‘The Will Rogers Follies’ pit chronicles in getting to opening

By Ande Jacobson

West Valley Light Opera (affectionately known as WVLO) is presenting a spectacle chronicling the life and times of Will Rogers in its production of The Will Rogers Follies. The show opens on 22 June 2019 and runs through 20 July 2019 at the Saratoga Civic Theater. Will Rogers’ personality comes through in this stage adaptation highlighting the more memorable aspects of his life. Rogers was known for offering his observations from his many travels, and while he poked fun at various controversial topics along the way, he did so gently, offending no one and appealing to people from all walks of life. This production is full of folksy charm, the color and glitz of The Ziegfeld Follies, and of course a smattering of rope tricks.

The artistic staff includes:

  • Director: Doug Baird
  • Assistant Director: Jill Peter
  • Music Director: Ron Bowman
  • Vocal Director: Samuel Cisneros
  • Choreographer: Jennifer Gorgulho
Michael Hirsch as Will Rogers

The cast includes:

  • Michael Hirsch as Will Rogers
  • Alicia Teeter as Betty Blake
  • Sophia Davis as Mary Rogers
  • Steve Sammonds as Wiley Post
  • Susan Tonkin as Z Favorite
  • Hank Lawson as Clem Rogers
  • Alex Cox, Becky Owens, Gabby Au, Jamie Gussman, Jennifer Rokes, Jennifer Willis, Samantha Lunsford, Sara Dean, Selina Chih, and Tressa Bender as Zeigfeld Girls
  • Brett Carlson and Guillermo Morales as Cowboys
  • Connor Dean as Will Junior
  • Carter Hulse as James
  • Gavin Hulse as Freddy
  • Don Masuda and Earl Masuda as pit singers
A view from my seat in the orchestra.

In addition to the riveting stage action, the show features an 18-piece orchestra, although this time, the orchestra isn’t in a pit. The Saratoga Civic Theater has no orchestra pit, and depending on the given production, the orchestra can be found in a variety of places. This time, the musicians are seated in the space between the front row and the stage behind a short sound wall, but the players are still very visible. As an added bonus, the musicians can also enjoy the pageantry, the vivid characters, the rope tricks, the humor, and the compelling story when they aren’t activity playing the lively score.

Ron Bowman

Music director Ron Bowman has assembled an ensemble of veteran pit players from around the SF Bay Area including:

  • Keyboards (3 per performance): (Keyboard 1 – Piano) Samuel Cisneros; (Keyboard 2 – Synthesizer) Doug Forsyth; (Keyboard 3 – Synthesized Strings) Sean Green, Benjamin Belew;
  • Reeds (5 per performance): (Reed 1 – Flute/Piccolo/Clarinet/Alto Sax) Rafael Maldonado, Asa Stern, George Pascoe; (Reed 2 – Flute/Piccolo/Clarinet/Alto Sax) Ande Jacobson; (Reed 3 – Clarinet, Flute) Jordan Selburn, Jenny Ugale; (Reed 4 – Flute, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Sax) Sarah Moulder, Mark Beyer, Kathy Boster; (Reed 5 – Bass Clarinet, Bari Sax) Jerry Holmes, Mark Beyer;
  • Brass (6 per performance): (Horn, 1 per performance) Tim Dowd, Kenton Kuwada; (Trumpet/Flugelhorn – 1) Ricky Martinez, Ricky Hall; (Trumpet/Flugelhorn – 2) Susan Schadeck, Nate Schofield; (Trumpet/Flugelhorn – 3) Paul Olivo; (Trombone – 1) Miguel Ledezma; (Trombone – 2) John Fitzhugh;
  • Bass (1 per performance): Greg Goebel, Gabriel Perez;
  • Drums: Christine Lovejoy;
  • Percussion (1 per performance): Niles Flynn, Chris Hoeffinger

Although the cast enjoyed a few months of rehearsal time together, the orchestra spent far less time as an ensemble. As is typical for a lot of shows, Bowman held only two orchestra-only rehearsals, instead relying on his players to do their homework before showing up to the hall. Another big difference between the cast and the orchestra is that, barring any unforeseen emergencies, the cast will be the same throughout the run of the show while some of the orchestra will change from performance to performance. Only about seven musicians are slated to play the entire run of this production. The others, for a variety of reasons, cannot. Instead, although Bowman will be a fixture at the helm, and all of the parts should be covered, several musicians will split performances with one or more players over the course of the run.

The first orchestra rehearsal was an adventure, with some of the lightning-fast tempos catching a few folks off-guard. Fingers flew, and the players found out where they needed to focus their private practice time before the second rehearsal. The second orchestra rehearsal was leaps and bounds ahead of the first, and they were ready to wow the cast at the sitzprobe, commonly called the sit/sing.

A sitzprobe technically means a seated rehearsal and is often the first meeting of cast and orchestra in a musical theater or opera production as was the case for this show. In some ways it is the most exciting rehearsal in the process. Bowman wanted to try out the performance configuration as best he could, so he set the orchestra in front of a makeshift stage with the brass, bass, and drums stage right (to his left), and the reeds and percussion stage left (to his right). The keyboards were in the middle nearest to Bowman. Although the French horns were originally on the brass side, for the sitzprobe, they sat in the reed section, stage left. The horn players were concerned about having their bells facing the house, and had asked to be on that side for the show.

Prior to this rehearsal, the cast practiced with piano-only, accompanied by their vocal director, Samuel Cisneros (who also plays Keyboard 1 in the orchestra). Adding the full orchestra sounds very different and is far more vibrant than piano alone. At the start of the rehearsal, Bowman cautioned the cast to not try to compete with the orchestra. Without amplification, there was no way the cast members could sing over the orchestra playing full out during the louder portions of the score. Balance issues would be addressed later during tech at the theater when most of the actors had mics. This first meeting was more to help both the cast and the orchestra hear each other to synchronize musical timing. Even though this rehearsal took place during a nasty heat wave, and the air conditioning at the rehearsal location either wasn’t on or just wasn’t keeping up, the energy level was high, and in addition to all of the vocal music, a bit of the tightly synchronized, seated choreography was also executed during one fast-paced number. The night was a rousing success, and both cast and orchestra were ready to head into tech adding the rest of the show’s elements to the mix, including a big splash of theater magic.

The theater was buzzing at the start of tech and a bit in flux. The orchestra configuration had to be modified in the theater to accommodate some space and player concerns at the outset. The reeds and brass were initially flipped so that the trombones, French horn, bass, and drums were stage left and the reeds and percussion were stage right. To make it even a little more convoluted, the trumpets were separated from the rest of the brass and were seated between the reeds and the percussion. One of the keyboards was moved behind the drums far stage left. The other two keyboards were still in the center of the configuration with one facing the house directly in front of Bowman and the other set in front of the reeds.

The players needed to get used to hearing a different mix compared to previous rehearsals, which was initially a little disorienting. Of course everyone is supposed to watch the conductor, so it really shouldn’t matter where they were seated so long as they could see Bowman’s baton.

There aren’t a lot of different sets for this show, but there is a massive staircase taking up the bulk of the upstage space, and the actors have to navigate up and down the steps carefully, and sometimes quite quickly. Before the start of tech, the cast had about a week in the theater to get used to those stairs. The musicians were glad that they could just sit (or in one case stand) and read their music without having to worry about movement.

The Sunday tech rehearsal had lots of starts and stops, some because of costume concerns as many of the costumes weren’t quite ready yet. Other stops occurred because of musical and transition timing, and some resulted from technical issues, but eventually the company completed a full run of Act 1 that night. There was a fair amount of downtime for the orchestra as sound, lighting, staging, and costume issues were addressed, but there was also a lot of music, some numbers being run more than once to smooth out the rough edges, particularly on a couple of challenging dance numbers.

After the usual mic checks, and running a couple of numbers from the previous night, Monday’s run started at the top of Act 2, and much like the previous night, ran with various starts and stops, also smoothing out transitions. By the end of the night, the company had executed all but the bows. Director Baird recorded the orchestra playing the bows and the exit music to use for mapping out his bows staging before Tuesday’s rehearsal.

Tuesday night of tech, the goal was to run the entire show end-to-end. First thing though was to stage the bows before the run-through. The orchestra took a break while Baird walked his cast through the bows staging, and then the company executed bows with the orchestra. Because of the timing and character of the music, a repeat was added to keep the energy up throughout the bows, and the slower portion of the number was cut.

The view from the back of the theater while staging bows.

Finally, the company completed a full run of the show Tuesday night with fewer starts and stops than on previous nights, but because of costume changes, they had an extra-long intermission between Act 1 and Act 2. That wouldn’t do for performance, but it was the first time the actors had to navigate this change directly. As had been the case the previous nights, there were also a few issues with some sound cues using pre-recorded audio snippets of a famous voice that pop up a number of times during the performance. Those were adjusted, and one number where that audio serves as a cutoff was rerun.

Because of the performance space’s multiple uses, the company had to partially strike after Tuesday’s run-through. The Saratoga Civic Theater doubles as the city council chambers on most Wednesday nights, so anything in the way of that meeting has to be moved out of the way. For this show, everything downstage of the staircase had to go, and this included the entire orchestra setup.

Thursday night was the final pre-audience rehearsal, and the company completed another run-through with a much shorter intermission than on Tuesday. All of the pieces were there, and aside from a few minor line fumbles, and a slightly uncooperative rope at one point, it was a much smoother run all around. The company was ready for an audience.

Friday night started with a few touch-ups to choreography and to some vocals. Then the company welcomed the first audience, an invited crowd of friends and family to preview the show on the road to opening night. The performance had a few rough edges as audience reactions now changed the flow just a little and slightly spooked one animal act in a very cute way. Still, even with the few live theater mishaps that can sometimes occur, the show moved along, oozing charisma as it entertained the very appreciative audience.

The Will Rogers Follies was now ready to open and dazzle audiences through 20 July 2019. Not only will it be a warm and entertaining experience with great costumes, wonderful lighting, impressive choreography, gorgeous music, and a very compelling story, it will also give audiences a bit of a history lesson concerning the era in which Will Rogers lived and thrived. The show isn’t often done, so don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy its magic.

Performances are at the Saratoga Civic Theater located at 13777 Fruitvale Ave., Saratoga, CA 95070. Tickets are available online through the West Valley Light Opera website, or by phone at 408-268-3777. If you call for tickets, leave a message, and one of the friendly box office staff will call you back to help you choose your seats, or pick them yourself online.

Please join WVLO for this production. You will be glad you did.

To entice you just a bit more, here’s a short teaser:

The Will Rogers Follies (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
The Will Rogers Follies (Vocal Selections): Piano/Vocal/Chords

(Photos courtesy of WVLO and A Good Reed Review)

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