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Review: `The Will Rogers Follies’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

July 8, 1998. All rights reserved.

Maybe ’tis folly to be over-follied. Obviously planned

by the Paper Mill Playhouse as a pair of compatible, if not

comparable,

visits to the Follies era, both the recently-closed,

"Follies,"

and the current "The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue,"

offer distinctly different perspectives on this early part of the

century entertainment. "Follies," with its extraordinary music

and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and its dark trenchant book by James

Goldwyn, enjoyed unprecedented glory and success at this theater.

But what is there to say about the much lesser in every respect,

"The

Will Rogers Follies," with its functional, forgettable music by

Cy Coleman, inane book by Peter Stone, and surprisingly dull (for

them) lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green? Yet the current show

may yet prove more enjoyable to many patrons. On Broadway, "The

Will Rogers Follies" was boosted from the mediocrity of the

material

by the sharp direction and choreography of Tommy Tune, and (if it’s

okay to recall) 14 of the most gorgeous and leggy showgirls (Ziegfeld

used 50) ever seen on the Broadway stage. No complaints from this

corner about Paper Mill’s showgirls, and especially Pamela Jordan,

who appears periodically and persuasively as Ziegfeld’s favorite.

This glitzy yet boring show purports to be an homage to American

humorist

Will Roger. That the show also postures as a tribute to famed producer

Florenz Ziegfeld is equally crushing. Ziegfeld is generally credited

with initiating what is nostalgically recalled as "The Great

Broadway

Period." Between 1911 and 1931, a series of lavishly staged

"Ziegfeld

Follies" revues were notable for glorifying the American showgirl.

But Ziegfeld also spotlighted vaudeville stars like

Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Eddie Cantor, and the most

beloved of them all, Will Rogers. Variously billed on the vaudeville

circuit as "The Oklahoma Philosopher," "The Lariat

King,"

and "The Sagebrush Sage," Rogers achieved his greatest fame

under Ziegfeld’s aegis. Stepping out between production numbers in

full cowboy regalia and doling out low-key turns of homespun humor

and limp lariat twirling, Rogers was the personification of the

all-American

with whom all America could identify.

The winning and personable John Davidson, whose many television and

film roles have given him stature as a wholesome, all-American

entertainer,

and last seen in the Broadway production of "State Fair,"

takes on the assignment to portray this folk hero. Davidson

demonstrates

he has great respect for Rogers’ prescribed amiability. His fine voice

and personality make such musical drivel as "Give a Man Enough

Rope," and "I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like," tolerable.

Although he doesn’t have Rogers’ half-Cherokee Indian features, he

comes through the corn like an Indian brave, even if the result is

hardly thrilling.

Ann Crumb plays Mrs. Rogers. Although the vacuous role offers Crumb

no more than a few bland ballads, "My Unknown Someone,"

"Without

You," and a prerequisite torch song "No Man Left For Me,"

(sung, where else but, atop a piano), Crumb, like the nimble Robert

E. Fitch, who plays Rogers’ father, throws herself into the loose

vaudevillian style of the show.

I’m still asking myself, as I did back in 1991 when "Will Rogers’

re-opened Broadway’s Palace Theater, how a musical that boasted such

an impressive team of collaborators could have ended up with such

plodding, empty-headed entertainment. Director Mark S. Hoebee keeps

up the faith, if not the pace, with Tommy Tune’s ideas. Even though

the showgirls get all dressed up (well, not exactly all the way up)

in great feathered Indian head dresses and sequined gowns, and dance

around waving pink powder puffs, they rarely have anywhere to go

except

up and down the obligatory staircase. What little dancing there is

(choreography by D.J. Salisbury) is confined to thigh slapping,

strutting,

straddling, and synchronized semaphore signaling. A wonderful and

comical dog act remains the highlight of the show.

How is it possible for author Stone, who crafted such intelligence

into "1776" and "Woman of the Year," to have reduced

both Rogers and his legendary satire to such pure poppycock? The

conceit

of the show is to have Zieggy (the recorded voice of Michael Biaggi)

direct Rogers in a new "Follies" that will highlight his life.

Coleman, the clever award-winning melodist ("The Life,"

"City

of Angels," "Sweet Charity") wrote a score that seems

to be trying to forget itself even as it is being sung. Designer Tony

Walton’s fantastical well-lit (by Marcia Madeira) scenery, and

costumer

Willa Kim’s well slit costumes are eye-openers. But the only line

in the show that seemed to make sense was when the voice of Ziegfeld

stops the action with, "What the hell’s going on down there?"

What indeed? Scott Wakefield plays Wiley Post, the pilot who was with

Rogers on the fateful flight in 1935. Wakefield’s performance is

notable

mostly for the patch he wears over one eye. Maybe that’s the best

way to enjoy the show.

Simon Saltzman

The Will Rogers Follies, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside

Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. $32 to $47. Through July 26.


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