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‘Smoke on the Mountain’ Signaled Success for Writer

Three years ago, Connie Ray was a playwright and out-of-work actress when writer-director Alan Bailey approached her with his idea for “Smoke on the Mountain.”

The play, whose West Coast premiere will cap Lamb’s Players Theatre’s 1992 season next October, was born when Bailey was given carte blanche to create a new show by Princeton, N.J.-based McCarter Theatre in the summer of 1988. There were just a few catches: The work had to be a musical and it had to have the same number of characters as “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” with which it was to run in repertory, sharing one cast.

He also needed someone who could write the show in three weeks.

Bailey called Ray, a fellow graduate of Ohio University, who had written an off-Broadway bauble called “Betsy Loves Snap Beans.” He told her that, if she could write the story he had in mind about a traveling family of gospel singers, she could perform in both that one and in “Miss Firecracker.”

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Which created one more catch for Ray: How could she, who has described herself as someone who “can’t sing, can’t dance or play an instrument-- at all ,” write a part for herself in a musical?

Ray--who now stars in the Disney Channel sitcom “The Torkelsons--wrote a story with a part for a non-musical daughter, who, in an otherwise musical family, signs songs for the hearing-impaired.

The show was a surprise hit for the McCarter, where it premiered in 1988 and returned in ’89. Later that year, it was produced off-Broadway by the New York-based Lamb’s Theatre Company (no relation to the National City-based Lamb’s Players Theatre). After getting a financial push from, of all people, Baron Robert Rothschild, it played off-Broadway from May, 1990, through last June, making it the biggest hit in that company’s 12 years.

Ray played the part in both New Jersey and New York, and then was cast as Millicent, a mother raising five kids in “The Torkelsons,” which airs at 7:30 p.m. Sundays.

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The Lamb’s Players’ upcoming season begins with Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” Feb. 21-March 28, followed by Christopher Sergel’s theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” May 1-May 30; “The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall,” a new musical by Clark Gesner (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”) and Nagle Jackson about a girls school, June 19-July 25; Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth,” Aug. 14-Sept. 12, and “Smoke on the Mountain” Oct. 2-Nov. 14.

The company will reprise its 1991 production of “Quilters” Jan. 21-Feb. 2 before the start of the new season.

Sixteen percent of subscribers, single-ticket buyers and donors have decreased their attendance of theater and music events in San Diego this year. Financial difficulty was the No. 1 reason they gave for the change.

That’s one of the preliminary results of a new survey donated to the San Diego Theatre League by Ann Yerkes Marketing Research and DiZinno & Partners. So far 590 responses have come in from a sample of 3,000 surveys sent in October.

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Twenty-seven percent said they increased their attendance in the past year, while 57% said their attendance stayed the same.

Most of the people who have cut back, however, were unaware that the San Diego Theatre League offers discount ticket prices, Ziter said, adding that his job for 1992 will be to increase awareness of these programs.

Less than 43% of those who responded knew about the Times Arts Tix booth in Horton Plaza, which offers half-price tickets on the day of a performance, and less than 14% knew about the Post-Tix program, through which patrons can order half-price tickets in advance by mail.

In addition, the league is continuing its Sneak Preview series, through which tickets to final-night dress rehearsals are sold for $5 apiece. The next Sneak Preview tickets, also available at Times Arts Tix, are for the Jan. 8 San Diego Repertory Theatre performance of “Abingdon Square” and the Jan. 12 Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company performance of “The Heidi Chronicles.”

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Ziter said he is also seeking funding for two more series of Family Theatre Days, a program in which a youth ticket is free when adults purchase a half-price ticket for selected shows.

This year, in the inaugural Family Theatre Days program, funded by Target Stores, adults purchased 715 half-price tickets and 591 children’s tickets were given away.

Money paid to the league goes back to the theaters. This year, the league returned a record high of $575,000 to the theaters, Ziter said.

PROGRAM NOTES: “Tales of Tinseltown,” the new musical about Hollywood that proved an ill-fated venture for the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company in its West Coast debut earlier this year, seems to be doing better in Miami. It got mixed to good reviews at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The Miami Herald doubted the play had the stuff for Broadway, but termed it “enjoyable, escapist entertainment . . . an affectionate and deliberate study in stereotypes” that features “show-making on a very professional level.” . . .

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The African American Drama Company will present “High John Da Conqueror” on Jan. 17, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as part of a three-day Visiting Artists Residency at the Carlsbad Arts Office. The musical, which will be performed at the Carlsbad Cultural Arts Center at 8 p.m., tells the story of High John, a storyteller who fostered hope and humor among the slaves. Call 434-2904. . . .

Robert Woodruff, who directed “The Tempest” and “A Man’s a Man” at the La Jolla Playhouse, will replace Andrei Serban as a guest artist, directing a play to be announced as part of the UC San Diego graduate theater program at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, March 11-15. . . .

Starring in the West Coast premiere of A. R. Gurney’s “The Old Boy” at the Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage on Jan. 18 are Harriet Hall, Christopher Collet, Franklin Cover, John Getz, Rosemary Murphy and Rob Neukirch.

CRITIC’S CHOICE

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A TALE OF TWO ‘PASTORELAS’

Is it live or is it KPBS-TV? You can catch the Old Globe’s “Pastorela ’91: A Shepherds’ Play” at the chapel of the old Naval Hospital in Balboa Park, today through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., or the KPBS-TV Great Performances presentation of Luis Valdez’s “La Pastorela,” at 9 p.m. Monday and noon Christmas Day. Both shows, which are packed with humor and song, tell the story of the shepherds making their way to the manger to see the Christ child. The Valdez version stars Linda Ronstadt, Cheech Marin, Paul Rodriguez, Robert Beltran and the music group Los Lobos. The Old Globe production, which features fine local talent, costs $5 for adults and $2 for children, students and seniors, and includes pinata -breaking by the kids after the show.


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