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Pasadena Playhouse stages a sleek, ‘sexy’ comeback

Sheldon Epps, the Pasadena Playhouse’s artistic director, is touting the “very sexy story” that’s unfolding as his theater returns Tuesday night with its first show since it closed Feb. 7, then reopened in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. There, the Playhouse, which was down to its last $102,000, eventually discharged $2.3 million in debt and won the chance to make a fresh start.

Epps is not claiming sexiness for the comeback show, “FDR,” a one-man dramatic star turn in which Ed Asner holds forth as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is talking about the comeback of the theater itself, whose story will indeed depend on the laws of attraction — not of romantic partners, but of ticket buyers and big-ticket donors.

“This has been a tough, difficult time,” says Epps, the Playhouse’s artistic leader since 1997. “But it’s a very sexy story. Survival and moving on to success is a very sexy thing, and you attract all sorts of things — resources, money, allegiance to the theater. It’s making me feel very confident.”

Sexy or otherwise, the tale of major arts institutions faced with the prospect of going belly-up has been thrice-told in Southern California since the global economic crunch hit two years ago. The first, and worst, scenario belonged to Opera Pacific, whose exhausted board shut the company down after 22 years at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

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The royal road to recovery is exemplified by L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, which ran through nearly all of a $38-million endowment until the tanking late-2008 economy gave it the final push over the edge. But Eli Broad was there to catch it with a $30-million bailout pledge; the museum has since enjoyed a 2009 gala starring Lady Gaga that raised $4 million, made national headlines with the appointment of New York City art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as its new director, and recruited other billionaires to its board.

The Pasadena Playhouse’s path back appears to be a middle way, paved not with megabucks and glitter, but relying instead on such old-fashioned virtues as patience, perseverance and thrift — which may turn out to be the new “sexy.”

Interviewed together in the whittled-down company’s donated office space a few miles from its historic 1925 theater building, Epps and executive director Stephen Eich didn’t presume to have all the answers to questions such as: How big a budget does the revived theater want to have? How many shows will its seasons offer? How much money does it still need to raise?

Their answer, in essence, was that in the midst of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, it’s probably best not to get too caught up in gazing at distant vistas.

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The playhouse has three productions lined up through mid-March. It will follow Asner with more star power: Leslie Uggams opens Nov. 19 in the first extended run of “Uptown Downtown,” a one-woman (plus nine musicians) autobiographical show.

In February comes the premiere of a new musical, “Dangerous Beauty,” previously a 1998 film drama in which Catherine McCormack (“Braveheart”) played a high-class prostitute in Renaissance Venice, encouraged in the trade by a stage-mom-like Jacqueline Bisset. Like some of the playhouse’s past musical premieres, including the Broadway-bound “Sister Act,” the million-dollar budget for “Dangerous Beauty” will be footed mainly by the commercial producers.

Also coming are December runs of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and “The Nutcracker,” by guest producers the Intimate Opera Company and Pasadena Dance Theatre, respectively.

The main goal for the initial five-month sequence of shows, says Eich, is that “consumer confidence be restored.” Establishing firmly that the playhouse is a solid, going concern will be crucial to the next step in its recovery plan: resuming subscription sales in the spring. Customers must have enough trust in the playhouse to commit a chunk of cash up front for multiple shows.

Sexy or not, the story of the playhouse’s closing and comeback has the advantage of not having a villain. Though the name Pasadena Playhouse has a storied tradition, the existing nonprofit didn’t start producing plays until 1995. It was behind the financial eight ball from the start, forced to take on debts owed by a hired commercial operator who went bankrupt. During Epps’ tenure, the theater’s debt was whittled to $435,000 in 2002, but never erased, according to the playhouse’s public tax returns. It did well enough to pay bills and keep going, but never built a reserve that could retire the debt or see it through an economic downturn.

When Eich, who previously had managed L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, started in Pasadena in July 2009, he examined the books and told Epps and the playhouse’s board of directors that business as usual would no longer be possible. A Hail Mary pass — a search for a $5-million donation that would confer naming rights to the 684-seat auditorium — fell incomplete, and in January the playhouse leadership announced that “Camelot,” the first show of its 2010 season, would be the last until further notice.

“I was not necessarily the first one to get on board with shutting down,” said Epps. “I was afraid if the theater was dark, people would say, ‘That’s too bad,’ and move on.”

The hardest part, Epps, Eich and board chair Michele Dedeaux Engemann agree, was saying farewell to the 37 staffers who were laid off in February. Now the staff numbers 12, half of them part-time.

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An early step on the way back was recruiting Munger, Tolles & Olson, a Los Angeles law firm that had helped guide the MOCA board through its financial crisis, as a pro bono advisor for the theater’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Another was board members’ emergency donation of $232,000, which Eich and Epps say was needed to keep the organization intact during the legal proceedings and prove to the judge that it had committed leadership.

The turning point was Feb. 27. After breakfast with his wife, actress Monette Magrath, Epps came home to a phone message from friends in the entertainment business. They’d read an interview he’d given The Times, saying the cost of putting the company back on the boards would be $2 million, and vowing that “this is an intermission rather than a finale.”

The anonymous Los Angeles couple, who had not given to the playhouse before, had called to donate half the money, on the condition that the playhouse raise the other $1 million itself. As “FDR” opens, the theater is above water by $1.8 million — enough, its leaders say, to see it through the announced shows and into a spring subscription campaign.

Engemann, the board chair, hopes for a snowball effect: With the $1-million gift almost matched, she says, the next step will be to double it with more fundraising. To show their seriousness, the 10 trustees (not counting Epps and Eich) increased the minimum amount that each board member must contribute or raise from other sources from $10,000 a year to $25,000.

Just 160 of the playhouse’s 5,600 subscribers insisted on getting their money back. Many others retroactively donated all or part of what they had paid.

Engemann says it’s too soon to make predictions or promises beyond the three announced productions. The board plans to work on such questions as how big an operation the playhouse should strive to become and how and when to launch the multi-year fundraising campaign needed to move beyond living hand-to-mouth.

“The stakes have changed,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to build for the future, not just for us, but to be in some ways a pioneer, to set a model for other theaters that are hurting.”

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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