If you’re looking for a Broadway show rivaling downtown Chicago but without the downtown price, than look no further than the Oak Lawn Park District Theatre.
Now in its 24th year and thousands of hours of making magic on the world’s tiniest stage, the park district players are hitting the boards with The Will Rogers Follies. The 1991 musical highlights the life of the American humorist, cowboy, actor, author, syndicated news columnist, vaudevillian, Broadway star, rope twirler and probably the biggest celebrity of the 1920s and 1930s.
Featuring a deep-bench cast of local talent, Will Rogers Follies recounts the life of the humorist who became famous for telling the truth, set against the backdrop of one of Rogers’ first gigs, a rope twirler and joke teller in Ziegfeld Follies that led to his first brush with fame.
Each major event in Rogers’ life—from birth to his first meeting with wife, Betty Blake, to when he flies off to his death with the celebrated aviator Wiley Post (their private plane crashed in Alaska in 1935)—is told in the form of a big production number.
The Oak Lawn Park District Theatre has made a name for itself in the Southland’s regional theater circuit by remaining true to the original Broadway book and score of its prolific catalogue.
“It’s a great show with great dancing. The opening number is 10 to 12 minutes long and is probably one of the hardest numbers in musical theater,” Paul Nirchi said, co-founder, director and producer of the community theater group’s musicals.
The cast will also undertake the show’s famous “convention number” that involves intricate hand movements and singing of Will Rogers’ tongue-in-cheek run for U.S. president (he lost).
“We try to follow the script and what is done on Broadway,” Nirchi said. “Very few people do this show because of the difficulty of the opening and the convention numbers.”
Nirchi, a barber by trade, has always been attracted to singing and performing. He helped co-found the park district theater group with Dave Heilmann, an attorney, actor and mayor of Oak Lawn in the late 1980s.
Prior to that he spent five years playing the Sabre Room on 95th Street in Hickory Hills, and before that was a member of off-off-Broadway parish productions.
“I’m a men’s hair stylist. I’ve been cutting hair for 43 years,” Nirchi said, who owns M’Lord Barber Shop in Hickory Hills.
Nirchi also plays Wiley Post, Rogers’ aviator friend, who frequently ducks in between production numbers and beckons Will to fly.
“That’s the constant of the show, to remind the audience and Will that’s he’s not going to be here very long,” Nirchi said.
As the community theater troupe’s director and producer (with Heilmann), Nirchi never had any formal training in theatrical production.
“I just love it and always watched a lot of Busby Berkley movies,” the Orland Park barber said. “I love lighting and doing costumes—all my fortes—I love creating and being with people.”
“I’m the only person who can make Dave Heilmann look good,” Nirchi laughed.
Portraying Will Rogers is Rob Sorensen, and Laura Stack in the role of Rogers’ wife, Betty Blake. Renee Redican plays Ziegfeld's favorite, Stephen Miller portrays Will's dad, Clem Rogers; with English and journalism teacher John Gonzczy as the off-stage, voice-of-God Flo Ziegfeld.
The Will Rogers Follies runs for the next two weekends, with 8 p.m. performances on Aug. 3 and Aug. 4, Aug. 10 and 11; and 3 p.m. matinees on Aug. 5 and Aug. 12 at the
Tickets are still available for all six performances, $21 adults, $20 for seniors (60+) and children under 12. For tickets, call the Oak Lawn Park District box office at 708-857-2200.