The Los Angeles musical theater community has had a rough stretch lately. With the Funny Girl revival canceled and the new Sleepless in Seattle at least postponed, with Reprise forced to suspend its major productions due to financial hardship, and with the shock waves left by the sudden passing of beloved leading man John Bisom this past weekend, we could all use a cheerful tune.
In a genre that has become all but synonymous with large houses, opulent production values and astronomical budgets, DOMA Theatre Company has managed to emerge as a dedicated 99-Seat Plan musical theater production company in Los Angeles. It’s ready to kick off the 2012 season tonight with The Who’s Tommy, the first chapter in a five-show season that continues with Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, pop culture icon Xanadu, and Ahrens’ and Flaherty’s Once on this Island.
Launched by co-artistic directors Marco Gomez and Dolf Ramos in 2002, DOMA was founded with the purpose of allowing novice and up-and-coming talent to perform and have the opportunity to learn alongside seasoned professionals. It is a principle that Gomez and Ramos remain dedicated to instilling in every aspect of their productions, both onstage and behind the scenes.
“We got together because we saw that there was always an acute division between amateur theater and professional theater,” explains Gomez.Â “There was no middle ground for people to come in and then transition to the bigger stages. We came up with a model plan where we would bring professional actors from different mediums””television, theater, film””and have them work with amateur actors and first-timers, or people who had all of the academic, but perhaps not the actual life experience on the stage. In that environment, they are able to learn from each other. The seasoned actors can learn new techniques that are being taught in the schools and the kids can receive hands-on training from the more practiced actors.”
Even their moniker is collaborative. “DOMA” is a fusion of the names “Dolf” and “Marco”””it has nothing to do with the Defense of Marriage Act, as Ramos is quick to point out. According to Ramos, the company started off as a vehicle for himself and Gomez to showcase their own original material, but it quickly evolved into a production company for already-established musicals. “We actually started with a show we had written ourselves called Lover’s Mayhem, and we went into this thinking to ourselves that we could just write and produce our own shows one right after the other. Well”¦that first show burnt us out. So we started pulling from shows that we did in high school or that we really love or ones that were referred to us.”
From its origins of rehearsing in Dolf Ramos’ garage, DOMA began to take shape and grow, eventually partnering with the Hope & Union Foundation, an arts organization dedicated to assisting at-risk youth, who helped the fledgling company take root and expand from maybe one or two productions a year to a full year-round season. Almost a decade later, that core principle of combining amateur and professional remains at the forefront of their endeavors.
Hallie Barran, who began working with DOMA last year when she directed its spring production Pippin and is currently helming Tommy, has nothing but praise for the company’s collaborative method. “I think the concept that DOMA not only wants to be a working professional theater in the Los Angeles, but also a training ground as well is amazing. There are very few apprenticeships anywhere, in any career. How are these newer people who have the drive, but perhaps fewer credits, going to get those credits and that experience if nobody is going to give them that opportunity? Dolf and Marco are very generous men for opening their company to this concept because theater, especially in Los Angeles, is a very tricky business.”
Tricky business is right. With financial hardships hitting their fellow musical theater counterparts every which way, Gomez and Ramos remain vigilant and empathetic to these economic circumstances . Even though the cost of a DOMA ticket is a mere fraction of what it costs to see a professional musical here in town, Gomez is adamant that his audiences get their money’s worth. “Our philosophy is that if you’re going to pay $30 to see a show under these economic circumstances, you should be getting your $30 worth in the experience.”
For DOMA, it’s about focusing that attention and bringing out the quality in the details. For example, at each performance every member of the audience is given a piece of chocolate as they enter the theater. “We want the experience to be a sweet one,” explains Gomez. “We want to make sure that our audiences feel welcome and have a good time so they keep going to see live theater in general.”
A cheaper ticket price, novice actors, and a smaller house do not mean, however, that audiences should expect a watered-down production or that these guys have any interest in playing it safe in their artistic choices. When asked about the choice to do a production of Tommy so close on the heels of the highly-lauded Chance Theater’s rendition in 2010 or even the 2008 production with Tony winner Alice Ripley at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, Dolf Ramos is confident that the DOMA production will more than stand on its own.
According to Ramos and director Barran, this is a brand-new Tommy that speaks to contemporary audiences. “I truly believe that with each script there is a certain amount of freedom to re-interpret and to take risks, which is what we try to do with each of our shows,” says Ramos. “One of the things I brought to Hallie was that I would like to see some kind of futuristic update to Tommy that relates to gamers today. The idea of being absorbed in technology is pretty much universal nowadays. Everyone sort of has this tunnel vision with their iPhones or iPads, etc. Anyone who has like five minutes to spare will immediately pull out their phones and start playing a game.”
For Barran, the title character’s “deaf, dumb, and blind” qualities take on more of a self-imposed meaning. “Today we’re living in a world where people sort of make themselves deaf, dumb, and blind to the rest of the world through virtual reality. So we try to touch on that as well and make social commentary about that world. Our Tommy wears a hoodie, yellow gamer glasses and earphones.”
Updating Tommy wasn’t so much of a challenge or radical departure for Barren and her creative team, but rather a choice that was inherent in the source material.Â “I think we find ourselves now in a place where the timelessness of the piece will still stand, but I think we’re also at a point now where we can break from the traditional Tommy that everybody knows. As I read through the script, I found that I didn’t really need to have Tommy live in the distinct eras that the script dictates it’s set in. I thought that we could break away from that a little bit and even take it a little bit into the future. I don’t feel like this piece has a static feel to it at all.”
While creating a completely futuristic version of an iconic period musical with a company whose level of professional experience runs the gamut seems a daunting task, Barran sounds confident that the DOMA method works. “As a director, it certainly keeps you on your toes, but if everybody is living up to their expectations, there is no problem in training people. It’s one thing to have your seasoned professionals who know what they’re doing and who you can look up to, respect, and learn from; but if you have those driven people who want to learn and can follow in those footsteps and gain the training and the confidence to become their own person, it really drives that theater experience, which I think is fantastic.”
For the Ramos and the rest of the DOMA team, the combination of grounding and enthusiasm to be working ultimately accounts for the quality of their productions, which is essential to survival in musical theater. “I definitely believe that the talent has to be there, as well as the serious desire to do theater. I like to think that we have the talent and the quality that’s comparable to some of the bigger houses, but doing it on a smaller stage gives you a more intimate and personal experience.”
Gomez even goes a step further to say that the overabundance of distracting theatrical tricks would be more of a hindrance than a help to the survival of his company’s productions. “I look at a lot of the new technology that is being used in musical theater and all of the work that is being done with televisions and projections, and while we understand and appreciate it, we feel like it sort of takes away from what theater really is.”
Perhaps a return to basics and the fundamental principles is what the doctor ordered as the musical theater community continues navigating rather uncertain times. Gomez sums up what’s important to DOMA. “In a time where we see the arts being cut back everywhere you look””in the schools, state budgets, etc.””we really feel that musical theater is something that has to survive. There is no way we can let it die.”
The Who’s Tommy, presented by DOMA Theatre Company. Opens tonight. Plays Fri.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 3 pm. Through April 15. Tickets: $30. The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles. 323-465-0693. www.domatheatre.com
***All The Who’s Tommy production photos by Michael Lamont