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The New York Times

Wednesday, September 29, 1999

The Arts/Cultural Desk

ARTS IN AMERICA; Do a Quickie Musical? These Stars Say Yes


It plays in a college auditorium, not a barn, and the stars are David and Lea, not Mickey and Judy. But the hottest ticket in Tinseltown these days has all the slapdash bravado of the craziest "Let's put on a show" plot. With 64 hours of rehearsal and pittance for pay, a cast of Broadway and television veterans plus five U.C.L.A. students are romping through a semistaged version of "The Boys From Syracuse," Rodgers and Hart's 1938 musical sendup of mistaken identity in ancient Greece.

"Bravery and insanity," said the director, Arthur Allan Seidelman, summing up the qualities needed for Reprise: Broadway's Best in Concert, a West Coast answer to the New York City Center's Encores series of limited-run concert revivals of vintage musicals. Encores did "The Boys" in 1997.

Now in its third season, Reprise has drawn some of television's most popular stars, including Jason Alexander of "Seinfield" and Kelsey Grammer of "Frasier." Its current production, running through Sunday, stars Mr. Grammer's deadpan co-star, David Hyde Pierce, and Lea DeLaria, the comic singer who made a splash as Hildy the taxi driver in the recent Broadway revival of "On the Town."

For Mr. Pierce, it's his first musical comedy experience since a junior high school production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a stint in "H.M.S. Pinafore" in his first term at Yale. He is beginning his seventh season in his Emmy-award winning role as Dr. Niles Crane on NBC's "Frasier."

"Although that's not a musical," Mr. Pierce said dryly as he stretched on the floor of the Freud Playhouse on the University of California Los Angeles campus in a Reprise rehearsal the other day. "This is more elaborate, more concentrated, more sick."

Ms. DeLaria, who grew up as a showboat performer on the Mississippi River and then became the first openly lesbian comic to appear on national television, took the role of Marryin' Sam in City Center's Encores production of "Li'l Abner."

But "Syracuse," with a score that includes "Falling in Love With Love" and "This Can't Be Love," is "a little different because there you hold your script and it's more a staged reading," she said. "This is really just a less-produced version of a full play."

The series' musical director is Peter Matz, the conductor and arranger who helped shape the sound of singers from Dietrich to Streisand and spent eight years leading Carol Burnett's band on television. The drill is the same for each show: a week of frantic rehearsal, then 14 performances scheduled to accommodate the stars' taping schedules. Virtually every performance has sold out in a city not generally thought of as a theater town.

"Fortunately, there's such a great talent pool here," said Mr. Matz, who earned an engineering degree at U.C.L.A., began his Broadway career 45 years ago as a rehearsal pianist and arranger for Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's musical, "House of Flowers," and has since become a mainstay of the pop music business here. "The biggest change I see is that you used to have a singing group and a dancing group in a show. Now, everybody that sings dances, and vice versa."

Reprise was founded in 1995 by Marcia Seligson, a former magazine journalist and producer of live events for charity who grew up in New York on musicals like the original "Annie Get Your Gun" with Ethel Merman. She says she has stopped saying that Reprise' was not inspired by Encores. No one believes her, but her first inspiration was actually a local troupe, L.A. Theater Works, which records classic plays for radio performance with stars like Richard Dreyfuss and JoBeth Williams. Once Ms. Seligson learned of the program at City Center, however, she consulted Judith Daykin, its president, and wound up modeling Reprise! closely on its East Coast counterpart.

"My appetite for theater has always been more than the availability here," said Ms. Seligson, who moved here more than 25 years ago after coming to write a piece for Life magazine about the filming of "Catch-22." Her first move was to try to line up some stars, and she got the home number of Mr. Alexander, an old Broadway baby, from a friend. He proposed several possibilities, including "Promises, Promises," the seldom-seen 1968 Burt Bacharach-Hal David version of Billy Wilder's film "The Apartment." The musical's best-known number is "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

Through another friend, Ms. Seligson arranged lunch with Mr. Matz to seek his advice about music directors. "He said, "I hope you're going to ask me,' " Ms. Seligson recalled, "and I just burst into tears." It took two years, until the spring of 1997, to incorporate as a nonprofit organization, assemble a board and get things up and running, with Jean Smart, the dizzy blonde of "Designing Women," joining Mr. Alexander in "Promises" to smash reviews for just seven performances that May.

"The whole first season we totally sold out through subscriptions," Ms. Seligson said, though the group ran a deficit on every show and had to make up the difference with fund-raising. Mr. Alexander had so much fun that he suggested repeating the show with the same cast for 14 more performances that fall, earning enough money to stay in business for more productions. These included Stephanie Zimbalist and Lucie Arnaz in "Wonderful Town," and "Finian's Rainbow," with Malcolm Gets of "Caroline in the City" as the Leprechaun.

Last spring the group made enough to keep going for another season with a special run of Mr. Grammer and Christine Baranski in "Sweeney Todd" in the far larger Ahmanson Theater at the Los Angeles Music Center, and followed up at U.C.L.A. in May with "Bells Are Ringing," starring Carolee Carmello, fresh from her glowing reviews in the Broadway flop "Parade."

"Fiorello," not yet cast, opens in November. Mr. Matz and Mr. Seidelman said they hope to do Jerry Herman's "Mack and Mabel" with a new book sometime soon.

Mr. Pierce came to his role as Dromio of Syracuse, one of twin slaves of twin brothers who bumble through George Abbott's adaptation of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors," by way of Mr. Matz's wife, the cabaret singer Marilynn Lovell Matz, with whom he performed at an AIDS benefit several years ago. "They found a song that you could basically Rex Harrison your way through and not have to be a real singer," Mr. Pierce said. "She encouraged me to do one of these shows, and I said, 'Well, yeah, maybe someday.' "

Now Mr. Pierce, who has a sweet, true light baritone, is working with a singing coach and envying Ms. DeLaria's powerful belt as the man-hungry Luce.

"Lea needs no coach," he said as the two took a dinner break of pizza from a box the other night. "She just needs a big sock over her head to bring the volume down so she doesn't blow me off the stage."

Ms. DeLaria jumped in: "After hearing me sing, David's actually invited me over to his house to get rid of his spiders."

"And skunks!" Mr. Pierce interjected. "It's amazing. She does 'Rose's Turn,' and they just leave."

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Posted 10/2/99