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'Back Home' and Working on a Dream

June 22, 1986|Zan Thompson

The houselights were up and there was no grand drape. The open stage held six black risers of varying heights and six stools painted black. The cyclorama was purple with the old trademark Hollywood sign leaning against a cutout of a hill, in that same tentative way it has leaned for years.

After a few minutes, when the audience was settled, they took the houselights down and the stage was peopled with six actors, supposedly sitting on top of a billboard. The one who stayed there the longest was supposed to get a screen test.

That is the opening of a musical called "Back Home," playing at a theater called the Cast on El Centro. The theater is one of those venerable buildings, small, crowded with people who have discovered the show. "Back Home" has had reviews which seldom come the way of relative unknowns. Variety, Los Angeles magazine and the Los Angeles Times have applauded the show by Kirby Tepper, who did the music and lyrics, and Robert Schrock, who joined Kirby in putting the book together.

I have known Kirby since he was a boy and he is a fountain of talent. He can dance, sing, act, compose and write lyrics. Even more miraculous, he went to New York cold and supported himself, only flirting with malnutrition until he was cast in the revival of "On Your Toes."

Then he came home a few months ago and wrote the numbers for this show. It's about a bunch of kids who live in Los Angeles, have just moved here or want to.

One of the reviews said that the musical crown and scepter, which has been in wardrobe all these years with the name Billy Barnes on it, could now be dusted off and given to Kirby Tepper.

They were right. Kirby has the same ability to catch whichever mood is current in the Los Angeles entertainment business and put his name on it.

It was in the Billy Barnes production "Lend an Ear" that an unknown blonde with protuberant eyes sang a song called "Gladiolus Girl." It was a Barnes-invented persona that Carol Channing has made a one-part career of.

The Tepper-Schrock show has a number called "The Brat Pack Fight Song" which is an hilarious sendup of the untrained poseurs who have become cult figures almost before they learn to drink out of a cup.

A love song called "Trouble With the Language" has an honest poignancy that catches in your throat.

Kirby Tepper in his one solo number, "Miss Twitter," about a ballerina with the requisite bun in the back, has caught the corps de ballet with a wicked accuracy.

Tepper and a young woman named Earlene Davis, who does a Berlitz of accents, have gone to school together since junior high school, trading dreams and telling each other the treasures that fate had in store for them.

In the days of the Grecian theater, there is no doubt that young players stood behind the pillars of a giant theater, sent out for some lamb, wrinkled olives and retsina between shows and told each other that without a doubt there would be someone from Athens out front who would get them out of that equity-waiver house and into the real theater with real lions. Or was that Rome? Anyway, backstage gossip is immutable, timeless. And the eye that is peering through the pinhole in the side drape as the house fills is still abrim with the same tears and dreams as was the eye of the actor in the Aeschylus Touring Company.

The excitement of good theater never changes. "Back Home" is good theater and there's not a revolving stage in it.

Kirby is living in the classic tradition of the rising musical composer and lyricist. He has a one-room apartment in a Hollywood court of studio apartments. Studio means the windows open inward. He has a tiny backyard and shares the swimming pool. There are hardwood floors and archways in the apartment, and, here it comes, Steven Spielberg used to live there. Is there more?

Catch "Back Home." This looks as if it will be one of those that you tell your children about. Oh, yes, I saw it during the first five years.

There is no reason why it should close as long as dreams come up with every sun and a time step can still fake you through a tryout if the lyrics are as peppery and loving as these are.

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