Broadway bound!

Mrs. Malaprop is still as funny as ever - as funny as she was in 1774 when Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote "The Rivals" and made her name synonymous with the (often hilarious) misuse of big words. Only a comic song about a secret passion for Lucius O'Trigger could possibly have made the old girl more appealing.

Elizabeth Huddle's new adaptation of Sheridan's classic - first performed at Portland, Oregon's Center Stage, where Ms. Huddle is artistic director, and now in a new incarnation at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) - features just such a charming ditty. And seven more besides - all written by "P.D.Q. Bach" himself, Peter Shickele, with lyrics by Louisa Rose.

The show arrived from Center Stage with all the designers and some of the cast in tow.

Labeled "a play with music" (as opposed to a musical), "The Rivals" is representative of a developing trend in theater these days:

Regional companies are brewing up Broadway's future hits. New plays or adaptations rarely start off on Broadway. They tend, rather, to begin as a regional theater production, usually move on to another regional theater for development, and perhaps others after that before making it to Broadway.

Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle," Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," and August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," to name a few, all started off in regional theater before going on to fame, fortune, and prestigious awards. The plays are fine-tuned, tightened, and polished in the serious, yet cost-effective environment only the regionals can maintain.

The whole process of developing a new play or adaptation is a creative and energizing one for any theater. The DCTC's artistic director, Donovan Marley, heard about Huddle's new adaptation of "The Rivals" from a designer who works for him, then met with Huddle at a theater convention in Miami.

"She said she would like to take what they had learned and take it to the next step," Mr. Marley says. "And I said, 'Why don't we do it out here?' So she went back to Peter Schikele, and he agreed to write more music, including two new songs, for our production."

Building networks with other companies

Huddle's idea was to transport the basic concepts for the set design, costumes, and lighting to Denver, with adjustments made for the DCTC's thrust-style stage. She brought two members of the original cast with her and hired two women she had worked with before to play the young ladies of the story. But the rest of the cast, including the glorious Mrs. Malaprop (played with brilliant timing by Kathleen Brady) are resident actors of the DCTC. It is a truly collaborative effort.

"Initially our collaborations with the Mark Taper Forum [in Los Angeles] and the Arena [in Washington D.C.] began for economic reasons," Marley says. But the artistic directors of these companies soon found that the savings were only nominal.

"The real value [of sharing productions] is in the cross-fertilization of one company with another," Marley says. "It introduces our artists to their artists. They become friends and build networks that can lead to further employment...."

To say nothing of a wider framework of ideas.

"I do know that people flew in to see 'The Rivals,' " Marley says. "There is no doubt that this is the way new theater is developed. Gordon Davidson flew in to see 'Black Elk Speaks' and wanted it for L.A. We couldn't remount it until a year later at the Mark Taper Forum. And so word-of-mouth had a year to generate interest. Within a few weeks, the whole run of the show was sold out." Later, Denver audiences got to see Gordon Davidson's work when he brought in his production of "Nine Armenians," by Leslie Ayvazian.

Publishing houses send scouts and theater producers come to new play festivals such as the one the DCTC will present this spring (U.S. WEST TheatreFest) once a theater company has established its credentials as a developer of new plays.

Likewise, Huddle has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a new playwrights festival - a grant she says she would not have received without her experience in new-play development. Huddle's company will work in collaboration with James Nicola, artistic director of the famous New York Theater Workshop.

"We're calling [the festival] 'Just Add Water West,' " she says. "Jim will pick three new plays, and one will be by a local [Portland] playwright." Mr. Nicola is famous for having developed the musical "Rent," now on Broadway, among others.

"Developing new plays feeds the vitality of the company, so we aren't just repetitive - we need to develop new work so we stay alive and don't just become museums for ages past.... Then, if we can take plays to other venues, it's beneficial to us all - we initiate work and then share it with each other."

Huddle was producer for "The 'Kentucky Cycle," which got its start in Seattle.

"It was a first: winning the Pulitzer Prize before going to New York. We did a production in Seattle and then went on to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before going to the Kennedy Center and then on to Broadway. With 'Kentucky Cycle,' we kept the same designers for each new production all the way through to Broadway. We needed a star for Broadway and brought in Stacy Keach. [Keach] and I were kids out of college at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival together."

'The Rivals' - a play in progress

"The Rivals" is a case study in how a new play develops. When it moved from Portland to Denver, it was slimmed down by 15 minutes - even with the addition of two new songs.

"There is a real subtle give-and-take between the orchestra and the singers," says music director Carl Mansfield. The Portland production had to use prerecorded music because of space limitations. The DCTC could afford a live orchestra, so Mr. Mansfield could tighten even the scene changes. Shortening these interludes, the whole production could be paced a little more quickly.

"You automatically work on a [new play] every time it moves on to a new theater. There are all kinds of ways to tighten it," Huddle says.

"I will tighten the script a little more [in its next run]." The move being discussed is to yet another regional theater. "Then if it wants to move on to ... New York, we'll see."

Huddle has had a long relationship with the play, having played Mrs. Malaprop herself as a 16-year-old and then again in her own production of her adaptation. "She is one of the funniest people I've ever run into," she says, and one of the chief reasons for the play's longevity.

Her improper use of words is still hilarious. Then there is the comedic generational tug-of-war, Huddle continues. The young people want to go one way, and their parents or guardians want them to go another.

And it is still surprisingly fresh. The young girl who wants to marry a poverty-stricken young man because she thinks it's romantic, and a rich young man who pretends to be poor so he can win her and then gets her anyway is still amusing, she says.

Huddle has also known and loved the music of Peter Schikele in his role as the fictional composer "P.D.Q. Bach," for a long time.

"I've always enjoyed Peter immensely. Then I saw him do a benefit concert in Portland for Chamber Music Northwest, all his own satiric pieces, and I was charmed by the concert, and by him. I knew I wanted him to write the music."

*M.S. Mason's e-mail address is masonm@csps.com

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