Plucky Guys

The great Noel Coward once heard that a particularly dimwitted producer had blown his brains out. "Must have been rather a good shot," Coward marveled.

As a rule those who produce theater are regularly and soundly ridiculed by those who create theater. Often viewed as starry-eyed prep school graduates with large trust funds and a burning desire to be accepted into the glamorous world of show business, producers earn the lion's share of the profits but scant artistic and intellectual respect.

This pathetic condition, I predict, will not befall Allen Zipper, Richard Camuso, and Lewis J. Stadlen, the principal founders of the new Miami Skyline Theatre Company. As members of an executive body poised to open their first full-length show next February (Once Upon A Mattress, a musical comedy based on the "Princess and the Pea" fable), they have so far done just about everything right. They've certainly organized the Skyline with more forethought and invention than any other theatrical chiefs in town.

Stadlen, of course, is a Broadway veteran and artistic director as well as a producer. He's appeared as Nathan Detroit in the recent, renowned national tour of Guys & Dolls and is scheduled to star on Broadway in Neil Simon's new play, Laughing on the 23rd Floor. Zipper and Camuso have worked at the Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Professionalism usually, though not necessarily, comes from such appropriate experience.

The Skyline chiefs are not prone to rush into a business where many fools seem to tread; they have taken three years to establish their names around town and to raise roughly half the three million dollars needed to launch this major enterprise. After securing about $100,000 in initial start-up cash and an appropriate home in the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, they held extensive auditions to find the finest local -- yes, I said local -- company of actors, singers, and dancers. The sixteen people they selected for the permanent company are slated to fill the bulk of major, minor, and chorus parts in the various shows. To star in the upcoming season offerings, headliners such as Roz Ryan have been booked to bring in the crowds.

They also set up an impressive artistic advisory board consisting of such show biz notables as Rita Moreno, Donald O'Connor, Julie Harris, Edward James Olmos, Mickey Rooney, John Guare, Tracey Ullman, Luis Santeiro, and Charles Durning. While most other major local venues boast boards that consist of bigwigs generally coming from the worlds of real estate and finance, the Skyline team made sure their advisors knew something about financial success and dramatic art. What a concept.

Skyline will produce both revivals and original plays. With the light-hearted Once Upon A Mattress, the classic comedy You Can't Take It with You, and the controversial drama Death and the Maiden on line for the 1994 inaugural season, the company obviously aims to please a wide range of people, from older folks to more contemporary audiences. It will premiere a new American musical comedy next year, too. Skyline will also introduce more than 7000 Dade County school children each year to the world of theater by providing 1700 free tickets for a show's run. And this program represents just part of their community outreach plans. The Skyline's goals include low-cost theatrical training for kids and fundraisers for such organizations as the Community Alliance Against Aids. Last year the company demonstrated its concern for the good folk of South Florida -- and its flair for winning publicity -- by presenting USO-type shows in Homestead during the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.

The Skyline producers have apparently avoided the pitfalls of more amateurish theater entrepreneurs. They're not about to jump into the fray with naive expectations, mount shows too quickly, and subsequently slither into the night after losing their bankroll. In fact, these three producers seem to have prepared the groundwork for long-term success. Even if they suffer from the usual ratio of flops to successes, they most likely have enough creativity and business acumen to endure lean times and even build a lasting reputation.

Nowhere is their planning and professional behavior more evident than in the molding of the June entry of their first season: a new American musical called Lucky Guy by ex-Broadway dancer and Juilliard graduate Willard Beckham. Instead of relying on the standard local two-month development time, which constantly shortchanges new plays presented by other local theaters, Stadlen, Zipper, and Camuso have started the process of reworking the script and designing the show now, a full nine months before opening night. Eureka! That's how it's done in the real world.

Playwright Beckham, a plucky fellow from New York via Hominy, Oklahoma, was in town last week meeting with the theater's creative leadership. He saw Zipper, Camuso, Stadlen, David Goodman (the production manager), Wade Foy (the set designer), several possible costume designers, and Skyline's new dramaturg, (yes, they even have that) playwright, and theatrical scholar Roberto Prestigiacomo. During the next eight months, he will remain ensconced in South Florida in order to revise and eventually co-direct the show. He'll be working with seasoned Broadway choreographer Joey McKneely, who staged Jerome Robbins' Broadway, in directing the performers of the Skyline company in a $400,000 production of his work.

An ultra-camp musical set in Nashville, Lucky Guy follows the rise and travails of Billy Ray Jackson, who, according to Beckham's notes, is an "all-American singing cowboy -- just the type to fall for a good girl in a pretty pink sweater." With characters such as Miss Jeannie Jeannine, "the queen of country music," Big Al Wright, who sells "used cars of the stars," and Chicky Lay, who works at the Wigateria, a "drive-through wig salon for the lady on the run," Beckham's script promises to parody musical comedy while at the same time bringing country-western and popular music into this form of theater. "The introduction of contemporary music is one of the main things that appealed to me," says Zipper.

Beckham is himself a show. At the meeting I attended, he acted out and sang all the parts of his script for the creative team. I would have paid admission for his enthusiastic and genuinely comedic performance alone; he was equally witty when he explained how a scene would unfold with "lots of fabulous fiddle music," or how the characters emerged from the setup for a song "in a high emotional snit."

The show first came to Skyline's attention when Stadlen saw an early workshop production last summer at the North Carolina New Play Festival, held in Flat Rock. "He called me and said it was kismet, that we had to do this show," Zipper recalls. Now Skyline intends not just to develop the piece side-by-side with the author, but to promote it through events all over Dade County, such as a recent bash held at Williams Island, where the Skyline company and Beckham performed highlights from the show.

"By the time it opens," Zipper promises, "the name Lucky Guy will be known by every person in Dade County who's interested in theater. It's not hard to do, providing you dedicate yourself to the project and plan ahead."

Whether the show eventually proves to be a hit or a bomb, one thing will differentiate Lucky Guy from most original works unveiled in this area: The workshop process will be done the right way, the way professionals have crafted shows since the time of Sophocles. In fact, the Miami Skyline Theatre Company might herald not only the birth of the city's first resident company but also the most canny producing team to be seen around these parts in years.

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