Vero’s Riverside Theatre has long held more influence over its productions than most regional theaters, producing Broadway shows with its own sets, casting and direction, rather than importing productions created elsewhere or booking shows on tour.
Now, it is taking this to a whole new level, creating original works from script to score, staging them here, and if all goes well, taking them on tour. The copyrighted works could then be produced by other theaters, generating royalties for both Riverside and the shows’ creators, Allen Cornell and Ken Clifton.
Riverside Theatricals LLC, a new division within the theater, will launch its first original musical, “Poodleful,” next September.
Based on the children’s book “Pansy at the Palace,” by Windsor resident Cynthia Bardes, “Poodleful” will be produced on Riverside’s main stage (not Riverside Children’s Theatre) with professional adult actors playing all the roles, including the children – and the dogs. The show will run for a week, Cornell says.
“We have hopes of launching a tour of it, and we have hopes for other theaters to purchase the rights to produce it themselves,” said Cornell.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Bardes, speaking by cellphone while Christmas shopping for her granddaughter in Los Angeles.
She was also shopping the script, hoping to drum up interest among L.A. theater and even film producers.
Longtime musical director Ken Clifton, who joined Riverside’s staff last summer after signing on to what he calls “the opportunity of a lifetime,” has adapted the book to the stage by amplifying little Pansy the Poodle’s tough life on the streets, prior to being adopted by Avery, the character based on Bardes’ granddaughter.
From there, the two go to live a life of luxury in the Palace hotel, where all is grand until a string of burglaries has the guests in a panic. Pansy turns detective and finds the thief, Desirée the cat, by following her fishy smell to the room of Monsieur DuMal. There they discover the missing jewels: Monsieur DuMal has trained Desirée to steal by rewarding her with salmon.
Clifton created much of the music and lyrics in his Azalea Lane apartment, working on his computer with music-composition software.
“I went once to listen and he was holed up in his pajama bottoms. He hadn’t shaved. I stayed in the doorway,” Cornell said as Clifton nodded, straight faced.
In fact, the creativity behind this particular project has been largely Clifton’s thus far. Cornell will likely write more of future musicals.
“This is Ken’s work on this one,” said Cornell, though Clifton calls the finished play “Allen’s vision of what it would be when it grew up.”
“Ken Clifton is a total genius,” says Bardes, who with her husband David also looked in on Clifton while he worked. “He played the ballad of when Pansy and Avery meet, and both David and I got tears in our eyes,” she says. “My little Pansy. I can’t believe it.”
She got word of the project when Cornell sent her an email that read: “Pansy sings.”
What Pansy and the rest of the seven-member cast will sing is a mix of styles, including pop, musical theater, and a funk piece for the cat, Clifton says.
Clifton says he clears his mind on early-morning walks around the block, pulling out a notepad to jot down ideas as they come to him. “I keep the dots (musical notes) in my head until I get home to write it down,” he says. “I come up with content first, style is second, and the rhymes come after that.”
It won’t be the first original play staged by Riverside. Two years ago, Clifton collaborated with Riverside Children’s Theatre director Kevin Quillinan to create “Rapunzel,” which was staged with student actors at RCT.
In 2006, Cornell wrote an adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” And in 2001, Cornell wrote the book and lyrics to “Midnight Clear,” with Clifton writing the music.
This time, it is the goal of Cornell, Clifton and managing director Jon Moses, who handled the business dimension of creating the new LLC, to create a work that would serve to introduce kids to professional-level theater.
“Poodleful” would fall into the genre known as TYA, or theater for young audiences. Today, children’s theater refers to plays put on by children who are not professionals.
“Poodleful” will launch a new Riverside Family Series within the body of work Riverside Theatricals is expected to generate, Moses says. “Our goal is one a year, but I think of it as a two-year process,” he says. “This first one came about quickly so that by September, it will only have been a year and a half. Normally every summer, we’ll be working on a new play.”
“Truth be told, I love children’s books. I always have. But this whole initiative came out of our desire to create professional performances for children. We have our educational arm and they do productions using youth in the community to perform. But there’s the whole other side where you create a piece and you use professional actors. We wanted something that would appeal not just to the family and friends but to others as well, and to give an experience of theater to people of a young age by highly skilled professionals.”
Cornell says regional theater has become the key source for original works of theater in America today. Many of those new works do target young people, he says, but “not many of them really land.”
“My take was to approach this the same as if we were trying to create a major musical or serious work for Second Stage, and use the same amount of creativity for a young audience.”
There are also discussions with Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia about creating works together. For the past two seasons, Riverside has collaborated with Walnut Street on producing the final show of the Riverside season, which then travels north to Philadelphia for a summer run.
That move is a cost-sharing measure that allows Riverside to stage a bigger show at the tail end of the season, when not as large an audience is in town.
Riverside Theatricals’ productions would be cost-saving in that Riverside Theatre would not have to pay royalties, which typically are 8 to 12 percent of gross ticket sales, Moses said.
Meanwhile, Bardes is doing book signings in L.A. and San Francisco for her second book, Pansy in Paris, released last spring. That book is set in an art museum, where Pansy solves a heist. With that kind of hook, Bardes has marketed the book well, as usual. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art just bought copies to sell in its gift shop, she says, as has the Getty in L.A.
“Pansy’s getting exposure,” says Bardes. “She lives the life of Riley.”