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Theater : Summer Heats Interest in 'Lear,' 'Nunsense'


The summer has done wonders not just for the movie business nationwide but for the more modestly proportioned Orange County theater scene.

Besides the tens of thousands of playgoers who have forked over $7.2 million so far to see "The Phantom of the Opera" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, tens of hundreds have turned out for Shakespeare Orange County's well-received "King Lear."

"We're picking up a lot of new people who haven't been to see us before," SOC artistic director Thomas F. Bradac said earlier this week. "People have come for this show from as far away as Thousand Oaks, way up near Ventura. People have heard about us who don't know where we are. There's a whole new group of people calling us. It's a fresh audience."

Bradac says attendance is up at least 35% from last season's "Julius Caesar," and that is likely to help SOC's subscriptions for next year. But he's not the only producer singing a happy tune.

Griff Duncan, who heads Fullerton Civic Light Opera, notes a 20% rise in attendance over last summer for his al fresco dinner-theater operation, the Theatre on the Green series at Fullerton's Muckenthaler Cultural Center. He says "Nunsense II," which closes Saturday with a sold-out house, has done even better at the box office than the musical "Quilters," which was the biggest hit of the series in its first season last year.

"Our books aren't closed on it yet, but we think the dinner theater will show a profit," Duncan said. "The series format calls for a musical, a comedy and a drama, and we want to keep offering that variety. But there's no question the musicals are more popular."

Does that mean the format will change for next season?

"Not necessarily," he said. "We haven't made any decision on that. Musicals may be more popular, but they're also more expensive to produce."

In fact, a darker countermelody enters Duncan's happy tune when he speaks of the FCLO's most recent year-round indoor season at Plummer Auditorium. Sometimes even musicals can't draw an audience, he says.

The FCLO's 1993-94 schedule laid an egg for precisely that reason. The company's most recent offering at Plummer, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," was poorly attended. Earlier in the season, "The Most Happy Fella" did somewhat better, but not by much.

"The single-ticket buyer was practically nonexistent for those two productions," Duncan explained. "We'll incur substantial losses on both. 'Fella' showed a loss of about $40,000. We're still figuring out how much we lost on 'Whorehouse.' So our main musical season will show a considerable loss."


Go figure. "The Most Happy Fella" just happens to be one of the best Broadway musicals ever, with a touching story and a deeply moving score by Frank Loesser. "Whorehouse" just happens to be one of the worst Broadway musicals ever, with only some glitzy Tommy Tune dance numbers to recommend it.

Meanwhile, the Andrew Lloyd Webber warhorse "Evita" was a big FCLO hit, turning a profit of about $30,000. And the Charles Strouse warhorse "Annie" also did well, though not as well as hoped, with a mere $5,000 profit, Duncan says.

Still, he's looking forward to more adventurous programming--we're speaking in relative terms here--for next season at Plummer: "Phantom," by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston (Feb. 17-March 5); "Brigadoon," by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (May 12-28); "The Secret Garden," by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon (July 14-30), and "West Side Story," by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents (Oct. 20, 1995-Nov. 5).


BY THE WAY: Did you ever wonder what Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh are making on "Phantom's" OCPAC booking? With grosses topping $1 million a week, you can assume they're raking in lots of dough. It costs the producers about $600,000 a week to run the show. Everything after that is profit.


TOUGH TIMES?: They haven't made it official yet, but South Coast Repertory's budget next season will top $6 million for the first time. The county's largest theater company anticipates a 5% increase, roughly $300,000, over last season's expenditures of $5.8 million.

The record-high $6.1-million budget for the 1994-95 season, beginning Sept. 2 with the first preview of "A Streetcar Named Desire," represents a 20% growth from five seasons ago. That's when SCR's budget topped $5 million for the first time and Southern California began heading into its worst recession in decades.

It makes you wonder what might have happened had the economy been good. Most theater companies would kill for SCR's tough times.

Last season, for example, attendance averaged 90%. The box office sold about 41,600 single tickets, in addition to the roughly 110,000 tickets purchased by 19,700 subscribers to all productions on the SCR Mainstage and Second Stage.

According to John Mouledoux, SCR's director of marketing and communications, subscriptions for the upcoming season are keeping pace with last. He says he expects the number of season ticket-holders to reach 19,800. That is down from SCR's historic high of 25,000 in the 1986-87 season. But single tickets have more than made up for the decline.

Subscription prices for next season are up "an average of 2% to 3%," Mouledoux said. They range from $57 to $198 for the six Mainstage productions and from $48 to $153 for the five Second Stage productions.

Single tickets have gone up slightly, ranging from $16 to $36 for the Mainstage and from $15 to $35 for the Second Stage. SCR-goers also face a stiff parking fee of $6 each time they attend a show.

"We don't have any control over parking," Mouledoux emphasized. The theater does not set the fees nor share in them.

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