Review: Pioneer Theatre Company's "Will Rogers Follies" | Buzz Blog
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Review: Pioneer Theatre Company's "Will Rogers Follies"

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At the conclusion of an opening-weekend performance of Pioneer Theatre Company's production of The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue, lead actor David M. Lutken shares with the audience a heartfelt thanks to the behind-the-scenes people who make a theatrical show possible. It's a disarmingly genuine moment, but it also feels like a natural extension of the earnest, never-met-a-man-I-didn't-like character Lutken creates over the previous 2-1/2 hours.

It's also an extension of the meta-theatrical quality of the biographical show, which tracks the life of the humorist, vaudeville performer and  actor (Lutken, pictured) from his Oklahoma childhood through his barnstorming days  as a rope-trick artist and eventual fame in the Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood movies. Along the way, it follows his relationship with his wife, Betty (Lisa Brescia), through the ups and downs of his frequent absences from home for his career.

There's not a ton of drama in that relationship, or indeed in Rogers' life as a whole. The show makes early reference to his eventual early, tragic death in an Alaskan plane crash with aviator Wiley Post (Jim Bennett), but there are no skeletons in Rogers closet tossed out to spice up the proceedings. If Rogers wasn't the folksy, decent fellow of his public image, you won't learn about it here.

Instead of behind-the-smiles innuendo, you get a rollicking show that takes its cues from the big, bold stage productions Rogers himself would have been part of. Chorus girls perform their synchronized kick lines (accompanied in one charming bit by Lutken himself with percussive body instrumentation); cowboy entertainer AJ Silver offers up impressive whip and rope trickery; the songs (with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by the legendary team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green) advance the simple narrative with infectious energy.  The show also never lets you forget you're watching a show, with jokey asides about the return of the actor playing Rogers' father (Norman Large) in a variety of other small roles.

At the center of it all is Lutken, who provides more than a mimicry of Rogers' trademark just-plain-folks way of dipping his chin and scratching his head while offering his thoughts on the news of the day. And it is indeed the news of the day; each performance gives Lutken a chance to riff cleverly on that day's Salt Lake Tribune headlines. The Will Rogers Follies is built around the sense that Rogers is practically sitting in your living room, just having a chat with you, as befuddled by the state of the world and our politicians as you are.  It's an easy-going charm that Lutken's performance offers, even in the middle of big production numbers and scantily-clad chorus girls, that recognizes why Rogers himself was so beloved by so many Americans: Because he never seemed to forget that, even if he was the one at center stage, there are so many other people whose lives deserve our respect and notice.

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