Fresno Beehive

‘Will Rogers Follies’ dances to a contemporary political beat

Ted Nunes, center, plays the title role in “The Will Rogers Follies” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.
Ted Nunes, center, plays the title role in “The Will Rogers Follies” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Special to The Bee

There’s a temptation these politically charged days to see everything as somehow a reflection or commentary on Donald Trump and his wild ride to the White House.

Still, it’d be nearly impossible to watch the solidly entertaining Good Company Players production of “The Will Rogers Follies,” which opened just a week before Inauguration Day at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, and not think of the current political scene.

What would Mr. Rogers have made of all this?

Part of me imagines that this amiable star of the 1920s and ‘30s – who at his height as political humorist, movie star, radio personality and goodwill ambassador was one of the most famous people in the world – would simply give up in disgust at the general coarseness of our current political discourse and the hyper-partisanship in Washington. I picture him retiring to his ranch and spending the rest of his days doing rope tricks.

Then again, politics has long been a bloodsport. I suspect that Rogers would have jumped right in making fun of our present-day politicians. How could he resist?

“It sure is easy being a humorist when you have a whole government working with you,” Will cracks in the play.

I’ve had a soft spot for this charming, sentimental show (which opened on Broadway in 1991) ever since I saw the national tour in Fresno in 1994. (It was a big enough show to have an eight-show run at the Saroyan Theatre.) Then I was reacquainted with it in a promising 2007 GCP production.

A balance of glitz and down-home tenderness, Peter Stone’s book offers an impressionistic portrait of Rogers that resonates with warmth, laughter and a matter-of-fact nod to mortality. (From the show’s beginning, we’re reminded that Rogers died in an airplane crash in 1935.). And I’ve always found myself humming the songs – music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolf Green – for days afterward. (The tune “Give a Man Enough Rope” is a gem.)

This new GCP production, directed with care by Dan Pessano, soars at times and wobbles at others. Highlights include Ashley Wilkinson’s spiffy choreography on the show’s famed take on a chorus line, “My Favorite Son”; Abigail Nolte’s tender and vocally strong turn as Betty Blake, Will’s wife; Andrea Henrickson’s smooth lighting design, which works well with Don Thompson’s impressive use of projections; and Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s vaudeville-inspired costumes.

Caitlyn Lopez has a sweet and sassy stage presence as Ziegfield’s Favorite, and Greg Ruud – who went on anyway at the opening-weekend performance I saw despite being sick with an extremely raspy voice – adds a lot of comic punch as Will’s father and in other supporting roles.

At other times, however, the show could use more confidence. The cowboy quartet (Alex Figueroa, Tim Smith, Chase Stubblefield and Shawn Williams) didn’t feel all that comfortable together as an ensemble, and their vocals could be stronger.

And the production’s rope tricks are particularly weak.

In the pivotal leading role of Will, it took a while for Ted Nunes to grow on me. His opening monologue seemed almost shy, and in the early scenes he came across as a bit gangly and unsure. It was hard to connect to this character as one of the world’s most famous entertainers. But I warmed up to Nunes’ performance as the show went on. I appreciated his gentle but firm vocals and laidback, homespun charm. (And he can be quite funny, especially when doling out the show’s topical humor. Yes, you can expect some jokes ripped from 2017 headlines.)

I have a feeling that as the run progresses, Nunes will be more comfortable in Will’s skin. I don’t want him to “slick it up” too much – but just project a little more confidence.

How comfortable Will Rogers would be in today’s political scene, meanwhile, remains an intriguing question. One thing is for sure: Whichever side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, “The Will Rogers Follies” reminds us that laughing at our politicians is something this country should never forget how to do.

The Will Rogers Follies

Theater review

  • Through March 12
  • Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
  • www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494
  • $32-$60
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