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It May Not Be ‘Chicago,’ but That’s OK

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

When he sits in the audience during performances of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” producer Michael Filerman listens for what he calls “the recognition sound"--that little grunt, or giggle, or rustle of someone elbowing their seatmate that always comes when someone in the audience has just recognized that other person, or themselves, on stage.

Filerman, a veteran TV producer whose credits include the popular series “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” “Dallas” and “Sisters,” hopes he’ll continue to hear that sound a lot during the run of “I Love You,” the musical-comedy revue about love and relationships now playing at the Coronet Theatre. Filerman is one of the producers of this unsophisticated, pure-entertainment show.

“I Love You” has failed to impress critics in Los Angeles and New York, but its familiar vignettes about the pitfalls of dating and marriage seem to be striking a chord with a broad, multi-generational audience.

This may be because it has the ring of something familiar to everyone--TV. Its L.A. producers all have the highest order of successful TV credentials: Filerman is joined by Barbara Corday, who co-created “Cagney & Lacey” and is a former vice president of prime-time programs for CBS as well as former president and chief operating officer of Columbia Pictures Television. Also producing is Corday’s husband, Roger Lowenstein, a criminal-defense attorney-turned-writer who has been on the staff of “L.A. Law,” “Courthouse” and “Fast Track.” While the trio did not create the show, they saw in it something they felt could have mass appeal.

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Indeed, other productions of “I Love You” have already enjoyed commercial success--at the Laguna Playhouse, where it garnered rave reviews and had two successful runs, and in New York, where it is celebrating its third year at the Westside Theater/Upstairs--despite being dismissed by New York Times critic Vincent Canby as a show that “focuses on the stereotypical mating rituals of the middle class,” whose “impulse is to make us feel good because we’re all alike, meaning anti-intellectual and benignly stupid.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Don Shirley was only slightly more enthusiastic about the L.A. production, saying that, despite an engaging cast, some of the skits would “play well on TV’s late-night comedy series.”

Corday laughingly admits that such reviews do nothing for one’s self-esteem; nevertheless, the three producers are learning to ignore the skepticism of the more sophisticated theater audience, aiming instead to bring new theatergoers into the fold. This, they say, is the kind of play you might hear about from your dental hygienist.

“Truthfully, one of our ulterior motives is to change the perception of Los Angeles as a ‘bad theater town,’ ” Lowenstein said in a recent interview at the Hancock Park home he shares with Corday.

“What we have in Los Angeles are the big Broadway shows that come here before they go to New York, or we have the road company of ‘Chicago’ or whatever,” added Corday. “Then, there are the teeny tiny theaters, the 99-seat theaters. But what we would call off-Broadway in New York, the nice, mid-sized, affordable show where actors are getting paid--there is so little of that here.”

The New York production of “I Love You” was also presented by a former TV producer, Bernie Kukoff, who persuaded Corday to become an investor. Two years into the show’s successful run, he asked Corday if she would be interested in producing the show in Los Angeles. Corday had been waiting for a project she could share with Lowenstein, who, for the first time in years, was not tied down with a TV series. They asked longtime friend Filerman--an avid theatergoer who had produced 1996’s “The 24th Day” at the Coronet--to join them as a partner.

Unlike “The 24th Day,” which was a brand-new play, “I Love You” has a track record, and, at the time the trio was trying to lure potential backers for the L.A. run, they could just send them down to see a production of the show in Laguna (in which they had no involvement).

As television producers, Corday, Filerman and Lowenstein are used to targeting broad demographics; now, they are seeking a more amorphous group--an L.A. theater audience large enough to support a medium-sized show in a mid-sized theater (the Coronet has 284 seats) for long enough to pay back the investors. The show, which cost $400,000 to produce, is supported primarily by the trio’s relatives and friends in the entertainment industry.

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Their hope is that the healthy presence of such shows could improve the climate for all types of theater here.

“In places like Chicago and Detroit, it’s getting fabulous reviews; in New York and L.A., reviewers feel a need to be more sophisticated,” she said. “It’s not Tom Stoppard, and it’s not David Mamet, and I get that. I understand where they’re coming from.” But, she argues, critics ought to be able to also say, “Hey, it’s fun--it’s not literature.”

In a separate conversation, Filerman agreed. “I admit that when I first saw [“I Love You”] in New York, I didn’t take to it as much as I have since,” he said. “Sometimes we in the theater--and I include myself as a theatergoer, somebody who goes to the theater, loves the theater--go for some of the sophisticated stuff. If it’s in a basement, I’ll go see it,” Filerman said. “And your first reaction when you go see this crowd-pleaser is, oh well--is this going to play in West Hollywood, at the Coronet Theatre? But they’re coming.

“People hear the title, and they laugh. They don’t have to think.” Filerman paused. “God forbid audiences should have to think,” he added ruefully, betraying his mixed feelings about catering to that reality.

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Filerman added that his experience with hit TV shows may have given him a better sense of what would please that crowd. “I think it helped me appreciate not only what is commercial, but what one can bring to an audience that is entertaining,” he said.

“I believe in entertainment--the shows that I have done have been entertainment shows; if audiences have learned a little bit about human nature along the way, I think that’s really great. But I’ve never been out there to give a strong, strong message.”

Even with their television experience, the three are finding that figuring out what motivates a typical Angeleno to muster the energy, the money, the baby-sitter and the commute required to go out for an evening of theater is more difficult than, say, targeting a TV show to men ages 18 to 34. “This is a very strange theater town,” Filerman acknowledged. “The first thing people ask me is, ‘Is there parking?’ ”

Although they’re used to risk, because it usually costs more to produce a new TV show than a theater production, the financial responsibility for this show belongs squarely to these producers. “It’s nervous time, because people are depending on you and giving you money,” Filerman said. “In television, they just gave us the money, and if it failed, they . . . said, ‘Here’s some more money, do another one.’ ”

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Filerman noted that it never occurred to the producers to people their four-member cast with TV stars. “Maybe this is where our television sensibility came in--I think TV makes stars,” he said. “There are so many star vehicles on TV that fall flat on their faces--and believe me, we’ve all been to that well. The material has to be good.”

Filerman observed that there exists a peculiar bond between the TV and theater worlds in Los Angeles, and he hopes to continue to strengthen it. “I think it’s a matter of outsiders and insiders. This is a movie town,” he said wryly. “Television and theater people kind of get the ‘B’ table. This is a very ‘class’ society.”

“I don’t want [“I Love You”] to be the only thing that I do,” Filerman added. “Now, I’m lucky enough to be able to put a foot in theater, and maybe make some kind of artistic and economic success with it. We’ve all three made this real interesting step together.” *

*

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“I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE,” Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd. Dates: Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. through Dec. 5, 2 and 9 p.m. through Dec. 31; holiday matinees Nov. 25 and 27, 2 p.m. Matinee only Nov. 29. Dark Nov. 26, Dec. 24-25. Ends Dec. 31. Prices: $38-$42.50. Phone: (310) 657-7377 and (213) 365-3500.


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