Friday, June 28, 2002

The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue (Berea Summer Theatre)

'WILL ROGERS FOLLIES' a creative delight at Berea Summer Theatre

Every once in a while a theatre-goer has a very special evening in the theatre. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It takes place when the script, the music (if it’s a musical), the directing concept and the talent all come seamlessly together. Such was the case at Berea Summer Theatre when it opened its summer season with 'THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE.'

The musical takes us on a delightful and sometimes touching ride through the life of Will Rogers, one of America’s folk favorites. Famous for such lines as “Never met a man I didn’t like” and “live your life so that when you lose, you are ahead,” Will Rogers rose from school dropout to being one of the most respected political philosophers of his day. His philosophical renderings appear in six books, scores of magazine articles and 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns. He performed in 71 movies where he seldom learned the script, preferring to ad lib. He is probably best known for his nightly chats with the audience as part of the Ziegeld Follies. Drawled comments like "We'll be the first nation in the world to go to the poor house in an automobile," displaying the disparity between rich and poor during the Great Depression, endeared him to audiences. Sometimes called the “Poet Lariat” based on his ability to perform outstanding rope trips while talking to the viewers, he won a slot in the GUINESS BOOK OF RECORDS.

Though the show’s individual songs are not memorable, the score won a Tony Award for writers Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolf Green. THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE was awarded the Tony as the best musical of 1991. The show played to more than four million persons during its first two years on Broadway and three companies that toured the United States and Canada.

Under Lora Workman’s leadership, THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE is a very professional amateur production. There are no stars next to the names of the performers, stars that represent membership in the Actor’s Equity Association, but there are stars all over the stage. Workman , acting as both director and choreographer, is not only creative but obviously a perfectionist. The kick lines were polished, the splits well executed, the cartwheels twirled as they should, the patter moves were met with extended applause, the stage pictures exciting, and the enthusiasm was caught by the entertained audience. The entire cast obviously understood the show’s concept and learned and polished the many complicated and enthusiastic dance numbers. Workman did what many directors don’t do..she paid attention not only to the leading performers, but to the acting and dancing choruses.

The technical aspects of the BST production support the show. Scene designer Ron Newell’s red, white and blue leveled set worked well. Gina Leone’s lighting helped create the varying moods. Jeffrey Smart’s massive number of costumes were creative. The only technical flaws centered on sound glitches when performers’ mikes did not work.

Steve Higginbotham was inconsistent in his Will Rogers characterization. His first act performance was partally surface. Forced facial expressions, overly articulated diction, difficulty with the Oklahoma speech cadence and surface emotions were present. The veneer vanished in the second act when he seemed to transform himself into a natural Rogers. This was especially true in a long emotionally-charged soliloquy. He sings well and dances with ease.

Kimberly Lauren Koljat who portrayed Rogers wife, Betty Blake, has a nice voice and an infectious smile. Amanda Folino was wonderfully ditzy as Ziegfeld’s Favorite. She is a polished dancer, a fine song stylist and has a fine sense of comic timing. Chuck Burneson, a professional roper, received extended applause for his rope tricks. The Rogers kids, portrayed by Kyle Branzel, Jenny Sherman, J.P. Gagen and Richie Gagen were engaging. The singing and dancing choruses were amazingly adept.

Capsule judgement: 'THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE' at BST is one of the finest productions in the theatre’s history. If you want a pleasurable evening of summer entertainment go, see, enjoy and as the BST motto states, “And tell your friends!”