Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 2000

You shouldn’t always do what the doctor says.   When Ray Limon was a kid, he was a serious asthmatic; he could hardly walk across a room without losing his breath.   His physician recommended no gym, no physical activities, a calm and sedentary life.   His parents ignored the advice and instead, encouraged their seven year-old to build up his strength by tap-dancing.   By the time he was a teenager, Limon had outgrown the asthma, and he went on to become a professional dancer, choreographer and director.

He earned his union (Equity) card by age 13, when he toured nationally as a dancer in “The Music Man,” which was followed by “Hello, Dolly!” with Martha Rae. After that, it was film dancing. “I’m proud to have been in some of the worst movies made in the ’70s,” says the garrulous, fast-talking 41 year-old, with a chuckle.

He tapped with Linda Blair in “The Exorcist II,” and discoed with John Travolta in “Staying Alive,” the disastrous Sylvester Stallone-directed sequel to “Saturday Night Fever”. Then, his career segued from dancing to acting to choreographing and finally, ten years ago, to directing.

“As a choreographer,” Limon says, “I started getting frustrated with directors.   I’d do a lot of the work, but wouldn’t get any of the credit.”

Now he directs about 12 shows a year, often two at a time, in various locales across the country. But most of his regular work is at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista, where he’s assistant artistic director. He’s directed and/or choreographed some of Moonlight’s most memorable productions, and boasts that when Des McAnuff, then La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, came to see his staging of “Evita,” he said, ‘Your pictures. I really like your stage pictures.’

“That’s the kind of thing you never forget,” says Limon. “It’s nice to get acknowledgment from that level of people.” It was the same when acclaimed film choreographer Onna White pulled him aside after one of his L.A. productions and said, “Why the hell haven’t I heard of you and what they hell are you doing in San Diego?” “To L.A. people,” Limon explains, “San Diego is Alaska.” (And vice versa, I replied).

But Limon considers Moonlight his ‘home base,’ although he lives in Balboa near Newport Beach.

“It’s amazing how Moonlight has grown [over 18 years],” he says, “from community theater to Equity contracts, with great sets and costumes, and people coming in from L.A. and even New York to audition.”

Moonlight’s four summer offerings usually include one slightly risky, somewhat less-than-mainstream musical, by the likes of Stephen Sondheim (“A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd”) or even ABBA and Tim Rice (“Chess”). Most of those shows, often the most intriguing of the season, have been directed by Ray Limon.

But it hasn’t always been easy.   Vista is known for its political conservatism, and the Moonlight and Vista city officials are greatly concerned about the content and language of the shows, which are supposed to be family oriented.

In 1992, there was a big hubbub about the language in “A Chorus Line,” even though, by that time, the show was already 17 years old. “The only thing I had to change was the F-word,” Limon says.   “But now, things are much stricter.   It infuriates me.   I’m fine with a disclaimer that it’s an adult show. I think changing it insults the audience. And the writer. Writers deliberately choose every word they write. I like to leave a show as written.  

“That’s my only frustration at Moonlight. Other than that, everything’s great. I get an excellent budget, the sets and costumes are first-rate.   The production values are as high as any of the regional theaters I work in across the country.”

Limon doesn’t have to worry about language or content in his latest Moonlight production. “Pump Boys and Dinettes” is Family Fare with a capital F (consider those acceptable F-words). More a revue than anything resembling a book-musical, the country-pop-bluegrass, cornpone, feel-good show is a real audience-pleaser.

The show features composer Jim Wann’s signature presentational style, what he calls “musician’s theater,” where most of the actor/singers accompany themselves onstage.   He originated the format in “Diamond Studs” in 1975, and carried it into “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” the 1981 revue that took New York by storm. It was so successful Off-Off Broadway, it moved to Off Broadway and then on to Broadway itself, and a TV special for NBC.

“Basically,” says Limon, “it’s a live band onstage. Every one of the five male characters has to play an instrument and sing; the girls just play the spoons. We thought it was going to be hard to cast. But we had no trouble at all. ”

The ‘Pump Boys’ of the title sell gas on Highway 57 in Grand Ole Opry country. Their buddies, The Dinettes — Prudie and Rhetta Cupp — run the Double Cupp diner next door.

“Usually,” Limon admits, “I lean toward heavier, darker musical theater material, but this one’s pure entertainment. There’s even some audience participation.”

So, does that mean that, like the Shamu show, you should avoid the first row if you don’t want to get soaked?   “Depends on how involved you want to be.”

(“Pump Boys and Dinettes” runs from January 27-February 20 at the Avo Playhouse in Vista).

©2000 Patté Productions Inc.