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JUMP onto the `WAGON’


For good musical fun, catch Southern Arizona Light Opera Company’s production of `Paint Your Wagon.

Thar’s gold in that thar box office. Broadway composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe heard the cry, then promptly sat down and wrote “Paint Your Wagon.’

This tale of the California gold rush in 1849 proved prophetic for Lerner and Loewe, who have also penned such long-running favorites as “My Fair Lady’ and “Brigadoon.’ Just as you’d expect from a couple of prosperous guys, “Paint Your Wagon’ is chuck-full of good tunes.

“The men’s chorus is especially strong,’ said Armen Dirtadian, starring as Ben Rumson in the Southern Arizona Light Opera Company production of “Paint Your Wagon’ opening tomorrow in the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall. “It’s worth seeing the show just to hear that chorus.’

Hearty praise, indeed, when it comes from Tucson’s own matinee idol and star of many SALOC productions.

“I was in this musical 12 years ago when SALOC did it. I had the same role,’ recalled Dirtadian.

After a decade of performances, Dirtadian is only now reaching the age of many of the stage characters he has portrayed.

Over the years, Dirtadian has become a favorite of Gaslight Theatre audiences as well. He has also been cast in the title role for every production of “Simon Peter,’ the annual Easter pageant. Then there is his day job, teaching theater classes at Catalina High School.

“Right now at Catalina, we are working on `The Odd Couple’ – both the male and female versions,’ he said.

As Ben Rumson, the mining town’s founder and father of impulsive Jennifer, Dirtadian’s big solo is “Wandrin’ Star.’ In the movie version of “Paint Your Wagon,’ Lee Marvin had the role.

“Right after I got cast, I rented the movie,’ said Janet Higgins, another of Tucson’s favorite performers. “I watched the whole thing and my part wasn’t even in there. I thought, `Boy, this must be a big part.’ ‘

Higgins plays Jennifer, a significant role in the play but completely left out of the 1969 Paddy Chayefsky movie script.

Jennifer’s romance provides a subplot to counterbalance all those miner-guys singing all those manly songs. But Lerner and Loewe had Jennifer falling in love with a Mexican lad, and apparently such a love affair wasn’t considered good Hollywood box office.

“It turned out to be a wonderful part,’ said Higgins. “In the beginning Jennifer is very tomboyish. Then all the guys begin to notice she has grown up to be a young woman, and their attitude changes completely.’

Higgins sums up the musical as having “a simple story, about these gold miners who strike it rich and start a town. Then the gold starts running out and the people have to start leaving.’

Against this backdrop is played Jennifer’s new maturity and her interrupted romance. Her big songs are “What’s Going on Here’ and “How Can I Wait.’

It is also important to the plot that the lonesome miners, deprived of female companionship, order up a coach full of “professional companions,’ whose arrival is celebrated with vigorous singing and dancing.

Other hits in the show are “They Call the Wind Maria,’ “I Talk to the Trees’ and “There’s a Coach Comin’ In.’

Higgins also has a history with SALOC and with Dirtadian.

“Nine years ago Armen, and I were together in `Peter Pan.’ He was Captain Hook and I was Peter. In this show we’re kind of buddies, since he’s my Pa.’

In the mid-1980s Higgins lived in Tucson, attending Pima Community College and then the University of Arizona. Her SALOC experience included the role of Nellie in “South Pacific,’ and Dorothy in a stage adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.’ Then it was off to Los Angeles to give the fame game a whirl.

“I was in Japan for 1 1/2 years, got back in November,’ said Higgins. “Then Houston for five weeks in a production of `Peter Pan’ with Kathy Rigby.’

After the SALOC run, through March 5, Higgins returns to her Los Angeles home. All the money she saved while singing Broadway hits in “a very rich theme park that looked just like a Dutch village’ in the south of Japan, she spends on classes in performing.

“It’s really important to take these classes,’ she affirms. “That’s why I stayed in Japan so long. I was able to save so much money. Now I’m learning as much as I can and giving myself a couple of more years here.

“Sure, it’s hard. But it’s just something I want to do.’

Though Higgins has strong Tucson ties, she is counted as one of a dozen SALOC cast members hired out of Los Angeles. Dennis Courtney is the director.


* What: Southern Arizona Light Opera Company presents Lerner and Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon.’

* When: 8 p.m. tomorrow through Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday; 8 p.m. March 2 to 4; 2 p.m. March 4 and 5.

* Where: Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.

* Cost: $14 and $28. For reservations, call 323-7888 or 884-1212 for more information.

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