From this distance, it's hard to figure out just what made Will Rogers so famous. He began his career with rope tricks and homespun philosophizing in Wild West shows, found fame in the Ziegfeld Follies, and eventually wrote newspaper columns, appeared in films and took a brief run at the presidency with the Anti-Bunk Party. Though he poked fun at politics and politicians, his witticisms were generally good-humored, and his best-known line was "I never yet met a man I didn't like." Compare this with his compatriot W. C. Fields — more memorable for many of us — who snarled, "Anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad" and claimed that he was "free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally."
The Will Rogers Follies, which premiered in 1991, 112 years after he was born, gives us Rogers's life in a series of Ziegfeld-style acts, supposedly being performed in the present time — over-the-top musical numbers featuring lots of leggy showgirls, monologues and family scenes, all reshuffled and redirected at will by the intrusive voice of an unseen Florenz Ziegfeld. The format allows the action to go backward and forward in time, and the characters to comment on their actions for the audience even while performing them. In a bit of foreshadowing, aviator Wiley Post sits in the audience, rising periodically to invite Rogers to take a trip with him. Rogers was on an around-the-world flight attempt with Post in 1935 when their plane crashed in Alaska; both died.
The Will Rogers Follies
Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through August 31, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000. www.boulders-dinnertheatre.com.
The songs in Follies aren't that great, but the numbers are toe-tapping, energetic parodies of Ziegfeld's style, and often very funny. At Boulder's Dinner Theatre, A.K. Klimpke gives a low-key, affable performance in the title role, chatting directly with the audience, periodically throwing in a crack that carries some penetrating truth or has a little sting in its tail. And we really don't mind when he gets more serious toward the end, singing a gentle song called "Look Around," about preserving the environment, then delivering a radio address on the effects of the Depression and the terrible discrepancies between rich and poor: "You can't get money without taking it from someone else," he says. There's no stronger indication of how times have changed than trying to imagine any contemporary populist commentator — Rush Limbaugh, for example — saying, "You know, not a one of us has anything that these people that are without now haven't contributed to what we've got. There is not an unemployed man in the country that hasn't contributed to the wealth of every millionaire in America."
And there's more here than just Rogers's musings. Shelly Cox-Robie, for instance, as Rogers's beloved Betty Blake — and eventually his wife and the mother of their four children — singing sweetly about "My Unknown Someone" and torching through "No Man Left for Me." The charming children themselves, played by Will Hawkins, Carli Hawkins, Jordan Morgan and Bryce Baldwin on the night I saw the show. Director-choreographer Scott Beyette's big numbers, particularly the fast-moving, precision-requiring "Our Favorite Son," and the glitzy and often comical costumes of Linda Morken — in one number, the women are dressed as sunflowers, with perky little sunflower breasts. Christianna Sullins plays Ziegfeld's Favorite, shamelessly stealing scenes. Klimpke isn't much of a rope-twirler, but it doesn't matter, because Beyette had the wit to hire Peter Davison — co-director of Boulder Ballet and juggler extraordinaire — who brings incredible skill, elegance and style to two interludes: a little juggling session with clubs and unicycle, and a solo with a lasso. In all, these Follies are quite enough to keep you alert, humming and happy through the evening.