Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
The Will Rogers Follies
Also see Fred's review of Kiss
Working from Peter Stone's book, Cy Coleman's musical compositions, and arrangements and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the evening is an immediate visual treat. Describing Rogers' life, this musical does so by way of the ornamental Ziegfeld Follies. Rogers, breaking the fourth wall at the get-go, speaks with Florenz Ziegfeld (voice of James Naughton, who is never seen). Director Stephenson supplies contemporaneous touches early during the first act and these serve to connect the 21st century with a time ranging backward more than 100 years.
Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) has eyes for Will and makes this known during the third scene as she appears amid The Moon. With feeling, she provides "My Unknown Someone." Rogers has already departed from his Oklahoma locale to go to Argentina. He's mastered a number of rope tricks and the versatile Lutken demonstrates enviable spinning capability. He moves along to the Wild West Show and St. Louis Fair and then to vaudeville. He and Betty quickly (so it seems) have four children and the first act concludes with a company rendition of "The Wedding."
This Follies will be, for some, all about startling costuming. Ilona Somogyi outfits young women who dance with celebratory zest in revealing garb. Brooke Lacy plays Ziegfeld's Favorite and her undergarments are revealingly red. Yes, the look is a sexist and stereotypical one. Yes, it fits with the period of the musical and is, in that regard, truthful. Walt Spangler's set choices effectively move everyone on stage as well as those watching from Oklahoma to the West and, during the second act, to other locales.
After intermission, we learn that Rogers is prospering in every way and has become a media star. Betty wonders where she is with "No Man Left for Me." The second portion of the play is filled with vicissitudes of life.
Godspeed Musicals' production may be appreciated on many a level. Large scale numbers such as "Will-a-Mania" and "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" are rousing and galvanic. On the other hand, certain viewers will see the current rendering through David Lutken's Will. The actor is audience friendly and, as Rogers, down home, political, savvy, and easy to enjoy. Lutken, as Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez, demonstrated multiple skill sets in a much smaller presentation. Here, he excels with solo songs like "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" and "Look Around." Throughout, he commands attention while gracefully interfacing with plot and purpose of the musical. The lanky performer knows how to put across a tune and he dances fluently. As a theatergoing companion recommended, he does have a bit of familiar Willie Nelson-like twang and it's quite amiable. He is also adept on harmonica, banjo, and guitar. Lutken's performance is relaxed yet spirited.
Michael Clark's projection images and text help to provide some historical perspective for time and place. Clark and the creative team integrate narrative with Stone's book in order to provide a story with some depth. The Godspeed stage is typically elevated. Stephenson and Spangler add to that flooring by providing tiers of steps which stretch further upward. The director maximizes, through his imagination, possibilities of a unique performance space.
The Will Rogers Follies, first produced in 1991, is revisited today with enthusiasm by a skillful group of actors and an ingenious and resourceful production team at the Goodspeed. The result is a zippy show, one which sometimes accelerates and is always warmhearted.
The Will Rogers Follies, A Life in Revue, through June 21, 2018, at the Godspeed Opera House in East Haddam CT. For tickets, call (860) 873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org.