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Broadway Saves Its Best for Last

THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES Musical with book and lyrics by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune. Starring Keith Carradine. At the Palace Theatre.

THE theater celebrates itself in the two final events of a less than memorable Broadway season. ``The Will Rogers Follies'' pays extravagant tribute to the legendary cowboy humorist and star of Florenz Ziegfeld's opulent extravaganzas. ``Our Country's Good'' creates a play-within-a-play to recall a grim but moving episode in Australian colonial history.

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The assembling audience at the splendidly refurbished Palace Theatre finds itself immediately under the quizzical gaze of Will Rogers himself. The unassuming hero of the evening proffers a silent but hospitable welcome. As the show's subtitle (``A Life in Revue'') makes clear, the evening belongs to Will. But there are also numerous attendant pleasures.

The show is more or less evenly divided between Will's wry observations as a forerunner of today's stand-up comics and the embellishments of the time-honored Broadway musical. Gum-chewing, rope-twirling Keith Carradine gives a winning impression of the legendary commentator who claimed he only knew what he read in the newspapers.

The star proves his versatility as comic actor, singer, instrumentalist (harmonica and guitar), and romantic leading man. Nudged occasionally by the sepulchral amplified voice of Mr. Z. (Gregory Peck) from somewhere up in the rafters, Mr. Carradine keeps things moving from one splashy number to the next. Meanwhile, he recounts Will's personal history from anonymous cowboy to cowboy celebrity.

Although these are nominally ``The Will Rogers Follies,'' they belong creatively to a latter day team of Broadway veterans. Peter Stone wrote the funny, smartly paced book. Cy Coleman composed a score that mingles themes and periods with easy nonchalance. The Betty Comden-Adolph Green lyrics are also amusingly attuned to the now and the then. Making it all come together is master director-choreographer Tommy Tune, who has been given the wherewithal to work his special kind of theatrical magic - includin g an instant Tony Walton flight of stairs to suit the Tuneful fancies. Jules Fisher has lighted the show extravagantly.

The show proceeds within the context of biographical reminiscences - Will's boyhood, cowboy days, vaudeville trials and Follies triumphs, as well as Hollywood failures and successes. There is also time out for romance as Will recalls his courtship of traffic agent Betty Blake, charmingly sung and portrayed by Dee Hoty. In a sense, the creative collaborators have it both ways - kidding the very devices of traditional musical comedy which they knowingly employ.

What might be distractions in a more formal setting are merely added attractions in ``The Will Rogers Follies.'' First, of course, is the production's array of beautiful women. (Willa Kim's costumes might not have disappointed the great Ziegfeld himself in matters of scantiness. Yet there is no lack of good taste.) Billed as ``The New Ziegfeld Girls,'' they adorn the stage in such Ziegfeldian promenades as ``The Powder Puff Ballet.'' ``Favorite son'' commemorates a political flop with a slap-happy Broa dway show stopper.

``The Will Rogers Follies'' recaptures the bygone pleasures of vaudeville and the Broadway revue with such turns as Tom and Bonnie Brackney and their ``Madcap Mutts'' (a dog act, naturally) and Vince Bruce's phenomenal rope twirling. Upholding the Broadway tradition are a corps of capable musical-comedy artists including Dick Latessa (Will's irascible pa), Paul Ukena Jr. (aviator, Wilen Post), and Cady Huffman (Zeigfeld's Favorite). The crash that cost the lives of Rogers and Post is handled casually an d even with a kind of wry humor. But the event has created an inevitable problem for the collaborators: how to accommodate the tragedy within an otherwise upbeat show. The dilemma is not entirely solved. At its most ebullient, however, ``The Will Rogers Follies'' is a Broadway show in the festive tradition - an entertainment to be enjoyed and even treasured.

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Play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, based on Thomas Keneally's novel, ``The Playmaker.'' Directed by Mark Lamos. At the Nederlaner Theatre.

THE time is 1788/89. The place is Sydney, Australia, a forlorn British outpost populated by transported criminals and the military officers assigned to supervise them. Hangings and whippings are the customary forms of discipline. From these harsh and forbidding circumstances, Timberlake Wertenbaker (working from Thomas Keneally's novel, ``The Playmaker'') has fashioned a humane and moving drama entitled, ``Our Country's Good.''

With the support of the governor-in-chief (Richard Poe), Marine 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Peter Frechette) recruits an unlikely cast - prisoners - to stage ``The Recruiting Officer,'' a Restoration comedy by George Farquhar. The idealistic young officer is convinced that his experiment will benefit these uncouth amateurs. The play's very much the thing with which Clark proposes to prick the consciences not only of the skeptical officers but of the exiled criminals themselves.

``Our Country's Good'' becomes an object lesson in the civilizing and humanizing influences of theater. The transforming process can be both affecting and comic as the playwright and director Mark Lamos bring the theatrical experiment vividly to life. Designer Christopher Barreca provides a supporting visual atmosphere with his symbolic set: a bleak scene dominated by the skeletal remains of a sailing ship.

As the Marine junior officer, Mr. Frechette has the important task of recruiting the cast, conducting five months of rehearsals, fighting opposition, and delivering Ms. Timberlake's eloquent defense of the playmaker's art. Frechette proves an advocate capable of fervent espousal and even an occasional directorial tantrum. The actor scores one of the evening's biggest laughs when Clark observes tartly: ``People who cannot pay attention should not go to the theater.'' Hear, hear! While preparations go fo rward, attractions form, rivalries develop, and an Aborigine appears from time to time to deliver his commentary.

As a collaborative undertaking, ``Our Country's Good'' represents an international cadre of creative forces. Timberlake is an American writer working in England. This play was first presented at London's Royal Court Theatre, where it garnered prestigious awards.

The versatile Broadway cast, most of whose members play double roles, includes Amelia Campbell, Tracey Ellis, Cherry Jones, Adam LeFevre, Ron McLarty, J. Smith-Cameron, San Tsoutsouvas, and Gregory Wallace. The production was costumed by Candice Donnelly and lighted by Mimi Jordan Sherin. ``Our Country's Good'' proves the theater's gain.

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