ASPEN - Rita hunter wasn't having the easiest of days. She had lost two costumes - literally, she couldn't find them - for Aspen Community Theatre's production of "Crazy For You" a few days before opening night, meaning several additional hours of sewing on top of her duties as co-producer of the musical. Onstage, where a dress rehearsal was taking place, there were the usual snafus to reckon with: a flashlight didn't work, actors weren't quite sure where their marks were - and, oh yes, one major scene was still in the "fix" stage, and really wasn't ready for a full-dress run-through.
Hunter was also occupied with trying to address Aspen Community Theatre's perennial quandary: seats for their shows often went empty during the first weekend, but by the second weekend, when word began to spread through the community and people realized that second weekend was closing weekend, there was a scramble for tickets to sold-out performances.
Out in the lobby, where she could hear mistakes and troubling pauses from the stage, Hunter was absentmindedly fiddling with a needle, occasionally sticking it through the knees of her jeans. Whether this was from habit - she'd been putting in 10-hour days of sewing lately - or close-to-opening-night jitters was hard to say.
Hunter then told of an episode that made it clear where all this angst came from. In 1988, when ACT was staging "Annie Get Your Gun," the actors were instructed to bring in blankets to be used as props. "And I saw one of the people onstage - it might have been opening night, but if not it was definitely the final dress rehearsal - and his blanket had a cord hanging off it. An electric blanket! That's the kind of thing most people associate with community theater."
There lies the source of Hunter's fretfulness: Aspen Community Theatre doesn't really want to be associated with community theater, or at least not with community theater that is the easy target of jokes (and the punchline for possibly the greatest "Simpsons" episode, the one in which Springfield makes an upbeat musical out of "A Streetcar Named Desire"). Community theater in most places might be marked by so-so singing and make-do sets, but this is one area in which the idea of Aspen exceptionalism might have its strongest case. ACT is theater done to professional standards. There is no room for electric cords in a show set in the 1880s.
"We have definitely set standards. You want the entertainment value to be so high - you want costumes, the sets, the big numbers," Hunter said. "People expect that quite a bit. It's an institution."
Aspenite Naomi Havlen recalls one of her earliest dates with a boyfriend. "He said he had tickets to 'The Wizard of Oz,' and I thought, 'OK, community theater. At the elementary school. This is going to be a bunch of little kids singing out of tune.' Then a few minutes into the show, someone is flying on a bike over the stage. I said, 'OK, this is not your regular community theater.'" (Havlen eventually married her date from that evening.)
Havlen, who has performed occasionally with Aspen's Hudson Reed Ensemble, makes her ACT debut in the current production of "Crazy For You." What she sees from behind the curtains has only deepened her appreciation.
"I've been telling my mom, 'You're not going to believe this: I don't have just one great costume. I have five great costumes," said Havlen, who plays a New York socialite desperate to marry her boyfriend in "Crazy For You."
It's not just that ACT, founded in 1976, is an institution - many of the people behind the organization are institutions as well. Tom Ward has been designing the sets since the late '70s; his set for "The King and I," in 1996, drew applause the moment the curtain opened. Kathleen Albert began as costume designer in 1992; lighting designer Loren Wilder has been an ACT regular for a decade. Jody Hecht graduated from chorus member to co-producer in 1992, and has formed a two-person production team, with Hunter, ever since. Bob Finnie, the musical director and conductor, made his first ACT appearance in 1997 with "Jesus Christ Superstar" (often picked as an organizational high point); "Crazy For You" marks his sixth ACT credit.
Hunter has been on-board long enough to have lost count of the number of shows she has helped produce. "Thirty-one. Could be 32," she said. Having done theater in high school and college in Southern California, then joining the cast of Lake Tahoe Repertory Theatre, Hunter tried out for ACT's version of the thriller "Night Watch" in 1980. She didn't get cast, but agreed to work on costumes. When the producer got sick, Hunter stepped in.
"I did it and never cared about getting onstage again. This is more my style," said Hunter, who confesses to liking bossing people around.
Hunter believes that ACT is taking a step up with "Crazy For You." The cast is not particularly big; at 29 actors, it doesn't approach the size of 1994's "Oliver," which had 75. But "Crazy For You," which earned the 1992 Tony Award for best musical, is big: Built around the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, it's a musical about musicals that trades complexity for splashy, colorful, Broadway pageantry.
"It's a huge show. Just huge," Hunter said. "A lot of scenery, a lot of sets. A lot of costumes because there are a lot of different settings - Broadway then Deadrock, Nevada; the fantasy part. There's tap dancing. This was a touch choice, picking a show so big. But we knew there were people who could do the leads. The talent is here."
Much of that is professional talent. John Goss, who plays the lead role of wanna-be dancer Bobby Child, has a long list of regional theater credits, and is the founder and director of the Glenwood Vaudeville Revue. Nina Gabianelli, who plays Bobby's controlling mother, was a cast member with Aspen's Crystal Palace dinner theater; Corey Simpson, who plays a prominent New York theater producer, has been a professional actor and musician.
Hunter is particularly pleased with the orchestra. She said ACT has continually tried to upgrade the level of the music, and this year it might have nailed its mark. "I told them how good they were sounding, and they said, 'Well, it's Gershwin,'" she recalled. "It's so lyrical, melodies that are hummable, singable. Nothing complicated like Sondheim. I love this show because it's happy."
ACT's next big task is taking care of its future. Hunter is 66, and has been purposefully adding younger people to the organization's board, and recruiting new actors every year. She also keeps her eye on new musicals; one that has captured her recently is "Newsies," the 1992 movie about a 19th century newsboy strike that has been turned into a Broadway musical.
"It's dancing, it's young people, it's amazing," Hunter, who saw the show in May, said. "So maybe I'll stick around till that's available."
But while she's helping oversee ACT's productions, Hunter will make sure the troupe maintains the standards it has set. In "Crazy For You," the female lead Polly (played by newcomer Lauren Koveleski), is wheeled across stage on a dolly. No one had an old-fashioned dolly, so the crew pulled one that happened to be available.
"It was red, with big rubber tires - just a regular modern dolly," Hunter said. "And I said, no. We're not going to go to the trouble of getting period costumes, authentic sets, and then use some modern dolly."
So Hunter brought, from her own home, an old wheelbarrow. "It's the same effect, but more genuine," she said. "Not that anyone would notice. But I would."