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UCI Benefit Organizer Finds Payback Is Swell


How're ya gonna bring 'em back to the farm, after they've done Broadway?

Robert E. Cohen has found an answer to that venerable show-biz question, booking a return engagement by three Broadway notables whose talents were hatched, or at least incubated, at UC Irvine.

The occasion is the university's annual awards dinner bestowing its highest honor, the UCI Medal. In recent years, Cohen, the professor who founded UCI's drama department in 1965 and is himself a 1993 medal recipient, has organized a brief show to regale guests who pay as much as $25,000 a table at the fund-raiser, which will net more than $350,000 for university scholarships.

For two previous dinners, last year and in 1996, Cohen produced and directed musical numbers featuring student performers. For this one, Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Irvine, he turned to some of his department's alumni elite: Bob Gunton, who studied at UCI during the late 1960s and has a long dossier of Broadway, film and television credits; Kim Huber, who went directly from UCI to Broadway in 1997 to take over the role of Belle in "Beauty and the Beast"; and Eric Kunze, who was still a UCI junior when he debuted on Broadway eight years ago in "Les Miserables."

"It's neat," Cohen said. "It's the 35th anniversary of UCI, and it's the millennium. So to get tremendous solo voices I decided to see if we could pull in some of our alumni who starred on Broadway."

Agendas intersected as Kunze, who is often on the road--most recently starring in a touring production of "Tommy"--happened to be in Southern California; Gunton, based in Los Angeles, was free; and Huber, who lives in New York City and is pregnant, is back in Orange County to be with her family for the birth.

Each will sing one number after students open the evening's show with a big production number from "Company."

Gunton--who has played Richard M. Nixon in a Showtime film, harsh authority figures in "Patch Adams" and "The Shawshank Redemption," and a transsexual boxer-turned-hooker in the musical "Roza"--made a big mark on Broadway with Tony nominations as Juan Peron in "Evita" and the title role in a revival of "Sweeney Todd." He will sing his "Sweeney" signature, "My Friends."

Huber, whose Broadway credits also include important roles in "Sunset Boulevard" (opposite Glenn Close) and "Marie Christine," will revert to her Belle persona, singing "Home" from "Beauty and the Beast." Kunze, who played Joe Hardy to Jerry Lewis' devil in a revival of "Damn Yankees," will sing "Why, God, Why," from "Miss Saigon," in which he appeared as Chris, a Marine who is the male romantic lead.

As director, Cohen says there is no need with this bunch to resume the instruction they received at UCI their first time around.

"They've all done their numbers on Broadway, in two cases (Huber's and Kunze's) over a thousand times. It's not like we're going to coach them."

In the audience will be the five medal recipients: William J. Lillyman, executive vice chancellor of UCI; Donald McKayle, noted choreographer and UCI dance professor; UCI neurobiology professor Ricardo Miledi; and Broadcom Corp. technology mogul and philanthropist Henry Samueli and his wife, Susan.

Shakespeare Aplenty

The spotlight also swings to UCI's drama department this weekend for Orange County's first Shakespeare play of the millennium, "Measure for Measure," tonight at 8 and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Claire Trevor Bren Theatre Stage. $6 to $8. (949) 824-2787.

For those seeking a Cliff's Notes version of the Shakespearean canon, there's "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits," an hourlong rendition of famous sonnets, soliloquies and scenes mounted by the Touring Company of Orange Coast College's theater department. The show plays in the Drama Lab Studio on the Costa Mesa campus, today at 10 a.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. $5 to $6. (714) 432-5640, Ext. 1.

The Bard's fans get 11 full-length productions to choose from locally this year--but only seven plays. Different companies are doubling up on "The Comedy of Errors," "The Taming of the Shrew" and "The Tempest."

The roster is skewed significantly toward comedies--seven productions, five plays--with "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" the only tragedies on the boards. "The Tempest" is the lone romance.

The Shakespearean lineup:

* "Measure for Measure," through Saturday at UC Irvine.

* "Macbeth," April 8, staged by the Acting Company at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. (562) 916-8500.

* "The Comedy of Errors," April 21 to 30 at Cal State Fullerton. (714) 278-3371.

* "The Comedy of Errors," June 9 to July 2, at the Huntington Beach Playhouse (in the Central Library). (714) 375-0696.

* "The Taming of the Shrew," June 29-July 15, presented by Shakespeare Orange County at Chapman University in Orange. (714) 744-7016.

* "The Tempest," July 7 to 30, presented by South Orange County Community Theater in Town Center Park, San Juan Capistrano. (949) 489-0808.

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