STAGE / NANCY CHURNIN : 'Annie Warbucks' May Be Answer to Old Question : Theater: Five companies teamed up to co-produce a pre-Broadway tour of the show, thereby lowering the risk and cost for venues such as Civic Light Opera.

"Annie Warbucks," which opens tonight at the San Diego Civic Theatre, is more than the sequel to the mega-hit "Annie." As the cute red-haired orphan goes on a search to find a wife for Daddy Warbucks--and a permanent family for herself--the San Diego Civic Light Opera may finally answer the question of how it can afford to produce new work.

For years, San Diego Civic Light Opera, formerly known as Starlight Musical Theatre, has moaned about the lack of new musicals coming from Broadway. New works have been proposed and have come close to making the season, only to be dropped.

The problems that the San Diego Civic Light Opera has not been able to surmount, until now, are the cost and risk of mounting new work. The cost comes from all those new costumes, sets and orchestrations, plus the inevitable tinkering, which can mean altering those new costumes, sets and orchestrations. The risk is there because, even after all that expense and trouble, no one knows that anyone will want to see a show that has never been done before.

But the unusual process that has made "Annie Warbucks" the season opener for the San Diego Civic Light Opera's new Broadway series could mean more new work--both for the San Diego company and for Broadway.

Five member companies of the National Alliance of Musical Theater Producers teamed up to co-produce a pre-Broadway tour of "Annie Warbucks." The five companies share the $1.2-million pre-tour costs. Each company also has to carry the additional costs of the runs for its own production--Bud Franks, executive director of San Diego Civic Light Opera, said that, in total, the show should cost his company about $100,000 more than an average show in its season, far less than it would cost to have produced the show alone. (An average show costs about $500,000 in production and running costs.)

For "Annie Warbucks," the risk is reduced because the show is a sequel to the immensely popular "Annie."

The creative team of Martin Charnin, Charles Strouse and Thomas Meehan (who created the original "Annie" from Harold Gray's comic strip) also see this as a process that could help more new musicals get to Broadway.

"Annie Warbucks" is headed for Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre next March, Charnin said. The five producing theaters will participate in the Broadway production. For now, the tour has allowed the show's creative team to continue to work on the piece.

San Diego is the fourth of five cities on the tour. There have been changes since the first production, said Charnin, who directed "Annie Warbucks," in addition to writing the lyrics. Twenty-three minutes have been cut as well as two songs. One song has been added and still another may be added during the San Diego run. A "final moment" may come in San Diego as well, Charnin said.

This process has been crucial for the development of "Annie Warbucks," which has needed much tinkering since it opened as the disastrously received "Annie II: Miss Hannigan's Revenge" in January, 1990, in Washington. The mistake there, Charnin said, was to tell the story from the point of view of the villain--Miss Hannigan.

Miss Hannigan stayed in the show when it was done in 1990 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn.--but she became a shadow of what she had been.

A year later, when the work opened at the Marriott Lincolnshire in Chicago, Miss Hannigan was gone, replaced by a new villain. The show was a success and transferred to the Drury Lane in Oakbrook, Ill., outside Chicago, for an extended run in the spring. The tour by the National Alliance of Musical Theater Producers, headed by Franks, followed.

"Regional theaters, because they have audiences and subscriptions, are certainly a very viable way of working on a show." Though that's not the only way of doing it, he noted.

"Colleges, universities are also part of the future. Unions have to make it more comfortable and easier for everyone to get to Broadway."

But this process "is working for us," Charnin said. "We're breaking ground. The most positive part of this experience, from my standpoint, is the opportunity to rehearse, the opportunity to put the actors through their paces in the daytime and put the changes in at night.

Franks said the San Diego Civic Light Opera is already looking at three new projects to co-produce along the same lines as "Annie Warbucks." Among the possibilities is "Captains Courageous," the new musical being directed by Graciela Daniele at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

One show that will probably never be available, however, is "Annie III." Charnin is adamant that "Annie Warbucks" will be the final installment of the little orphan's tale.

"Never. I've done enough of it. The story at the end of the first one was unfinished. The other half of it was to complete the family. Now it's time to go on to some other projects."

"Australia," a new play about disaffected youth that has just been extended at the Fritz Theatre through Nov. 15, has proved a sleeper hit for the company.

When Duane Daniels took over as artistic director of the 49-seat theater Jan. 1, he wanted to do new work, but was afraid he might not be able to find an audience for it.

But so far, two of his biggest draws have been his two new plays by local playwrights, "A Rainy Night in Dago" by Maureen Anderson and "Australia" by Karin Williams. His biggest success remains his late-night production of David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," which has been running Friday and Saturday nights at 10 p.m. since April 3.

"I'm very surprised," Daniels said of the two new plays. "I thought we were going to have to do things that are somewhat mainstream to support the original work. Now I find we have to do the original work to support other things like 'The Adding Machine' and 'King Lear,' which I hope to do later this year."

Sushi Performance Gallery, battling a $20,000 deficit and cuts in funding from the California Arts Council and the city of San Diego, was burglarized Oct. 5 for the second time in two months. In this most recent robbery, the gallery and performance space lost its computer, microwave, sound system and video equipment, valued at close to $8,000. Now operating with borrowed equipment, the company has inserted a flyer appealing for help in its programs. The number to call is 235-8466.

PROGRAM NOTES: Ninety percent of the tickets for the originally announced Nov. 13-Dec. 6 run of "Forever Plaid" at the Old Globe Theatre, Nov. 13-Dec. 6, have been sold. The show has been extended for a week, through Dec. 13, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Further extensions are possible as the Old Globe's 1993 season doesn't begin on the main stage until "Redwood Curtain" opens Jan. 21. . . .

The Old Globe Theatre is offering a family pack of four tickets for a total of $25 for the Tuesday or Wednesday performances of "The Winter's Tale" at the Old Globe Theatre. But the group of four must include at least one youth under 18 and one adult. Additional tickets may be purchased at $8.50 for children under 18 and $10.50 for adults. Call 239-2255. . . .

Tim Miller will give a free gay men's performance workshop at Sushi tonight from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. No experience is necessary. Miller is presenting his one-man show, "My Queer Body" Friday and Saturday at Sushi. Call 235-8466 for further information. . . .

The Actors Alliance of San Diego will continue its series of Monday-night rehearsed readings at Blackfriars Theatre's Bristol Court Playhouse with Gore Vidal's timely "The Best Man," the story of a fictional presidential campaign, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. The next show, "Interrogation at Elsinore," written by Uruguayan playwright Carlos Manuel Varela, and newly translated by Alliance member Cristina Soria, will be presented Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. For further information, call 238-7396. . . .



"Marisol," the first half of the La Jolla Playhouse's FutureFest of new plays, closed Wednesday. But there's one last weekend to catch the second half--"The Swan."

Times Drama critic, Sylvie Drake, referred to Elizabeth Egloff's play as "an Olympian breeze . . . something rich, uplifting and strange." A swan crashes into the home of a woman with a history of failed relationships and turns into a man who falls in love with her. The show gives the sense "of having witnessed not only the birth of a tremendous love affair but of having run headlong into the metaphysical essence of love itself."

Performances of "The Swan" are 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 at the Mandell Weiss Forum. Tickets are $23.75-$29.75, depending on day and time of performance. Closes Sunday.

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