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Big Fat Greek Musical

Thanks to the ground broken by Greek-American actor/writer Nia Vardalos' smash 2002 film and recently premiered TV series based on her family experiences, the stars currently seem fortuitously aligned for big, fat, Greek entertainment offerings. Producer/director Angeliki Giannakopoulos launches her Greek-American Theater Company of Los Angeles this week with Illya Darling, a rare revival of a lavish 1967 Broadway musical based on the classic 1960 Greek-language film Never on Sunday.

In a serendipitous coincidence, Giannakopoulos produced and directed a play called A Greek Wedding locally in 1997, based on a famous Greek novel, winning seven Drama-Logue awards, including one for best direction. The driving force behind L.A.'s first Greek-American theatre organization, which she calls her "baby," Giannakopoulos is the group's artistic director and key financier, though she is actively soliciting backers. A core group of about 20 people are assisting her in launching and running the new company. This venture is an outgrowth of her earlier entity, Artemis Productions, which during the 1990s presented several local stage productions, including the aforementioned Greek Wedding, Antigone, Ten Stabs at Ten Bullets, and a well-received eight-performance run of Illya Darling at the Skylight Theatre in 1995.

With her new company, Giannakopoulos is taking the full plunge into the 99-Seat theatre jungle, with plans to mount at least one major production per year. She hopes to eventually find a home. Her ambitious and costly new mounting of Illya, with a cast of 26, opens an eight-week run this week at the 24th Street Theatre. During her rental of the theatre, she is simultaneously presenting two smaller-scale productions: Triple Shot: 3 Comedic Tales of Cultural Identity (a one-man/ woman show festival), and Dimitri Psathaâ's Greek comedy Fonazy O Kleftys (The Thief Is Yelling).

Though Illya (book by Jules Dassin, music by Manos Hadjidakis, lyrics by Joe Darion) received mixed-to-unfavorable reviews during its eight-month Broadway run, Giannakopoulos feels it's a wonderful show and is somewhat baffled that it's seldom revived. "This is a show that awakens the soul," Giannakopoulos said. "We hope that our audiences will smell the ouzo, tap their feet to the beautiful bouzouki music, taste the fresh fish, and see the glorious sun shimmering on the blue water without leaving their seats."

Screenwriter Dassin penned the film Never On Sunday for his wife, acclaimed Greek cinema star Melina Mercouri, who won an Oscar nomination for her role as a high-spirited Greek prostitute. Then, following a path similar to the one taken by Michael Cacoyannis in adapting his Greek-language film Zorba the Greek into the Kander/Ebb musical Zorba, Dassin parlayed Sunday into a musical vehicle for Mercouri's American stage debut. The show is a lavish song-and-dance extravaganza, with noted Greek choreographer Athan Karras helming the production numbers. Giannakopoulos believes her 1995 production and the current one are the only West Coast mountings of this musical.

She also said that, to her knowledge, she is the only producer who has fostered Greek-oriented theatre in L.A. "I'm hoping that this fun-filled musical, coupled with the current high awareness of Nia Vardalos' shows, will open the door to more Greek stories on the local stage." She didn't plan this fortuitous timing but is grateful for it. She has returned to her true love, the stage, after working for a few years as an associate producer of on-air promotion at NBC. "TV didn't do it for me," she said. "When you are working a 9-to-6 job, you have no time to do theatre."

She has also worked extensively in independent films, and her new documentary, A Greek Woman, premiered at Cinequest 2003 in San José. "It's about my father leaving Greece, coming to America for a better life, and leaving me and my mom there until he was able to send for us. I came here at age 13. I started out acting but decided that directing and producing were more fulfilling for me."

With the time and money she's investing in her labor-of-love endeavors and her refreshing air of determination and confidence, Giannakopoulos appears to be a hard-driving self-starter. She concluded, "I believe that in life, we have to make our own chances. I sat around too long before I decided that if I wanted to accomplish something, I need to get out and do it."

—Les Spindle

"Illya Darling" will be presented by the Greek American Theatre Company at the 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Mar. 15-May 4. $20. (310) 859-8175.

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