When Dos Pueblos drama teacher Clark Sayre first met the Tony Award–winning playwright Robert Freedman, it was more than 30 years ago, and Sayre was an ambitious young actor delighted to be cast as a prince in the first staged reading of Freedman’s musical Grand Duchy.
The run-through was a success, but the show was not produced or published, and Freedman, Sayre, and composer/pianist John Bayless, who wrote the music for the show, each went their separate ways. Bayless became a top-selling solo recording artist and a concert pianist, Freedman conquered the highly competitive world of screenwriting, and Sayre eventually took his now-longtime position as mentor of all things theater at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.
When these three members of the original Grand Duchy creative team reunited in 2003, it was to world premiere the show in a relatively small black-box theater space at Dos Pueblos. Since then, several things both unexpected and monumental have happened that will lend a whole new aura to the production of Grand Duchy that opens at DP this Friday, April 15. Dos Pueblos, as many of you know, has added a spectacular large theater in the new Elings Performing Arts Center to its facilities, making a more fully staged version of the musical possible. And Robert Freedman, as even more of you are likely to be aware, has written a show called A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder that earned him a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 2014.
Like Freedman’s massive hit A Gentleman’s Guide, which is currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, Grand Duchy requires an extraordinary central performance, or rather more than two of them, as the lead actress must play two roles. In a new version of the old The Prince and the Pauper role switch, actor/singer extraordinaire and Dos Pueblos senior Sofia Ross will play both Princess Sophie of the Grand Duchy of St. Demaine, and Gaby, the young firebrand who is hoping that a revolution will end monarchy in this tiny and fictitious European kingdom. When the two teenage characters exchange places, each learns something new about the world in which they both live.
For writer Freedman, “it is a thrill to have students working on the show because high school theater experiences are so important.” He told me that, while the play is by no means a straight interpretation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, the two works share a common interest in exploring empathy. “Empathy is a good word for it,” said Freedman, “but this show deals with two teenage girls changing places rather than two young boys, and that means that they face a whole different set of challenges on the way to discovering themselves, including first love.”
Ross said that she feels “very lucky to be working on a show that has presented a new kind of challenge. It is definitely very draining — running up and down stairs, tripping over myself and falling to the ground, and changing costumes between every scene, sometimes even three times within one scene — but I have also learned so much about myself through portraying these two girls. As Sophie, I get to live every girl’s dream of being a princess who wears a tiara and loves to stuff food in her mouth; then as Gaby, I show the more rebellious and hopeful, sometimes clumsy, side of myself.” Audiences will certainly enjoy witnessing the rebirth of what may still become a big hit, both in Goleta, and who knows — possibly on Broadway.
Grand Duchy will be performed seven times, Friday, April 15, at 7 p.m.-Sunday, April 24, at 2 p.m. All performances are in the Elings Performing Arts Center at Dos Pueblos High School. Tickets are available at dptheatrecompany.org or by calling (805) 968-2541 x4670 weekdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m.