A last chance to ‘Boo!’ and ‘Aah!’
Diamond Circle kicks off final season at the Strater

SideStory: All in the family - Brother and sister at odds over melodrama’s future

Katie Worley, onstage, gets some feedback from director Eric Hoit on Monday at the Diamond Circle Theatre. The Diamond Circle Melodrama is currently gearing up for its 46th and final season after the Strater Corporation opted to not renew the company’s lease/Photo by David Halterman

by Judith Reynolds

Last summer’s rumor that the Diamond Circle Melodrama might be approaching its last season at the Strater Hotel has turned out to be true. At 7:45 p.m. Fri., May 25, the Melodrama opens its 46th and final summer run in the comfy, familiar theater space on Main Avenue. In the short time since the news has been confirmed, locals have been heard to say: “I’m definitely going this year.”

As per tradition, Diamond Circle will open one show then a second. The season begins early with Dion Boucicault’s “The Wicklow Wedding.”

“It’s a great Irish melodrama,” Director Eric Hoit said in an interview earlier this week. Hoit is a guest artist who has been with Diamond Circle on and off for a dozen years. Jeanne Wheeldon, owner, director and big mama of melodrama in Durango for the last 25 years, will open “The Pursuit of Happiness” on June 22.

“We’ve known each other since college,” Wheeldon said in the same interview along with Music Director Helen Gregory. Wheeldon, who grew up with the enterprise said she remembers being 4 years old and watching rehearsals. “My grandparents founded the Diamond Circle Melodrama, and I’ve worked every job – usher, ticket seller, actor, manager and now owner and director,” she said. Wheeldon bought the operation in the early 1980s, and she’s been the energy behind its success.

Hoit has a long professional resume that includes roles in national tours of “Me and My Girl” and “City of Angels,” as well as work in theaters from Chicago to Atlantic City. He’s directed or choreographed more than 50 musicals in regional and stock theater all over the country. But he’s most well known for being the artistic director of The Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville Theatre in Oceano, Calif. Given that demanding schedule, Wheeldon said she doesn’t know how she enticed Hoit to perform in or direct shows over 12 different seasons here in Durango.

“This is my second home,” Hoit said. “And I’m particularly happy to be directing ‘Wicklow Wedding.’ It has great comedic characters, lots of action, and it has one of the best villains in melodrama.”

The play was originally titled “Arrah-na-Pogue,” which wouldn’t fly today in America, Hoit said.

“It’s a funny, romantic, Irish melodrama that has two love stories. The plot involves a young girl who hides an Irish patriot from British officials, and it has all the other great melodrama ingredients – self-sacrifice, a little betrayal, narrow escapes.”

Wheeldon’s “Pursuit of Happiness” is another obstacle-laden courtship melodrama with a different pedigree.

“It was written by Lawrence and Armina Mars Langner,” she said. “It’s an American comedy set in the Revolutionary War. It was turned into a musical, ‘Arms and the Girl,’ and it also became a film starring Joan Bennett. We may use some of the music in the underscoring, but this is the original play.”

Both Wheeldon and Hoit appeared in earlier DCM productions of “Pursuit,” they said, so it has sentimental value as well as being a standard.

Casting is a big part of the Diamond Circle’s long-term success. Several popular players will return, Wheeldon said.

“Gabe Tate, for one,” Wheeldon said. “He’s a Durango High graduate, and many people will recognize him. Gabe was in our cast for two years in 2004 and ’05. We’re glad he’s back.”

In addition to Tate, Music Director Helen Gregory returns, as well as Melodrama accompanist C. Scott Hagler. Durango is home base for Gregory who has built a peripatetic career in professional theater as 4

an actor, director and musician. Year round, she works on national tours and in a variety of regional theaters. This summer, Gregory will alternate with Hagler as accompanist. Hagler is minister of music at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and director of the Durango Choral Society. And finally, a local favorite, Erik Anderssen. The Durango High School student may only be 16, but he’s already logged two seasons as a professional in the Melodrama and has been invited back for a third.

Jeff Rice will be back, too. A 2000 graduate from Ohio State University, Rice has performed around the country in regional theater and at Hoit’s Oceano Melodrama.

“Jeff makes a great villain,” Hoit said. “And I’ve brought more actors who worked for me in California: Chuck McLane and Bree Murphy. They got married in March. Bree will be our ‘Red Hot Mama’ girl in the vaudeville.”

Finally, four new faces will enter Durango’s melodrama history: Katie Worley, Rosalie Burke, Jason Jacoby and Brandon Vukovic.

“Everyone will participate in the vaudeville,” Gregory said. “We’ve got wonderful singers and dancers this year.”

The vaudeville, which follows each melodrama performance, will be a “best-of” collection from previous years, Hoit and Wheeldon said.

“A lot of former cast members will be coming back over the summer, and we’re reviving some of the best numbers,” Wheeldon said. “Many have kept in touch, going all the way back to the early ’60s. Many actors who have performed with us began in their 20s, just when they were getting started. We work closely together, and a lot have stayed in touch. We’ll have a number of cast member reunions starting with some from 1962.” •

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