click to enlarge Award-winning theater, movie and TV star - Shirley Jones headlines My Favorite Things.
  • Award-winning theater, movie and TV star Shirley Jones headlines My Favorite Things.

You might recall this time last year, when Stephen Sondheim's name seemed to echo around every corner. The Tony Award-, Academy Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer would soon descend on the Springs to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Colorado Festival of World Theatre and to take in a tribute show.

To help develop Beautiful Girls, an homage to Sondheim's strong female characters, Broadway director Lonny Price and maestro Paul Gemignani accepted an invite from the festival's producing artistic director, Suzy Bassani.

When the show hit the stage in mid-September, a packed Pikes Peak Center relished it. And Sondheim, the man behind West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, "thought it was absolutely terrific," according to Bassani.

"He was so enthusiastic about it," agrees Price. "He couldn't have been sweeter, more supportive or grateful."

Even today, good news follows Beautiful Girls. The show could travel two continents under the CFWT banner.

"There's a possibility of doing three large concerts," says Price. "One in L.A., one in London and one in New York."

Quite an honor for Colorado Springs. And it certainly points to the reason you'll see Price and Gemignani on the festival's playbill again this season.

"When we finished last year," says Bassani, "Paul and Lonnie said, "You know, we really like this place. This is just terrific. We can do this again.' I didn't even have to ask.

"Then they said, "Let's do a four-year series on the American musical.'"

Installment No. 2 of this series, My Favorite Things: A Tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein, plays Sept. 6 and 7. With songs from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I, it brings in award-winning television, stage and film actress Shirley Jones (of The Partridge Family), in addition to her son Patrick Cassidy, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley.

"What Suzy is doing is very important, bringing world theater to Colorado Springs," says Price. "Both of us felt like in any way we could help, we would like to."

The world comes to town

Now in its fifth year, the festival continues to offer top-notch attractions.

"You can't even go to Broadway and see all these shows," says Bassani.

And it does so with only four full-time staff members, who work year-round to organize a week's worth of events. Certain tasks are daunting, such as getting all visitors appointments at U.S. embassies for travel visas; shipping crates of costumes and props by boat; or arranging a FedEx truck to lug sets from city to city. (In a cost-sharing move, the Colorado festival facilitated a tour of last year's Truth in Translation, out of South Africa, to five other U.S. cities.)

In part due to the rough U.S. economy, festival organizers have restructured a bit. Every other year, starting with this one, the festival will run only its blockbuster show and a second large show; this year, that's Sweet William, featuring Michael Pennington from the Royal Shakespeare Company. The big international lineup will come back next year, and every other year from then on.

"We're thrilled about this new way of working," says Bassani, "because it gives us the time to do a whole lot of projects with the community that we never had time to do before."

click to enlarge Maestro Paul Gemignani will return yearly until 2010 to - conduct musical tribute shows. - COURTESY TOM KIMMELL
  • Courtesy Tom Kimmell
  • Maestro Paul Gemignani will return yearly until 2010 to conduct musical tribute shows.

New collaborations with local grade and high schools and universities will continue annually, as will secondary programming such as master classes, lectures, conversations and street theater. This year also sees the addition of Festival Goes to School, a teacher training program that promises to bring several hundred students to the shows at a huge discount.

A local leg up

Also new this year: Singing with the Stars, done in conjunction with My Favorite Things.

Paul Gemignani came out to Divide in mid-July to judge the contest, in which local vocalists vied for the chance to sing on stage with Broadway notables. According to marketing consultant Jack Ward, an audience at the Lost Dutchman resort narrowed 12 semifinalists (picked by CFWT from nearly 50) to only six, from whom Gemignani made the final cut.

When it came time, says Ward, "Paul found the caliber of talent so overwhelming, that he couldn't pick just one."

So he decided to write a part for a second winner. He also agreed to judge the contest for another two years.

"Gradually," says Bassani, "what's happening here is we're bringing some of our people into the show we're producing. Meaning Colorado Springs talents are getting an unparalleled opportunity for a leg up in the industry.

"There's nothing that we're lacking in this community. Even Paul Gemignani said any of these 12 candidates could be on Broadway."

The dynamic duo

Back to Broadway, and this year's My Favorite Things tribute: Why American songwriting duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, of 1940s and '50s acclaim?

"They wrote four of probably the best shows ever written," says Price. "They're exceedingly brilliant works ... just monster works of art, genius in every way."

Guess that's why their shows have earned a total of 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Grammys, two Emmys and two Pulitzer Prizes. And in the capable hands of people like Gemignani, who earned an Emmy in 2006 for Outstanding Music Direction for his PBS presentation of South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein's work continues to garner awards.

"They're the top," says Price. "It's great to be exploring material that is so well-crafted and just so absolutely beautiful. That's the attraction it's to get to work with material that is of a different time, yet completely and utterly satisfying in today's terms."

For those who caught Beautiful Girls, Price says this year's format and style will be similar.

"It's a linear exploration of the canon," he says, "starting with Oklahoma and finishing with Sound of Music, with stops along the way."

And wouldn't you guess, the festival's holding a surprise ending over theatergoers' heads as well. Typical behavior for a 5-year-old.


My Favorite Things: A Tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein
Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Saturday, Sept. 6, 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 7, 4 p.m.
Tickets: $20-$67; ticketswest.com or 576-2626, visit cfwt.org for more.


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