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Sunday, June 17, 2001

Celebrating Selena

Revamped musical strikes a chord by focusing on kids

By Dan Parker
Caller-Times

Contributed photo/Photo illustration John Bruce
Veronica Vazquez is one of two actresses playing Tejano star Selena in the Nosotros production of ‘Selena, A Musical Celebration of Life’ at the James A. Doolittle Theater in Hollywood.
Something unexpectedly wonderful happened not long after the stage play "Selena, A Musical Celebration of Life" opened at the James A. Doolittle Theater in Hollywood on March 28.
   Midway through the play, as the actress who plays Selena sang "Baila Esta Cumbia," dozens of children in the audience bolted from their seats and rushed toward their idol.
   "It was amazing," said Jerry Velasco, whose organization runs the theater. "They were reaching out for her, yelling, 'Selena! Selena!' The actress didn't know what to do. So she asked them to come up."
   The children climbed on stage and crowded around the actress, singing and dancing. Since then, the play's producers have turned the reaction
   by the audience into a regular part of the play.
   One year after the national tour of "Selena Forever" was cancelled after playing five cities, the play has been renamed and largely recast and rewritten. Coverage by Hispanic newspapers and Spanish-language radio stations created a buzz, and Los Angeles audiences have embraced the production. Because the play has been so popular and has sold out some nights, the theater has extended the play's run indefinitely.
   And the play is giving back to the community. The actors routinely visit Los Angeles schools. And there are plans to create college scholarships with a portion of the play's future profits.
Contributed photo
Veronica Vazquez belts out a song during a perfomance. ‘It is amazing, the treatment I get just from playing Selena,’ Vazquez said. ‘People after the show see me and call me Selena and believe it.’

   "This is a social experiment," said Joe Bradberry, one of the play's producers. "We want it to be an interactive process as much as we can. The cast members love going out and meeting with the kids."
   Musical tribute
   The musical is a tribute to the life of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, the Tejano star who lived in Corpus Christi. The play traces Selena's rise from gifted child singer to adult celebrity and also offers glimpses into her family life and her romance with Chris Perez, the band member she married.
   Known by her many fans by her first name alone, Selena was gunned down at age 23 in a Corpus Christi motel room in 1995. Her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder.
   Backers of the original musical production, "Selena Forever," had high hopes when the play began a national tour in spring 2000.
   But after playing in five cities including Corpus Christi and San Antonio, the tour was cancelled. Producers and promoters disagreed on many aspects of the production. The final financial blow came in May last year when lagging sales forced the cancellation of shows at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles.
   New life
Contributed photo
Actor Edward James Olmos (center) visits producers Tom Quinn (left) and Joe Bradbury at the Doolittle Theater in Hollywood where ‘Selena, A Musical Celebration of Life’ is in its second run.

   Producers then talked with owners of the James A. Doolittle Theater, an historic theater with 1,154 seats in the heart of Hollywood.
   The theater is owned by an arm of Nosotros, an organization dedicated to improving the image of Hispanics in the entertainment industry and gaining more employment for Hispanics in the industry. The Selena production featured an all-Hispanic cast, so it was a natural fit for Nosotros.
   Nosotros booked the play, and it opened March 28. The run was supposed to end May 27, but it was extended because crowds kept growing. The run has been scheduled to continue indefinitely.
   "I'm kind of intrigued by the Selena mania that has occurred. The crowd that comes in is all the way from 4 and 5 years old to senior citizens," said Velasco, president of Nosotros.
   With help from corporate sponsors, children who otherwise couldn't afford to attend the play have been bussed to the theater near Hollywood and Vine streets to see the play for free.
   "The play's about heroes and inspiration, and I stand outside the theater at night and see grandparents and kids, and they have tears in their eyes, and they're hugging each other, and it's great," Bradberry said. "Corpus Christi would be proud of how Selena is received in other parts of the country."
   'It's amazing'
   Selena is played alternately by Veronica Vazquez of New York and by Christina Souza of Los Angeles.
   "It is amazing, the treatment I get just from playing Selena," Vazquez said. "People after the show see me and call me Selena and believe it."
   Marta Rodriguez, a Los Angeles homemaker, has taken her two daughters, ages 5 and 7, to the play three times. And they plan to go again.
   "I remember the first time I ever saw theater as a young kid and how it affected me," Rodriguez said. "I wanted to have that same experience for my children. It's a wonderful piece of theater. Very vibrant, very visual, full of ."
   Selena's sister, Suzette Quintanilla-Arriaga, saw the play and loved it.
   "I know they've been having a lot of children going to the matinees and encouraging a lot of the Hispanic community, because we're not really into the arts, in theater," she said. "It was a new experience for me. That was really the first or second time to go to a play or musical, so I think this is really an educational thing."
   Rewarding for actors
   It's been rewarding for the actors to perform each week at Los Angeles schools, many of them with predominantly Hispanic student bodies, said Robert L. Trevino, development adviser with Luna Productions, which is producing the play.
   "It gives (students) hope," Trevino said. "In the Latino community, it shows that one of theirs has made it. And a lot of them have never been to a show, and to be at a show with an all-Latino cast, it really motivates them."
   Velasco said he always is touched when the moment in the play comes where children from the audience gather around Selena.
   "I think it shows the charisma that Selena has, or had," he said. "For me, that's one of the saddest things, emotional things. She was so young, and she touched so many people. I could just imagine, if she had lived longer, how many lives she would have touched."
  
  


Contact Dan Parker at 886-3753 or parkerd@caller.com

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