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RSVP : Staging Quite an Impression

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Saturday night’s double-whammy opening night crowd came out as much to experience the cozy new Ahmanson Theatre redesign as to preview the international hit musical “Miss Saigon.”

“It’s open. There’s no--what do you call that soft fabric?--velvet. The seats are very comfortable. New York theaters have a feel, this theater feels like L.A.,” said director Garry Marshall.

Since many in the well-heeled, black-tie crowd had already seen the production in New York or London (Marshall had seen it three times), it was no surprise that architecture was the evening’s star. And you didn’t have to be a structural engineer to notice the changes, which included improved acoustics, a contemporary-looking pale wood motif and the addition of boxes. “It’s so light--it had a black interior before. It’s much more intimate,” said Joanne Kozberg, secretary of the California State and Consumer Services Agency and a Center Theatre Group board member.

“It’s not that gloomy old black theater. I think it’s splendid,” said Tim Vreeland, an architect whose wife, Nancy, chaired the evening. “It’s a modern version of the old court theater with the boxes wrapping around the stage.”

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As for those boxes, no one seemed to appreciate them more than Chris Bement, who, with his wife, Naomi, and Dan and Elaine Seigel, gave $500,000 to have a box named in their honor. After testing it out, they were happy campers. “We’re stage left, the second box on the lower level, allegedly the best box,” Bement said.

The evening wasn’t without its glitches. The big one was on stage when the notorious helicopter failed to land in a climactic scene of the drama.

“It was indeed a malfunction,” said Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group. “A switch actually shorted. It happens once a city, they tell me.”

It was perhaps a testament to the satisfied throngs that few even noticed the missing special effect. “The smoke and lights created such a great illusion, I would never have thought there would be an actual helicopter,” confessed Mary Milner.

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The family of the theater’s namesake, the late Howard Ahmanson, was out in force, including his widow, Caroline, son Howard Jr. and nephews William and Robert.

“Howard would have been very happy,” said Caroline Ahmanson. “It’s a warmer theater, the sound is wonderful and there is a feeling of closeness to the stage. That warm wood is a marvelous touch.”

The festivities, costing $350 to $500 a person with proceeds going to Center Theatre Group, culminated in a chicken pot pie supper served beneath splendid Chinese parasols and seven-foot faux cherry blossom centerpieces in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s Grand Hall.

Among those attending were F. Lee Bailey with Mary Leonard; Vin, Sandy and Catherine Scully; Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke; Harriet and Armand Deutsch; Mary and Boyd Marshall; James Doolittle; Mary and Dave Martin; Harriet and Armand Deutsch; Joyce and Kent Kresa; Richard Kagan and Veronica Hamel; Lee and Lawrence Ramer; Ginny Mancini and Craig Stevens; Nancy and Alan Livingston; Earle and Marion Jorgensen; and Lenore and Bernard Greenberg.

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