The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
Will Rogers Follies
YouTube Summer 2020
On Broadway 1991-1993, this
show aimed no higher or lower than to be a big, brassy, colourful, tuneful
and entertaining Broadway musical, and it succeeded. It was not one for
the ages, but it was a thoroughly entertaining couple of hours, and this
recording made for Japanese television captures all its charm.
It certainly has an A-List
pedigree: music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green,
book by Peter Stone, direction and choreography by Tommy Tune, sets by
Tony Walton and even the recorded voice of Gregory Peck.
One hundred years ago Will
Rogers was one of the most famous people on earth, a star entertainer on
stage, film, radio and even newspaper columns. A homespun monologist, his
wry commentary on current events – he frequently carried the day's
newspaper onstage to quip about it – anticipated the topical opening
monologues of some TV chat show hosts.
For a decade he was the star
and centrepiece of the annual Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, and the
premise of this show is that his life story is being told as Florenz
Ziegfeld might have produced it – with lavish staging, song and dance, big
production numbers and, of course, lots of pretty girls.
As Keith Carradine as Rogers
says, 'It's a whole lot more theatrical than the way I actually lived it.'
The razzle-dazzle pauses from
time to time to allow Carradine to stand alone onstage and say things like
'In Russia they don't have income tax. They don't have income neither,'
and 'You folks ever notice that the President only wears glasses when he's
delivering a speech? It's because he's never seen it before.'
Rogers's story – Oklahoma
farm boy hooks up with wild west show, starts telling jokes between his
lasso tricks, moves up to vaudeville and then Broadway and beyond – is
told more-or-less accurately, subject only to the interruptions of Florenz
Ziegfeld (Peck's voice) insisting, for example, that chronology be
manipulated so the big wedding scene can be the first act finale.
Keith Carradine, best known
perhaps for a key role in the film Nashville, proves to have real star
quality. He sings pleasantly, moves with a dancer's grace, has loads of
charm and effortlessly owns the stage. He even manages to carry the
aw-shucks just-an-ol'-farmboy characterisation a lot longer than you'd
The other star of the show is
director-choreographer Tommy Tune who seems to have set himself the
challenge of finding as many unexpected variations on Broadway dancing as
possible. There is, inevitably but beautifully, a Ziegfeld-style parade of
extravagantly-dressed chorus girls, but there is also a number built on
disembodied dancing cowboy boots.
One number has people dancing
on their knees, another on their backs, and another is largely a matter of
rhythmic thigh-slapping, while my favourite has Carradine and the chorus
girls sitting in a line for a rapid and intricate dance entirely of their
hands and arms.
Apart from the chronology and
the fact that we are alerted from the beginning about when and how Rogers
will die (a plane crash in 1935), the only hint of drama the book offers
is the half-hearted suggestion that Rogers's stardom might have put some
strain on his marriage – a darkness the musical denies as soon as it
This is largely a
one-man-plus-chorus show, but there is solid support from Dee Hoty as Mrs.
Rogers, Dick Latessa as Will's father and others, and Cady Huffman as a
jill-of-all-trades chorus girl. There's even a trained-dog act (Don't
As is almost inevitably true
of musicals, the show begins to run out of steam toward the end, and you
can almost spot the moment when, after several out-of-town rewrites, they
decided it wasn't going to get any better and they'd have to make do with
what they had.
But you'll enjoy a couple of hours in Keith Carradine's company and you'll want to go back and replay a couple of those very inventive dance sequences.
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