DECATUR — To put on “The Will Rogers Follies,” you’re going to need a solid presence in the titular role. It’s an entire show built around the romanticizing of an already larger-than-life American icon. Before he’s ever appeared on stage, the entire cast has already sung his praises to the audience, painting a picture of a man who sounds like an American tall tale. It’s fortunate for The Little Theatre-On the Square that Sean Zimmerman was available to play the part.
The returning Zimmerman is the strong foundation of “Follies” at Sullivan’s Little Theatre, and rolled with grace through a less-than-perfect rendition of the show Wednesday afternoon in front of a packed house. He may not be the master of Roger’s rope tricks, but more importantly, he was able to channel the cowboy’s good humor and gentle, everyman nature.
Failed lassoing was par for the course in a show that was beset by a few odd and largely random occurrences. Minor costume malfunctions abounded, no doubt a factor of the show’s newness, but technical issues also cropped up. Midway through the final number, a stage light blew out, dropping glass onto the floor below, something the actors worked around like professionals. Most of the gaffes are understandable — when you’ve got more than a dozen people tap-dancing backward down a spiral staircase, you’re lucky when only a prop gets dropped and not a human being.
Regardless, the small slip-ups don’t diminish what is a fun, if gentle show. The humor here is largely delivered in monologue form, as Zimmerman quips about the day’s events and general topics that range from politics to entertainment. The jokes are old, but that’s their allure to the audience, nostalgic remembrances of one-liners about congress, elected officials and lawyers aimed from the viewpoint of a blue-collar hero. As Zimmerman points out, most of the jokes never need to be updated because their subjects never change.
There is also some trademark Little Theatre dancing to be had in the “follies” portion of the program, which helps liven things up and keep the show moving along. The costumes are wonderfully kitschy all around, especially for the stable of “Follies Girls” who dance their way through most of the show’s transitions. There’s a particularly nice moment during Roger’s ill-fated run for President that features the entire cast in oversized boater hats made from tambourines, shaking and striking each other’s heads to the beat.
There are also a few notable individual performances beside’s Zimmerman’s as Rogers himself. Kara Guy, previously seen as the female lead in “Anything Goes,” is actually more impressive here as “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” a sort of chorus girl leader who keeps everything moving smoothly along. She flits in and out of every scene like personified deus ex machina, building a surprisingly close rapport with the audience in a role that doesn’t afford her much characterization.
Karla Shook, meanwhile, is effective playing Roger’s sweetheart Betty Blake, a simple country girl scooped up by Roger’s mounting stardom into a life she never really wanted for herself. She has the best solo songs of the show, especially the torchy “No Man Left for Me.”
For someone who passed away almost 80 years ago, it’s hard to deny the continuing impact of Rogers, the cowboy who “never met a man he didn’t like.” Zimmerman and the Little Theatre have put on a loving show in his memory, heavy on nostalgia and cherished memories. The rope tricks are mostly for show, but the vaudeville fun is genuine.