Belting out “I Know Where I’ve Been” from “Hairspray Live!,” Jennifer Hudson closed the one-night-only, star-studded show at the Ahmanson Theatre for the Center Theatre Group’s 50th anniversary, which was celebrated in high style May 20.
In addition to Hudson’s performance, CTG’s festivities on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles had plenty of other highlights. A pre-show cocktail party gave patrons a chance to mingle with fellow theater aficionados, and a seated dinner in Grand Park followed.
The celebration, which raised a whopping $4 million, included food stations from celebrity chefs as well as a dazzling sound-and-light show that splashed images from past plays from Center Theatre Group on the outside of City Hall. Also, Ozomatli, an exuberant L.A. dance band that combined hip-hop, reggae, rock and Latin sounds, performed into the night.
The Center Theatre Group is made up of the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and for this celebration, Hollywood actors and noted theater professionals took turns onstage at the Ahmanson for the evening of songs, theatrical monologues and anecdotes from CTG’s history.
Joining the onstage action were Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Tyne Daly, Frank Langella, Alfred Molina, Edward James Olmos, Phylicia Rashad, Louis Gossett Jr., Barrett Foa, Thomas Sadoski, Jimmy Smits, Davis Gaines, Sir Matthew Bourne and Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie.
Later in the evening, we chatted with Foa. “It was so cool to be a part of this,” he told us before guests seated themselves for dinner at the long glass tables amid the soft outdoor lighting staged in Grand Park.
“‘Jersey Boys’ [it’s the current production at the Ahmanson] had all the dressing rooms, so we were all shoulder-to-shoulder in the hallways and in the green rooms kibitzing, but then everyone fell silent during certain monologues, or during the songs,” Foa said. “Yes, there were big stars, but everyone wanted to respect everyone else. We were all working together.”
Sir Matthew Bourne, Julie Hagerty, Patricia Kelly and Bruno Tonioli caught up during the cocktail hour. Taking a moment to talk with us, Tonioli, the familiar “Dancing with the Stars” judge, said, “It is so important to support the theater. Live theater, opera, ballet, great plays — it is all food for the soul. It engages the brain. It brings you to a world you wouldn’t otherwise experience. You’re losing a lot in life if you don’t go.”
Having starred in the original 1978 production of “Zoot Suit,” Olmos told us that his history is tied up with the Center Theatre Group. To this day, he attends productions at the Taper. “Brilliant pieces of work come out of here,” he said.
“My first real [Actors’] Equity job was here at the Taper,” said Sharon Lawrence, recalling her understudy role in the 1992 production of “Fire in the Rain … Singer in the Storm.”
“This is a home for me,” Lawrence said. “There are so many people here I feel are family.”
Later in the evening, as the party continued with candies, cheeses, pastries and more desserts placed on food stations surrounding the plaza, Smits and Wanda De Jesus reminisced about their years-ago move to Los Angeles.
“We thought we were never going to find theater here,” said Smits, while De Jesus added that instead, they found in CTG was “a parallel universe” with founding artistic director Gordon Davidson and writer/director/producer Robert Egan. “They were nurturing new voices,” De Jesus said. “There was daring theater. It was exciting to be a part of it.”
“And now Michael Ritchie is bringing it to a new level,” Smits added.
Tickets for the 800 gala guests ranged from $5,000 to $25,000 each, while tickets for the show alone cost $100. CTG board members Sue Tsao and Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, served as co-chairs.
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Ellen Olivier is the founder of Society News LA.