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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
visits to the Follies era, both the recently-closed,
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,
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
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
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
Period." Between 1911 and 1931, a series of lavishly staged
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
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
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
and last seen in the Broadway production of "State Fair,"
takes on the assignment to portray this folk hero. Davidson
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
Ann Crumb plays Mrs. Rogers. Although the vacuous role offers Crumb
no more than a few bland ballads, "My Unknown Someone,"
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
up and down the obligatory staircase. What little dancing there is
(choreography by D.J. Salisbury) is confined to thigh slapping,
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
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,"
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
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
mostly for the patch he wears over one eye. Maybe that’s the best
way to enjoy the show.
Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. $32 to $47. Through July 26.
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