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Local theater tackles the impossible

The curtain won't go up on It Runs in the Family at Richey Suncoast Theatre until Thursday, but, already, plans are being made for the next production, the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods in January. It's a difficult play with more than a dozen challenging roles, the usual quirky Sondheim score and complicated staging. I was amazed to hear the community theatrical group planned to tackle it.

Then I heard who will be in charge, and I relaxed. The director will be Scottie Michael, the community theater equivalent of Steven Spielberg. Richey regulars are still talking about the miracle she pulled off with Annie a few seasons back.

Last week, during the Lary Awards at the Belleview Mido Hotel _ the Suncoast's version of Broadway's Tonys _ Ms. Michael's theatrical peers voted to give her their highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award for her ongoing contribution to area theater.

Having Ms. Michael as director of Richey's play is sure to attract the best talents around _ perhaps even some who have left the community theater scene for professional ranks. As I waited in line to meet her after the ceremonies, I overheard several Lary Award winners say they plan to come to the auditions on Nov. 12 and 13 in New Port Richey.

"Yes, I plan to get some of the older-timers together again," she confirmed by telephone earlier this week.

So far, she has persuaded Michael Ursula, a New Port Richey resident now working in New York theater, to join the show as music director. Ursula did the music for Richey's 1992-93 smashing rendition of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. If anyone can squeeze Sondheim out of Richey's orchestra pit, it is Ursula.

Christopher Dunne has agreed to design the sets. "Chris is the best set designer in the area," Ms. Michael said, a view apparently shared by neighboring Stage West leaders, who recently asked him to share some of his techniques at a seminar in Spring Hill.

Richey theater may be somewhat off the beaten path in Suncoast theatrical terms, but it continues to attract performers from far and wide.

I think it's because Richey dares to take on the impossible, the play that everyone swears cannot be done in a small venue with limited resources, things like Sweeney Todd and Evita, and, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, Miss Saigon, if rumors are true.

Theater people are by nature risk-takers and they love that spirit, even if the result isn't always stellar. The rewards come when they stretch and succeed and lead others to try their wings, too.

"Richey Suncoast has hair on their chests," is the way Ms. Michael puts it.

That's just the kind of thing that will persuade a Scottie Michael to drive all the way up here from Clearwater night after night after night _ the chance to show, once more, that culture is not the exclusive province of New York, her home state until she moved to Clearwater in 1970.

"When we moved here, I was in tears _ it's so stimulating up there _ to what I thought was the wasteland," she recalls. "I was pretty snobbish, I must admit."

She approached Clearwater's Parks and Recreation Department and persuaded the city to start providing something cultural. They hired her full time, and she directed the Clearwater City Players for 18 years, until her retirement in 1989. The group does one or two major productions a year, with city help. "We did West Side Story, Funny Girl, Kiss Me, Kate, Hello, Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof, Brigadoon, with 75, 80 people on the stage at once," she says.

For a brief time, she led a regular community theatrical group based at Ruth Eckerd Hall, doing bold, experimental theater like Another Antigone and classic Anton Chekov. It became the victim of what she calls "snobbism and elitist" attitudes and is no more.

Now Ms. Michael freelances, picking and choosing the vehicles she really wants to take on.

The result couldn't be better for Richey Suncoast Theatre fans.