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Ghost of ‘Grouch’ past -- and present

“If at first you don’t succeed . . . wait till you do -- then try again” could be the moral behind how an unlikely musical, “The Girl, the Grouch, and the Goat,” arrived at its first professional production at the tiny Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills.

Loosely based on the comedy “Dyskolos” (“The Grouch”) by the ancient Greek playwright Menander, “GGG” was one of the first things composer-lyricist Mark Hollmann turned to after the off-Broadway run of “Urinetown.” His score, with co-lyricist Greg Kotis, later won him a 2002 Tony Award, and “Urinetown” ran for nearly 1,000 performances after transferring to Broadway.

Just as success began to hit, Hollmann reconnected with Jack Helbig, who proposed pulling “Grouch” out of the dead script file and having another go, 10 years after they’d given up on it.

The composer, who hadn’t yet quit his day job in word processing, liked the new approach Helbig suggested, and wrote 15 fresh songs, keeping just one from the version they’d first crafted in Chicago in 1988. It began as an assignment for a post-collegiate musical theater class that Hollmann was taking. Helbig, a friend from the Windy City’s improv-comedy scene, suggested a Menander musical. Hollmann insisted that he write the libretto.

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Hollmann, 45, admitted over the phone recently from his New York City home that he had momentary misgivings about revisiting an old piece just as he was about to make it big with “Urinetown.” “What overrode that was I was 10 years smarter and maybe I could solve problems in the score that had stumped me before.”

Helbig, 50, teaches English at a Chicago high school in addition to freelance writing about theater. The unfinished “Grouch” musical had nagged at him ever since it stalled in 1991. He and Hollmann had taken it to New York for a workshop performance but failed to entice prospective producers. The experience, however, had planted a seed in Hollmann.

Previously a jack of many musical trades, he moved to New York in 1993 to focus on musicals.

Helbig says he revitalized the script with elements of Story Theater, an approach pioneered in the 1960s and ‘70s by Paul Sills, founding director of Chicago’s Second City troupe. A comic duo of slaves would function like the Lead Player in “Pippin,” doing double duty as characters and as entertaining narrators who step aside from the action to keep the audience clued in.

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In a nod to “Urinetown,” Helbig conjured a plot Menander never imagined: a drought in the ancient Athenian suburbs, with one lucky fellow, the Grouch himself, holding a monopoly in the water market thanks to his bountiful well. Swerving from the eclectic style of “Urinetown,” Hollmann anchored the score in the old-line musical comedy tradition of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The co-creators sent “GGG” on an informal shakedown tour of new musical festivals, including a 2007 reading at the Thousand Oaks Festival of New Musicals. There the Chance’s literary manager, Jonathan Josephson, liked what he heard, approached Hollmann after the performance and kept in touch.

“The Girl, the Grouch, and the Goat” had its first full staging last year in a student production at the University of Kansas. Now comes the Chance’s turn.

Having survived 10 years under founding artistic director Oanh Nguyen (pronounced ahn win), the theater has long-range ambitions of one day paying full union wages yet maintaining its pocket-size quarters. That, says the stocky, amiably low-keyed Nguyen, hinges on quadrupling the current annual budget of $400,000.

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Nguyen has directed a good deal of heady Sondheim at the Chance, but he was drawn to the light-as-cotton “GGG” by the challenge of taking an audience along on a low-budget fantasy excursion. The story is your basic young-lovers-thwarted-by-their-elders-until-the-old-folks-come-to-the ir-senses scenario. However, along the way it calls for the staging of a wild-goat chase, a family quarrel among the ancient Greek gods, the plummeting of most of the main characters into the aforementioned well -- where they remain for a good stretch of the second act -- and, oh yes, the climactic transformation of the two lovers into soaring birds, and back again.

Helbig says he isn’t keen on ever seeing the Disney Theatricals version of all this.

“I wanted to come up with a show that could be done with as little money as possible. I see a good production being done with just lights, a stage and a few props.”

He plans to catch the show in Anaheim Hills, but Hollmann probably won’t; he’s relying on his writing partner to report back on his one remaining concern: whether a humorous Grouch-and-daughter number is superfluous because of a more tender song between them later in the script.

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Apart from that, after 21 years’ gestation, he and Helbig consider the play finished. “I’m quite ready to step back and see what other people bring to this,” Hollmann said. He has plenty else to attend to, including “Yeast Nation,” the true successor to “Urinetown,” in which he and Kotis move from the sociopolitical implications of human effluvia to the sociopolitical crises facing a civilization of singing microscopic creatures in Earth’s primeval oceans. He also has the requisite old-movie-to-new-musical gig, providing songs while playwright-composer Rupert Holmes does the book for a planned adaptation of “My Man Godfrey.”

Nguyen says he isn’t nervous about handling the first professional production of the Tony-winning composer’s first show in the 48 contiguous states since “Urinetown” (the premiere of “Yeast Nation” took place last year in Anchorage). He says he rehearsed the flying-birds scene with choreographed roller-skating for “a very ‘Xanadu’ feel” but thought better of it. Just as Helbig granted himself free rein to augment Menander, Nguyen’s directorial concept gives the love goddess Aphrodite more stage time and thematic sway than the written script indicates.

“We’ve got little secrets,” he said. “You’ll see. We’ve had lots of fun.”

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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‘The Girl,

the Grouch,

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and the Goat’

Where: Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills

When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Also 8 p.m. Thursday, May 14 and May 21. Ends May 24.

Price: $40 to $45

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Contact: (714) 777-3033


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