The relevance of Will Rogers’ humor and philosophy will knock your socks off, as will much of “Will Rogers’ Follies: A Life in Revue” that opened Friday at Theatre Alliance.
The breadth of Rogers’ appeal in the early part of the 20th century is hard to describe. Even if you could imagine some combination of Oprah, Ronald Reagan and Taylor Swift, it wouldn’t suffice.
He was born in 1879 to a prominent Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma). He said that his ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they “met the boat.”
His father wanted him to stay home and mind the ranch, but Rogers set out for Argentina to be a cowboy and make his fortune.
He traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.
By the mid-1930s, the American people adored Rogers. He was the leading political wit and the highest paid Hollywood film star of his time. Rogers died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post, when their small plane crashed in northern Alaska.
“Follies” tells Rogers’ story using the vehicle of a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza. Before going to Hollywood, Rogers performed in Wild West shows, Vaudeville and the Follies. Along the way, he married Betty Blakely and had four children.
And what a contradiction he was: a simple, humble, empathetic man who loved the spotlight, his family and humanity.
Now, on with the show.
Gray Smith does a fine job as Rogers. His slightly rumpled look and diffident approach fit the part perfectly. He’s a self-effacing charmer. His radio address to Depression-era America is particularly moving, brimming with compassion and a passionate appeal to the 1 percent to have charity toward the 99.
Smith’s scenes with Jaye Pierce as Betty and Mark Walek as Clem, Rogers’ father, are particularly lively. This is a star turn for Walek, possibly his best performance to date. His comic timing is good, and the lighting emphasizes his twinkling blue eyes.
Pierce is a welcome sight and sound. She is terrific on “My Big Mistake,” Betty’s love song to Rogers. These two are old stage friends, and their work together shows. Pierce also has a great blues number, “No Man Left for Me,” that tells the toll Rogers’ success takes on their family life.
She gets to wear an extraordinary emerald green gown for “No Man,” and she looks like a million dollars. The costumes throughout are exceptional.
The overall ensemble is great, and the women’s chorus is dazzling. Ziegfeld, after all, was famous for the beauty of his showgirls.
Mary Upchurch is delicious as Ziegfeld’s Favorite, strutting her stuff in varying degrees of undress. Hers and some of the other chorus girls’ makeup are flawlessly period (1920s-‘30s). There’s no credit given in the program, so I have to think they did their own. Excellent job.
Costuming again: The women’s ensemble has a super-fun dance in pink satin lingerie, “The Powder Puff Ballet.”
All the big production numbers are a delight.
The seated hand-jive on “Our Favorite Son” is mind-blowing. And look closely at the boater hats. They hold a special surprise. This particular choreography by Tommy Tune is from the original Broadway production.
There were too many delightful moments to name, but special mention to Rebecca Barnhardt, Beatrice Howell, Geralyn Kelly and Nanook.
Director Jamie Lawson also did the costume design, production and stage management. John C. Wilson and Mary Isom did the choreography.
Words. Words. Words. Rogers was a consummate wordsmith, and we’ve got to hear his words, so I have to hope that the crew’s skills quickly catch up to their new soundboard. The balance on opening night was not good.
We don’t want to miss:
“I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.”
“A man makes a living by what he gets. He makes a life by what he gives.”
“I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.”