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A Dickens of a Time in Portsmouth : Musical: Three guys from L.A. have created 'A Carol of Christmas' in a city where hard times are threatening the Yule spirit.

December 24, 1990|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The Air Force base is closing here, and jobs are growing scarce. Property prices have fallen; banks are uneasy. A tank of gas for the car now costs what a good blouse or sweater used to. It's getting very cold, and heating the house, to the horror of people in this seaside community, has become a luxury.

Could this be the time for "A Carol of Christmas"?

"Humbug!" shouted Abner Stone, the updated answer to Dickens' Scrooge. "Utter nonsense!"

Stone, portrayed by an actor named William Morris, enunciated each syllable with fiendish precision. His expression screamed scoundrel. His gestures shouted villain.

Leaning against the piano, lyricist Bruce Belland crowed "Perfect! I love it!" Composer Roy M. Rogosin offered a satisfied grin. Joel Rogosin, who wrote the book for "A Carol of Christmas," nodded approvingly.

It was right, Belland and the Rogosins were saying. With beards and gentle middle-aged paunches that made them look like shopping-mall Santas on their day off, the three displaced Angelenos had captured the bitter crux of Christmas 1990, when hard economic times are threatening generosity of spirit. They had catapulted Dickens into a new century and set their tale to music while they were at it.

"We decided to take the familiar legend and place it in a town like Portsmouth," which has been so negatively affected by the economy, Roy Rogosin said.

"But I understand that it's not just here." Times are tough in so many places, said Rogosin, "and I thought we could create a Christmas show which had the values of the familiar 'Christmas Carol' " in a contemporary setting.

There is a character named Tim, Roy Rogosin explained. "He doesn't have a crutch, but he observes his parents' marriage falling apart." Abner Stone, the factory owner, is threatening to shut down the town's major employer, a marine propeller plant. For 20th-Century authenticity, there is an extraterrestrial named Barnaby.

Roy M. Rogosin, 49, is a veteran musical director. For many years he worked with Johnny Mathis, and for four years he worked in Paris with Michel Legrand. He spent 20 years conducting and writing music for Broadway as well as for movies and television. His wife and business partner, Eileen, is an ex-Mouseketeer.

In 1985, Rogosin went to Portsmouth to direct "The Music Man" at the town's Music Hall. When he went home to L.A., things neither looked nor felt the same. A year later, the Rogosins packed up their two kids, sold the home they had owned for 20 years and resettled in Portsmouth.

"We had friends in L.A. who said, 'New Hampshire, that's near New York, right?' " Rogosin said. "They'd say things like: 'How far are you from the grocery store?' 'Are there schools there?' "

Roy and Eileen Rogosin founded PAPA, the Portsmouth Academy of Performing Arts. When theater space in a 19th-Century brewery became available two years ago, the Rogosins became the proprietors of the Bow Street Theater here. Their performing group is known as the Seacoast Repertory Theater.

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Bruce Belland had been making "obscene" amounts of money producing game shows. He worked for Ralph Edwards, and said he was widely viewed as a successor to Edwards when the older man retired. But Belland, the lead singer for the Four Preps, a middle-of-the-road 1960s pop group, was never quite happy. "I missed the music," he explained.

Now 54, Belland was a star in the choir at Hollywood High. He was also a lyricist, turning out such Four Preps hits as "26 Miles (Across the Sea)," "I Was a Big Man Yesterday" and "Down by the Station." The group disbanded in 1969, and, for a time, Belland became a regular actor on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."

By 1980, Belland was producing five shows for TV. He was also writing lyrics for Willie Nelson and writing songs that became hits in Europe. One Belland composition, "What Would I Do Without My Music?," seemed to have a prophetic title.

That year, Roy Rogosin called Belland with a proposal for a musical. The two had become friends some years earlier when both toured with Johnny Mathis. Now Rogosin was telling about a book he had read, "Minding the Store," about the founding family of the Neiman Marcus stores.

To the consternation of his Hollywood colleagues, "I just walked away from my TV job," Belland said. "I realize it was foolish and unrealistic, but I don't regret it."

While struggling with "Minding the Store," Belland and Rogosin wrote another musical, "Quick Change." It opened and closed on Broadway in four days.

Rogosin and Belland kept their friendship, but went their separate professional ways. In 1988, with encouragement from Dick Clark, the new Four Preps were launched as "Three Golden Groups in One"--two Preps (Belland and Ed Cobb; a Diamond (David Somerville) and a Letterman (Jim Pike).

The group rehearsed for 11 months before setting out on a major concert tour. Belland, for one, was pleased with the product.

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