Uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh learned a lot about what not to do in the process of readying and revising "Martin Guerre," the new musical that first saw light in 1996 in London and officially opens at the Kennedy Center next Wednesday. It arrives fresh from runs in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre (in an unusual arrangement between a commercial producer and a nonprofit regional theater) and in Detroit.

The newborn "Martin Guerre" was smacked smartly by British critics three years ago. "We elected for a long rehearsal period and opening cold, and in fact that was not right for this particular show. It's rarely right for a show," said Mackintosh by phone last week from his London office. "I suppose I've been lucky in that 'Cats' and 'Phantom of the Opera' and 'Miss Saigon' opened in more or less the form that they ended up in."

For "Martin Guerre," Mackintosh said, "it's taken a fairly public sort of workshop on the West End in London and afterwards" when creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, of "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon" fame, "re-thought it for the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year to get it to the form they intended." Even the less than fully revised London version won a 1997 Olivier Award for best new musical.

"It's based on a true story, not a piece of fiction, and I think that is one of the key reasons it's been so difficult to turn into a dramatic piece," said Mackintosh. The famous tale, which comes from judicial records of 16th-century France, is about a soldier who returned to his village after years away and was accepted by everyone as the real Martin Guerre, only to be proven to be an impostor. He was helped in his deception by Bertrande, the wife of the real Guerre, who preferred him over the sullen boy she'd married. The story was told in a 1982 French film with Gerard Depardieu and in a 1993 Hollywood treatment, "Sommersby," with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere.

The musical, Mackintosh said, is not a "Les Miz"-style epic. "It's the same size as 'Cats,' really," he explained. "It's a medium-scale musical." Plot points, such as the deception and the wife's complicity, are played up early on, and the time period has been shifted slightly for dramatic purposes to show the strife between Catholics and Protestants in France. According to Mackintosh, Bertrande's decision to live a lie gives the musical a feminist twist. "It is one of the first stories about a woman deciding for herself what she wanted to do with her life," he said.

"Martin Guerre" is supposed to open on Broadway in April, though the producer still hasn't nailed down a theater.

A Clash With D.C.

Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza, two members of Culture Clash, the socially conscious trio of Southern California comics performing at Arena Stage, were ready to vent when they chatted with Backstage last week. They hadn't been prepared for the mixed reviews they got in Washington after their Nov. 12 opening. "We didn't want to come to town and be a tasty Latin treat," said the voluble Montoya. "We're here to meet people halfway, and quite frankly we were most surprised with the impeachment we received with the local theater critics."

"Radio Mambo," their interview-based comic riff on ethnic life in Miami, focuses on Latinos of all origins and the way Anglos, Jews and African Americans interact with them. It continues through Thursday, and the troupe has been commissioned by Arena to do a piece on ethnic diversity in Washington that will premiere here in the 2001-02 season.

"The critics may not have the measuring stick for this kind of piece," continued Montoya. "We're supposed to be Anna Deavere Smith? We're not. We're social commentators, we're clowns, we're three Latin guys trying to let it down solid."

Both the Culture Clashers and Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith believe the group's lightly comic style of political advocacy has been unfairly compared with shows by social-scientist-cum-master-actor Anna Deavere Smith. If that playwright is an apple, said Arena's Smith last week, then Culture Clash is "oranges. They're a unique comedic group within the United States."

Montoya is excited about the way audiences have responded to "Radio Mambo's" montage of monologues and conversations gleaned from real Miamians. "The lobby's full of old Jewish ladies and young Howard students and white middle-aged men who want to invite us out golfing," he said.

The "Mambo" run has averaged 67 percent of capacity, a figure theater officials found a tad disappointing. But they are gleaning good news from the same stats: About a third of the tickets were sold to people who'd never been to Arena--adding about a thousand households to the mailing list.

Montoya, Siguenza and their partner, Ric Salinas, have already begun interviewing Washingtonians for their show about D.C. Their Web site, www.cultureclash.com, is open for suggestions about subjects, people or places they should check out. And though they've been "overwhelmed with the sense of history" in Washington, don't expect the show that emerges to be a love letter. When Culture Clash "does" a city, Montoya explained, "we're not here to find positive stories; we're not here to find negative stories for the sake of negative stories. Wherever the stories may take us is where we'll go."

Signature's Schaeffer

Eric D. Schaeffer should be flying into Dulles after a two-day trip to London even as you read this, just in time to spend Christmas with his family in Pennsylvania. The ever more in-demand artistic director of Signature Theatre was in the U.K. to work on final casting for a musical version of "The Witches of Eastwick" (based on the 1987 film and the John Updike novel) set to open June 13 at the Drury Lane Theatre under his direction.

The only bit of casting he felt free to announce last week was Lucie Arnaz in the role Cher played in the film. "Witches," said Schaeffer, is a real old-fashioned "book" musical, "a naughty American musical comedy." Rehearsals begin at the end of March. Cameron Mackintosh (him again) is the producer, and Dana Rowe and John Dempsey, who created "The Fix," which Schaeffer did at Signature did two seasons ago, are the creators.

Mackintosh also produced the revue of Stephen Sondheim songs, "Putting It Together," that Schaeffer directed in Los Angeles and then on Broadway, where it just opened to less-than-positive reviews but, according to the producer and director, happy audiences. The question is how they'll replace star Carol Burnett when she leaves the show in February. No announcements are pending.

At 37, running from Arlington to L.A. to New York and London, Schaeffer said he has no trouble keeping his feet on the ground. Last week he was helping to clean toilets and dressing rooms at Signature, readying the theater for the opening of the musical "Floyd Collins," which starts previews Jan. 4, and which he isn't actually directing. He doesn't dwell on his growing status in the business of shows, partly because he's just too busy, he said. "I just think, 'What do we have to do today? What do we have to get done?' "

Though it's easy to wonder how long Schaeffer will remain at Signature, he claims he's in no hurry to move. He said he expects to be there for "at least for a good amount of time," adding, "There's still a lot of stuff we want to do."

Follow Spots

* "A Century of Musical Theatre: From Ragtime to 'Ragtime,' " a cabaret of songs from musicals as old as "No, No, Nanette" and as new as "Rent," opens tonight at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on Montrose Road in Rockville. Other performances are on Sunday and Dec. 28 and 30. Call 301-230-3775.

* Catholic University's drama department has set up a scholarship program in memory of William Foeller, who co-chaired their MFA program in directing and who staged plays at regional theaters--including Round House's "Nixon's Nixon"--and off-Broadway. Foeller died in August at age 51. Checks can be made out to the Catholic University of America Drama Department; indicate they're for scholarship funds in memory of Foeller; and mail to: Drama Department, Catholic University of America, Cardinal Station, Washington, D.C. 20064.

* Signature Theatre has a received a $175,000 grant from the Hilmar Tharp Sallee Charitable Trust that will enable it to commission four new plays over the next five years. The funds will pay for readings, workshops and full productions. The theater has already used the grant to commission works from playwrights-in-residence Norman Allen, Paulette Laufer and John Strand. Allen's past works include "Nijinsky's Last Dance" and "Melville Slept Here"; Laufer's include "Taking My Life in Your Hands" at Signature and an adaptation of "Little Women" at the Kennedy Center; Strand's "Three Nights in Tehran" was presented at Signature and "Lovers and Executioners" was staged at Arena.

CAPTION: "Martin Guerre," the tale of a soldier who assumes a dead comrade's identity, is coming to the Kennedy Center.

CAPTION: Social satirists Culture Clash are soliciting ideas for an upcoming show on ethnic diversity in Washington.