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Dancing to Miss Barstow's Misstep

Theater: Students craft a musical based on the beauty queen's loss of her crown.

April 21, 2002|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — First there was "Evita," the hit musical drawn from headlines about Eva Peron of Argentina. Then the Broadway production of "Titanic." And now there's the true-life tale of ... Miss Barstow?

"Hot Off the Press: The Romance of the Kissimmee Queen" is a whimsical production written and staged by San Diego high school theater students who were enchanted by news stories last year about the teenager who lost her beauty queen crown after pulling a prank on a classmate.

"Every year we do this play, and usually it's some crazy story that could never really happen," said 18-year-old Michael Slaughter, still slightly out of breath from rehearsing one of the show's big dance numbers. "But this year, the crazy story really did happen."

Since September, the 75 seniors participating in Point Loma High School's musical have crammed into the school's theater to hammer out a script detailing the rise and fall of Emily Arnold, Miss Barstow 2001.

The story recounts (with a few embellishments, admittedly) Arnold's struggle to win the crown--including juicy details like her last-minute scramble to buy a slightly gaudy gold evening gown at Sears, the only store in town with a generator the night a blackout hit.

And it tells how, after winning the contest, Arnold unknowingly risked it all during a night of senior fun when she used a piece of chalk to scrawl the words "NOT NICE" and "MEAN" on a car outside a rival classmate's house.

Although the chalk was easily wiped off, the classmate's father--a California Highway Patrol sergeant--caught Arnold in the act, called for backup, and had the girl and six of her friends arrested on suspicion of vandalism.

The scandal swept through Barstow, and ended only when Arnold agreed to return her crown.

News accounts of the story caught the eye of Point Loma High theater teacher Larry Zeiger. Even though the story unfolded in early summer, well before the school year began, "I knew already: This, this is the story that would become my 26th play.... It's got everything: small-town Americana, a beauty pageant, wonderful conflict, drama, satire."

When he finally read Arnold's saga to his students, they loved it too.

"My favorite part had to be the words 'Mean' and 'Not Nice,'" said Slaughter, who plays a reporter hot on the trail of the story. "I heard that and thought: Are you kidding me? It's so ridiculous how people could become so upset over those words. That was the hook."

"Everybody in this class has TP'd [toilet-papered] a house and written stuff in chalk as a prank," added 18-year-old Megan Nimura. "And to get arrested for that? It's just hilarious."

The musical has two acts. The first stays pretty close to actual events, though names and places have been tweaked "to keep us from getting sued," Zeiger said.

The story, for example, takes place in Kissimmee, Fla. And the title-holder, named Felicity in the show, is actually not a beauty queen. She's a dancing queen--a change introduced so the production could use a song by that name from the 1970s-era pop band ABBA.

The second act gets a little more creative with the facts, sending Felicity on an adventure out West rather than turning in her crown. Along the way, a magic curse turns her boyfriend into a bat, she joins the circus and ends up winning a trillion-dollar lottery. None of that happened, of course, to the real Miss Barstow.

"Well, I had to do something to fit in the whole cast," said Zeiger, motioning to the 50 or so students milling about during one rehearsal afternoon. Zeiger also had to figure out a way to work in all the songs the students wanted, which, in addition to a couple of ABBA numbers, include "Go West" from the Village People and "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story."

The most difficult task, however, was deciding who would play the queen. Competition was stiff, the students said. Ten girls gave it their best shots, but ultimately the honor went to 17-year-old Shannon Wicks. Even though it's a musical, Wicks says she can't sing a note.

As for the real Emily Arnold--who is, ironically, a theater student herself at a community college in Arizona--she squealed in delight at hearing that her story had inspired a musical.

"Oh, I think it's awesome," she said.

She has just one word of advice to those portraying her life story. "Just please, be nice," she said.

*

"Hot Off the Press: The Romance of the Kissimmee Queen" runs May 17, 18, 23, 24, 25, 30 and 31 at Point Loma High School, 2335 Chatsworth Blvd., San Diego. Tickets cost $10.

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