An Insider's Look at Opening Night of "The Will Rogers Follies"

• More Information
• Prior to the curtain rising opening night...
• Video: Backstage and Onstage Opening Night
• Insider's Look at Opening Night
• Poster
• TV Commercial
• Two Minute Promotional Video
• Promotional Photos
• Dress Rehearsal Photos
• Meet Director Timothy Allen McDonald
• TV Interview with Timothy Allen McDonald
• Rope Trick Wizardry by our "Will" — Eric Dobson
• "Will Rogers Follies" Costumes — What's Old is New Again
• Chico Enterprise-Record Preview Story
• Chico News & Review Preview Story

• Farmers Market Promotion
• Backgrounder
• More "Willamania" on Our Facebook Page

Ambitious, entertaining and over-the-top!

Those were the words that continued to come to mind during and after watching the opening night performance of “The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue,” Chico State’s grand-scale Spring Musical.

Broadway director Timothy Allen McDonald provided an incredible learning experience not only for the actors onstage, but also the backstage crew, costume designers and set technicians. He revitalized not only the School of the Arts staff, but also anyone involved in the show, with his enthusiasm, positive attitude, charisma, dedication, humility, and willingness to go the extra-mile.

Except for a few opening night hiccups, Chico State’s performance of “The Will Rogers Follies” was very entertaining! At times this was a very fast-paced show, slowing down at just the right moments for the audience to catch its breath. McDonald’s vision for the show included nearly 100 backdrops continually going up and down, numerous images projected on scrims to set the mood for a scene, and lots of quick costume changes. The backstage crew, unseen but very much an essential part of the show’s success, did a great job keeping everything moving along smoothly. 

McDonald’s high-reaching, multifaceted vision for this musical was eagerly embraced by CSU, Chico’s talented actors and backstage crew. His Broadway and Off-Broadway directing experience, coupled with years of “toiling the boards” as head of the Chico City Light Opera Company in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, set the bar very high for everyone involved in the production. And for the most part, expectations were met or exceeded.

McDonald dazzled us with beautiful scenery, a well-developed story-line, wonderful singing from his cast, nice pacing, and a folksy, down-home feeling that made us feel at times as if the show was being performed in our living rooms; other times it felt like McDonald had magically brought a bit of glamorous Broadway to the Laxson Auditorium stage

Actor Eric Dobson as the lead, Will Rogers, was nothing less than spectacular. The role was demanding — for starters, Dobson had to learn rope tricks and how to play the harmonica and guitar. His acting, storytelling, jokes and singing were superb. For me, and probably a lot of others in the theatre, Dobson became Will Rogers and ceased being an actor playing a role. He made the show an intimate experience for the boisterous and engaging opening night audience, singling out and poking gentle fun at audience members several times during the performance, and stepping to the lip of the Laxson Auditorium stage to talk one-on-one with the people sitting in the nearly packed house. What impressed me most was how comfortable he seemed in the role, ad libbing with the audience several times with tongue-in-cheek Chico references.

His co-lead, Betty Blake, Rogers’ wife played by Lauren Sutton-Beattie, wowed the audience with her tremendous singing voice and down-home Oklahoma charm. There was definitely chemistry between the two actors. 

The Ziegfeld showgirls were lots of fun for the audience as they vamped across the stage in their sexy but tasteful glittery outfits. The Cowboy Quintet also kept the audience entertained with rope tricks and wonderfully choreographed dance numbers.

“The Will Rogers Follies” was staged like a lavish Ziegfeld Follies show with lots of over-the-top acting by the glitzy showgirls, and constant scenery changes. Mr. Ziegfeld, a speaking role performed by Chico State President Paul Zingg in a recording, kept things moving along. Mr. Ziegfeld, speaking from the rafters of Laxson Auditorium, essentially directed the action going on onstage — his goal being to keep the audience enthralled and engaged.

The show was full of lots of beautiful eye-candy — from the elaborate Ziegfeld set with spinning women atop tall turntables to the gorgeous costumes designed by Costume Shop Manager Sandy Barton. However, the show also had several serious moments. When Will was talking about how bad the ecology of the planet was, as well as the Depression, the joking and ad-libbing were replaced with a genuine heartfulness and appropriate imagery projected on the scrims.

The orchestra, partly concealed stage-left, was conducted by CSU, Chico alumni Ryan Heimlich. Heimlich's 15-musicians provided a nice musical background for the singers and punctuated accurately (with perfect timing) the action taking place onstage.

My only minor complaint was the lighting seemed off at times with actors singing in the dark or only half-lit. Hopefully this is something that will be remedied in future performances.

Billed as “glamour, glitz, and rope tricks,” the opening night performance of “The Will Rogers Follies” was all that and more. People definitely will be talking about this show for a long time to come! 

Four more performances remain and then “poof,” Chico State’s ambitious, entertaining and over-the-top production of “The Will Rogers Follies” is gone forever. Don’t delay; purchase tickets at the University Box Office (530-898-6333) before shows start selling out.

— J. Paul DiMaggio, Publicist, CSU, Chico's School of the Arts

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Photo by Sean Chen