Experimental Theater Travels Back in Time for Fun with Songs

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Byline: Mark Faulkner, Shorelines correspondent

In the spirit of the Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy operettas from the '30s and '40s, The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre opens its 2002-03 season this weekend with Rick Besoyan's Little Mary Sunshine. Besoyan's work is a tribute to and spoof of those musicals.

ABET will transform its temporary home at the Foundation Academy's theater into the Colorado mountains for the show. Then it's on to the stories of Little Mary, the proprietor of a small inn, and the interesting characters who stay there. The cast includes forest rangers, American Indians and not-quite-finished finishing school students. Of course, all of their exploits are best told in song.

"The earlier operettas were completely escapist fare, where everything ends happily and lots of things happen in between, mostly so they could stop and sing to each other," said the show's artistic director, Carson Merry Baillie. "This is all done perfectly straight. We don't make it a collection of cliches; it's just delightful and very, very funny."

Baillie said she and musical director Stephanie Galloway have enjoyed watching their younger cast members' reactions to how their characters strictly adhere to dating etiquette. After some convincing, they came to understand that's how romantic relationships began back then.

But the play has been updated slightly to fall in place with more modern times. Baillie said the executors of Besoyan's estate agreed to change some of the American Indians' dialogue, removing the broken English and made-up words the writer created to be their own language. It fit though. To spoof the operettas to the highest degree possible and get some laughs, Besoyan intentionally made each of his characters a stereotype.

As Gen. Oscar Fairfax, Bob Shellenberger said he's had fun playing this "dirty old man who comes out OK in the end." In a way, Shellenberger's picking up his singing career right where he left off -- his last musical also was an operetta.

"This came along, it looked like it would be fun and it is," Shellenberger said. "I've seen too many of these shows recently that are deep, dark or mysterious, and I'm just not that type of show person. I like the comedy, and this looked like it could be a lot of fun. …