Way Off Broadway

This appeared in U-Redlands Daily Facts - April 29, 2004

In a rented rehearsal space somewhere on the outskirts of beautiful downtown Burbank, a group of actors learns the first chorus in the first song of a brand new musical comedy. Suddenly, a voice cries out with excitement.

"I'm ready to open," exclaims Jim J. Bullock. Immediately, the sitcom ("Too Close for Comfort") and film ("Kissing Jessica Stein,") actor and one-time talk show host and Hollywood Squares fixture has set himself up as cast clown while breaking the initial ice of general apprehension.

Bullock is among a theatrical blending of seasoned professionals, "name" stars, and actors whose names are known chiefly to regular visitors at the Grove Theatre in downtown Upland. They have been brought together to present the world premiere staging of the country-western-flavored musical "Moon Shine," making its debut Saturday night on the Grove stage.

The evolution to this moment began in 1996 when a friend of playwright Mary Willard whispered to her, to save risk of embarrassment, that his favorite kind of music was country western. This private revelation proved to be Mary's inspiration.

According to Willard, "I thought, I've got to write a play about the difference between the way people perceive other people."

Willard later decided her story could make it as a musical. She called a manager friend of hers seeking a suggestion of some up-and-coming country style singer/writer to collaborate with her. "The agent called back a few days later and said, "Marty Stuart wants to know why you don't want to use him," Willard recalled.

Sure enough, Stuart, the Grammy-Award winning country artist ("Tempted" and other hits) then joined the team by composing the entire song score of alternating Broadway-style melodies and genuine country foot-stompers.

For the first audience reading in 1997, Willard called on her friend Ted Lange, who once mixed and blended his way into the hearts of TV audiences as Isaac, your bartender, on "The Love Boat," to direct. For one name actor to appear at the reading, Mary only had to look to her husband of 36 years, Fred Willard. The award-winning comic actor of "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind" and the upcoming "Anchorman," with Will Ferrell, agreed to play Kenny. His is the role of a Beverly Hills tenderfoot mingling with three down-home Texas cowboy entrepreneurs who venture to Los Angeles to find the eldest one a wife before his upcoming birthday.

There would be one more staging last year for an ASCAP workshop before Mary, Marty, Ted and Fred decided to put the show literally on its feet. Mary didn't want to head straight for Los Angeles, and soon the Grove and producer Sherry Kinison entered the scene.

The initial rehearsal atmosphere seemed not unlike a pro-am sports event with professionals working alongside willing and talented amateurs. Here a local actor would face the adventure of having Fred Willard throw him a cue and stare right through his eyes awaiting the response. Fighting the urge to drop to his knees and chant, "I'm not worthy," the actor shoots his line back to Willard. A heavy sigh of relief follows. The forced wave of intimidation has ebbed.

The contrasts prove sharp between comic veterans Bullock and Willard. Bullock is ever on his toes with a brash quip, a droll comment, or a question to challenge director Lange. Willard, meanwhile, sits quietly, waiting patiently for his time on stage. When they're both on stage, however, they charge head on into the serious business of being funny.

Assorted senses of pressure and starstruck awe become felt all around. Along with Lange, Willard, and Bullock, there is Tom Schmid in the romantic lead of Griffin Evergood. This actor appeared on Broadway opposite Bernadette Peters and Reba McIntire in "Annie Get Your Gun." Playing Griffin's brother, Moth, is Joel McCrary, seen as the Prime Minister who dances with Queen Julie Andrews in "The Princess Diaries" (he's in the upcoming sequel, too). Bullock steps in as the "different" third brother.

A veteran actress of many a sitcom episode, Judy Nazemetz appears in the play as the domineering mother of the trio with voiceover artist/impressionist Richard Horvitz as a multilingual waiter. Even one of the understudies, Jean Carol, is a veteran of seven years with the soap "The Guiding Light."

L.A. actress Erin Johnson appears as the possible love interest for Griffin. From the Grove, along with this writer as the boys' Uncle Pye, are Vil Towers as the L.A. bad guy, Ginger Kinison as Moth's love interest, and Jason Prince, Ruben Bravo, Julie Redmond, Courtney Brice, Jessica Groper and Mark Porter as dancers. Robert Kitson is McCrary's understudy. Throughout this experience, where writer and director agree and disagree as they work and rework the script, the actors manage to stand together in a combined sensation of frustration, fear and, eventually, excitement.

"It's the natural progression," says Lange, a respected, award-winning writer/director as well as actor. "I like the idea of starting from scratch. It's exciting. You and the actors are asking the questions the audience would ask."

Mary Willard, meantime, is promoting support for the show by inviting friends in the industry to see the show. Acquaintances like Joanne Worley from the 1960s TV icon "Laugh-In," Dan Castellaneta, heard as the voice of Homer Simpson, and Shelly Long ("Cheers") will see the show as will many from the cast of "Everybody Loves Raymond," where Fred Willard appears as Raymond's father-in-law.

Marty Stuart, along with his wife, country songstress Connie Smith, will attend during the show's second weekend.

As opening night approaches, Mary has put down her pencil and eraser (for now) and Lange is applying the fine-tuning. The cast has evolved into a spiritual whole, having arrived at equal levels of security and anxiousness. They all know their lines, songs, and dances, but, as with the creators, they don't know how the audience will react. After all, this isn't a known entity like "My Fair Lady." This is a brand new "Moon Shine!."

Saturday night, it's likely that Jim J. Bullock will be sure to shout out, "I'm ready to open." This time, however, he'll mean it.

By H. S. Wilson

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