All Over the Map
Sweet 15 (Quinceañera) in San Diego, The Phantom Tollbooth in Washington D.C., and This Wonderful Life in Pittsburgh.
"A lot of Latino families spend more money than they ever should on a Quinceañera," says Rick Najera, the playwright and star of Sweet 15 (Quinceañera), now receiving its world premiere at San Diego Repertory Theatre. This celebration of a female's transition from childhood to womanhood is an important rite of passage in many cultures, and is often celebrated with a lavish party on the celebrant's fifteenth birthday.
Najera began conceptualizing this new show while performing his best-known work, Latinologues, on Broadway. "My children were in New York with me, and I was thinking about how the relationship between a father and daughter is different from that of father and son," he states. "Then when I saw a Quinceañera, I knew that was what I wanted to write about."
The story of Sweet 15 revolves around Eduardo (played by Najera) who tried to raise the money for his daughter's Quinceañera by doing something for a drug lord, but then had to run away to Mexico, abandoning his family for ten years. "Eventually, he becomes rich and comes back to fix the one moment in his life that he ruined," says Najera. Although his daughter is now 25, Eduardo insists that he gets to throw her a long-delayed Quinceañera. "It becomes pretty comical, but at the same time there are undertones of abandonment, forgiveness, and the relation between father and daughter."
The playwright is quick to point out that unlike much of his previous work, this piece is not a social satire. "I want people to have a lot of fun," he states. "There's drinking, there's dancing, there's mariachis. I wanted it to be a party." The party experience even extends to members of the audience, who are invited onstage during the second act to learn some of the dances and interact with the players. "It's a really great experience when they come up on stage," says Najera. "Then I become the audience!"
The musical adaptation of Norton Juster's children's book The Phantom Tollbooth, currently making its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., was originally commissioned by Opera Delaware. But legendary musical lyricist Sheldon Harnick, one of its creators, soon convinced director Tim McDonald that it would make a good musical.
As McDonald points out, the show literally starts in shades of gray. "Milo's in his bedroom, and he can't commit to anything; the kid is just bored," he says. "He is visited by this Phantom Tollbooth, which transforms out of his furniture. It's pretty remarkable -- it opens and folds, and flips and lights. Then he gets in his car, which emerges from a secret place from within the room. Suddenly we go color."
There's plenty of other visual stimuli -- including an interactive map that chronicles Milo's journey and a watchdog that's literally half watch and half dog -- but McDonald says the aural splendor is what drew him to the project. "It was Norton's ability to take something like the Census Taker and make that literal: he's taking your senses away. And the idea of a Whether Man instead of a Weather Man. Since Sheldon and Norton wrote the musical's book together, it has a great deal of that original word play from the novel." In the end, McDonald hopes he's helped create true family entertainment. "It's a show that plays on one level for adults, but also plays significantly to the kids."
"I didn't want to do my own interpretation of what George Bailey should be," says Setlock of the piece. "I'm really just trying to pay homage to the movie, and imitate those actors and their performances. There are some characters that I exaggerate to kind of give my impression of what the essence of that character really is. But for Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, and others, I'm trying to stay as close as I can to their rhythms."
In addition, the show incorporates commentary about the film. "I talk about the time when the movie was made, about Bedford Falls, the corny aspects of the story, and the strange things, like why this little town has an Olympic-size swimming pool under the gym floor," says Setlock. "The challenge for Steve was how much commentary to do, and we found that we needed less than we originally thought. We don't have to talk about it too much; it's more fun to just have me do it."
Setlock claims that he's seen the Frank Capra classic at least 50 times by now, but that he doesn't expect the audience to know it as well as he does. "What I found the last time I did it, is that even people who haven't seen the movie -- and believe it or not, there are some of those people -- really understood the story, and were moved by it. It's just the icing on the cake to have people choked up at the end."