“Willamania” at Rider: Will Rogers’ “Follies” to be final mainstage

Will Rogers’ “Follies” tells the story of performer Will Rogers in the style of one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s shows.

By Megan Raab

On May 1, Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts’ final mainstage production of the semester opens: Will Rogers’ “Follies.” The musical, with book by Peter Stone, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman, follows the life of iconic performer Will Rogers, played by junior musical theater major Forrest Filiano. 

The show is told as one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s shows featuring his famous ensemble of singing, dancing girls, the Follies. Rogers tells the audience his life story as it unfolds, featuring iconic characters such as Ziegfeld himself and Rogers’ wife, Betty Blake. The role of Betty is shared by senior musical theater major Lucy Bobbin and sophomore musical theater major Emily Goulazian.

Rider’s production, directed and choreographed by musical theater faculty member Robin Lewis, features the original Broadway choreography by Tommy Tune, including the iconic number “Favorite Son.” Most of this choreography is undertaken by the Follies, a large female singing and dancing ensemble that provides spectacle and beauty throughout the course of Will’s story. For Mady Rogers, a sophomore musical theater major and one of the Follies, learning Tommy Tune’s original choreography was both a pleasure and a challenge. 

“Tommy Tune is so iconic in the world of musical theater. There are so many tiny details that have to happen to make the whole picture come to life. He won the Tony [the most prestigious award for Broadway shows] for best choreography for this show, so it’s something really special and as a cast we want to do it justice,” she said. 

Sophomore musical theater major James Vinson had similar feelings about the show. He said, “The choreography is truly beautiful and takes the show to another level.”

 Vinson plays character Wiley Post, while also serving as a swing, an actor who learns various roles of the show and is prepared to take the stage in place of the original actor at any time. 

“Being a swing is exciting and frightening at the same time. At any moment you have to be prepared to step in and perform that actor’s track as if you’ve been in that role for the whole run,” he said. “One thing that helped me most was creating a different character for each role I had to swing, which made it easier to distinguish one track from another.”

The show has multiple large dance numbers and features beautiful costumes and elaborate set pieces. For Rogers, the biggest challenge has been maintaining the high energy that is needed to carry out such a powerhouse of a show. 

“The hardest number is definitely ‘Willamania.’ It is the opening number and it demands really high energy. It’s also really long so we all had to work to build our stamina,” said Rogers. 

There are moments of reprieve where she said she gets to enjoy a softer, more playful character like in her favorite number, “My Big Mistake.”

 “This number has a power ballet at the end of it. It’s so dainty and feminine, which is a style I love to perform,” she said. 

For Vinson, he said he had to work hard to develop a much different type of stamina. His character, Wiley Post, performs his role from a seat in the audience. 

“I enjoy getting to watch the show very much,” said Vinson. “It is unique because when you’re in a show you never get to see what is happening onstage through the audience’s eyes. My character is close friends [with] Will Rogers in the show, so it feels like getting to watch one of my own friends every run.”

Another unique aspect of this show is how female-focused the cast is. 

“This is such an empowering show to be a part of,” said Rogers. “It is such a female-heavy cast, which doesn’t happen a lot in musical theatre. I’m so honored to be a part of a cast full of amazing, strong and powerful women.” 

Readers can catch Vinson and Rogers, as well as the rest of the cast of Will Rogers’ “Follies” which premieres May 1 at 7:30 p.m. in the Bart Luedeke Center Theater, and runs until May 5.

Published in the 05/01/19 edition.

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