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Taking Dead Aim at a (Revised) Classic

Cathy Rigby and Tom McCoy have a real feel for the lives of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler.

June 02, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

A famous American sportswoman enters show business in partnership with her husband.

Annie Oakley and Frank Butler? Or Cathy Rigby and Tom McCoy?

Either answer is correct. And the two answers come together this week--Rigby will star in McCoy's production of "Annie Get Your Gun," the fictionalized musical story of Oakley and Butler, as part of the subscription series that Rigby and McCoy run at La Mirada Theatre.

McCoy, 39, and Rigby, 43, acknowledge a surface resemblance between their own story and the real-life story, if not the fictional one, of Butler and Oakley.

"They had something very special, as we do, an instant connection," McCoy said.

Of course, there were differences, too. While Butler began his relationship with Oakley as a sharpshooting rival, McCoy didn't even know Rigby during her days as a famous gymnast, nor was he a gymnast himself.

He was an actor, which is how Rigby met him. In 1981, she made her stage singing debut in an outdoor production of "The Wizard of Oz" in Sacramento, warbling "Over the Rainbow" in front of 3,000 people as dogs snapped at the flies that buzzed around the stage. McCoy was a member of the chorus--in that production and in the company's other summer show, "Paint Your Wagon," in which Rigby played a supporting role.

Rigby, already the mother of two from a previous marriage, and McCoy were married in 1982 and began working together most of the time. First they were performers, even doing a stock production in the Northeast of "They're Playing Our Song," in which the two blond Catholics from Southern California played the New York Jewish leads ("it was the Malibu version," joked McCoy).

In 1987, McCoy abruptly became a very visible producer, staging a giant event at the L.A. Coliseum that featured celebrities and thousands of dancers and doves, all in honor of a papal visit. Then McCoy produced a video with Rigby that was based on her recovery from bulimia.

The team next turned to producing musicals, starting with a national tour of "Peter Pan" that brought Rigby a Tony nomination when it played Broadway in 1990, and co-producing (with Broadway's Dodger Productions) a tour of "Annie Get Your Gun" that toured 46 cities in 1993 (the Heidi Landesman sets from the tour will be used at La Mirada). That tour was such a success that McCoy considered a move to New York to work at Dodger, he said--when, in 1994, La Mirada called.

The professional theater series at the city-owned, 1,264-seat La Mirada Theatre had suffered a severe loss of subscriptions in recent years. After a competitive bidding process, the city selected McCoy/Rigby to take it over.

McCoy called 50 ex-subscribers and learned, he said, that "they were tired of the same old Neil Simonesque comedies." He also concluded that they felt "not a lot of effort went into the design of the shows. The changes needed to be drastic." So he opened his first season with a large-scale drama, the professional West Coast premiere of a new adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Now, after two seasons, subscriptions are up by 1,300, and 82% of the first year's subscribers renewed.

"Mockingbird" and subsequent McCoy/Rigby shows may not sound radical to, say, patrons of Highways or even the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory. But the La Mirada audience is conservative, even if it had grown tired of Neil Simon comedies. The profanity in "Other People's Money," presented by the previous management team, created a minor uproar.

"There is a line I cannot cross in La Mirada," McCoy said. "We're not dealing with hicks, but we are dealing with people who are family-oriented." The extramarital affair in "Same Time, Next Year," presented in the first McCoy/Rigby season, drew critical letters. So McCoy uses pre-show speeches to warn audiences in advance of shows that some may not consider acceptable for children, such as this season's "Family Secrets" and next season's "Accomplice."

McCoy takes pride in scheduling shows that don't rely on TV star casting. "You won't see Gilligan on stage, but that's OK," he said. He believes his audience is being "weaned away" from "seeing Joe Blow from some '70s sitcom."

Rigby said that name stars often eat up production money that could better be spent elsewhere. "Except for me," she added with an grin. "I just sleep with the producer. I don't get anything else."

That isn't technically true, of course. She does get the Actors' Equity minimum of $550 a week for "Annie Get Your Gun." "She normally makes a lot more," McCoy said.

McCoy too is giving up some of his compensation for producing the city-owned series, he said. He and Rigby had been allotted a fee of $100,000 each season, but last year he took only $75,000 and he will this year as well. "It's like putting money back into the business," Rigby said.

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