SALT LAKE CITY — “I never met a man I didn’t like.” It’s probably the most famous line said by Oklahoma’s favorite son and beloved American humorist, Will Rogers. He’s the subject of Pioneer Theatre Company’s current offering The Will Rogers Follies: A Life In Review.
For all of you under 50 (or maybe under 60) who have never heard of Will Rogers, the man was foremost a humorist, columnist, and social commentator in the first 35 years of the 20th Century. He was sort of like the Stephen Colbert of his time, but without the bite. With a musical score written by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and book by Peter Stone—all legends of musical theatre—the names alone should be a reason to see the show. But, there are so many more reasons to go.
I’m so used to hearing pre-recorded music accompanying singers in local theaters, I forget how thrilling it is to hear a live orchestra in the pit. The musical score for The Will Rogers Follies is classic Broadway: melodic, moving, tuneful, and brassy. The score is swinging and full, like Hello, Dolly!, Sweet Charity, and Mame; and it’s played wonderfully by the pit orchestra.
The show’s world is set in and around the late 19th and early 20th century, during the heyday of the Ziegfeld Follies. The Follies were a juggernaut of entertainment revues that made stars of W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Sophie Tucker and Will Rogers. As with every Ziegfeld show, it begins with a huge musical number, “Will-a-Mania,” a sort of silly song full of cowboys and cowgirls singing and dancing. In fact, the first part of the show was such a production number, I found myself wondering when the “Life in Review” part of the show would begin. But as soon as Will Rogers (played perfectly by David M. Lutken) takes the stage, the show really starts.
Will Rogers was a brilliant political satirist who, by his own admission, joked about every prominent man of his time. So how appropriate it is, in our current political climate, to listen to the wonderful musings of a man who made fun of every politician, every government, every law, and did so without malice. It gives us a perspective of how little things in life or politics change. Lutken portrays the easiness and affability of Rogers with deft and clarity. His performance of “Give a Man Enough Rope” is delightful. Lutken doesn’t have a strong voice, but has a natural, Hank-Williams-folksy voice that’s easy to listen to and striking in its delivery. Lutken is a wonderful actor, handles a rope well, plays the guitar effortlessly and even played the harmonica. Is there anything this man can’t do? But the number that really stood out and put a lovely button on the show was the song, “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like.” Lutken delivers the essence of Will Rogers with simple and touching honesty.
Standouts in the cast include Lisa Brescia as Betty Blake, Rogers’ wife and love of his life. Blake, with a classic Gene Tierney look and a marvelous voice, easily holds her own with Lutken as she sings, “My Unknown Someone” and “My Big Mistake.” She won me over with her comic delivery, her interactions with the four amazing kids who play their children, and with her believable love for Rogers.
I must mention here Kimball Stinger, Ava Hoekstra, Nathan Eliason, and Mila Belle Howells. Those amazing kids who were charming as heck in the number, “The Big Time.” Despite an unfortunate costume malfunction on one of the boy’s chaps, which kept falling down around his knees, the audience was right with him, cheering him on. I think the costume could use little more Velcro, please.
I must also commend Norman Large’s performance as Will Rogers’s father, Clem Rogers. A fine character actor with impeccable timing and a wonderfully raspy voice gave his song, “It’s a Boy!”, aplomb and delight. His last scene together with Will Rogers, a father reflecting on the life of his son, was very moving.
Director DJ Salisbury deserves great credit for this wonderful production. It is well-directed and inventively choreographed, particularly the number “The Campaign – Our Favorite Son.” This song celebrates Will Rogers’ run for president in 1928. Performed by Lutken and the talented bevy of New Ziegfeld Girls, while sitting on a step, singing and doing precise hand choreography, this song was creative and captivating.
Rarely in this town do audiences get the opportunity to see costumes like those designed by Patrick Holt. Whether lavish for the New Ziegfeld Girls production numbers or simple for an Oklahoma cowboy, the costumes are fun and well-crafted. George Maxwell’s sets were well-suited for the show; the moon set was particularly effective. Truly, every aspect of this show is excellent, from Amanda French’s hair and makeup design, to Yael Lubetsky’s lighting and Joshua C. Hight’s sound design. In fact, the show was so engrossing I had to remind myself to take notes.
I chatted with a few people in the audience and a patron in their mid-twenties said to me, excitedly, “It’s a different kind of musical.” I smiled. For me, who is a few decades older, it’s the sort of musical I grew up with, the kind I know and love. The Will Rogers Follies is like putting on an old sweater and letting it warm you with its familiarity.
When all is said and done, Will Rogers told us the truth and made us laugh at it. We all need a good laugh now. We all need a little Will Rogers now.