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April 02, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, April 02, 2004

'My Antonia' premieres here 'My Antonia' premieres here (April 02, 2004)

TheatreWorks is first to offer adaptation of Willa Cather's 1918 novel

By Julie O'Shea

It was about 10 years ago that Scott Schwartz first picked up a copy of "My Antonia" in a Philadelphia bookstore.

At the time, he'd been working for a small theater company looking to shine the spotlight on American works. And Schwartz, a newly minted college graduate, was determined to help the playhouse out with its mission.

"I went out and bought books," Schwartz, now 30, recalled in an interview last week. "I had never written anything ... (but) I wanted to adapt something for this theater."

"My Antonia" -- Willa Cather's acclaimed 1918 novel about friendship and life on the Nebraskan frontier -- was so mesmerizing, Schwartz never read any of the other books he'd purchased.

"I thought, 'This is great. This is the one I want to do.'"

Now, after a decade of first drafts, run-throughs and rewrites, Schwartz is finally ready to bring his masterpiece to life. But it won't be that small Philadelphia theater that gets first dibs on the finished script.

Instead, "My Antonia" will enjoy its world premiere at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The play, which opens Saturday, is the final show in TheatreWorks' 34th-season lineup.

"I had heard about TheatreWorks years and years ago. It's a wonderful company and very valuable," said Schwartz, who grew up on the East Coast and now lives in New York. "TheatreWorks does a lot of new work, which is very unusual (for a regional playhouse)."

The Silicon Valley theater company's devotion to new works is nothing surprising. In fact, each spring, TheatreWorks hosts a New Works Festival where up-and-coming playwrights have a chance to stage their plays, which are often still rough around the edges, before test audiences.

This is where "My Antonia" landed two years ago. It was the first time the three-act play had run in its entirety, and Schwartz said it received a warm reception from theatergoers.

In "My Antonia," a simple tale about the sustaining power of friendship, Jim Burden, a successful New York lawyer, returns to Nebraska to face old childhood memories about a Bohemian immigrant girl he once played prairie games with.

While this is by no means a musical, Schwartz calls his show, which has Russian and Czech folk songs scattered throughout, "a play with music."

"I always knew I wanted music with it," Schwartz said. However, when he was approached to perform in the New Works Festival, Schwartz still didn't have a composer, which is when his father stepped forward.

Stephen Schwartz -- a Grammy-award winning Broadway composer whose works includes "Godspell" and "Wicked" -- turned to his son and asked, "Why don't I give it a shot?"

Shortly after the New Works Festival, Scott Schwartz was asked if he'd consider bringing his show back during TheatreWorks' 2003-2004 season.

Schwartz's father flew out to California two weeks ago to check out the final leg of rehearsals and compose a few last-minute melodies.

"I am so happy to have this opportunity," said Scott Schwartz, who is directing the show.

"I'm not thinking of anything past this production right now," he added. "This is not meant to be a tryout for another theater or for New York."

Still, Schwartz admits he's nervous, nonetheless.

Wish him good luck, though, and Schwartz gives a small laugh before explaining that in the theatrical world, it's bad luck to say "good luck."

OK then -- break a leg.

E-mail Julie O'Shea at [email protected]

Information

What: TheatreWorks presents "My Antonia" adapted by Scott Schwartz from the book by Willa Cather. Incidental music by Stephen Schwartz.

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Opens April 3 at 8 p.m. Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays through Fridays 8 p.m. Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (8 p.m. only on April 3 and 10); Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., (2 p.m. April 4 and 25); "Visual Voice" audio-described performances are available April 23 and 24 at 8 p.m., and April 25 at 2 p.m.; closes April 25.

Cost: $20-$48

Call: 903-6000 or visit theatreworks.org


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