Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 2002

You can do it by Moonlight or Starlight. See a regional premiere musical, that is.

Two of our largest outdoor summer venues have scored major coups, in acquiring the first local presentations of highly anticipated musicals adapted from literary classics. “Ragtime” will make its regional premiere at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista (August 28-September 8); “Jekyll & Hyde’s” regional debut is at Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park (September 15-22).

“When the regional rights became available,” crows Starlight’s producing artistic director and sometime actor, Brian Wells, “we were the first to react. I love the show, and it didn’t take much coercing to get me to direct it.”

We’ll be seeing one of the multiple incarnations of the Frank Wildhorn musical. As with his “Scarlet Pimpernel,” the show has undergone numerous revisions. “It’s been rewritten and remounted,” says the affable Wells. “Songs have been added and subtracted. But it’s all great music. What we’re doing most closely resembles the national touring version, which is like the pre-Broadway show.”

Wells admits he’s “drawn to the darker, deeper, more conflicted shows” in the musical theater canon, and “Jekyll” certainly qualifies. It’s a story of good and evil, or, as Wells puts it, “the mess people find themselves in when they let ambition get the better of them and trot down the wrong path. When you get too far ahead of yourself, there’s a price to be paid.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” conceived Henry Jekyll, a brilliant young research scientist who tries to excise the evil in the human psyche. When his experiment backfires, Jekyll inadvertently gives life to Edward Hyde, his murderous alter-ego, who unleashes a reign of terror in London society. Both roles will be reprised here by T. Eric Hart, who wowed audiences at Fullerton Civic Light Opera.

Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse began adapting the classic in 1990, and kept re-working the show until its Broadway opening in 1997. Focusing less on the moral/ethical dilemmas than theatrical pyrotechnics, the musical got mixed reviews, though it developed a cult following (‘repeat offenders’ were called “Jekkies”) and ultimately snagged four Tony Award nominations. Jekkies, prepare for the local onslaught….

Excitement is running equally high up in Vista. Moonlight Productions artistic director Kathy Brombacher boasts of being “the first bidder in Southern California” for “Ragtime,” which is her favorite musical of the 20th century, one that “has the power to change lives.”

Adapted from the magnificent 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, the show weaves a dense tapestry from the social and political upheavals of the turn-of-the-last century. Stephen Flaherty’s music (lyrics by Lunn Ahrens) represents a smorgasbord of styles — – Dixieland, vaudeville, waltzes, rags — – while the book, by esteemed playwright Terrence McNally (much closer to the original than the 1981 movie), is populated by historical figures like Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini, interspersed with fictional characters comprising three disparate families—upper-class WASPs, immigrant Jews, and Harlem blacks.

Staying true to the Broadway production rather than the scaled-down road tour, Moonlight has 41 actors onstage, and a pit orchestra of 26 musicians. The cast list, including four Equity performers, is as rich as the characters. L.A. actor Lance Roberts is the riveting Coalhouse Walker, Jr. Two of the lead actresses come from the national tour (Victoria Strong as Mother and Jennifer Shelton as Sarah).

Brombacher is especially passionate when she speaks of Paul Bryant, a “a tiny miracle who landed in our laps.”

Bryant, an L.A. resident who choreographed this production, was the national tour’s dance captain, assistant to the production stage manager ‘swing’ (covering for 6 male characters). He spent 3 1/2 years on the road with “Ragtime,” and knows every character’s every move, as originally directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by Graciele Daniele.. Bryant first heard the score from a passing car in Las Vegas in 1998, and he’s been hooked ever since.

“Once I saw it onstage, my emotions were uncontrollable; ” says the energetic and articulate Bryant. “I was in awe. The peaks and valleys are so drastic. If there were such a thing as a perfect musical, this comes very very close. It gets you — up, down, sideways and diagonally. The story couldn’t come at a better time than in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s really about people learning to accept and respect one another for who or what they are, regardless of religion, class or color of skin, trying and make the world a better place. Same story, same house, but every 10-20 years they change the color of the paint.

“I have total confidence in the show,” he asserts. “I think ‘Ragtime’ shall live for a long time. The message needs to be heard. As Coalhouse says, ‘Go out and tell our story.’ If anyone walks out of the theater not feeling something, either we’ve done something wrong, which I highly doubt, or there’s something wrong with the emotional makeup of that person.”

©2002 Patté Productions Inc.