Pasadena shakes its ‘Can Can’

After 'Doubt' and 'Sister Act,' Playhouse hopes Cole Porter revival will seal its nat'l rep

Sheldon Epps is looking for a dance partner.

The artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse has landed rights and secured enhancement money to stage a “re-envisioning” of Cole Porter’s 1953 tuner “Can Can.” But Epps learned quickly with his latest endeavor, “Sister Act: The Musical” — which bowed at the Playhouse Nov. 3 before heading to Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in January — that having a second destination can boost the profile of a regional theater looking to position itself as a national launching pad.

Epps has acquired a new mindset over the last two seasons as the Playhouse staged a Pulitzer winner, an acclaimed August Wilson revival and the world premiere of the Broadway-targeted “Sister Act.” “Can Can” stands to generate more word of mouth regarding the capabilities of this once-sleepy theater and its creative team.

If the Pasadena Playhouse demonstrates that it can come up with a second act — a musical revival to follow the recent-season highlights — it could find itself competing with La Jolla Playhouse, Old Globe Theater and others as a home for the development and launch of new productions.

Epps says he’s a bit shocked by the hesitance of some East Coast producers he has solicited as co-producers; for him, a “Can Can” revival, with a new book by former “Frasier” writer David Lee, should be like manna from heaven for a commercial venue — much the same way he perceived “Sister Act” when it was offered to him a year ago.

“Sister Act,” Epps notes, is the highest-profile show the Playhouse has ever staged in terms of title recognition, creative staff and industry focus. Running through Dec. 17, it followed the Epps-directed revival of Wilson’s “Fences,” starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, which has been rumored for transfer to London’s West End.

“Fences” got Epps’ phone ringing with calls from agents, managers and producers, though playwrights and their reps had started inquiring about the venue a year ago when John Patrick Shanley won the Pulitzer Prize for “Doubt.” That play was then midway through its only non-New York run, at the Playhouse.

Unfortunately, the Playhouse had locked in dates for “Doubt” and extending wasn’t an option; the production’s last two weeks played to capacity.

” ‘Doubt’ was the big turning point,” Epps says. “That showed we were trusted with the rights (to a play) so early in the game. It focused the spotlight in a healthy way — you can’t begin to calculate that value (for an institution).”

“To have Angela and Laurence on your stage puts a message out to managers, agents and producers that we have created a new climate,” he adds. “We’ve received more calls in the last two months than in the previous five years.”

It does feel a bit like an overnight sensation, but with the recent Center Theater Group transfers, L.A. is looking more like a real theater town.

“It’s important that (Los Angeles) have productions like ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ and ‘Curtains,’ ” says Epps. “It’s not just the productions, but that the development was done here.” As much as the Playhouse has been getting calls, so has the Center Theater Group after shepherding two L.A.-developed productions to Broadway in a 12-month period.

“It’s about being trendy,” a CTG exec says. “But you know that if you have two consecutive shows fail, the phone calls stop.”

“Curtains” will arrive on Broadway in the spring with strong notices in hand, much as “Drowsy” did earlier this year. Curiously, critics were all over the map on “Sister Act.” Variety was more negative than most on the production, while two newspapers raved as if another “The Lion King” was born. Others pointed to “problems” that insiders say “aren’t really problems.”

The producers knew they would have to tinker. But they felt the first round of reviews didn’t offer much help where to tinker — though the audiences have been helpful.

“An audience will tell you if something is confusing,” Epps says. “There’s so much that you learn when you put a show in front of an audience. Prior to that, you can only tweak conceptually.”

Epps laments the fact that “Sister Act” is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to trying out musicals, getting two runs before it even thinks about Broadway or the road.

That concern, however, is a distant vision from the Pasadena Playhouse’s first 70-plus years, during which time it went about its business in a sleepy fashion, filling its 676-seat mainstage with fare that mostly neither thrilled nor offended.

“The profile was not terribly high; it was artistically iffy and fiscally day to day,” says Epps, who took the reins in 1997. “There was not a huge amount of respect for the work.”

Epps was hired by Lyla White, who had come onboard in 1996 as director of development and became executive director four years later. On her watch, and thanks to his programming, the theater has been on a roll with donors. When White, who has just retired, took over, the theater was raising less than $250,000 per year. In five years, it crossed the $1 million-per-year mark and is currently raising $2 million per year.

“There have been risks taken,” says Playhouse managing director Brian Colburn.

The Playhouse, which had some refurbishment in the late 1980s but is largely identical to when Gilmore Brown opened it in 1925, also has raised $7.5 million over the last three years in a capital campaign. Colburn says those funds will renovate the theater, create an endowment and a technologically advanced alternative performance lab space. That space, the Carrie Hamilton Theater, was named for Carol Burnett’s late daughter. A local group, Furious Theater Company, produces in the space and is in the third year of a four-year residency.

Epps jokes that there are times when the Furious production and the mainstage show are going at the same time and the venue’s Spanish revival courtyard is packed with two wildly different auds — subscribers and Hollywood hipsters. “We first saw it with ‘Doubt.’ I was wondering, ‘How did we get the Geffen’s audience?’ ”

Colburn, too, has a hard time explaining the Pasadena audience except to note that the company is selling tickets in an astonishing 350 different California Zip codes, a number he expects to hit 400 once the “Sister Act” run is complete.

On a recent Tuesday, “Sister Act” played to a nearly full house. The laughs took a while to get rolling, and the reaction was strongest to the broad comedy that plays off the clashes between the secular and profane, the hip and the square, the nuns’ habits and disco-era fashions.

Alan Menken has mined 1970s soul music for the best parts of the score and Glenn Slater’s lyrics generate heartier laughs than Cheri and Bill Steinkellner’s book. The sets are in line with smaller musicals that rely on sliding pieces.

With “Fences,” the star power was visceral, from the leads on down. “Sister Act,” which needs a much more potent first half-hour, doesn’t share that quality.

But once it gets pumped up with gospel rhythms that carry over from the end of the first act and into the second, it becomes a well-executed crowdpleaser — a trait that critics found in “Can Can” when it opened 53 years ago.

Epps, with a bit of pride in his voice, says, “It’s all about the quality of productions. It may not be your taste, but the quality will not be questioned. You know the meal will be well cooked. Offering diversity — that’s very important to me.”

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