OK, improvise! Theatre Aspen’s 2010 season takes a turn | AspenTimes.com

OK, improvise! Theatre Aspen’s 2010 season takes a turn

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Graham NorthrupThe Theatre Aspen tent was erected in Rio Grande Park last week. The Theatre Aspen season, featuring four productions and the Sunday Series of performances, runs June 17 through Aug. 21.

ASPEN – The theater clich goes: lousy rehearsal, great performance. Theatre Aspen is hoping there is an analogous clich that applies to an entire season: disastrous pre-season, great season.A week and a half ago, Paige Price, Theatre Aspen’s artistic director, got the news that any theater company director dreads: the proverbial “irreconcilable differences” had torpedoed one of the scheduled productions. Compounding the problem, Price received the word – that the writing team of Charlotte Brown and John Baskin was not seeing eye-to-eye with director Jay Sandrich – less than two months before the season opens, meaning the show had been cast, the set had been designed, and programs had been printed. Deepening the disappointment, the show, the comedy “Family Business,” was scheduled as a world premiere, the first time in several years that Theatre Aspen was presenting new material. And the show was to feature a relatively high-profile actor – Jerry Adler, whose roles include “Hesh” Rabkin on “The Sopranos.””It is an artistic director’s nightmare,” Price said. “We’ve seen hundreds of actors, been casting for months, had housing for Jerry, printed brochures. And boom!”So another theater adage – “The show must go on” – doesn’t exactly apply. Instead, Price has relied on a different stage trick: improvise. After finding out one evening about the forced cancellation, she had a replacement show by the next afternoon. In place of “Family Business,” about a family patriarch who suddenly dies, leaving the survivors scrambling to run the business, Theatre Aspen will present “Same Time, Next Year,” the 1975 play about a romance carried out one weekend a year over a quarter-century.Paige confesses that the backstage drama was not quite as severe as it might have been. For one thing, Sandrich, a part-time Aspenite who will remain in the director’s chair, had wanted to do “Same Time, Next Year” last summer, and Theatre Aspen was planning to do the play until the rights were pulled in favor of a proposed Broadway revival that never made it to the stage. Also, Price, a veteran New York performer with an ear for a narrative arc, got the feeling that all was not right behind the scenes of “Family Business.””I’d been cooking up Plan B for a week. I’d been witness to these creative difficulties,” she said. “So my first reaction was, ‘What else are we going to do? What’s the plan?'” One day after the decision was officially made to cancel “Family Business,” Price put out offers to two actors to appear in the two-person “Same Time, Next Year.” Much of the reason behind that quick reaction were the actors Price had in mind – Joan Hess and James Ludwig, both of whom starred in Theatre Aspen’s production of “Chapter Two” last summer. (“Same Cast, Last Year,” Price quipped.) Sandrich had never given up hopes of doing “Same Time, Next Year.””Jay was thrilled,” Price said. “He had his notes in front of him when I called him with the news. So we’re doing the play we wanted to do initially. It’s all for the best.”The original production of “Same Time, Next Year,” starring Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin, won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New American Play, with Burstyn earning the Tony Award for best actress. A 1978 film adaptation starred Burstyn and Alan Alda and earned four Academy Award nominations.••••Price has her own creative ideas to work on. She is involved with what she considers her “first major directorial effort” – a show titled “Defying Gravity” that kicks off the Theatre Aspen season with 10 performances, June 16-27.”Defying Gravity” addresses two big concerns registered by two sets of people – audiences, and the community of local performers. It’s a revue-style show, featuring numbers from “Wicked,” “Gypsy,” “Oklahoma,” “The King & I” and others – all shows that are simply too big to stage in the confines of the Theatre Aspen tent.”It’s songs from shows I could never produce in the tent,” Price said. “But every year we do surveys: ‘What would you like to see?’ And people say things like ‘Wicked,’ which is way too technical, way too big to cast. But we can do material from these shows.”The show also addresses the complaint that local thespians have been left offstage in Price’s three-year tenure. Taking those concerns to heart, Theatre Aspen came up with “Defying Gravity,” whose 14-person cast comprises all local performers. Price is also pleased with the range of talent – from 70-something Jane Robertson to 20-year-old Izzy Zaino. The core of six soloists is made up of Aspen’s best-known players: Nikki Boxer, Jonathan Boxer, Jeannie Walla, Mike Monroney, Peggy Mundinger and Nina Gabianelli.In the last two years, Theatre Aspen has hit new heights with its musical presentations. “Little Shop of Horrors” two summers ago was a beautifully handled production of a well-known piece, and last year Theatre Aspen created a town-wide buzz with the regional premiere of the stellar “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”Price says those two shows are distinguished not just by the music, but by the overall intelligence of the scripts. This year’s musical, “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” can’t match “Little Shop” and “Spelling Bee” for braininess. “This one is not in the top 5 percent of the class,” is how Price puts it. But she gives it high grades for pure entertainment, comparing it to the enduring favorite “Forever Plaid.””It’s much more skewed to entertainment; it’s much more innocent,” she said. “It’s the female answer to ‘Forever Plaid.’ It’s a musical tonic; the music can’t miss.””The Marvelous Wonderettes” is the story of four girlfriends. Act one finds the foursome at their high school prom; act two catches them a decade later, at their 10-year reunion. The show features 28 songs from the ’50s and ’60s, including “Son of a Preacher Man,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “Wedding Bell Blues.””The Marvelous Wonderettes,” which opened in New York in 2008, has its regional premiere in Aspen. The cast includes part-time Snowmass Village resident Beth Malone, who originated the role of Suzy on Broadway, and made her Theatre Aspen debut last summer in “Spelling Bee.”Theatre Aspen’s “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” is not only theater for kids, it’s theater by kids. The cast is made up entirely of students from Theatre Aspen’s pre-professional company. Price hadn’t thought of this innovation until she saw the organization’s production of “13,” which also had a cast of young actors, in January at the Aspen District Theatre.”That was an amazing experience,” Price said. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m putting them in a show.’ This is the perfect culmination of our education program. It gives experience to the ones who are ready.”Rounding out the season is the Sunday Series, which will feature a one-man show by local musician Smokin’ Joe Kelly; the second installment of “What’s Your Story?” featuring a variety of locals sharing true-life tales; and a red-carpet premiere of the film produced by the kids summer program.Theatre Aspen’s Locals Pass – $50 for one main production and one Sunday series show – is on sale through June 15.stewart@aspentimes.com