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Musical resurrects cowboy humorist

Will Rogers was killed in a plane crash 70 years ago, but his notable quotes seem as fresh and wise today as they did when he started saying them in the 1920s:

"My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat," referring to his Cherokee father.

"It's great to be great, but it's greater to be human."

"No man is great if he thinks he is."

And the more trenchant ones:

"You can be killed just as dead in an unjustified war as you can in one protecting your own home" and "Diplomats are just as essential to starting a war as soldiers are for finishing it."

The life of the cowboy humorist is recalled in the upcoming musical at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre, The Will Rogers Follies, a Life in Revue. In it, Rogers returns from heaven to put on one more show, this one about his own life.

Rogers was born in 1879 in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma and started his show biz career as a trick roper and rider in Wild West shows and on the vaudeville stage. As time passed, he started telling small jokes and commenting on current politics and politicians as he did his rope tricks.

Soon, the audience wanted the jokes more than they wanted the roping, and a legend was born.

Rogers went on to make movies, write a syndicated newspaper column and do a radio show. But those careers followed his stints on Broadway, where he was a star in the Ziegfeld Follies.

The Will Rogers Follies glitters with long-legged Ziegfeld Girls and wranglers dancing and singing, but its heart is pure, homespun Will, twirling his rope, strumming his guitar and commenting on the world at large.

"He is one of my all-time heroes," said Jason Edwards, who has played Rogers six times in regional theaters and was understudy to Larry Gatlin in the national tour.

"(Rogers) talked to everyone the same way. It didn't matter what social class they were in. I try to live my life that way, too," Edwards said.

Rogers was a true phenomenon, arguably the biggest star ever, Edwards said. "They flew a squadron of airplanes over New York City to commemorate his death. Would they do that for anyone now?"

Playing Rogers is a real challenge, especially for people who are old enough to have heard or seen him in person, Edwards said.

"I have to admit, I don't think (just) anyone can play Will Rogers," he said. "You just get out there and do the best you can."

Indeed, the role is one of the most difficult ever created on Broadway. The actor has to act, sing, move well, play guitar and do tricks with a lariat. Edwards learned guitar while singing with a bluegrass band. He learned rope twirling from a professional after he was cast as Rogers the first time.

Edwards heard about the Show Palace production a year ago from his friend Michael Edwards, who had done Follies with him in North Carolina and had also played at the Show Palace (Pseudolous in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Edwards called the Show Palace, but the role had been given to someone else. A month ago, the original actor had to drop out. Edwards was winding up a stint in New York in a developing production about the late Johnny Cash.

"That was great, because I liked the chance to come to Florida in the winter," Edwards said. "I love to fish."

A bonus is working with director Amiee Turner, who played in the original Broadway production of Will Rogers Follies.

"I was part of the original company at the Palace Theatre in New York," Ms. Turner said. "I left the show and came back and closed the show on Broadway. It was a lovely experience."

Ms. Turner is also choreographer for the Show Palace production.

The show has a cast of 21, including four young actors playing Rogers' four children: Teddy Toye as Will Jr., Alexis Beetz as Mary, Evan Julian as James and Matthew Romeo as Freddy.

Ziegfeld's Favorite is played by Millicent K. Hunnicutt, who was recently featured in the Show Palace Christmas. Kelly Atkins, a veteran of Jacksonville's Alhambra Dinner Theatre, makes her Show Palace debut as Rogers' wife, Betty Blake. TV and stage actor Allan Baker plays Rogers' father, Clem. Show Palace veteran Chuck Cantrell plays Rogers' friend Wiley Post.

Tom Hansen's sets and backdrops include an original portrait of Rogers.

If you go

WHAT: Will Rogers Follies, a Life in Revue

WHERE: Show Palace Dinner Theatre, 16128 U.S. 19, Hudson

WHEN: Today-Feb. 20. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and some Saturdays starting Jan. 19, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Doors open two hours before each show for full cash bar and buffet.

TICKETS: Dinner and show, $39.50; show only, $28.45; ages 12 and younger, $21.95 and $16.95, all plus tax and tip. Call 863-7949 in west Pasco; toll free elsewhere at 1-888-655-7469.

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