Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1992
The six year old girl and the nine year-old boy stared at each other across the floor of the old Ratliffe Dance Academy on the corner of Broadway and Twelfth. She was into ballet; he favored tap. It was 1943. Nine years later they performed opposite each other in “Carousel” at Starlight Musical Theatre. Three years after that, Don and Bonnie Ward got married.
After spending some time performing, directing and choreographing in Los Angeles and elsewhere, they returned to San Diego in 1956 and re-connected with Starlight, where, since 1974, they’ve been the Producing Artistic Directors. All three of their children have been involved with the company at one time or another. Kirby and his wife Beverly continue their active participation, with recent starring roles in “No, No Nanette”. Kelly, their oldest son, was a film actor, and is now Vice President of Family entertainment at Universal. Daughter Lori, a dancer, is currently playing the role of homemaker. In 1985, the entire family appeared in a rousing production of “George M!”.
The Wards don’t select the company’s shows (that’s left to the Board of Directors), but they make all the artistic decisions , and within each season, they select the two or three shows they’d like to direct and/or choreograph and they choose guest directors for the rest.
Despite the recession, and a fairly lackluster summer in terms of big hits, Starlight is optimistically presenting a winter season for the first time in his forty-seven year history, even going back to its legally incorporated name, the San Diego Civic Light Opera. “We’ve wanted to do a winter season for eight years,” says Don. “We finally have an Executive Director who shares that view.” Bud Franks, who came to Starlight in 1991, became President of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre Producers last April. The 72 members of the Alliance are anxious to support the production of new musicals, which are getting scarcer and more expensive. Starlight and four other companies have banded together to co-produce the all-new “Annie Warbucks”, sequel to the original “Annie”, created by the original artistic team. All five theaters will participate in a West Coast premiere tour, so the creators can continue to work out the kinks as the show wends its way to Broadway.
The first sequel to “Annie”, “Annie 2”, had a disastrous out-of-town tryout in 1989. The seriously-revised “Annie Warbucks” fared better in San Bernardino in August. “Annie’s back,” crowed Sylvie Drake of the Los Angeles Times. “And while “Warbucks” can still use a bunch of adjustments…, it looks like the kid has legs.” The fourth stop on the tour is San Diego (October 14-25, at the Civic Theatre).
In the original show, set in the Depression, the little orphan looked for her parents. No luck on that score, but she did win the heart of wealthy Daddy Warbucks, who wants to adopt her. In the sequel, the court insists that there be a mother on the scene –within sixty days — or the child goes back to the orphanage. The brazen little moptop intends to find a wife for her Big Daddy.
There’s another new production in the offing at Starlight. Yet another (can you believe it?) musical rendition of “The Phantom of the Opera”, this one by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston. The fascination for Gaston Leroux’s story never ceases. “This one has a very strong book and music,” says Bonnie Ward. “It’s romantic, dashing, swashbuckling.” We have great hope for it,” adds Don. “And the Spreckels was just built for this show.”
Interspersed with the two new biggies are two old safe-ies: “Fiddler on the Roof” (November 11-22) and “ Oklahoma ” (May 26-June 6), both at the Civic. The two shows have been done a cumulative total of eight times at Starlight. “Our audiences expect that kind of material,” explains Bonnie Ward. Another repeat, “Grease” (February 2-22, at the Spreckels), which was a Starlight hit in 1988, is aimed at a younger audience.
Starlight has shown a commitment to producing new musicals, but plans for a commissioned “USO musical” and a new revue, “Stardust”, which opened in L.A. in May (with Don Ward as advisor), didn’t pan out. Now the theater is sponsoring a musical version of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” hoping to interest other companies in a co-production. In the meantime, the Wards have chosen to direct “Phantom” and “Fiddler” in the winter season. No one will be happier to be away from the aviation bombardment in the Bowl. “We hate the planes,” says Bonnie. “In the 1950s, the airport approach pattern was realigned for us every Thursday to Sunday night. But the flight pattern can’t be altered for jets. We’ve been told it would be relatively easy to land over the bay. That would eliminate the noise pollution in Balboa Park . Somebody needs to take this up as a crusade. We’re too busy putting on year-round productions.”
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.