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At 16, She Acts, but Not Her Age

Profile: A UCLA senior and mad about theater, Amy Rutberg has at least one stellar career ahead.

November 09, 1998|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sixteen-year-old Amy Rutberg has soulful eyes, great pipes, a clever wit and a laugh that bubbles up like chilled Pellegrino.

All good stuff for an aspiring actress. Taken with some decent credits, it could even be enough to get her photo moved from the casting director's file drawer to the desktop.

But the West Covina actress and singer also has some heavy artillery that has powered her so-far remarkable career: mental horsepower and good-natured chutzpah.

Gifted with an intellect a mentor described as "staggering" and aided by supportive family members and educators, Rutberg is now a senior at UCLA (yes, really), the result of an unorthodox course she charted for herself. It has netted her experience far beyond her years, along with the attention of a widening circle of fans and critics.

Currently getting ovations for her performance in the title role of Pacific Coast Civic Light Opera's production of "My Fair Lady," running through Sunday in Huntington Beach, Rutberg, like Eliza Doolittle, is more complex than she appears at first glance.

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She's been passionate about theater practically since birth. At 3, she said, she had to be carried away screaming after a production of "Peter Pan" because she was certain Peter would be back to fly her to Neverland; at 6, she directed her classmates in playground vignettes and broke an ankle while "flying," Pan-like, from a second-story landing.

To feed that passion, she has dedicated herself to a rigorous academic schedule that leaves little time for the typical frills of childhood and adolescence.

For example, Rutberg has never been to a prom. By 14, she had sped through high school in two years via an independent-study program while stacking up general ed, theater and music credits at Citrus College in Glendora.

At 15, when her peers were reading "Huckleberry Finn" in sophomore English, Rutberg had graduated with honors from Citrus and was attending her dad's alma mater, UCLA.

She and her mother endured the two-hour commute for weeks before deciding to move her into the dorms, a decision she said has improved her social life.

Now that she's on campus, she can spend her infrequent downtime socializing with her dorm mates, but she says she finds the whole frat-party scene "not very amusing."

Although she's obviously very bright, Rutberg said her thirst for advanced study in theater and music was the prime motivation for tackling college classes while she was still in junior high.

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Her mentor, Citrus College music department professor Bruce Langford, encouraged her to broaden her horizons and explore such topics as political science and law.

"She has an incredible brain," said Langford, "and she's a person of very eclectic talents. I wanted to point her in a direction that would leave as many doors open to her as possible."

Just shy of her 17th birthday--it's Wednesday--she's acquired an agent in Beverly Hills and more than 30 performance credits, including leading roles in Southland productions of "Into the Woods" and "Romeo and Juliet," and some TV work (USA Network's "Pacific Blue" and Nickelodeon's "Broken Record").

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After she graduates from UCLA, she plans to work in New York for a couple of years before deciding about grad school. Or maybe law school. Or maybe she won't have to choose at all.

"No one says I can't do both," she said.

It probably wouldn't matter if they did. Without appearing cocky in any way, Rutberg exudes enormous confidence, a presence that prompted writer T.H. McCulloh in his review of "My Fair Lady" for The Times to praise her "refreshing command of the stage" and to conclude that "she's someone to watch."

In the show, she's working with co-stars Ian Ogilvy as Higgins and Julian Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle, actors many years her senior with scads of international stage, film and television credits.

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Except for one UCLA Italian class ("definitely tough," she admitted), there doesn't seem to be much that intimidates Rutberg.

When "My Fair Lady" director Gary Davis passed her over for the role of Juliet a couple of years back, she marched into his office and asked why. Apparently Davis thought she was in her 20s and told her he had cast a younger actress as Juliet. She set him straight. Enlightened, Davis later cast her as Eliza.

"This is just an amazing test for me," she said of her current role. "I don't think there's a more complex female role in musical theater than Eliza. . . . There are so many levels [and] you really have to bring a lot of yourself into the part. Gary has really helped me with that.

"It's exhilarating because I'm learning new things every day."

* Pacific Coast Civic Light Opera's production of Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady," Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15744 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach. $22.50-$24.50. Ends Sunday. (714) 895-8150, Ext. 1.

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