Fantastic Follies

If you look up the word “spectacle” in the dictionary, it might read “a very impressive show.” Or, alternatively, it might present the definition of “something that attracts attention because it is very unusual or very shocking.” Or, most likely, it might simply boast pictures from the Ziegfeld Follies, the glitzy, over-the-top Broadway shows produced by Florenz Ziegfeld at the turn of the twentieth century.

Ziegfeld Follies showgirls in The Will Rogers Follies. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   The Maltz Jupiter Theatre revives the glamour of the Ziegfeld Follies in its latest production, The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Review, onstage through January 31. This show is a spectacle in its truest form. A standard set of tiered steps flickers between every color of the rainbow—and settles on rainbow itself on at least one occasion. Ziegfeld Girls don a different outrageous outfit with each scene change and also tap dance, flaunt, and do-si-do without breaking a (visible) sweat. A love story once set on the prairie becomes an intergalactic match made on the moon. In between all of this outrageousness, Will Rogers entertains the audience with jokes and rope tricks.

   If all of this sounds a bit much, that’s because it is—and it’s amazing. But the thrill of the theater is making me put the lasso before the man. Let’s back up for a minute. The Will Rogers Follies premiered on Broadway in 1991 and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. It tells the life story of Will Rogers (a popular humorist and performer from the early twentieth century) through the format of the Ziegfeld Follies, which Rogers often headlined. While the Ziegfeld tropes lend the spectacle, Rogers lends the heart. For every stunning dance number, there’s a moment of tenderness and insight into the man who “had more fans than Shirley Temple,” traveled around the world three times, ran for president in 1928, provided comfort to Americans in times of turmoil, and, through it all, never met a man he didn’t like.

   Backed by standout performances, strong production design, and truly outstanding choreography, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s production of The Will Rogers Follies is one of the company’s best shows to date.

Elise Kinnon leads a tap dancing number in The Will Rogers Follies. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   The musical opens with a knockout dance number, “Will-a-Mania,” that lasts a solid 10 minutes and features quintessential Ziegfeld lighting, backdrops, setups, and flamboyance. “Will-a-Mania” not only has a tune that will get stuck in your head from curtain rise to curtain call, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the show—and that tone is one of “too much is never enough.” Shea Sullivan’s choreographic expertise is in full force in this opener and it signals to the audience that they’re in for quite a night.

   In addition to choreography, the Maltz also stuns with production design, a crucial component when mounting a folly. Costume designer Gail Baldoni imbues the typical showgirl style with humor as seen in patriotic garments with fuzzy bustiers, Midwestern sundresses decked out with daisies, and a variety of chaps ranging from cow print to bedazzled with plenty of fringe in between. Wigs by Gerard Kelly further transform these modern performers into 1920s starlets.

Matt Loehr stars as Will Rogers in The Will Rogers Follies. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   The scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III and lighting design by Paul Black work in tandem to create a kaleidoscope of visual overload. Technically, the set is the same throughout the production, but dePoo and Black manipulate light and props to convert the vintage theater setting to a number of destinations including Oklahoma and the moon. Even when the theater is just a theater, it wows with color, glitz, and thoughtful shadow play.

   Of course, there would be no Will Rogers Follies without Will Rogers. Matt Loehr entertained Maltz audiences with his portrayal of Harold Hill in 2012’s The Music Man, and his return as Rogers is even more impressive. He lassos, he sings, he tap dances, he tells jokes, he runs for president—he does it all and he makes it look, well, not easy, but awe inspiring. It may only be January, but this is the performance of the year.

Matt Loehr as Will Rogers dances with his Cowboy Quartet in The Will Rogers Follies. Photo by Jen Vasbinder

   A massive ensemble and a handful of supporting roles also bring The Will Rogers Follies to life. As Will’s wife, Betty, Laura Hodos is a fast-talking Midwestern belle with a breathtaking voice that is on full display in such numbers as “My Big Mistake” and “No Man Left for Me.” James Young portrays Will’s father, Clem Rogers, with scene-stealing humor and gumption to spare. Finally, as Ziegfeld’s Favorite, Elise Kinnon elicits laughs just by walking on stage. Her role is unique in that she represents the spirit of the follies: a blonde-haired beauty with plenty of talent and nothing to say. Kinnon adds an irony to this part while also earnestly anchoring the ensemble.

   In the end, it comes as no surprise that the Maltz Jupiter Theatre excels with a production like The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Review. Yes, its more austere, tamer plays also pack a punch, but the company excels in the extravagant. It takes a brave team to mount this musical, and the Maltz handles all the bells, whistles, lassos, headdresses, costume changes, choreography, and crowd interaction with a deft hand. Mr. Ziegfeld would be proud.

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