Where there’s a Will, there’s a ‘Wow!’

By on October 2, 2019

I had a friend in Oklahoma back in the 1990s, and spent a little time there. I saw a lot of sunflowers, a lot of flat, flat land, and a lot of billboards with Will Rogers’ face on them. Turns out, I was driving near his birthplace in Oolagah.

Back then, I really didn’t know who Will was. I’d heard the name, but only in passing when donations were being solicited in movie theaters.

However, having seen “Will Rogers Follies” at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre over the weekend, I now have a much greater appreciation for the man behind the billboards and donations.

Rogers, who came from humble beginnings on a ranch, was a rope-twirling, straight-talking humorist, actor, columnist and philanthropist who became a world-wide celebrity in the 1920s and 30s. Sadly, his life was cut far too short in a 1935 plane crash.

Michael Santora plays the title role in “Will Rogers Follies” at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre. He is shown with female ensemble members (not in order) Chelsea Moses, Anna Novak, Megan Strickler, Gabriella Tooma, Jeanette Palmer, and Julia Feeley. (LNP file photos)

The Follies

The musical about Will’s life was jarring for me. Rogers was a down-to-earth cowboy type, but “Will Rogers Follies” tells his life story in the style of the Zeigfield Follies, where Rogers occasionally headlined and eventually gained fame. Glitz, showgirls, and over-the-top production numbers — check, check, and check.

To tell the truth, by the end of act one, I was ready to leave. Then, during intermission, I took the time to look the show up on Wikipedia. All the historical pieces came together; it clicked.

I even learned that the writers of the show had originally wanted John Denver for the role of Will when the show opened in 1991, but it never came to be.

In short, I stayed, and I’m so glad I did!

Act two was full of songs I fell in love with, and several extravagant production numbers. My favorites were choreo-driven “Favorite Son” and costume-centric “Presents for Mrs. Rogers.” It gave me a strong appreciate for the Zeigfield style. I even went home and watched a few old YouTube videos.

I love sequins and sparkles (much to the dismay of my co-workers), and the costuming and lighting were eye catching and lavish. Kudos to John White, Brandon Miller and Chris McCleary. Director Ann Nieman made great choices all around.

The show had three solid leads with astounding voices. Jim Moyer, who’s done many local turns in Servant Stage and Allenberry shows, played dad Clem Rogers with brusque tenderness. The role of Betty (Blake) Rogers was played by Melissa Whitworth. Her torch song in act two, “No Man Left for Me,” was out of this world.

And, wow! Michael Santora was such a great pick for Will Rogers. Full of folksy charm, solid of voice, and versatile across the board, he was the glue that brought the show together. He made me want to learn even more about Will Rogers.

Mission accomplished, Dutch Apple. Thanks for bringing “Will Rogers Follies” to Lancaster!

To purchase tickets for the show, which runs through Nov. 9, and includes Dutch Apple’s all-you-can-eat buffet, visit dutchapple.com.

Features editor Melissa Hunnefield welcomes your questions and comments at mhunnefield.eph@lnpnews.com.

Michael Santora is a ringer for Will Rogers.

 

One Comment

  1. Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry

    October 2, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    Melissa,
    WOW am I happy you stayed for the entire musical! As a great granddaughter of Will Rogers and the family representative I have had the extreme pleasure to see it many many times. From the opening act on Broadway to local productions across the country. I have never left one without feeling so proud of the cast. It is a hard musical to put on and we are thrilled the Dutch Apple took it on. Thank you for a great write up and Will Rogers plug. Should you get back to Oklahoma be sure and visit the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore! http://www.willrogers.com
    Best,
    Jennifer

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