Will Rogers is an iconic figure, an American original who gained widespread fame as mass electronic media was coming of age. By most accounts, he was the real deal: a decent-thinking, plainspoken man whose gift for words brought him fame through his newspaper writing and his many stage, radio and film appearances.
The Will Rogers Follies is a creative retelling of Rogers’ rags-to-riches story, and the current production at the Boiler Room Theatre finds the Franklin company at the absolute top of its game. Most of the credit falls to director Sondra Morton-Chaffin, who smartly pulls together the diverse elements of this circus of a musical.
The cast of 18 offers terrifically guileless performances. They’re led by Alan Lee, who delivers consistent warmth in the title role, doling out homespun philosophy and humorous quips while cataloging Rogers’ world travels, his successes as vaudevillian and movie actor, his role as upbeat public spokesperson during the Depression and his untimely demise in a 1935 plane crash with noted aviator Wiley Post.
The Peter Stone book is a model of top-flight craftsmanship, interpolating the part-Cherokee Rogers’ humble Oklahoma beginnings into the larger, eventful story. Cy Coleman’s rat-a-tat-tat, pleasantly old-timey Broadway score encompasses a wealth of variety numbers, about 20 in all, complemented by lilting ballads (most of them memorably sung by Corrie Miller, playing Rogers’ wife, Betty).
There are dancing girls (under the witty choreography of Lauri Bright), cowboys and Indians, black-lighted rope tricks by the sleight-handed Ray Kozak and a sharply brash performance by Nancy Whitehead as a kind of musical-comedy master of ceremonies. There’s even a lovable quartet of singing and dancing kiddies. Not least of all are Billy Ditty’s fabulous costumes, replete with gaudy gowns and flamboyant headdresses, simultaneously evoking both the Wild West and the Ziegfeld Follies aspects of Rogers’ storied life.
Director Morton-Chaffin had a hand in designing the set, which proves remarkably flexible in sustaining the action as bodies move constantly on- and offstage. More importantly, she urges her charges up and down and in and out, with generally canny pacing and admirable precision.
This show’s a definite hit, and it continues at the Factory At Franklin through Feb. 24.
Hey kids: Einstein really was smart
Nashville Children’s Theatre’s Einstein Is a Dummy represents only the second production ever of the work, which originally debuted in 2005 at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
Authors Karen Zacarias and Debbie Wicks La Puma have fashioned a less-than-literal, almost surreal portrait of the adolescent genius struggling with his brilliance in the face of conventional human thinking. It’s progressive stuff where children’s programming is concerned, a veritable sophisticated cartoon, which, through the sly vision of director Scot Copeland, provides 75 minutes of delightfully giddy acting, a colorfully washed, almost dreamlike stage setting that includes cosmic rear-screen video, and eclectic musical selections—waltzes, spacey pop, Yiddish folk and such—that function as a soundtrack almost equal to their service as a sung score.
Patrick Waller turns in a thoroughly charming performance in the lead role, an ever-inquisitive man-boy who risks social isolation (and his violin chair in an upcoming recital) in his search for scientific certitude. Jenny Littleton shines as Einstein’s magical feline friend—looking descended from the cast of Cats in Patricia Taber’s striking costume—as she dispenses dollops of information on the laws of physics regarding time and space. Lisa Nicole Kimmey, Shawn Knight and Sam Whited fill out the excellent ensemble. D. Richard Browder’s choreography adds welcome jocularity to the tight, imaginative staging.
It’s recommended for children ages nine and up, but Einstein Is a Dummy has a captivating visual feel that could keep the younger ones engaged even if they don’t grasp the more advanced concepts expressed through the dialogue. Needless to say, adults will also be vastly entertained. It’s onstage through Feb. 18 at NCT’s Hill Theatre.
The Donelson Senior Center for the Arts’ production of Dreamgirls is a mixed-bag affair. Director Kaine Riggan has gathered a large, typically enthusiastic community-theater cast, but he also reached into the professional Los Angeles talent pool to bring in his stars, Akil Wingate and Mon’Quez Pippins.
Pippins, as James “Thunder” Early, the James Brown-like force-of-nature singer, makes a serious impact belting out the Tom Eyen/Henry Krieger pastiche score, which faithfully recalls ’60s-style R&B and soulful balladry. Wingate, known to TV watchers from the show Nip/Tuck, inhabits a suitably arrogant and slick persona as ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr.
Riggan’s directorial style seems more concerned with reveling in the big concert numbers than shaping the individual acting performances. This loose feel works fine so long as musical director Mark Beall’s combo is banging out its rhythm-heavy material. But the dramatic work is sketchy at best, and the divide between the professional actors and locals often makes for uneven viewing. Nevertheless, when Nashville singer Jewel Lucien, in the pivotal role of Effie (Jennifer Hudson’s character in the acclaimed recent film), lets loose with big, top-of-her-range notes, it’s chill-inducing, and we at least get some lasting sense of the production’s thematic take on show-biz heartbreak and triumph.Dreamgirls continues through Feb. 16.
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…