called on to play various other supporting roles).  The ensemble of dancer/singers in “The Will Rogers Follies” is robust and zesty, making one forget that there were more than double the number of performers in the original Broadway production.

The direction by Don Stephenson is uplifting, as well as providing a number of tear-jerking moments, and he works ideally in tandem with choreographer Kelli Barclay.  And, except for a few moves that she borrows from Tune in the second act “Our Favorite Son” number, Barclay’s choreography is entirely fresh and satisfying.  Together, Stephenson and Barclay move as one throughout the show, with expert results.

The stage at Goodspeed Opera House is considerably smaller (to say the least) than the Palace Theatre on Broadway (where “The Will Rogers Follies” played in New York), but everyone involved with this current staging is largely able to approximate the exuberance of the original production.  This includes the great staircase set designed by Walt Spangler, the gorgeous costumes by Ilona Somogyi, and the expert lighting by Rob Denton.

Musical director Michael O’Flaherty leads the orchestra brilliantly and this production of “The Will Rogers Follies” is so good that it makes a strong case for this musical being a truly viable show for regional theatres to stage, even without the acclaimed, Tony-winning work by director/choreographer Tommy Tune.  This “Will Rogers Follies” is truly a pleasure from start to finish, and it is both highly enjoyable and, by the conclusion, quite touching.

“The Will Rogers Follies” continues performances at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through June 21, 2018.  For tickets, please visit www.goodspeed.org or call the box office at 860-873-8668.

Photo: (L-R): David M. Lutken and David Garrison

Photo by Diane Sobolewsky

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