If you didn't know that "The Will Rogers Follies" premiered on Broadway in 1991 and began touring the country months ago, you might have thought it had been created expressly for the opening night crowd at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Tuesday.
Baby-faced Mac Davis, surrounded by a long-stemmed chorus of Vegas-style showgirls, played Will Rogers with a wink and a cowlick, looking uncannily like a bashful cross between a young Ronald Reagan and a slim Donald O'Connor. That time-warped impression, combined with the back-to-the-future premise of the show as a latter-day Ziegfeld Follies revue, had the subliminal effect of leaving one mildly entertained.
Near the top of the show, Davis, who is reprising his role from Broadway, delivered a satirical monologue about world affairs in homage to Rogers' legendary common-man punditry. Ostensibly written by Davis himself while perusing that morning's newspaper, it actually was recycled from previous performances, though it was shaped to current events and local icons.
Davis began by riffling through a copy of the Orange County Register on stage, describing it as a newspaper that "never seems to clutter up its pages with two points of view." This got a big laugh. He then proceeded to joke about President Clinton and Vice President Gore ("a couple of Cub Scouts in the world's largest pup tent"), and got a bigger laugh.
He moved on to Ross Perot's all-purpose solution to any crisis ("the 50-cent gas tax") and mentioned other names in the news ("Yeltsin and Rutskoi have replaced Quayle and Bush as the Beavis and Butt-head of politics"). Inevitably he got around to Tammy Faye Bakker and Heidi Fleiss, and finally reached lamely for a purported headline: Balboa Island Housewife Shoots Husband ("That's the third one this week. The season must have opened early"). Wisely, he and his writers made no mention of the Laguna Beach fire.
Meanwhile, the show looked terrific all around--especially the topless chorine who led the glitzy parade of fetchingly clad showgirls up, down and around Tony Walton's strikingly effective, neon-lit staircase.
Yes, folks, now that the Crazy Horse in Paris has gotten out of topless, these Tommy Tune follies (he directed and choreographed) broke the topless barrier at O.C.'s foremost temple to high art. Of course, nobody should come to such a show expecting anything highfalutin. And the "Follies" story--a sketchy vaudeville biography that sticks its tongue in its cheek to the point of terminal cuteness--is anything but highfalutin.
But when a show wins six Tony Awards, including those for best musical, best score and best choreography, the audience does come to be dazzled by the songs and the dances. Unfortunately, "The Will Rogers Follies" makes you doubt the sanity of the Tony committee. The award-winning tunes by Cy Coleman are routine, and the award-winning lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green are pedestrian. None of the 15 or so songs is memorable. The show's signature tune, "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," even sounds like a bit of a dirge. Davis, a light country tenor, swallowed his lyrics on occasion--but not during this tune. The rhymed nonsense came through woefully clear: "Never met a man I didn't like/ . . . politicians, morticians."
As for the dancing, Tune's choreography is strictly by-the-numbers bright and cheery, occasionally clever and nicely executed but a letdown for anyone seeking more than a minor rehash of his past work. This is not to say that the performers themselves weren't first-class. All of them were, as were the award-winning Willa Kim costumes and the rest of the production values.
* "The Will Rogers Follies," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $19-$45. (714) 556-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Paulette Braxton: Indian Sun Goddess
Dana Leigh Jackson: Ziegfeld's Favorite
Blaine Mastalir: Indian of the Dawn
Stacie James: Indian Soloist
Christine Tarallo: Indian Sun Spirit
Mac Davis: Will Rogers
Ron Kidd: Wiley Post
George Riddle: Clem Rogers
Jeff Williams: Mr. Ziegfeld's Stage Manager
Danette Cuming: Betty Blake
Eric Goldin: Will Rogers, Jr.
Nina-Maria Scifo: Mary Rogers
Gina Rizzo Bishop: James Rogers
Thomas O'Connell II: Freddy Rogers
Michael Lee Wright: Vaudeville Announcer
Tomas Garcilazo: The Roper
Abe Reybold: Radio Engineer
Gregory Peck: The Voice of Mr. Ziegfeld
An Orange County Performing Arts Center presentation of the national touring production, directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Book by Peter Stone. Produced by Pierre Cossette, Martin Richards, Sam Crothers, James M. Nederlander, Stewart F. Lane and Max Weitzenhoffer in association with William E. Simon. Scenic design: Tony Walton. Costume design: Willa Kim. Lighting design: Jules Fisher. Sound design: Peter Fitzgerald. Projection design: Wendall K. Harrington. Wig design: Howard Leonard. Musical direction: Kay Cameron. Musical conductor: John Miller. Production stage manager: Mark S. Krause.