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The Situation's a Natural : Vista's Outdoor Amphitheater Fills a Musical Need in an Ideal Setting

July 12, 1996|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VISTA — It began by accident, with a stroll in the park.

In 1980, high school drama teacher Kathy Brombacher was hiking through a community greenbelt when she noticed a concrete slab at the foot of a grassy slope. Suddenly, she could visualize performers on that slab, belting out great musical scores. She could see lights and hear the applause from the natural grassy amphitheater.

She turned to her walking companion, who just happened to be the superintendent of schools, Jack Price, and shared her vision, pointing out that there was very little family-oriented, live theater in northern San Diego County. She talked about the educational value of such an enterprise, how important it might be.

But she didn't have to twist his arm to get a $10,000 grant from the Vista Unified School District to fund what would be the Moonlight Amphitheatre's first season in 1981. Price was an avid theatergoer, and he was just as excited by the prospect of having a musical theater close to home.

With the grant, volunteer talent and a lot of borrowed and rented equipment, Brombacher produced an inaugural season that included "Oliver!" and "The Boyfriend" and drew 3,000 patrons.

And so began the story of what is now a thriving stage company, nestled in Brengle Terrace Park, a bucolic setting a few miles east of Interstate 5 on California 78, just 35 minutes south of the Orange County line.

"It's paid off," says Brombacher, 47. Sixteen years after its humble beginnings, Moonlight raises an annual budget of $800,000 and draws an audience that topped 51,000 last season. Its casts have included Orange and San Diego County natives who have gone on to star in Broadway shows and to tour with national companies.

Indeed, some of Moonlight's greatest success stories have involved Brombacher's former students, who got their first professional exposure under the stars here. Brombacher recruited Eric Kunze for a youth production of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" in 1987. He was 16. Three years ago, he landed a leading role in "Les Miserables" on Broadway. Now 25, he is still on Broadway, where he just finished a run as Chris in "Miss Saigon."

"Moonlight paved the way for me and gave me a good foundation by giving me experience and confidence," he said recently, remembering his performances there in "42nd Street," "Into the Woods" and "Brigadoon."

His mother, Karen Kunze, who still lives in Vista, credits the theater with giving him "a good sense of self worth . . . it was just a good, wholesome place to spend the summers."

Adds Brombacher: "The greatest joy of my life is seeing young people raised to standards of excellence. I don't have children, so many of these young people are surrogate children for me."

Today, Moonlight fields a mixture of home-grown and professional performers, having garnered critical acclaim that acts as a lure for outside talent.

John Bisom, who is playing the lead in the current show, "The Will Rogers Follies," also plays the narrator Clopin in the live-action production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at Disneyland. His co-star in Vista, Julie Lamar, toured the United States as a Ziegfeld Girl in Tommy Tune's production of "The Will Rogers Follies."

Ray Limon, the 39-year-old director and choreographer of Moonlight's "Follies," has been traveling "happily" from his Tustin home to work on his 21st Moonlight production.

"It's because of the freedom you get there," he says. "It's been a great springboard. Every year, the caliber of talent is better and better. It seems to keep growing where most theaters seem to be closing left and right.

"It's probably my favorite place to work," he added. "They're making very brave choices."

*

Brombacher's good balance of programs (see box) is one key to Moonlight's success. Another is the company's relationship with Vista. Moonlight raises 89% of its budget at the box office; the city makes up the difference with grants not only of money but of free facilities, utilities, support staff and secretarial help. Corporate and individual donors account for $28,000 annually.

Jim Porter, Vista's director of Parks and Community Services, has been one of the Moonlight's earliest and most enthusiastic supporters.

"The reason that the city and the parks and recreation department support the amphitheater is that the city is interested in family-oriented activities where the costs are low enough where a family can bring kids to the theater," Porter says. "It also was looked at as educational. But our primary purpose in Vista is the family, and we're looking to create a family environment where kids and adults can get together in a nice wholesome setting."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE MOONLIGHT AMPHITHEATRE

The summer season:

* Through July 21: "The Will Rogers Follies, A Life in Revue."

* July 31-Aug. 11: "Peter Pan."

* Aug. 21-Sept. 1: "Oklahoma!"

* Sept. 11-22: "Phantom."

The Moonlight Amphitheatre is in Brengle Terrace Park, Vista. Shows are Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. (gates open at 6:30). Tickets are $9-$24. (619) 724-2110.

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