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'Samantha Brown,' a musical in the making

April 22, 2009 |  1:35 pm

Jenni Barber Nick Blaemire and Lisa Brescia rehearsing The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha BrownAlong with the Ahmanson and Pantages, the Orange County Performing Arts Center has been one of Southern California’s reliable purveyors of front-line musicals over the past two decades. While the Ahmanson has been a developer of the form, OCPAC has functioned like the Pantages, working as a presenter of shows coming from elsewhere.
This has translated into touring productions working their way from the East. Audiences have seen a steady stream of Dream Girls, Jersey Boys, men who hailed from La Mancha and Mammas who Mia'd, plus many, many more.
Some good, more OK, many average and, occasionally, an  outright dud -- in other words, a dead-on reflection of contemporary, mainstream musical theater.
And through it all, there have been lots and lots -- and I do mean lots -- of Cats.
But Tuesday night, there was something different on display at OCPAC. In the center’s 375-seat Samueli Hall, an engaged audience skewing to the twentysomething side piled in for the start of a production-in-progress of  “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown.”
This isn’t a big show two or three years into its lifespan. Instead, it’s a five-character, minimally staged chamber musical still early in its process of becoming. Songs move in and out and dialogue changes from performance to performance. 
As such, it's too early in the process to review based on Tuesday’s snapshot. Instead, some quick advice: If a musical about the confusions and aspirations of young lives is your cup of tea, you might find the Samueli, at $30 a seat, a destination to quench your thirst now through May 3.
The source of this display is the writing-composing team of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk. This is the third collaboration between the two, with Lowdermilk having a few other works under his belt so far this century.

Their communal wellspring seems to be a combination of productivity and, at least in this play, the goal of recharging a musical’s battery by tapping an unlikely and un-hip power source: the dreams of and challenges faced by young-ish, middle-class Americans.
That’s probably a theme that plays out for real -- minus the tunes -- in much of Orange County on a daily basis and, thus, OCPAC feels like a good fit as host of this production.
After Tuesday’s 90-minute debut was done, the art center’s president, Terry Dwyer, sat down for a chat outside the theater.
He seemed energized by what he had seen. Plus, it’s probably a relief for him to focus for a change on something other than the trials of financing the arts in a bad economy.
Strategically speaking, Dwyer seems to perceive “Samantha Brown” as something of an incubatory opportunity to fit with what he sees as OCPAC’s continuing mission of providing the community with experiences that both stimulate and entertain. It's also a chance for Dwyer to increase OCPAC's audience.
“We’ll always be a presenter of big musicals, no doubt," said Dwyer. “But there is more out there." It's a chance "to get younger people to the theater and encourage diversity".
“This kind of work also puts us in touch with a new generation of fantastic theater artists," he said, "creative teams who are taking on the form. I’d like us to be part of their vision. It’s not just about funding a new theater series, though that might work at some point, but finding projects that our audiences will be happy to discover."

-- Christopher Smith

Photo: Jenni Barber, Nick Blaemire and Lisa Brescia rehearsing "The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown." Credit: the "Samantha Brown" team