The Pioneer Theater Company’s “The Will Rogers Follies–A Life in Review” is Filled with Nostalgia, Spectacle, and Delight

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By Jennifer Mustoe, with Amanda Berg

Long before Guardians of the Galaxy and La La Land, from 1907 to 1931 to be exact, Ziegfeld Follies delighted Broadway audiences with remarkable, fun, spectacle-filled entertainment. Long before Dave Barry or even Jon Stewart, Will Rogers (1875-1935) gave America and the world an opportunity to see themselves with humor, warmth, and respect–even when he was poking fun at them all.

In the Pioneer Theater Company’s latest offering, The Will Rogers Follies–A Life in Review (Revue), you will see both of these entertaining options, Ziegfeld Follies and Will Rogers, in one lovely show. The Pioneer always does an amazing job, but this show will knock your socks off. And not in the current in-your-face, gritty, sometimes shocking way that many of today’s plays and musicals are presented. The Will Rogers Follies is just delightful, with enough humor to keep you laughing, enough love story to give you all the feelz, enough wisdom to give you a thing or two to ponder, and enough spectacle to dazzle you. Something for everyone.

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The story is very simple–it tracks the life story of humorist Will Rogers, who began his career doing rope tricks and riding a pony. His cowboy appeal advanced him to Vaudeville and eventually The Ziegfeld Follies. However, there was much more to Rogers and he eventually wrote a newspaper column, books, starred on a radio show and starred in movies, at first in silent films, and then talkies. He traveled all over the world and was loved by all. He truly was adored by millions and millions of fans. Much of his humor was poking fun at politics and politicians, but it was done in such a way that he never really offended them.

Much of The Will Rogers Follies is just that–Will making funny comments, first opening a current paper and making witty comments, and then from The New York Times from the 1920s and surprise! The news was similar to today and his jokes were just as funny now as they were then. The show summarizes bits of his life, but after reading on Wikipedia about Rogers, if the show represented his whole life, I’d be at the theater still. He was a hard worker and his list of accomplishments in his 55 years is admirable.

Each number was a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza–complete with dancing and singing by the many New Ziegfeld Girls and the four Wranglers. Each of these ensemble performers were marvelous, but their beauty and dazzle was that each was part of one big whole. They were costumes, movement, music as background but so much more.

The costumes were outstanding. Honestly, I was dazzled to the point of Wow. Costume Designer Patrick Holt makes us SEE the Follies. I recently visited NYC and did not go see the Rockettes. One only has so much time. Seeing the New Ziegfeld Girls and the Wranglers in all their glory makes me feel like I haven’t missed a thing.

Often led by Ziegfeld’s favorite, played by Chryssie Whitehead (who’s so cute and funny I just loved her), the ensemble numbers were filled with energy and we loved them all. Our favorite was The Campaign–“Our Favorite Son.” Who would have thought so much could come from a line of people sitting down and just clapping and hitting their knees and hats? This isn’t coming out right. It’s just intricately, perfectly great. When you see the show, you’ll see what I mean. Director/Choreographer DJ Salisbury had his performers moving perfectly in each of the many (21) numbers and this is a BIG Song and Dance Show. Music Director/Conductor Phil Reno honed his singers and players to perfection. This is a Musical with a capital “M.” A rather fun Utah tribute is The Voice of Mr. Ziegfeld (the players look up at the “booth” above the balcony) is played by our own Donny Osmond.

The leads are Norman Large as Will’s father, Clem Rogers. Frankly, if there’s a villain in the show, it’s Clem. He is unsupportive of his son to the point of unkindness. Large does a great job showing some of Clem’s humanity and since Clem dies during the show (he dies during Will’s lifetime in other words), Large is brought back as other characters–contributing to one of the running jokes that Ziegfeld is cheap. Very funny. Will’s four children, Will, Jr. (Kimball Stinger), Mary (Ava Hoekstra), James (Nathan Eliason), and Freddy (Mila Belle Howells) all were very professional, but somehow, up on that big stage, they looked so small–and it was very effective. They were little kids looking small.

Wiley Post (Jim Bennet) has some of the funniest lines–but I grew to dislike him–the character, not the actor. If I tell you why, it’s a spoiler if you don’t read the Wikipedia link I added. Bennet has great timing and it was fun that he did his entire performance from a seat in the audience.

Another fun highlight in the show is there is a real life roper/whip specialist, AJ Silver. Boy, can he crack those whips and fling those lassos. This is the stuff that Rogers started with–these same tricks. I can see why people flocked to his shows. It’s pretty impressive.

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Will’s wife, Betty Blake, “Blake” to Will, is played with heartwarming splendor by Lisa Brescia. She goes from small town farm girl to loving wife and mother and even gets to do the token Ziegfeld vamp song atop a piano. Brescia is perfection, her voice is that of an angel. The synergy she has onstage is lovely. Again, that word lovely. Brescia is all that’s beautiful and kind in this sea of pretty girls and hunky men of the ensemble.

Will Rogers is played with folksy splendor by David M. Lutkin. Lutkin is not one-quarter Cherokee, as Rogers was. Lutkin is tall and Rogers wasn’t particularly tall. But it doesn’t matter one bit. Lutkin has embraced and embodied Will Rogers–from Rogers’ down-to-earth, wry manner to some pretty awesome rope tricks. Throughout the show, all I wanted to do is get onstage and talk with Will Rogers. He was very real to me. Even now as I write this, I found myself wishing I could have met Will Rogers. Lutkin creates this hero with such integrity and precision, I’m still somewhat overwhelmed.

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Even though the show could end sadly, it doesn’t. In the end, Rogers’ witticisms and popular sayings (“I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” is the final number) bring him to us so he lives on in this delightful show.

The only sad part of this show really was the audience was half-empty. This shouldn’t happen. This show is rated PG and everyone will love this show. Bring your kids! Bring your grandma! Bring your classes, teachers! You will learn something in this show and you will love every minute of it! There are two more weeks of performances. Gather some loved ones and see The Will Rogers Follies–A Life in Review. It is a breath of fresh air right now, and we could use it–just as Rogers was in his life.

Pioneer Theater Company, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, The University of Utah, 300 1400 E #205, Salt Lake City, UT 84112  

Tickets: are $40-62, 5 dollars more if you buy the day of the show.

May 5 TO May 20, 2017

  • 7:00 p.m. Mondays – Thursdays Evenings
  • 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturday Evenings
  • 2:00 p.m. Saturday Matinees

(801) 581-6961

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