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Ringmaster of retail

In the opinion of many people who saw Webb's City: The Musical the first time around, the show was a hit primarily because of one person: Steve Wilkerson, who played the title role, James Earl "Doc" Webb, a grade school dropout from Tennessee who landed in St. Petersburg during the land boom of the 1920s.

Webb gave the world dancing chickens and talking mermaids at his store, Webb's City, which grew from a pharmacy and soda counter into a retailing landmark through equal parts shrewd business and shameless hoopla. It's a colorful yarn that made for surprisingly effective musical theater, thanks to a sharp book by Bill Leavengood and catchy music and lyrics by Lee Ahlin. But without a strong leading man, it would not have been nearly as popular as it turned out to be when it premiered in June 2000.

For one thing, many audience members were well acquainted with Webb, either as customers of his store or employees or friends, and they invariably commented how much Wilkerson resembled the man they remembered. But the actor downplays the similarity beyond certain basics.

"I'm short, I'm homely and I'm loud," he said. "I think that's enough alike as people needed."

Ahlin agrees that Webb's appearance _ right down to his trademark white suit _ mattered for a hometown audience.

"We had to emulate Doc's physicality as much as possible," he said. "He was a scrawny little guy. We were able to fit him physically, and then having such a consummate actor as Steve was a real plus."

Wilkerson lived in St. Petersburg during the 1980s and '90s, but by then Webb's City was long gone. He did some research on Webb, but mainly he credits Leavengood's script for giving him insight into the character.

"First, you've got to look at the script, because that's all you've got to work with," he said. "Even with a real-life person, you can't portray them other than the way they're depicted in the script. There's no escaping the words you're given to say."

As a masterful huckster, Webb could be charismatic, but Webb's City doesn't sugarcoat him. In many ways, his shortcomings are what make him a good subject for a play.

Leavengood sets up a series of conflicts. The central one is between Webb's family and his drive to build a business. "The sad truth is, your family will wait for you. Your business won't," he says.

But his family didn't wait. In Why Can't Life Be More Like a Picture Show, his first wife, Marie, cools her heels outside the Florida Theater, stood up by her workaholic husband. They eventually divorced.

"What struck me was how the public just loved the man and how the people who were really closest to him _ his family _ in a lot of cases didn't even like him," Wilkerson said.

Webb's City, originally commissioned as part of the Pinellas County Millennium Celebration, is being revived by LiveArts Peninsula Foundation, which was formed by Leavengood and his wife, Diana, to produce locally relevant theater. Much of the original cast is returning, though there are new actors in several key parts, including Donna DeLonay as Marie and Nathan Burton as chauffeur Leo Kerns. As in the first production, Ahlin will lead a six-piece band.

Leavengood again directed, and he made no major revisions to the work. As a playwright staging his own work, he had to guard against shutting out the actors' contributions.

"Working with the author as a director can be a dangerous thing," Wilkerson said. "There's a tendency to microdirect things. An actor's choices go a long way to making a script more interesting. But Bill has been very trusting of letting me make my own choices."

Ahlin has watched rehearsals over the last month at the Jordan Park Gym in St. Petersburg.

Wilkerson is "pretty much trying to replicate what he did the first time," Ahlin said. "He's trying to be as true to his original performance as possible. We're not trying to improve on success."

Two years ago, Wilkerson moved to Portland, Ore., where he appeared in a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. At 43, he has made his living as an actor for 25 years, ever since dropping out of high school in Amarillo, Texas. He has performed in everything from dinner theater musicals to A New Brain by William Finn, Tony Kushner's Angels in America to Shakespeare. He was in more than a dozen productions at American Stage.

Lately, Wilkerson has become enamored of the ukelele. "On my birthday two years ago I bought myself a little student model ukelele and became very fond of it. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I own half a dozen now," he said.

Wilkerson also has accumulated a trove of ukelele sheet music for novelty songs such as Egyptian Ella, Singing in the Bathtub and I'm a Bear in a Ladies Boudoir. He hopes to put together a cabaret show with himself on ukelele, a stand-up bass, snare drum and "a 250-pound woman who isn't ashamed to wear a grass skirt."

Until then, Wilkerson plays the ukelele wherever he can, even in the street. "In downtown Portland, people are probably saying, "Where's that ukelele guy?' Because I would practice it walking to work at the theater at night. People either smile at you or cross over to the other side."