`Chicago’ will go on in San Jose

American Musical Theatre of San Jose announced Dec. 1 that it was ceasing operations effectively and that its slate of upcoming shows, both self-produced and touring, were canceled.

A call today from the press office of the touring musical Chicago refutes that claim, and a press representative said that the show will go on as planned and that other producing organizations are in discussion to take over production reins for the San Jose dates (Jan. 14-18).

The representative said that tickets ($20-$75) remain on sale at 888-455-7469 and at www.amtsj.org. The AMTSJ Web site remains operational and there is, as of yet, no mention of the company’s woes.

The touring production stars Tom Wopat as lawyer Billy Flynn.

AMTSJ ceases operation

The final curtain has fallen abruptly on the American Musical Theatre of San Jose.

The group sent out a press release today announcing that it will cease operations effective immediately and that their productions of Tarzan and 42nd Street and the presentations of touring shows Chicago and Avenue Q have been canceled.

Here is more information from the press release:

“We received a telephone call a few days ago from our co-producer for Tarzan, which was the Theater of the Stars in Atlanta, Georgia basically telling us that they had used all of the funds that we had paid them towards the production for other things,” said Michael Miller, CEO and executive producer of AMTSJ. “In essence, they cancelled the show without giving us any warning, and we discovered that the funds we had paid for Tarzan were spent on another production of theirs, which lost a significant amount of money,” Miller continued.

Added Robert Nazarenus, AMTSJ’s chief financial officer: “The cancellation of Tarzan meant nearly a $2 million dollar loss to us. The disappearance of the six figures that we paid to Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars in good faith coupled with the huge loss of revenues we anticipated from Tarzan was just too much to overcome, particularly in these economic times.” Nazarenus went on to say “Despite the harsh economic times, we were operating prudently, and had a solid strategic plan in place. We have always found a way to succeed, with quality productions, patron loyalty, and community support. This season was no different. But, when you in essence lose nearly two million dollars, it is impossible to recover. What makes this even more frustrating is the fact that this is caused by the wanton actions of another theater company.”

AMTSJ’s local attorneys, coupled with strong legal representation hired in Atlanta, are pursuing aggressive action against Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars. Miller and Nazarenus indicate that they will pursue AMTSJ’s claim to its successful conclusion. “We are devastated for this community, our staff, and most of all for our loyal patrons,” Miller said. “It is especially frustrating because of how hard we have worked, how sound our plan going forward has been, and because of the history and heritage of the American Musical Theatre of San Jose. This is a sad moment for all of us. We will aggressively pursue our claim against the Theater of the Stars to recover whatever money we can to pay the City of San Jose, our vendors and our loyal patrons for their good faith investment in AMTSJ.”

New musicals are hot, hot, hot

Audiences around the country are clamoring for …wait for it…wait for it…musicals.

Sue Frost, a founding partner of Junkyard Dog Productions, a group dedicated to the development and production of new musicals, says that last year, she was part of a new musicals panel at a Theatre Communications Group conference and it was overflowing with 800 attendees.

“That represents a sea change in interest in new musicals,” Frost says. “A few years ago, we’d have been lucky to get eight people at that panel discussion.”

Frost comes by her interest in new musicals from years of work with new musicals. She is a past president of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, a 23-year-old service organization dedicated exclusively to musical theater. The group’s 150-some members are from 31 states and eight countries and represent major regional theaters such as the Bay Area’s TheatreWorks and American Musical Theatre of San Jose, as well as theaters, presenting organizations, universities and individual producers.

Frost, who has two new musicals on their way to Broadway – Vanities, a New Musical, which had its world premiere at TheatreWorks in 2006, and Memphis, which played TheatreWorks in 2003 – says that because new musicals are so complicated, especially when compared to a play, the path to production is much more complicated.

That’s where a group such as NAMT comes in.

“Creating musicals is expensive, and with so many collaborators they require more resources,” she says. “One thing that NAMT has honed in on in the past several years is how members can work together. You can take a show that has perhaps been given a small showcase and had early development but for whatever reason has languished for lack of someone to take it to the next level. Within the organization we can find folks with similar goals or aesthetics who might help take the show to the next level. What would take the writers many years, you can condense into a reasonable timeline by working effectively, collaboratively.”

Kathy Evans, executive director of NAMT, has been with the group since 2002, and in addition to organizing two conferences a year, she also helms the Festival of New Musicals, which is happening this week (Oct. 20 and 21) in New York. During the festival, eight new musicals are given 45-minute staged readings featuring often stellar casts, and the performances are attended by 500 or so invited producers, investors and agents from around the world. Each show is performed twice, and show creators likely have their fingers crossed for the entire two days.

Back when NAMT was started, musicals were perceived as being solely the province of commercial theater and did not get much love from funders. Producers and creators of musical theaters decided to take matters into their own hands.
“So about 12 regional theaters pooled their resources to develop new musicals that would then, with luck, be seen beyond the membership,” Evans explains. “The genesis of the festival, which started in 1989, was to allow members to look at each others’ work.”

Among this year’s festival offerings are big-ticket shows such as Pamela’s First Musical, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Wendy Wasserstein, lyrics by David Zippel and a score by Cy Coleman.

The show, based on a children’s book by Wasserstein, was originally announced as part of a recent TheatreWorks season, but the one-two loss of both Wasserstein and Coleman was a powerful setback. But Zippel is carrying on, and we will likely be hearing about Pamlea at regional theaters in the near future.

This year’s festival also includes The Cuban and the Redhead, Robert Bartley and Danny Whitman’s musical inspired by the rocky marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and See Rock City & Other Destinations, a musical about tourist spots and losing one’s self to find one’s self, by Adam Mathias and Brad Alexander, winners of this year’s Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre.

Hopes are, of course, high that this year’s crop of musicals will find receptive theaters and audiences around the country. Past success stories from the festival include Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone and Songs for a New World.

Broadway is always a lofty goal, but it’s not necessarily the benchmark of a musical’s success anymore.

“One thing I’ve learned as we’ve seen the membership of NAMT grow is that there’s a huge audience for musical theater, and it’s not all within these 20 Broadway blocks,” Frost says. “Shows that have never come to New York have done remarkably well.”

One such example is Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden, which NAMT members were crazy about. The show was done in London but has yet to make it to Broadway. Still, the show has managed hundreds of productions.

And sometimes the musicals do make the leap to Broadway. Vanities, another hit at the NAMT festival two years ago, is set to begin performances in New York next February after an out-of-town tryout at the Pasadena Playhouse that closed last month.

Frost, along with partners Randy Adams (who spent 21 years TheatreWorks’ managing director) and Kenny Alhadeff, says the out-of-town run was hugely helpful and that the creative team – book writer Jack Heifner (author of the original play), composer David Kirshenbaum, director Judith Ivey and choreographer Dan Knechtges – is now at work exploring a more emotionally cathartic ending as well as a more focused opening.

“We really listened to the audience,” Frost says. “We tried doing it in two acts, but after three previews we were back to being one act. We learned that the pastiche sound – the show begins in 1963 and ends in the late ’80s – should be used sparingly, so David’s score is evocative without being derivative. Discovering what lands, what doesn’t – it’s why you go out of town to develop a new musical.”

Visit www.namt.org for information on the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. Visit www.vanitiesthemusical.com for information on “Vanities, a New Musical.”

First a tea cup, then stardom

Remember the name James Zongus. You just might be able to say you knew him when.

Though only 12 years old, James, a Foster City resident, has been performing for nearly a decade, and his story is strikingly familiar if you know the song “I Can Do That” from A Chorus Line.

Like the kid in the song, James would follow his two older sisters to dance class, and at age 3, he all but demanded to share the stage with his sisters in The Nutcracker.

“I was at a rehearsal and said, `I want to be in the show!’ So they cast me in a little part,” James recalls. “I got to walk across the stage and do a little bit of dancing. After that I just kept on going.”

James played Oliver in Oliver! with the Bay Area Educational Theatre Company in San Mateo, and last year he was one of the king’s children in the The King and I at American Musical Theatre of San Jose.

When Bowditch Middle School, where James will be in the eighth grade come September, joined with two other schools to produce Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, James played the role of Chip, the tea cup son of Mrs. Potts, the tea pot.

Like Olivier returning to the role of Hamlet, James will once again essay Chip, only this time for Broadway by the Bay.

For his audition, he found a song he thought would be good for Beauty and the Beast, what with its singing and dancing flatware and furniture.

“I sang `Hey, Look Me Over’ because the song has the words `rose’ and `spoon’ and `fork’ in it,” James explains. “It went really well. They laughed.”

In this production, which opens Saturday at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, James, like all the Chips before him, appears to be a tea cup-encased head on a rolling cart. There’s a bit of stage magic involved in Chip’s appearance, but James won’t give away the secret.

When asked if it’s a comfortable way to perform, he will say this: “It’s not comfortable. No way.”

But he’s enjoying working on the show and with Tracy Chiappone, who plays his mother.

“She’s very nice and easy to work with and gives me good advice,” James says.

James’ real mom, Joanne Zongus, says having a performer in the family requires the support of the entire family for both logistical and emotional reasons.

“We told him we’d make the commitment if he was willing to make the commitment and keep his grades up between a 3.5 and 3.8 and keep himself healthy and keep his commitment to his family,” Joanne says. “He’s done really well. I don’t know where he gets it. Neither his father nor I can be in front of a group of people. We’re very proud of him.”

So far, acting is just James’ hobby. Part of his agreement with his parents is that he make sure he’s a well-rounded person.

“In school, James does sports like basketball and golf,” Joanne says. “He serves on the altar for church. It’s a mind-body-soul kind of thing. We feel it’s important that all parts of you are well-rounded.”

James says theater isn’t all that cool in middle school, but in high school, especially if he gets his wish and ends up, like his twin older sisters, at theater-friendly San Mateo High School, the cool factor may improve.

“I feel like in high school, theater will be just something I like to do and no one will judge me for it,” James says.

From there, James has an interesting plan.

“I know it’s really hard to get to Broadway,” he says. “So I’ll get a good college education and then a really steady job — I like construction and architecture; I love to build stuff — then I’ll retire early and do shows at least twice a year.”

James’ practical attitude toward show business was shaped, in part, by his experience doing The King and I at AMTSJ.

Says James’ mom: “Doing that show, I think it dawned on him what it meant to perform professionally. There were a lot of New York actors there who had left their families behind, and … it can be kind of hard.”

James says the hardest part of that show was balancing rehearsal, performance, school work and the commute from Foster City to San Jose.

“I barely made it through,” James says. “But when I’d get to the theater, it was so much fun, and the sets were so intricate and everything that I forgot about everything else and had a wonderful experience.”

Broadway by the Bay’s Beauty and the Beast continues through July 29 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. July 21 and 28. Tickets are $17 to $42. Call (650) 579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Mandragona shakes it up

They’ve shaken up All Shook Up, the new juke-box musical that spins a new story out of old Elvis Presley songs.

The show began performances on Broadway in March 2005 and closed seven months later. Producers were hoping for another Mamma Mia! and ended up with something closer to Good Vibrations, the dismal musical that attempted to recycle Beach Boys songs.

When director Christopher Ashley began preparing the national tour, he decided make some changes. He and book writer Joe DiPietro tweaked the story a little and moved some songs around.

The tour opened last September in Milwaukee and makes its Bay Area debut June 19 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of the American Musical Theatre of San Jose season.

The leading man, who plays a motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing drifter named Chad (hey, nice name), is Berkeley native Joe Mandragona, a familiar face to Bay Area theatergoers.

Perhaps you saw Mandragona in the altogether in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s zany Fetes de la Nuit. You could have glimpsed him during the summer of 2003 when he was a hard-working intern with the California Shakespeare Theater. Or maybe you saw him at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where he played a tap-dancing Roman maniac named Brittanicus in Nero (Another Golden Rome), a punk with a bad attitude in The Opposite of Sex and a fierce drag queen named Felony Joyride in 13 Hallucinations of Julio Rivera.

Reached by phone in Hawaii, where he’s vacationing and about to take a surfing lesson, Mandragona says his involvement in the musical The Opposite of Sex led to his being cast in a reading of a new musical based on John Waters’ movie Cry Baby. And that led to snagging the lead in a major national tour.

As the central, Elvis-like character (the show is more like an Elvis movie than it is a musical biography), Mandragona is basically carrying the production.

“It’s a load, but by the end of the show, it’s one of the best feelings you could ever have,” he says. “But before the show, it’s like, `Oh, my God. Do I have to do this again? Really, once the show starts and you’re in it, it’s a blast. Most of that has to do with the style, the music, the writing — everything in the pieces. It’s such a fun show.”

That Mandragona is starring in a splashy musical might come as a surprise to those who knew him at St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley, where he played football and baseball, or at UC Berkeley, where he was on the boxing team.

Various injuries, including some serious ankle damage, hardly slowed him down, but he kept leaning more and more toward the performing he’d been doing since summer music camps as a kid.

“Sports skills come in handy in the theater,” Mandragona says. “You keep in shape and stay in touch with your body, which is really important.”

The world of Elvis was far more foreign to Mandragona than the world of musicals. He remembers playing “Jailhouse Rock” on the jukebox at Mel’s Diner on Shattuck Avenue, but that’s about as far as his Elvis experience went.

“After researching Elvis for this role, I have a new appreciation,” Mandragona says.

The only “name” co-star in the show is Susan Anton, a statuesque blonde, whom Mandragona describes as “a total blast.”

“She’s a really nice, good person,” he says. “She mooned me the other day. It was backstage as I was leaving the stage. Just hiked up her skirt. Wow.”

Ask Mandragona where home is and he says: “Don’t really have one.”

His room at his parents’ house in Kensington has become an office.

“I was kind of in the process of thinking about moving to New York when I booked All Shook Up, so I’m sort of in limbo. The logical next step is to make the move to New York and strike while the iron’s hot. Even if I don’t find work, New York is a fun place to live. I’ve made lots of friends and have places to stay.”

Being a lead in a musical is exhausting, as Mandragona knows. After doing eight shows a week in different cities for the last eight months, he says he’s thinking about what kind of actor he wants to be.

“I think I’d like to throw a movie or a TV gig in there,” he says. “I’d especially like to do a straight play.”

Then, like Elvis in Blue Hawaii, Mandragona is off to hit the waves. Surf’s up, and it’s time to rock ‘n’ roll.

All Shook Up opens June 19 and continues through June 24 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $13.75 to $73. Call (408) 453-7108 or visit www.amtsj.org.


A member of a once-popular boy band is taking a break from his group to perform in some musical theater.

No, Justin Timberlake is not starring in Broadway by the Bay’s Show Boat. Nor is Jordan Knight aiming for respectability in TheatreWorks’ Merrily We Roll Along.

This boy-band member may not be a household name, but you’ve definitely heard him sing. Everyone on the planet has heard All-4-One’s Grammy-winning “I Swear,” the 1994 No. 1 hit and perennial wedding favorite.

Delious Kennedy (above), one of the four in All-4-One, credits a San Jose radio station with putting his band on the musical map 13 years ago. That’s one of the reasons he says he’s so happy to be back in the South Bay for American Musical Theatre of San Jose’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

The lively revue of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songs — they wrote “Hound Dog” for Elvis and a gazillion other hits you know — opens April 10 and marks a return to the musical theater stage for Kennedy, who began his performing career in Broadway-style revues at New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure.

“We did those shows seven times a day, five days a week,” he says. “I was really skinny. It was fun. I love performing, so it was great to have that job in high school while other guys my age were cutting lawns.”

In college, he did some musical theater _ The Wiz, Godspell _ and then went to a karaoke contest, where he met two guys who would later be his bandmates. All three of them lost the contest, but they stayed in touch and eventually formed All-4-One.

The group’s first hit, “So Much in Love,” hit the airwaves in 1993, and though the boy-band craze has cooled considerably, the band is still together. In fact, they group is preparing to release a new studio album, “7,” in July.

Between band duties, Kennedy has managed to appear in some movies, most notably Barbershop, and on TV in “General Hospital.”

“How can I say this and be politically correct? I don’t love the music industry,” Kennedy says. “It’s not necessarily about the songs and performers. People are here one minute and gone the next. There are no legendary performers or songs. It’s about the hit of the moment and moving on, not about developing artists.”

So, in addition to the film work, Kennedy is returning to one of his first loves: musical theater.
“My goal is to end up on Broadway in The Color Purple or something,” he says. “I wanted to get used to the Broadway way of life, so I thought Smokey Joe might be a good place to start.”

In the show, Kennedy gets to sing “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Treat Me Like a Fool” and “Youngblood.”

“I’m worried about performing eight shows a week,” he says. “I’ve got a humidifier in my room.”

After Smokey Joe’s and after the new album is released, Kennedy has his eye on New York.

“My dream shows to be in would be Rent or The Color Purple, you know, anything that’s not straight-up Broadway,” he says. “I want something with good, decent songs with a little soul to them.”

Smokey Joe’s Cafe opens April 11 and continues through April 22 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $13.75 to $73. Call (888) 455-7469 or visit www.amtsj.org.

Heading to `Camelot’

In this week’s Jones for Theater column, I talked with Michael Lerner, (left, with fellow film director Ludi Boeken) son of famed lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Gigi). Though he has spent his career as a journalist and a filmmaker, Michael finally got involved in the family business when he helped revise the book for a touring production of Camelot that pulls into the American Musical Theatre of San Jose season Tuesday (Jan. 30).

Here’s some more of what Michael had to say about musical theater.

I think my father’s a genius. I do like musical theater, I mean, my generation [Michael is 47] is not my dad’s generation. The things that first intrigued me were Sondheim, my dad’s work and, obviously, the classics like West Side Story and the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. I grew up in it and love it all. I think I developed a discerning eye in kowing what I like.

As for modern musical theater, Michael says he is intrigued by the possibilities for musicals in this day and age.

I remember seeing Rent prior to its move to Broadway and knew right away I was seeing something historic. Whether you liked it or not, it was clear it was going to be a phenomenon — it was so impassioned, so appropriate to the moment. But we’re kind of in a dormant phase with musicals right now. The newer stuff on Broadway isn’t working on national tours. People are nostalgic, which isn’t to say you can’t create classics today — it’s just a lot more difficult given the financial necessities and pressures. Investors want instant returns.

Working — quite literally — in his father’s footsteps in re-working the troublesome script for Camelot (below right, with James Barbour and Rachel York), Michael says he was able to revisit his father, though he adds he’s not really looking for work in musical theater. He is intrigued, however, with the notion of creating an original movie musical.

Hollywood is a fickle, fickle lady. If you hit at the right time, and the last two musicals have worked, you might have a chance. Newsies closed the door on movie musicals for years. Then Chicago hit, but then Rent was so awful. Now Bill Condon (director of Dreamgirls, adaptor of Chicago) has come back to us with some pretty amazing work. I’d love to make a movie musical, but getting one of those off the ground…that’s a big bite.

For more information on AMTSJ’s Camelot, visit their Web site.