Dancing Around The World

Playgoers will be surprised to learn that this production of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” starring Joseph Fuqua and Mary Jo Catlett, written by Richard Alfieri and directed by Robert Grande Weiss, currently playing through July 23rd at the Ensemble Theatre, is the first such production of the play west of the Mississippi since it premiered at Westwood’s Geffen Theater in June 2001. They might also be surprised to learn that the show, which ran on Broadway for three months starring Mark Hamill and Polly Bergen, and then in Australia, Japan, Finland, Germany (starring Elke Summers), Israel, and elsewhere around the globe, was nurtured and financed almost completely by Montecito and Santa Barbara investors.

It all began when UCSB adjunct professor at the time, Arthur Allan Seidelman, was hired by Marilyn Gilbert, co-founder of Opera Santa Barbara, to direct Madama Butterfly in 1999.

“He called our office to set up a meeting with Sandy Urquhart and me,” Marilyn explains during a Sunday morning conversation. “We didn’t know what he wanted, frankly,” she recalls, but after learning that Seidelman had won at least two Emmy Awards, had been nominated for three more, and was recipient of two Christopher Awards (also television), and that he wanted to direct an opera, she figured, ‘How bad could it be?’

Seidelman’s only “opera” experience was directing “The Most Happy Fella” for New York City Opera in 1991. “He wanted to do Tosca,” Marilyn says, “but we had just done Tosca,” so they chose Madama Butterfly. Marilyn considers it “one of the most beautiful productions we did.”

Marilyn and her husband, Nathan Rundlett, left the opera company a year later, “under less than happy circumstances. Upon hearing of their departure, Arthur called and promised to look for a project he thought she would enjoy. Not long after, he called to say he had a project they might be interested in. He arranged for a couple of UCSB students to do a cold reading of portions of the play to a small group of investors and his timing couldn’t have been better: “At the time, I was part of a ten-member investment group,” Marilyn laughs. Many of them liked what they saw and became investors. Among those from Montecito were Ethel and Howard Scar, Sissy and Bernie Taran, David and Lisa Wolf, and Dr. Sheldon and Barbara Wolf, from Los Angeles. Santa Barbara investors included Parmele and Frank Williams, Barbara and Eddie Siegel, Beverly and Sandy Brier, Annette Ordas, and Sally Bennett. The show premiered at the Geffen Theatre in Westwood in June 2001 with Uta Hagen and David Hyde Pierce. “It was meant to play for three weeks as a favor to Seidelman,” Marilyn chuckles, “but it was sold out every night and ran for three months. They had to finally close it because they needed the theater for the new season.”

Uta fell off the stage on the second night of previews but finished the run and Marilyn had hoped Uta and David would be the couple to open on Broadway. Uta later suffered a stroke however (and has since passed away), and David Hyde Pierce backed off after Uta became incapacitated. The show opened instead at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, with TV’s “Golden Girl” (Blanche Devereaux) Rue McClanahan and Mark (Luke Skywalker) Hamill. The show ran for a couple of weeks, then opened on Broadway with Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill. It was well received by audiences, but New York Times critic Matthew Murray sniffed at this West Coast intrusion, calling it “garden-variety schmaltz” and it closed after a three-month run.

The play, scheduled to open in London in November, is soon to be a Universal movie starring Shirley MacLaine and Rupert Everett. Rights to the play have been purchased by Samuel French and “a major U.S. tour” is in the works.

After all this early success, the investors, so far, have received only 20% of their money back, but Marilyn expects that royalties should be coming in regularly for years. “I’m quite sure we’ll get all our money back,” she says, adding however, that “even if we don’t, we’ve had a great time flying off to openings around the world, attending cast parties,” and enjoying the reflective first-class theater glow.

There may be a limited number of tickets available for the show, due to end its run at the Ensemble on July 23rd. You should call the box office at 805-962-8606 to find out.

The Connors/Roddick Connection

by Leonard “Buzz” Blair

Somehow, Bob Yamin had reserved the Stadium Court at the Santa Barbara Municipal Tennis Courts on Park Place just off the Old Coast Highway, a long par-five from Montecito. Score: 4 games to 3 in the third set and our opponents – Carol Self and John Ostheimer – were itching to win the set. Our allotted two hours had run out and a group of men appeared, ready to play. What seemed to be pressure from them to conclude bothered Carol, so we played out the game and gave up the court to the new group. I recognized one of the players; it was tennis legend Jimmy Connors and, since we had met before, we exchanged pleasantries. Our group decided to stay and watch Connors hit a few, and I can tell you, he still has the strokes.

There has been recent speculation that Connors has been approached to coach tennis star Andy Roddick. The recently concluded Wimbledon All England Tournament had seen Andy stumble and lose in the round of eight. He seemed in need of a boost, hence the “talk” that Connors might be able to offer the right kind of help. That’s when we noticed that Connors was paired with Wayne Ferrara, a former U.S. top-five player. Their opponent, just one player, was indeed the young Mr. Roddick.

Jimmy and Andy conferred often as they played and seemed to get along well. Connors and Ferrara laid it on heavily – forehands, backhands, net play, and overheads; Roddick answered the onslaught with controlled replies. At one point, Andy tried to return one of Jimmy’s hard-hit balls at net but he miss-hit and the ball bounced about five feet above his head. When the ball came down, Andy headed it back over the net, soccer style. It reminded us of his little-boy charm and the personality that early on endeared him to tennis aficionados.

Remembering Jimmy Connors’ hi-jinx-playing on court during his championship days, and witnessing Andy Roddick’s powering talent suggested to us that they could make an excellent team – as coach and player. What we witnessed on a public tennis court a short distance from Coast Village Road not only seemed a “testing time” for both men to see if their personalities and abilities could match each other’s, but could also have been one of those seminal moments in sports, when a championship combination was formed.