Diablo Light Opera scores big with terrific "Will Rogers Follies"

With The Will Rogers Follies currently playing in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, at 1601Civic Drive in Walnut Creek, the Diablo Light Opera Company (DLOC) has done it again, delivered a truly magnificent show that is a spectacular evening of entertainment for local audiences at more than reasonable prices.

Who doesn’t know Will Rogers, America’s premier home spun humorist? When Will Rogers died in 1935, he was only 55 years old, but had become one of America’s most popular heroes, a man who had walked and talked the rough road with millions of Americans suffering through the great American depression. When asked by President Herbert Hoover to speak to the American Public during the depression, he said, “The difference between our rich and poor grows greater every year. A man can make a million dollars overnight and he’s on every front page in the morning. But it never tells who gave up that million that he got. You can’t get money without taking it from somebody else. That means that there’s not a one of us that has anything that doesn’t owe part of it to those who need it now. I don’t suppose that the most unemployed or the hungriest man in America hasn’t contributed in some way to the wealth of every millionaire in America.” Will’s heartfelt philosophy was truly summed up in his most famous quote, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

Will Rogers became a popular image of an American Cowboy. He was a wild west rodeo entertainer who traveled the world, beginning in Argentina, moved on to Africa and Europe, and at the same became a common man-to-man philosopher and eventually one of the most popular and highest paid stars of the stage and screen. Born part Cherokee Indian, with six sisters and a hard working father and mother who struggled daily to survive, he seemed to have a wonderful, natural way of telling people the truth. He could tell folks things they didn’t want to hear, or truths they didn’t want to face and for some reason, they just plain loved him for it. Will once said, “A man makes a living by what he gets but he makes his life by what he gives!” Rogers gave America a common man’s perspective on truth.

Peter Stone wrote the book that became a resounding success, a tribute in musical form to this great man. Cy Coleman wrote the music and Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics to what has become one of the more popular musicals in the musical theatre lexicon. The highly respected Tommy Tune was the original choreographer.

The Broadway production opened on May1st, 1991 at the Palace Theatre, and closed on September 5, after 981 performances and 33 previews.

The musical chronicles Will Rogers life, but with tongue in cheek. Having become a great stage personality, Florenz Ziegfeld invited Rogers to become the center attraction to a new musical, a spectacular musical built around this delightful, humorous and spellbinding spinner of cowboy ropes and colorful yarns. This current musical tells the story of their collaboration as though old Ziegfeld was up in the control booth in his theatre, chastising Rogers for talking too much and not keeping the pretty girls with their famous feminine showgirl attributes on stage as much as possible. Will Rogers (played absolutely superbly by Shane Partlow), narrates this lighthearted and humorous musical while at the same time, adding his beautiful singing voice to make the music truly enjoyable. Under the brilliant direction of Gloria Trombley (who returned to the Bay Area from New Jersey specifically to direct this show), the equally brilliant Choreographer, Sherri Stockdale, the excellent musical direction of Cheryl Yee Glass and her 16 piece orchestra, the vocal direction of Chad Runyon, and the myriad of contributing design experts brought together by Diablo Light Opera Company, makes this show brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, from the opening number to the final curtain.

This show has a cast of millions, well - - - maybe not quite that many, but at any rate, a huge cast, with each cast member giving 110 %, thereby passing on to the audience a superlative experience. Will Rogers’ wife, Betty Blake, is played well by Christina Martin and Zeigfeld’s “favorite” blond bombshell is played by Amy Nielson. The multitude of Indian maidens, the New Ziegfeld Girls, the sexy cowpokes and dancing doggies are all played by a lot of beautiful and talented ladies. The dancing Wranglers (the male cowpokes) were equally outstanding, but if anyone deserves special mention, it has to be Ron Pickett, who played perhaps one of his very best roles in the many years I have enjoyed watching him, as Will Rogers’ father, Clem Rogers. I have seen this show a number of times, even the traveling professional show starring Tommy Tune himself, and I believe Pickett’s performance was the most delightful one I have enjoyed so far.

The music, the voices, the set design and costumes all added significantly to the experience, but the visual slide show that was crafted, tying the message of this show, earlier politics, and its relevance to American politics today, was one of the cleverest adaptations I have seen in this musical. The Will Rogers Follies continues with evening performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and there will be matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, ending on Saturday, the 27th. Ticket prices range between $34 & $41 and are on sale at the ticket office (943-7469 or you may visit the website at www.lesherartscenter.org for more information.