Musical celebrates spirit of Atascadero's founder

slinn@thetribunenews.comJuly 19, 2013 

This weekend, Atascadero celebrates its past with singing, dancing and plenty of pageantry.

“The Colony – The Musical” charts the early days of the Colony of Atascadero, from the laying of the cornerstone of the City Administration Building in 1914 through World War I.

The play premiered in the mid-1990s. Now community members are reviving “The Colony — The Musical” as part of Atascadero’s centennial celebration — with two free performances Saturday and Sunday in the Sunken Gardens.

According to co-creator Anet Carlin, the musical seeks to capture the spirit of community founder E.G. Lewis and the dedicated settlers who helped him build Atascadero.

“It just celebrates the courage it takes to found a brand-new endeavor,” Carlin said.

“All I really wanted to say (to the audience) was ‘They began it, and it’s your responsibility to continue it and to realize the vision of the dream this man had,’” she said.

Directed by John Lambie and produced by Dianne Greenaway with choreography by Tiffini Hansen and musical direction by Joanne Stoddard, “The Colony — The Musical” features a cast of 45 or so adults and children from across San Luis Obispo County. Gayle Pierce designed the costumes, and Stephen Tosh arranged the score.

Carlin said she got the inspiration for the musical after seeing the long-running Ramona Pageant in Hemet.

“Everyone in this tiny town was in it,” recalled Carlin, who founded Atascadero’s Brickyard Theatre. “I thought, ‘We’re a historical community. Why don’t we have a pageant of our past?’”

Carlin co-wrote the lyrics for “The Colony — The Musical” with Colleen Goulding Lord, who composed the music. She based the musical’s story partially on conversations with Atascadero historian and Tribune columnist Lon Allan and interviews with Atascadero area residents.

For instance, she talked to a woman whose family moved to Garden Farms from Minnesota.

“That touched me so — (for someone) to come out to this unknown place based on an article in a magazine, to come out to a brand-new community and try a brand-new kind of life,” Carlin said.

The first act of “The Colony — The Musical” debuted in 1995 at the Sunken Gardens. A second act was added the following year.

This version adds an epilogue, penned by Allan, about what happened to the colony in the 1920s. It also includes the 1915 song “Atascadero,” possibly commissioned by Lewis himself.

Greenaway compared “The Colony — The Musical” to the Broadway musical “Oklahoma!,” describing it as a romanticized account of Atascadero history complete with a wedding and a Fourth of July pageant.

At the heart of the musical is Lewis’ vision for Atascadero. The publisher, who also founded University City, Mo., and Palos Verdes Estates in California, advertised the colony as a paradise with a mild climate, rich soil and cheap land.

“When he was looking to build his community in California, he … really painted a picture for people who wanted the amenities of the city but the lifestyle of the country,” Greenaway said. But when prospective buyers arrived in Atascadero, they discovered not a town, but a tent city.

“For those people at that time it was definitely a faith proposition,” Greenaway said, which is reflected in the musical. “There are characters that embody E.G. Lewis’ vision and others who go, ‘This doesn’t look too promising …. The community will fail.’”

Although Atascadero’s future may have seemed uncertain then, Greenaway said, “We all know that it has succeeded and grown and thrived.”

Carlin agreed.

“All of us who live here in Atascadero feel a growing momentum,” she said. “There is a feeling that this town is gathering itself to stand up and be a unique town.”

If you go …

Watch “The Colony – The Musical” at 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Sunken Gardens in downtown Atascadero. For more information about the free performances, call 712-3947 or visit http://atascadero.net/.

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