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Musicals Mushroom at This Co-op

September 22, 2002|DON SHIRLEY

Nine days ago, members of the first L.A. cast of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim's first full-length musical, "Saturday Night," gathered in the Valley Glen living room of the producer, Eileen Barnett, for a potluck dinner and an initial reading of the script.

The five dogs who live in the house licked director Michael Michetti's face in between scenes and barked loudly whenever a latecomer showed up at the front door. A few cast members weren't there, for this was not a required rehearsal. Those were scheduled to begin last Friday--three days before show time.

Yes, "Saturday Night" will make its L.A. debut Monday night, at the Pasadena Playhouse, after only four rehearsals of about five hours each.

That's the amount of rehearsal that Actors' Equity allows for the producing organization, Musical Theatre Guild, to get its act together. Its act is a staged reading, not a fully mounted production. On Monday, the actors will carry scripts during the dialogue passages but are expected to drop them for the musical numbers. To save rehearsal time, a number that normally would be danced by two actors will be performed by two dancers hired just for that number.

"A show takes as long to get up as you have to rehearse it," said the show's musical director, Nick DeGregorio, while stationed at the upright piano in Barnett's home during a break halfway through the reading.

DeGregorio tries to schedule an additional half-hour alone with each singing actor away from the rehearsals. But time constraints don't bother him. Guild members "are mind readers," he said. "You give them a concept, they run with it."

Most of the guild's regular actor-members are such veterans that for "Saturday Night"--in which most of the characters are about 20 years old--the guild had to recruit outside its ranks more than usual. Some of the guild's relatively few members who look the right age were busy on other jobs.

Even so, Michetti told the cast at the reading that "many of you are somewhere between three and 15 years too old for these roles." Amid general laughter, he added, "If these are a bunch of losers in their 30s and 40s, it's a different story altogether." Sondheim himself was only 24 when the musical, about young and unsettled Brooklynites in 1929, was first scheduled to be produced in 1954. That production was canceled after the death of producer Lemuel Ayers, but the show finally received its premiere in London in 1997.

The Musical Theatre Guild occupies one of the most distinctive niches in L.A. theater. Not only is its programming highly unusual, but its co-op-style structure is otherwise unknown among L.A. companies that operate above the 99-seat level.

First, the programming. Most of the guild's shows are obscure musicals that presumably have been seen by only a minuscule number of people in L.A. (among the titles: "Colette Collage," "Louisiana Purchase," "The Rink," "I Remember Mama," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "How Now, Dow Jones?"). Generally, the guild presents them for only one night, in a staged reading at the Pasadena Playhouse. The company has 305 season subscribers.

Besides "Saturday Night," the upcoming season includes Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Allegro" and Cole Porter's "Jubilee!," as well as "Lucky Stiff" and "Grand Hotel," both of which received a single production in L.A. in the past decade.

"There's a huge inventory of shows that did well at first but never became classics," said guild board chairman Alan Weston.

The only other group in town that tries anything similar, Reprise!, rarely picks shows as unfamiliar as the guild's. It has done "1776" and "Hair," and its current "Anything Goes" is a show that's often seen at civic light operas. Reprise! also abandoned the staged-reading format soon after it began and runs its shows for two weeks.

In 1999, Reprise! producing artistic director Marcia Seligson saw the guild's production of Sondheim's "Passion"--even now, the only professional staging of this Tony-winning musical in the L.A. area--and picked it up for one additional performance at UCLA, as a benefit for both groups. It was the only time a guild show was staged more than once.

This year, however, Reprise! appeared to be trying to steal some of the "Saturday Night" fever when the bigger group announced, just three weeks ago, that it will host a benefit concert reading of Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" at UCLA's Freud Playhouse on Monday, the same night that "Saturday Night" will play Pasadena.

Eileen Barnett, co-producer of "Saturday Night," said the conflict was "a little distressing" and that a guild board member "sent out a panicky e-mail." However, "I can't imagine they were trying to compete," she said. "I'm assuming they just didn't think about us." She expressed confidence that true Sondheimaniacs will choose "Saturday Night" because of its relative unfamiliarity ("Merrily" was produced in L.A. two years ago, by the West Coast Ensemble).

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