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Entertainment & Arts

Center Theatre Group’s starry 50th: From offending Ronald Reagan to Trump-era provocations

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20: Singer/actress Jennifer Hudson performs onstage at the Center Theatre Gro
Singer-actress Jennifer Hudson performs at the Center Theatre Group’s 50th anniversary celebration at the Ahmanson Theatre on Saturday.
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Center Theatre Group’s “50th Celebration,” which gathered celebrities, devoted patrons, philanthropists and swells in their spiffiest attire for a Saturday night shindig at the Ahmanson, was more than a star-studded evening of entertainment. It was a rousing reaffirmation of the values championed by Gordon Davidson, CTG’s founding artistic director, who died last year but whose spirit presided over this joyously moving two-hour commemoration of a half-century of top-flight theater.

The finale, an earthquake rendition by Jennifer Hudson of “I Know Where I’ve Been” from the musical “Hairspray,” thematically summed up the night. The show, which was produced and directed with finesse by Robert H. Egan, reflected on CTG’s legacy not simply to indulge in nostalgia but to sharpen the theater’s mission as it moves into a future that promises to be every bit as impossible — culturally, politically and economically (let’s not even bring up the traffic) — as the past.

All credit to Michael Ritchie, CTG’s reigning artistic director, for using this anniversary occasion to shore up first principles. Superlative showmanship was on display in musical numbers from shows such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent” and “Gypsy.” But plays that occupy a prominent position in the Mark Taper Forum’s storied history were also given pride of place, and new writing in particular was exalted.

Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, which celebrated its 50th anniversary Sa
Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, which celebrated its 50th anniversary Saturday.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
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Enacted were fragments of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” (in which Phylicia Rashad gave a flickering glimpse of her Tony-nominated performance), Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle” (an excerpt of which reminded the audience of just how long corporations have been at work exploiting the little guy and destabilizing the environment) and Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” (which allowed Edward James Olmos to once again transform into that emblem of dauntless Chicano style, El Pachuco).

Most moving of all were the final moments of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Perestroika,” a scene that powerfully encapsulates the way a drama can synthesize an era, bringing a distressed public’s mind and heart into alignment. Prior (Thomas Sadoski), battling AIDS and angels, political cruelty and personal disappointment, steps away from his circle of friends in Central Park to assure us that though this “disease will be the end of many of us ... we won’t die secret deaths anymore.” After blessing us with “more life,” he leaves us, fellow citizens, with an exhortation: “The Great Work Begins.”

Prior’s vision is also the vision of his author and every playwright who understands the theater’s power to lead us into collective awareness. Sitting in the dark, we identify not only with those characters onstage who are grappling with their destinies but also with the strangers beside us who are likewise in quest of meaning, clarity, compassion and truth.

Davidson knew that drama wasn’t worth fighting for if it wasn’t taking risks, upending convention ... and listening to all those who have been silenced.

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We should all aspire, if I may borrow from Prior’s parting words, to be theatrical citizens. The rewards of consciousness and connection are profound, and when that stage magic comes together, as it has so regularly over the decades at Center Theatre Group, there’s nothing like it.

‘Fail better’

Davidson founded a theater rooted in certain communal ideals. He believed in inclusiveness not because of political correctness but because he understood that an engaged audience was fundamental to this democratic art form. The theater requires intellectual and emotional commitment on both sides of the footlights, and nothing sparks participation quite like the recognition that comes from seeing oneself in a wider frame.

Frank Langella, who was in the cast of “The Devils,” CTG’s inaugural production, began this golden anniversary celebration with an amusing report on that wild opening night back in April 1967, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, and an audience of corporate, political and philanthropic bigwigs were so shocked by the content of John Whiting’s play that the house emptied as the actors, dressed in clergy garb, pressed on with their characters’ sacrilegious business. The production, Langella explained, was a statement by Davidson, a declaration of independence from the interests that had funded the creation of this grand new cultural site.

Buildings may depend on responsible stewardship, but art demands courageous rebellion. Davidson saw the conflict straightaway and refused to back down.

“Ideas and passions are being explored and exposed and this inevitably rocks the security of the Establishment foundation upon which this theater rests,” he wrote in a 1968 essay titled “Reflections on Beginnings.”

Among the actors who performed for the 50th anniversary celebration of Center Theatre Group at the A
Among the actors who performed for the 50th anniversary celebration of Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson on Saturday night, from left, were Paul Oakley Stovall, Charlie Hofheimer, Thomas Sadoski and Annette Bening.
(Ryan Miller / Capture Imaging)

CTG is the theater it is today because Davidson knew that drama wasn’t worth fighting for if it wasn’t taking risks, upending convention, hearing out heresies and listening to all those who have been silenced.

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When everything works, the result is Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” and Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Along the way there are many flops and and even more mediocrities. But as Langella and the many notables who followed him reminded us, artists and audiences are in this together. Actor Alan Mandell invoked his hero, Samuel Beckett, to characterize the theatrical mission in two words: “Fail better.”

Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles’ flagship theater organization, contributed enormously in the last 50 years not only to the storehouse of new plays and musicals but to the decentralization of the art form in America. For that to continue, CTG will have to convince a new generation that failing boldly together is more nourishing and satisfying than succeeding alone with our keyboards, touchscreens and remote controls.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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