To put it as Will Rogers might have put it, we sure could use another one of him right now. They don't make 'em like that anymore, so we'll settle for the image of the gum-chewing, rope-twirling, self-styled "half-breed" cowboy/philosopher from Cherokee country as summoned up by actor John Bisom in this lush and lavish staging directed and choreographed by Roger Castellano. Bisom has it down pat: Will's easygoing, lanky grace, his shy wide grin, and that unruly cowlick over Will's right eyebrow. And he can sing. Best of all, Bisom captures the gentle humor and geniality of Rogers' homespun wisdom and wit. Will was Americana incarnate and knew it. He put it like this: "My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower. They met the boat."
Aside from his famous claim that all he knew was what he read in the papers, Rogers' best-known saying (never having met Hitler or Osama bin Laden) was: "I never met a man I didn't like." He probably never met a man who didn't like him, either. Rogers died in 1935 in a plane crash in Alaska with friend and fellow Oklahoman aviator Wiley Post. Fortune, pressure to run for high office, association with presidents, princes, and potentates, even Hollywood stardom never went to his head. As he noted, "I'm the only fellow in Hollywood who's married to the same wife I started out with."
Subtitled "A Life in Revue," the musical (book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green) is a once-over-lightly that hits the high spots, downplays the lows, and spotlights the glamour of Will's Ziegfeld Follies days. It lingers on the sweetness of his lifetime love affair with Betty Blake, mother of their four children. Stephanie J. Block's clear soprano soars as Betty. Her torchy piano-top number lamenting Will's frequent absences ("No Man Left For Me") spoofs the blues. The show has no real hit songs, but Bisom's pleasant baritone is at its best in his final credo, "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" ("prince or workin' Joe") and provides commentary for the eye-popping splendor of "Presents for Mrs. Rogers" as gorgeous showgirls float down the wide stairs in Shon LeBlanc's Ziegfeld-quality jewel-toned costumes. Chorines and costumes are outstanding. Erin Crouch as "Ziegfeld's Favorite" lifts the showgirl category to new heights.
Special praise goes to Andrew Boyer as Will's rancher dad, feisty Clem Rogers, and the cute Rogers kiddies, Nicholas Andrew, Amy Ganser, Will Krieger, and 6-year-old Quintan Craig. World champion roper Felix Alberto Lopez gets deserved applause for his brilliant rope work.
This reliable company's 11th season opener buffs up the Tony Award-winning musical with as much savvy showmanship as it's ever likely to get. Whether you leave humming the tunes, you may leave in search of the best Will Rogers biography you can find.
"The Will Rogers Follies," presented by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Mar. 9-24. $35-50. (310) 372-4477.