- New Jersey Critic
“Never met a man I didn’t like”, the opening line sung by Will Rogers in 1991, is one of the most relevant lines from this show that applies to our society today. In this final week before “the most important election of our time,” or so the media tells us, has been filled with political rhetoric, blame, hate, and excessive amounts of scandal. A night at the Broadway Theatre of Pitman is a wonderful reminder of a man who always found the best in all people around him.
The Will Rogers Follies opened on Broadway May 1st, 1991 at the Palace Theatre. The book was written by Peter Stone, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Cy Coleman and directed by Tommy Tune. The show is a biography of American icon Will Rogers and is performed in a first-person narrative by the lead actor playing Rogers set to his time as the headline act of the Ziegfeld Follies between 1916-1925. The show won multiple awards at the 1991 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction, Best Choreography, Best Costume Design and Best Lighting.
At the Broadway Theatre of Pitman the show is directed and choreographed by John Stephan, musical direction by Jack Hill, lighting by Shawn McGovern, sound by Chris Schenck, costumes by Donna Gibilisico and props by Tracy Jones. The iconic set piece of this musical was designed by John Stephan and built by Alden Wright. The show stars Michael DeFlorio as Will Rogers, Katie Hughes as Betty Blake, Paul Weagraff as Clem Rogers and Kelly Boeckle as Zeigfeld’s Favorite.
The Will Rogers Follies is just a fun night of theater. It tells the story of America’s greatest ambassadors, kindest man and genuine person who never forgot his Native American roots. Michael DeFlorio did a wonderful job playing Rogers and even learned rope tricks to make his performance more authentic. His individual timing and interpretation of Will Rogers is youthful, naive and energetic, much like a Rogers who grew up in Oklahoma to modest means. Katie Hughes’ portrayal of Betty Blake was quite enjoyable because of her big stage voice (My Unknown Someone and No Man Left for Me), and ability to convey how much Betty wished to have Will with her and the family more than on the road performing and Kelly Boeckle’s portrayal of Ziegfeld’s Favorite was so well timed with a hint of sass that we come to expect of showgirls of the era. The man who stole the show was Paul Weagraff’s portrayal of Clem Rogers. He was able to mix his comedy with true humility in telling the audience what Peter Stone felt Clem would have told his son Will. There were also some wonderful dance moments as the Follies Dancers (who double as the sisters of Betty and of Will) and clear musical moments by the Wranglers. There are also performances by Jacob Long, Abby Murphy, John-Luke Witting and Ryan Vaites as adorable Rogers children.
John Stephan’s direction of The Will Rogers Follies is wonderful. If you have read some of my previous articles, I have reviewed his work before and I believe he is an up and coming community theater director in southern New Jersey. This show is no easy task. Included in the show rights are some stipulated choreography from Tommy Tune that must be incorporated into the show. John has shown a brilliant ability to blend his own originality along with the choreography by Tommy Tune. In addition to that, the hardest technical piece was the iconic rainbow stairs from the Broadway production. Stephan’s concept of using LED lighting that was built by Alden Wright gives this show a luminous “WOW” factor. The technology allows the stairs to change colors as Will sings Diamonds for Mrs. Rogers and it is a modern enhancement that makes that song even greater on stage. Lighting this show is quite a challenge as the stairs take up most of the stage and Shawn McGovern’s work makes it easy to follow the actors and appeared easy for actors to maneuver them throughout the show. There is a phenomenal pit lead by Jack Hill that would rival many regional theaters in Philadelphia. The costumes were wonderful and looked authentic to the time. There have been many community productions that turned this biographical piece into a costumed comedy but you won’t find that with Donna Giblisico’s work. The costumes matched the period and were color schemed properly so that it helped enhance the actors’ character storytelling.
There were some minor issues I hope to see enhance the show more. I believe that the show is paced a bit faster than it needs to be. A show like this is all about the connections in Will Rogers’ life and how he was able to settle a crowd down and relate to them. The show also showcased how he was willing to change life for his wife Betty. Both roles are played very well and I would love for it to be more of a love story that grows organically and not pushed through rushed songs and dialogue. I also hope to see a bit more confidence in the male quartet. They sing so well and are having fun but you can also feel the nerves and uneasiness in their choreography. Finally, I’d love to have Wylie Post’s position slightly better lit as he was in the dark a bit.
Overall I truly enjoyed and appreciated the work done by the cast and crew at the Broadway Theater of Pitman’s The Will Rogers Follies. It is a welcomed show right before this year’s elections. Everyday for the past two months we have turned the television on and see people pointing out the worst in the opposing candidate. Will Rogers saw the best in people, he brought people together and told wonderful stories and taught life lessons through humor and respect of all people. Towards the end of the show Rogers is asked to address the nation after an address by Herbert Hoover and inspired a nation while addressing the economic inequality that was occurring during the beginning of the Great Depression. How interesting that people were inspired to action back then. Maybe we all need a little Will Rogers Follies in our lives nowadays.
The Will Rogers Follies
Broadway Theatre of Pitman
Oct. 28th- Nov. 20th, 2016