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No People Like Show People

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War waited in the wings for its cue to take centerstage. A special adaptation of Lysistrata at the Wilshire Ebell took note and demurred—of which Rob Kendt took note in his Wicked Stage commentary last week. Street theatre demonstrators' cries of "Peace! Peace!" rang out. But as 9/11 should have made clear, there is no peace.

Portents cast shadows in the big Southland Theatre Artists' Goodwill Event, its 19th, and the 19th staged by director David Galligan. The glittering S.T.A.G.E. show contributed its annual outpouring of music, love, money, and moral support to the battle against HIV/AIDS, saluted the music of Frank Loesser, and added some $360,000 to the $4 million-plus S.T.A.G.E. has contributed to AIDS relief and philanthropies like the Actor's Fund. Its handsome, "coffee table quality" program book—size and heft of a really important paperback—included editor Harry Prongue's foreword noting that "War looms over us…. People are still contracting HIV/AIDS; people [fewer, thank God] are still dying…. We are still singing and dancing to help." A reproduction of the sheet music cover of Loesser's WWII rallying-call, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!" sounded a martial note that is poignant in today's context. We were united in support of the war effort then. Other times, other wars, other tempers.

Director Galligan commented over the phone to me later: "There's no people like show people for supporting each other. Playwright Larry Gelbart was there at every performance, for the show and for his wife, Pat Marshall [she sang Loesser's romantic WWII ballad "I Don't Want To Walk Without You, Baby"]. Actor Dom DeLuise was at every performance; his wife, too, was in the show." Mrs. Dom DeLuise is actress Carol Arthur, who sang a number from the 1937 film Blossoms on Broadway, "No Ring on Her Finger." A convivial group of show folks always could be found in the Luckman Theatre's downstairs greenroom, Galligan said, with a generous complement of refreshments contributed by Mark's, Vermont, and Orso's restaurants. "Biggest stars and hopeful unknowns alike," Galligan related, "these performers were always helping and cheering each other on."

Awards for lifetime achievement and "extraordinary contributions to the battle against AIDS" went to two beloved theatre icons, Carole Cook and Betty Garrett. Garrett and Ian Abercrombie presented Loesser's insinuating "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with a topsy-turvy turn: Garrett was the mischievous, suave, and of course irresistible seducer, while Abercrombie was the shy object of her intentions.

Introduced as "The best—kindness, generosity, grace, and love beyond the call of duty," Cook accepted yet another award for being her inimitable self, looking more than usually dazzling in peony-pink chiffon, matching coq feather boa, sparkling jewels, and of course that attention-getting red hair of hers. She fought back the tears glistening on her cheeks and recovered her customary sangfroid with a self-deprecating quip: "I look like I've been dipped in Pepto-Bismol." Later in the show, during her rendition of "Big D" from The Most Happy Fella, Cook pulled sign language interpreter Jon Maher onstage into her act. Maher proved an active participator and a fine actor; Cook claims discovery of a promising new thespian talent.

Sally Struthers kicked up a storm with "Murder He Says," Robert Morse teased his way through "I Believe in You," Jack Noseworthy shot out sparks with his incendiary "Luck Be a Lady." Lee Martino's dynamic choreography propelled what amounted to a mini Guys and Dolls production. These were just a few of S.T.A.G.E.'s show people's showstoppers.

Guys and Dolls Non-Stop

It couldn't be more American, this musical based on Damon Runyon's slangy 1931 classic of Broadway guys and dolls. A national treasure it is. So is Loesser, who wrote its great songs. The show's hard-boiled innocence, jaunty irrepressibility, veneer of toughness cloaking sentimentality, and, well, yes, schmaltz, all have special poignancy and appeal—especially now, as I found seeing it again for the umpteenth time, but I'm certainly not complaining. Guys and Dolls just closed a successful run at the elegant and by now rather venerable (founded by Ben Bollinger in 1985) Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre in Claremont, which admittedly is a venue somewhat off the beaten track for L.A/ urbanites. But it's in a beautiful Southern California community that seems still perfumed by orange blossoms of earlier orange-grove days. This is a dinner theatre worth the trip, with remarkably fine cuisine and shows that refuse to be upstaged by it. Expertise and elegance are keynotes; the shows are fully professional. Want sweet? You got sweet with lovely Amy Gillette's shimmering soprano in "I'll Know," and "I've Never Been in Love Before," and with Duane Thomas' tender "More I Cannot Wish You." Want hot? You got hot with Brenton Schraff's fiery "Luck Be a Lady," also in the ensemble's salsa-flavored "Havana" and "The Crapshooters' Dance." Want funny? You got funny with Robyn Pedretti's "Take Back Your Mink," "Adelaide's Lament," and wedding-minded Adelaide's duet, "Sue Me," with Tony Pinizotti's slippery Nathan Detroit. You got it all in this sparkling staging directed by Greg Hinricksen with a fine Runyonesque understanding.

Candlelight has a symbiotic relationship with nearby Citrus College, where Hinricksen is director of its Haugh Performing Arts Center. Brenton Schraff, who played Sky Masterson like a very young wholesome Marlon Brando, looks like the guy just out of college he is—two years ago a graduate from Citrus' excellent music department. His wife and infant son were in the matinee audience on closing week. The lovely Gillette is also a Citrus grad. Among other actors who impressed were Steve Arlen as Benny Southstreet, Keith David Dillon as Nicely-Nicely, and Craig Mitchell as fearsome Big Jule. Long, lean, and leggy Pedretti, whose flair for physical comedy is extraordinary, cast against type as Adelaide, came through brilliantly, and Pinizotti gave Nathan Detroit a touch of Chaplin while making the role his own.

Dinner theatre is risky business. Candlelight survives because it's one of the best. Annie Get Your Gun opens there on Mar. 28.

Mini-Mall Mikado

Guys and Dolls closes there and opens here, at another dinner theatre in a mini-mall near you—anyway, nearer, probably, in a Los Alamitos mini-mall on Apr. 17, where The Mikado recently closed. A dinner theatre in a mini-mall? This is, to say the least, unusual. My daughter Carola happened upon the WestEnd Dinner Theatre; naturally we wished to check it out and, eager to know more, dropped in for a Sunday Mikado matinee. Unusual indeed was the response of producer/ host/general factotum Greg Leach when I requested information about this project. "Oh, no publicity, please!" he pleaded, appearing visibly shaken. "You can see I am swamped trying to crowd everyone in for this matinee. We already have more business than we can handle!" Sure enough the well-kept theatre space was packed, and workers were busily scurrying about setting up extra tables.

But a publicity-shy producer/showman? Seated at a top-tier table, we were pondering this strangeness when producer Leach reappeared, at ease, smiling genially, and saying yes, of course, he'd be pleased to supply whatever info we desired. Just kidding before. We gather that Leach is a pretty good actor with an unusual sense of humor. So in this meticulously cared-for theatre that seats 100 at a pinch, we munched on submarine sandwiches from the Sub shop next door and watched 16 singer/actors of varying talent and experience—but all fine singers—give G&S a whirl in what the notably literate (and blissfully free of typos) program lauded as "epitome of Gilbert and Sullivan." Program notes were erudite and amusing: The Japanese-themed Mikado "has nothing to do with Japanese customs or culture; it has to do with what the English of 1885 thought the Japanese ought to be like: an English tea party with a thin veneer of Japanese lacquer." Costumes (Kim Jones & Trish Miller) were certainly Japanese, as were the stylized set, wigs, and makeup (uncredited.)

I particularly liked the rich, cleverly comedic performance of Scott Ratner (the cast's only Equity member) as Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko. Ratner mugged delightfully; his updated (by him?) little list of those who never will be missed included naughty references to Britney and "baby-dangling" Michael. Ratner, said the program, is "a mystery writer and classic cinema enthusiast" whose day job is as actor/magician at Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. Darren C. Buckels was very good, too, as deep-voiced baritone Pooh-Bah. Bradley Miller's lyric tenor soared in Nanki-Poo's beautiful "Wandering Minstrel." Jill DeFreitas was a lively Yum-Yum with cockney accent. Smallest cast members were third-grader Jamie Dahlke and 11-year-old Emily Fitzpatrick, who would like to play Yum-Yum "eventually."

Upon reflection, daughter Carola remembered Greg Leach from her years at Cal State Fullerton, where she was a theatre major. WestEnd co-producer with Mikado's director Kent Johnson, Leach is on the Los Alamitos Fine Arts & Cultural Affairs Commission, president of its WestEnd Cultural Arts Center, and a Cal State Fullerton grad, where later he was a member of its theatre arts department. The WestEnd Dinner Theatre is Leach's baby.

In an ideal world every mall, mini-mall or pod mall would have a live theatre, a dinner theatre, or both.

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