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O.C. THEATER / JAN HERMAN : Backstage Was Place to Be for Sheer Drama

Blast of trumpets. Drum roll, please!

1993 was-- ta-dah!-- a year of dazzling triumphs and luminous achievements for theater in Orange County.

Sorry, let’s take that over.

Blast of trumpets. Drum roll, please!

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1993 was--if truth be told--typical of the nasty ‘90s: a disaster bordering on a catastrophe with hope flickering brightly in the wings.

Although nothing could compete for drama on stage or off with the roar of the Laguna Beach wildfire, the collapse of GroveShakespeare in Garden Grove made a giant sucking sound never before heard on the local theater scene.

The county’s second-largest professional company went under so fast for lack of cash that the board of directors stormed the exits en masse , phoning in their resignations as if they didn’t want to lay eyes on the place again.

The Grove’s artistic director, on the job for only 13 months, led the stampede by leaping out the door just days before he was to open the company’s outdoor season with his staging of “King Lear.”

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After his hasty departure it was every man for himself, with the board president taking the most ungainly swan dive of all. Sauve qui peut! He disappeared into murky seclusion for “personal reasons,” declining to explain what had happened or to reconcile the contradiction between his frequently declared devotion to the Grove and his sudden resignation.

Three board members (out of more than a dozen) chose to hang on like dazed survivors in a state of shock and denial. They made grandiose claims about rising phoenix-like from the debris but accomplished nothing to speak of--unless it was to keep the 15-year-old company alive in name only. (And even that is doubtful: They voted to change its name to the Grove Pacific Theatre.)

But let’s look on the brighter side.

It was the year that the 74-year-old Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theatre was spared by the flames in Laguna Beach.

It was the year the Playhouse undertook a historic expansion with its purchase of a building in South Laguna for a second theater.

It was the year Shakespeare Orange County picked up where the Grove left off, producing a second summer season at Chapman University and promising a third.

It was the year the Fullerton Civic Light Opera produced its first outdoor summer season at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center. It is promising a second.

It was the year the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble in Fullerton produced its second year-round season. It is promising a third.

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It was the year that South Coast Repertory continued to sail along like a grande dame in Costa Mesa, celebrating its 30th season with the start of a new fund-raising campaign for $7 million.

It was the year SCR brought us at least two unquestionably fine revivals--one to make us laugh till our sides split (“Intimate Exchanges”) and one to make us cry till we ran out of tissues (“Shadowlands”).

It was the year SCR also brought us three new plays to confuse us--one to make us wonder why they bothered (“So Many Words”), one to make us question their judgment (“Great Day in the Morning”), and one to make the stage world safe for UFOs (“The Company of Heaven”).

SCR gave first prize in its California Playwrights Competition to a script it decided not to produce; it was the third consecutive time that has happened.

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1993 was the year that Cal State Fullerton won the top prizes in the American College Theater Festival with an original musical (“All That He Was”) and an original play (“The Manager”) and sent both to Washington’s Kennedy Center.

It was the year theatergoers defied Southern California’s recession by showing they were willing to spend money on musicals they wanted to see, even at top prices.

It was, for example, the year Liza Minnelli’s one-woman revue set a box-office record at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in May.

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It was the year “My Fair Lady” broke that record in July.

It was the year the center’s Broadway Series looked fresh and splashy with stylishly produced road versions of “Crazy for You,” “The Will Rogers Follies” and “Guys and Dolls.”

It was the year only one Andrew Lloyd Webber musical came to the center (“Aspects of Love”), for which we are grateful. (We’d have been more grateful for none.)

It was the year Tommy Tune, another center favorite, put in two appearances at the county’s altar of high culture--in person as the star of “Tommy Tune Tonight!” and in spirit as the director-choreographer of “The Will Rogers Follies.”

It was the year a “Follies” chorine went topless on the center’s stage, and nobody fainted or called the cops.

It was the eighth consecutive year that center officials did not permit red wine or coffee to be served in the lobby for fear of staining the carpet.

It was the year--the first in eight--that a production of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was not mounted at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove.

It was the year a Laguna Beach entertainment company acquired the stage rights to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” then chose not to produce it.

It was the year the California Shakespeare Festival brought its touring production of “Hamlet” to the Irvine Barclay Theatre and turned the brooding tragedy into a screwball comedy.

It was the year Shakespeare Orange County staged a beautifully conceived and executed “Much Ado About Nothing” that looked spectacular, notwithstanding a shoestring budget, and was not at all concerned about competition from Kenneth Branagh’s vivid movie version.

It was the year the Laguna Playhouse did Shakespeare for the first time in more than a quarter-century, producing a tasty little version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

It was the year the Fullerton Civic Light Opera put on a jazzy revival of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” with one of its classiest casts in years.

It was the year Saddleback College’s semi-professional summer-stock season at the McKinney Theatre gave us a stunning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

It was the year the Alternative Repertory Theatre did a thoughtful, all-woman production of “Going to See the Elephant.”

It was the year an amateur company of women brought a peculiar “Fefu and Her Friends” to a warehouse in Santa Ana and couldn’t find an audience.

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It was the year of the British playwrights. When isn’t it?

We had three Noel Coward revivals--"Hay Fever” at SCR, “Private Lives” at the Gem (before GroveShakespeare folded) and “Present Laughter” at the Vanguard.

We had four Alan Ayckbourn revivals--the Laguna Playhouse’s “Bedroom Farce”; “Intimate Exchanges” and “Man of the Moment” at SCR; and the South Orange County Community Theatre’s “Henceforward” at the Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano.

It was the year of the actors.

It was the year Dakin Matthews came to SCR and gave a virtuoso performance as C.S. Lewis, the famous author and Oxford don in “Shadowlands.”

It was the year SCR’s own Ron Boussom gave versatile and virtuoso performances as Pozzo, the pompous slave master in “Waiting for Godot”; Truscott the crazed detective in “Loot,” and the Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol.”

It was the year SCR’s own Richard Doyle gave versatile and virtuoso performances as Toby the alcoholic husband and Lionel the romantic handyman in “Intimate Exchanges” and as Douglas Beechey the mincing hero in “Man of the Moment.”

It was the year Kandis Chappell again came to SCR and gave versatile and virtuoso performances as Celia the schoolmarm and Sylvie the ditsy housekeeper in “Intimate Exchanges” and as Joy Davidson the brash American in “Shadowlands.”

It was the year Ron Campbell gave a virtuoso performance in “Monsieur Shaherazad,” his one-man show at the Gem.

It was the year Beth Hansen gave a virtuoso performance at the McKinney as Mrs. Lovett, the bloody baker of Fleet Street in “Sweeney Todd.”

It was the year Fionnula Flanagan brought Molly Bloom to life on stage at the Irvine Barclay with a hypnotic reading of Molly’s entire monologue from “Ulysses” during an international gathering of James Joyce scholars at UCI.

It was the year international trade policy also got a workout at UCI in the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s touring production of “Offshore” at the Fine Arts Village Theatre.

It was the year the UCI drama department dropped musical theater from its graduate curriculum, and nobody seemed to care.

Finally, it was the year that even a disaster bordering on a catastrophe couldn’t change theater from what it long has been--a child’s world for grown-ups.

* In Saturday’s Calendar: In jazz, the concert scene expanded but the club scene shrank. Also, a look back at ’93 as seen by our readers.


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