For the first time since it opened its doors 15 years ago in Old Town, Mosley Street Melodrama will be presenting a show that’s not a locally written satirical melodrama.
“Greater Tuna,” the 1982 off-Broadway farce about rustic life in “the third smallest town in Texas” with two actors quick-changing their way through 22 roles, opens Friday and runs Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 2.
“No, this doesn’t represent a change in philosophy,” says Patty Reeder, owner and co-founder of the popular theater. “Our (melodrama) formula is very, very popular. We just had our best year ever. We’re not changing anything. We’re just adding to it.”
Reeder says that Mosley Street Melodrama is normally closed during January to recuperate from the seven-night-a-week rush of sold-out shows during the month long holiday season. But this year, she was approached about doing an extra show during that period by Dan E. Campbell, a former Wichita actor who carved out a career in New York (stage, soap operas) and Los Angeles (stage, various TV series, host of Razzie Awards) during the past three decades before moving back home this year.
“He proposed doing ‘Greater Tuna’ with Scott Noah (Mosley co-founder) to have something going during our dark period. I decided to give it a try,” Reeder says. “If it’s successful, we may do something like it every January instead of just taking a break.”
Directing Campbell and Noah is longtime Wichita actor/director J.R. Hurst.
Campbell, a 1980 Wichita State theater grad, says he has performed “Greater Tuna” and two of its sequels (“A Tuna Christmas,” “Red, White & Tuna”) a number of times, notably in Winfield opposite Roger Moon, theater director at Southwestern College.
“When I’d come home for the holidays, I’d see Scott in the melodramas and was sure he’d be perfect for ‘Tuna,’ ” Campbell said. “We talked about it for years, then when I came home to stay this year, it occurred to me that we could do it together.”
Noah, who sold his interest in Mosley Street Melodrama in 2008 to go into his family’s oil business but kept performing as “a hobby — or maybe an obsession,” admits he hasn’t done a “regular” comedy in years.
“It’s definitely different than doing melodramas. I have to put my impulse to break the fourth wall and talk to the people in the front row on hold,” Noah says with a laugh. “Fortunately, that acting ‘muscle’ hasn’t atrophied.”
The show, which features an affectionate but sometimes witheringly satirical look at small-town Southern life, was written by the trio of Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. It was performed by Williams and Sears with quick-change ferocity — and hilarity — while Howard directed. The trio took the show to off-Broadway and then in countless tours across the country for more than a quarter of a century.
Campbell and Noah play 11 characters each, both male and female, from rambunctious kids to crotchety old-timers. One even plays Yippy, the Pet of the Month that no one wants to adopt. Townspeople include a smut-obsessed preacher, a UFO expert (who also happens to be the town drunk) and the head of the local KKK. There are various shady politicians, no-nonsense lawmen, giddy housewives and a couple of smug local radio DJs who report all the gossipy goings-on live on air.
“The one I’m having the most fun playing is Vera Carp, the town snob and vice president of Smut Snatchers,” says Noah about a woman for whom “Huckleberry Finn” and “Romeo and Juliet” are too racy for school libraries. “I don’t know why I love her. There’s just something fun about her. And, no, I’m not patterning her after any one I know.”
Noah says he initially worried more about delineating 11 characters than their fast-paced costume changes. “But coming up with different voices and postures has been pretty easy,” Noah says. “Now I’m more worried about the technicals of the quick changes.”
For Campbell, it’s just the opposite. “At this point, the dresser I always used at Winfield, Barb Rush, is such a rock that she takes all the worry out of the changes for me. I have one where I walk out one door as the sheriff and right back in another as an old woman in a nightgown and cap. Thank goodness for lots of Velcro and lots of elastic.”