Correction: In an earlier version of this story, it was implied that Zac Efron went to Nipomo High School. He graduated from Arroyo Grande High, but worked with Nipomo High drama teacher Robyn Metchik in a group of students from both schools.
What is a diva?
Originally the term referred to a female lead singer in an opera, but that definition has morphed over the years, said Mary Meserve- Miller, the producer, co-creator and co-director of “Viva La Diva!” — the 13th “Legends” show.
The musical productions are tributes to legendary singers, male and female, and Meserve-Miller explained how “diva” defines the talents showcased in this show.
“In the vernacular or slang term, anybody of exceptional talent could be called a diva,” she said, More recently the word came to describe somebody who made demands, a superstar with both talent and temperament.
The array of stars represented in the current show tends to fit into the definition that includes all ages and genders, and many of them had quirks that made them diva-like.
Frank Sinatra, for instance, would only record with a live orchestra. Ray Charles couldn’t see, but his hearing was acute, and he could spot a false note from a particular instrument in his backup.
The legends span the years from Ethel Merman (1930s) to Lady Gaga, and include such “divas” as Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Diana Ross and more, singing what have become iconic pieces for each one.
Suzy Miller, choreographer and writer of the show, describes the divas and their songs as “the soundtrack of our lives.” She and Meserve-Miller (no relation) wrote the production with the intention of giving each of the stars a personal touch, using short videos in some cases to complement the live performances.
“Exploring how they grew up, where they came from, and what personal trials and triumphs formed them has given these anthems a new, deeper resonance for me.”
Keeping the videos down to three or four minutes was difficult, Meserve-Miller said. “Editing was horrible, there was so much interesting information. Everyone was fascinating, so it was hard to leave things out.”
They ended up with eight succinct videos, to be projected on the Clark Center’s large movie screen to enhance selected performances.
Rebekah Oulton, who has worked with Meserve-Miller and Suzy Miller before, is co-director. Casting the show was easy in some cases, more difficult in others. A number of the performers have had roles in previous Legends shows.
Anna Romero, known for being able to belt out a song, was a natural for Ethel Merman. Mike Kee, who has done Frank Sinatra before, will do it again, but Meserve- Miller was pleasantly surprised to discover that he could do a great tribute to Elton John. Her husband, Mike Miller, will demonstrate his versatility as Dean Martin and Juan Peron. Roy Henry will pay tribute to Ray Charles again, and also Sammy Davis Jr. in a Rat Pack number. Cody Pettit, who has also been in previous Legends shows, will re-create Jim Morrison.
The director notes the discovery of other young talents. Rachel Tietz, a recent graduate of PCPA, will sing a Barbra Streisand tribute, and Holly Patterson, a senior at Nipomo High School, will sing a Liza Minelli piece. Cadence Mitchell, a theater major at Cal Poly, will pay tribute to Minelli, Patti Lupone and Lady Gaga. Andy Wilson, who studied theater at UCLA, returns to the Central Coast to sing Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of Queen.
Meserve-Miller is especially pleased to have discovered Clarissa Spiller, who will sing Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner.
“It’s a challenge to find an African American woman with exceptional talent in our county,” she said.
But she was also perplexed when she couldn’t find the right woman to sing the Janis Joplin tribute. Clarissa offered to do it, and is great, she said.
“I’ve not seen a singer with this kind of talent in a long time.”
Josh Feldman, who plays and sings the Jimi Hendrix tribute, also plays guitar and keyboards in the 10-piece band, directed by George Pandis, a Los Angelesbased musician who has been part of other “Legends” shows. Feldman and Pandis composed all of the arrangements.
Some of the vocalists are also dancers in the 11-member ensemble. Suzy Miller, winner of five regional Emmys and a Peabody award, and assistant choreographer Hailey Cooper have worked with the dancers, some of whom are also choreographers, in what Miller calls “a dream team.” Mary Barrette is costume designer.
“Viva La Diva!” is a benefit for the Nipomo High School Drama Department, which has been selected over 3,000 other schools to perform at the Fringe Festival in Scotland in August. Robyn Metchik, head of the school’s theater department, is executive producer of the show.
Nipomo High School is known for its theater program. Actor Zac Efron attended Arroyo Grande High School, but he worked with Metchik along with other students from both South County high schools.