There’s timely nostalgia in the Manatee Players’ The Will Rogers Follies.
By Kay Kipling
When Manatee Players artistic director Rick Kerby chose The Will Rogers Follies to open his 2008-09 season, he knew the production would coincide with a presidential election year and the August anniversary of humorist Rogers’ death. What he may not have been able to predict is how an Act II radio speech Rogers made during the Depression, about people facing hard times, would also resonate with today’s audience.
That speech only takes a few minutes’ running time, but it’s a nice remembrance of Rogers’ offstage compassion in a show that focuses, naturally, more on his onstage performances in vaudeville and as a star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Rogers has been dead for more than 70 years now, but many of his observations of human foibles, especially political ones, certainly still ring true—and amusing—today.
The Manatee Players’ production, skillfully directed and choreographed by Kerby, has an overall impressive feel and look to it, with a stagewide set of steps lit in changing colors for all those Follies showgirls to descend while wearing appropriately glamorous Ziegfeld-like costumes (congrats to Paul F. Lopez and his team for those). And Kerby is blessed with a better-than-usual female ensemble for those showgirls, both in terms of their physical endowments and their singing and dancing skills. (Let’s mention them here: Mary Burns, Tara Collandra, Victoria Najmy, Jen Marie Pierce and Lauren Richard; throw in the actresses playing Rogers’ sisters—Kristy Pizzo, Gabi Guinta, Libby Fleming, Joy Lakin, Corinne Woodland and Kali Westphalen—and Caitlin Longstreet as Ziegfeld’s Favorite, and you’ve got quite a lineup of female pulchritude.)
But the star of the show is Gregory Wiegers as Will, and although he may be younger than Rogers should be here, Wiegers has a natural, easy style that’s just right for the folksy Oklahoman. He also has good onstage rapport with Karen Lalosh, who plays his wife, Betty Blake. Lalosh demonstrates her vocal chops on songs in a variety of styles, including the torchy No Man Left for Me. And Manatee Players stalwart Denny Miller gets his laughs right on cue as Will’s father, Clem, who initially disapproves of his son’s career choices but turns up later with some good advice.
As a pleasant diversion in the aforementioned tough times, this Follies fits the bill. It continues through Sept. 7; call 748-5875 or visit manateeplayers.com.