Cowboy, comedian, humorist, social commentator, vaudeville performer and actor, Will Rogers packed a whole lot of living into his fifty-five years. He circled the world three times, made over seventy movies, wrote thousands upon thousands of nationally-syndicated newspaper columns, became internationally famous, and even ran once for President of the United States, if only in jest.


In the smash hit musical The Will Rogers Follies, Broadway legends Cy Coleman (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics), along with book writer Peter Stone, manage adeptly and entertainingly to compact Rogers’ eventful life into two-and-a-half hours of Broadway song and dance, creating a show which has, since its 1991 premiere, gone on to become a regional theater favorite.

Somehow or other, however, this reviewer had managed never to see a single Will Rogers Follies over the past nineteen years. Thankfully, this omission has been rectified by the marvelous in-the-round production now gracing the stage of Glendale Centre Theatre. Directed with verve by Orlando Alexander, who has sensationally choreographed the show’s many production numbers with a tip of the hat to Tommy Tune (Tony winner for the Broadway original), GCT’s Will Rogers Follies stars the sensational Danny Michaels in a role he has performed more times than probably even he can count. With an all-around tip-top supporting cast, gorgeous costumes, and some of the best dance (and lariat) moves around, GCT’s The Will Rogers Follies is non-stop musical theater magic.


Coleman, Comden, Green, and Stone have conceived the Cherokee cowboy/star’s life story as a Follies show, a choice that could not be more fitting for the frequent headliner of the greatest Follies of all time, the Ziegfeld Follies.

From its opening number “Will-A-Mania,” which salutes Will’s one-of-a-kind stardom, to “It’s A Boy,” which has Will’s father Clem and his six older sisters celebrating Will’s birth, to the spectacular Wedding Finale which ends Act One, Will’s legend is told by a bevy of showgirls and cowpokes and performed here by an ensemble well up to the challenges of this very dancy show.


Transferring a musical traditionally performed under a huge proscenium arch to Glendale’s much smaller square stage, which has its audience members seated on all four sides, presents more than the usual artistic challenge, Tune’s many production numbers having been choreographed to be seen basically from a single angle. Alexander meets this challenge, and then some, by choreographing in the round, in the square, on the diagonal, and everywhere in between, insuring that no one in the audience feels shortchanged. Expect lots of tapping, loads of kicks, and the justly famous “Our Favorite Son,” which has hand-and-foot choreography that makes Grease’s “Hand Jive” seem a cakewalk. My guess is that Tommy Tune would give Alexander, Michaels, and company a big thumbs-up.

Michaels’ reputation as a Will Rogers extraordinaire proves amply justified by his tour de force work here. One heck of a singer, a whiz with a lasso, and charming as all get-out, Michaels keeps the audience in the palm of his hand from start to finish, that is when he’s not shaking audience hands in Will’s signature number “Never Met A Man I Didn’t Like.” (There is virtually no fourth wall here, with Will engaging the audience directly throughout the show.)


Equity guest artist (and Southland favorite) Victoria Strong is a marvelous Betty Blake, combining warmth, sweetness, and spunk, her gorgeous soprano a perfect fit for “My Unknown Someone,” and it’s a rare treat to get to hear the usually light-operatic Strong turn belter in the torchy “No Man Left For Me.”

Rick Lawrence simply could not be better as Will’s dad, making the most of his every moment as the wise, funny, feisty Clem. Statuesque triple-threat Athena Espinoza does terrific work as the glamour-girl/commentator known only as Ziegfeld’s Favorite.

Will and Betty’s four offspring are adorably performed by Ross Mayer (alternating with Elan Garfias), Madison Seiffert, Nathan Herbst, and Fionn James. Kyle Kelley has great fun with “let’s go flying” Wiley Post. Chikote Graystone (looking uncannily like director/choreographer Alexander) makes for a sexy Apache Dancer in the show’s opening number.


The Follies’ sixteen ensemble members (Ashley Adkins, Heather Biede, Amie Bjorklund, Angel Castellanos, Claudia Dolph, Laurie Ann Fedor, Christa Hamilton, Adrianne Hampton, Russ Hobbie, Kevin L. Holmquist, Jessie Mann, Elizabeth O’Malley, Paul Reid, Anne Schroeder, Libby Snyder, and Concetta Marie Verna) each deserve to share in Michaels’ and Strong’s standing ovation.

Musical director Steven Applegate gets excellent vocal performances from his large cast, who sing to prerecorded orchestral background tracks. Scenic designer Tim Dietlein once again proves that no one knows better than he how to design set pieces for GCT’s backdrop-free stage. Dietlein’s showbizzy lighting is one of his best designs yet. Angela Wood and the Costume Shoppe once again outdo themselves with Follies girls’ spangles and feathers and glitz. Justin Radford is stage manager, Casey Serrano sound board operator, and Michaels production consultant.

For the few out there who, like this reviewer, haven’t had the pleasure to see a Will Rogers Follies, Glendale Centre Theatre’s production is a terrific introduction to the show. Others will relish seeing how proscenium choreography and blocking have been oh-so-adroitly modified for an in-the-round staging. Either way, musical theater aficionados are in for one hoot and a holler of a good time.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
June 10, 2010

Comments are closed.