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Where There's a Will

The Will Rogers Follies
Marty Sohl

Hat's Entertainment: Bill O'Brien and friends re-create the glory days of the Ziegfeld Follies for American Musical Theatre of San Jose.

What's not to like in musical adaptation of Will Rogers' life?

By Heather Zimmerman

IN RECENT YEARS on Broadway, everything old has been new again; that's not always a bad thing, especially when the subject is the plain-vanilla wisdom of cowboy-philosopher Will Rogers. The Will Rogers Follies is both a celebration of the humorist's life and a lovingly lavish send-up of the Ziegfeld Follies, which Rogers headlined for about 10 years in the 1920s and '30s. Not a rhinestone or feather is out of place--and is sometimes quite strategically placed--in American Musical Theatre of San Jose's production.

Rogers' propensity for kindness and tolerance, which he espoused about 70 years ago, doesn't seem that outdated (if nothing else, as something to aspire to). And it probably doesn't hurt his staying power that what he needled politicians about so long ago still rings startlingly true. This point is driven home in an opening scene that features Rogers (Bill O'Brien) perusing a current newspaper with a commentary that literally spans the decades.

O'Brien gives an excellent performance in a tough role--a principal character in a musical who is neither a dashing hero nor an outright clown. His clear, true voice suits Rogers well, and his presence is as likable as the legend demands. Therese Walden also delivers a strong performance as Rogers' patient wife, Betty.

Certainly, it's the show's one foot in reality that heightens the humor and adds pathos. The song-and-dance sequences are occasionally stopped cold by the thundering, unseen voice of Florenz Ziegfeld, interruptions that Rogers always handles with his down-to-earth panache. Wiley Post, with whom Rogers would die in a 1935 plane crash, makes periodic appearances, always within a reference to their ill-starred flight. Rogers always treats this news--how else?--matter-of-factly.

The musical balances reality with the almost surreal grandeur of the production numbers, beautifully choreographed by Patti D'Beck, who was Tommy Tune's assistant in choreographing the Broadway production. This talented chorus boasts a strong collective voice, which is especially apparent in "Favorite Son," a snappy campaign-trail number featuring an amazingly precise chorus line. Willa Kim's elegant costume designs effectively highlight the famed Ziegfeld dazzle .

Something that becomes clear in the statistics that the show isn't shy about quoting is that Rogers was more media-savvy than even most notables today; nevertheless, Rogers never became irritating in his ubiquity. There are few celebrities nowadays who wouldn't seem ridiculous in a musical extravaganza like The Will Rogers Follies. It's hard to picture a knee-slapping, rope-twirling Rush Limbaugh, although with Howard Stern's current media blitz, perhaps someday we'll see Private Parts transformed for the Broadway stage. Could good old Will still then contend he never met a man he didn't like? If this tribute to Will Rogers and his legendary kindness is any judge, the answer is still yes.

The Will Rogers Follies plays Wednesday­Thursday at 8pm, Friday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2 and 8:30pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm (Mar 30, 2pm only) through March 30 at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd, San Jose. Tickets are $28­$48. (BASS).

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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