Lea Michele, Darren Criss, Seth MacFarlane and acclaimed actress and playwright Dominique Morrisseau (“Ain’t Too Proud”) were among the performers who stole the show at Monday night’s “A Grand Night” fundraising gala for Center Theatre Group held at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
The song-filled event, which drew some 600 attendees and was followed by a post-show gala dinner on the stage of the Ahmanson Theater, raised $1.2 million for the non-profit arts organization, one of the largest theatre companies in the nation. Comprising the Taper, Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas Theater, Center Theater Group, of which Michael Ritchie is the artistic director, has provided the Los Angeles community with staged musical productions for more than 50 years, including, most recently, “Lackawanna Blues,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away” and “Falsettos.”
The song-studded gala, directed by Neel Keller, with Larry Blank as musical director and conductor, also featured classic Broadway and off-Broadway tunes sung by such seasoned stage performers as Nick Adams (“Falsettos”), Adam Shapiro (“Waitress”), Erich Bergen (“Jersey Boys”), Eden Espinosa (“Wicked,” “Rent”) and Barrett Foa (“Avenue Q”), as well as many others.
“To me, great theater is a reflection of a great city and a great society,” said gala performance co-chair and Center Theatre Group board member Matthew Walden. “And I think that it’s important that people come together and experience this sort of a collective moment. It’s also hugely important from an educational perspective because all the statistics show that kids who are involved in musical theater go on to be more confident, to be able to communicate better, they do better in interviews –it’s all part of finding their voice. And great culture is education and again, reflects a civilized society.”
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The performers worked with Keller and Blank to come up with their musical choices. Highlights included MacFarlane, who crooned “Old Man River” from the musical “Showboat,” Criss and Michele, who performed a duet of “Broadway Baby” from “Follies” and Foa, whose comedic iteration of “One Day More” from “Les Miserables” featured an amalgam of Jean Valjean and Tevya from “Fiddler on the Roof” that sparked whooping peals of audience laughter.
“The idea was to draw on the Center Theater Group’s history in the musical theater space,” said Walden. “If you’ve looked at list of musicals we’ve done over the years, you can pretty much do whatever you want to.”
Looking back on the Ahmanson’s selection of shows over the years, gala performance co-chair Richard Weitz has many favorites, but there’s one that will forever stick out as the most memorable.
“For me it was ‘Rent,’ the LA production, in 1997, because it was the night I got engaged,” said Weitz. “So that, to me, is what has always been special about this theater.”
For real-life married couple Katie Lowes (“Waitress”) and Shapiro, Center Theater Group is a place where “theater nerds” in Los Angeles can not only explore their craft, but commune with fellow theater aficionados that have moved from the east coast to pursue additional avenues of media (TV, film) but who do not want to abandon their love and passion for live theater.
“I think the theater scene is just starting a major explosion in LA,” said Shapiro.
“We live in this town where there are so many theater nerds and you don’t even know it,” added Lowes. “There are so many playwrights that are TV writers now or actors that are on television shows that are real true diehard theater fans, and we all are in Los Angeles. CTG [Center Theater Group] is where we get to go for our Broadway, off-Broadway connection. It’s so important that it exists and it’s so important that the theater scene in Los Angeles is here. I really think that in the next ten years it will be even more prevalent.”