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Performing Arts : Solid Set From Peters Opens Arts Venue

October 24, 1994|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This was the dream that wouldn't die," announced Thousand Oaks council member Judy Lazar at the grand opening performance Friday night at the city's new Civic Arts Plaza.

But the dream, which has persisted for nearly a decade, did not come to life without a few glitches and some heroic efforts from everyone involved. Signs of the last-minute crunch to bring things together were obvious around the fringes of the celebration--from the portable generators supplying lighting for the parking lots to a hasty application of duct tape to hold down the red carpet at the entryway.

Glitches aside, by 8 on opening night the important elements were all in place. The brand new Civic Auditorium was spick-and-span, the Conejo Symphony and the combined choirs of the Conejo Valley were massed on stage, raring to go, and headline artist and Broadway star Bernadette Peters was waiting in the wings.

Given a season schedule that features such mainstream names as Ray Charles, Paul Anka, Kenny Rogers and Liza Minnelli, Peters probably was an understandable choice for the event. Still, with the number of performers who live in the area, one wonders why a local artist wasn't the headliner. (How interesting it might have been, for example, had someone been able to persuade Newbury Park resident Artie Shaw to pick up his clarinet one more time.)

But no apologies were needed for Peters' performance. As always, she was adorable. Alternately seductive and sweet, comical and serene, she commanded the stage with the deceptive ease of a theatrical veteran. Her voice is one of the unique sounds in popular music, capable of moving easily from Betty Boop-like coyness to hard-belting Vegas-style climaxes. Less obvious, but equally significant, she sings everything with pinpoint musical accuracy and an actor's respect for the story-telling relevance of the lyrics.

Peters worked her way through a far-ranging collection of material, from Stephen Sondheim ("Broadway Baby," "No One Is Alone" and the "Dick Tracy" ballad, "Sooner or Later") to Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Like an Unexpected Song"), the blues, pop standards and a characteristically whimsical rendering of "Glow, Little Glow Worm." Halfway through her set, a too-heavy dose of unfamiliar numbers slowed down the musical flow. But Peters quickly picked things up with a lovely medley of Harold Arlen songs, finally closing her show with a quietly touching reading of "I'll Be Seeing You."

The gala performance began with Shostakovich's Festival Overture--a suitable, if not particularly inspiring selection for the start of the inauguration. Any number of other, more familiar works would have done the job as well and with greater audience recognition. The finale to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 followed, and it was a far more appropriate composition, and one that tested the skills of conductor Elmer Ramsey and the orchestra and chorus, as well as the acoustics of the new hall.

Unfortunately, neither fared as well as they should have. Ramsey generated very little emotional intensity from his players, and there were times when much of his attention seemed focused simply on keeping them in sync. This is an orchestra with a large group of quality musicians, especially in its violin and woodwind sections, but it still is a good distance away from discovering an ensemble sound and substance of its own.

The acoustics, in a 1,500-seat hall that is alleged to have no seats farther than 118 feet from the stage, were also lacking, sounding dampened and subdued, sometimes to the point of audio blandness. The climaxes in the Beethoven Ninth, for instance, which should explode off the stage, were compressed and limited.

Peters' amplified music reached out somewhat better, although the orchestral accompaniment again appeared to recede into the background. At the very least, the venue has more work to do in tuning the room's acoustics.

One further aesthetic problem is the absence of a grand entry--the sort of large gathering area that creates excitement and anticipation as an audience enters the hall.

These caveats aside, the Civic Arts Plaza is a welcome addition to the growing Southland list of first-rate performance arenas. The dream has become a reality.

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