Imagine you’re sitting in a booth at Chasen’s, the go-to restaurant for Hollywood royalty back in the Golden Age. It’s November 15, 1949. Maybe you’ve just seen “All the King’s Men” or another movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. You’re in the mood for a big bowl of Dave Chasen’s famous chili.
The front door opens and in walks a handsome, dark-haired leading man, Ron Reagan. He strides purposefully over to a booth where a pretty young woman sits, looking nervous. Who is she?
That’s Nancy Davis, then a young starlet, and she’s about to have a blind date that will change the course of their lives — and a lot more.
“It’s a classic love story in many ways. You can instantly see not only their mutual attraction but why they were good for each other,” said Conwell Worthington, supervising producer of “In a Booth at Chasen’s,” a new musical about that crucial moment in American political history. The show opens Nov. 9 for 17 performances at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
Worthington is one of two Orange County men behind the new musical. His lengthy resume includes a stint as manager of show development for the Walt Disney Company. He’s been a director or production stage manager for countless shows and theaters throughout the U.S.
He’s working with John Herklotz, a Chicago native and former C.P.A. and cellular phone pioneer who became a philanthropist after he made his fortune. He got involved with producing movies later in his career, starting with a family feature, “The Giant of Thunder Mountain.”
Herklotz has a personal connection to the subjects of the musical.
“I used to live next to the Reagans when they were up in Pacific Palisades,” Herklotz said. “I’d see Ron all the time, working on the yard or washing his car. We’d chat. And I used to talk to her often. She was very nice.”
Herklotz thinks Reagan wouldn’t have been as successful with his political life if it weren’t for Nancy. “He was ambitious. But she helped him steer his career and guided him carefully from the beginning.”
Ron and Nancy’s first meeting was far from an innocent romance between sweet young things with no strings attached. He was 38; she was about a decade younger. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild and had just endured a high-profile divorce from actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had three children. The Hollywood press was not being kind; Nancy had a right to be nervous.
In the musical, we watch the relationship develop. Several weeks after their first meeting, the two have become closer but not yet exclusive. Nancy helps Ron paint the fences at his ranch in the San Fernando Valley and begins tentative relationships with his kids. A couple of years after that, thing are more serious as they confide in one another, argue, combat the tabloid rumors and become increasingly involved as anti-Communist crusaders during the McCarthy era. All the while, Nancy plays hard to get.
“I think it makes for good drama,” Worthington said. “And we’ve found perfect actors for the parts. Kelley Dorney is terrific. And Brent Schindele, who plays Reagan, is really convincing – he captures his spirit really well.”
Dorney was recently in “The World Goes Round” with Reprise 2.0 and “Annie” at the Hollywood Bowl. Schindele was in “No Strings” and “City of Angels” for Reprise Theatre Company, and he recently toured the country with the national company of “The Sound of Music.” He has worked extensively with the production’s director, Kay Cole.
The creative team behind “In a Booth at Chasen’s” is impressive: Al Kasha and Phil Swann (music and lyrics) and Sam Bennett (book).
Kasha was twice nominated for the Tony Award for Best Score: in 1981 for “Copperfield” and 1983 for “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Kasha’s two Oscar-winning songs written with his longtime collaborator, the late Joel Hirschhorn: “The Morning After” and “We May Never Love Like This Again.” They were Oscar-nominated for “Candle on the Water” and the score of Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon.”
Swann is the composer of the hit Off-Broadway musical, “Play It Cool,” which received the Outer Critics Circle nominee for Best Musical. He also penned the music for “The People vs. Friar Laurence,” “The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet” and “DeLEARious” (Garland Award winner for Best Score).
A writer, actor, speaker, and teacher, Sam Bennett is the author of the bestselling book, “Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day.” The Chicago native was part of Second City Theatre family. Bennett moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and has appeared in over 100 live stage productions.
“We’re hoping the show will have a future,” Worthington said. “There’s interest from several theaters in other parts of the country. The Reagans are still very much in people’s minds. And everyone enjoys a good love story.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org