Arts & Culture

Legendary bunch at the Clark Center

Roy Henry rehearses a Ray Charles song with the band.
Roy Henry rehearses a Ray Charles song with the band.

As artistic differences became insurmountable, Mary Meserve-Miller left the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre last spring after working 12 years as its development director.

But she didn’t go alone.

She took along Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles and a host of other larger-than-life characters that made her “Legends” musicals the most financially successful Little Theatre productions. As a result, the legends have left the building and moved on with Meserve-Miller to the next stage of her theatrical career.

“In the beginning, it was extremely sad and very depressing because I really did love my job and really, really loved the audiences and the volunteers at the Little Theatre,” Meserve-Miller said of her departure. “But I am a firm believer that when one door shuts, another opens.”

Her latest musical, “The Best of the Original Legends Series,” opens at the Clark Center on New Year’s Eve and features not only the familiar names from past Legends shows, but also — in many cases — the same actors who portrayed those characters at the Little Theatre.

Mike Kee, who portrays both Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, said the actors, musicians and crew wanted to support Meserve-Miller as she branches out on her own — in this case, with a fundraiser for Nipomo High School’s drama department.

“She isn’t into it for the money,” he said. “She’s into it because she loves it.”

The “Legends” shows, launched in 1999, combine biographical sketches with live music and dancing. As the series progressed, the shows continued to break box-office records, most of them set by previous “Legends” shows. But just as she was considering what her next subject would be, Meserve-Miller resigned from the Little Theatre.

“It’s my opinion that the current leadership and management of the Little Theatre decided that I should move in a different direction,” she said, carefully choosing her words.

Privately, Meserve-Miller is clearly not pleased with the experience. Yet publicly, she makes a point not to say anything negative about the Little Theatre.

“I want to take the high road because that’s how I was brought up, and that’s what I want my kids to see,” said Meserve-Miller, who said she still supports the Little Theatre.

Her departure seemed to signal the end of the “Legends” shows. But from the outset, Meserve-Miller vowed to keep the franchise alive. Renee Rettler-Geremia, a regular who will play Patsy Cline this time, said she never doubted the shows would go on.

“Because of her personality and her talent for the theater, it wasn’t going to stop there,” she said. “She’s a go-getter. She’s not going to sit back.”While leaving the Little Theatre has forced her to brainstorm about her career — she’s still looking for work — Meserve-Miller didn’t want her “Legends” shows to miss a beat. There’s also a part of her that wants to prove she can take her baby elsewhere.

“There were several legends that I was kicking around that I’d still like to do,” she said. “I’d like to do a John Lennon story. Several times I thought of doing a Janis Joplin story. And who wouldn’t want to do a Beatles story?”

This time around, she had to work without the Little Theatre’s budget and venue. So, to make things easier, she decided to go with a best-of show, which took care of casting. Most of the actors are familiar; so too are choreographer Suzy Miller and much of the 10-member band.

While Kee said the crew wanted to help Meserve-Miller, there’s also another reason people want to work with her, said co-director Bill McLaughlin: the quality of the “Legends” shows.

“People sense she’s fair and she knows what she wants, and she’s got a long track record of success,” he said.

While the holidays are typically slow for community theater attendance, the new Legends show does have an ace in the hole: Nipomo High alum Joanna Jones, currently starring in NBC’s a cappella hit “The Sing-Off,” will return to San Luis Obispo County to perform in “Original Legends” on its opening weekend.

“We couldn’t have asked for better timing,” said Robin Metchik, the Nipomo High School drama teacher, who is assisting on the Legends show, which will raise funds for her students to perform at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. (Two members of the Nipomo High drama department – Kelly Barrett and Holly Patterson – will perform in the Legends show.)

Also returning is Cayce Clayton, who is reprising his role as Elvis after touring Europe as a member of the popular boy band US5.

At a recent rehearsal in Arroyo Grande, various “legends” arrived for headshots as the band set up to rehearse tunes by Cash, Charles and Cline. Actor Roy Henry dressed as both Ray Charles and Nat King Cole; Kee dressed as Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra.

“I’ve never played two at the same time before, so it’s going to be interesting,” Kee said.

As usual, Meserve-Miller was still working on the script as opening day neared. As a result, Bill Kirkpatrick, who previously portrayed Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, didn’t even have a part to rehearse. So he mostly sat and watched rehearsals from another room, a copy of Keith Richards’ new autobiography, “Life,” close at hand.

Putting the finishing touches on that script shouldn’t be too hard this time, though. With 35 songs and 17 dance numbers, there’s not a lot of room for story.

“It’s going to be music, music, music,” McLaughlin said.

Meserve-Miller hopes to continue the series as a fundraiser for other groups. While she hasn’t decided on a subject for the next show, there’s no shortage of dead celebrities to choose from.

“I’m always keeping my eye on the obituaries,” Meserve-Miller said with a laugh. And, then — because she is careful in what she says — she added: “With only the best intentions.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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