Delicious villains
Diamond Circle Melodrama opens summer season


by Judith Reynolds

Svengali, Simon Legree, Fagin and Iago. What a barbershop quartet that would be – villains all. They set a high bar for lesser known scoundrels like Grindley Goodge and Charlie Montgomery. Goodge and Montgomery may not compete with the greats, but they will arrive in Durango soon and stay for the summer.

Grindley’s greedy. Charlie’s a charmer, with smooth manners and flashy clothes. His voice warms. His penetrating eyes immobilize the weak. His touch makes women shiver and men squirm.

Charlie’s the first villain you’ll love to hate when the Diamond Circle Melodrama opens Wed., June 7. Played by Jeff Rice, Charlie puts the moves on pretty Flossie (Jennifer Cannon) in Charles Taylor’s New York tale, “From Rags to Riches.”

“Riches” is pure, undiluted melodrama. The heroine has a young protector, brother Ned (Durangoan Erik Andersson). And the villain has a sidekick, Flora (Cat Yates), a cross between Goneril and Mrs. Danvers. She covets the inheritance Charlie may gain on his uncle’s death. With “Riches,” you get two villains for the price of one.

If you haven’t sampled Victorian melodrama, now’s the time. It’s all about hokey plots, stock characters, precise diction, fast pacing and hilarious synchronized movement. Now in its 31st season, Diamond Circle has polished the style to a high sheen. With musical accompaniment underlining character and plot points, real melodrama offers a trip back to the popular theater of the late 19th century. The Circle is one of a handful of American venues where you can see the real thing.

The real thing has fed popular appetite for simple binaries: evildoers and innocents, duplicity and truth telling, vice and virtue. Unlike life, the good always win in the end.

Today, there are fans as serious as antique car buffs. And Durango is a must stop for authentic melodrama, nominated this year as one of eight stops in Rand McNally’s Best-of-the-Road. Diamond Circle is also connected to one of the best, the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano, Calif.

That company has given the stellar Eric Hoit a brief furlough to serve as Durango’s artistic director. This is his second season at the Circle. Hoit and producer Jeannie Wheeldon go way back, he said in a telephone interview last week. “Stanford, theater, years ago.” But that’s another story.

“I came in with a game plan,” Hoit said. “I made revisions to both scripts. For example, there are two fewer actors in one. We’ve only done ‘Rags to Riches’ once here. ‘Four-Legged’ we’ve done a few times. At the beginning of the rehearsal period, we work very hard – 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with a lunch and dinner break.

“Our vaudeville revues are a bit different,” he added. “The first is ‘A British Music Hall’ with songs from the period and as late as ‘Oliver.’ The other is titled ‘The Culinary Cabaret.’ It’s all about food. We’ll have a Java Jive quartet and a sketch featuring, who else but Julia Child.”

With one actor from Australia, Hoit can claim to have an international cast, one he’s traveled the country to assemble. The rest of his company hails from a big bunch of states: New York, California, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota and Colorado. Three local performers will return: Andreas Tischhauser, an accomplished actor-tenor who performs regionally and teaches at Fort Lewis College; Helen Gregory, who is based in Durango but travels all over as a pianist and music director; and Erik Andersson, a talented Durango teen-ager. Hoit said he chose “Riches” specifically so that Andersson could play Ned the Newsboy.

In addition, C. Scott Hagler, joins the ensemble for the first time as host and company pianist. A native of Farmington, Hagler is minister of music at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, visiting professor at Fort Lewis College, and conductor of the Durango Choral Society and Women’s Chorus.

Hagler also has the distinction of being the fly in the melodrama’s ointment. It’s his busy schedule that altered a long-standing tradition. For all of its three decades, the melodrama has taken Monday off. Sacrosanct until this year, the scheme was changed because of Hagler’s impossible schedule. Tuesday nights he conducts rehearsals for the Music in the Mountains performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass (July 30). When Wheeldon, Hoit and company learned this, Diamond Circle graciously shifted the company’s night off to Tuesday.

While the rest of the cast does laundry or parties at one of Durango’s night spots, Hagler will be conducting Mozart.

Time is the villain of all villains. •