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 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.

The 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 think possible.

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 raises 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 ask).

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.

Gerald Berkowitz
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Review of  The Will Rogers Follies 2020