Great Musical Showdown Hits Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza : Theater: Half a dozen groups are vying to bring Broadway performances to the new center when it opens a year from now.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A scheming Joseph and his amazing Technicolor dreamcoat will square off against Little Orphan Annie. Five guys named Moe will try to out-hustle the cavorting students from Fame. And the hapless Man of La Mancha will vie for center stage with stingy Scrooge.

It's the great musical showdown, now playing in Thousand Oaks.

Within the next few weeks, members of the city's Civic Theaters Commission will sort through half a dozen applications from groups clamoring to perform Broadway musicals in the new Civic Arts Plaza.

Together with the theaters' executive director, Thomas Mitze, the 10 commissioners will recommend which shows to book and whether to invite a "resident company" to stage a full season of performances.

Ultimately, the Thousand Oaks City Council must sign off on all policy decisions. But for now, the 10 theater commissioners are in the spotlight. And they already have their hands full.

A year before curtains rise in the 1,800-seat auditorium and 400-seat theater, Mitze has compiled a thick packet of proposals. Interested groups range from all-professional to wholly amateur; most blend local talent with experienced actors.

"We could put in 18 weeks of programming tomorrow," said Alan Harrison, director of marketing for the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, which draws 40% of its audience from Ventura County. "We could book that theater for half the year."

The enthusiasm has muted, but not silenced, the naysayers who predict the $64-million Civic Arts Plaza will become an ungainly white elephant, losing money and standing dark much of the year.

Mayor Elois Zeanah, a consistent critic of the project, said she worries that "even with successful programming, the Civic Arts Plaza will still run a huge deficit."

But commissioners are determined to make the cultural center fly. And they expect the thespians' excitement to infect the community at large, as plans for a six-week grand opening ceremony fall into place.

"We're going to get a lot of action there," promised Virginia Davis, who chairs the theaters' commission.

Before the house lights dim for the first show, however, the commissioners must decide whether to book solely one-night gigs or host a resident company with 12 to 18 weeks of performances spread out over the season.

Limiting the auditorium to touring shows would create varied, scattershot programming--a country singer might follow a popular magician or a children's puppet show. In contrast, a long-running series staged by a resident company would lend the Civic Arts Plaza a distinct personality.

"It becomes the home team," Mitze said. "When there's a resident company, people see their friends on stage or behind the scenes and get a sense of hometown pride. Fostering that feeling is very important."

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The intangible sense of pride often translates into cash at the box office. After a resident company establishes itself, thousands of loyal subscribers buy season tickets--even before they know what shows will be staged.

"A resident group really helps give the city an identity," said Scott Rogers, who has proposed shifting his Rogers Productions' all-professional Broadway shows from La Mirada to Thousand Oaks.

Several commissioners last week said they had not yet decided whether to establish a resident company. For the cultural center's inaugural year, they indicated, they might prefer inviting each troupe to stage just a few shows, in the hopes of gauging audience response.

But because Broadway musicals are so expensive to produce--several hundred thousand dollars a pop--most groups will demand a multiyear commitment, not a one-time invitation, Mitze said. The theaters commission will take up the issue in October.

"If this theater is going to be not only magnificent but also well-run, we're going to need to make some tough choices," commissioner Mary Hekhuis said.

Another hot topic on next month's agenda will be scheduling priorities: Should community groups get first dibs on performance dates, or should the city offer the prime weekend slots to big-name stars?

Following the City Council's lead, Mitze has said he will try to focus programming on family oriented shows.

"If Frank Sinatra or Whitney Houston wants to rent it out, we wouldn't say no, but I think the programming will reflect the community of Thousand Oaks," Mitze said. "I'm sure we will have big stars because of the location, but I'm more interested in finding out what the community wants to see."

Already, local groups are jockeying for priority scheduling. The Ventura County and Conejo symphonies each plan at least six concerts a year in the big auditorium, which has been touted as acoustically excellent--and certainly a lot better than the California Lutheran University gym, where the Conejo orchestra now performs.

Fearful that a glut of classical music will overwhelm even die-hard Beethoven fans, the symphony directors plan to meet this week to discuss scheduling. They hope to provide a steady stream of concerts while ensuring that musicians from outside Thousand Oaks don't "appear as interlopers or carpetbaggers," said the Conejo orchestra's executive director, Everett Ascher.

Whatever their performance schedules, nonprofit groups like the symphonies will probably enjoy discount rental rates for both venues. Mitze has proposed charging nonprofit groups $1,800 for use of the big auditorium and $400 for the small theater. For-profit companies would pay $2,800 and $800.

These fees mirror rental rates at similar-sized halls in Southern California. But Mitze cautioned that they represent only a fraction of a group's total cost to stage shows at the Civic Arts Plaza.

Because the auditorium boasts state-of-the-art technology, touring troupes will have to use the city's own stagehands, who will be trained in using the delicate equipment. Performers would also have to pay for box-office service, up to $500 a show in the auditorium and $100 in the theater.

Despite the fees--and the uncertainty of performing in a new facility in an untested market--several theater directors have enthusiastically bid for space in the Civic Arts Plaza.

"There's a good mercenary reason for it: We think there's a terrific market there," Harrison said. His troupe, the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, has offered to stage six Broadway shows a year in Thousand Oaks while maintaining its full season's schedule in Santa Barbara.

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Other groups interested in setting up permanent operations in the Civic Arts Plaza include the defunct Cabrillo Music Theatre, an amateur troupe that has performed in Oxnard and Port Hueneme; the Whittier La Mirada Musical Theater Assn., and the Theatre Corp. of America in Pasadena.

The Santa Susana Repertory Company, based in Thousand Oaks, has bid for resident status in the smaller theater.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 21, 1993 Ventura West Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Column 1 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction Wrong description--An article Sunday incorrectly described the Cabrillo Music Theatre as defunct. The group has not produced shows for a year, but is reorganizing and plans future seasons.
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