Howard County Summer Theatre presents their 37th production, The Will Rogers Follies- A Life in Revue, at Atholton High School. This ambitious musical, directed by Tom Sankey, revisits The Ziegfeld Follies, which were popular Broadway shows that were headlined by major performers, including Will Rogers. It also takes us through the life of Will Rogers, an entertainer that I myself knew nothing about.
The set, designed and constructed by Joe Blasko and Pete Johnson, is a simple one: bleachers at the back of the stage that rise high into the air. With this show, you don’t need a flashy set, because the cast is so massive that they take up the entire stage. Scratch that! They take up the entire theatre, spilling between the aisles of the audience and lining the walls. This gigantic cast, ranging from the very young to the very old, is breathtaking without being overwhelming. I wonder how on earth all these people manage to fit backstage, and chuckle while visualizing them scrunched side-by-side, like sardines in a tin.
Costume Designer Laural Clark is responsible for clothing this huge ensemble, and she rises to the occasion spectacularly. Cowboys and cowgirls – complete with hats, fringed vests, and colored handkerchiefs – dance alongside flappers in vibrant dresses. Colorful spotlights provided by Lighting Designer Samantha Stewart compliment the large dance routines, which are thrilling to watch, thanks to the fine work of Choreographer Amanda Tschirgi.. Bouncy and fun musical numbers make up the majority of the show – each one more impressive than the last.
And finally, we are introduced to Will Rogers, charmingly played by Shawn Kettering. He works present-day jokes into the act (“Wiley Post flew around the world in eight days. Now, you can be lucky to get through airport security in that time.”) keeping the show fresh, and not stuck in another century. He performs some famous rope tricks and engages the audience. When one seemingly random (and loud) cackle burst from the spectators, he playfully says, “Thank you! I didn’t realize they served alcohol in the lobby.”
Beautiful live music from a talented orchestra accompanies Will as he takes us through his life, mostly through song. Maggie Dransfield steals scenes as ‘Ziegfeld’s Favorite’, gracing the stage with flirtatious winks and cheeky struts. Sarah Manna provides a powerhouse voice as Betty Blake, Will Rogers’ wife. The rest of the cast does a wonderful job. Even with so many people, each person has a personal quirk that catches your attention, whether it is the wink of an eye or the shake of a shoulder. After a couple of songs, you are easily able to pick out your favorites among the ensemble.
While most of the show is playful and fun, Roger’s takes the time to make a plea for preservation of our natural resources. He laments on the loss of nature and what are choices have led to, an appeal for change in an otherwise silly, light-hearted show. His fame and success also puts a strain on his family life, which is shown in the play. We are treated to the life of a great American, leading up to his tragic death in a plane crash with Wiley Post in 1935. The show ends with a pictorial montage and reminiscence of Will Rogers, with one saying, “He told us the truth, and made us laugh about it.”
Once not knowing anything about Will Rogers, I am glad that I got to see this show. Not only do we get to remember the life of a beloved entertainer, we also get to see thrilling and rousing song and dance numbers from an extremely talented cast. Together, it makes for one great evening of family-friendly fun.
Running time is two hours, including a 15 minute intermission.
Will Rogers Follies- A Life in Revue played through July 16th at Atholton High School – 5360 Freetown Road, in Columbia, MD. Purchase tickets at the door.