Before Bill Maher, before Jon Stewart, before Stephen Colbert, before John Oliver, there was Will Rogers—a political satirist known for his nationally syndicated newspaper column and radio gig, as well as the many movies he starred in and shows he performed on the vaudeville circuit. Rogers’ folksy, down-to-earth demeanor kept his views on politics respected and entertaining. In fact, he said of his epitaph that when he died, it would note: “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.”
Opera House Theatre Company will open a biography of Rogers’ life with the “The Will Rogers Follies” at Thalian Hall on Wednesday night. Wilmingtonian-turned-Charlottean Ron Chisholm is directing the show, and it’s not his first time at this particular rodeo, either. In fact Chisholm oversaw the production in Charlotte recently and did the show for Opera House twice now over the last two decades. The show is full of bold song-and-dance numbers, as Rogers’ commentary about the country and what’s happening with America comes to light.
“It is truly a timeless piece of theatre, with insight into our nation over 90 years ago, and how things that were relevant then are still relevant today,” Chisholm explains. “The state of the economy is addressed with a radio commentary Will did. It’s very similar to what we went through in 2008. The presidential election of 1928 [saw] Will Rogers as a write-in candidate, and he won his home state.”
This time around Chisholm has added more tap in the opening number and the set design by Terry Collins has changed somewhat from previous years—except for the staircase. All the show’s production numbers—with music led by band director Lorene Walsh—take place on the stairs.
The show stars Dick Bunting as Clem, Will’s father; Shannon Playl as Will’s wife Betty; Jeff Phillips as Florenz Ziegfeld; and Tammy Daniels as Ziegfeld’s Favorite. “We have 12 terrific and beautiful Follie Girls, a male quartet and four kids play Will’s children,” Chisholm says.
The man of the hour will be played by local actor, choreographer and dancer Jason Aycock. We spoke to Aycock about his first time taking on Will Rogers.
encore (e): Why did you want this role?
Jason Aycock (JA): I have never played this role but I’ve heard a lot of talk about it over the years and doing shows for OHTC. Between Ron, [frequent OHTC director] Ray [Kennedy] and [OHTC artistic director] Alice [Morgan] I heard plenty of stories about the show and really started to be interested in it. I’ve played a lot of happy-go-lucky parts in my life, and when I heard the song ‘Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like,’ I really started to understand the positive force that Will Rogers was. That piqued my interest. When Alice said we were doing it and handed me the rope, I got really excited.
e: What do you find most fascinating about Rogers?
JA: The man’s spirit was infectious. He started out as a rope-spinnin’ cowboy and became one of the world’s best-known celebrities of his time. All because of his simple matter-of-fact view of the world. To be able to break things down and understand them on that level and still inspire people is amazing. He wasn’t a derogatory person. He was just so uplifting.
e: What’s the appeal of Will Rogers’ bio being told in the style of follies?
JA: It just showcases the life of a brilliant, funny, positive sort of guy and that couldn’t work as a Fosse show or a Puppet show or a straight-forward scene-for-scene of his life. It is patterned after a style that Will himself spent six years of his life involved in—such a great legacy for the kind of performer he was.
e: What’s been the most challenging aspect of the play thus far?
JA: That’s a difficult question because there are a few challenging aspects. Seventy-five percent of the show is me talking to the audience. And in rehearsals, not having an audience makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong because I don’t have my scene partner there to get that back-and-forth as you would with another actor. So that has been challenging outright. The rope tricks have been challenging because that’s like having a scene partner you have all/none of the control over.
I’ve been working on tricks for a few months and there are so many things that can affect how it works out: what clothes I’m wearing, my concentration level, how tired my arm is—it all makes a difference when I’m trying to nail one of Will Rogers’ classic tricks.
The third challenging thing is the fact the last two come on top of all the singing/dancing/acting that comes with a normal show. So it’s been exciting but very challenging.
e: Tell me a little about the song and dance numbers you’re doing: styles, music, choreography challenges…
JA: I don’t do as many styles as the rest of the cast in the show just because that’s not exactly who Will Rogers was, but I do get to do some fairly standard Broadway jazz (sways and grapevines and jazz squares), and a fun section of hamboning with the boys.
We also are doing the original Tommy Tune choreography for “Our Favorite Son,” which is incredible but hard to describe. You have to see it. Ron Chisholm has directed the show five times now, and he’s mastered what works for it and I’m glad to get the chance to work with him again. “Our Favorite Son” was definitely the most difficult but totally worth it. Kind of like the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number from “Mary Poppins” [last year].
e: Anything else?
JA: The show is perfect for families. There is humor, dancing, singing, and an all-around good time. Throw in a great look at what theatre was like for generations and it’s a show I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.