Commentary: The best theater in L.A. right now? It’s in Pasadena

Danny Feldman at the edge of a stage where a set is being installed.
“We need bold ideas” as theaters struggle post-pandemic, says Danny Feldman, Pasadena Playhouse’s producing artistic director. “We need to move forward.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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“It’s a radical act to ask someone to go to the theater these days,” Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman said over breakfast in a Beverly Hills eatery on a recent weekday morning.

These are tough times for artistic directors of nonprofit theaters, which are struggling to rebound after the pandemic. Venerable performing arts venues, bereft of purpose and patrons, are in danger of becoming ghost malls.

One local leader is proving that growth is still possible in a time of spiraling crisis. Against seemingly impossible odds, Feldman has revitalized Pasadena Playhouse, which is finally living up to its official designation as the state theater of California.


We were meeting to discuss his theater’s ongoing Sondheim Celebration, the six-month festival exploring the legacy of Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But first he wanted to broach the elephant in the cultural room — our society’s shattered attention span.

“When I say turn off your phone, it sounds like I’m crazy,” Feldman said. “Turn off your phone? No one turns off their phones. They leave them on vibrate. I do it too. Theater asks us to focus together, to think about something collectively. I don’t think we have the capacity. I’ve lost the capacity, and I’ve been intentional about not losing it.”

So how do you plan a season in an age of distraction? One solution would be to scale back programming, say, with a menu of easily digestible 90-minute plays. Why overtax the stamina of theatergoers who are still getting back into the habit of leaving their homes for entertainment?

Feldman, however, decided to do the opposite. He came up with the largest, unwieldiest and financially nuttiest proposal in the history of Pasadena Playhouse.

“I started wondering: What if a regional theater didn’t just do five shows a year?” he recalled. “What if we asked our community to do something longer than one night together? What if we explored an idea, a theme, a person? That’s where the Sondheim festival idea came from.”

The notion of a retrospective, a staple of museum programming, is less common in the theater, where audiences have been trained to think of theater outings as one-night-stands — wham, bam, thank you Mamet. Feldman wondered if a deeper intimacy might enhance our interest. Would the prospect of exploring “a body of work through a kaleidoscopic view,” as he put it, reignite a passion for theater that has understandably faded through pandemic disuse?


Pasadena Playhouse’s Sondheim Celebration kicks into gear with a revival of “Sunday in the Park With George,” directed by Sarna Lapine.

Feb. 21, 2023

The idea was to present not just a cross-section of an artist’s output but a range of interpretations and creative responses. Central to Feldman’s vision was the desire to introduce a younger generation to the genius of Sondheim and to open his oeuvre to communities that may have felt outside it.

But something unfunny happened on the way to the festival: Sondheim died. The maestro had given his approval for an even more ambitious plan, but after his death, the playhouse was limited to two main-stage productions.

Feldman decided to go with “Sunday in the Park With George,” which received a majestic revival that closed last month, and “A Little Night Music,” which has its official press opening April 30 in a production directed by the reliably inventive David Lee. These are multimillion-dollar stagings with full orchestras — a sound rarely heard outside of big-budget Broadway or philanthropically spoiled opera houses.

Actors portray an artist and his model.
Krystina Alabado and Graham Phillips in Pasadena Playhouse’s recent production of “Sunday in the Park With George.”
(Jeff Lorch)

Around these two canonical musicals a festival was curated, the range of which attests to the creative ingenuity of Feldman’s leadership. “Talking Sondheim,” a series of virtual seminars on how Sondheim “flipped the script” on the American musical, has offered participants a broader contextual framework for discussion.

The festival offerings so far have included a staging of “Into the Woods,” conceived and performed by students of Pasadena Unified School District under the auspices of professional artists, and Larry Owens’ “Sondheimia,” a performance art cabaret by a Black queer performer who discovered in the songs of Sondheim a way to be more fully himself.


Later this month, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a weeklong presentation at USC’s Bing Theatre, mixes vintage film footage of Sondheim with live performance in a production that engages yet another generation of students with Sondheim’s game-changing craft. In May, Impro Theatre’s “Sondheim UnScripted,” a completely improvised revue in the style of Sondheim, has two performances — meaning two unique shows — at Pasadena Playhouse’s intimate Carrie Hamilton Theatre.

The festival is rounded out with a series of special events. In “Acoustic Sondheim,” Eleri Ward offers an indie-folk tribute to the late Broadway luminary in the Pasadena Playhouse courtyard for three performances starting April 14. Also this month, “Song by Song by Sondheim” gathers prominent community choirs from all over L.A. for a celebration at First United Methodist Church Pasadena on April 22. And closing the festival in June, the glorious Sondheim interpreter Bernadette Peters performs a series of concerts at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

When Feldman talks about Sondheim, his eyes light up and his voice heats with religious fervor. He wasn’t always a devotee. A Southern California native, he said his most formative early theatergoing experiences were “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Ahmanson Theatre and a touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

At UCLA, where he studied music, he got turned on to Sondheim, and his appreciation for the complex maturity of Sondheim’s artistry has only deepened with time. Today, he can deliver an off-the-cuff dissertation on the breakthrough achievements of “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” and “Finishing the Hat” from “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Feldman was at home listening to “Sunday in the Park With George” when he received the New York Times alert that Sondheim had died. “I had a visceral reaction,” he recalled. “Throughout the pandemic I had been living the score, studying it, understanding it, rediscovering it. I was trying to get the essence of it, trying to figure out what we’re trying to say with it, so it felt like a family member had died.”

He’s worried that what distinguishes Sondheim may end with Sondheim. “Where is this going?” he asked. “There is no next right now, which in some ways is thrilling and in some ways terrifying.”


A critic’s tribute to Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a master of storytelling in song.

Nov. 26, 2021

Such alarm might come off as the musical theater version of bardolatry, the word coined to describe an overly worshipful attitude toward Shakespeare. Sondheim isn’t exactly in short supply in America right now. But Feldman, always mindful of Southern California theatergoers, wanted to provide a space for his audience to reflect on a legacy that represents a quantum leap in the history of the musical.

“Sondheim took the essence of what made Rodgers and Hammerstein so great and changed it,” he said. “His music and lyrics get to the core of being a human being in a way that never happened before. He took the darkness that had been on the edges of shows like ‘Oklahoma!’ and brought it to the center. He changed what we could talk about and how we could talk about it. And he brought to the musical a Shakespearean depth. The American musical is our unique contribution to the world, and Sondheim is the face of it.”

Feldman’s mission is to remind local audiences what they’ve been missing. He wants theatergoers to demand more from the menu than a selection of reheated Broadway dishes. Only this way can an artist of Sondheim’s caliber rise again.

Such ambition is refreshing in a period of retrenchment. Nonprofit theater veterans have been describing a perfect storm of economic hardships and cultural challenges. The future of these slow-to-maneuver battleship institutions remains a question mark.

After nearly two years of pandemic closures, live theater has returned. But attendance is down, operational costs are soaring, and leaders are worried.

May 11, 2022

The dire situation has been compounded in Los Angeles by a leadership vacuum. Center Theatre Group, in a dither after Michael Ritchie’s lackluster tenure, is undergoing a search for its new leader. So too is the Geffen Playhouse, the city’s second most prominent nonprofit theater after its downtown rival.

The lack of a theatrical center of gravity has been distressingly obvious, but Feldman has been filling the breach. Sheldon Epps, Feldman’s predecessor, did a remarkable job of diversifying programming and making what was once a stodgy, play-it-safe venue a more risk-taking and inclusive operation, despite challenges that led to the filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010.


Since taking over the reins in 2016, Feldman has raised the artistic bar while steadying what was still a shaky financial situation when he arrived. An L.A. partisan without being provincial, he thinks globally and acts locally. Having served as managing director of the now-defunct Reprise Theatre Company and executive director of New York’s edgy LAByrinth Theater Company, he brings to the job an institutional flexibility that nonprofit theaters need more than ever.

In his recently-published memoir “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre,” Sheldon Epps reflects on his 20-year tenure as artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse.

Feb. 2, 2023

But it’s his hands-on approach that sets him apart. Feldman enjoys being in the room where it happens. Rehearsals, previews and post-show conferences with the creative team excite him. What’s more, he’s one of the few artistic directors who regularly appears at the opening nights of other area theaters.

Under Feldman‘s leadership, Pasadena Playhouse has risen from third to first place in my own personal ranking of those playhouses in L.A. County that are members of LORT (the League of Resident Theatres). Geffen Playhouse is still in the second spot, but CTG’s Mark Taper Forum has sadly descended to third.

Time and again, plays and musicals I’ve seen on and off-Broadway have received better productions in Pasadena. Driving along the Arroyo Seco Parkway for a show, I find myself tingling in anticipation rather than agonizing over the long commute.

Two actors beneath glowing stage lights.
Miles Fowler and Ana Nicolle Chavez in last fall’s Pasadena Playhouse production of‘”Sanctuary City.”
( Jeff Lorch


The list of triumphs includes Michael Michetti’s elegant production of “King Charles III,” David Lee’s scintillating revival of “Ragtime,” a searing production of Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City” and a thrilling resurrection of “Little Shop of Horrors” starring George Salazar and Michaela Jaé Rodriguez. (Feldman gleefully shared that the video of Salazar and Rodriguez performing “Suddenly Seymour” on “The Late Late Show With James Corden” went viral and is now playing in gay bars throughout the free world.)


Word isn’t the only thing that’s spreading. Membership subscriptions are higher now than they were before the pandemic. Feldman has succeeded not by copying Broadway but by doubling down on his theater’s independence. He has resisted the lure of incentive money, not wanting to turn Pasadena Playhouse into a tryout house or cede artistic control to New York investors. Long-term vision requires a stomach for shortfalls and a willingness to forgo sugar highs. Best of all, he puts talent before celebrity.

The Sondheim Celebration wasn’t designed to turn a profit. The orchestra for “A Little Night Music” contains three French horns — a budget-shattering luxury for any regional theater. But Feldman said that attendance at the festival has already reached 30,000 — an incredible feat when tumbleweeds seem to be blowing across the Music Center.

“This is muscular programming at a time when everyone is shrinking and we too are worried about money,” he said. “We took the support we received during the pandemic and decided that, instead of putting it all in the bank, we would be responsive to our community. We need bold ideas. We need to move forward. And we need to bust out of the systems and structures that are no longer serving us, including the tyranny of the five-show season.”