BWW Reviews: Hillbarn Theatre Charms Audiences With WILL ROGERS FOLLIES
Ziegfeld never spared any expense with his follies shows - lavish sets, beautiful chorus girls in extravagant costumes, vaudevillian acts - so one can only imagine what it took for a small community theatre to put on the Ziegfeld inspired musical, "Will Rogers Follies." And Hillbarn Theatre has done quite the successful job of it, too. With a tiered stair case, projected images on side screens, a wild West feel, and a lot of costumes for a good sized chorus that includes a group of Follies girls, not to mention a fairly talented cast, Hillbarn has downsized the flashy show without costing the audience any of the pleasure and entertainment of the spectacle.
The musical tells the life story of Will Rogers in a vaudevillian way with various musical acts, tricks with the cowboy's rope, and a little bantering with the audience and various characters. If you don't know who Will Rogers was, think of the stereotypical cowboy combined with a very early version of late night TV talk show hosts. A movie star, columnist, and vaudevillian showman, Rogers was an international icon during the 1920s and 30s. He often prided himself on his ability to talk, saying all he knew came from the newspapers and proceeding to make improvised joke after improvised joke.
Many of those jokes come through in "Will Rogers Follies" as Alex Perez takes on the cowboy persona and narrates much of the story, which goes all the way through the Great Depression era and ends with several scenes that will especially resonate with modern audiences dealing with the effects of a poor economy. In fact, many of the show's jokes are current, with references to current politicians and celebrities.
Perez charms audiences with his believable portrayal of the gentle, endearing man who became the symbol of hope to so many during the Depression. Perez stays in his soft-spoken character voice when he sings, which hinders much of his ability to fully deliver the songs, but he has a pleasant voice that matches the strong appeal and genuine feel of his character. He also entertains the audience several times with some impressive cowboy rope tricks.
Corrie Lenn Borris has the strongest singing voice in the cast as Rogers' wife, Betty Blake. She steals the show with her ballad "No Man Left for Me," as she sits upon a piano in a sensual gown. Rachelle Jones pops up frequently throughout the show as Ziegfeld's Favorite Girl, a highlighted chorus girl who has her share of fun moments and often introduces acts or holds up signs to alert audiences to new settings of the show. Jones has a wonderful voice, as well, although she struggles with her lower notes. Her strongest point comes from her obvious sex appeal. Todd Wright also adds a lot of humor to the show as various small characters (because "Ziegfeld is too cheap to hire separate actors") and as Rogers' father, Clem Rogers. Like Perez, Wright has a character voice and uses it as he sings and dances across the stage with gaiety.
The orchestra, which sadly must play backstage to conserve space, provides a professional, Broadway quality accompaniment. With strong vocals, the chorus provides the final touch to the enjoyable show, especially the Ziegfeld girls (Adrienne Tiffany Herro, Karen Althoff, Gabrielle Au, Anastasia Bonaccorso, Alyson Chilton, Katherine Leyva, Molly Murphy, Shannon Sullivan) and the four men who sing and dance with them in various numbers - the show stopping "Our Favorite Son" being the most energetic and impressive of the musical.
Aside from the more serious second half of the show, which takes place during the Depression, the script of "Will Rogers Follies" is fairly shallow as it takes a humorous, but not very in-depth look at Rogers' life. But much of that owes its reason to the musical's Ziegfeld essence. Ziegfeld Follies were never meant for serious moments. They were there to look pretty and entertain. And Hillbarn Theatre definitely knows how to entertain in its splendid rendition of "Will Rogers Follies."