The Will Rogers Follies may not be the type of show that will have you humming or singing the score as you exit the theatre. In fact, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society doesn’t even list the musical numbers in the program for its current (May 4-20, 2007) production at the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre. Nevertheless, you will remember quite a few of the wits and witticisms of American humorist and lariat expert Will Rogers.
Highlights of Rogers’ life are presented in a Ziegfeld Follies format, reflecting his many years of vaudeville popularity along with his movie ventures, radio shows, newspaper columns and an unsuccessful but intriguing run for the U.S. Presidency. With frequent asides to the audience from Rogers and off-stage commentary from Florenz Ziegfeld, the production is a fast-track historical flash back.
JPAS’ last production for the 2006-2007 is a fitting finale for a diverse, well-balanced season. The big production numbers – and there a lot of them – with a fairly small cast are fun to watch with good timing and amazing precision. The clapping, tapping and grinning in “Favorite Son” is particularly enjoyable.
Director Kris Shaw, who also plays Rogers, has the role down to a science. His frequent exchanges with the audience are down-to-earth with lots of eye contact – just as Will Rogers himself must have performed. Similar conversations with Ziegfeld (thanks to the legendary, commanding voice of Stocker Fontelieu) are also believable, with many of the youngsters in the audience craning their necks to find Mr. Z.
While the music and lyrics assigned to Betty Blake, Rogers’ wife played by Meredith Lee Hotard, are not in show-stopping category by any means, Hotard’s voice, delivery and on-stage presence are the center points of this production.
It’s the kids, however, who steal the show. When Rogers’ four children played by Leland Flynn, Jenna Ibieta, Aaron Richert, and Mason Constantin Page (in the May 5th production) climb out of a vaudeville trunk, you see the audience perk up. Their brief lines and numbers are more than just a joy to watch – the kids can keep up with fast-paced choreography.
Special applause to the three chorus guys, Will Thomas, Nick Wilcox, and Travis Zito. These young men do a more than adequate job of dancing, singing and escorting the Ziegfeld gals who outnumber them two to one.
As Ziegfeld’s favorite, Lynn Lawrence adds humor and a bit of innuendo to the role. As production choreographer, Lawrence does an outstanding job of working with a young cast who are challenged by Ziegfeld-style accuracy on a set comprised primarily of a big staircase. Try walking up and down bleachers in dress shoes, and then imagine dancing on them while smiling at the audience and remembering your cues – it’s not easy. Tommy Tune, who directed and choreographed the original Broadway production, would be proud to see so many youngsters tapping their feet to his steps.
Shauna Leone’s costume design is eye-catching and attractive. The red, white and black cowboy and cowgirl outfits are and the patriotic design for the “Native Son” number is simple, but definitely eye-catching.
Hats off to the consumes – literally. Could be opening weekend jitters or lack of dress rehearsal, but more than one cast member had trouble keeping a hat on his or her head. But the recovery was good, adding just a tad more humor to the show.
It was nice to see many talented young people in the production; great experience for them and a great foundation for community theatre in the years ahead.
Back Row Facts:
Length of show – two hours and 20 minutes
Language – no bad or offensive language, that’s not the Will Rogers way.
Lewd factor – you might wonder if Ziegfeld’s favorite is dressed or not in a couple of scenes, but if you’re looking for bawdy, you won’t find it in this show.
Family fitness - the whole family could enjoy this show. Rogers’ discourses, especially in the second act, and some songs may be a little long for the restless youngster, but they should enjoy the production numbers. Be prepared, however, some kids may want to learn how to do a few rope tricks after seeing this show.
It’s a puzzlement! Is it really that easy to learn how to lasso?
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