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Strong cast, production make "Will Rogers' shine

Writing a musical biography about beloved folk icon Will Rogers is tricky. Reciting the facts could get tedious. Too much reality and the audience squirms. After all, this is Will Rogers, whose gentle humor and understanding helped many people endure the Great Depression.

The Will Rogers Follies, a Life in Revue, playing through Feb. 20 at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre, handles these challenges with wit and grace worthy of the subject. And when the story starts to bog down, the lavish production numbers jazz it back up.

Writer Peter Stone presents the facts by letting his characters acknowledge that this is a stage show and talk directly to the audience, albeit in sometimes stilted, cornpone dialogue.

Lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green smooth over Rogers' strained relationship with wife Betty Blake over his long absences and life on the road with a melodramatic torch song, No Man Left for Me, and a spunky My Big Mistake, given excellent treatment by Kelly Atkins.

Rogers' shortcomings are so downplayed, though, that it's difficult to get emotionally invested in his life. Composer Cy Coleman doesn't help; though there are lots of flashy dance numbers, there's not a hummable tune in the whole show.

Even so, The Will Rogers Follies provides a solid evening's entertainment, thanks to Rogers' timeless humor and insight, a stellar cast and sharp direction and choreography by Amiee Turner, who originated the role of New Ziegfeld Girl in the Tony Award-winning 1991 Broadway production.

The linchpin is the multitalented Jason Edwards as Rogers, who twirls a lariat, plays a guitar and sings a tune with easy-going expertise. This is Edwards' seventh time playing the philosopher humorist, and he's as comfortable in the role as a pair of broken-in boots. His experience gives him the confidence to ad lib and update the dialogue, which adds a fresh feel to the show and the character.

The comic spark in the show is Allan Baker as Rogers' irascible dad, Clem. Baker's voice is superb, his timing great, and he gives this character his due.

The scene-stealer is 5-year-old Matthew Romeo as Rogers' youngest son Freddy, who sings, dances and speaks like a grownup. The old saying is right: Never share a stage with a kid or a dog (though in this production, only those on the front rows get to see the cute little dog).

The dazzling dance line in glittering costumes (the "revue" part of the title), led by dance captain Andrea Eskin, add Ziegfeldian glitz and glamor. The hand jive in act two's Favorite Son is a near show-stopper.

Rogers may not be a classic a la South Pacific or The Music Man, but it is an upbeat, solid show worth seeing.

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