Shubert Theatre


Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

Will Rogers first came to Chicago 100 years ago: at the age of 13 he accompanied his father to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. There he saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, with its international cast of 400 performers playing to an audience of 22,000–astounding to a rancher’s kid from the sparsely populated Indian territory that would eventually become Oklahoma. Will was especially thrilled by Vincente Oropeza, the Mexican roping artist whose flair with a lariat excelled anything the boy had seen; the performance inspired Will to practice with his own lasso, paving the way for one of American show business’s most remarkable careers.

It would be nice to say that Rogers is back in town, in spirit if not in body, as the hero of the musical bearing his name. But The Will Rogers Follies, the 1991 Broadway hit now playing in a touring production at the Shubert Theatre, is so lacking in humanity and warmth that it betrays the man it means to celebrate. Smarmy where he was sly, coy where he was genuinely humble, the show feels as if the authors didn’t trust Rogers to appeal to a contemporary audience unless he were tarted up with an unhealthy dose of world-weary cynicism.

Not that Rogers was a sentimentalist. From the moment he started tossing in jokes to accompany his rope tricks in wild west shows (which led to vaudeville, movies, radio, and newspaper columns), he was a master of the drolly skeptical one-liner. But his wit was informed by a deep reserve of faith in the human race and idealism about being an American; his punch lines deflated pretensions as a way of bringing his listeners closer to their better selves. Rogers was a comic philosopher, who told jokes as a way of searching for the truth.

The Will Rogers Follies is very little about truth and very much about artifice. Purporting to portray “a life in revue”–Rogers’s biography as it might have been staged by Florenz Ziegfeld, in whose Follies Rogers starred on several occasions between 1916 and 1924–the musical supposedly conveys the essence of Rogers’s story while suggesting the glorious corniness of the follies in a series of elaborate variety sequences, dictated from on high by an unseen Ziegfeld (the taped voice of Gregory Peck). So Rogers’s first encounter with his wife-to-be, Betty Blake–the wonderful Dee Hoty, whose graceful and expressive performance is the show’s only consistent strength–takes place not in a railroad station (as really happened) but on a make-believe moon; and Rogers’s conflict with his wealthy rancher father, who believed his stagestruck son was doing nothing with his life, is enacted as a minstrel-show song and dance.

This approach could work–except that librettist Peter Stone, composer Cy Coleman, and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green belabor the conceit by constantly reminding us that this isn’t really a Ziegfeld show but a show about a Ziegfeld show. Just when we’re beginning to accept Keith Carradine as a back-from-the-dead Rogers, the actor winkingly reminds us that he comes nowhere near Rogers as a rope artist–he’s just Keith Carradine playing the part of a feller who’s playing a part in a show about himself. Later on, George Riddle as Rogers’s father complains about the curmudgeonly stereotype he’s been assigned; and when long-legged Leigh Zimmerman, playing the all-purpose bimbo, listens to Will’s wife talk about her often lonely life, she mouths the words with her because she’s understudying the wife’s role. Whenever mention is made of Rogers’s untimely death in an airplane crash, the spotlight veers to a box where Dan Sharkey as Wiley Post, the plane’s pilot, sits watching the show, pausing to give a fatuous wave to the audience.

This extra level of distance between the characters, the actors playing them, and the audience is fatal to the story of a man whose art aimed to remove the distance between people. By birth, breeding, and inclination, Rogers was a one-man melting pot–part Cherokee, part European, deeply influenced by Hispanics and blacks (the man who taught him how to twirl a rope was an African American cowboy named Dan Walker). And in a time when the different groups who make up the American people are ever more at odds, Rogers’s commitment to an inclusive Americanism has a lot to teach us. But between the script’s play-within-a-play gimmick and Carradine’s gap-jawed, shit-kicker performance, Follies alienates us from its leading man. So does the mediocre score, a vaudevillian pastiche of the sort that Stephen Sondheim in Follies and Jule Styne in Funny Girl and Gypsy did much more successfully. The finale, a banal pseudocountry anthem based on Rogers’s oft-quoted assertion that he “never met a man I didn’t like,” goes on at least three stanzas too long and violates what Rogers called “the great secret of show business: Knowing when to get off.”

Lacking the luxurious spectacle of a real Ziegfeld show or the wit of a good revue, Tommy Tune’s staging comes across as a garish Vegas lounge act (complete with a trained dog that’s more entertaining than much of the rest of the show). Some of the images are impressive–especially the second-act opener, in which rope artist Tomas Garcilazo twirls a phosphorescent yellow lariat under a black light while four pairs of yellow boots (really men clad in black except for their feet) kick and strut behind him; the quality of the dancing is never less than top-flight, and Willa Kim’s costumes are uniformly spectacular under Jules Fisher’s candy-colored lighting. If spending $55 for a fashion parade is your idea of a good time, an orchestra seat at the Shubert is the thing for you. But if you want to be touched and entertained by the life and wisdom of one of America’s best humorists, go no further than the foyer, where they’re selling the book Will Rogers Says . . . at $12 a crack. It’s worth every penny.

Also suffering from overconceptualization is Five Guys Named Moe, Clarke Peters’s tribute to the music of Louis Jordan. Famed for such hits as “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Caldonia,” “Reet, Petite and Gone,” and “Is You Is (Or Is You Ain’t My Baby),” Jordan was a popular bandleader and saxophonist in the 40s and 50s; his songs, which bubbled with jive alliteration and class-clown attitude, paved the way between boogie-woogie jazz and hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll. The music (written by the likes of Jon Hendricks, Johnny Burke, and Jimmy Van Heusen, as well as Jordan) is worth attention on its own merits; but Peters’s show clutters the material with a ridiculous “plot” about a contemporary kid named Nomax (Darius de Haas, tricked out in grunge and a Malcolm X baseball cap) magically visited by a quintet of jiving, joshing brothers from the World War II era. Nomax has the blues ’cause his girl has dumped him; the five Moes cheer him up with their bawdy brotherly advice, finally convincing him to stop drowning his sorrows in drink and give that sweet thing a call.

For two-thirds of the evening, Nomax’s contrived conflict is addressed in a series of songs that have little to do with each other; they teach us nothing about Jordan’s work, and the emphasis of Danny Herman’s staging (and Peters’s scenario) is mainly to find as many ways as possible to play directly to the audience in an effortful display of party feeling that includes a sing-along and a conga line to the “calypso bebop” beat of “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie.”

Not until about halfway into the second act–when the Moes drag Nomax down to “the Funky Butt Club,” where they serenade him with a cabaret suite of Jordan’s greatest hits–does Five Guys give its audience a chance to actually listen to the music. When it allows you to savor the elegance, charm, and sensuous singing of Kenny Ingram, Keith Jackson, Marshall Titus, Glen Washington, and Stanley White as the “sepia symphonette”–and the tight, edgy accompaniment of a center-stage band led by pianist Rufus Hill and featuring hot sax solos by James Perkins and hard-driving drumming by Frank Donaldson–Five Guys can be quite wonderful.