At one point in The Will Rogers Follies, currently on the boards at the Teatro Wego, the title character is introduced as "America's Poet Lariat." That play-on-words makes you realize what a singular phenomenon Rogers was. I mean, a "rope-spinner."
Yet, this half-breed hick from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, who never finished high school, became a super star, the friend of presidents and a hobnobber with "the crowned heads of Europe."
Aside from an astounding spinner of ropes, Rogers was a humorist. One of his wry comments had to do with his specialty. "Nothing wrong with spinning a rope," he drawled, "if your neck's not in it."
He also said: "I never met a man I didn't like." That's maybe a little harder to swallow, but it does underline the good-natured quality of the man. That quality seems to have been genuine and gave him leeway to fire acerbic digs at everyone and everything -- especially politicians.
For example: "I tried to tell the president the latest political jokes, but it was too late. He had already appointed all of them."
In Follies, Will (played with easy grace by Kris Shaw, who also directed) sings his charitable credo like the character's theme song.
On his way to see the world, Will meets Betty Blake (Meredith Lee Hotard) in the Oologah train station. Love at first sight with this blonde beauty does not prevent his departure, but they have both found their destinies and, eventually, they will tie the knot.
But when will they tie the knot? Well, here things get a bit complicated -- for, in Follies, there is "real" time and there is Ziegfeld time. In Ziegfeld time, they will get married at the end of the first act, because that's when the master (if formulaic) showman has wedding scenes. And Ziegfeld calls the shots. In fact, his voice (thanks to Stocker Fontelieu) thunders down from the rafters or the light booth or somewhere, giving orders and moving things along.
The Ziegfeld Follies, of course, were a pinnacle of vaudeville. Scantily clad girls (not scantily clad by our standards, perhaps) added to the allure of shows that also featured sundry other acts, with headliners like W. C. Fields and Eddie Cantor. When Ziegfeld hired Rogers, his career took off.
So far, so good. But Follies tries to use the Ziegfeld format as a way of telling Rogers' life story. For me, this device becomes confusing if not somewhat daft. I suppose, however, it has the advantage of allowing for a free-flow, show biz spectacle in and around the bio-drama.
Important moments in Rogers' life are presented as skits or musical numbers. We see his birth (in 1879) as the only boy child of a part-Cherokee farmer with six girls. We see him as a 13-year-old dropout fooling with a rope. We see him at 19 setting off for Argentina, meeting his future wife and -- two years later -- proposing to her on the seat of a Ferris wheel in Saint Louis.
At first, the Rogers family travels around with two-bit Western shows, which Mrs. Rogers doesn't appreciate one bit, but then the offer arrives from Ziegfeld. Next comes the glory (and ordeal) of Rogers' fame on the stage, on radio, in films and through his newspaper columns. The ordeal -- as Betty sings while perched on a piano -- is hers, because she's now married to: "a winner man/ an out-to-lunch and won't-be-home-for-dinner man."
Finally, Rogers goes off with his friend, the aviator Wiley Post, disturbed by premonitions of the plane crash in Alaska that will snuff out both their lives in 1935.
Amid all this, there are various touches of Ziegfeld excess, like Rogers' deceased paw (Alan Payne), who returns as an angel and a love scene that is transposed to the moon -- because Ziegfeld doesn't like the sound of Oologah.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society production of this Coleman, Comden and Green musical is uneven. Shaw, as Rogers, manages to be folksy, without becoming annoying -- which is a trick equal to any rope slinging. He and Hotard, as the central couple, sing a fair number of solos and duets with considerable lan.
The chorus seems exceptionally young. Members perform with spirit, but at times are a bit at sea. Of course, some of the numbers -- like the synchronized power-puffing lingerie models -- are pretty far out at sea as well.
Lynne Lawrence choreographed, Alan Payne was musical director, Shauna Leone designed the costumes and Dennis Assaf conducted the orchestra.
In general, this Follies is not a slick, knock-em-out, bravura show. What it does have is an accessible, unforced likeableness that gets the audience on its side.
- The Will Rogers Follies chronicles "America's Poet Lariat."