There is nothing so good for an actor as having a faithful fan base, which means that Tom Wopat should be feeling very good right about now.
The singer/actor opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI in “The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue” and the audience erupted in applause, whistles and cheers even as the top of his western hat cleared the platform stairs spanning the stage.
It was Wopat they came to see and he did not disappoint.
Actually, like the role of Frank Butler in “Annie Get Your Gun” which earned Wopat a Tony nomination in 1999, that of Will Rogers fits him like a glove. His ability to communicate with the audience is a hallmark of Will Rogers’ low-key, straight-to-the-heart personality and it works well.
For those too young to remember, during the 1920s and ‘30s, until his death in 1935, Will Rogers was the best-known man in the world, his sly humor and all-encompassing good nature reinforced his best-known statement “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
The musical recap of his life, with book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is presented as a revue, resembling the Ziegfeld Follies in which Rogers starred on Broadway for several years.
The Barn production, directed by Ann Cooley, has an impressively sparkly show curtain which hides the aforementioned stairs, the edges of which light up when required.
Up (and down) these stairs climb the important players in Rogers’ life: his dad Clem (Charlie King), his wife Betty Blake (Brooke Evans), and a variety of Indians, showgirls and cowboys, all singing and dancing, frequently together. The stages of is life and career are introduced by Ziegfeld’s Favorite (Julie Grisham), a perky showgirl who enjoys the spotlight. One of the most significant characters, however, fellow flyer Wiley Post (Hans Frederichs), remains in the audience, moving the years along with his never-changing request “Let’s go flying, Will.”
Evans delivers a well-sung, sympathetic portrait of the lady who mostly waited for Will, first to be married, then to come home. On opening night, she was the target of an angry insect which Wopat managed to eliminate. Neither missed a note.
For whatever reason, the four Rogers children unfortunately are missing from this production as are the opulence and glamour for which Ziegfeld was famous, especially in the extremely bland costuming of the showgirls who frequently seem to be ads for a brassiere company.
The most theatrical excitement comes in Act Two, beginning with AJ Silver who opens with a show-stopping “Roping Act,” followed soon by the show’s best-known number “Our Favorite Son.” Flanked by showgirls in red, white and blue, Rogers accepts his state’s request to run for president. The rapidly precise hand-and-foot work of the ladies — with Wopat in sync most of the time — was an example of what should have been displayed in the rest of the ensemble numbers.
For most of the evening, singers and instrumentalists were at odds, with the orchestra frequently overplaying the vocalists. Hopefully, a better balance has been achieved.
No matter what the plus and minuses of this “Follies,” the title character delivers the unmistakable humor and honesty of the man. His radio talk at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt is taken from Will Rogers’ actual speech. As recreated by Wopat, its impact remains stronger than ever and, sadly, even more relevant today than during the dark days of the Great Depression.
Also ahead of its time (the show was written in 1991) is a ballad, “Look Around,” sung by Wopat to his own guitar accompaniment, which warns of the continuing disappearance of America’s heartlands.
Note: For Wopat fans who can’t get enough, the star is on the bill in the after-show cabaret in The Rehearsal Shed where he IS the third set (except between the Saturday matinee and evening performances).
It’s definitely worth the wait!
“WILL ROGERS FOLLIES A Life in Revue” plays through Sept. 6 in The Barn Theatre on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mi. For performance times and reservations, call (269)731-4121.