The Will Rogers Follies closes the first Cincinnati Landmark Productions (CLP) Summer Classics Season held at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts rather than in their former Showboat Majestic river home. Next year, the summer series will take place at Landmark Production’s new Warsaw Federal Incline Theater. With most theaters struggling to stay in the black with one venue, it is extraordinary to watch the success of this hardworking West Side organization.
Their spirited and uplifting take on The Will Rogers Follies, an often-performed and much-loved musical, is a fitting tribute to the CLP team’s plucky commitment to the Great American Songbook. Opening night was a near sell-out in their 360-seat theater. Under the direction of Matthew Wilson — celebrating his 19th anniversary with the CLP association — the cast of 20, supported by a nine-member band, rose to the occasion with this good-natured piece of Americana.
The Will Rogers Follies (book by Peter Stone, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Cy Coleman) premiered on Broadway in 1991 and ran for two years. The original was directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, the choreography of which has been delightfully interpreted at Covedale by Kate Glasheen.
The musical doesn’t require you to recall much about Will Rogers as it fills in many of the details of his impressive life via Stone’s lighthearted book. In short, Rogers was born in 1879 in Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation and went on to become one of the best-loved celebrities in the entire world by the 1930s. He was a cowboy, social commentator, vaudeville performer, movie star, columnist and radio star plus a failed presidential candidate. The best known of his folksy witticisms was, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
Keith Carradine originated the Will Rogers role and created the quintuple threat scenario that is needed to pull it off. In addition to the singing, dancing and acting, the actor must also rope and play harmonica. But more importantly, you really need to believe that this is the most likable guy on the planet. Matt Dentino scores high marks on all but the rope tricks, but I suspect that is going to come along nicely. He moves great, sings beautifully and creates a truly moving portrait of a good man who loved his wife and family, his life, his country and his job. There is one moment where he moves through the audience, greeting his new friends. I found myself praying he made it to my seat, as though I would be meeting the real Will Rogers. (In fact, if I ever find out Dentino is not indeed a super nice guy, I will be personally devastated.)
There were a few pacing and syncopation issues on opening night, with the able band leaping ahead of the singers on occasion, but for the most part they pulled off a show Mr. Ziegfeld himself would have been proud of. Caren Young’s costumes are fantastic and the simple stair-step set by Brett Bowling and lighting/sound design by Denny Reed works perfectly for Glasheen’s clean choreography. The entire cast looks and sounds great. The highlight of the night by far, though, was “Our Favorite Son,” a seated patriotic “hand jive” in the second act, complete with kick line.
Rogers’ wife Betty Blake is beautifully played by Michelle Wells. Wells has a lovely, strong voice and had the strength of character to play opposite Dentino’s Rogers. The entire cast of cowboys and Ziegfeld’s girls, plus the Rogers’ children and Will’s father Clem are a solid ensemble. These Ziegfeld inspired numbers require both precision and charm and there isn’t anyone on stage who doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
The Covedale audience is incredibly loyal to CLP. While not diverse in the way most non-profit organizations tend to be measured, their older West Side fan base knows what they like, and they like what CLP does. The Will Rogers Follies is the best version of this sort of family-friendly offering and a fine reminder of why good musical theater productions continue to and deserve to draw audiences. Taking in this American classic in the cool Covedale may be the perfect folly as our Cincinnati summer draws to a hot, hot close.
THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, continues through Sunday, Aug. 31. More: cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.