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O. C. LIVE | KID STUFF

Up With People: Flying the Flag of Brotherhood

February 29, 1996|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Up With People has recently provided fodder for Leno and Letterman jokes, halftime entertainment at Super Bowls and family-oriented music and dance for some 35 million people around the globe. Still, a common reaction to seeing the group's name on a bill at Orange Coast College this weekend might be: "Man, are they still around?"

Yes, they are. But to paraphrase an Oldsmobile commercial, they aren't your father's Up With People anymore.

Born in the idealistic '60s, the international touring group of college-age performers has gone through some significant changes as it has entered its 30s, and, judging from a video of the troupe's current show, audiences may be in for a surprise.

The peppy musical variety show with the Pollyanna outlook that many remember from the '60s and '70s is long gone. In its place, and making its California debut at OCC, is "Festival," a two-hour family production that boosts international brotherhood in a new, fast-paced musical theater format that owes more to "West Side Story" than to "It's a Small World."

The show, performed by 100 college-age students from 20 countries, will be presented Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in OCC's Robert B. Moore Theatre.

Cast members, selected from interviews held after every UWP concert, arrived here Wednesday and are staying with local families. (There are two O.C. students on the road with the company in other casts, and 140 UWP alumni living in the county.) In addition to the concerts, they will perform community service for several area charities, including AIDS Services in Irvine and Project Cuddle in Costa Mesa.

"Festival" was developed by a team of UWP writers and musicians in the group's Broomfield, Colo., headquarters and features dozens of original songs plus tunes by such well-known artists as Marvin Hamlisch and Garth Brooks (along with, of course, the "Up With People!" theme song).

It is set in a fictional marketplace where vendors and visitors from around the globe have gathered to "celebrate the possibility of a better world," said Pat Murphy, UWP's director of show development. It follows a young couple as they try to mend an age-old rift between their respective countrymen.

Although much of the storytelling is done in song, the plot is kept moving by several key characters, including a news vendor and a philosophizing street sweeper who comment on the festival happenings and the state of the world in general. There's also a slightly creepy opportunist named Rick Slick, a character that Murphy says "represents the self-serving side of human nature that is willing to capitalize on . . . hatred, violence and bigotry."

News coverage of world events inspired many elements of "Festival," noted Murphy, who first traveled as a cast member in 1972, then toured for several years with the pop group Arizona--opening for Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac and others--before joining the UWP management staff in 1983.

"There's a really intense song in the show called 'Last Embrace' that is based on an incident a few years ago in Sarajevo in which a couple, a Christian and a Muslim, were trying to get out of the city, and they were gunned down," explained Murphy. The show's central characters were inspired in part by the Sarajevo couple, although the fictional story is resolved in a much more hopeful way.

Musical styles are wide-ranging. "Ordinary Miracles," with Hamlisch's score and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, is a gentle, uplifting ballad. "What's Up With That" and "I Am a Person," set to high-energy modern dance moves, blend techno-pop and rap styles in a way that may appeal to teen and preteen audiences.

There are UWP standbys too. Integrated into the story line are medleys of American pop oldies and international folk songs and dances performed in ethnic dress (Brooks' "Ain't Going Down Til the Sun Comes Up" represents the United States).

The show's finale, "The Day the People Came Together," features the group's trademark upbeat choral sound and hopeful theme. Inspired by a recent magazine photo of an old man casting his ballot at an election in post-apartheid South Africa, the tune is meant to convey "that moment in time when you can break away from the past and chart a new course," Murphy said.

"That's really what we're trying to express with this group now," he added. "The reality is that, sure, there are a lot of problems in the world. But I think today's young people are committed to change. . . . They can start changing the way we think about each other, one person at a time."

* What: Up With People's "Festival" show.

* When: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

* Where: Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: Exit the San Diego (405) Freeway at Fairview; go south. Turn right into the campus parking lot on Arlington Street.

* Wherewithal: $8-$15 advance; $10-$18 at the door.

* Where to call: (714) 432-5880.

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