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Musicals Come to the Monument

The grand old Pasadena Civic Auditorium, edifice if there ever was one, entered its bid to be part of the contemporary musical theatre scene during an afternoon tea party Apr. 30 at an even more impressive edifice, the grand old Ritz Carlton (nee Huntington) Hotel. The genteelly festive occasion served to announce the inaugural season of the new Pasadena Civic Musical Series, which will open July 6 with the Dallas Summer Musicals' 50th anniversary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, South Pacific. Michael Jenkins, who heads the Dallas company, told the assemblage that in his last conversation with Richard Rodgers shortly before the great composer's death, Rodgers said that of all his musicals South Pacific was his favorite, and he considered its music his best.

Richard L. Barr, general manager of the Civic, was introduced as president of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium Foundation, a new nonprofit organization formed to create a center for the arts in Pasadena. To present its shows, the Foundation has formed a multi-year partnership with Dallas Summer Musicals, the Texas city's premiere presenter of Broadway hits-and, said Barr, "one of the most successful musical presenters in this country." Barr also praised the Civic as, "since its 1997 renovation, the best-preserved and most versatile of the historic performing arts venues in the Los Angeles region... Since the closing of the Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena has lacked a presenter of attractions from elsewhere in the United States and around the world. The new Pasadena Civic is addressing and filling that vacancy."

The inaugural season will include the L.A. premiere of London's Olivier Award Best Musical winner, Jolson: The Musical, starring Mike Burstyn (Oct. 26-31); Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Patrick Cassidy and Debbie Gibson (Nov. 16-21), and the world premiere of A Celebration of the Classic Hollywood Musicals, featuring magic moments and stars of Hollywood's heyday. It is based on a program presented to great acclaim two years ago at Carnegie Hall (and to be staged there again this month), which has been described as "a mixture of deftly assembled film clips and the reassuring spectacle of a galaxy of alumni displaying flashes of their old charisma." Stars likely to be featured include Cyd Charisse, Gloria DeHaven, Nanette Fabray, Betty Garrett, Kathryn Grayson, Skitch Henderson, Tony Martin, Ann Miller, and others to be announced.

The 3,000-seat Pasadena Civic was dedicated in February, 1932, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and has a special place in my heart as the scene of graduation rites for the first class ever graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts West-headquartered there at the time. My daughter Carola was among them. I thought she might turn out to be an actress. She was a good one.

Noises Off

If the (putative) curtain was a bit late-and it was-on opening night of the world premiere of Jean Van Tuyle's comedy The Family's Affaiir (through July 5 at the Knightsbridge in quaint Old Pasadena), is it any wonder? The Knightsbridge, as usual, has three productions in close rotating repertory in its small playhouse. Director Jules Aaron, only slightly flustered but in complete control, at about 8:10 p.m., told us privately that the afternoon performance of Measure for Measure had vacated the stage only a half-hour earlier. Speedy set changes had to be made, props placed, actors soothed. Aaron said, "I told them, you're keyed up now, adrenaline's flowing, go for it!" They did.

Aaron praised Knightsbridge managing artistic director/actor/general factotum Joseph Stachura as cooperative and pleasant to work with. Stachura explains himself in an eloquent manifesto titled "My Turn," displayed on the lobby wall along with various reviews. It could serve as an apologia for all acolytes of the muse. "Recently a patron of the theatre asked why I was pouring my life into this theatre, working 16 hours a day, not making much money," Stachura writes. "I answered that I love what I do, it's my pleasure to work so hard, and that money problems do weigh heavy at times... Actors, directors and support staff all donate their time and talents to the theatre... The extreme odds of making a living at what we do creates in us a kind of blind passion. The theatre becomes our home, our life... There is no money in it, it's hard to attract an audience, and it takes every ounce of energy we have.

""So what are you? Stupid, blind, obsessed?' Yes, all of the above. But I get back so much more than money...or fame. Live theatre, especially in a small, intimate space like the Knightsbridge, connects with the audience on such a personal level; we can feel them laugh and cry. Our passions become your passions... for a few hours you become just as stupid, blind, and obsessed as we are. The passion and the soul are God-given and, I think, God blessed."

Stachura ends his cri di coeur on this more mundane and practical note: "The Knightsbridge needs volunteers, including stage managing, running lights, ushering, managing props and costumes, and other production duties." He speaks for all such 99-seat or fewer "waiver" theatres. Long may they waive.

The Air Up There

Our community's living treasure Martin Magner's 99th birthday directorial offering, The Envoy, plays through May 22 at the Marilyn Monroe theatre. Three snow-clad Alpine peaks loom impressively outside the window of Robert Prior's set, and one of them is an old acquaintance of Magner's, the Eiger. The venerable director was a mountain climber in his youth. "I have climbed the Eiger," he told me. "In those days I went to the mountain. Now the mountain must come to me." We look forward to Martin Magner's centennial birthday play next spring.

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