L.A. lends Gotham a stage hand

Bevy of preems trek east this season

After sending three shows from last season on to the big time in New York, Los Angeles theater has set the bar high for itself this season.

“Into the Woods,” which premiered at the Ahmanson Theater last winter, opened on Broadway in April and collected a Tony for best musical revival. The revised “Flower Drum Song,” which started life at the Mark Taper Forum last fall, opens at Broadway’s Virginia Theater on Oct. 17. And Israel Horovitz’s “My Old Lady,” which was first seen at L.A.’s Doolittle Theater as part of the Taper subscription season, starts performances at Off Broadway’s Promenade Theater on Oct. 3.

L.A.’s string of successes from last season doesn’t stop at Gotham, either: Jane Anderson’s “Looking for Normal,” which the Geffen Playhouse launched last year, is becoming an HBO Film, and the Geffen’s production of “God’s Man in Texas” became a regional theater success and landed its playwright, David Rambo, a Geffen commission for a new work.

This season’s slates from the city’s most prominent houses include several productions with significant potential, as well as the usual traffic of plays coming the other way.

At the top of the list of attention-getters is the latest from Neil Simon. The prolific playwright’s new play “Rose and Walsh” will have its world premiere at the Geffen in February. Although Simon’s last play, “45 Seconds From Broadway,” was a Broadway fizzle last season, interest in a New York production for Simon’s play inspired by the relationship between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett is still likely to be high.

“We’ll benefit financially, but not in a significant way, if it makes it to Broadway,” says Geffen producing director Gil Cates. “If the production we’ve mounted is moved, then we benefit. Six months after it plays here it’s great to be known as the place where it was born.”

But theatrical afterlife is not the primary concern of Cates and Geffen artistic director Randall Arney. “The best theater is theater that is plugged in to the community and responsive to the community,” Arney says. “Our focus is doing the absolute best theater for the Geffen. It’s less about creating anything for the world at large.”

The Geffen season also includes Debbie Allen’s new Snow White musical “Pearl” (music by Allen, James Ingram and Diane Louie) and it kicks off with Cates’ production of David Eldridge’s “Under the Blue Sky,” previously seen in the West End, opening Sept. 18. It also features a couple of shows seen last season in New York, Rebecca Gilman’s “Boy Gets Girl” and Richard Nelson’s “Franny’s Way.”

The season at the Center Theater Group’s Mark Taper Forum opens with Joan Holden’s “Nickel and Dimed,” based on the Barbara Ehrenreich book, a production brought south from Seattle’s Intiman Theater. A move to a N.Y. nonprofit seems likely.

The Taper lineup also includes the world premieres of Lisa Loomer’s “Living Out” and Culture Clash’s “Chavez Ravine,” plus the West Coast premiere of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Ten Unknowns.” But the Taper’s heavy hitter is August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” which begins its world premiere run next July 31.

“I have two impulses for Taper: more classics and more plays that we have commissioned,” says CTG artistic director/producer Gordon Davidson, noting that “Living Out” and “Chavez Ravine” were Taper commissions. “Suddenly, New York is realizing they need 300-500 seat houses. That’s a manageable size and I’m more in favor of that than (creating venues of more than 1,000 seats).”

But the Ahmanson, also in Davidson’s purview, won’t be sending any productions on to New York this season. Its schedule consists entirely of road shows and imported productions this year. Usually the lineup includes at least one original production.

Subscribers get “The Producers” at the Pantages, “42nd Street,” Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Morning’s at Seven” and Lily Tomlin’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” As a bonus, subscribers can buy tickets to returning runs of “Mamma Mia!” and “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk.”

Davidson and Cates, L.A.’s two prominent theater toppers, agree on one thing — subscription seasons are the only things that work in the decidedly non-theater town. Even Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theater in Burbank has gone subscription, joining the Ahmanson, Taper and Geffen, which for the first time in its seven years announced all five plays before the season.

Arney and Cates say that subscriptions are the only way they could come close to making ends meet, even if it means potential hits have to be shuttered. Last season, for example, the Taper moved its production of “My Old Lady” to the Doolittle to accommodate an extension of “Flower Drum Song.” Moving “Flower,” says Davidson, was never an option.

“Stagings at the Taper are unique to that theater and I want them to be tailored to (its thrust stage),” he said, adding that transfers of productions are tough because of the difficulty in getting out word of the move. “We have to make sure the audience is there.”

“When you play L.A. you need two ingredients: a star or the name of the show has to be a star. Nothing plays L.A. long enough to generate word of mouth,” says producer Martin Markinson, who runs the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway and the Wadsworth Theater in West L.A. “It has so many 99-seat theaters that are struggling and the best one, the Tiffany, closed.”

But Markinson sees potential for L.A. down the road: The Dodgers have eyed the 1,400-seat Wadsworth as the pre-Broadway start for its revival of “Hair” in the fall of 2003; and Markinson has forged an alliance with a new Beverly Hills playhouse, which should be running in 2004, that will allow its hit productions to be transferred to the Wadsworth in its 700-seat configuration. That could then start a pipeline to the smaller theaters proliferating Off Broadway in Gotham.

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