M emo to Bing Crosby, Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare, c/o Eternity (V.I.P. Section):
I know you probably hang with different crowds up there, but there's something happening in Costa Mesa that should bring the three of you together.
It seems South Coast Repertory's Young Conservatory Players are staging a musical version of "The Emperor's New Clothes" (sound familiar, Hans?). The folks behind it say they got a lot of their inspiration from you, Bill. That's not uncommon, of course, but here's the crazy part: Bing, they say the whole thing is modeled after those wacky "Road" movies that you made with Bob Hope . . . the goofy disguises, the slapstick, the big production numbers, the whole nine yards!
Sure, sure, it sounds nutty, but you know those mortals. They'll do anything for a laugh.
With its promised mix of comic plot twists, snappy music and an easy-to-grasp message, SCR's take on "The Emperor's New Clothes" does owe a debt to Hans, Bill and Bing, says director Diane Doyle, who launches the show this weekend at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall.
"Really, you could call it 'On the Road to Morocco With the Emperor's New Clothes,' " Doyle explained with a laugh during a recent phone interview.
Originally adapted as a non-musical by playwright Greg Atkins from Hans Christian Andersen's tale, "Emperor" premiered under Atkins direction in a 1988 production by Irvine's Theatrefaire for Children, which had commissioned the work. Doyle, who founded and has led SCR's Young Conservatory program since 1978, says she was attracted to the comedy immediately but envisioned something that was more "out of the whole kings and peasants and kids' theater framework."
The idea was put on the back burner for a few years, but was reignited in 1992 when Doyle watched her husband, Richard Doyle, in a scene from SCR's Caribbean-themed production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
"There's Richard up there, following around the bad guy dressed in this great tree costume," recalled Doyle. "I said, 'I need those trees.' "
Described by Doyle as a "cross between a palm tree and a Christmas tree," the costumes started a creative landslide, inspiring the Moroccan setting and serving as the first of the show's many sight gags. When the audience first meets Father and Young Roland, the two rogues who "weave" expensive but invisible clothing at the behest of the vain emperor, they are attempting to sneak out of a neighboring town in the tree costumes. More Bob-and-Bing-inspired tomfoolery follows, including a bearded harem girl, a pair of gold lame boxer shorts and a 10-year-old page who announces the court with everything from a kazoo to a tuba. It culminates with the rogues' attempt to split town by disguising themselves as a camel.
According to Atkins, the original script, which was published by Baker's Playservice and has been widely produced across the country, enlarged upon the fairy tale with several subplots and embellishments of secondary characters. There is a romance, of course, as well as a court full of such colorful characters as the Minister of Fashion, the Overlord of Overdressing and the Poobah of Toiletries, which Doyle has colorized by assigning '40s era star personas ranging from Bette Davis to Peter Lorre.
Four original tunes with lyrics by Atkins and music by Diane King Yann were also added to the show, which features 15 actors (ages 10 to 18) from SCR's Young Conservatory theater program, along with three adult actors from the theater's Acting Conservatory.
A resident of Hawaiian Gardens who has taught in the theater's conservatory program for 13 years, Atkins has written family plays for SCR, Theatrefaire and GroveShakespeare, including "The Everyday Adventures of Harriet Handleman," "Stone Soup," and "William of Stratford," a story inspired by the early life of William Shakespeare.
Although he doesn't compare himself to the bard ("except for the hairline," he quips), he does say he tried to give the "Emperor" script the same universality found in Shakespeare's works, and has enjoyed helping Doyle's interpretation of it evolve.
"When I wrote this, I set it in kind of a nebulous fairy-tale land," explained Atkins. "But a director can take a Shakespearean play and change the whole concept of it and make it work. "That's the great thing about theater; it's so symbiotic."
Hear that, guys?