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THEATER REVIEW

'Will Rogers Follies' Lavish but Shallow

September 13, 1996|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Watching the Theater League's production of "The Will Rogers Follies," one realizes exactly why this musical won the 1991 Tony Award . . . for costumes.

The show's 1991 Tony for best musical remains a mystery for the ages.

John Davidson stars in this well-mounted production, which has been "re-created and adapted" by director-choreographer Jon Engstrom from Tommy Tune's original staging. Tony Walton's sets (a rented conglomeration from the Broadway run and the first national tour) are huge yet wonderfully minimalistic stage sculptures that frame and embrace the action. Willa Kim's original Broadway costumes, especially the lavish Ziegfeld Girl ensembles, dazzle our eyes and tickle our fancies. (All those feathers!)

However, nothing can salvage Cy Coleman's completely unmemorable score, which features tunes like . . . um, sorry, I forgot. And as for Betty Comden and Adolph Green's lyrics, the most that can be said about them is that they rhyme. Peter Stone's book faithfully recapitulates Roger's most famous quips, but fails to interject much heart into this mercilessly shallow spectacle.

Davidson projects the ease and wryness essential to Rogers, as well as an impressive spontaneity that covered a multitude of first-night glitches. (Even though the show played Phoenix before this venue, it still has some technical kinks to work out, the most noticeable of which was a sluggish follow spot.)

As for Davidson's singing voice, it has ripened over the years into a mellow, husky croon that is well matched by the vocal versatility of Victoria Strong, who plays Rogers' wife, Betty. Appealing in a prosaic role, Strong can handle anything from ballad to belt.

At the Alex Theatre opening, Tom Hatten made a surprise appearance in the incidental role of Wiley Post (normally played by Jerome Loeb). Tony Munoz's nimble rope stunts open the second act with a twirl.

When they cast Jamie Farr as Will's dad, Clem, the producers sacrificed aesthetic considerations to name value. Although Farr was born in Ohio, he has, somewhere along the line, developed a broad New Yorkese that is hilariously unsuitable for his role as a scrappy Oklahoma rancher.

Ostensibly set in the modern day, this entire enterprise has a depressingly retrogressive quality--and even the amusing device of having Rogers satirically comment on modern as well as vintage news headlines doesn't put a dent in the cobwebs. Although only a few years old, "The Will Rogers Follies" seems tired before its time, phoned in from another generation by Broadway vets Coleman, Comden and Green.

* "The Will Rogers Follies," Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Today, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 15. (800) 233-3123. At the Probst Center of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, Tuesday-next Friday, 8 p.m.; Sept. 21, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sept. 22, 2 and 7 p.m. (805) 583-8700, (213) 480-3232. $32.50-$37.50. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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