BWW Reviews: Georgetown Palace Brings Classic Broadway to Austin with THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES
Early on in The Will Rogers Follies, now playing at the Georgetown Palace, America's favorite cowboy comedian asks for a newspaper from today. He reads off a few headlines about economic depression and political corruption and then asks for a paper from 80 years ago. He reads off similar headlines about economic depression and political corruption, looks square at the audience, and comments on how newspapers must be recycling stories from 80 years ago in order to save a buck. The point is clear. Not much has changed. The economy will always be in trouble. Politicians will always be corrupt. And as Georgetown Palace's production of The Will Rogers Follies proves, a few rope tricks, corny jokes, and leggy showgirls wearing next to nothing will always please a crowd.
The infrequently produced musical from 1991, best known for winning the Tony Award for Best Musical over Miss Saigon, allows Will Rogers (Clifford Butler) to tell his life story in the form of a Ziegfeld style revue. The book by Peter Stone and the lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green are decidedly light and frothy, and the score by Cy Coleman is an enjoyable mix of country and classic Broadway sounds. Though fans of darker, modern musicals may find The Will Rogers Follies to be a bit cheesy, clichéd, and frivolous, fans of traditional, happy-go-lucky musical comedies will be delighted and enchanted.As Rogers himself, Clifford Butler is charming and pleasant to watch. His voice is fantastically full and rich (a big contrast to Hollywood star Keith Carradine's satisfying but thin voice on the Original Broadway Cast Recording), and he has tons of charisma and likeability, particularly when he smiles his way through Rogers's teasing commentary on politics, news, and America in general. He stumbles from time to time with some of the one-liners, but his rope trick skills are worthy of note as are his skills with the guitar.
Christine Jean-Jacques, who alternates with Patty Rowell in the role of Betty Blake-Rogers, is wonderful as Rogers's wife, a woman who loves her husband but is disillusioned by his fame and stardom. When Jean-Jacques starred in Georgetown's South Pacific earlier this season, it was clear that a new and exciting leading lady just joined the Austin theater scene, and her performance here further bolsters her reputation. She's able to create a likeable, relatable character out of a woman who often stands in the way of Rogers's career, and her voice is nothing short of exquisite. Though many numbers showcase the same angelic voice that Jean-Jacques displayed in South Pacific, the score, particularly her Act II solo "No Man Left For Me" also gives her a few chances to show off her lower range and her ability to belt. Scene stealer Jennifer Butler is just as engaging in the supporting role of Ziegfeld's Favorite Showgirl. She's slinky, sultry, and captivating. The ensemble cast is wonderful to watch as well, particularly when asked to do some glitzy show-biz numbers choreographed by Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique, though there are some numbers that are far more polished than others.Still, the costumes by Tamar Madrigal prove to be the most memorable aspect of the show. The Will Rogers Follies is the first musical production at the Georgetown Palace to feature completely original costumes, and Madrigal's designs are spectacular and eye-popping, particularly her detailed and sparkly showgirl outfits. An Act II number featuring Ziegfeld girls dressed as precious rubies, diamonds, and emeralds features some of Madrigal's most mesmerizing and glamorous designs.
Sadly, the set isn't of the same caliber as Madrigal's costumes. While the sets in most Georgetown Palace productions are stellar, the work here is a rare misstep. The unit set of a giant Ziegfeld style staircase is a wise choice and a nice tip of the hat to the Follies which gives director Mary Ellen Butler plenty of opportunities for some inventive and interesting staging. Nevertheless, the set has one major problem. Many audience members, particularly those in the balcony and to the sides of the auditorium, get a clear and unnecessary sight of the backstage area behind the stairs, something that the real Ziegfeld would never allow.