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'70 Girls 70' gets a new look and new music at Asolo theater

The idea was hatched last year over dinner between two old friends. Lyricist Fred Ebb and director/choreographer Rob Marshall were chatting about 70 Girls 70, the retooled version of the '71 Broadway musical. Ebb told Marshall that the show features some different music (by Ebb and composer John Kander) and a revised book by David Thompson.

"He said, 'We're looking for a place to do it,' " Marshall says. "I told him, 'I have the perfect place for you.' " "The place" was the Asolo Theater Company in Sarasota, where Marshall worked on Side by Side by Sondheim and Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill. Marshall called John Ulmer, artistic director for the Asolo, sent him a script, and Ulmer took it from there.

The Asolo will complete its winter repertory with 70 Girls 70, which opens Tuesday in the Harold E. and Esther M. Mertz Theater in the Asolo Center for the Performing Arts.

The show is something of a coup for the Asolo, which will become the first theater to present the "new" 70 Girls 70.

Ulmer, who will co-direct with Marshall, describes the show as the kind that regional theaters look for but seldom find.

"They don't hang on trees," Ulmer says. "That's why everybody does Nunsense three or four times." (The Asolo has staged it twice.) The show originally was adapted for Broadway by Joe Masteroff from the British comedy Breath of Spring. The play focuses on a group of aging actors who become fur thieves to save their home, a dilapidated hotel. Breath of Spring inspired the 1960 film, Make Mine Mink, starring Terry-Thomas.

Kander and Ebb are veterans of the musical theater, having penned the songs for Harold Prince's Cabaret (1966), and later Zorba, Woman of the Year and The Rink.

Marshall thinks that 70 Girls 70 is "perfect for this area," with its plethora of retirees and residents over 65. (The title is a send-up of the Ziegfeld Follies claim of "100 Beautiful Girls, 100," Marshall says, plus the fact that the cast plays characters in their 70s.) Perhaps more than any Asolo production this season, 70 Girls 70 is a collaborative effort among Ulmer, Marshall and musical director David Brunetti.

Marshall says that he and Ulmer "have been working together like we're attached at the hip," because each element of the show feeds into the other elements.

"In a play there's a director, actors and the writer," Marshall says. "Now we have a director, co-director/choreographer, a musical

director/conductor and so on. . . . The actors learn their lines, then they learn their music, then their steps, then we have to orchestrate it."

People are saying that the cast of 70 Girls 70 totals more than 300 years of showbiz experience. That isn't far off the mark.

Victor Griffin, for example, has been acting, singing, dancing and

choreographing musicals for 50 of his 71 years. He has appeared in Follies, High Kickers (with Sophie Tucker) and Michael Bennett's Ballroom. He originated the role of Salieri's valet in the Broadway production of Amadeus.

Griffin's colleagues for this show include: Marilyn Cooper - known as "Coopie" - a Tony and Drama Desk Award winner as Supporting Actress for Woman of the Year; Chevi Colton (Torch Song Trilogy);

Helon Blount (Most Happy Fella); Alan Kass (Guys and Dolls); Delores Hall (a Tony winner for Your Arms Too Short To Box with God); Phyllis Grandy (now appearing in the Asolo's Man and Superman); and Joan Kibrig (Brigadoon).

"These people are the ensemble. They're in every number," Marshall says. "The whole show is . . . production numbers, and each one has a dance break. It's challenging to come up with something like that."

Marshall and Ulmer agree that not much coaching is required of such a cast. Basically, a director shapes and exploits the talent available, an approach that seems to be working nicely with 70 Girls 70.

For one number, Marshall added a tap-dance interlude for the spry Griffin, who is delighted with the opportunity to show off a little.

He plays Walter Hatfield, a retired escape artist and safecracker, who used to work in vaudeville.

The actress/ingenue is Eunice, played by Cooper, who describes her

character as "a little ditsy and kinda sweet."

Alan Kass plays Harry Hardwick, the old stand-up comic, who does

impressions and dialects.

"I sing some, I move around a lot," says Kass. "Primarily I'm a

vaudevillian, so I try to inject some of that. With all the new material, it's a new show, so this really is like starting from the beginning."

70 Girls 70 Music: John Kander Lyrics: Fred Ebb Book: David Thompson & Norman L. Martin Direction: John Ulmer & Rob Marshall Cast: Helon Blount, Marilyn Cooper, Alan Kass, Victor Griffin, Chevi Colton, Phyllis Grandy, Delores Hall, Joan Kibrig, Dan Sewell, Eric Tavares, Ann D. Hurst, Doug Wells, Kirk B.R. Woller, Jack Boslet Musical director: David Brunetti Choreography: Rob Marshall Set design: John Ezell Lighting: Martin Petlock Costumes: Howard Tsvi Kaplan Sound: Bert Taylor Stage management: Marian Wallace Presented through April 11 by the Asolo Theater Company at the Harold E. and Esther M. Mertz Theater in the Asolo Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Performances at 8:15 nightly, with 2 p.m. matinees. Tickets $11-$25. Call 351-8000.