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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

'Will Rogers Follies' rides into town

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
F. Michael Zaller as Will Rogers. F. Michael Zaller as Will Rogers.
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Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like, and F. Michael Zaller is trying to live up to that philosophy.

Zaller plays the beloved American cowboy humorist in The Will Rogers Follies, which opens Thursday in the Stranahan Theater as the third show in Theater League's 2005-06 Broadway series.

A combination of biography, musical, and Broadway production, the show presents Rogers' life as a series of vaudeville acts, complete with showgirls, sequins, and elaborate costumes. It won six Tony Awards for 1991, including best director and choreography for Tommy Tune, and it was named the best musical, stealing those honors away from front-runner Miss Saigon.

In a telephone interview from his Omaha home, where he was spending the holidays, Zaller said he had been in the chorus of a community theater production of The Will Rogers Follies about 10 years ago, so he knew a little bit about the humorist before he got the lead in the national tour.

"The more I researched him once I got the role, it became clear just how amazing he was," Zaller said.

Born in Oklahoma in 1879, Rogers was a cowboy who became a vaudeville star, a radio commentator, and a newspaper columnist whose homespun wisdom and astute observations on the political scene made him an immensely popular entertainer.

Among his more widely known comments were: "Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects"; "Live your life so that whenever you lose, you are ahead"; and "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat."

Zaller said it's hard to play the role and not be changed a little bit.

Keleen Snowgreen is among the stars of <i>Follies</i>. Keleen Snowgreen is among the stars of <i>Follies</i>.
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"The things [Rogers] said 70 or so years ago still make sense today. To see what an amazing person he was makes me strive to be better. I'm actually an introvert but I try to consciously go out of my way to talk to people now because that's kind of what Will was all about. He wanted to say hi to every person he could and shake their hand and find out what their story was."

Zaller said he tries to represent Rogers rather than impersonate him. The goal is to embody the humorist, to try to make the same kind of connection he had with his audiences. Even when Rogers was playing to large crowds in New York, it still felt like he was in a living room, having a conversation, the actor said.

Acting professionally since about 1999, Zaller, 29, said The Will Rogers Follies is his first national tour.

"I went to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and studied acting. I really fell in love with craft, but I knew once I became a professional actor I was going to have to be able to sing, too, in order to work regularly. When I got out of college I did the dinner theater circuit for awhile. Then I started working in production shows, kind of like the Branson [Missouri] -style of shows."

About three years ago, Zaller and some friends decided to move to Georgia and start the Savannah Theatre, where they produce original shows such as Lost in the Fifties and Jukebox Journey in a renovated 1950s Art Deco building in the historic district. It's on the most central of Savannah's famous city squares, he said: "Chippewa Square, better known as Forrest Gump square, because that's where the movie was filmed."

Last summer, while he was working in Savannah, Zaller said he got word from a former co-worker that Phoenix Productions was seeking a performer to play Rogers in a new national tour. He wasn't particularly looking for a new acting gig, but he sent in a tape, went through the audition process, and won the role. "I guess all those shows in community theater gave me enough experience to audition well."

Two things he hadn't learned in community theater that he's had to become adept at for the Will Rogers role are rope tricks and playing the harmonica. Rope tricks are definitely tougher. "I kind of fake the harmonica, but it's hard to fake rope tricks."

The cast of The Will Rogers Follies numbers about 19, Zaller said, but people don't often realize it's that large, and that's due to the way the show is set up.

When Will is on stage, telling a story, he's usually alone or with two other people, at the most, maybe his wife, Betty, or his father. But between the stories, there are elaborate production numbers featuring up to a dozen showgirls.

Unlike shows such as Oklahoma or South Pacific, The Will Rogers Follies isn't particularly well-known, Zaller said. He doesn't know exactly why that is, but as an actor he appreciates the anonymity. "When we go to a city I've got a clean slate. I don't have to come in and overcome expectations of, say, Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma playing Curley."

Another thing Zaller said he like about The Will Rogers Follies is that it's definitely a family show. Even the showgirls, who seem to be wearing scanty costumes, are in full body stockings.

"The message in this show is really a touching one, a beautiful one. It's about 'step back a little bit, get outside your bubble and look around. Life's about the people you meet and how you interact with them,' which is what Will was about."

The Will Rogers Follies opens Thursday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Shows are scheduled at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Jan. 15. Tickets range from $33.50 to $42.50. Information: 419-381-8851.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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