The inventive musical about Will Rogers’ life plays until Oct. 15 at the The Players Centre for the Performing Arts.
“The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue” has come to life at the Players Centre.
This Tony Award-winning 1991 musical features a script by Peter Stone, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and compositions by Cy Coleman.
The show is a tribute to Will Rogers, naturally. In the 1920s and ’30s, he was one of the nation’s biggest stars — a showman, storyteller, rope-twirler, comedian, social critic, guitar player, singer (sort of) and America’s beloved cowboy philosopher.
Rogers’ folksy persona might lead you to expect heaping helpings of countrified corn. But this musical’s about as homespun as the neon lights on Broadway.
The show dramatizes Rogers’ life as an imaginary Ziegfeld Follies revue. Evidently, Rogers worked for Flo Ziegfeld for a time, along with Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields, and it's a convenient excuse to plop the plain-spoken, all-natural Rogers in a glitzy, artificial production.
This “revue” is never realistic. Never even close.
The show-within-a-show calls attention to its artifice. Rogers narrates his life story. Ziegfeld interrupts him from the darkness. Rogers points out Ziegfeld’s rigid formula for musical productions. While sharing the stage with his dead father, Rogers also knows he’s going to die in a plane crash in 1935 in Alaska. Wiley Post (David Floyd), the aviator responsible, keeps standing up in the audience and hollering, “Let’s go flyin,’ Will!”
Call it parody or call it post-modern, but it works. If you see enough musicals, the machinery gets predictable. By self-consciously calling attention to its machinery, this musical keeps you laughing.
In the role of the title character, McAllister sings with a folk performer’s raw, speech-song style (think Woody Guthrie and his many imitators). Audiences bring their love for Will Rogers to the show—but that wears off after 15 minutes or so. McAllister has enough of his own charisma to carry the whole show. Belle Babcock always gets a laugh as Flo Ziegfeld’s favorite, platinum-blonde showgirl. As Rogers’ father, Bill Sarazan is a loving but hard to please curmudgeon, both in this life and the next. As Rogers’ long-suffering wife, Melissa Ingrisano would rather be farming, but stoically endures the lonely price of fame and fortune. Kudos also to the many other supporting talents.
Especially the dancers. In the guise of showgirls and dancing cowboys, the Players Centre’s young performers show off their skills in a series of intricately coordinated, old-school, Broadway song and dance routines.
Tricky stuff. But director and choreographer Cory Boyas and music director Alan Corey make the show-biz machinery tick like a Swiss watch. Tim Beltley's eye-popping costumes evoke Ziegfeld’s beautifully wretched excess, and Jeff Weber’s set captures Rogers’ many worlds, both uptown and down-home.
The result is entertaining, though not always perfect. The song where Rogers placates his lonely wife with jewels seems to catalog every precious stone on the planet. In another number, a cowboy hat was briefly lost. But those are rare exceptions.
Rogers famously said he never met a man he didn’t like. With all its post-modern, Rube Goldberg machinery, this musical shows you what a likable man he was.