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Tuesday, May 12, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big Plans For `Little Boy' -- Rock-Opera Fable Is An Audaciously Ambitious Project

Seattle Times Theater Critic

Theater preview "Little Boy." Pay-what-you-can preview Thursday. Opens Friday and runs Thursdays-Sundays through July 5. Presented by Open Circle Theater and The Really Big Production Co., in a warehouse at 961 Mercer St. (two blocks west of Interstate 5 ramp), Seattle; 206-382-4250.

It's after 8 p.m. on a recent weeknight and the last shreds of daylight are beginning to disappear. The freeway-bound traffic that usually crowds Mercer Street in downtown Seattle has thinned. Those heading home have already gone home.

But in one of the warehouses on Mercer, no one is going home for quite a while. Here, in an echoey, white concrete cavern of a space, some two dozen pairs of feet stomp and pound; 20 voices rise in a frenzy of song; two little boys run around wooden platforms; and one composer/playwright is seeing a decade of work materialize before his eyes.

They have gathered like this - the cast, musicians and directors - for nearly every evening of the past two months, putting together an audaciously ambitious project: an epic, rock-opera fable called "Little Boy," about a 7-year-old boy's journey to make a deal with the devil.

They are mostly in their 20s and 30s, a wash of loose T-shirts, tight tank tops, muted flannel shirts, old jeans. In their evening hours and weekends, in whatever spare time they can grab, they've been here, practicing their lines, learning dance steps and more than 20 songs.

They've even recorded a CD of some of the songs. On this evening, they're listening to that CD for the very first time. They cheer as the driving chords of the opening number boom over the speakers and their voices start building in waves. Some practice dance steps along with the music. The choreographer turns cartwheels around the set.

Then, over the speakers, comes a quieter moment - a choral-like interlude, a capella, sweet and high. The conversations hush. The cartwheels stop. They all halt where they are, sitting crossed-legged on the concrete floor or standing, water bottles in hand. Their heads tilt, silent, listening.

They are awed by the sound of their own voices lifted together.

A long gestation

That sound has been about 10 years in the making.

On one side of the warehouse, Mark Nichols is playing keyboards. Nichols is the 34-year-old Seattle composer and playwright who wrote the music and book for "Little Boy." He gazes through his wire-rimmed spectacles at the cast members singing the songs he wrote.

"One of the chief goals in life as a human being is to have your dreams turned into reality," he says. "This is the first time I've been in a position to take this all the way, to have it become fully realized."

This is a big step forward for both the show, which opens Friday, and for its composer. Nichols first wrote "Little Boy," originally called "Little Boy Goes to Hell," as a solo record project. In 1987, he put together a live radio recording of it, featuring musicians such as Rob Morgan of the Squirrels and Tad Hutchinson of the Young Fresh Fellows.

A year later, Annex Theatre, a local fringe company, selected "Little Boy Goes to Hell" for its first full season. Directed by Garrett Bennett and featuring local musicians such as Selene Vigil of 7-Year Bitch and Gary Minkley of Red Dress, the show went on to be a big success for Annex.

"I was really happy with it," Nichols says of the Annex production. "But I had so far to go as a writer." Since that show - Nichols' first experience with a theater production - he has taken part in 30 shows, including a stint as musical director of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" at Pioneer Square Theatre several years ago.

Nichols kept revising the songs and book of "Little Boy" on and off over the decade. About three years ago, he hit upon the current story, a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland tale about a boy who meets all sorts of strange creatures during his journey through the underworld. Layered on top of that narrative are satires of pop culture and allegories about fear and human connection.

Then Nichols became friends with Christopher Petit, former artistic director of Open Circle Theater, another Seattle fringe-theater company. Petit wanted his theater to mount the rock opera. When Petit left the post of artistic director, new artistic director Scott Bradley took on the project.

Bradley, 31, is now directing this production, an almost completely new show, with a different story than the Annex production and 19 new songs.

At rehearsals, Bradley looks more haggard by the day - understandable, since he's been working on the show from 9 a.m. to midnight almost every day for five weeks, directing the cast; collaborating with the choreographer, music director and writer; transporting risers into the warehouse for the 150 audience seats; and working on the set. Before that, he'd been putting in some 30 hours a week, auditioning cast members, working with Nichols on the book.

During rehearsals, Bradley paces back and forth, a graceful, lanky figure in a baseball cap, gray sweatshirt and paint-splattered jeans, occasionally scribbling notes in his large notebook as he watches the cast perform.

"It's a huge undertaking," he says. "The show has so many layers: psychological, emotional, metaphorical, illusory. Layers upon layers that in the end have to come to reveal the core of the show."

In those moments when the cast does come together, when they exceed even his expectations, he applauds, cheers. This is, after all, not only a big undertaking for him, but for his theater company as well.

In its six years, the small Open Circle Theater has made a name for itself with high-quality, innovative shows, staged in its 50-seat theater south of Lake Union.

"Open Circle is ready to take that next step into larger projects," Bradley says. "It's time."

Bradley and company rented an empty warehouse big enough to fit about eight Open Circle theaters. There they built a theater from scratch: a multi-level set, seats on risers, lights, sound system. "The show is an event," he says. "A traditional theatrical house would be too familiar a territory for the audience and ergo the piece would get slotted as a musical. This reflects more of going to a rave, a rock concert."

Everything about this show marks a big leap forward for Open Circle. The show's budget - funded by Open Circle and Nichols' Really Big Production Co. - is about equal to a whole season of Open Circle plays. The show is scheduled to run more than seven weeks, instead of the average four-week run of other Open Circle shows. And there's a large cast of 20, including two 11-year-old boys who alternate playing the title role.

There's also a live, 12-piece band, under musical director Dan Dennis, who directed music for shows such as "Cat-Like Tread" at Annex. Band members, including some from local rock groups (Rob Knop of Bake, Ives Chor of Toadstool, to name only two), play everything from flute to saxophone, cello to trombone, electric guitar to drums.

And they flew in Amy Gordon, a former Seattle choreographer living in New York, who had put the moves into shows like Annex's "Cat-Like Tread" and "The Glory Booty Club."

"I may be insane," Bradley admits at one point.

But with the big gamble come big hopes. They're hoping the show might be extended beyond its scheduled run, perhaps even attracting private investors who will tour it.

"Now Seattle's got a rock opera of its own," says Heather Newman, marketing director for the show. "Touring it would be like taking our `Rent' and showing it off to other places."

`Smile! Think daisies!'

Before that can happen, of course, everything has to be whipped into shape.

"I want this to be the happiest world," choreographer Gordon instructs the cast as she walks around thwacking a black whip. "So smile! Think daisies! Skip! It's the boy's world. He's happy! He's in a happy world!"

The whip - actually a prop used by one of the characters in the show - is being wielded playfully by Gordon, an ebullient 23-year-old in a navel-baring tank top and jeans, with reddish-brown hair in two small braids. Gordon has only five weeks to whip all the dancing into shape.

One of the first scenes they're rehearsing that day doesn't go exactly as planned. Stefan Rubicz, an 11-year-old boy who alternates the title role of Little Boy with James Skinner, also 11, is dashing around the set. Little Boy is being chased by two menacing officers, who run after Stefan, pick him up and dangle him off the ground. Stefan's big brown eyes get even rounder. He looks bewildered, one leg kicking, head tossing around: Hey, what's up?

That's what Gordon and Bradley want to know.

"Oh! That was the other kid we rehearsed this with!" Bradley realizes, slapping his forehead with his hand and laughing.

"The kids are much faster than the adults," he says later. "Their memories aren't shot yet. We teach them choreography and they get it the next day."

Sometimes they get it even faster than that.

Gordon decides she wants the chase scene to be more elaborate. She tells Stefan she wants him to step onto the multi-level platform on the set, jump off it, go up some stairs, cross over, down . . .

"And sing a song at the end!" Bradley shouts jokingly.

"Yeah, that is a lot, isn't it?" Gordon says, frowning.

But Stefan is willing to give it a shot. As the music builds, he sprints up a ramp, jumps down, runs around the set, behind it, up some stairs, down the back stairs, ducks under a platform - he's actually doing it! - runs out into the open, slides under a guy's legs, dodges around a pillar, running, running - before taking off into a last giant leap forward.

"Yeah!" everyone hollers, giving Stefan high fives, slapping him on the back and ruffling his hair.

It's a big leap for Stefan. And a big leap for them all.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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