And it would be hard not to like Pioneer's larger-than-life production, which is bursting with exuberant song-and-dance numbers and down-home charm. Take the opening number, "Will-a-Mania," for example. It begins with a stage full of dancing cowboys and cowgirls, followed by a troop of tap-dancing showgirls dressed like steers and cracking whips. Then two American Indians with feathered headdresses are silhouetted in huge drums; they dance while a bevy of ladies in elaborately decorated gowns parade behind them. Then the original cowboys and cowgirls return for a big finale, and Will Rogers emerges from behind a set of painted panels.
George Maxwell's brightly painted, movable set pieces; Yael Lubetsky's constantly changing lights, which whirl and flash a rainbow of colors; and Patrick Holt's showy, sophisticated costumes keep the stage in perpetual motion. The parade of 14 showgirls in sequined outfits with enormous headdresses in "Presents for Mrs. Rogers" is a fashion show in itself. Choreographers DJ Salisbury and Ann Cooley's high-energy dance routines with their Rockette synchronization look like Busby Berkeley musicals from the 1930s.
"Will Rogers" takes the shape of a show within a show. We watch Rogers' life unfold as part of a Ziegfeld Follies production, and Ziegfeld (the voice of Donny Osmond) keeps barking orders at the cast and crew. Rogers' children scene stealers Nathan Eliason, Ava Hoekstra, Mila Belle Howells and Kimball Stinger never get any older, and Norman Large, who plays Rogers' pithy, philosophical dad, Clem, doubles as a preacher and piano player.
Lutken shifts easily from singing, dancing and playing guitar and harmonica to doing rope tricks and slinging political salvos at the audience. It's unnerving how much Herbert Hoover's America resembles Donald Trump's. He even adlibs from a copy of The Salt Lake Tribune "it actually has writing to go along with the pictures" and takes a backhanded poke at the rival newspaper "it doesn't clutter up your mind with two points of view."
Lisa Brescia alternates movingly from feisty to supportive as Will's long-suffering wife, Betty, the love of his life. Her voice handles plaintive ballads like "My Unknown Someone" and "My Big Mistake" "I like days all carefully reckoned; you live life from second to second" and the bluesy torch song, "No Man Left for Me," with equal ease. Whitehead is spirited and sexy as Ziegfeld's Favorite, and AJ Silver contributes some spectacular rope and whip tricks. As always at PTC, the live orchestra, led by music director Phil Reno, adds immeasurably to the show's impact.
Peter Stone's book is only skin deep, and you're not likely to leave the theater singing Cy Coleman's tunes and Betty Comden and Adolph Green's lyrics; what sells "The Will Rogers Follies" is the wit and warmth of its central character's personality. Rogers once said that "people are what life is all about," and that affection for everything human, accomplished or flawed, spills across the footlights and makes the world a little bit brighter.
'The Will Rogers Follies'
PTC's production of "The Will Rogers Follies" uses spectacular showmanship to reacquaint audiences with a legendary American personality.
When • Reviewed on May 5; plays Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through May 20
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $40-$62 in advance; $5 more on the day of the show; half-price for students K-12 on Mondays and Tuesdays; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org
Running time • 2 ½ hours (including an intermission)