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San Diego Spotligh: STAGE / NANCY CHURNIN

Things Are Looking Up for Trio of Hard-Hit Theaters

December 13, 1990|NANCY CHURNIN

Finances have been a sore topic for at least three San Diego theaters during the past year.

The La Jolla Playhouse announced a crisis campaign late last year in which officials said the 1991 season, now successfully completed, was in danger. The San Diego Repertory Theatre announced it might not be able to conclude this year's season, scheduled to end this February. And the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company, which suspended its season in May, resumed this month with "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."

The worst of the crises seem to have passed.

The La Jolla Playhouse plans to release an official update next week on the crisis campaign the company launched late last year. But a spokeswoman said that, although the campaign is "ongoing" due to "continuing financial goals and needs," the playhouse is past the crisis stage thanks to a successful season in which the houses were filled at an average 96% capacity.

The popularity of the season also bodes well for next year, when the playhouse will have a new and larger theater to fill. The company now uses the 492-seat Mandell Weiss Theatre and the 248-seat Warren Theatre. In 1991, it will replace the Warren with the 400-seat Mandell Weiss Forum, giving the company an additional 1,200 seats to fill per week.

It also looks now as though the San Diego Repertory Theatre will complete its season as planned. The company has raised about $200,000 of the $350,000 it needed to produce the rest of its plays. The next piece, the bilingual production of Octavio Solis' "The Man of the Flesh" will officially open Jan. 9.

Officials are still hoping to raise more money in time for the opening of the final play, "The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson," a musical version of the true story of the famous black gangster. The mood seems positive about meeting the goal in time for the Jan. 30 opening night.

The Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company seems to be in good shape after the positive critical reception of its current show, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."

The show is filling the Hahn Cosmopolitan to 75% capacity nightly, beating the theater's projections, according to Susan Aronson, director of marketing and public relations.

For this theater, which still has daunting goals in the amount it needs to raise (anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million by the last official calculation), the reaction to the show by audiences and by the theater's board of trustees has been very important in rebuilding confidence in the company's work.

"We really needed to prove something to the public and the board," Aronson said. "I think everyone was waiting to see how we would do. But now that the show is up and running, it's back to business and we have to erase the deficit."

The company plans to open its next show, "A Woman in Mind," on Feb. 7 and has not made its opening contingent on raising a certain amount of money, Aronson added. The theater is also considering an extension of "Frankie and Johnny."

The Starlight Musical Theatre still has about $200,000 to raise to move ahead with its new musical, "For My Country . . . The USO Musical," which is set to debut at the Starlight Bowl on Aug. 10, about the time that the United Services Organization (USO) itself turns 50.

Prospects for raising the money are looking good, said Don Ward, co-artistic director of Starlight along with his wife, Bonnie.

"Two major corporations, that have specifically asked that we not reveal their names, are very encouraging to us about the total project and about their participation," Don Ward said.

The need for $200,000 comes specifically because this is a new musical, requiring a new set, costumes and orchestrations. While the average price of a Starlight show is about $300,000, this musical will have a record cost of $500,000.

Keeping the show down to a $500,000 budget will also be a challenge requiring the company to settle on the show's score as soon in the production process as possible. New musicals have a way of suddenly changing at the last minute, requiring expensive new orchestration and longer rehearsal hours.

The company, trying to get the work out of the way early, has been working feverishly on the show since its Dec. 5 staged reading.

San Diego has never had much of a track record in producing theater for children. The San Diego Junior Theatre has made its reputation training and casting children in its shows for half a century, but there are no companies with lengthy track records of producing professional quality theater for younger audiences.

The National Theater for Children, founded in San Diego in 1985 by Andrea Christian, may be the city's oldest such company. If the name is not familiar, that is probably because the National Theater is primarily a touring company, spending more time outside San Diego than in it. This year it has traveled to 55 cities. But twice a year it brings its two shows to San Diego.

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