Review: PTC’s The Will Rogers Follies

First things first. This is a fun, fun, fun night at the theater. Pioneer Theatre Company has a winner on its hands with The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue. If I wasn’t so in love with anglophile’s dream of King Charles III, I’d say its the best production of PTC’s season.

Set amid a lavish recreation of the Ziegfeld Follies—the glamorous spectacles performed on the Great White Way during the roaring ’20s—the production is a clever biography of Will Rogers, the famous American humorist. The show comes complete with the full trumpets of folly itself and a dazzling line of high-kicking showgirls. The play presents Rogers’ life as the one honest man in the world among the glitz, glamour and excess that preceded the Great Depression. Donny Osmond himself voices Mr. Ziegfeld from above, repeatedly admonishing Rogers to stop with all the life story stuff and get back to the dancing girls.

Also, the rope tricks! They are awesome. I bet you didn’t know you wanted to see rope tricks. But I can tell you, you do. And the bullwhip act. Ya gotta see the bullwhip act (both performed thrillingly by AJ Silver).

David M. Lutken is pitch perfect as with his aww-shucks Rogers recreation and Lisa Brescia perfectly sings and dances as his devoted bride, Betty Blake. The lead showgirl (Mr. Ziegfeld’s Favorite) Chryssie Whitehead is mighty fine as she keeps the show going parading around stage in an illusory birthday suit. The sets by George Maxwell are splendiferous. The choreography by DJ Salsibury comes complete with some of the greatest hits of Vaudeville and is top- notch. The only thing missing was an Abbott and Costello routine and the only thing that maybe should be missing is the out-of-touch indian, wampum dance routine. Despite attempts to be sensitive about the cultural appropriation that was the norm of Rogers’ early career in wild west shows, it misses the mark and seems unnecessary.

So there’s the review.

But here’s the thing, as Rogers would say, with the shadow of the news these days hanging over the play, Rogers’ own words and homespun advice haunt, like a spectral warning from beyond the grave. And all the showmanship of PTC’s best foot forward this season can’t stop me feeling that I’m in cabaret in Weimar Germany, listening to Nero’s fiddle.

In 1931, supply-side gamblers had played fast and loose with the economy and wrecked it. Full on wrecked it. Sounds familiar? Well that’s because same bad guys in the shiner suits of our day have figured out a way to wreck the economy again and trick us into thinking things are fine. Don’t make me get all Noam Chomsky on you.

And Will Rogers knew all of it. The production’s most sobering moment is a recreation of one of Rogers’ most famous radio addresses. Before his unfortunate death in a plane crash, Rogers—the columnist, movie star, radio star, stage star, pretty much all the stars anybody could be—was asked by President Herbert Hoover to speak to the nation to “cheer them up.” His radio address, famous in American history for its candor and wisdom, is called Bacon and Beans and Limousines. It’s here on video and here transcribed. I encourage you to click through.

As we are in yet another age of the same bad guys, still telling lies, Rogers words offer cool advice that is as relevant now as then:

“These people that you’re asked to aid, why they’re not asking for charity, they are naturally asking for a job, but if you can’t give ‘em a job why the next best thing you can do is see that they have food and the necessities of life. You know, there’s not a one of us who has anything that these people that are without it now haven’t contributed to what we’ve got. I don’t suppose there’s the most unemployed or the hungriest man in America has contributed in one way to the wealth of every millionaire in America. It wasn’t the working class that brought this condition on at all. It was the big boys themselves who thought that this financial drunk we were going through was going to last forever. They over—merged and over—capitalized, and over—everything else. That’s the fix we’re in now.”

I love theater, I love spectacle of this show. I love that there are men in the world who can find work doing rope and bullwhip tricks. But I can’t help but think that we need more men like Will Rogers in our world.

Will Rogers, where are you? We could sure use a little cheering up.

The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue continues through May 20. Tickets, showtimes and details here.

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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