Where there’s a Will (Rogers) there’s a way

East Bay publicist Robert Rezak shares the following item with us from the current production of Will Rogers Follies:

He’s appeared in 22 productions of The Will Rogers Follies, a Life in Revue. But Shane Partlow’s performance in Diablo Light Opera Company’s production, continuing through Sept. 27, will be only his second in the title role.

One reason Partlow is so much in demand for the show is that he’s a professional roper, as was Rogers, the American folk hero who claimed he “never met a man I didn’t like.”

A resident of Los Angeles, Partlow’s television work includes appearances on the series “Will & Grace” and “Gilmore Girls.” He recently starred in the national tour of The Queen of Bingo, an off-Broadway comedy.

Will Rogers Follies is at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $34-$41. Call 925-943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org.

“With a top star and cast, along with colorful costumes, fast-paced dancing and exciting songs, the musical is just the thing to stir up our patriotic emotions during this election year,” said Daren A. C. Carollo, DLOCs artistic director. “It’s also another great send off to DLOC’s 50th anniversary celebration that began in June and ends in the fall of 2009.”

Among the 33-member cast is Suzanne Brandt, a San Ramon resident, who plays a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, a role for which she is well prepared.

At 18 she was under contract with the MGM Grand/Ballys Reno, dancing in the multi-million dollar Hello, Hollywood, Hello, a show which ran nightly for 11 years. Next came a contract with Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, where she danced in 400 cabaret performances. In Las Vegas, she performed in Jubilee!, another multi -million dollar spectacle, with costumes by Bob Mackie, at Ballys Casino.

Live from Las Vegas: `Blue Man Group’

Second night of the Theater Dogs Vegas adventure took us to Blue Man Group at the Venetian next door, and I have to say, I wasn’t overly impressed. Can a Vegas show full of so many bells and whistles r犀利士
eally be boring?

Maybe boring is too strong a word, but there are dull stretches in this nearly 100-minute show involving the three blue men of the title wandering into the audience and not doing much while video cameras capture their so-called exploits. During a lengthy audience participation moment (the blond woman dragged up on stage the night we were there was a tremendous good sport and even at the Twinkie Light placed before her), the comedy proceeded to diminishing returns.

Unlike Stomp, where the message is simple and clear, (rhythm good, music everywhere), Blue Man belies its performance art roots and is sorty of brainy, obtuse and downright bizarre. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its elements of humor (of the silent movie variety as the performers utter not a word, though there is narration about plumbing, the interior of the eye and other assorted oddities). Shoving marshmallows into one’s mouth, chomping on Cap’n Crunch cereal, spewing edible grossness from the valve in one’s chest, splashing about in colored water — it’s all vaguely amusing without ever being involving.

The big finale, with the avalanche of paper moving from the back of the theater to the stage is fun, and with the big tubes and wires twirling above the audience and the seven-piece band raging away, recalls a rave minus the mind-altering substances.

I kept waiting for the show to get into gear and show us something really good, but that moment, when it finally arrived, was brief and didn’t even involve the bald blue men in the black suites. The dazzling moment in this show is a piece of live animation involving spinning tables full of figures that, while spinning under strobe lights, appear to be doing a primitive dance.

A bit about a male volunteer pulled from the audience and turned, unceremoniously, upside down and flung, paint-covered, at a blank canvas, feels phony and totally unnecessary.

Blue Man Group certainly succeeds in bringing a little New York avant garde to the Vegas masses (and our Friday-night audience seemed to eat it up), but I’d rather see the high art of Cirque du Soleil or the low art of Stomp. Or, really, what I’d like while I’m in Vegas, is to see Donn Arden’s Jubilee! again. As the billboards say, the venerable early ’80s showgirl spectacular is “the reasons rhinestones were invented.” Give me a cheesy soundtrack, feathers, sparkles, Bob Mackie costumes and the sinking of the Titanic any day. You can keep your blue guys.

For information about Blue Man Group in Las Vegas visit www.blueman.com.

Vegas query: Broads or Broadway?


Calling Las Vegas the Broadway of the West is really pushing it.

Sure, Mama Mia! has blossomed into a hit, and it looks like Spamalot and The Phantom of the Opera have a chance of success of long runs in the hot desert, but Chicago, Avenue Q and Hairspray didn’t live up to expectations.

The lesson from those shows is that Vegas – like the American public at large – is fickle and can’t always be bothered with something as tiresome as a plot.

Cirque du Soleil has achieved near-religious status in Vegas because it offers up grandiose spectacle that dazzles and overwhelms (almost to a fault), but except for Ka, there are no plots. There are barely even characters.

So what’s a poor little Broadway musical to do in the face of the Cirque juggernaut?

If you’re Spamalot (above), you roll ‘em in the aisles. During my three years in Vegas last week, I saw a lot of empty spectacle, so the stage version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Wynn Las Vegas was like an oasis of authenticity.

There’s nothing authentic about the show, of course. As adapted by Pythoner Eric Idle, it’s pure silliness, but the laughs are real and hearty.

John O’Hurley (best known as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld’’ and as the “Dancing with the Stars’’ champion) plays King Arthur, and he’s every bit as good as Tim Curry was on Broadway. In fact the whole cast, which includes Harry Bouvy, Justin Brill, J. Anthony Crane, Randal Keith, Edward Staudenmayer, Steven Strafford and Nikki Crawford, is fantastic.

This is a 90-minute, intermissionless version of the show, and that’s just fine. Brevity is the soul of comedy, and director Mike Nichols has trimmed the show appropriately.

Crawford’s Lady of the Lake is a showstopper, and her second-half number, “The Diva’s Lament,’’ has had to be re-written because the Knights of the Round Table no longer search for shrubbery. The song also mentions Jennifer Hudson and gets off a quick “And I Am Telling You’’ riff.

Mel Brooks’ The Producers at the Paris Las Vegas also gets its share of honest laughs, though this is a show whose time has come — and gone.

This abbreviated Vegas version loses at least five songs (including “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,’’ “That Face,’’ “You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night,’’ “Where Did We Go Right?’’ and “Betrayed’’) and doesn’t bother with the Act 2 white washing of the set.

But all the good parts — “Little Old Lady Land’’ with its tap-dancing walkers and, of course, the sublimely silly “Springtime for Hitler’’ – are still present and accounted for. There just seems to be something deflated about the comedy.

Lee Roy Reams (replacing David Hasselhoff) is hamming it up something fierce as Roger DeBris, the worst director in New York, and Bill Nolte is nearly stealing the show as Franz Liebkind, the author of the worst play ever written. Brad Oscar (an original Broadway cast member) is a reliable Max Bialystock and Larry Raben is a worthy Leo Bloom.

The audience seems to have a good time with the show (which even though it feels somewhat empty is still far superior to the lame movie version of the musical), but I was uncomfortable with some of the gay and ethnic humor, like the laughs were more “at’’ than “with.’’

Which brings us to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, which is the official name of the dead, soulless heap of stagecraft playing at the Venetian.

The $40 million spent to create a Phantom theater and produce a 95-minute version of the 20-year-old show is certainly visible, but when the best part of a show is the crowd of 80 Belgian-made mannequins (above) that sit in the “opera boxes’’ lining the theater, you know there’s a problem.

In trimming the score, Lloyd Webber has done the show a favor. It seems less bloated and self-important now. But the speed of Harold Prince’s new staging turns the show into what it has always threatened to become: a theme park ride.

In the face of Cirque du Soleil’s O and Love, seeing stage smoke and candles come up from under the stage is not that impressive.

The Vegas chandelier begins the show in multiple pieces, and when they fly into place, it looks like the theater is being overrun by UFOs. When the chandelier falls, the effect is truly impressive: it drops at great speed directly down toward the audience. You can actually feel the whoosh of its drop. But that’s the only thrill here.

Broadway veterans Brent Barrett and Anthony Crivello are sharing the role of the Phantom. I saw the Tony Award-winning Crivello, and he made absolutely no impression at all other than a certain proficiency at hitting his marks. The less said about Christine (Elizabeth Loyacano at my performance) and Raoul (Tim Martin Gleason) the better. I’ll just say the beautifully costumed mannequins gave more believable performances.

I feel about Phantom the way I feel about Las Vegas: I hope the last time was the last time.

And now, one last dip into the Vegas waters. Some 25 years ago, Donn Arden, a master of the Vegas spectacular, crafted Jubilee! in the style to which Vegas had become accustomed, which meant topless showgirls, G-stringed showboys, state-of-the-art special effects circa 1981 (Oooh, fire! Oooh, water!) and thousands of glittery, feathery costumes.

Now that’s the kind of Vegas I’m talking about. I loved every super-cheesy, old-school minute of Jubilee! from the opening Ziegfeld-like number to the ridiculous, nearly nude story of “Samson and Delilah.’’ When you fill a glittery stage with 85 performers high stepping to a mostly pre-recorded soundtrack, never mind the nudity: The spirit of 1970s variety shows lives!

But nothing rivals the sinking of the Titanic (following a ridiculous parade of dancing and Bob Mackie costumes that recall a finale from “The Carol Burnett Show’’). After we see the ship sink amid hulking icebergs, the stage goes black. Within seconds, the cast returns, outfitted in red-white-and-blue to sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.’’

The mind fairly reels. From tragedy to patriotism in the blink of a false eyelashed eye.

Today’s Vegas looks like an otherworldly circus and smells like air freshener working overtime to cover up cigarette smoke, greed and desperation. Old Vegas smells like smoke, vice and rhinestones and looks like Jubilee! Now, if only Frank, Sammy and Elvis would return, I might actually think about liking Las Vegas.