Theater Review by Howard Steven Frydman
Production: The Will Rogers Follies
Theater: The Goodspeed
Music by: Cy Coleman
Lyrics: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Book by: Peter Stone
Director: Don Stephenson
“Yippee Yi O – Yippee Yi O Ki Yay!” It’s Will Rogers and he’s at the Opera House!
Ride country cowboy ride – the open highway is your guide- well this country cowboy is your trail boss to the most rootin’ tootin’, rip roaring, razzle dazzling, high kicking production this side of the Connecticut River now playing at the star spangled Goodspeed Opera House. Yesiree partners- it’s Will I tell ya! – the genuine article, “the” man “who never met a man he didn’t like”- so make your way to see this five-time Tony Award-Winning musical “The Will Rogers Follies- A Life in Revue” – starring the one and only David M. Lutken – it’s simply a slice of musical heaven!
I so admit dear readers, in my mind’s eye, the official start of summer “always” coincides with a visit to the Goodspeed- am I right? Well it’s officially summer now- and let me tell you tenderfoots, they picked one heck of a good musical yarn, “The Will Rogers Follies” to begin their 2018 season. First of all, look at the distinguished credentials of this musical, it’s all top notch and set far apart from other productions with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and book by Peter Stone (1776) – all Broadway Royalty. Btw- the original New York production, which opened on May 1, 1991, at the Palace Theater, was directed and choreographed by none other than Tommy Tune- and starred Keith Carradine as humorist Will Rogers.
“Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers. I just watch the government and report the facts”. I guess you could say that Will Rogers was one of our first political pundits- and it is this home spun humor and common sense wisdom that is the genuine heart and soul of the W.R. Follies. The musical bio framework- the lavish Ziegfeld Follies – circa 1900’s – and their bevy of beautiful chorus girls, aka Ziegfeld girls, where we are introduced to the Stetson wearing, lasso twirling, star of stage, film, radio, vaudeville performer, newspaper columnist, humorist and Oklahoma Cowboy – in fact “the” biggest star of his time – Will Rogers!
Between, high stepping, energetically electrifying productions numbers, such as the joyfully foot stomping “Will-a-Mania” – Rogers directs his narrative, while performing rope tricks, not only to the audience but to the omniscient presence of Ziegfeld himself, (voice of James Naughton) where we get “moments” of his life including his childhood, travels to Argentina, his romance with future wife Betty Blake, (Catherine Walker) raising a family, his start in a Wild West Revue, of becoming “the” ultimate vaudevillian and even a run for U.S. President. Throughout the production, we are visited by jovial aviator Wiley Post (Dewey Caddell), though humorous, it foreshadows Roger’s inevitable final flight.
Folks- Let me tell you that David Lutken is perfectly cast as the soft spoken Will Rogers- I so admired this tall talented Texan, a true triple treat- musician, actor, and playwright- who we last saw at TheaterWorks in his extraordinary work – “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie”. David, in the words of my own dad “Ya did good tonight and we are mighty proud of ya”! I additionally take this moment to personally send David Lutken a sincere “thank you” – for taking the time after a 3 hour performance to graciously meet me and answer several questions – such as what’s next on the horizon for him? David remarks, “Portraying Connecticut’s Favorite Son- Mark Twain”! David you will make a most convincing Sam Clemens, we can’t wait to see you in white suit, cigar in hand, and Huckleberry Finn by your side – and btw your trick roping, including the “Flat Loop”, “Merry-Go-Round”, “Texas Skip”, during tonight’s “Revue” performance were top-notch! – hmmm? And speaking of lassos and other Will-mementoes – how come Goodspeed didn’t have straw Stetsons, “Will Rogers for Prez” buttons or even Mini Will Rogers lassos to take home for the kids as Souvenirs? Btw- I know who I’m voting for in 2020!
Next up I must surely single out and give praise to both director Don Stephenson and choreographer Kelli Barclay for rendering this “red, white and blue” extravaganza – as our high stepping cowgirls and cowboys, at Follies opening, (Will-O-Mania) descend the central staircase it’s a genuine WOW! Yet the “must not miss it moment” comes in the second act as Will decides to run for President, – and the musical number “Our Favorite Son” – this multitask Tommy Tune designed dance “stand up and cheer” spectacular is one heck of a real show stopper. One quick question to Director Stephenson, though James Naughton is utilized here as the “heavenly” voice of Ziegfeld – Gregory Peck’s voice was heard in the original production – yet I personally would have suggested that a nice touch would have been that of past Goodspeed Executive Director, Michael Price as the voice of Ziegfeld.
At this time we also like to present a few of the coveted “The Howard Noticed You Awards”, firstly, to David Garrison as Will’s Dad – Clem Rogers (and several other characters), so enjoyed your humorous take on the role and you most definitely would have stolen the show if not for Brooke Lacy’s long-legged rendition as “Ziegfeld’s Favorite” – great stage presence, superb dancing, and trick rope twirling. And finally a Big Bravo to the Ensemble- Michael Biren, Prez Aaron Burr, Sarah Fagan, Kaitlyn Frank, Brad Frenette, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kelly Sheehan, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Caitlin Wilayto, Boris York, Mallory Davis and Mr. Patrick Hefferman.
You say “Will Rogers Follies” – I say- “Yippee Yi O Ki Yay”!!! Enjoy.
“The Will Rogers Follies – A Life in Revue” will run April 13th through June 21st, 2018. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).
Tickets are available through the Box Office (860-873-8668), open seven days a week, or on-line at goodspeed.org.
Howard Steven Frydman is General Manager and Executive Director of BATV – Channels 5, 95 & 96 and a member of the CCC. Please feel free to contact Mr. Frydman with your thoughts and ideas at Howards2424@gmail.com.