Will Rogers and Shades of the ’60s Hit Bay Area Stages
By Pat Craig
Shane Partlow saunters into the Pleasant Hill rehearsal room of Diablo Light Opera Company looking very much like Will Rogers, or at least the Will Rogers you remember from photos and movies.
Good thing, too, because Partlow, who grew up on an Illinois quarter horse ranch, is playing the title role in “The Will Rogers Follies,” the musical extravaganza produced by DLOC and opening tonight in Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. He’s been in the show 22 times before, but this is only the second time he’s played the lead.
“I’m finally old enough,” says Partlow, who was originally cast in the play (and various other stage and film projects) because of his ability to twirl a rope, a talent Rogers used to keep his hands busy while performing monologues on vaudeville stages.
Partlow said he associates reaching Rogers’ age with people telling him he looks like Keith Carradine.
“It used to be Mark Hamill,” says the actor, who started his performing career doing rope tricks and stunts with his pint-sized trick mule, Molly, when he was in high school. “They’re both compliments to me.”
Partlow’s parents were rodeo performers, but settled into a more injury-free ranch life before he was born. His dad, who died of lung cancer in 1991, taught Partlow how to rope when he was 9. It was just for fun as far as the boy was concerned. He didn’t realize how much of an impact the ability to make a lariat dance would have on his career later.
“I think he knew something I didn’t, so it’s really interesting how it all worked out,” Partlow says. “When my dad died, he left me three ropes, a horizontal, a vertical and a 75-foot-long rope that I still use today to send out over the orchestra pit. When I talk to kids interested in going into acting, I tell them it’s always good to have a special skill, because it can really open doors; like they say, you gotta have a gimmick.”
Although Partlow, an actor and a producer, now gets his work based on acting talent, much of his earlier success came directly or indirectly from his roping abilities, and he still dedicates his appearance in “Will Rogers Follies” to his dad.
Partlow recently starred in the national tour of “The Queen of Bingo,” an off-Broadway comedy. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he has appeared in a number of episodes on TV series, including “Will & Grace” and “Gilmore Girls.”
The musical is the story of Will Rogers’ life packaged within a glitzy tribute to the stage and vaudeville extravaganzas of the ’20s and ’30s. “Will Rogers Follies” opens in the Lesher Center for the Arts at 8 tonight. It continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 27. Tickets, at $34-$41, may be reserved at 925-943-7469 or www.lesherartscenter.org.
“THE BEST MAN,” Gore Vidal’s play about a mythical 1960 election, remains remarkably vital now, nearly 50 years after its debut on Broadway, Charles Dean says. Dean plays the ex-president in the show that opens at 7 p.m. Thursday in Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre.
“I think it’s a much better play than I first suspected. I thought that when I first read it despite the fact it was written in the late ’50s and produced in 1960,” says Dean, who was in fourth grade when the play premiered. “Even then, infighting was a particularly American tradition, political assassination abounded and there was a lot of dirt.”
Candidates’ sex lives may have been more private in 1960, but candidates weren’t above rumors and scandal-mongering. There were plenty of similarities to today; people just dressed differently, Dean says. The suits with skinny ties, the hats, all of that gives the characters a very different look on the show’s “hyper ’60s” set.
Dean’s character, an old warhorse who is dying of cancer but remains active in the campaign because he loves playing the political game, has serious conversations with his party’s candidate — including an exchange where he admits he doesn’t believe in God, but is bothered by the fact that he is going to die and simply disappear into the void and become nothing.
Of course, the former president says, he could never admit to being an atheist when he was a candidate: “In those days, you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.”
“So you can see Gore Vidal’s humor in a lot of the play,” Dean says.
In the real 1960 election, John F. Kennedy was running against the then-vice president Richard Nixon. Those seeing the play watched it as the tight campaign unfolded and the United States prepared to elect the first president born in the 20th century. There are, Dean says, a few lines mentioning the real candidates, but Vidal has pretty much kept away from direct comments on the real hopefuls.
Although the candidates aren’t mentioned, the script makes many references to 1960, and Dean has found himself looking up various names — Stewart Alsop, for example — and other vintage things to put the right spin on the delivery of his lines.
In fact, a few weeks ago, director Tom Ross reminded the cast that Vidal had written the play as something of a satire. Dean expects the first couple of audiences to laugh in unanticipated places because they will have noted cultural references overlooked by the actors.
“The Best Man” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 28 in the theater at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets, at $42, may be reserved at 510-843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org.
“CANDIDE,” Voltaire’s comedy that pokes fun at what most of what humanity holds sacred, has been re-adapted by Len Jenkins and interpreted by Rough and Tumble theater’s artistic director Cliff Mayotte as a commedia dell’arte chamber piece that opens at 8 tonight in the Berkeley City Club.
It focuses on issues that reflect the current world situation and America’s fascination with politics, power and religion, among other things.
The show features music created and performed by Bay Area jazz composer Phillip Greenlief. It will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursdays- Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays in the intimate playing space at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. Tickets, at $22, may be reserved at 510-499-0356 or www.brownpapertickets.com.
Reach Pat Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published by Pat Craig , Contra Costa Times.
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