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Will Rogers may have served as the honorary mayor of Beverly Hills, even launched a fake news campaign for president in 1928, but the iconic American humorist didn't have much use for politicians.

"Don't go around telling the truth," the actor who was America's highest-paid entertainer in the early 20th century famously said. "In an American election nothing can hurt you more then telling the truth."

That line was funny in 1991 when "The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue" debuted on Broadway, but now might play with a bit more bite. "I knew it would be potent because of what's going on politically," says DJ Salisbury, guest director for Pioneer Theatre Company, where the musical will play Friday to May 20.

Salisbury has a big musical crush on the show, returning to it for the 10th time as director or choreographer. His "Will Rogers" roots go back to the original New York workshop in 1990, when he worked as dance captain under famed choreographer/director Tommy Tune. The workshop's success led to the musical's Tony Award-winning 1991 Broadway run.

Salisbury loves the musical's razzle-dazzle mix, in the way it unfolds scenes from the homespun folk hero's life through Ziegfeld "Follies"-scaled production numbers, featuring 14 chorus girls. For Utah audiences, part of the fun of the Pioneer Theatre Company show will be hearing the voice of Donny Osmond as Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, a role voiced by Gregory Peck on Broadway and the national tour.

"You go in thinking it's one thing, and 2 ½ hours later you think it's a whole other thing," Salisbury says. "If I watch the show from start to finish, even still I will be choked up by the end."

The director adds: "Anytime, anywhere, anyone asks me to do this show, I will be there."

He is especially happy to be reunited with lead actor David M. Lutken, who understudied the role on Broadway before going on to perform as Will Rogers in seven productions, including four under Salisbury.

The director remembers when Donald Trump was campaigning for his then-girlfriend, Marla Maples, to step in on Broadway as producer Ziegfeld's favorite chorus girl, a part she played on Broadway and later in Atlanta. "She was not untalented," Salisbury says kindly all these years later, but she was right for the role "because of all the stuff the audience brought to it."

As a performer, Maples was simply no Chryssie Whitehead, the director says, lauding the "exquisite dancer" who brings a quirky charisma to the character for the Utah production (after performing in "Chicago" and "A Chorus Line" revivals on Broadway).

During that same Broadway run, Lutken recalls hanging around backstage learning rope tricks from legendary British circus performer Vince Bruce, considered the best trick roper of his generation. "As the understudy, I wanted to be able to bring something the audience would be impressed by, other than remembering my lines and playing the guitar," Lutken says. "I'm not all that great, but I have a lot of fun with it."

Lutken also plays Woody Guthrie in his touring musical "Woody Sez" and notes the similarities of the two American folk icons. Guthrie considered himself a disciple of Will Rogers, even naming his son Will Rogers Guthrie.

"The two of them really represent something I think is really great about America," Lutken says. "Both of them were always very interested in looking out for their fellow man, and that's something you don't see a lot of today."

Most of the cast have a "huge talent crush" on Lutken, says Lisa Brescia, who plays Rogers' wife, Betty. (Brescia played Donna in Broadway's "Mamma Mia!" and Elphaba in "Wicked," as well as singing the Mama harmonies while touring in the early 1990s with the Mamas & the Papas.) "Every single time he opens his mouth, I believe those are his thoughts."

Lutken says he's able to draw from his background, growing up working as a cowboy on his family's Texas farm, as well touring as a musician before he turned to acting in the 1980s. "That's just what you did," the actor says about picking up stringed instruments, eight in total, as well as the harmonica, while growing up in a musical family.

The brilliance of Stone's script is its presentational nature, which makes the character of Will Rogers come alive. "All I have to do is go out there and say lines and not trip over the rope and play guitar," Lutken says. —

'The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue'

The 1991 Best Musical Tony Award-winning musical features a book by Peter Stone, with music composed by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

When • May 5-20; 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees

Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $40-$62 ($5 more day of show); K-12 students half-price on Mondays and Tuesday; 801-581-6961 or

More • During the run of the musical, the theater's Loge Gallery presents "Visual Dream," oil paintings and woodcuts by Utah-based landscape painter Brad Teare. The gallery is open before, after and during intermission of the show, and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Info •