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THEATER | THEATER NOTES

Applauding Cates and Sondheim

September 28, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Ovation season draws near. This year's nominations for L.A. theater's competitive, peer-judged awards will be announced Wednesday.

Special awards will go to Stephen Sondheim and Gilbert Cates, who are expected at the swanky ceremony at the Shubert Theatre on Nov. 17.

Sondheim, who will receive the Board of Governors award for lifetime achievement, is "legendary in his accomplishments in the musical theater," said William Freimuth, executive director of Theatre LA, which sponsors the Ovations. "We're so happy that so many of his works have played our stages." He diplomatically avoided mentioning that Sondheim's latest Tony-winning musical, "Passion," has yet to play Los Angeles.

Cates, producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, will receive the James A. Doolittle award for leadership in Los Angeles theater. The Geffen recently completed its first full season in the former Westwood Playhouse.

Freimuth called Cates, who has also maintained an active career in television, film and academia (he is stepping down as chairman of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television), "an obvious choice. Given all of his options and connections, he has chosen that the theater is where he really wants to be, and he's putting a tremendous amount of energy into it. We also like to salute the fact that he has created that bridge between the entertainment media and live theater."

The ceremony will be at the Shubert for the second year in a row, again hosted by "Ragtime" star John Rubinstein and Joanna Gleason, a Tony winner for Sondheim's "Into the Woods."

"Everybody liked the Shubert last year," Freimuth said. There is one big difference, though--last fall the Shubert was dark, but now it's the home of "Ragtime." This means less rehearsal time for the ceremony, but it's also a plus: Thanks to "Ragtime" producer Livent, the ceremony will use the "Ragtime" lighting system and one of the show's sets. "Last year we had to bring everything in ourselves," Freimuth said.

He denied that the Century City venue has become the permanent home for the program. "We probably will do a little more moving around, because we represent such a broad geography."

*

ACT'S BROADWAY BABY: Among all of the big-city West Coast theaters, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater probably acquired the most durable reputation as a haven for the classics, far from the commercial hubbub of Broadway.

But ACT is now presenting its first-ever direct-to-Broadway collaboration: "High Society," a musical adapted by Arthur Kopit from the Philip Barry play "The Philadelphia Story" and the Cole Porter film musical "High Society."

Artistic director Carey Perloff said she doesn't want ACT "ever to be just a stopover place" for Broadway tryouts. But she cited a number of reasons why "High Society" is something different.

Lately, Perloff said, the theater has done more toward new work, spurred by its conservatory. "If we're invested in the future of acting, we also should invest in the future of writing," she said.

The recently reopened Geary Theatre (after repairs from the 1989 earthquake) "looks like a Broadway house, and it's perfect for music. It has a glorious sound," Perloff said. "And this is a very musically sophisticated city."

She also liked "The Philadelphia Story." "I love vintage American plays from the '20s through the '40s. This is a very literate theater audience. And I knew Arthur Kopit could shape it into a musical."

She also emphasized that ACT actively produced the show--"it didn't get put together in New York." ACT put up two-thirds of the $1.4-million budget--but such a show would be impossible for a nonprofit theater unless commercial producers provided the rest of the budget, Perloff said. "And this is not even a big musical."

The investment could pay off for ACT, which will receive a percentage of the royalties if the show becomes a Broadway hit (a March opening on Broadway is planned). And Perloff said that the show also "has generated hundreds of new subscribers."

Many of them were no doubt drawn by the Broadway names attached to the project. The director is Christopher Renshaw of the recent revival of "The King and I."

Integrating Porter songs from other shows into the original was Broadway veteran Paul Gemignani. Leading lady Melissa Errico is frequently touted as one of the next big Broadway stars. Also in it are Daniel McDonald ("Steel Pier"), Jere Shea ("Passion"), Randy Graff and John McMartin.

"High Society" plays through Oct. 5.

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