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Playhouse Gets Approval to Stage ‘Big River’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The competition over rights to “Big River” has been resolved so that both the Laguna Playhouse and the Fullerton Civic Light Opera may mount concurrent revivals later this season.

The New York-based agency that controls the rights to the 1985 musical has reversed a decision that prohibited the playhouse’s staging it because of a presumed conflict with a previously arranged Fullerton production.

Playhouse executive director Richard A. Stein said he was informed late Friday by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Library that “we will indeed receive the rights to produce the show in our original slot” largely due to the intercession of Civic Light Opera producer Griff Duncan.

Thus, Huck Finn and Jim will be sailing their raft down the Mississippi on two different county stages at the same time. “Big River” is to run at the playhouse’s 418-seat Moulton Theatre here from May 14 to June 9 and at the 1,300-seat Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton from May 17 to June 2.

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Library director Tom Briggs could not be reached for confirmation. But Duncan said in a phone interview Friday that he had called the library last week after a discussion with Stein and withdrew his objection to the playhouse revival.

“I didn’t want to do anything to hurt Laguna,” Duncan said, “and I don’t think there’s any overlap” in respective audiences.

Both productions are heavily subscribed. The light opera has roughly 8,870 season-ticket holders and the playhouse has about 8,300. But Duncan must sell many more single tickets to fill all his available seats. Total seating capacity for 12 light opera performances comes to about 15,000. That compares to about 10,000 seats for the playhouse’s 24 performances.

Further, the light opera will be incurring greater expenses for “Big River” because, in addition to rental fees for the hall, it is mounting a professional production. The crew and at least the principal players in the cast are to receive union-scale wages set by Actors Equity. Others are to be paid less.

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By contrast, the playhouse operates the Moulton as its own theater. And while the production crew receives a wage, only a single lead player or two are paid a reduced union-scale salary on a guest contract with Actors Equity because the playhouse is classed as an amateur troupe. Most of the players go unpaid except for nominal expenses such as gas money.

Duncan had complained to the library in July, when the playhouse announced “Big River” in its 1990-91 season without having obtained rights. He pointed out that he already had contracted for the rights and didn’t want a competing production unless the library granted him a reduction in the royalty rate.

The library said then, and reiterated earlier this month, that the playhouse could not do the show and that, in any case, the royalty rate would not be lowered. According to knowledgeable sources, the royalty charged for “Big River,” winner of the 1985 Tony Award for best musical, comes to about 13% of gross ticket sales.

Duncan, asked Friday if he had received a reduction after all, said he had not. But he subsequently called back to amend that statement: “I can’t say one way or the other.”

Meanwhile, playhouse artistic director Douglas Rowe said that a staged reading of his and Mark Turnbull’s frontier musical, “Dora Hand” would come off as planned. It was scheduled to be seen last night by the playhouse board of directors for consideration as a “Big River” replacement in case the rights negotiations had failed.

“We’re still going to suggest it to the board,” Rowe said, “but for next season.”


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