THEATER : Theater Notes : Inland Empire Doings

Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Theater in the Inland Empire is in a period of rapid transition. A new cast of players has taken over most of the leading roles.

A year ago, former L.A. director Peggy Shannon vowed to keep the fledgling Riverside Repertory Theatre going, even though she had recently taken a job as artistic director of Sacramento Theatre Company.

Riverside Rep presented five one-night programs during 1998-1999. But after the last one in March, Shannon resigned. “I had a baby [now 9 months old], and I can only do so much,” she said.

The company still exists on paper, said one of its board members last week. But the board hasn’t met since March, and no programs are scheduled.


Another L.A. figure, William Freimuth, is now active in Riverside. The former Theatre LA executive director (1993-1998) took a job last year as executive director/producer of Performance Riverside, an umbrella organization that includes the Riverside Civic Light Opera.

This month, the civic light opera is staging the modern local premiere of the George S. Kaufman-Irving Berlin musical “The Cocoanuts,” the 1926 Marx Brothers vehicle that was turned into their first movie. Freimuth is directing it himself. Set against the background of the ‘20s Florida real estate boom, “it’s right in between vaudeville and ‘Show Boat,”’ he said. Barbara Passolt is the only Equity actor in the Sept. 24-Oct. 10 production; so far the group uses only Equity’s Guest Artist contracts.

Meanwhile, in San Bernardino, the administration of the now city-owned California Theatre, which for years housed the area’s only professional theater company, the defunct San Bernardino Civic Light Opera, has been taken over by Joseph Henson and Allen Evenson--veterans of several local companies including the Riverside and San Bernardino civic light operas. Along with L.A.-based Robert Abramoff, they run Theatrical Arts International, a for-profit organization that has presented national and international tours for five years, usually with non-Equity casts or with occasional Guest Artist contracts. They’re using the California Theatre as home base for their tours.

Each TAI show gets only three performances over the course of one weekend in San Bernardino, but the tours go to as many as 160 cities, Henson said. The group can’t be accused of producing the same old titles: Last year in San Bernardino, they did a nonmusical version of “Zorro” in conjunction with the recent movie; “A Christmas Box”; a tap production called “Caution: Men at Work”; and their own take on “Titanic,” a musical that centered on the inquiry into the disaster instead of the event itself, Henson said. Next year they’re doing a concert version of “Buddy Holly,” “A Scottish Christmas,” “A Few Good Men” and one concession to familiar fare--"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”


But probably the most intriguing news coming out of their organization is that they’re talking with Reprise!, the West L.A. outfit that presents semi-staged musicals at Freud Playhouse, to take the recent Reprise! production of “Sweeney Todd,” seen in March at the Ahmanson Theatre, out on the road with a full Equity cast--though without its top-billed Ahmanson actors, Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski. Reprise! producer Marcia Seligson confirmed the talks, but she added that it might be difficult to come up with a cast that’s mutually acceptable to Reprise!, “Sweeney” composer Stephen Sondheim and Middle America.


A DEADLY GUITAR: Pasadena Playhouse has altered its winter-spring season, substituting the premiere of a musical, “The People vs. Mona,” by Jim Wann (music and lyrics), Ernest Chambers and Patricia Miller (book with Wann), for the previously announced “The Glass Menagerie” in the March 12-April 16 slot. “Menagerie” fans will have to wait until May, when the Tennessee Williams play will replace Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels,” for which the rights weren’t available.

“The People vs. Mona” is a courtroom musical, with a style described as “Americana,” about the trial of a singer accused of killing her new husband by assaulting him with a guitar. Co-creator Wann was one of the authors and composers of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” *