By Bridgette M. Redman
In the 81 years since Will Rogers died, comedy has evolved along with audience expectations for it. No longer is a comedy routine a rare treat for which people will travel miles with the family to spend an afternoon or evening with a lecturer or humorist. Vaudeville has long gone the way of the Edsel, and even the Follies girls of old would be considered demure by today’s standards.
This makes a show such as “Will Rogers: an American Original,” currently playing at Stormfield Theatre, a challenge to pull off successfully. As famous and beloved as the humorist was in his day, his style is no longer one that captures the attention of a generation that has entertainment of any stripe at its fingertips 24/7. If his story is to be told today, it must be told in a way that captures the imagination of today’s audience. It’s not impossible; “The Will Rogers Follies” enjoyed popularity 20 years ago.
Kevin McKillip, the author and actor, embraces a laid-back, cow-poke style for the Cherokee cowboy from Oklahoma who during the Depression had a radio show and a daily syndicated newspaper column, starred in silent movies and had performed in vaudeville shows around the country and was a regular in “The Zeigfeld Follies.” The pacing never varies during the two-hour show, moving along at a snail’s pace telling jokes that were fresh during the ’30s but have grown stale during the past century.
A routine on corset malfunctions might have had an audience rolling in the aisles 80 years ago, but lacks the same punch for today’s theater-goers. Likewise a rather lengthy monologue about his gallbladder removal came across as quaint rather than funny. He did throw in a few rope tricks and a single song, but not nearly enough for a two-hour show.
Will Rogers had a kindness and gentleness rarely found in today’s comedic environment. He’d be at home on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” where charm and politeness have not yet been sacrificed to the cruelty of stand-up comedians and judges of reality shows.
McKillip makes constant use of the verbal phrases of Will Rogers, interjections that are repeated so frequently that they displace more substantial content. Meticulous research and repetition of a person’s phrases does not carry a show for the length of time this one went on. It is charming for about an hour, but stretches the patience after that.
McKillip developed a friendly rapport with the audience, though they were inclined to agree when he told one member she was applauding out of pity. He started out at ease, but later had moments where he seemed to wander off and forget the point of his story. A monologue in the second act that seemed pregnant with poignancy wilted without ever reaching its climax, cutting off any emotional connection.
Michelle Raymond’s set was one of the best parts of the show, a beautifully painted backdrop with vegetation planted around the stage evoking the Old West. McKillip made use of each set piece, from the stable rail to the fence to the saddle on a sawhorse.
“Will Rogers: an American Original” was a late substitution for Stormfield Theatre, one brought in to replace their entry into the Stages of the Law series, David Mamet’s “Race,” due to a rights mix-up. It is an ironic substitution bringing in a one-man show about a man who never met a man he didn’t like to replace a show by a playwright who never met a man he couldn’t make despicable.
However, it is a choice that offers hope and optimism in a day when such things are sorely needed. During the Depression, Will Rogers was able to engage in political satire and humor without malice or cynicism. He offered hope to a nation that needed it. He is a figure that is much needed in a world that is experiencing many political and economic parallels to the 1930s.
In principle, the choice is an excellent one. In practice, McKillip’s performance failed to transcend the level of a historical re-creation notable only for its accuracy.
‘Will Rogers: an American Original’
Stormfield Theatre, 201 Morgan Lane, Lansing. Thursday-Sunday through Nov. 20. $18. 517-488-8450. http://www.stormfieldtheatre.org