This review of BroadHollow Theatre Company's production of The Will Rogers Follies at Bayway Arts Center was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Will Rogers Follies
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Book by Peter Stone
Directed & Choreographed by Jessy Gill
Costume Design by Joseph Kassner
BroadHollow Theatre Company
at Bayway Arts Center
265 East Main Street
East Islip, New York 11730
The Will Rogers Follies opened on Broadway on May 1, 1991 at the Palace Theatre and closed on September 5, 1993, after 981 performances and 33 previews. That production, directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, won five Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Choreography, Best Costume Design, and Best Lighting Design. It must have been a slow year! Significantly, Peter Stone did not win the Tony Award for Best Book. The story line focuses on the life and career of famed humorist Will Rogers (born November 4, 1879 in Oologah, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory - now Oklahoma), using the format of the Ziegfeld Follies, which he often headlined, as a backdrop to describing a few of the episodes of his life. In between, we learn that Will Rogers met his wife Betty Blake on the moon (not at a freight station), that his children never age in the show because Florenz Ziegfeld didn't want to spend extra money on children of different ages, that Wiley Post (the half-blind pilot who will be with Will Rogers when he dies) inexplicably is always hanging out in the audience of every show, and that Will Rogers is the most boring, one-dimensional character anyone might meet (which is probably not true given his rather exciting life). When his wife complains he is away from home too much, she is easily mollified with expensive gifts. Years pass from scene to scene with Will Rogers doing bad rope tricks, telling tired old jokes, and expressing "political opinions" that were so naive they were almost laughable. In the end, you leave the theater not having met a real human being with all the complexity that implies. If this musical is ever revived, the book will need a complete re-write.
I would describe the play as poor and the actors as mediocre, at best. There were only three high-quality professional performers in this production. Mary Elise Jones, who played Betty Blake (Will Rogers' wife) was the star of the show. She is the only character given the opportunity to show any depth of emotions. She also has a beautiful voice and did a wonderfully moving rendition of "No Man Left For Me". Michael Santora was perfectly pleasant and correctly cast in the main role of Will Rogers but there was very little for him to work with as the part is currently written. Where is the businessman making decisions, where is the conflict, what motivates him, what frightens him? In this play, Will Rogers is nothing but a cartoon character you might see in children's theater. Still, Mr. Santora is engaging and does the very best he can with the material. I particularly enjoyed his renditions of "Give A Man Enough Rope", "Our Favorite Son" and the low-key closing number "Never Met A Man I Didn't Like". Adam Brett, who played Pete the Stage Manager, is the only other actor in the production with a charismatic stage presence who evidenced any talent. There were no other standouts in this large cast and too many of the actors appeared to be poorly trained amateurs. I have seen other productions of the BroadHollow Theatre Company (most notably Fools and Into The Woods) and they were top notch! Whoever was the Casting Director of this show went a long way to destroying the reputation of this theater company. Even I am re-thinking whether it will be worth my time seeing Carousel, their next scheduled production.
This show lacked energy and was very uninspiring. There was no live orchestra and only a C-rated Burlesque Bevy of Babes you might find in a poorly attended Gentlemen's Club miles off the Las Vegas Strip. There were a few cute kids who were adorable but that is the most that can be said of the remaining cast. Will Rogers ("The Cherokee Kid" who was just over 1/4 Cherokee) was given at least one good line. When Florenz Ziegfeld told him that "in a Ziegfeld Show, the wedding always ends the first act," Rogers responded, "Well in our case, the wedding proceeded the act." He also referred to Wiley Post and himself as "a one-eyed flier and a half-breed rope swinger." His wife was left with lines such as, "If you get yourself killed, I'll never talk to you again." As for an inserted dose of philosophy, Will Rogers recalls that as the plane was going down, he said, "We're going down Wiley!" to which Wiley Post replied, "Hell, Will. Nobody stays up forever!" Of course, there were no survivors so we have absolutely no idea what they said to one another in those last moments. William Penn Adair Rogers died in that plane crash in Point Barrow, Alaska on August 15, 1935 (not on August 13th as mentioned in the show).
In real life, Will Rogers was a far more interesting and colorful character, none of which is substantively portrayed in the musical. After he obtained recognition as a humorist-philosopher in Vaudeville, he gained a national audience in acting and literary careers from 1915 to 1935. He often expressed the views of the "common man" downplaying the importance of academic credentials ("Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects"). Americans of all walks of life admired his individualism. He extolled hard work as the road to success. He symbolized the self-made man who believed in America, in progress, and in the American Dream of upward mobility. Being part Cherokee, he often quipped his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower, but they "met the boat." Later in life, he served as a goodwill ambassador to Mexico and a brief stint as mayor of Beverly Hills. Since the California city was incorporated and thus run by an appointed city manager, the "mayor's office" was merely a ceremonial one which enabled him to make more jokes about do-nothing politicians such as himself. He often said he was "not a member of any organized political party" because he was a Democrat but he did support Republican Presidential Candidate Calvin Coolidge. He also mounted a mock campaign for President in 1928 as the candidate of the Anti-Bunk Party promising to immediately resign if elected.
I only wish The Will Rogers Follies did a better job of portraying the true adventures of this amazing man. I am pretty certain if he were alive and saw this musical, he would make some humorous quip about it in public but, in private, probably wouldn't be too pleased. So many aspects of his life and personality are completely absent or glossed over. After his death, Will Rogers was mourned by millions of Americans and by people throughout the world. Not since Lincoln's assassination has the American public felt such a loss. Will Rogers will be remembered far longer than this play will be. This production runs through August 28, 2016. Tickets cost $23.00 for adults and $21.00 for seniors 65 and over. For more information, call 631-581-2700. To purchase tickets, visit www.BroadHollow.org