Nancy LaViola looks out at the mound of dirt in the center of the room and sees art.

By June, that dirt will be gone, replaced by rows of seats and tables filled with fans of musical melodrama - the silly hijinks theater known for its kitsch and charm.

When she opens her Great American Playhouse in a sliver of the long-gone Ike's Farmers Market in Oro Valley, LaViola will fill a much-needed role: Hers will be the only theater in the town of 44,000.

"I'm excited," said Mayor Satish I. Hiremath, a former president of the Oro Valley-based Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance. "One of the things we try to do with Oro Valley is bring arts and culture, and that's what separates our community from others."

LaViola has been planning the project for three years and dreaming about it even longer. A UA fine arts and dance graduate, she spent 24 years with Gaslight Theatre, starting in the 1980s. She acted and choreographed on stage and served two stints as its general manager. She left the theater in 2010.

"I got both ends of the business, which really helped me to grow," she said last week during a tour of the 9,000-square-foot space that once was Ike's meat shop.

LaViola has 10 investors and business loans to cover the nearly $1 million build-out. Construction will take 100 days, she said, and will include setting the stage at the far end, near the restrooms and not far from where butchers once worked. What is now a maze of wood frames and jagged holes in the concrete floor will be transformed into the kitchen near the entrance. A simple menu of pizza and snacks including sandwiches and frozen treats will be served, as well as beer and wine.

The theater will employ eight actors and as many as 20 service staffers.

LaViola and her artistic team - stage director Nick Seivert and artistic director Sean MacArthur - already have planned the opening production: "Pistol Pete the World's Greatest Cowboy!" It's the "rootin' tootin' adventures" of a cowboy hero in Arizona's Wild West.

"We are following the formula for musical melodrama - good guy, bad guy, ingenue," LaViola said. "All musical melodrama playhouses put their own ping to it, and that's what we intend to do."

Hiremath said he hopes Great American Playhouse will be the catalyst for a bigger performing arts scene in Oro Valley.

"Anybody who may be looking to relocate or to form something that isn't out there already, we want them to come," he said.

"Let's turn Oro Valley into an arts and culture hub."

Coming soon

Great American Playhouse should open by June at 13005 N. Oracle Road, off East Rancho Vistoso Boulevard in Oro Valley. Admission will be $17.95 for adults; $15.95 for students, seniors and military; and $8 for children 12 and younger.

• Details: or 512-5145.