Director/choreographer James C. Christian isn't attempting to replicate Tommy Tune's choreography from the Tony Award-winning Broadway version of "The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue."
Christian, who heads Weber State University's growing musical theater program and is artistic director of the Utah Musical Theatre series - embarking this week on its 10th season, noted during a recent interview that the script for "The Will Rogers Follies" doesn't give specific instructions for the dance steps."It's pretty open, although we've got something similar to the sit-down kick line in the `Favorite Son' number," Christian said. "That's actually the first piece of choreography I taught (the UMT cast) because it's so complicated."
UMT opens its 1996 season on Friday at 7:30 p.m. with the Will Rogers musical in the Allred Theatre of WSU's Val A. Browning Center for the Performing Arts.
The cast includes Michael A. Harding of Greenville, S.C., as legendary rope-twirling, gum-chewing humorist Will Rogers, whose life is told against the elegant backdrop of the Ziegfeld Follies, where Rogers was a featured performer for several years before dying in an airplane crash in Alaska in 1935.
Harding was with the UMT program last year, playing Mr. Sipos in "She Loves Me."
While many of this season's UMT performers were chosen during a "unified audition" conducted earlier this year as part of the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Louisville, Ky., Christian tapped Harding for the title role in "The Will Rogers Follies" because "I was so impressed with his talent, his working style and his poise and warmth onstage. We were definitely looking forward to bringing him back again."
As part of the audition process in Louisville, more than 100 different regional theater companies from throughout the country saw 850 actors and actresses in three days, recruiting performers for their summer shows.
"As far as playing Will Rogers, Harding shares that same easygoing humanity that really characterizes Will," said Christian, adding that Harding did some work in perfecting his rope-spinning before he arrived in Ogden for rehearsals. A member of WSU's rodeo team is working with Harding and other cast members on rope-spinning techniques and will be doing a featured routine himself as part of the show.
Another longtime UMT audience favorite is Lori Schoonmaker, who'll portray Will's ever-patient wife, Betty, who is constantly frustrated by her husband's time-consuming showbiz career. Lori, a WSU graduate, just returned from New York City, where she's been doing some work.
The role of Ziegfeld's Favorite (which got a big publicity boost on Broadway when Donald Trump's own "favorite" - Marla Maples - tackled the role), is being played by Cheri R. Pratt, a musical theater major at WSU and previous UMT performer.
Justin Ivie, also a WSU student who was featured in the premiere productions of Christian's award-winning parody "The Pirated Penzance," will play Wiley Post, the famous aviator who continually appears and invites Rogers to go flying, with Charles E.H. Faulkner, another UMT third-time returnee, as Clem, Will's father (who disapproves of his son's choice of show business as a career).
For the voice of Florenz Ziegfeld, Christian is using longtime WSU Theatre Department colleague Ron Wooden.
"As soon as I set about the task of casting, he was my first choice," said Christian. (The Broadway and national touring productions used taped dialogue by Gregory Peck. Ziegfeld's commanding voice occasionally interrupts the action from his producer's box high at the rear of the theater, demanding certain changes in the show as it evolves on stage.)
The Wild West Show number, which provides some of the musical's vaudevillean backdrop, will include a sharp-shooting act in lieu of the Broadway show's trained dogs.
"I don't think there are any real trained dogs in Utah," added Christian.
The UMT version will also have one element that was missing from the national touring company - Will and Betty's children. They're an integral part of the sequences depicting Rogers' career on the vaudeville circuit, just before he hits the big time on Broadway.
Christian will be playing the role of Capt. Von Trapp in UMT's production of "The Sound of Music" (July 19-Aug. 3) and is co-directing the revival of last season's big hit, "Forever Plaid" (July 5-Aug. 17 in the smaller Monson Theatre).
Christian is also gearing up to direct the first professional production of "The Pirated Penzance," which will open Pioneer Theatre Company's 1996-97 season.
- PERFORMANCES - "The Will Rogers Follies" plays Mondays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. in the Allred Theatre at WSU, June 28 through July 13, with one matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 6. There will be no performance on July 4th.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $13 for students and senior citizens. They're available in advance from the Dee Events Center ticket office and other WSU outlets. Call 626-8500 for reservations.
Discounted "Student Rush" tickets are available for whatever seats are remaining 15 minutes prior to curtain Mondays-Thursdays and matinees. These are available only to high school students with valid activity cards or WSU students/staff. Two tickets per cardholder only.