El Portal Will Take a Musical Route in 2002

Don Shirley is The Times theater writer

El Portal Center for the Arts, which opened in January 2000 as a home for relatively new plays, is about to become a home for old, small musicals.

"Between the Pasadena Playhouse and the Geffen Playhouse, which are far more established than we are, we just don't get first crack at the shows we wanted," said artistic director Jim Brochu, citing "Side Man" and "Dinner With Friends" as two shows that got away. "I don't want to compete; I want to break out of the box."

A recent audience survey indicated a preference for musicals, although the biggest vote getters were such relatively large projects as "Kismet" and, gulp, "The Phantom of the Opera," which El Portal couldn't afford even if the rights were available.

However, Brochu sought out other, less demanding musicals, and the 2002 season will be all-singing, all-dancing, including: "Vamps," a Jule Styne revue by Phyllis Newman and James Pentecost, opening Feb. 2; a concert version of "70, Girls, 70," a rarely revived 1971 musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb, Norman L. Martin and Joe Masteroff about a group of former entertainers in a retirement home who set up a business in hot mink coats, opening May 18; "Ain't Misbehavin'," the often-revived Fats Waller revue conceived by Richard Maltby Jr., opening Sept. 7; and "Nunsense," by Dan Goggin, opening Nov. 9.

"This theater cries out for music," Brochu said. "The stage has the height and the depth, and it has the acoustics." The theater's sound system initially drew many complaints, but not since a recent overhaul by new sound engineers, he said. That work occurred before the recent "Out of Order," and it was the first show that prompted no complaints about the sound, according to Brochu.

He considered programming "The Last Session," a musical for which he wrote the book and directed successful productions in New York, at Laguna Playhouse and at the Tiffany Theater. But "I'm not sure our subscribers are ready for a play about AIDS," he said.

El Portal's musicals probably will use bands consisting of four to six players, but the additional costs will be offset by lower-priced sets, often rented. He expects the entire season's budget to be about $400,000. The band members probably won't be union musicians, Brochu said. "Unions frighten me," he added.

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ON THE OTHER HAND: East West Players' recent announcement of 2002 shows lacks the big-scale spring musical that has been a mainstay of the theater's previous seasons. Artistic director Tim Dang said he wanted to keep the costs of a musical down in order to be able to hire more actors for two eight-actor nonmusical productions. So his musical next year will be the four-person revue "The World Goes Round." He also pointed out the presence of a Chinese American musical, "Flower Drum Song," at the Mark Taper Forum in the fall and said he hopes the two theaters can engage in joint marketing efforts for that production.

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SONDHEIMATHON: You want musicals? The Kennedy Center in Washington is staging two sets of Stephen Sondheim musicals in repertory in 2002: "Sweeney Todd," "Company" and "Sunday in the Park With George" May 10-June 30, and "Merrily We Roll Along," "Passion" and "A Little Night Music" July 12-Aug. 25--plus a Japanese production of "Pacific Overtures," an approved family-friendlier version of "Into the Woods" and a Barbara Cook cabaret engagement devoted mostly to Sondheim. Eric Schaeffer, who staged the Sondheim revue "Putting It Together" at the Mark Taper Forum, is the artistic director of the project.

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SOUND STAGE CONVERSION: AT&T; Digital Media Center is producing a new play about a family in '50s Brooklyn, "4318 Clarendon Road," on a 4,000-square-foot sound stage at its West L.A. facility. Why? General manager Ted Henry said he knows the playwright, George Tricker, who told him at a party about his work, and Henry "thought it would be an interesting idea to repurpose our building on the weekends." Jeremiah Morris, former El Portal artistic director, is directing.

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