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THEATER

A cult film tries to find its way onstage

The musical 'Opposite of Sex' is here to conquer the East Coast

WILLIAMSTOWN -- A rehearsal for the musical ``The Opposite of Sex" is about to begin at the Williamstown Theatre Festival , and director/cowriter Robert Jess Roth is kicking things off by dishing some celebrity gossip: the latest tabloid rumors about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes's still mysteriously unseen baby, Suri .

Clad in a black T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, the laid-back Roth says he likes to inject lighthearted fun into rehearsal whenever possible. The show is, after all, based on a cult film that's full of hilarious, acid-tongued put-downs and wicked, politically incorrect humor.

Yet the amusing distraction no doubt serves to give Roth and collaborator Douglas J. Cohen a mental respite from the grueling task at hand: the shaping and tweaking of their new musical, which has its compass pointed toward the bright lights of Broadway. The Williamstown show, which begins on Wednesday, is the East Coast premiere of ``Sex." And all eyes are on the production after the musical's world premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 2004 got a tepid critical response. If it's going to make it to Broadway, it's got to make it here.

For those who haven't seen the 1998 Don Roos comedy on which the musical is based, the main character, Dedee Truitt (played by Christina Ricci), might go down as one of the most acerbic, snot-nosed antiheroines in cinematic history. A perverse, trash-talking teenager, she sardonically steamrolls anyone who enters her orbit with venomous barbs and nefarious scheming, leaving upended lives in her wake. ``I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later," she quips in her withering voice-over (a device that's maintained for the stage show).

Although the campy film, a favorite among gay audiences, is an ensemble story, Dedee is the pivot around which all the other characters revolve.

``[She] comes into these people's lives like a hurricane and just blows everything up. But in the end, she's actually the catalyst for everybody in the show finding connection," says Roth in a rehearsal hall at Williamstown's '62 Center for Theatre and Dance.

Indeed, when we first meet Dedee (played by Kerry Butler onstage), she's bolting from her white-trash family and heading off to Indiana to drop in unannounced on her 30-something gay half-brother, Bill. A straitlaced high school teacher, Bill is still mourning the death of his longtime lover, Tom, but is in a seemingly content relationship with dim-witted hunk Matt. Before long, Dedee seduces Matt, tells him she's pregnant with his baby, and convinces him to run off with her to raise the kid, stealing Tom's ashes and $10,000 in the process. That leads Bill and Lucia, Tom's disapproving older sister, on a cross-country search for the duo.

Despite Dedee's caustic nature and the havoc she wreaks, Roth says the audience ultimately ends up feeling for her.

``What is so great about Don's story is that you meet this character who is just unlikable," he says. ``But then you find yourself caring about her, and in the end really bonding with her . . . because she's been so hurt in her life and her defense is to not feel anything at all and to put up this big wall."

Giving voice to emotions
On the surface, `` The Opposite of Sex" may seem an odd choice for a musical treatment, but Roth glimpsed the possibilities right away. ``I thought, `Oh, these characters could sing.' They have depth to them, and there's a lot of emotional stuff going on beyond the high jinks."

He contacted Roos, the film's writer and director, who was receptive to the idea. And then Roth turned to Cohen, the show's composer, lyricist, and cowriter. Cohen is a longtime friend whom Roth has known since Cohen was a budding composer putting the finishing touches on what would become his award-winning 1980s musical ``No Way to Treat a Lady."

``As soon as I saw the movie, I thought of him," says Roth, who spent much of the 1990s directing Disney's first big foray into theater, ``Beauty and the Beast," and then launching various productions of the show all over the world. (Roth also directed the recent Elton John-Bernie Taupin Broadway bomb ``Lestat," so the heat's on him even more now.)

After a number of presentations and readings, ``Sex" finally received its world premiere at the Magic Theatre. One of the keys to the production was finding an actress who could make Dedee a believable and sympathetic character. Roth had directed Butler as the virtuous Belle in ``Beauty" on Broadway, but he'd never thought of her as a villain until he saw her spunky turn as good-girl-turned-teen-rebel Penny Pingleton in the Broadway hit ``Hairspray."

``I was shocked. It was like, `Ooh, she's talking bad.' And right then, I was like, `Oh wait, she's Dedee!'" he recalls.

With her sweet, buoyant charm, Butler is the antithesis of her character. Yet in an interview in a Manhattan diner, she reveals that she loves playing the bad girl, which she also gets to do in her day job as Claudia Reston on the soap opera ``One Life to Live."

``Everybody has lots of different sides to their personality. And it's fun to bring out the side that you suppress but not get in trouble for it," she says.

Butler says she found her groove in ``The Opposite of Sex" after a group of inner-city high school students came to see the show in San Francisco one day.

``I thought if anyone is going to see through me, it's going to be these kids. That day, my performance took a whole different turn. I felt that I couldn't fake it with those kids because they would know. I really had to pull it off. And they ended up loving the show. Afterward , people were screaming, `Dedee rocks!'" she recalls. ``So I thought, if these kids believed in me, then it doesn't matter what the critics say."

Ah, yes, the critics. Their response to the Magic Theatre production was a mixed bag (even if Roth, Cohen, and Butler insist that audiences were enthusiastic). Some reviewers accused the creators of blunting the film's sardonic edges by injecting too much earnest sincerity into the proceedings. Others said the show succeeded by opening up a window into the characters' inner emotional lives without softening the film's mordant humor.

``By placing music into a piece, you do give it more of an emotional resonance," acknowledges Cohen. ``But hopefully [those emotions] are happily cohabitating with the cynical side of the piece. It gives the audience a time to identify with the character and maybe understand why people act the way that they do. I think in a musical you have to take advantage of those moments."

A lot on the line
The stakes are high now. Roth says Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler have been involved with the show since its early stages, funding an initial New York reading and helping the creators land the production at the Magic. The Weisslers, he says, also donated money for enhancements to the sound system at Williamstown's Nikos Theatre for this production. And with so much on the line, Roth and Cohen say they have streamlined the story, removed some songs, added three new ones, and relinquished some of their overly ambitious ideas.

``We thought that telling the story through extended musical scenes was the right way to go. And it is, to a certain extent. But then there's also a wonderful point where you just want to hear dialogue," explains Cohen. ``Like one of our favorite scenes -- a confrontation between Bill and Lucia in Act 2 -- was originally a musical sequence. And now it's just the scene, with the song to kind of top off the emotion."

If the show can ignite critical kudos this time around, Roth, Cohen, and company might just find themselves shuffling off to Broadway. But for now, Roth insists he isn't thinking about New York.

``You want to get it out to the world. But my goal, actually, is just to focus on Williamstown. I want to do a great job here," he says. ``I want to really hone the show, and then whatever is going to happen next is going to happen next."

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