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'Much Ado' in Old California

East L.A. theater group weaves racial harmony into Shakespeare.

July 29, 1999|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How will East L.A. Classic Theatre follow its recent swing-era "Romeo and Juliet" and last year's MTV-pop music "Twelfth Night"?

With a mariachi "Much Ado About Nothing."

The company's twist on Shakespeare's romantic comedy, set in 19th century California with Mexican caballeros and Gold Rush pioneers, opens Saturday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre for a three-weekend run before beginning its tour of L.A. Unified middle and high schools in the fall.

Adapted by Classic Theatre artistic director Tony Plana and Bert Rosario, this "Much Ado" has a message of racial and ethnic harmony: Benedick and Claudio are Mexican gentlemen soldiers and Beatrice and Hero are from white settler families. It is especially aimed at teens but appropriate for ages 9 and up, and for adults.

"The play is hugely romantic," Plana said. "People swear they will never love, never marry, and then they fall desperately in love and want to get married. And there's the sword-fighting, etc. I thought, where can I place this play to make it relevant to kids today?"

The 19th century setting was a natural, "since even if you're not Latino, you're surrounded by Latino culture in Los Angeles."

He also incorporated the reason for celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Mexico's 1862 victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla. After the battle, triumphant Benedick and Claudio return to their California town, a congenial mix of Mexican gentry and white settlers, except for troublemaker Don Juan.

The feeling of harmony is established early. The opening music and dance number is executed in each group's own style and then becomes a merging of both.

Plana collaborated with Jose Hernandez and musical group Mariachi del Sol to weave classic mariachi music and bilingual songs throughout the play (Tonyo Melendez did the English lyrics).

"Mariachi music evokes the period," Plana said, "and enhances the romanticism of that time of gentlemen and ladies, and the code of honor that existed. We came up with some beautiful little gems from the mariachi repertoire."

The cast of 21 is made up of adult theater and TV professionals; Mariachi del Sol performs live and also recorded instrumentals and backup vocals, and in a new partnership, Los Angeles City College's theater department provided the costumes and scenic design.

East L.A. Classic Theatre's mission is to "create these artistic bridges between the minority cultures and the literary canon of the dominant culture," Plana said. "Shakespeare [is] universal in how he writes about human nature and the human condition. We want kids to go beyond their borders, look at Shakespeare and say, 'That can be mine, too.' "

* "Much Ado About Nothing," John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, Saturdays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Ends Aug. 15. $10; group discounts. (323) GO-1-FORD; (323) 461-3673.

Youthful 'Music Man': There may be trouble in River City, but it's smooth sailing in the Young Actors Company's production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," which is given all the trimmings at Cal State Northridge's Performing Arts Center.

Most of the cast members are teenagers to young twentysomethings. They don't pay to be part of this 3-year-old, nonprofit theater training program, run by Joshua Meltzer, a veteran television prop master, and his wife, Stacey, a former child actor. Most of the participants have performed only on secondary school or college stages, but that they do have experience and training is evident.

This full-scale musical is presented with respectable song-and-dance talents, including a lively 20-piece professional orchestra led by Broadway veteran conductor Robert Brandzel, a terrific barbershop quartet from the internationally known Masters of Harmony, nifty period costumes and modestly satisfying sets, spot-on choreography by Joy Enright and tight direction by Joshua Meltzer.

You won't mistake it for the big time, but although it stays in the shallows, it's a pleasantly even community theater effort, led by baritone Jeremy DiPaolo's assured presence as traveling salesman Professor Hill, the lovely trained soprano Ari Kia as Marian the Librarian, and polished dancer Christopher K. Leatart as town bad boy Tommy.

* "The Music Man," Cal State Northridge, Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St. (the center is off Zelzah Avenue; park in University Lot C), Northridge, Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. (818) 677-2488. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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