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Songs for a Troubadour

Ojai man involved in creation of play about Harry Chapin directs it on Ventura stage.

August 10, 2000|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the hit revue "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" concluded each evening, the Village Gate--the New York club in which the show was performed--reverted to a showcase for live performers. Members of the "Brel" cast, including George Ball and Amanda McBroom, often stayed to see the young performers, one of whom brought along his brother as an opening act. The brother, a songwriter who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, was Harry Chapin.

Ball and McBroom, now Ojai residents, were immediately impressed. Both the Belgian-born Brel and New York City native Chapin were earnest, ambitious songwriters.

"I believe that Harry in his way was a simplified Brel," Ball said the other day. "Brel sang of humanity overall, and Chapin was humanity, person by person. His songs are sort of blue-collar--about the common man."

Nearly 30 years later, Ball is directing "Lies and Legends: the Musical Stories of Harry Chapin," at the Laurel Theatre in Ventura. Shortly after Chapin's death in an automobile accident on Aug. 16, 1981, Ball and McBroom helped create and co-starred in the original production, which debuted in Chicago. There had been two earlier Chapin shows: a Broadway revue called "The Night That Made America Famous," in which the songwriter appeared; and a scaled-down Los Angeles production, "Chapin," in which the composer of "Cat's in the Cradle," "WOLD" and "Taxi" had artistic input.

"Our lives had crossed several times," recalled Ball, "but really got together again when I was co-starring in 'Chapin.' I think my history with him was one reason I wanted to do the new show; the other part was the opportunity to put my understanding of who and what Harry was onstage--what I could bring to the table and see realized."

The show itself is currently available for groups everywhere to perform. But, Ball says, the original Chicago musical score ("we spent $60,000 on musical arrangements") is long lost, and the current production's musical director, Gary Poirot, had to recreate them from a copy of the conductor's score. Prominent in the accompaniment, as it was in Chapin's concerts, is a cello, here played for most performances by the virtuoso Pamela de Almeida.

"I insisted," Ball said, "that you do not do Chapin without a cello. It's the other voice."

DETAILS

"Lies and Legends: the Musical Stories of Harry Chapin" continues through Aug. 27 at the Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St. in Ventura. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 weeknights and matinees; and $32.50 Friday and Saturday evenings, with a senior discount of $5 per ticket for all performances. Ask for group discounts. For reservations or further information, call 667-2900 between noon and 5 p.m. weekdays.

*

Such a relief it is, after a summer full of novelty productions, to see a Shakespeare play set as the author intended: not in Ireland, not in the Old West, not in Malibu, but--in this case--in pre-Christian Rome.

Paul Backer, artistic director of the Ojai Shakespeare Festival, has raided the costume shops for togas and sandals for the production of "Julius Caesar," which ends this weekend. And it's possibly the most accessible Shakespeare production of the summer. Part of this is because, as Shakespeare plays go, "Caesar" is rather straightforward, with a minimum of confusing subplots: Caesar, a triumphant general, is seen by some highly placed Romans as a threat to the republic.

Assassination seeming the easiest solution, the conspirators, headed by Cassius, a senator, enlist Caesar's friend, Brutus, convincing him that their case is honorable. When headstrong Caesar refuses to heed warnings, it becomes relatively easy.

The principal (and many of the subordinate) roles are strongly cast, with John Slade snaky as Cassius, Ron Rezac as the morally troubled Brutus, Ryan Lee as Marc Anthony and Patrick Sullivan as Caesar. Laurie Walters and Katherine Szyperski play the wives of Brutus and Caesar, respectively.

There are some well-staged crowd scenes, including the opening transition from a performance of Elizabethan songs to the play itself; Jeff G. Rack's stage set is typically impressive; and the musical accents, played by a couple of percussionists, are so impressive that one wonders why the musicians aren't named prominently in the program.

DETAILS

"Julius Caesar" continues today through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Libbey Bowl on Ojai Avenue in Ojai. Saturday tickets are $18 general, $15 students and seniors. All other nights, tickets are $15 general, $12 seniors and students. Children under 12 are admitted free to all performances, although you should consider carefully before bringing them. The Ojai Shakespeare Festival will also present what is promoted as a fast-paced, modern-era restaging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by members of the Ojai Shakespeare Internship Program on the Libbey Park lawn Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $8; children under 5 free. For more information, call 646-9455 or visit the festival's Web site at http://www.ojaishakespeare.org.

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Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net.

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