``Will Rogers'' is homespun, high-style- and fun

May 06, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Corny as it sounds, "The Will Rogers Follies" is a highly likable show about the man who never met a man he didn't like.

When Keith Carradine, in the title role, says, "I'm happy when I'm standing up there in front of all those folks, and I know I'm making them happy," it sums up not only his performance, but also the overall effect of this razzle-dazzle musical, which opened at the Lyric Opera House last night.

Subtitled, "A Life in Revue," "The Will Rogers Follies" -- score by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, book by Peter Stone, and direction and choreography by Tommy Tune -- is not a typical showbiz bio. Instead, Stone's clever book presents Rogers' life story within the format of a Ziegfeld Follies show.

There's the traditional giant stairway -- in the case of Tony Walton's scenic design it's basically the entire set. There's a wedding at the end of Act 1. There's a dog act, a quartet of !! wranglers and a passel of long-legged, scantily clad chorines.

But there are also several departures. From time to time the broadcast voice of Florenz Ziegfeld -- actually the recorded voice of Gregory Peck -- booms instructions from the balcony.

More unusual are Rogers' references to his death in a 1935 plane crash.An actor playing Wiley Post, the pilot also killed in the crash, is seated in the balcony and stands up repeatedly and says, "Let's go flying, Will!" This might be macabre if Carradine's Rogers didn't take it so well; at one point he even refers to Post as "the greatest flier in history -- if you don't count that one time."

Of course, Tune's imaginative staging is the main factor brightening things up. This man can create a livelier number with the chorus seated in a row than most choreographers can do with a ballroom full of totally mobile dancers. A highlight is "Favorite Son," in which Carradine sits flanked by red, white and blue-garbed beauties who pat their knees and cross their legs, then do the same to their neighbors, with split-second precision.

And in terms of pure spectacle, it's difficult to top Willa Kim's bejeweled designs in "Presents for Mrs. Rogers." But playwright Stone and director Tune also use these to make a plot point. When the Great Depression hits, stagehands replace the lavish gowns with sheets.

Road show audiences are fortunate to be able to see affable Carradine in the role he originated. He does rope tricks, spouts wit and wisdom, and shows off his mellow voice in the musical's catchiest song, "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like."

This company also boasts his original co-star, Dee Hoty, who can not only belt a torch song, but convincingly conveys the intelligence of Rogers' devoted wife.

"The Will Rogers Follies" recaptures what Ziegfeld wanted when he hired Rogers -- the combination of a homespun hero and glitzy showmanship. The script calls it "Will-a-Mania," but it could also be described as homespun glitz -- a neat trick if you can carry it off, and this show does.


What: "The Will Rogers Follies."

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. For signed performance dates, call TDD, (410) 625-1407. Through May 23.

Tickets: $25-$50.

Call: (410) 625-1400.

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