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Gilbert & Sullivan on the Boards : Light Opera Company Fueled by High Spirits

July 30, 1987|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

The most promising amateurs in Joe Bonanno's Gilbert and Sullivan productions--the ones going places in show business--have had a hard time getting agents to come to El Camino College.

"The agents think all the talent is in Hollywood," says Bonanno, an El Camino professor. "Boy, are they mistaken."

Dedicated to the proposition that the agents are wrong, the South Bay Light Opera Society, an offshoot of El Camino's defunct Gilbert and Sullivan program, has attracted decent crowds in its admittedly brief first seasons.

It performed "The Mikado" last weekend in the campus theater. "The Pirates of Penzance" is scheduled for tonight, Friday and Saturday.

Audience in Hysterics

"It was simply marvelous," said veteran actress Rosemary DeCamp of Torrance, who went to "The Mikado" and plans to see "Pirates."

The season isn't over but already Bonanno, a rumpled man who is president of the light opera organization and its president and impresario, is working out details for the group's first out-of-town engagement, a performance of "The Mikado" in Indianapolis.

It's not that some high-powered Hollywood agent said: "Go to Indianapolis." The possibility of the gig came about because Keith Peters, who played Ko-Ko, has an uncle who lives there.

"The uncle is a Shriner or a Mason, I'm not sure which," Bonanno said somewhat distractedly during a rehearsal the other day. "And he is a fan of 'Mikado' and he would like to see his nephew as Ko-Ko. That is the deal."

Details have not been worked out but Bonanno said the company's travel and lodging may be subsidized.

Madcap Humor

That slightly slapdash air--in keeping with the madcap humor of Gilbert and Sullivan--pervades the entire effort.

Indeed, the South Bay Light Opera Society itself was the creation of Bonanno, who had worked for years in the college's for-credit Gilbert and Sullivan program until it was cut two years ago for budgetary reasons.

The solution to keeping things going was as clever and as complicated as a Rube Goldberg invention.

Bonanno and other supporters quickly organized the society, which, as a nonprofit corporation, can raise funds independently of the college and has helped defray expenses. Meanwhile, he also had a role in setting up a Gilbert and Sullivan Club, which, as a campus organization, is entitled to use the campus theater free.

Frequent Rehearsals

Between the two organizations, Bonanno cheerfully acknowledges, "there is an overlap."

In addition to organizing, of course, there's rehearsing. For months, the cast has to give up two nights a week--and sometimes Saturdays--to practice. Near the final two weeks before a show, the rehearsals are held every night.

A number of cast members are gluttons for this sort of punishment--for example, Bob Guest, 54, a retired parole agent who has been with the college-affiliated Gilbert and Sullivan programs since their inception in 1973.

"I've been in every show we've done," he said. In "Pirates," Guest stars as Major General Stanley, "the very model of a modern Major General."

Guest, who lives in Manhattan Beach, says his roles provide therapy for the cares of the workaday world.

"My music is how I kept my sanity through all those years of working for the Department of Corrections," he said.

Don Norton, who plays the Pirate King, said he was a teacher for 29 years before he retired recently.

"He taught 'em before I got 'em," joked Guest, who was nearby.

Norton, resplendent for a rehearsal with gold lace at his throat and cuffs, said he has been part of the shows since 1975. He added that he rarely sees his former students in the Inglewood district at performances. "Inglewood kids don't usually come to shows like this. They are into rock," he said.

Bonanno touts the shows as good clean fun: They would get a "G" for general audiences, if music shows were rated like movies. "Kids can be taken to it and they love it," he said.

For every regular in the cast and crew, there seems to be a newcomer.

Dragged to Audition

Garry Frank, 30, a recent recruit who is a TRW computer analyst, plays a pirate. "A friend of mine dragged me down to the audition," he said.

Frank watched and he listened and he said to himself, "Gee, I could do that." Now that he is doing that, he says, "this is fun."

Looking around at the company at rehearsal--the women dressed in flowing gowns, the men sporting pirate gear--Frank, packing a flint-lock pistol, remarked with satisfaction: "No, this is not corporate America."

A lot of giggling goes on in the women's dressing room.

While Carin Webb, whose long brown hair was being braided, sat before a lighted mirror with her pet parrot Phoebe on her shoulder, Linda Davis, a real estate loan consultant, walked by, complaining about her dress.

"I can't breathe in this outfit," she said. "I am going to have it fixed. I'm not going on a diet."

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