Reviewed by Will Stackman
To open their 38th season, Waltham's Reagle Players have gone back to an earlier success, "The Will Rogers Follies," which combines Peter Stone's fictional biography of the legendary cowboy comedian with Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolf Green's tribute to the equally legendary Ziegfield Follies, one of the pinnacles of the Broadway revue. The production is again directed by Robert Eagle, choreographed this time by Eileen Grace, who's just become the company's Associate Producer. She was the show's dance captain for its Broadway run and recreates the work of its original choreographer, Tommy Tune. Grace is currently a director/choreographer at Radio City Music Hall, among her several achievements. The spectacular numbers which are the show's claim to fame are seen in all their complexity on the touring version of Tony Walton's set with Willa Kim's Erte-inspired costumes. Music direction for this production is handled with his usual consummate skill by IRNE winner, Paul Katz with a full orchestra in the pit.
This time, the title role is taken by IRNE winner, Scott Wahle, an anchor on Channel 4 News, who captures the folksie essence of Rogers. Fellow IRNE winner, Broadway light Sarah Pfisterer is back as Betty Blake, Roger's wife, who has the show's best ballads. Pfisterer's charm lifts them beyond their setting. Veteran Reagle character man Harold Walker, in his 27th year with the company, comes on strong as Rogers' outspoken father, Clem. From the original cast, showgirl Dana Leigh Jackson sings, vamps, and dances the central role of Z's favorite, a foil for the leading man. Her longtime association with this show makes her knowing ways all the more effective. The production also features two touring veterans, Joanne Wilson and her trained dogs--all rescued from the pound--and one-man Wild West show specialist Chris Daniel as The Roper. Both add to its showbiz air.
It is of course the girls who make the Follies, and Grace, together with dance captain Jennifer Turey have recruited and trained some of the best local talent, many who've grown up with the company. The showgirls may not all be as tall as Jackson, but they strut their stuff with precision, and the ponies, who make their first appearance wearing cowhorns have energy to spare. There is of course a well-executed Rockette-style kickline. The Wranglers are equally proficient and harmonize appropriately. Eagle and Grace manage to balance the Follies element of the show, an homage to a kind of theatre now preserved mostly in Busby Berkeley's celluloid efforts, with the homely style of the central character. Coleman, Comden and Green plainly reveled in recreating the glamorous entertainment that was the pinnacle of the American musical theatre at one time, even getting back to minstrelsy in the show stopping "Favorite Son," which this production recreates flawlessly.
Wahle has a distinctive style and his interpretation of Rogers is more an appreciation than an impersonation. But he shares a friendliness with the legend, and so plainly enjoys his annual live appearance away from the newsdesk, that the audience is quickly on his side and the show benefits from the interaction. Stone's almost dry bio-drama, with Wiley Post sitting on the aisle down front tries to get at the heart of this part-Cherokee cowboy who became both a star and a folk hero in his lifetime. The show was written at the height of the dissatisfaction with the Reagan-Bush years and "The Will Rogers Follies" continuing success, for all its dramatic flaws, suggests that the public would prefer its hokum to be purely theatrical--like the show's incongruous dog act--and its political discourse to be more plain-spoken, with fewer slogans and more simple humanity. The idea of the successful bumpkin who "never met a man I didn't like" still has power, perhaps to fool as well as inspire.
This show marks an upgrade in lighting for Reagle, and allows David Wilson to achieve an effective theatrical look. The company's next effort will be "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which will give the dancers another workout, followed by Pfisterer's return as Beauty opposite Fred Inkley as The Beast. Reagle is also hosting as weekend preview of the latest touring version of "Cats," which will give their established audience four shows this summer. Their partnership with the city in the continuing maintenance and upgrade of this theater is an interesting model for the future of such venues.