Despite a few technical hiccups with sound and choreography, Rivertown Theaters’ production of “Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue” — starred in and directed by husband-wife team Marc and Kelly Fouchi — delivers the sort of solid, enjoyable experience we’re used to from the reliable Kenner theater.
Modeled after a traditional Ziegfeld variety show, “Will Rogers” follows a modified version of the life and talents of the titular star. In a time where the biopic seems like standard Oscar fodder, it is refreshing to see a different, almost tongue-in-cheek, spin on the genre.
As Will Rogers, Marc Fouchi is a bumbling, witty, lovable Everyman. Shuffling about the stage, mouth perpetually fixed into a white-toothed grin, his easy-going mannerisms make the audience old friends, and Fouchi takes advantage. Fouchi is the perfect entertainer, slyly winking as he teases us over current events or twirling his trusty rope. Yet Fouchi also has range, and when — in a pivotal moment — he drops all pretense and presents himself as nothing more than a man confused and lost by the circumstances, it’s all the more vulnerable and powerful.
Fouchi isn’t the only joy. Micha Desonier nearly steals the show as Ziegfeld’s Favorite, a showgirl. Despite no formal name and limited lines, Desonier nevertheless commands attention as she struts about the stage.
She easily has the most costume changes of anyone in the production. No matter the role she is designated to play, from understudy to interplanetary mail-carrier, her coiffed hair and beaming smile is superseded only by her brimming enthusiasm.
Although the gee-golly script borders on the saccharine, it is balanced by a sense of foreboding provided by a well-placed Wayne Gonsoulin as the famed pilot Wiley Post. This hint of darkness grounds the proceedings, although a handful of moments are too sentimental. In particular, the “Look Around” number, perhaps relevant for the play when it first opened in 1991, seems unnecessarily heavy-handed and out of place among the myriad gleeful variety gags.
That said, the variety show format is the play’s greatest strength, not only highlighting the abilities of actors such as Fouchi and Desonier, but also a wide range of talent of the sort Rivertown seems to always find.
In addition to its many dancers, the company also employs the services of A.J. Silver, a rope trick and whip artist.
He may not be the show’s leading star, but Silver’s talents are a treat nonetheless, and they bring a level of authenticity to the production as a whole.
This sort of great attention to detail, so characteristic of a Rivertown production, makes minor mistakes all the more noticeable. Ziegfeld was known for his extravagant and choreographically precise dance numbers.
However, particularly in the first act, the synchronicity of the dancers in this show was off just enough for it to limit its illusion of being a flawless follies shows.
Coupled with a missed prop turn and an instance or two of the sound cutting out, the production did have a few missteps — but they’re small, and one is only ever aware of them because the rest of the play is just that strong.
Rivertown productions tend to be known for their professional, Broadway-like quality, and for “Will Rogers,” both Eric Porter and Linda Fried deliver in spades.
As set designer, Porter goes all out, complete with Rogers’ name in lights and a brilliant, ripped from the times light-up staircase. Fried likewise emulates the Ziegfeld atmosphere with a plethora of colorful costumes.
Each character is bedecked in a wide array of fashions, all of them as glamourous and as rich as the extravagant years they try to recapture.
The two designers compliment each other, heightening the sense of time and tone of Ziegfeld’s follies, especially during the “Presents for Mrs. Rogers” number as Ziegfeld girl after Ziegfeld girl slowly descends the stairs, each personifying a precious jewel.
“Will Rogers” is not the best recent production to take place on the Kenner stage, but its excellent direction and the wonderful charisma of its actors deliver smiles and laughs galore and make for a perfectly enjoyable evening at the theater.