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L.A. area theaters hope to strike holiday gold

originally posted by the Los Angeles Times
December 1, 2012

“What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?” — Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol.”

At the box office there is no “Bah! Humbug!” The recompense that two big Southern California theaters reap from Christmas plays would quiet even Ebenezer Scrooge’s scoffing.

But the holiday-theater franchises that the Old Globe in San Diego and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa enjoy have eluded — or gone unsought by — L.A.’s four biggest nonprofit stage companies.

This year, however, they all have new holiday productions in the fire, and the Pasadena Playhouse and A Noise Within hope theirs will turn into the perennial chestnut Los Angeles County has lacked.

Holiday perennials are not easy to achieve, but when they click they become a theatrical gift that keeps giving — earning ample year-end revenue, reaching an expanded public, and initiating youngsters into theater-going. Center Theatre Group, in its 46th season as L.A.’s flagship stage company, is putting on its first Christmas production — a new version of “A Christmas Carol” by Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. So is the Geffen Playhouse, with “Coney Island Christmas,” a new comedy by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies about Yuletide consternation within a Jewish family in 1930s Brooklyn. But neither is touting its show as a renewable resource just yet.

“It’s a script that makes me laugh out loud when I read it,” CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie said of “The Second City’s Christmas Carol Twist Your Dickens!” But he isn’t ready to envision it as a sugar plum to serve yearly. “Whether we’ll do another one, I don’t know. I couldn’t begin to go down that path yet.”

In the two counties south of L.A., nearly 1 million playgoers have seen the two reigning Christmas plays — and that’s not counting San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” which ended a 30-season run in 2005.

Sometime between now and Dec. 29, the 500,000th person will stroll past the Dr. Seuss-inspired Christmas tree on the plaza at the Old Globe in Balboa Park and take a seat for the 15th annual presentation of its musical, “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

In Costa Mesa, some 450,000 playgoers since 1980, many multiple-repeat customers, have taken in SCR’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Hal Landon Jr., has monopolized the role of Scrooge since the beginning. For many repeat viewers, part of the suspense in this 33rd season will be whether Landon can still coax his 71-year-old frame through his trademark somersault across the bed as Scrooge joyously greets Christmas Day, grabbing and donning his top hat before he hits the floor and scampers off to literature’s most touching Christmas dinner with Tiny Tim and the rest of Bob Cratchit’s clan.

Executive director Paula Tomei says audience surveys suggest that about a third of the audience, which totals about 15,000 annually, makes “A Christmas Carol” a yearly feature of its holiday celebration. About two-thirds of the audience, drawn mainly from Orange County, doesn’t see any other plays at SCR, so “A Christmas Carol” is an important cog in fulfilling one aspect of a nonprofit company’s mission — reaching people who otherwise might not experience live theater.

“There are adults now who played Tiny Tim when they were children and are bringing their own families to see the show,” Tomei said. “It speaks to the enduring value of the production in people’s lives.”

It also has enduring value for the company’s coffers. “A Christmas Carol” typically plays to 90% to 95% of capacity at the 507-seat Segerstrom Stage, Tomei said, and this year’s projected box office take from 36 performances is $750,000, or about 17% of the 2012-13 season’s expected ticket revenue.

The show, an in-house adaptation of Dickens’ 1843 novella written by SCR’s former dramaturge, Jerry Patch, demands a large cast — 17 adults and eight children. But one of the economic advantages of a holiday perennial is that the set pieces, costumes and props don’t have to be created and paid for more than once, apart from whatever refurbishments and replacements might be needed as the years go by.

Presented as a non-subscription stand-alone, “it helps subsidize other programs,” Tomei said — a sort of living, renewable endowment that the company has come to rely on as a fiscal anchor for its overall seasons.

The numbers for the Globe’s “Grinch” are also eye-catching: This year’s 61-performance run in the 600-seat main theater is expected to play to about 32,000 people and gross about $1.6 million, said managing director Michael Murphy, or about 15% of the company’s annual box office receipts. La Jolla resident Audrey Geisel, now 91, granted the Old Globe performing rights to the “Grinch” story that her late husband, Theodor, had written and illustrated in 1957 under his pen name, Dr. Seuss.

“I’ll be talking to a person who says, ‘I used to bring my kids, and now I’m bringing my son’s kids,’” Murphy said. “I get a big kick out of that.”

The question now is whether leaders of L.A. theaters can enjoy that kick as well — along with a comparable boost to the bottom line.

After he was designated its next artistic director in 2003, Ritchie recalls asking the Center Theatre Group’s staff why L.A. didn’t have a franchise holiday play.

“They said, ‘It might not be in our DNA. This town doesn’t have the Rockettes or a [major] ‘Nutcracker.’”

During Gordon Davidson’s tenure as founding artistic director from 1967 to 2005, the Mark Taper Forum sometimes went dark for the holidays after the first weeks in December, but in many seasons Davidson would stage a family friendly show, often a musical, such as “Godspell” (1971), Deaf West Theatre’s “Big River” (2002) or a newly rewritten revival of “Flower Drum Song” (2001). The Ahmanson Theatre also usually goes for lighter musicals, such as this year’s “Anything Goes,” rather than holiday-specific shows.

“I was less interested in finding something that we did year in and year out, as opposed to finding something each year that had its own creative raison d’etre, which was so much a part of our signature,” Davidson said. He felt holiday perennials were “an area that’s well-covered by others, and more power to them.”

Pasadena Playhouse, having had a near-death experience in 2010 when it went dark for 10 months while going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, has resumed its quest for a holiday tentpole production that would help ensure that dire financial problems never happen again.

Its bid is “A Snow White Christmas,” a humorous, song-filled retelling of the fairy tale staged in partnership with Lythgoe Family Productions, a company anchored by the son and ex-wife of television producer Nigel Lythgoe, creator of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Artistic director Sheldon Epps liked the Lythgoes’ 2011 independent staging of the show at the 354-seat El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. Modified for American tastes, it’s a traditional British form of holiday entertainment called panto, in which the telling of a classic children’s story becomes the springboard for a kind of variety show that includes pop songs, comedy, magic and lots of audience interaction. Epps said the partnership will continue in 2013 with “Aladdin.”

“I think we’re all searching for that holiday entertainment we can think of more or less as a sure thing,” he said. “It can support some of the riskier choices you want to make in your subscription seasons.”

The Playhouse’s previous bid for a holiday franchise was “Plaid Tidings,” an offshoot of “Forever Plaid,” a popular musical about a 1950s-style harmony vocal group. It sold well in 2001 and 2002, Epps said, but lost its box office groove when brought back for a third year. He hopes the pantos will supply the critical missing ingredient: appeal to families with young children.

At A Noise Within, the husband-wife leadership team of Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott is banking on a traditional telling of “A Christmas Carol.” Geoff, who wrote the custom adaptation, will star as Scrooge. The fact that the original text is in the public domain and therefore free for all comers to weave into their own stage version figures into its popularity with stage companies.

Past bids for a holiday perennial didn’t work for A Noise Within at its former 140-seat space in Glendale. The two company leaders think their new 283-seat theater in Pasadena, which opened last year, provides a suitable launching pad for extending Dickens’ franchise to the L.A. area.

“It’s an opportunity for a community of artists and a community of [playgoers] to come together with this unified event every year,” Rodriguez-Elliott said. “It connects people to something.”

The Geffen Playhouse is exploring the connection of Jews to (or their disconnection from) Christmas in “Coney Island Christmas,” which Margulies (“Dinner With Friends”) wrote at the behest of the company’s late leader, Gil Cates.

Artistic director Randall Arney said that he and Cates, who died in 2011, had talked for several years about trying to develop a holiday season staple and wound up commissioning Margulies, one of their favorite playwrights. He decided to adapt Grace Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice,” about the commotion caused in a Jewish family in 1930s Brooklyn when a daughter is cast as Jesus in her school’s Christmas pageant.

“We’re excited about creating something new and unique for the Geffen, and we’re going to see how it connects,” said Arney. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but we’re hoping it can become a perennial.”

Small theaters also can cultivate Christmas gifts for themselves. The 49-seat Chance Theater in Anaheim has hit on a combination of family musicals in prime time (this year it’s “Little Women”), and Jeff Goode’s ribald comic tale of a sexually scandalous Santa Claus, “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues,” in late night and early-in-the-week slots.

“Reindeer Monologues” is in its ninth year, and managing director Casey Long, who’s been in every cast, says it has gotten to the point where the usually packed audience will call out their own answers to rhetorical questions in the script. “The show offers an alternative to the sweet holiday fare that’s out there,” he said.

The Blank Theatre Company in Hollywood is staging its production of David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries” for the fourth straight year. Having scored its biggest-ever hit in 2005-06 with another Sedaris show, “The Book of Liz,” artistic director Daniel Henning seized upon “Santaland” amid the economic agony of 2009. The initial running packed the Blank’s 49-seat home stage and the show has since graduated to the 99-seat Stella Adler Theatre.

Henning says it’s “no coincidence” that the Blank, launched in 1990, was finally able to afford a part-time office manager when “Santaland” first kicked in, and there have been other benefits as well. “It doesn’t make tons of money, but it makes a little profit, and that pays for the development of some new plays.”

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