Arts & Events

New: Original Musical “CASTLE HAPPY” at Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse July Festival

John McMullen, ATCA
Saturday July 08, 2017 - 04:02:00 PM
Errol and Bette
Errol and Bette

A new musical set at Hearst’s Castle with 1930s movie stars and moguls is about to be launched at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda July 20-30.

We’ve (most of us) taken the pilgrimage to San Simeon (or “The Enchanted Castle” or “The Ranch” or even “Xanadu,” so this could be extra fun with filling in the fantasy of the “goings-on” at the publisher’s sea-side palace.

New plays are always special, and Bay Area playwrights supply us with them in droves, but a new musical is a particular novelty. Are the songs memorable? Does the plot hold up? What’s the orchestration like?

The backstory of the any musical team is nearly as much of interest: did Gilbert and Sullivan really detest one another? What was it like between Rogers and Hart vs. Rogers and Hammerstein? What came first with Lerner and Lowe—lyrics, music, or both together?

Here is a window on the creation of “Castle Happy”-- 

Susan and Jeff Dunn were running the “East Bay Playreaders” meetup (!) at their home in Alameda. John Freed had written a play, “Figaro’s Follies. When he arrived, he saw our piano, and asked if I wrote music. Could Jeff write a klezmer music for another play, “The Merchant of Pittsburgh?” Jeff did, John liked it, and so they bounced around the idea of musical about Marion Davies, movie star and mistress of William Randolph Hearst. He felt Orson Welles in had been portrayed her as a talentless bimbo, in “Citizen Kane,” even though she was a successful star with real comic chops. 

And Jeff has a connection to the movie: his uncle Linwood had created the special effects for Citizen Kane

Jeff never wrote a musical before. John moved in with Jeff and Susan for six months while they wrote a draft of the show. One of the highlights of the creative process was finding out all the facts and gossip about the lives of the Hearst Castle crowd in the late 1930s. 

For months they rewrote to put the emphasis on Davies and Hearst, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. A highlight of the musical is the marriage of Arthur Lake to Davies’ niece Patricia Van Cleve at the castle in 1937. Hearst set him up as Dagwood for what became a series of many “Blondie” films, over 500 radio episodes, and two TV seasons based on the Hearst-licensed comic strip! They took license to move up the wedding to October 1938, to coincide with the infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast the night before Hallowe’en—pitting Hearst vs. Welles one more time. (Ironically, 1938 was the first production in what is now the Altarena!).  

They pared down a big cast with grand production numbers for this first showing at the Altarena to fit the stage for 8 performances July 20-30.  

To hear the music and leer at the goings-on at the Castle, check out their spiffy, new website: 

Kim Long who played the title role in “Tenderly, the Rosemary Clooney Musical” plays Bette Davis, along with Autumn Allee (Patricia), Ben Brady (Stevens), Rebecca Euchler (Jenny), Michelle Hair (Quinn), Cindy Head (Marion), Stephen Kanaski (Arthur), Leland Morine (Hearst), Nathaniel Rothrock (Errol Flynn); Critics’ Circle Award-winner Clay David directs. 

The Altarena Playhouse is the oldest running small theatre in the Bay Area, and now has a summer Festival of new plays, and has garnered lots of accolades lately with multiple Theatre Bay Area Awards. It has not-bad seating, it’s compact, and the stage is close to the audience, so it’s very accessible.  

“CASTLE HAPPY” (the world premiere of a new musical) 

July 20 – 30 

Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm 

Altarena Playhouse 

1409 High Street, Alameda, Ca 94501 

(510) 523-1553 


Talk back with the actors and creators on July 23 

ASL Interpreted performance: July 28 Directed by Clay Dave 


Books and Lyrics by John Freed 

Music and Lyrics by Jeff Dunn 

Directed by Clay David 

Musical supervision by Jason Sherbundy  

Production and development by Susan Dunn 

[Personal note: about 15 years ago, I took my 90-year-old mother for a last trip to NYC where she and my father used to take me in the summer to see plays with actors who are now legends. I told her to pick one play and I’d pick the other. She picked this way Off- Broadway play about an immigrant neighborhood (her folks were immigrants) titled “In the Heights.” I’d never heard of it. But she could pick ‘em: 13 nominations, 4 Tony wins. And the guy who wrote it, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a new one out called “Hamilton.”  

So go see new musicals—you just might get lucky and wander in to a small production you can tell you grandkids about. ]