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Thursday, April 13, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New York director is hired for top job at 5th Avenue

Seattle Times theater critic

New York-based director, choreographer and author David Armstrong has been selected to run the popular and lucrative musical theater series at the 5th Avenue Theatre, a historic showplace in the heart of downtown Seattle.

According to theater officials, Armstrong will soon become the first producing artistic director of the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company. Frank M. Young, who guided the nonprofit organization from its 1989 inception until his recent departure, held the title of executive director.

The semantics are significant: Unlike the behind-the-scenes Young, Armstrong will stage some 5th Avenue shows. He also plans to become a full-time Seattle resident - another contrast with Young, who split his time between this city and Houston, where he runs the Theatre Under the Stars.

Armstrong, 41, made his 5th Avenue directing debut last year with an exquisite staging of the musical "The Secret Garden." He says he "fell in love" with Seattle during the rehearsal period.

"This is, in many ways, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Armstrong by phone from Manhattan. "I've been up for other jobs. But it's a rare situation where you have a theater with this large, loyal subscription audience, in good financial shape, in a real theater town."

Armstrong bested more than a dozen candidates for the job, says software executive Dennis Okamoto, who chaired the 5th Avenue's board search committee.

"It was our unanimous decision to hire David," Okamoto related. "We felt here was a person who had a passion for musical theater which he could articulate to us. I think the things that are important to him are exactly what we're looking for at the 5th Avenue."

Those priorities include scouting more local talent, developing new musicals of Broadway caliber (in conjunction with other major musical theaters), booking hit Broadway touring shows and refreshing the canon of old tuners the 5th Avenue often dips into.

But Armstrong says his approach "is different than a lot of musical theaters around the country. I grew up on a regional theater model, not on the summer stock model of doing `re-creations' of Broadway hits, which often have a paint-by-number feeling."

He contends that "musicals are just like plays. When you do Shaw's `Major Barbara,' you don't say: `How was it done originally? Let's do it that way.' You ask what the play has to say to us today, so how do we approach it? That should hold true for `Oklahoma' or `A Little Night Music,' too."

Marilynn Sheldon, 5th Avenue managing director, sees eye-to-eye with her new colleague on these matters. "David's a good guy, the right guy at the right time for us," Sheldon commented. "And he has great theater connections in New York and around the country."

Armstrong's theatrical resume runs to nine pages. An Ohio native, he attended the University of Cincinnati and has choreographed and/or directed dozens of shows at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Paper Mill Playhouse, the Kennedy Center and other big venues.

He was artistic director of the Cohoes Music Hall, a restored older theater in Albany, N.Y. He has also toiled Off-Broadway.

Armstrong's writing credits include the Cole Porter revue "Hot 'n Cole" and the musical "Gold Rush!" He's now working on "Swing Shift," a tuner based on a Goldie Hawn movie, and on a musicalization of "A Christmas Carol."

"I'm not looking to use the 5th Avenue in an exploitative way for my own writing," Armstrong insisted. "But `Swing Shift' is getting a lot of attention, and including the 5th Avenue in its development could work out very well."

The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company currently serves about 30,000 subscribers in its 2,130-seat venue, sells an average of 300,000 tickets annually and has a current budget of $13 million.

Its next four-show subscription series will be unveiled soon. It was chosen largely by Sheldon and her staff. Armstrong will move here in August to begin carrying it out - and planning for the future.

"I think the potential for 5th Avenue to move to the front ranks of the American theater in a short time is there," he proposed. "That's the main attraction of this job for me, to make that happen."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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