The Starlight Cautiously Spreads Its Wings : Theater: New season promises to bring new and more venturesome fare, without abandoning the tried and true.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's been a quarter of a century since Starlight Musical Theatre, once an exclusively outdoor theater, made its indoor San Diego Civic Theatre debut with "Gypsy." That was just eight years after the 1959 show first opened on Broadway.

Many people think Starlight hasn't changed much since that time. Now entering its 47th season, the company still presents tried-and-true musicals in the tried-and-true style, some in the indoor Civic Theatre and Spreckels Theatre, but the bulk of them outdoors, under the jets in the Starlight Bowl. Though the company went professional in 1975, signing an Equity contract, it is still hard for some patrons to take seriously shows that are frozen mid-sentence while airplanes pass overhead 30 or more times a night.

The company wants to be taken seriously. Production budgets have slowly been creeping up as Starlight has tried to raise its standards of operation. The company now has an annual budget of $3.8 million and an average production budget hovering in the $500,000 range.

But Starlight still gets slammed by reviewers, mostly for one simple reason. With a handful of exceptions, such as its ventures into the visions of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber with "Follies" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," the fare, and the way it is served, hasn't changed in 47 years. The company is still doing "Gypsy"--which will open at the San Diego Civic Theatre tonight.

"Gypsy" kicks off a season that also will include other standards including "No, No, Nanette," "Paint Your Wagon" and "Camelot," all at the Starlight Bowl.

And yet there is something different in the air this year. Although subscriptions are 16% below last year, hopes are up in the artistic offices and the board room because, for the first time in nearly half a century, Starlight has something new up its sleeve: a winter season beginning Oct. 14 with "Annie Warbucks" that will feature as many as four to five new musicals, some of which, if not all, may be Broadway-bound.

C. E. Bud Franks, who became Starlight's executive director last year, insists that a hint of change will be felt as early as this summer. Athough he concedes that some may have "a perception that this is the same old thing," he calls that "a misconception." First, at the center of the upcoming season is the San Diego premiere of "Chess" July 8-19 at the Starlight Bowl.

Then, too, this year's production of "Gypsy" will use the same sets as the recent Broadway production starring the Tony Award-winning Tyne Daly. Broadway performer Karren Morrow will star here as Mama Rose.

But, most important is the upcoming winter season, through which Starlight hopes to woo the kind of audiences that have been more often attracted to La Jolla Playhouse and Old Globe Theatre productions.

"The winter season is part of a major move to professionalize the product," Franks said in an interview at the Civic, overlooking the set of "Gypsy."

The winter season is all indoors, Franks pointed out. "It allows us to do things that the (Starlight) Bowl does not allow us to do. The winter season allows us to to participate in touring productions and joint productions."

If this year's attempt is successful, Starlight would continue both summer and winter seasons: producing outdoors during the summer and indoors in winter. Each season would include five musicals.

"Annie Warbucks" is a joint production with four other regional theaters--a West Coast tour of the "Annie" sequel that its creators hope to take to Broadway. Also under consideration for Starlight's winter season are other joint ventures: the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit version of "Phantom of the Opera," the Broadway-bound "Stardust" that opened at the Wilshire Theatre in West Hollywood on Friday, "Conrack," produced by Frankie Hewitt, executive producer of Ford's Theatre in Washington and based on a novel by Pat Conroy, author of "Prince of Tides," and "Paper Moon," from the producer of "Guys and Dolls"--the hot "new" hit on Broadway right now.

"This is not an abrupt change," said James L. Bowers, president of Starlight's boARd of directors. "We had a long-range plan that we adopted three years ago, and that plan included the development of a winter season and a new works program."

Indoor venues such as the 2,900-seat Civic and the 1,400-seat Spreckels allow Starlight to share sets with other companies that produce only indoors. Getting away from the planes and having the use of indoor fly lofts for quick scene changes also makes Starlight more attractive to out-of-town producers. In essence, Starlight is trying to tap into a national network of producers in the way that local member companies in the League of Resident Theatres, called LORT, have, such as the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe Theatre. Starlight, like other regional theaters, can offer Broadway producers a less expensive way to see a work staged before a Broadway opening. Starlight has been developing national contacts since 1985, when it became one of the founding members of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre Producers, a service organization for 70 professional companies in 34 states that produce or present musical theater.

That network already is bearing fruit: Starlight began to share performers and look for possible co-productions with other musical theater members when Bonnie Ward served as secretary of the National Alliance. On April 4, Franks was elected president of the organization.

Less than two months later, "Annie Warbucks" became a done deal.

As recently as 1989, Starlight seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis about whether it should move into developing new works or continue to emphasize revivals. During that time it hired and fired their executive producer, just one year into his three-year contract, after his proposal to add a new musical to the season was debated and defeated.

In the last few years, Starlight's board has changed. Of the 26 members, 11 are new since 1989. The current membership seems to be dedicated to the idea of developing new work. The new members, such as Ann Schulz, who has served as the board's vice president of productions since January, are committed to presenting new works. Schulz, who is also artistic director of the Coast Kids Theatre in Encinitas, also hopes to work with Franks on developing a professional musical theater for young children, to begin as early as next year.

Now, the board's answer to shrinking subscription sales seems to be to give audiences something new and exciting rather than something tried and true.

The Wards, who have directed Starlight since 1981, have been hoping to make this change for years. Like others in the musical theater field, from Frankie Hewitt to Jim Thesing, the former president of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre Producers, they say that musical theaters are squeezed for new material to present. There are few successful new musicals on Broadway, and many of the successful ones, such as those by Andrew Lloyd Webber, reserve rights to do their own national tours or productions or are prohibitively expensive to do in a regional production.

Another problem is that the rights for more and more old standards, such as "My Fair Lady" which Starlight tried to acquire for this season, have been snapped up for Broadway revivals.

"The big issue is the lack of product," Bonnie Ward said.

"We have to take responsibilty by infusing the business with new pieces. We've relied on Broadway, and Broadway has dried up. Just look at what is on Broadway right now--'Guys and Dolls.' We've been doing 'Guys and Dolls' our whole life!"

At the same time, Don Ward emphasized the need to tread carefully with new work so as not to alienate the company's 10,000-12,000 subscribers, who have kept coming back for the same old musicals they love.

One of the reasons for presenting "Chess," which has not been seen in San Diego, is "to get audiences comfortable with taking a risk," Don Ward said. "There needs to be a stretching of an audience. And that takes education. We want them to feel that, whenever they come to see us, whatever we present will be a quality production."

The economic risk is indeed great. While a standard musical can cost more than $500,000 to produce, a new show might cost $900,000 to $1 million because of the costs of new costumes, new sets, new scores and new arrangements.

Because this first winter season will involve co-productions of new work, Starlight will keep the cost for these new shows down by sharing the costs with other theaters. Last year, the board vetoed the idea of doing the world premiere of "For My Country," a USO musical, because the expense of presenting it without help would have been prohibitively high.

The Wards' optimism about Starlight's future is tempered, however. After all, they have seen Starlight through many budgetary ups and downs and many proposals for new shows, all of which so far have slipped through their fingers. They have known Starlight from the perspective of performers, co-starring opposite each other in "Carousel" forty years ago. Bonnie Ward's father, Robert H. Baker, performed in Starlight's "The Mikado" three years before that.

They have also witnessed Starlight's growing pains as far back as 25 years ago, when Starlight did its first indoors "Gypsy." Then they were not co-artistic directors, but, rather, proud parents in the audience watching their son, Kelly (now a scriptwriter at Universal Studios), play one of the newsboys.

At that time William Adams was the artistic director of Starlight, which was then a community theater, and it was a great leap for the organization to go into the Civic Theatre and tackle the expenses of union crews.

"They sold tickets, but the production costs doubled," Don Ward recalled.

"They went into the red so bad, it almost put Starlight under," Bonnie Ward added.

Starlight's mistake then, the Wards say, was leadership that didn't anticipate the high costs of the new venue. The Wards, however, feel they know what's coming in their expansion, and are prepared to meet the costs. "This is a jumping off point for us, but it's been in the planning for years," Bonnie Ward said. "And we watch every penny."

* Performances of "Gypsy" are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays with Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2 through June 7. Tickets are $19-$30, with 25% discounts for students and children. At the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego, 544-7827 or 278-TIXS.

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