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The Arts Are Blooming


The time: A Friday evening five years from now.

The place: Orange County.

The scene: A night on the town in America's leading suburban hub of the arts.

In Costa Mesa, the strains of a Beethoven symphony resound through the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the new jewel of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Across the street in the "old" hall, 3,000 fans erupt as Elton John pounds out a rollicking tune.

When the concerts let out, the two crowds mingle in a new, park-like plaza. On this night, the expanded, four-hall performing arts center also has hosted a cabaret singer and the premiere of a multimedia opera by Steve Reich.

Across the plaza, three audiences sit riveted while South Coast Repertory makes national headlines with a rare theatrical coup: world premieres on three stages, all commissioned by the acclaimed theater company.

A few miles north in Santa Ana, bohemian boulevardiers sit in crowded sidewalk cafes and hip restaurants in the downtown Artists Village, the fast-beating urban heart that O.C. suburbia long had lacked. Knowing they are in Southern California's new center of cutting-edge art makes the smell of their espressos all the more heady.

The neighborhood is flush with half a dozen theater companies known for championing emerging playwrights--especially local ones--and for staging adventurous, unorthodox takes on standard repertory works. All have shows going on this night. A big jazz concert is the draw at the Santa Ana Performing Arts and Event Center, the village's largest venue.

Coastal Orange County also has some shining spots. In Laguna Beach, the Laguna Playhouse's addition of a second stage next door to its older Moulton Theatre has helped propel the company toward more adventurous programming. Some observers predict the venerable playhouse might soon be able to challenge South Coast Repertory for the title of the county's most accomplished theater.

In Newport Beach, the Balboa Performing Arts Center, the revived incarnation of an old seaside vaudeville house, hosts an eclectic mix of performance groups, as well as the county's most adventurous classic film series.

A dream scenario? Certainly--and one subject to a harsh wake-up call should the regional economy turn bad in the next few years. But in 2000, all of the seeds of the teeming arts scene of 2005 imagined here have been planted. Orange County already has proved itself as fertile soil for surprising and rapid growth in the arts. Perhaps what was sown in the last quarter of the 20th century can come to full bloom in the first half-decade of the 21st.

Twenty-five years ago, enjoying the arts in Orange County typically meant a freeway excursion to Los Angeles. As a new century dawns, the shadows over local culture have greatly receded.

The Orange County Performing Arts center is booked with opera, dance and symphonic music, as well as touring Broadway shows and a smattering of jazz and pop. South Coast Repertory is one of the country's most acclaimed regional theaters, the incubator of four recent plays that have won or been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. The center has raised the profile of local performing arts groups; SCR's example has helped inspire a local grass-roots movement of theaters in storefronts and warehouse blocks.

But the transformation is not complete. The new century finds an array of arts institutions feeling cramped and limited and mulling expansion.

* The Performing Arts Center's leaders are driving hard to turn their single building into a multiple-venue complex. The estimated cost of $200 million would buy a 2,000-seat concert hall and 500-seat music theater to complement the existing auditorium. The expansion also would include a connecting plaza between the two buildings, big enough to host large outdoor events.

* If the dreams of South Coast Repertory come true, a third stage of about 300 seats will be built behind the existing theater complex.

* The Orange County Museum of Art, which has outgrown its Newport Beach site, could end up in a new building next to the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Planning remains in its early stages, with no firm strategy yet adopted, says the art museum's director, Naomi Vine.

Although Orange County Performing Arts Center leaders almost always let the term "world class" slip when talking up their visions of bigger and better things, Santa Ana's hoped-for revolution comes from the local grass roots and relies on a jolt of youthfulness.

Downtown, with venues housed in grand old buildings dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, aspires to become a humming, diversified hive for the arts, an enticing cutting-edge alternative to the county's dominant mall culture.

This month marks two developments that could become turning points toward Santa Ana's vision.

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