Larry Pontius

Larry Pontius

The Grass Is Always Bluer in Paradise

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Jason Rowland, Jonathan Root and Elijah Rock in "Paradise" at Ruskin Group Theatre

“The only thing worse than being on a show, is being on one that’s been canceled.  It basically makes you a total leper in this town,” Cliff Wagner says with a laugh, thinking back on his experience with reality TV.  “You don’t even get your 15 minutes.”

He and his group, the Old #7, an American roots band that mixes bluegrass, blues and honky tonk, were on Fox’s The Next Great American Band, created by American Idol producer Simon Fuller, in the fall of 2007.  Ultimately, the band finished seventh out of the 8,000 bands that auditioned.

Writer Cliff Wagner, director Dan Bonnell, writer Bill Robertson and writer Tom Sage

Wagner drew on that experience in Paradise, a bluegrass musical comedy. Along with writers Bill Robertson and Tom Sage, Wagner created a musical set in Paradise, a coal mining town that’s facing hard times. A charming new preacher comes up with an idea to save the day — turn the town into the subject of a reality TV show.

The work premieres Friday at the Ruskin Group Theatre, under the direction of Dan Bonnell. Developed with Bonnell for the past seven months, the collaboration between the writers began well over a year ago.  After the band’s appearance on TV, Wagner proposed to Sage “that we could do a variety show with my band.  Kind of a Hee Haw thing.”  As the conversations continued and ideas began to form, Sage suggested there should be a story.  Wagner agreed, Bill Robertson was brought on board, and the variety show became a musical.

Robertson and Sage are comedy writers who have been working together for years.  Both have worked as associate editors for National Lampoon Magazine, as well as staff writers for the PBS kids show Dittydoodle Works.  Together they co-wrote the play A Good Year for the Roses, to be produced in Hollywood later this year.

“There’s one song that kicked the whole thing off,” Wagner says — “Jesus Is Deep Inside of Me (And He Ain’t Coming Out).”  Ater writing it, he was inspired to start thinking about religion and mixing it with reality TV.  “So the story just developed around a preacher who was going to save this Podunk town with a reality show.  And in the end, actually it’s the music that saves the town.”

Marie-Francoise Theodore, Michael Rubenstone, Kristal Lynn Lockyer and Robert Craighead

Following a successful reading, Wagner, Robertson and Sage looked around the city for the next step.  He had been associated with Ruskin Group Theatre for a couple of years, so he brought Ruskin the script. Several more readings happened, one of which Dan Bonnell attended.  “I loved the music.  The music is smart and funny and kooky and sometimes sort of dangerous and weird,” Bonnell remembers.  “The story had a wonderful offbeat sense of humor.  It’s provocative at times.”

John Ruskin and Michael Myers, respectively the Ruskin artistic director and managing director, decided to move toward a production of Paradise.  As he met with them, Wagner recalls, the conversation turned to directors, and Richardson and Myers “almost at the same time said Dan Bonnell.  It was weird.”

Bonnell has a great deal of experience helping develop new work, as well as the awards that go along with it (directing awards from Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly and the NAACP, the GLAAD Media Award and a nomination for Theatre Communications Group’s Alan Schneider Award).  He has developed new work with Julian Shepard, Alice Tuan, Donald Freed, Quincy Long, Ari Roth, stand up comic Sarah Silverman, and Michael Patrick King.

“For the past seven months,” Bonnell says, “we’ve been developing, doing rewrites, shaping the script…in the time we’ve been working here, there are five new songs or so.  The second act has almost been completely rewritten.  And we knew we wanted to put the focus on developing the story.”

Rachel Noll and Michael Rubenstone

Wagner continues, “He sat us down and kept asking us questions that we didn’t have an answer for.  Like “˜why is this happening?’ “˜why these two people”¦ why do they like each other?’  He just kept asking why why why.”  Wagner feels this process helped trim the show and focus the storytelling.  “He came in and cleaned everything up.”

“My goal is always to not impose my aesthetic on it.  But to help them unearth what it is they are trying to write.  Asking questions is the way to do that,” says Bonnell.

“The really interesting balancing act” in the production, he adds, “is not being swept away in what you would call a traditional musical kind of style, but retaining a simplicity at times, that steps out of the narrative for a moment.”  Characters step out, breaking theatrical convention in what Bonnell describes as becoming more like a variety show, similar to Hee Haw or Laugh In.

Because the focus of this particular production was the development of the narrative, some imagined elements have been left for later.  For example, because of the nature of the story, the use of video was talked about, but put on hold.  In the future, “we’ll start bringing in more and more of those production elements,” says Bonnell.  “We’re still at the baby steps on some level with this.  We’re very proud and very excited about where we’ve gone to, but we are conscious that it’s still going to be the beginning.”

Wagner and Bonnell are hopeful for the future of the material.  Wagner hopes to take the piece to a larger venue in Los Angeles — or perhaps in the East.  Bonnell feels Paradise could become a cult hit.  He says, “It has the potential to live in that same world that Bat Boy did.  It’s got this fun, potential-cult vibe to it.”

But even if additional production elements might be added later, the show has already expanded beyond its first inklings. According to Wagner, “When we first started writing on it, we were thinking a weekend workshop.”

When asked about the idea of the Paradise audience, Wagner and Bonnell respond quickly.  “It’s definitely not children,” Wagner offers. Bonnell agrees, “It can be a little raw.”

“Probably not some old people,” quips Wagner.  “More sorta left-leaning”¦”

Bonnell smiles. “Anybody that likes really great string-based, rootsy kinds of music will have a good time.  The book and the narrative is strong enough, the sense of humor is wacky enough.”

Nina Brissey and Jonathan Root

On the other side of the humor is the meat of the show — its treatment of what reality TV does to the town, and of course, what it is doing to American viewers.  Bonnell becomes serious for a moment, “That whole sense of reality TV”¦ our culture is so fame- and fortune-based, and the notion of becoming instantly famous and instantly rich is really sad, on some level.” Speaking about younger viewers, Wagner sourly notes, “They are aspiring to become Kim Kardashian.”

For the characters in Paradise, the question is what is the price of this kind of fame?  Bonnell explains the characters struggle to avoid being swept away by the tide of fame and fortune and losing their  identities.  “It’s essentially a story about the battle between those two forces.  About seduction of evil and remaining true to yourself.”

Of course, reality TV is here to stay and many viewers know that it isn’t as real as the name implies.  But Wagner has been on the other side of it.  He knows the reality of reality TV and how it changes people.  “When I was on the show, it became pretty apparent, pretty quickly, what you needed to do.  And that was get face time.”  For him it was amazing to watch people change how they behaved living under the pressure of the camera and the tantalizing possibility of fame.  “They start dressing differently.  They start talking differently.  In the end, it just wasn’t worth it.”

Paradise — A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy. Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica 90405.  Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through March 30. Tickets: $25. www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. 310-397-3244.

***All photos by Photo by Agnes Magyari