Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1991
Milky White is on the mooove. The remote-control cow, specially built for Moonlight Amphitheatre’s Southern California premiere production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (the first since the Old Globe’s in 1987), has been all over the state and points east in the past nine months. The imaginative, inspired bovine has been in high rental demand since its construction last year. It’s yet another sign of Moonlight’s ever-expanding creativity and influence.
Eleven years ago, high school drama teacher Kathy Brombacher founded the group that now runs almost year-round and draws crowds of up to 1500 on summer nights, under the stars in a lovely Vista park-setting. In 1989, Brombacher added an indoor winter season. Last year, she refurbished the Brengle Park Rec. Center for a temporary winter home.
Now, Moonlight has a $550,000 annual budget (a line-item for the City of Vista, which provides $50,000; the rest is earned income); a traveling theater group, The Moonlight Players, that provides entertainment and promotion; a high-profile youth theater for students 8-18 years old; an extensive year-round theater-and-voice training program for children 7-14; and guest Equity actors in its large-cast, extremely polished productions. They’ve just mounted a 15-month, $2-3 million capital campaign to build a new little theater (350 seats) and make improvements on the outdoor amphitheater.
“Moonlight Amphitheatre” is starting to be a confining name. Brombacher, the company’s artistic director, is thinking about “Moonlight Productions,” to encompass the expanded vision. The indoor-winter offerings (November to February) are smaller and more earnest than the summer selections. Last year, there was a ponderous (“A Man for All Seasons” and a spectacularly-done smaller musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, which was nominated for Best Musical by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle.
But summertime is reserved for big-splash musicals. Traditionally, Moonlight has played it safe in the summers, offering the “oldies but goodies.” When they got last-minute rights to “Into the Woods” last year, they jumped at the chance. “It was a major coup,” beams Brombacher. “We changed the season, re-printed tickets, re-vamped everything.” It was a risk. It wasn’t the type of production the audience was accustomed to. It was Moonlight’s first foray out of the mainstream. And it paid off. Their biggest attendance night ever was the last Saturday night performance of “Into the Woods” — more than 1500 people turned out. And they loved it.
So what’s the chance-taker this year? “Evita”, the internationally-acclaimed 1979 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaboration which Brombacher has been wanting to do for years. “It’s a rock-opera format that we haven’t done here before,” she says. “Our audience had been asking for “Evita” for some time. It was even more requested than “Brigadoon”.” That musical fantasy was cancelled last year to make room for “Into the Woods”. But “Brigadoon” made it onto the schedule for this summer (June 19-30).
Still, there were glitches. Some time after Moonlight announced that it was mounting “Evita” this summer, Starlight Musical Theatre in Balboa Park decided to cancel its world-premiere, “For My Country — the USO Musical” and substitute “Evita” — to open two weeks before Moonlight. In her usual understated style, Brombacher says that decision was “somewhat upsetting. If I had known Starlight was doing “Evita”, I would have avoided it. It’s not necessarily prudent for two similar venues to present the same production. We’re not really in competition, but a lot of our audiences go down there, and some of theirs come up here.”
It was less distressing last year when Christian Community Theatre of El Cajon opened “Annie Get Your Gun” the same week as Moonlight. And this year, both companies are presenting “Brigadoon”. “It’s some kind of coincidence,” Brombacher concedes. “But we’re so far apart, we’re not really drawing the same audience.”
Community theater conflicts and repetitions are not uncommon in San Diego . Just last winter, for example, two companies in the same city — Escondido — were presenting “Guys and Dolls” at the same time (Patio Playhouse and the Lawrence Welk Theatre). Everyone learns to adapt, and no one seems to feel too terribly much in competition. “The more theater there is, the more we feed each other,” says Brombacher. “We have an eleven-year track record of building patrons. And the Amphitheatre sells itself. It’s so pleasant to be able to bring in a picnic and sit outside on a beautiful summer evening.”
This month, Moonlight presents “Anything Goes”, a 1934 Cole Porter tap-dancing classic (July 10-21) and a Youth Theatre production of “Hans Christian Andersen” (July 25-29). “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, another big dancing show, bows in August 7-18, with six new songs added onto the familiar movie score, from the 1980 Debbie Boone tour and Broadway revival.
The really big one, “Evita”, which traces the rise and fall of Argentina ‘s first lady, Eva Peron, opens August 28 (through September 8). Conflicts, competition and coincidences aside, everything seems to be going great in Vista : They’re still dancin’ in the Moonlight.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.