Monday, January 18, 2010
Theater review: Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue
What I took away from it was a series of visually great numbers, and sadly not as much about the man himself as I would have liked.
I'll admit it. I thought they had bitten off more than they could chew. After seeing Plaza Theatre Company's enjoyable Sanders Family Christmas last month, I didn't think that this larger scale musical, The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue (playing at the Plaza Theatre in Cleburne through February 6) in their black-box, in-the-round setting would be doable. The experiences I've had at similar venues have been less than successful, so I went into this production with trepidation. However, I was very pleasantly surprised. So many solid choices, smartly executed, make this a very clean and polished production that is darn fun.
As a younger and non-native Texan, I had to do some research on who Will Rogers was outside of the guy who asks for money at the movies, and has the large center across from my office.
Will Rogers was a humanist who led an extraordinary life from a young age. A popular figure in pop culture right at the time when mass media was hitting a stride, he was a social commentator, entertainer, and all around American Guy. He wrote thousands of newspaper columns, appeared in movies, Vaudeville, and spoke all over the country. Inspirational and folksy, without the crazy drama of contemporary celebs, it is easy to see how he was adored. It is also easy to see how his life would be a great base for a movie or musical.
This is where I have my criticisms. While this production was very good, and I'll go into the specifics in a moment, I just don't like the show itself. Yes, I know it won Best Musical, Direction, Choreography, Original Score, Costumes, and Lights. The songs (by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Comden and Green with book by Peter Stone) did not move me at all. While I love the concept of a biographical show done as a series of staged numbers (Evita, Patsy Cline, Nine, etc.), this particular book is clunky, top heavy, and the tunes largely forgettable.
What makes the show work is the dynamic and lovable character of Will Rogers, who transitions us from scene to scene, or one biographical monologue to another, by the occasional discussion with Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary impresario.
What I took away from it was a series of visually great numbers, familiar quotes I remember from my older relatives, and sadly not as much about the man himself as I would have liked. But, I'm one person, and that's just my take on it. Still, you have to wonder how it could win all these production awards, and not a single one for a performer. This was year that Miss Saigon swept the performance awards (all but one, in fact). While I love a good bit of fluff, it looks like the show was awarded for how pretty it was, but not what it could have been dramatically.
Directed by JaceSon and Tina Barrus, the two have done an excellent job of keeping the show moving and the spectacle fresh and constant. Energy is good all around, and the staging never favors one side of the round over another. The heart and spirit of the show has been kept intact while being reduced to a very intimate space. While the book itself may be lacking, I really didn't notice the first act was an hour and a half. Again, the show is top heavy by nature, but to not have it feel that long means engaging storytelling is going on.
JaceSon Barrus also designed the sets, which he also painted. There is a simple central platform unit, circular in shape with small levels stacked on top. Think of it like a wedding cake. Each layer is trimmed with metallic fringe in patriotic red and blue against the white platforms. While simple, a great deal of clever blocking and choreography made lots of different use of the space. The platform also lights up several times. It would be nice if the open areas behind the fringe were opaque like the top to keep us from seeing the mass of cables running under it, or the lights themselves. The glow would then be consistent with what the top level does.
The lighting, also by JaceSon Barrus, was not as strong as the rest of the design. There are lots of dark corners, and psychic intelligent lights that wait for entrances. The two black light sequences that precede each act need a lot more black light for the glow to work, as the effect did not. Other cues come late. The simplistic color palate had problems as well: Once, a red costume stayed in green light for a large portion of a number, turning a very unpleasant color.
Likewise, G. Aaron Siler's sound design was uneven and inconsistent. This production used tracked music, and a few pre-recorded chorus segments stand out awkwardly. There are also numerous entrances where mikes are off for several lines. I found it a bit distracting to have the core sound coming from the speaker cluster above the center of the space rather than from the performer a few feet away from me, but got used to it. There was also initially a very hollow ring to everyone's voice that was sorted out halfway through Act I.
Also used at times, with uneven results, were two digital projection areas. The trouble is the images range from lovely black and white archival photos to standard cheesy clip art. The results are often distracting and work against the story telling. A sequence set on the moon shows an image, not of the Earth that is referred to but a clip art moon. Act I has projections throughout, while Act II does not have any until a massive slideshow at the end. The show would be better served with more of the actual footage of Will Rogers throughout than saving it all for the end.
The costumes however, are very impressive. Tina Barrus is listed as the designer, but I was looking for the name of a rental company until I saw the army of volunteers listed under special thanks in the back of the program. Kudos to the design and construction crew! There are great period designs, including showgirl outfits. All of the ladies look good. While not as skimpy as Ziegfeld costumes would be, they do the job nicely and are flattering to all. The only disappointment was the Ziegfeld tableau, which was not a display of glamorous beauty. There are also some chaps that need a hemmed edge or piping to not be a simple cut of fabric hanging on a leg. Still, there are a lot of elaborate costumes, including kids and double casting, and all this work was very well done.
Much like the costuming, Eddie Floresca's choreography recreates much of the original production. Floresca is very gifted at adapting the dance to the particular space, varying levels of dance experience of the cast members, and rarely repeats a trick. There are several styles of dance involved, including tap and ballet. The variety of dances performed by a single ensemble is quite demanding -- we are representing the Follies, after all. As a whole the dance sequences are great, but there are few cast members who need to trust that they know the routine and not check in so much with the people beside them. A few more runs will build this part of the performance into something quite impressive.
Still, despite these technical concerns, the performance is very entertaining, with many talented folks. Clearly the brunt of the show rests on JaceSon Burrus, who also stars as Will Rogers. He is folksy, friendly, and fun. His lines roll off easily and he has the amiability to keep the show moving and relaxed at the same time, a hard balance to maintain. Vocally he does well, but sadly "Never Met a Man" doesn't provide much of a grand entrance vocally or dramatically. He makes the stiff dialog work, and does a nice job with Rogers' trademark bits of making contemporary comments off the newspaper. While his roping skills aren't quite up on the level as his namesake, he does have a few tricks ready.
Playing opposite Will as his wife Betty is Christine Atwell. Dramatically she is a smart performer and moves easily through what her scenes require. Sadly, they don't require much of her. Her character is used to create the dramatic tension of the story as Will is so busy working, his family is neglected. The book, however, wraps up each scene so lovingly that there is never really any worry or tension about how things will get fixed. Atwell also sings well, but again is better than the material.
Jay Lewis plays Clem Rogers as well as several other characters. Lewis is a versatile performer and succeeds in being different enough for each bit. As a father, there are a few nice moments between him and Barrus as Will learns life lessons.
Daron Cockerell is the Vanna White of the piece, as Ziegfeld's Favorite. She has great show face as the Follies Girl, as well as a keen sense of timing for her bits, lots of entrances, prop passing, and schtick, which she executes nicely. She also is a talented dancer and serves well in leading dance numbers.
If any show asks a lot from the ensemble, it is this one. There's a ton of dance, hand jive, running around in the dark, and vocal harmonizing. This ensemble works and works and works, through numerous costume changes and entrances. Vocally, Dick Helmcamp has done well preparing, not only the leads, but with this chorus as well. If anything, they could be louder, but they still sound good. As mentioned earlier, the dancing is non-stop, and as soon as they get a few more runs under their belt, they're going to have a lot of fun.
It wouldn't hurt to have a wrangler backstage to check everyone out before they go on. With so many little details done right, the things that slip stand out more. Missing hatbands, non period jewelry, untucked shirts, missing flowers were all observed on the men.
The women should also be careful not let the costume distract them from their performance: Dragging pearls and slipping blue puffballs steal from the delightful and impressive Follies runway sequence.
Again, I thought this production was an ambitious one, and while it is my job to comment on what I observed in the performance, with all the nit-picky "negatives" it would be easy to miss the larger picture. This is a well done production that has been handled quite well. It is fun, and entertaining, and worth the trip. This is my second Plaza experience, but I can promise you now I will be there for Thoroughly Modern Millie next month, to see if their streak continues.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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