Thursday, August 29, 2002

Araca Group (Feature Story)--2002

Three Cleveland area "kids" makig it big on Broadway

Little did I realize seventeen years ago as the director of 'THE MUSIC MAN' at Huntington Playhouse that two of the three young men I cast would become the “wunderkinds” of present day Broadway producers. Matt Rego had the first line in the production, Hank Unger the second. Matt’s brother, Michael, who by some flaw in the process I didn’t get cast, worked back stage. Today, the three make up the Araca Group, a four-year-old independent production company which has three hit shows running simultaneously on New York City stages.

In a reunion meeting at Starbucks in Playhouse Square, the day that their 'VAGINA MONOLOGUES' was to open for a second run in Cleveland, the trio recounted their local backgrounds and the road to their present day success. Matt and Michael are members of the family who founded the Rego supermarket chain. They are from Rocky River. Matt graduated from the Western Reserve Academy in 1988. Mike is an ‘86 St. Ignatius grad. Bay Village’s Unger, went through the Bay schools and graduated in 1986. They indicated that whenever they need to get away or when it’s holiday time, they come back to their roots.

They all got their theatre shoes wet at the Beck Center’s Children’s School under the direction of Ted Siller. They also appeared on stage at Lakewood Little Theatre, Berea Summer Theatre, Huntington Playhouse, and Bay, Magnificat and St. Ignatius High Schools. Local people one or all pay homage to include Bud Binns (former producer and director at Huntington), Jerry Masick (a teacher), Jerry Friedman (a Lorainite who was formerly the Managing Director at the Great Lakes Theater Festival) and the late Josephine Abady of the Cleveland Play House.

Were they always interested in theatre? Unger recounts that he used to perform magic shows in his backyard. Even then he had entrepreneurial instincts, charging the neighbors for attending his epics. There was also the production of the 8 mm “Magic Movie” and the numerous horror movies and romantic comedies the trio shot with a video camera.

The Araca Group’s name is not a series of secret letters. It was the surname of the Rego’ s grandfather, Charlie, a Sicilian immigrant. Like the trio he was a gambler who parlayed $300, which he won in a game of craps, into a supermarket chain. The young men are not only gamblers, but have lots of guts. With limited initial success for their theatrical ventures they continued to plot and plan and have succeeded beyond normal expectations.

The road to success started with problems. 'FUGUE,' a 1992 Cleveland Play House production never made it to New York. They then revived 'CLOUD NINE,' a critical success but financial flop. At this point they left show biz. Mike went to law school, Matt went for an MBA and Unger did, as he puts it, “survival jobs.” In 1997 they decided it was time to try theater again. They founded Araca and produced 'SKYSCRAPER,' which didn’t make any money. Then things turned around. The trio met success with 'THE LARAMIE PROJECT,' then 'THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES' and then 'URINETOWN.' 'URINETOWN,' despite its name, is not a “gross out” piece. It is about two kids who fall in love in a city with a water shortage. In a mad attempt to regulate water consumption, the government has outlawed the use of private toilets. The citizenry must use public, pay-for-use amenities. Anyone who refuses to pay is hauled off to Urinetown. What is Urinetown? Nobody knows, for those who are sent there are never heard from again. The show went on to win 2002 Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. Many thought it should also have been selected as the Best Musical. Clevelanders will get to see a touring production presented at one of the Playhouse Square theatres during the 2003-2004 season.

Their newest Broadway entry is the critically acclaimed 'FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE' starring Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. It is a romance about two people looking for love. Coming up next is 'DEBBIE DOES DALLAS,' which they call “a funny and satirical play based on the porn film of the same name.”

I asked whether based on 'VAGINA MONOLOGUES,' 'URINETOWN' and 'DEBBIE DOES DALLAS' they were concerned about being known as the producers of sensationally titled shows. Their response? “Not if the shows are a hit!”

What is it like producing on Broadway? They describe their present activity as “putting on shows. It as not much different than producing on the local scene.” Lots of frustrated and broke producers wouldn’t agree. Our heros omitted that it takes the talent to be able to spot the right show, mount it in the right way, and have lots of luck!

It’s always exciting to read about Clevelanders making it in the competitive business of show business. May Matt, Michael and Hank continue to reign as successful producers. But, almost more importantly, may they continue to be the very nice people they are, unaffected by success, and still be “hometown guys.”