REVIEW: ‘Will Rogers Follies’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

“Will Rogers Follies” is an autobiographical musical that is unusual because Rogers was so folksy and yet so often surrounded by the showbiz hokum of vaudeville and urban shimmer of Flo Ziegfeld and the Ziegfeld girls. A cowboy with a lasso next to a scantily clad woman who looked like a Vargas girl seemed like a contradiction. And the irony was that American purity was the cowboy, and certainly not the half-naked city girl. But there he was.

Will Rogers was all-American. He had a good heart. He raised tons of money for charities. In fact, the Will Rogers Foundation is alive and well today doing good works.

So with grits and glitz, you get “Oklahoma Will” meeting New York City, and both maintaining their own character, appeal and charm. Most of the time, one will lose out to the other. That both co-existed comfortably in the same place was a good subject for a musical. It was made into one back in 1991, and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won six of them, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Costume. The Cy Coleman score is fun and bouncy and serves up opportunities to go big with choreography and clever, splashy costumes.

Music Mountain Theatre did itself proud in tackling this ambitious show, which presents several challenges. It requires a subtly charismatic center for Will and a director and production team to carry off some tricky effects. There is the seemingly simple set of a wide, white staircase on which very specific lighting and projections occur during the show. It, also has very clever Tommy Tune choreography and gorgeous costumes befitting a Ziegfeld show.

And, guess what? Yup, pardner, they done did it. They found themselves a good Will Rogers in Louis Palena, who dons the cowboy hat and chewing gum like a natural and does a few rope tricks, as well. Will Rogers’ charm came from the ability to be in front of an audience and be authentic. Palena has the ease to do that. Along with the necessary lanky frame and demeanor, he became the Oakie that America took to its heart back at the beginning of the 20th century.

The set consists primarily of a large set of white stairs that harken back to old time Hollywood grandeur, and indeed the “follies,” where dancers danced and made grand entrances and exits. Lighting by Jared Williams is used to color the stairs for special effects or to isolate a part of the stage for a scene. The costumes are first rate, and have to be for numbers like “Presents for Mrs. Rogers,” “The Campaign” and “The Wedding.” Especially in “Presents for Mrs. Rogers,” the audience is totally blown away by the magnificent haute couture of Jordan Brennan. Like sexy Vargas girls in Erte costumes, beautifully-gowned women in headdresses flow down the stairs. It is a visual banquet, sumptuous and delicious. Choreography from the Tommy Tune original was re-created by Louis Palena and dance captain Sharon Rudda. (You think it is easy to dance up and down stairs? No!)

This all was coordinated by director David Whiteman, who also played Will Roger’s father in the show, where he charmed in numbers like “It’s a Boy.”

The show encompasses Will’s entire life from birth to death, and of course the centerpiece of that life was his falling in love with Betty Blake (Devon Byrnes), who became Mrs. Will Rogers. Clarion clear, soulful and beautiful, the voice of Devon Byrnes is one of the highlights of the show. You hear and know that from her first number, “Unknown Someone.”

Jaime Geddes is seen throughout as Ziegfeld’s Favorite, and leads the Follies Girls in ensemble numbers, along with emerging at different moments to assist Will in his routine. Jaime, as expected if you have seen her before, dances like a dream and is perfection in the role. As an interesting aside, this part was originally played be Cady Huffman, where she was a nominee for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. But she left a year later, and was replaced by Marla Maples. Donald Trump had left his first wife for Maples, who would soon be the second Mrs. Trump. There is a line in the show said by Mrs. Will Rogers to the Ziegfeld Favorite, “How did you get this part?” It always got a laugh, especially with Maples, because it was obvious when looking at the leggy, sexy woman playing the favorite.

Other moments truly hit home during the show, like Will’s speech about “America in need” during the Great Depression. In today’s uncertain world, that pulled a little harder on audience hearts than perhaps it would a few years ago. Palena’s amiable Will also hooks you on “Give a Man Enough Rope” and “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like.” The latter song, which is also a well -known Roger’s quote, has a country western easiness. It stays in your mind and takes up residence.

The show runs through Aug. 18, and you can lasso yourself a ticket online.

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