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Theatre review: Boy howdy, The Will Rogers Follies are a real treat
By PETER BIRNIE, VANCOUVER SUN April 10, 2011
THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES
When: 8 p.m., to April 24
Where: Massey Theatre, 735 Eighth Ave., New Westminster
Tickets: $20 to $39, go to masseytheatre.com 604-521-5050 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 604-521-5050 end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Chances are, folks 'round these parts haven't heard of The Will Rogers Follies. That's a pity: A big Broadway show that gets neglected because, well, it's too big, means we've been missing out on a real treat.
Royal City Musical Theatre has once again enlisted an army of talented amateurs, topped things with a couple of real pros and come up with magic up the hill in New Westminster.
The Will Rogers Follies takes the tales (only some of them tall) of America's favourite everyman/funnyman, a wise-crackin' cowboy from Oklahoma, and spins them into a sweet reminiscence of the life he led about a century ago. As she did last year with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, director Val Easton won't settle for less than a thoroughly polished offering of song, dance and lots of one-liners.
She's blessed to have Matt Palmer doing her Will. We already know his charms as a singer in many musical-theatre offerings and it's great to see him step up to mastering tricky rope tricks (well, he's getting there nicely, anyway), but what's best about Palmer's performance is the deep understanding he has of this fella's charms.
Rogers was one of the good guys, as expressed in his mantra that "I never met a man I didn't like." Boy howdy, that takes a lot of commitment to one's fellow human beings, and Palmer convincingly conveys the many charismatic ways Will roped in all his many fans.
On a promenade in front of the orchestra pit, he welcomes us to a unique kind of cabaret. From beyond the grave Will's been brought back by the great Florenz Ziegfeld, who used to pay Rogers a great deal of money to appear in Ziegfeld's gigantic vaudeville shows, and so The Will Rogers Follies unfolds as both biography and an excuse to parade pretty girls among the melodies.
Palmer has the drawl down pat, as well as the self-deprecating manner that so assured America and the world this slow-talkin' cowboy was the real deal. But the actor also projects something much deeper from behind Will's trademark smile — his heartfelt love of life.
A serious scene in the second act has him standing at an old-style microphone, delivering a radio address that was supposed to cheer listeners up just after they'd been handed the latest bad economic new from President Herbert Hoover. Instead, Rogers spoke at length and with great eloquence about the injustice of inequality in a nation where the wealthy were busy cheating every penny they could from the poor.
Word for word, what we heard on Saturday's opening night could have been written the day before, when the U.S. government was frantically trying to tie itself into its latest Gordian knot of economic chicanery. So many of the jokes heard in the whole show are likewise cut eerily close to spoofing what we witness spewing from today's politicians.
But back to happier times, and those girls. Laura McNaught has a funny recurring role as the impossible leggy Ziegfeld favourite who helps change scenes, and her fellow chorus girls are equally beautiful in their manner, movements and especially enunciation. Musical director James Bryson has cracked the whip to create the same vocal discipline that Easton demands in her choreography of suitably overblown dance numbers.
A show-stopper in the second act, for example, sees Palmer as part of a chorus line celebrating his bid to be U.S. president (on the Anti-Bunk ticket, of course). Sitting in a row and slapping their knees, and then each other's, and turning this action into an infectiously snappy dance number, Will and the women find all the fun in Cy Coleman's cheery score.
As the cowboy's wife, Sara-Jeanne Hosie gets to sing the sultry stuff, with poignant lyrics by the legendary Comden and Green. Betty Rogers doesn't have the same globe-trotting fun as her husband, but whether in the love duets she sings with him or the spoof of a smokey "he done me wrong" ballad, Hosie shows why she's one of our best Broadway voices.
From the four adorable Rogers kids (Nathan Piasecki, Keira Jang, Trevor Kobayashi, Connor Macmillan) and his gol-darned dad (Tyson Coady) to Chris Sinosich's ocean of gorgeous costumes, the big brass in Bryson's pit-packing orchestra and a richly creative set design by Omanie Elias, this stellar production of The Will Rogers Follies is filled with the fun of a family treat your clan should see. Yes indeedy, from eight to 80, come one come all.
Sun Theatre Critic
Monday, April 11, 2011
MASSEY THEATER. COM OR 521-5050 FOR TICKETS.