Humorist and movie star Will Rogers made political satire a gentle art. The Oklahoma country boy once said he never met a man he didn't like, and that kindly sentiment even governed the way he skewered politicians. The Will Rogers Follies celebrates Rogers's show-business career in the brazen style of the Ziegfeld Follies--a startling approach at first, since a score of Broadway show tunes and a lineup of scantily clad women appearing as "Indians" would seem to belie everything a country boy might represent. But as soon as we learn why this toe-tapping style was chosen, it all makes show-biz sense, and the slick production at the Boulder Dinner Theatre is a kick.
A character called "Ziegfeld's Favorite" (Justine Grant) joins the rest of the company for a mildly provocative dance about Will Rogers's appeal in "Will-a-Mania" before we even meet Will. When he appears, he does a few rope tricks and cracks a few jokes over today's New York Times. Then he calls for a paper from his own lifetime--so the Favorite shows up with a 1925 Times and, naturally, many of the same jokes apply--politics is politics.
The show then shifts to Will's life story, beginning with his birth and moving on to cover his youth and his relationship with his father. We meet his lifemate, Betty Blake, with whom he had three children, and follow his career from wild-West shows to vaudeville to the big time and Mr. Ziegfeld.
Successful, wealthy and much-loved by the public, Rogers speaks to the nation over the radio at President Hoover's request after the stock market crash of 1929. The show suddenly takes a solemn tone as Will decries the greed and selfishness of the tycoons who gambled with America's future. His passionate denunciation of the rich ends with his assertion that all those (including himself) who've made a great deal of money owe something to those they exploited.
It's an odd, dark moment in an otherwise lighthearted show, but it's also the most telling about Rogers's own sense of decency and justice. What's more, it creates a little tension in the air--unusual in a bump-and-grind entertainment.
A.K. Klimpke plays Will with quiet exhilaration--he loves the character and loves to wink at us about him. His funniest moments sound like asides--he mumbles jokes like afterthoughts. The character of Will also does fabulous rope tricks in one black-light scene, courtesy of stand-in cowpoke Freddie Carlson. Justine Grant as Ziegfeld's Favorite takes on a variety of roles (all bimbos) and is a handy vehicle for tying up loose ends and moving the action along. Grant is arguably the most charming presence in the show--she exudes energy and humor, and you look forward to her every entrance.
Jan Waterman gives a nondescript performance as Betty Blake Rogers through the first act, despite her good voice and professional poise. But during the second act she heats up with a terrific, stylish torch song, "No Man for Me." The best performance of the evening belongs to D.P. Perkins in the role of Will's dad, Clem. Perkins has an easy grace and sharp comic timing that helps make his jokes sparkle.
The snappy song-and-dance routines here are the most fun when they're at their most inventive--lots of hand-body slapping and perfectly synchronized movements. The story itself might have benefited from more of Rogers's philosophy and less of Ziegfeld's. But the direction is smooth and the humor is delightful. You can't ask for much more from dinner theater.