August 31, 2008

Review: Diablo Light Opera’s ‘Will Rogers Follies’ Dazzles

By Pat Craig

With "Will Rogers Follies," try to think more "Follies" than "Will Rogers."

Sure, you'll pick up plenty about the American humorist who charmed America in the '20s and '30s until his untimely death in a 1935 Alaska plane crash. But since this is a musical, Diablo Light Opera Company put emphasis on the "Follies" part with its production of the splashy 1991 Broadway musical (which featured the voice of Gregory Peck as the offstage voice of Florenz Ziegfeld).

The Diablo Light Opera production, which opened Friday night, is a flashy, glitzy show, with eye-popping costumes, stunning production numbers, a staircase that seems to ascend to the top of the Lesher Center stage, and all the lights, glitter and spangles to pay homage to a man who was one of the greatest American heroes (How great? Well, one time both parties wanted to nominate him for president).

The show also has an actor playing the title role who is much in the tradition of Rodgers. Shane Partlow, son of a rodeo family who grew up on a ranch, is a genuine roper, who dazzles with his lariat talent and charms with a self-effacing personality.

But the question that plays across your mind as you watch this thing is how did the whole show come about. You get the feeling Peter Stone, Cy Coleman and Betty Comden and Adolf Green were sitting around, say, Sardi's one evening, lamenting the fact the pizzazz of the Broadway Follies-type shows had all but disappeared. You figure someone pointed out you gotta have a gimmick, so they decided to write a flashy show and put Will Rogers in the center of all this glitter.

It turned out to have been a brilliant, and multi-Tony Award idea, and remains a great idea, particularly if the company producing the show, such as Diablo Light Opera, is willing to pull out all the scenic, costume and chorus stops to present one dazzling, jaw-dropper of a show.

"Will Rogers Follies" has only a workmanlike script and score -- pleasant and engaging, but no, say, "My Fair Lady." So the trick to a toweringly good production is in the presentation, and this is where Diablo scores major points. The added scenic design by Mark Mendelson, and added costuming by Carol Edlinger, lighting by Michael Palumbo, sound by Don Tieck and Mike Sweeney, along with hair and wigs (hugely important here) by Judy Disbrow are terrific.

Cheryl Yee Glass and her orchestra perform the music beautifully and Sheri Stockdale's choreography is uniformly excellent and occasionally show stopping.

Director Gloria Trombley brought all the elements together and blended in a delightful cast to make the show highly entertaining, and somehow managed to make the large chorus seem even bigger than it was.

In addition to Partlow's, there were a number of other outstanding performances, including that of Ziegfeld's Favorite, the lethally blonde Amy Nielson, who was flat-out hilarious; Ron Pickett as Clem Rogers, Will's Dad, who was extremely funny; and Christina Martin as Betty Blake, Will's Wife, who did a beautiful job with what are probably the show's best tunes, "My Unknown Someone" and "Without You.

And then the chorus -- wow.

Originally published by Pat Craig, Contra Costa Times.

(c) 2008 Oakland Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.