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While Larry Gatlin may have had the folksiness of Will Rogers down pat, we’re betting ol’ Will wished he could have sung as beautifully as the country crooner Gatlin did in “The Will Rogers Follies,” which ran for three days last week here.
Nicely matching Gatlin with fine pipes was Amy Decker, a blonde Southern California beauty who played Will’s Arkansas-born wife, Betty Blake.
And while Chris McDaniel, who played Will’s dad Clem as well as handling a couple of other supporting roles, didn’t sing much, he showed off some exceptional roping during the musical. In fact, in the most surprising moment of the show, the second act began with what appeared to be Gatlin doing all these fancy rope tricks he promised the audience to practice between acts. The mysterious lighting was such that everything white appeared orange and the rest was a dark purple, and only at the end of the routine did the audience find out it was really McDaniel all along with the rope.
That routine seemed to kick-start the musical into a higher gear, and by the end of the second act, with Gatlin in an oversized grey suit and standing in profile, he had fully succeeded in his stated goal: to make the audience believe he WAS Will Rogers, legendary humorist and writer of the 1920s and ’30s.
We learned a little bit more about the American legend from the well-written musical, and the dozen dancing girls in Ziegfeld-style attire were fun to look at as well.
Where some Tony Award-winning musicals rely on two or three powerful songs to carry the show, all the Cy Coleman numbers here were solid, from the variations on Will’s slogan — “I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” — to Decker’s wonderful, sad ballad about Will being gone all the time, “No Man Left for Me,” while she straddled the top of an oddly shaped green upright piano. Another second-act highlight came with the Ziegfeld girls on stage with Gatlin, everyone attired in red, white and blue to highlight Rogers’ run for president in 1928.
The impressively lighted set was Broadway big-time, and the orchestra was top-notch, too. It’s a fine show that grew better and stronger as it went along.
In the final moments during a standing ovation Tuesday night, Gatlin had to repeatedly give the “cut it off” sign to the orchestra leader so he could say a few words. His first were: “Hey, enough with the music, there’s a football game on.” It was merely the Orange Bowl that night, a lead-up to Wednesday’s national championship game between his home-state Texas and Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. We can only imagine his urgency to get Wednesday night’s show completed.
Gatlin, some may know, played football for the University of Houston — “all of about 11 minutes total,” he told us in an interview in December. He couldn’t deny being one of the stars, though, of a state championship team at Odessa Permian High School in the 1960s (Odessa was the basis for the book and film “Friday Night Lights”). So, it’s easy to figure Gatlin for a football fan, and he proved it.