Review: "The Will Rogers Follies" at Goodspeed Musicals

Maegan Clearwood

  • Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic

Goodspeed Musicals’ sparkly The Will Rogers Follies pays heavy homage to the titular cultural icon, plastering its stage with black-and-white photos and bombarding the audience with sequins and glitter. For all its self-awareness, however, this production feels like a recreation of early 20th century entertainment rather than a 21st-century spin, resulting in a revue that feels dated and wildly out of touch.

For those who don’t know – and if you see the production, you’ll have these facts hammered into your brain by the end – Will Rogers was the most popular entertainer of his generation, a cowboy-turned-performer whose relatability made him a household name. In addition to his work with the Ziegfeld Follies, Rogers made forays into radio, film, and writing, and his comedy was saturated with broadly appealing political commentary.

The musical adaptation of Rogers’ life takes place, confusingly, in some kind of afterlife, with Will (and sometimes Ziegfeld) narrating his life story in the form of a vaudevillian revue.  We learn about his rocky relationship with his father, occasionally rocky but mostly fine relationship with his wife, rise to fame and too-early death. The musical was on Broadway in 1991 and garnered fairly negative critical reviews despite going on to win the Tony for Best Musical (against, amazingly, The Secret Garden and Once on This Island). Structurally, this musical is bewildering, as it’s never quite clear who is telling Rogers story or what we’re meant to learn about him as a human being, as he is portrayed as more of a saintly, untouchable icon rather than a flawed and dimensional person. The backdrop of the Follies provides ample room for fun choreography and costuming, but doesn’t complement Rogers’ story, as his simplistic, down-to-earth aesthetic was the antithesis of most of Ziegfeld’s acts. And for all of the showgirls in The Will Rogers Follies, it’s awfully heavy on the telling, not the showing: most of the dramatic action happens offstage, with the onstage activity relegated almost entirely to fluffy musical numbers.

Despite these dramaturgical challenges, Goodspeed director Don Stephenson injects his production with enough zest and sparkle to impress Ziegfeld himself. Stylistically, Stephenson commits himself to the energy and sheer bombasticism of Ziegfeld entertainment, from the sequins on virtually every one of Ilona Somogyi’s costumes to scenic designer Walt Spangler’s tiered display of grandeur. Michael Clark’s projection design is impressive but exhausting: the stage is coated with Will Rogers aphorisms and historical photos, to the point where the set feels cluttered and small. Instead of trying in such earnest to educate the audience on the real Will Rogers (that’s the entire point of the musical, making the projections completely redundant), Stephenson would have benefitted instead from trying to make sense of the musical’s confusing framing device and setting a consistent tone.

 David Lutken and some tap-dancing Uncle Sams in "The Will Rogers Follies," through June 21 at the Goodspeed Opera House. (Diane Sobolewski)

David Lutken and some tap-dancing Uncle Sams in "The Will Rogers Follies," through June 21 at the Goodspeed Opera House. (Diane Sobolewski)

The featured performances are energized, certainly, but mixed. David M. Lutken as Will is almost insipidly charming. The man seems to have a permanent twinkle in his eye, and his performance is endearing but leaves little room for any complex interpretation of his character, who is already somewhat one-dimensional by nature of the script. His instrumental skills are commendable, however – he plays the harmonica, banjo, and guitar – as are his famous rope tricks.

Other performances are less sparkling. Unlike Lutken, David Garrison as his father is not adept at the art of talk-singing, resulting in a performance that feels flat and half-hearted. Catherine Walker as Betty Blake, Rogers’ long-suffering wife, is not particularly memorable, but in all fairness has very little to work with (lyrics of note: “Without you I’m a nameless face./ Without You I’m the lowest rung”).

Most confusing is the performance of Brooke Lacy as Ziegfeld’s Favorite – yes, that’s a character name – which revolves entirely around wearing as little as possible and winking at the ogling eyes of both male characters and the audience. The jokes surrounding Ziegfeld’s Favorite’s promiscuity get tired very quickly, and Lacy’s performance is earnest enough to be Stepford Wives-level creepy.

 It’s a shame that the director gave little thought towards how he could subvert the inherent sexism of this musical, which is also present in the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the Follies Girls, the romance-centric characterization of Betty, and an entire musical number dedicated to Clem Rogers’ delight at finally having a son. There are multiple references within the text to how little clothing Ziegfeld used to clad his female ensembles, but no attempt by the director to upend these tropes. The one instance in which Stephenson comes close to subversion is during the brassy election number “Our Favorite Son,” in which both the male and female ensemble members wear low-cut patriotic, sequined costumes and Uncle Sam goatees. Otherwise, however, the showgirls are showgirls at their squealiest and slinkiest, and it gets mighty old mighty quickly.

Also disappointing is how little this musical grapples with questions of race and identity, both in terms of script and production. Will identified as Cherokee, a fact that the musical glosses over almost entirely. Despite this textual omission, Stephenson could have engaged with this important side of Will via casting. One of Will’s many highlighted quotes underscores the importance of this missing theme: “People. I can’t get over ‘em. No matter how different they look and talk, they’re all just the same.” Goodspeed’s casting is rarely impressive where racial diversity is concerned, and this production is no exception. The mostly white cast is not only disappointing in terms of representation, but also in how it directly contradicts Will Rogers’ personal philosophy.

The Will Rogers Follies is pretty and energized, and if that’s what you’re looking for (and if you’re capable of overlooking sexism at its old-school Broadway finest), you’re in luck. Otherwise, this is a production that largely misses its marks, despite a slew of bright ideas.