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Taking an Early Peek at the New Ahmanson : Theater: The $17-million face lift will be completed in two months. The new interior has a more intimate feeling for audience and actors.

October 15, 1994|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gordon Davidson, temporary tour guide as well as artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, strode past a corps of construction workers on lunch break as he pointed to the new box office for the Ahmanson Theatre.

"Now it's off to the side rather than being a pimple in the middle," he said.

Yes, the 27-year-old Ahmanson has been going through 16 months and $17 million worth of plastic surgery, including a new facade and extensive interior work. Two months from today, the renovation will be formally dedicated. "Miss Saigon" will be the first show to test the new configuration when it officially opens Jan. 25.

The changes are more than cosmetic. With mobile walls installed in the mezzanine and balcony, the seating capacity of the hall will be flexible. Davidson predicts the most popular capacity in the future will be around 1,400, which would entail closing off the back of the mezzanine and the back of the balcony. That arrangement is supposed to promote intimacy for spoken drama but also retain lower-priced seats for those who can't afford the orchestra.

A capacity of 1,700 is also easily available, if the entire mezzanine is open, but the back of the balcony is cut off. First, however, for the giant-sized "Miss Saigon," the capacity will return to the neighborhood of 2,000 that prevailed before the makeover.

Whatever seating configuration is used, the interior of the auditorium should be more intimate now. The mezzanine and balcony have been extended forward two rows. Suspended acoustical panels and architectural lighting will make the ceiling look lower.

The mezzanine and balcony now extend around a graceful curve into the sides of the hall, where you'll find five boxes on each side--two on each side of the mezzanine level, and three on each side of the balcony level.

"It used to be that if you were in the balcony," Davidson said, "you didn't see anybody else in the audience. But in Shakespeare's day, the audience saw each other as part of the event. It was a community as opposed to an unidentified mass like in a movie theater." He hopes the boxes will help restore that sense of a community event to the Ahmanson.

"But regardless of whether there are people in them, the boxes embrace the audience," Davidson continued. "They become acoustical enhancers, pushing the sound back toward the center of the hall."

Of course theater boxes often connote an element of elitism, Davidson noted. These probably won't be an exception. A donation of $350,000 will buy 20 years of rights to opening night tickets plus fringe benefits for a balcony box seating four, while $500,000 will get you one on the mezzanine level for the same term. So far, one box has sold at each price level.

Down on the orchestra floor, the new seating will be more flexible, allowing aisles rather than the previous unbroken rows of continental seating. Not only will this encourage more audience mingling, but it will allow directors more freedom to use the aisles. "Before, there was no access to the stage except from the sides," Davidson said.

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The east backstage area is now much larger. The cafe that used to be there has been moved to the plaza, where the Music Center store used to be, and five dressing rooms were removed (three have been moved upstairs). That whole area "has been a problem for many, many shows," Davidson said. In fact, producer Cameron Mackintosh has said he couldn't have brought "Miss Saigon" to the Ahmanson without the expanded backstage.

The stage itself wasn't ignored. "We now have the ability to thrust the stage into the audience 8-10 feet, using any shape you want," Davidson said, wiping a glob of wet cement from his shoe. He added that this stage design was "a personal request of Charlton Heston," veteran Ahmanson actor and CTG board member.

"I nagged everybody about that," confirmed Heston in a separate interview. A British colleague once told Heston that acting onstage at the Ahmanson was "like playing on the cliffs of Dover, except the audience is in France."

"From the beginning, the Ahmanson has been close to a disaster as a stage machine," added Heston, "and everyone who played there knew it." But Heston now believes "we finally got it right. I think it'll be a knockout." Even when the stage isn't thrust out 10 feet, he said, the front row of seats is now only six feet from the lip, "compared to what seemed like a mile and a half."

Although the work hasn't been completed, the lobby and forecourt are designed to have a more open feeling. In addition to the shift of the box office, the pool behind the Taper and the colonnade in front of the Ahmanson have been removed, mapping out a larger court. Green glass has replaced the darker glass in the front windows, which now wrap around the east side of the lobby. The mezzanine and balcony offer more far-reaching views.

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