July 12--SULLIVAN -- As a figure in American pop culture, Will Rogers lived a little bit before Kelly Shook's time. The famed humorist, actor and social commentator passed away in an untimely plane crash in 1935, but the folksy, homespun witticisms of the cowboy who "never met a man he didn't like" have persisted. Rogers' enduring fame resulted in his own Broadway show in the early 1990s, "The Will Rogers Follies," a Tony Award winner for Best Musical and Best Score.
"It's all about memorializing this American icon, but it thinks outside the box, it's not a literal depiction of his life," said Shook, who will direct the show at Sullivan's Little Theatre-On the Square when it premieres Wednesday afternoon. "Instead, it looks at it from how he might have put on a show about his own life, in the context of the famous Ziegfeld Follies revues."
In life, Rogers was known for his gentlemanly and easygoing demeanor, a social commentator who called things as he saw them and managed to poke gentle fun at all without offending anyone. In this respect, Shook believes he was unlike any entertainer who has come along since.
"I don't know anyone today who is as optimistic and ready to laugh at himself quite like Rogers was in his life," she said. "He lived in such a different media market that it's impossible to compare, but he appealed to all age groups. He was so well-liked that he once spoke at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in the same year, which is incredible."
In terms of the show's content, it is meant to be a cross-section of what viewers might have expected to see in a Ziegfeld Follies show of the 1920s or 1930s, in which Rogers frequently appeared. The theatrical spectacles typically combined dancing, singers, comedians and actors such as Rogers, who told stories, cracked wise, and performed some of his trademark cowboy rope tricks.
Taking on the major role of Will Rogers is Sean Zimmerman, known to Little Theatre audiences for his roles last season as Adam Pontipee in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and the Pirate King in "Pirates of Penzance." Having never played the role before, he has literally spent the last few months learning the physical actions necessary to portray Rogers, lasso tricks included.
"He's been working so hard on learning everything for the last few months, all these new skills," Shook said. "He has to know not only the tricks but also how Will Rogers would respond to something like a botched trick. He has to lead the audience through the show and command the stage like Rogers could."
It may be Roger's show, but the rest of the Little Theatre's summer cast is kept busy as well, mostly in giving a sense of the "Ziegfeld spectacle." All are involved in the musical's score, which runs the gamut from intimate to ostentatious.
"It's hard to equate it to any other musical, because there are some simple country songs that Rogers might have done, but then there are these big production numbers with tap-dancing and chorus lines," Shook said. "Overall, it's one of my favorite collections of show tunes."
As perhaps the theater's most family-friendly show of the summer season, Shook hopes to see parents and kids in the audience for "Will Rogers Follies." In many ways, it serves as a musical education about live entertainment in the days before true musical theater came to prominence.
"I think there's a lot of history to learn about the progress of theater in the show," the director said. "This kind of show paved the way for theater as we know it today. Modern Hollywood and Broadway wouldn't be what they are today without a star like Will Rogers."
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