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All Over the Map

Brad Oscar stars in the title role of Barnum in Sarasota. Plus: The Princess and The Black-Eyed Pea in San Diego and A Mulholland Christmas Carol in Los Angeles.

Brad Oscar in Barnum
(© Asolo Rep)
Brad Oscar in Barnum
(© Asolo Rep)
Brad Oscar is the first to admit he wouldn't be the natural choice to play the title role in the musical Barnum, now being revived at Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre -- at least not if one saw Jim Dale play legendary huckster and circus co-founder P.T. Barnum in the show's 1980 Broadway production. "Jim was such a physical performer, and that's not what I do. I am not going to walk a tightrope or put myself in mortal danger," says Oscar, who is best known for his work as both Franz Liebkind and Max Bialystock in The Producers. "So when our director, Gordon Greenberg -- who I've known for many years -- asked me about taking the part, my first question was 'how could it be tailored for me?' But once we went back to the piece, we realized it supports a fairly normal telling of the story of his life. And our concept is to have a circus troupe tell the story and do more of the physical stuff. It's almost like I have a 'Dream Barnum.'"

Performing the show at the Asolo, which is across the street from the Ringling Museum of Art -- named for the co-founder of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus -- has helped Oscar in his research. "I've walked through the museum twice to get a sense of the time period, and it's been great working with the people from Circus Sarasota," he says. "But the circus period was really at the end of his life, and the bulk of the show takes place before that, when he created these amazing exhibitions and side shows. I was able to learn more about him by watching this great A&E biography. There's even actual audio of him, and the language of the time is fascinating because it's so much more formal than today."

At its center, though, Barnum -- which moves to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre after the Asolo run -- is primarily about the relationship between the great man and his wife, Chairy. "Gordon has been so strong in shaping this part of the show because it provides its heart" says Oscar. "Barnum was so passionate about his work -- which often took him away from her -- and she was so grounded. But they really had a long, happy marriage. I think the musical stirs up their conflicts a lot more than it really was."

-- Brian Scott Lipton

************

Sabrina Sloan (center) with Ken Prymus Jr., Lilias White, Josh Tower,
Jennifer Leigh Warren, and Ton3x
(© Ken Jacques)
Sabrina Sloan (center) with Ken Prymus Jr., Lilias White,
Josh Tower, Jennifer Leigh Warren, and Ton3x
(© Ken Jacques)

The title The Princess and The Black-Eyed Pea, premiering this month at San Diego Repertory, should provide a clue that this musical is no ordinary adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairytale. It's set in the heart of Africa where a princess from one kingdom (played by former American Idol contestant Sabrina Sloan) must overcome many obstacles to win a contest engineered by a queen (played by Tony Award winner Lillias White) that will land her the hand of the prince she loves (played by Josh Tower).

"We have adapted the show to a culture that perhaps it wasn't intended for, but the underlying love story is what is universal," explains librettist Kirsten Childs. "It's been delightful finding the areas where the actors recognize the defining cultural meanings in the piece, and they can play off them." Childs was invited to join the project this past summer by Andrew Chuckerman, who wrote the score with Karole Foreman, when the idea was no more than a collection of songs. "I really loved this collaborative process because it opened both of us up to new ideas," says Childs. "Andy is a force to be reckoned with, because he deals with the dramatic spirit of the show in his music. It complements the heart and soul of the performers, which imbue the story with a magical quality."

Childs, best known for the musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, is also enjoying working with director Stafford Arima. "Stafford sees everything; he's got 360 degree vision. He understands the process, and he listens to everyone in the ensemble, so we've had wonderful sessions."

-- Tristan Fuge

************

Kirsten Vangsness and Jaime Robledo
in A Mulholland Christmas Carol
(© Kiff Scholl)
Kirsten Vangsness and Jaime Robledo
in A Mulholland Christmas Carol
(© Kiff Scholl)

'Tis the season for every American theater from Bangor to San Diego to mount their seasonal production of A Christmas Carol. But in Los Angeles, Sacred Fools Theater Company, in collaboration with theater of NOTE, is offering an alternative version of the classic story with its annual remounting of Bill Robens' A Mulholland Christmas Carol!, an original musical that tells the story of turn-of-the-century L.A. water services engineer William Mulholland -- who designed the St. Francis Dam that collapsed in 1928 killing over 600 people -- through the lens of Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale.

"Mulholland had such a tragedy toward the end of his life, but unfortunately, unlike Scrooge, he was unable to avoid it," says director Kiff Scholl. "His dream of bringing fresh water to Los Angeles absolutely overshadowed anything else. And for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to show Mulholland the error of his ways and allow him to avoid this tragedy seemed like a wonderful juxtaposition of two stories."

In this work, the character of Bob Cratchit is replaced by Harvey van Norman, Mulholland's assistant and a resident of Owens Valley, which used to be a community by a lake until all of the water from the Owens Rivers was diverted by Mulholland to quench the thirst of a thriving Los Angeles. "The Owens Valley Lake is still a dry lake bed," says Scholl. "When we toured with this show two years ago to the Owens Valley, they booed Mulholland and saw him truly as a Scrooge. Relatives of the characters in our play still live there and they still feel it."

Unlike those audiences, Scholl still approaches the story with a great deal of ambivalence. "Mulholland had the best intentions...well, perhaps not the best intentions, but he thought he had the best intentions for the city of Los Angeles," he says. "The fact of the matter is L.A. didn't necessarily have to exist as it does today, but I couldn't imagine this country without it."

-- Zachary Stewart


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