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'Reba' has a touch of Tampa

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[Photo: AP]
JoAnna Garcia, left, Scarlett Pomers and Reba McEntire laugh during a break in the taping of the Reba show in Los Angeles on Jan. 8. The cast gets along on and off the air, creating a family dynamic that fans can see onscreen.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2002


JoAnna Garcia, who grew up in Tampa, adds sparkle and a little, like, valley girl charm to the cast of this popular WB sitcom starring Reba McEntire.

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- JoAnna Garcia glanced around the crowded TV studio soundstage, patting her newly swollen belly and considering her options.

"The guys around here keep telling me to go into a bar and order a drink," said Garcia, 22, laughing as she tweaks the foam rubber-filled fake midriff that allows her to play pregnant teen Cheyenne Hart on the WB's hit sitcom Reba. "But that's just cruel."

Garcia's high spirits matched those of her castmates, milling about Stage 24 at Sony Pictures Studios three weeks ago, minutes before taping the episode that will air tonight. Like most sitcoms, this Reba episode was filmed before a live audience on a stage filled with five different sets, including replicas of a police station squad room and a golf course hole.

It's a relaxed, familiar process for the actors, who already had filmed a dozen shows together.

While the star of the evening -- country singing legend Reba McEntire -- was offstage getting some final makeup touches, the crowd let all concerned know who they really came to see, spontaneously breaking into a percolating chant: "Re-BA! Re-BA! RE-BA!"

"Look at that," marveled co-star Christopher Rich, a TV veteran (Murphy Brown, Another World, The George Carlin Show) who plays McEntire's philandering husband and Garcia's father, Brock Hart. "We're going to be on the air 10 years."

It's a scene light years removed from Garcia's days growing up in Tampa, where she earned her first acting gig at about age 11, snagging the role of Wendy in the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's children's production of Peter Pan.

Back then, parents Jay and Loraine insisted her acting work be balanced with a normal kid's life -- even as she was interrupting classes at Tampa Catholic High School to head to Canada for a role in Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Five years after graduating from Tampa Catholic, Garcia is living every young actor's dream -- co-starring in the highest-rated comedy on the youth-oriented WB network, Reba.

And, even as she sits in her homey dressing room, looking over photos of a Marc Jacobs ensemble she'll wear to the People's Choice Awards and preparing for a visit with a WB-recommended nutritionist, this bubbly girl from North Tampa's gated Avila neighborhood can't believe her good fortune.

"We've all been on shows that didn't work, and you can never put your finger on why . . . (so) when it does work, it's so great and so right, it feels pretty shocking," said Garcia, who still seems a little superstitious about crowing too soon over the show's success.

"One of Reba's (old employees) from Nashville came in and told us, "I don't think you realize . . . middle America is falling in love with your family,' " she added. "And we're so skewed here in L.A . . . that we really don't get it. When I did Craig Kilborn, he said, "Your show's a hit!' and I'm like, "If you say so.' "

Indeed, while hip, quality dramas such as Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls have sealed the WB's reputation with teen fans and critics, the network always had trouble scoring with comedy.

Black-centered sitcoms such as The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show only drew tightly targeted audiences, while experiments such as Nikki Cox's recently canceled Nikki, the sketch comedy show Hype and Bill Bellamy's Men, Women and Dogs failed because they were awful television.

Who knew success would come in a sitcom about Reba Hart -- a middle-aged, no-nonsense Texas mom, divorcing a philandering husband with his own pregnant mistress, while caring for their pregnant 17-year-old daughter (who married the high school football star) and two other kids?

"It's like The Brady Bunch of the new millennium," said Marc Berman, a ratings analyst for Mediaweek.com and an unabashed Reba fan. "People seem to go out of their way to find the show every week. And that's huge for the WB."

For example, Reba's 3.0 rating the week of Jan. 14 proved the third-highest for any WB show (only 7th Heaven and Smallville did better), improving the network's Friday night ratings nearly 50 percent among key viewers.

On the Reba set, signs of the show's success surface in small ways -- such as upcoming appearances by name guest stars such as Bosom Buddies' Peter Scolari as one of Reba's former flames (yes, she'll soon start dating again) and ex-Empty Nest co-star Parke Overall.

It's a sweet victory for a show that found its debut delayed for weeks by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (Producers nevertheless were forced to tape their second episode on Sept. 12, using an audience of stranded travelers bused in from area airports.)

"We don't reach the audience that Everybody Loves Raymond or other sitcoms on the major networks reach," said creator-executive producer Allison Gibson. "We're not thinking about smash hits. . . . We just want to be a show the network can build a night around."

Key to that strategy is Garcia, whose fresh-faced blond beauty and bubbly, outgoing attitude help link the WB's traditional teen audience with McEntire's older following.

"JoAnna is just fantastic . . . drop dead funny, and she has some of that self-absorbed, teenage valley girl that just comes out," said Gibson, noting that producers auditioned upward of 60 women before they found Garcia. "We needed a young girl that's funny and can play a wide range of emotions. We always try to have a lot of funny and heart. On this show, JoAnna is frequently the one that's bringing the heart."

Calling from her car one day after winning a People's Choice Award as best actress in a new TV series, McEntire agreed -- noting that the family dynamic that fans see onscreen comes naturally among the cast offscreen as well.

"People who have worked on other shows say this is a rarity . . . for everybody to like each other enough to hang out at lunch," said the entertainer, her trademark Oklahoma twang flavoring her words. "We do kid JoAnna about using the cell phone too much . . . but that's the way it is with our bunch. It keeps things light, and nobody's holding anything in."

* * *

Glance at Garcia's resume, and it's hard to believe there was ever a time when she couldn't get an acting job.

It started in Florida, when Garcia snapped up just about every acting role she could land -- scoring parts in the Tampa-based ABC series Second Noah, seaQuest DSV, Superboy and numerous movies of the week.

After Tampa Catholic, she tried a year at Florida State University. But the lure of Hollywood proved too strong.

"More than any culture shock, I think it was living on my own that was the toughest (challenge)," said Garcia, who moved to Los Angeles just over three years ago. "L.A. is a very intense town. Not living for (an acting career) and not letting it define you. . . . I'm still learning how to strike that balance."

Some actors spend years trying to make a dent in Hollywood, but Garcia -- who already had connections through the TV work she'd done in Florida -- had a job before she could buy furniture for her apartment, flying to North Carolina to film a TV movie with John Ritter.

Recurring roles on Party of Five (as Claudia's boarding school pal) and Freaks and Geeks (as the popular cheerleader who gives geek Bill "seven minutes in heaven") followed, along with a part in a forgettable drama for Fox, Opposite Sex.

She even scored a memorable guest role on Fox's Boston Public, playing a student who uses sexual favors to sway a high school election.

"We used to call her the guest star queen for a while," joked Garcia's real-life mother, Loraine, a former elementary schoolteacher. (Garcia's Cuban-born obstetrician dad, Jay, earned the first baseball scholarship ever given by the University of South Florida in 1966.) "But I admire her dedication. I don't think I could have gone across the country and set up housekeeping to follow a dream."

And when disaster struck -- Garcia was fired from the cast of David Alan Grier's DAG months before the show's fall 2000 debut -- even that turned into a positive, freeing the actor to do Reba as the show she left was canned by NBC for low ratings.

"I learned that getting (a role in) a pilot . . . that's not the first battle," said Garcia. "Then you've got to get the show picked up (by the network), then you've got to get picked up (by the producers), then you've got to stay on the air. . . . The odds are way against you."

For Garcia, who balances an open, gregarious attitude with a growing knowledge of show biz reality, that may be the toughest task: learning how to handle the booming business that is JoAnna Garcia.

"When you first come out here, you're lucky to have an agent. . . . Now I have a business manager and a lawyer and a publicist and a manager and an agent," said Garcia, who hired a business manager to field her mail when a fan snuck into her high-security apartment building and left a note on her door. "The (corporation) is me . . . which is an odd thing."

These days, Garcia is considering film roles for the show's summer hiatus (she's already appeared in American Pie 2 and Not a Teen Movie) and mulling plans to create an online network for young girls struggling with issues ranging from weight worries to premarital sex.

"Far too many images are placed in a young women's minds . . . images that don't embrace reality," said Garcia, who also has appeared on Entertainment Tonight and will be featured in an upcoming issue of People magazine. "I don't want girls to look at me and say "I want to be 90 pounds because that's what she is.' I want girls (to see) a normal size person who is going after her dreams."

AT A GLANCE: Reba airs at 9 tonight on WTTA-Ch. 38.

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