'The Will Rogers Follies' is a tribute to the humorist and actor.
By TRACEY D'ASTOLFO
asy Street Productions will bring the glitz and glamour of Broadway to Youngstown over Mother's Day weekend with its production of "The Will Rogers Follies."
The theater troupe is performing the Tony-award winning show at Edward W. Powers Auditorium using the original Broadway sets, backdrops, props and costumes.
Todd Hancock and Maureen Collins, co-founders of Easy Street Productions, star in the show as Will Rogers and his wife, Betty. Hancock describes the show as "a combination Broadway musical and Wild West show with beautiful showgirls in lavish costumes, dancing cowboys and cowgirls, rope-spinning and dogs flying through the air!"
In addition to the original set, Hancock said the dog act used in the Broadway production, Tom and Bonnie Brackney's "Madcap Mutts," will also be performing in the show. A professional rodeo roper from Cleveland will take part in the production as well.
"As far as a Youngstown show being produced by people here in Youngstown, it's as close to New York as you're going to get because everything else is straight from Broadway," said Hancock.
Written for Broadway by Peter Stone, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and direction and choreography by Tommy Tune, "The Will Rogers Follies" swept the 1991 Tony awards, winning in six categories: best musical, best director, best costume, best lighting design, best choreography and best score.
The show is a salute to Will Rogers' life done in extravagant "Ziegfeld Follies" style. The "Follies" was an annual Broadway musical revue in the early 1900s that was famous for its extraordinarily elaborate staging, variety of performers and chorus of beautiful women.
"It touches on all aspects of Rogers' life: his cowboy performances, his sweet, lifelong romance with his wife, Betty, his climb to fame and his fascination with flying," said Hancock.
Rogers, famous for saying "I never met a man I didn't like," was an American humorist and actor in the 1920s. He made 67 movies, wrote a daily newspaper column and performed a weekly radio talk show. He was also famous for his rodeo and Wild West shows involving rope tricks, and he headlined a lot of the "Follies" shows.
"Originally he was famous for his roping skills, and then, as he performed more vaudeville, his witticisms and philosophy on life and politics became more of his bigger act," Hancock said. "So that's what he started touring around the country with, doing pretty much like a comedy routine."
Rogers' routine, in fact, was the first show ever performed in Stambaugh Auditorium. It played the then-newly opened Youngstown hall in December of 1926.
Born in Oklahoma to parents who were part Cherokee Indian, Rogers, the original king of all media, was at the time of his death said to be the highest-paid stage performer, radio personality, newspaper columnist and movie star in the country.
"It's kind of funny because he came from such humble beginnings, and for him to end up where he did ... I mean, this guy did everything," Hancock said.
Hancock said the production had to rent space at the U-Haul building on Mahoning Avenue and Glenwood to rehearse in and to house the elaborate set and costumes.
"The actual physical set is this expansive staircase, and the dancing girls are on different levels, and they do all of these big production dances on the staircase. We needed a big room to set up this staircase so the girls will have a chance to rehearse on the stairs, so for the next two weeks they're going to be at the U-Haul building dancing around on these huge stairs," Hancock said, laughing.
Hancock said the show's choreographer, Renee Rogers, is re-creating the original Tommy Tune Broadway choreography that won the Tony award in 1991.
Jeff Sanders will serve as musical director of The Easy Street Little Big Band. Hancock said additional musicians were hired to help with the elaborate score, making this the biggest band ever used in an Easy Street production.