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N.Y. to See Undiluted ‘Suds’

In early September, nearly a year after it opened at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza, the home-grown San Diego musical “Suds” will make its New York debut at the Criterion Center, a new off-Broadway theater complex.

This Cinderella story about a poor girl in a Laundromat who is coached by not one, but two fairy godmothers, is turning out to be its own Cinderella story for the handful of veteran San Diego actors, producers and designers--all close friends--who created “Suds” after realizing they couldn’t afford the rights for their own production of the Off Broadway hit “Beehive.”

Like Cindy, their central character in “Suds,” these friends--Will Roberson, Bryan Scott and Richard Redlin--discovered they had two fairy godmothers, as well: The San Diego Repertory Theatre and the Old Globe Theatre.

The San Diego Repertory Theater, which operates the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza, offered an opening to Roberson, Scott and Redlin at a very good price. So, they decided to sit down with some talented friends and create their own musical comedy revue woven around their favorite 60s pop tunes.

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The result was “Suds,” which ran for a month at the Lyceum. Five months later, the play made the quantum leap to the Old Globe. It was the first time since the Old Globe became a professional theater that it has taken a locally produced show, and “Suds” validated its selection by becoming the highest grossing show in the Globe’s 51-year-history.

Bryan Scott said this week that everything about “Suds"--cast, direction and set-- will be the same when the show plays the Criterion Center, which is now being renovated between 44th and 45th streets on the eastern side of Broadway. Roberson, who directed the San Diego productions, will direct in New York.

Melinda Gilb, who played fairy godmother Marge, and Steve Gunderson, who played all the male parts, will reprise their roles Off Broadway. (Gilb and Gunderson also co-wrote the script with Scott). The other cast members, Susan Mosher and Christine Sevec, who played fairy godmother Dee Dee and Cindy, also return.

Scott said the cast was a non-negotiable item when he began discussing taking the show to New York.

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“We were always going to do that,” he said, “even at the risk of not doing (it).”

The Criterion, which opened as the Criterion film and vaudeville house in 1936, is now being divided into Stage Right, a 499-seat legitimate theater and Stage Left, a 436-seat cabaret. “Suds” will play in the Stage Left.

It has been speculated that the addition of these two mid-sized legitimate houses will help producers avoid the steep costs of full-scale Broadway productions.

One of the heady elements about being the first act to open the new theater, said Scott, is that “the stage is being designed with us in mind.”

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Things have certainly changed since Scott and his friends first got together and decided to workshop their show about a ‘60s Cinderella who learns about life through the poignant “philosophy” inherent in songs ranging from “I Don’t Want to Be a Loser” to “Where the Boys Are.”

“Suds” is the first major theater-directing credit for Roberson, and the first writing credit for Scott, Gunderson and Gilb. The seven principals of “Suds” have studied and worked together on and off stage in San Diego for years.

Part of the show’s popularity can be attributed to the popularity of small-scale musicals, a form that Jack O’Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, said “Everyone in the country is looking for.”

Certainly the success of shows like the Rep’s “Six Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know,” which has been playing to full houses for the last seven months and “The Wonder Years: The Baby Boom Musical,” presented twice last season by the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, proves that a good small musical can make big money.

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That was something that was evidently not lost on New York producers Norma and David Langworthy. The Langworthys, whose “The Road to Mecca” is now on Broadway, saw the show at the Old Globe and plunked down half the cost of the show to add their names to that of the original producing team.

With the show still needing $100,000 to go on, Redlin, Roberson and Scott are continuing to sell 50-share lots of “Suds” for $15,000 each, even as they plunge ahead with their commitment to start previews in August.

While they’re not there yet, it’s still an auspicious beginning for what Roberson calls “the only commercial producers in town.”

The rest of the theater in San Diego is produced by nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations that generally run on a subscription basis.

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Part of Roberson’s plans for his organization is to stay based in San Diego, where he can continue to work out show-by-show partnerships with nonprofit theaters such as the ones he worked out with The San Diego Repertory Theatre and The Old Globe Theatre for “Suds.”

“We would like to have a relationship with the other theaters in town where we would say, ‘You’re not in the business of doing commercial runs but we are. Because you’ve already sold tickets for the next show, you can only extend a show for a certain amount of time. But we can take it to other cities and you’ll share in the profits.

“My big dream for this town is to establish an umbrella organization for San Diego theaters where we would do 40 readings and 10 productions like they do in (The Actors’ Theatre of Louisville). We’d be doing a service for theaters who won’t have to do their own dramaturgy, for playwrights and for actors. We also need a 300-seat theater and a 500-seat theater that are available for commercial runs. I think this town is ready for that.”


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