Jeff Calhoun is understandably anxious about "My One and Only," the Tony Award-winning musical that opens this evening at the new Southampton Dinner Theater in San Clemente.
After all, the production represents the 26-year-old Calhoun's directing debut and heralds the opening of Southampton, known formerly as Sebastian's West Dinner Playhouse. Once popular on the dinner theater circuit, Sebastian's was forced five months ago to close its doors following bankruptcy proceedings.
Calhoun, the blond, rangy actor turned director and choreographer, acknowledges that staging "My One and Only" during its Orange County run through Jan. 18 "is a big deal." (The Gershwin musical ran last year at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles).
"Besides what it means to me personally, we have to use this show to turn around the old image (of Sebastian's) and create an atmosphere where people can expect some excellent theater," Calhoun said in an interview. "It's a challenge."
Southampton's owners, Al and Barbara Hampton, hope Calhoun's background will help guarantee the make-over. He's more than familiar with "My One and Only," having been Tommy Tune's understudy in the Billy Buck Chandler role on Broadway for two years and replacing Tune for a few months in 1984.
During Tune's hiatus (when he took the musical "Nine" on the road), Calhoun danced and sang opposite Twiggy, who created the role of ingenue Edythe Herbert, and worked closely with some of the best performers on Broadway at the time, including legendary hoofer Charles (Honi) Coles in the role of Mister Magix.
"That was an education for me, no doubt about it," Calhoun sighed. "Working with Tommy, who has really been my mentor, and being part of something that was so good should really help with what we're doing now."
The trick, he said, is knowing what to use from the original production, what to leave behind and what to add. Some of the staging used on Broadway and in the version at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles last year will find its way into Southampton, including an on-stage pool where Billy Buck and Edythe will do a little romantic splash dance.
But Calhoun concedes that a dinner theater does not have the advantages of a much larger theatrical stage and that he will have to make some adjustments. The New York and Los Angeles productions, for example, featured a full-size representation of Billy Buck's plane. That would be impossible at Southampton because of space limitations and costs, so Calhoun said he will use only a mock-up of the propellered nose to give the needed impression.
"I've never done dinner theater before but hope we can overcome the problems through some imagination," he said. "Hopefully, it will look like Broadway theater with dinner and dessert. . . . I really want to emphasize the excitement of the show; it is, after all, a flag-waving, fun-loving musical."
Calhoun doesn't underestimate the production's importance to Southampton's survival. Its success, or lack of it, will be a significant indication of how well the Hamptons have been able to resurrect the once-popular theater since acquiring it during federal bankruptcy hearings in June. At the time of the sale, the theater had suffered through financial losses stemming from a vanishing audience, and its image was further sullied by a production crew walkout during its last show, "South Pacific."
Southampton has been remodeled, and the Hamptons, who also own the successful Harlequin Dinner Playhouse in Santa Ana, said they will try to woo back the theater's former fans with "My One and Only."
Calhoun, who began performing at 16, has appeared in several Broadway shows, including "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Ann Reinking at Carnegie Hall." He has also appeared in regional and touring productions of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (he had a small part in the film, too), "Anything Goes" and "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Calhoun said he got started with the help of Tune, who has won Tonys for acting, choreography and directing. Calhoun said he met Tune in 1976 when both were involved with the John Kenely Players, a summer stock group in Ohio.
"Tommy wanted me to be his understudy in 'Pippin,' a show he was involved with at the time," Calhoun recalled. "I was the only one who could fit in his costume (Tune is 6-foot-6; Calhoun is 6-foot-3), and that helped some. From that point, he became very supportive and has helped me in my career."
Tune asked Calhoun to become his understudy in "My One and Only,' which ran on Broadway during 1982-84. When he took over the role in 1984, Calhoun found a supportive friend in Twiggy, the former voguish model turned musical star.
"Just before my first night, she took me out for sushi, which I hate, and told me that things would be fine," Calhoun recalled. "There's something very sincere and real about Twiggy, and I believed her. Things went well from then; hey, I got to marry someone as lovely as her every night for several weeks."
Like many New York actors, Calhoun decided to make the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to see if his career could translate to films and television. He has been in Hollywood for 14 months and has had roles in such shows as "The Twilight Zone" and "Crazy Like a Fox." Calhoun has also kept busy in the theater, most recently choreographing the acclaimed "Bouncers" at Tiffany Theatre's South Stage in Hollywood.
Despite his directing forays at Tiffany and Southampton, Calhoun said he does not plan to abandon on-stage performing.
"My agent is sort of worried that I'll get pigeonholed (as a director or choreographer), but I don't really think about that," he said. "There are plenty of things I want to do and one of them is continuing to be a song-and-dance man. That's where it started for me and I find real joy in that."