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College Rescues Musical Too Costly for Broadway

The American musical isn’t dead. It’s just getting too expensive for most theater companies to tackle.

That’s what New York playwright Edward Gallardo found when he wrote the libretto for “Fantasma” with composer Marc Allen Trujillo.

The musical tells the story of a Puerto Rican who deserts his heritage and everyone he loves--including his son--in pursuit of the American dream.

It was commissioned and launched with a staged reading at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where Gallardo is coordinator of the Festival Latino. But there were no takers for the operatic, 35-character drama that sweeps through decades in two hours.

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Enter William Virchis, professor and artistic director of Southwestern College theater department in Chula Vista.

Virchis, who is also one of the co-founders of Teatro Mascara Magica, San Diego’s fledgling professional Latino theater company, was on the lookout for Latino work. He was also on the lookout for work that might prove challenging to his students.

He asked Gallardo for the script and got it.

He brought the play in for $12,000 in November at Southwestern (the staged reading in New York, which used only 12 actors, cost $20,000).

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The results were impressive not just to Gallardo, who described the production as “spectacular” and “one of the best experiences of my life,” but also to the American College Theater Festival, which recently selected the production as one of only eight from Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah, to compete in the 23rd American College Theater Festival competition to be held Feb. 12-17 at Sonoma State University at Rohnert Park, Calif.

This makes Southwestern both the only San Diego school and the only junior college in the regionals. If “Fantasma” wins at Sonoma State, the show will go to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington for the final contest in April. Three members of the cast, Ria Carey, Jeffrey Llera and Heather Paige, have also been nominated for the $1,000 Irene Ryan scholarship award for excellence in acting.

This is Virchis’ third time to the regionals, and he said he hopes “this one is the charm.” But the project, his first original show to make it to the regionals, is already a winner as far as he, his students and his school are concerned.

“When you get high level people from New York to come through and say you did good work. . . . When you set a precedent, and it works out, and you haven’t embarrassed everyone. . . . When you take a risk in a community that is as conservative as this and to put issues which have been on the back burner out in front. . . . When you get standing ovations every night. . . . It’s really nice for the kids, and the bottom line is that we’re here for the kids.”

The other element that pleased Virchis was the interest shown by representatives from the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse and the San Diego Repertory Theatre who attended performances. Only one theater, so far, has inquired about producing the show--the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. But having professional theaters take a look at new work bodes well.

“People are only going to do the things they see succeed. If we can be a clearinghouse of original works and projects that people can take and fill the complement theatrically in these tough financial times, that’s great. More theaters should have one program co-sponsored with a college theater.”

Whatever happens, both Gallardo and Virchis say the relationship between the two will continue. A videotape has been made of the show, which Gallardo intends to send around. Gallardo is working on a new project with Broadway producer Hal Prince, a musical adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film. But his excitement about his San Diego experience remains keen.

“I was amazed. I went there really not knowing what to expect and literally I was floored. I’ve had productions in New York, in Europe and in South America, but the production was the best of anything I did. How do you account for it? Bill? He inspires the actors. I have never seen a cast so dedicated from the people in the ensemble to the leads.”

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San Diego will have one more chance to see what Gallardo is raving about.

To raise money to take “Fantasma” to the regionals, Southwestern will perform the show Feb. 8 at the school. Tickets are $10 and may be reserved by calling 421-0349.

What do the Old Globe’s “Suds” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” the Gaslamp’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and the interactive Mystery Cafe’s production of “Killing Mr. Withers” have in common?

Director Will Roberson.

The 32-year-old director who just received a double nomination from the San Diego Critics Circle for his work on “Lady Day” and “Frankie and Johnny,” might seem to be taking a significant departure by tackling a murder mystery at a dinner theater at the Imperial House restaurant, where fake blood has been spilled on Fridays and Saturdays since May.

But, as far as he is concerned, “Work is work, and I’m having a great time. I’m always thrilled to find another venue to work in, and with all these theaters in debt, it’s nice to see something that’s a big success. It’s certainly not O’Neill, but it’s real rowdy and outrageous, and people love dinner theater.”

The first and only other show produced by the Mystery Cafe, “Murder at Cafe Noir” had a stylish, elegant film noir look to it. Roberson cheerfully reports that “Killing Mr. Withers,” which has a “Postman Always Rings Twice” theme “is nothing like that. It’s Carol Burnett meets Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s more interactive. I hope it will be as much fun as the last one.”

In the meantime, the peripatetic director continues to work with his old “Suds” partners on a new musical revue of Burt Bacharach’s work, to be called “Back to Back Bacharach,” which he plans to shop around to the Old Globe and the San Diego Rep. Already tapped for the show as performers are “Suds” alums Susan Mosher, Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson, with Bryan Scott, who co-wrote and co-produced “Suds,” back as producer. Scott is trying to set up a London deal for the team, using his new contacts as a television writer and producer at the British Broadcasting System to arrange for a theatrical production as well as a television special.

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No money or contracts have exchanged hands yet, but Scott, a native San Diegan, did tell Roberson that he missed the chips from the El Indio restaurant on India Street, so Roberson sent him some. They got there safely. And so the negotiations continue.

PROGRAM NOTES: The Old Globe Play Discovery Program continues with “Scarlet Macaw,” a new play by Bernardo Solono, at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The story centers on an accused drug dealer in hiding in Bogota, Colombia. . . .

Rosina Widdowson-Reynolds, one-time winner and recent nominee for the San Diego Critics Circle Best Actress Award, will headline the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company cast of Alan Ayckbourn’s “A Woman in Mind,” opening Feb. 7 at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre. Also cast are Eric Grischkat, Bryan Bevell, Geraldine Joyce, Kim Bennett, Johnny Warriner, Lisa J. Moore and Stan Madruga Jr. . . .

Half-price tickets for seniors are available for the Old Globe’s “The White Rose” for the Jan. 19 matinee.


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