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Curtain Rises on New Star : Stage: Poway High graduate returned to San Diego to take its theater scene by storm. Next, he will play Ariel in the Old Globe’s ‘Tempest.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s a local boy-makes-good story. Sean Murray, 30, who left San Diego for the East Coast six years ago to pursue an arts degree, has returned to take local theater by storm.

First, the Poway-born actor impressed audiences with his performance as the villain Cloten in “Cymbeline” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre last November. Then he wowed ‘em for three months as the singing, dancing transvestite alien Dr. Frank N. Furter in the Rep’s production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” which ended three weeks ago.

Now, he’s about to make his Old Globe debut as Ariel, the pure spirit enslaved to the magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

The show opens tonight at the Lowell Davies Festival Stage.

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It’s all part of a dream come true for Murray, who grew up acting at the pre-Equity Rep in the early 1980s after he graduated from Poway High School. One of the “tricks” he used to keep his performances sharp in “Rocky Horror” was to imagine that someone important was out there watching him and that his future career might hinge on that performance.

“For the longest time I would say, ‘Jack O’Brien from the Old Globe is out there,’ and I would have to do my best show,” Murray said, sitting in the balcony of the Old Globe’s main stage.

One night, when Murray didn’t know it, O’Brien was out there.

He liked what he saw, just as he had liked Murray in “Cymbeline.”

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O’Brien hired Murray, without an audition, for the part of Ariel. Murray was in rehearsal for “The Tempest” during the last three weeks of “Rocky Horror.”

In fact, O’Brien had been tracking Murray’s progress for years. When he saw him in “Cymbeline” and then “Rocky Horror,” he knew Murray was ready for the Globe--and the part of Ariel.

“It was not until I saw him in ‘Cymbeline’ that I saw what kind of progress he made, what presence he had and how he matured,” O’Brien said.

“I went out of fascination to see ‘Rocky Horror,’ because there’s a performance that’s carved in our imagination,” he added, referring to Tim Curry’s performance in the movie version. “Sean was astonishing, brave, uncompromising and he surprised me. Ariel is not a common spirit. He’s a creature of intelligence and power that’s always whimsical but not Puck-like. You have to be careful when you cast it that you bring to it not only a kind of excitement but enough depth to be scary as well.

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“I’ve seen in both cases, in ‘Cymbeline’ and in ‘Rocky Horror,’ that the way he can take the stage is exactly what is needed. There is an undisputed authority, a kind of deliciousness about his presence, which means that he doesn’t have to push to get his effect. I’m thrilled with him and thrilled for us to have him.”

It may seem a great leap from the exhibitionist hedonism of Dr. Frank N. Furter, strutting around in his fishnet stockings and 5-inch heels, to the purity of a sprite like Ariel, costumed for this production in a pair of simple shorts, but it’s no greater a leap than both characters would seem to be from the tall, slender fragile-looking Murray. Unlike the forceful natures of both Frank N. Furter, a preacher of sexual freedom, and Ariel, who ends by becoming a teacher of mercy, the boyish Murray seems impishly funny, but unsure--at least in his new role of meeting the press.

Earnest, gracious and idealistic about his mission as an actor, Murray’s confidence swells and his voice gathers force only when he leaves the subject of himself and moves onto the characters he plays and the messages they impart.

“Frank N. Furter is pure in his own way. He’s purely the indulgent egomaniac,” Murray said. “But Ariel is pure-pure in the sense that he makes no judgments. He learns through observing the other characters. It’s a beautiful part. It’s a coming of age. His relationship with Prospero is like a loving son who needs to be cut free from the parental strings. But he can’t force himself free. He has to be given freedom.”

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Murray did his own cutting of strings last year when he changed his name from his given name, Thomas, to Sean.

He was working as Thom Murray--he’s actually a fifth-generation Thomas Murray--when he sought to join Actors Equity during the end of the “Cymbeline” run. But a Thom Murray was already in the union, and the union won’t accept two actors with the same name. So, he changed his.

“I wanted an Irish name, so I went to the source--my mother,” Murray said. “She said she had to name me Thomas (because of the family tradition). But, if I hadn’t been Thomas, I would have been Sean. That was good enough for me.”

He said he has wanted to be an actor since seventh grade. Acting was a way for this tall, skinny kid--6 feet, 1 inch tall--to “get attention and praise from my peers,” he said.

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He worked at the Rep in several plays, including “The Elephant Man,” “Crossing Niagara,” “A Christmas Carol” and “The Tooth of Crime.” But eventually, he realized he needed training. He had always relied on inspiration, but that wasn’t enough to pull every play off.

He said the San Diego Rep production of “Cloud Nine” “helped me realize how little training I had, and I realized, if I’m going to do this for a living, I’m going to have to be better prepared.

“I definitely wanted to work here,” he said gesturing to the Globe stage, “and my goal for myself is to have continued employment in theaters like this. But I knew then I was not of the caliber to work here at that time. And so I sought out training.”

He went to the North Carolina School of the Arts from 1985 to 1989. After taking a year off to rethink and recommit his decision to acting, he moved to New York.

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But his first professional job was not in New York, where he worked as a waiter, but in San Diego. Douglas Jacobs, artistic director of the San Diego Rep, visited Murray on a trip through New York before casting and directing “Cymbeline.” Murray told him he wanted the part of Cymbeline’s wicked stepson, Cloten.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Cloten?’ as if he was surprised I wanted it. And I said, ‘Of course. It’s the fun part. He’s a crazy man.’ ”

He played the part, bringing humor and dimension to what could have been a stock villain, and received excellent notices. He went back to New York and heard that Sam Woodhouse, the Rep’s producing director, was about to cast “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Murray knew he had to play Frank N. Furter.

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“I’d gone to the movie a lot when I was in high school,” Murray said. “It was one of the roles one covets.”

Murray couldn’t afford to fly back to San Diego to audition, so he started a long-distance campaign for the role.

The Frank N. Furter character is famous for saying, “Don’t dream it, be it.”

So Murray deluged Woodhouse with postcards. They arrived every other day for about a month, with pictures of Murray’s head pasted on Curry’s body (from the movie). Murray wrote on each one: “Don’t dream it, hire it.”

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He also sent a tape of himself singing two songs from the show: “Sweet Transvestite” and “Going Home.”

It was a wooing Woodhouse couldn’t resist.

“I got such a delightful kick out of those postcards he sent me,” Woodhouse said, laughing at the memory. “They were tacky, silly, twisted--in the same vein as the show. Then he sent me this tape where he sang, and his rock and roll blew me away.”

In the end, Murray not only lived up to the promise of his campaign, he exceeded it as far as Woodhouse is concerned.

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“He gave an extraordinary performance beyond my wildest imagination. His performance gained a level of notoriety seldom seen in this community. He was a major factor in the success of the show.

“We would think of him every time we cast a play. He’s an actor that we can’t wait to work with again.”

As for Murray, the part was everything he had hoped for.

“It was a fabulous experience. It was so much fun right from the beginning,” Murray recalled.

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But the most important part for him was the message, he said.

“Why are so people so attracted to Frank? Because he lives out people’s fantasies. ‘Don’t dream it, be it.’ I wanted people to leave thinking that. If you’ve always dreamed of going scuba diving, go scuba diving.”

For Murray, who dreamed of working as a professional actor in San Diego’s top theaters, that message has hit home.

Performances of “The Tempest” are at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday at the Lowell Davies Festival Stage in Balboa Park, 239-2255.

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