As the 34-year-old granddaddy of Southland Civic Light Opera companies, Fullerton Civic Light Opera is ushering in a new era. The venerable founders Jan Duncan (artistic director) and her husband, Griff Duncan (producer-manager), have gradually been getting their audiences indoctrinated to modern trends in musical theatre. FCLO is situated in the heart of conservative Orange County, and many of the company's longtime patrons favor old-fashioned fare. Yet the old-style shows are seldom being written anymore, and some customers are getting tired of retreads. The company's current production is a major coup, the strongest signal yet of a commitment to change. It's the first locally produced Southern California rendition of the long-running Broadway hit, Miss Saigon, after the show has had more than a decade of international tours, following its 1991 Broadway premiere. This is among the first of the European-bred mega-hits of the 1980s–90s finally released for regional production—a huge relief to civic light opera companies starving for fresh product.
Jan Duncan admits there are risks involved. Not only is this musical shaping up as the most expensive undertaking in the group's history but it also has staggering technical demands. Furthermore it's a challenge to the FCLO audiences, as it is adult fare and not a family-type entertainment. "When I volunteered to direct," she says, "I had seen it a couple of times, but you don't get the full impact until you start working with it: the technical aspects, the talent requirements in the cast, and it moves like greased lightning. Yesterday our orchestra leader, Todd Helm, said, 'If I even blink, I'm going to miss a cue.'"
Duncan says, amazingly enough, the scripts have no stage directions. She considers herself lucky to have several actors who have been in previous productions, including Broadway, as they remember how the original was staged. Duncan didn't make an effort to solicit veterans of this show; they came to her. Three hundred performers auditioned. "We had such a strong turnout that I could have cast the leads four times over," she says. "We have 10 Caucasian men playing Marines, 10 Asian-American men, 10 Asian-American women, and one token white woman. There is a Caucasian actor playing Chris and an Asian-American playing The Engineer." There are 34 in this cast, including seven Equity members. The company's ongoing agreement with Actors Equity calls for a minimum of seven union actors per production, and Duncan says they have hired as many as 10 at times.
She expresses her view that the escalating trend toward non-union tours isn't good for anyone. She cites the following reasons: They are bad news for regional theatres that can't get the rights to popular shows because they are tied up; they're not good for audiences, because the tours are often shoddily mounted; and Equity actors can't get into these shows. When they do, as in the case of Jennifer Paz—who gave up her membership to star in the non-union Miss Saigon—they aren't allowed to reapply for membership after the job ends; in essence they are blackballed. Consequently, a favorable result of these long-delayed releases of the Cameron Mackintosh, Webber, and Disney blockbusters is that CLOs such as Fullerton can offer employment for union and non-union local actors to play roles in these shows.
If casting went surprisingly smoothly, other aspects of the production have been daunting. The Duncans were determined that this production be high-caliber, far beyond the meager standards of the cut-rate touring editions. Duncan admits, "We knew it would be expensive; we just didn't realize it would be this expensive. We didn't hesitate to do it, because we had been trying to get the rights for a long time. We thought we might be able to rent some touring company sets and costumes, but frankly I was very disappointed in the non-union touring company I saw [last year at the Pantages Theatre]. I didn't like the set, they didn't have the onstage Cadillac, and the helicopter was obviously just some kind of projection. They didn't have a real helicopter on Broadway, either, but it certainly looked like one. We're hoping ours will look as good as that one. The fellow who builds a lot of specialty things for us, doing phenomenal work, is helping us with this. Some of the kids who did the Equity tour saw it in our warehouse, and [they] said it's better than the one they had. We went on a search for a 1959 Cadillac, and it wasn't easy to find. We finally located one here, but it was just a pile of junk. Using eBay, we found one in Oregon and had it shipped here."
Duncan is excited—if exhausted—by this project, and she is gratified that ticket sales are going well. "You can't please everyone, and we have to bring our audiences forward to the present day," she says. "When we did Zorba [in 1988], someone wrote to complain that John Raitt and Shirley Romano were fornicating onstage. When we told John, he laughed and laughed and said, "I might be 71 years old, and I can't remember everything, but I would have remembered that."
"Miss Saigon," will be presented by Fullerton Civic Light Opera at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Thu.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. (Also Sun. 7 pm, Feb. 27 and Sat. 2 pm, Mar. 5.) $22-45. Feb. 18-Mar. 6. (714) 879-1732.