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Long Beach Press Telegram

British 'Master of farce' gets dramatic for local premiere of his musical


Perhaps the closest American counterpart to English playwright Ray Cooney is Neil Simon. Both men are about the same age (Cooney is 75 and Simon, 80), both rule their country's Mecca of theater - Simon has brought two dozen shows to Broadway, Cooney's West End total is 17 - and they are known almost exclusively for making comedies. Only time will tell if both writers will remain favorites in the regional theater community. But it's possible that while Cooney's name may never become more familiar than Simon's in the U.S., his plays may eventually be more recognizable. That's because Simon captured the essence of situations that were funny at the time he wrote them, while Cooney creates comedy that - like the antics of the Marx Brothers - is timeless.


Cooney's de facto title is "master of farce" for his ability to place characters in impossible situations, where every lie they tell or secret they hide makes the story more ridiculous, and makes the audience laugh even harder. With his track record, which includes a successful run in 2003 of his "Caught in the Net" at International City Theatre in Long Beach, it makes sense that Cooney would be the horse to bet on for Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities for a world premiere of his musical "Twice Upon a Time," which he also is directing.

The production opens Saturday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Known for producing or importing high-caliber, familiar works during its previous 15 seasons - "Grease," "Oliver!" "Kiss Me, Kate" - CLOSBC and its executive producer, James Blackman III, have been hesitant to risk a big budget on an unknown show.

What's more, this isn't a typical Cooney farce. "There is tension and drama in it," said Cooney, during a rehearsal break. "And I think the dramatic and moving places will make audiences even more receptive to the comic side of the story."

Actually, there are two stories.

One, set in the present, involves Steven (Brandon Michael Perkins), a lawyer who is working with a shopping mall developer trying to clear the way for a new project, only to be stopped by the lone holdout - a stubborn elderly widow (Millicent Martin).The second story takes place in 1929 Chicago.

"It's pretty simple," Cooney explained. "The young lawyer goes to a hypnotherapist to stop smoking. But when he's in a trance, he accidentally is regressed to a previous life when he's a gangster named John May, who realizes he was killed during the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. So in this other life he is going to be killed and he doesn't know what to do. I figured it out with a nice twist."

Though not a farce, the musical has plenty of comic scenarios. Cooney also maintains his trademark of all the action happening in real time - only in this case, real time is occurring in two different eras. Not typically a show writer, Cooney took several years to complete "Twice Upon a Time."

"It began as a play, but it wasn't working, so I put it to bed," Cooney said. "Then I woke up one morning and realized it had to be a movie. I hawked it around a bit, and people said, 'It's the best thing ever,' which always means it's never going to happen. I put it away for another year and then I thought, 'It's a musical."'

If all goes as planned, the Redondo Beach staging will precede a run on the West End - giving Cooney 18 original works to have graced a major London stage.

Martin, the veteran English actress whom Cooney imported to portray the musical's elderly woman refusing to leave her property, expects South Bay audiences will earn bragging rights with "Twice Upon a Time." " They are going to get to say, 'We saw it first."'


By Jeff Favre, Special to the Press-Telegram

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