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Wide assent for leader's ascent

Jim Gardia, new producing director for Reprise!, already has plenty of experience behind the scenes with the musical theater company.

January 29, 2006|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

DRESSED to the nines in film noir-era fashions, actors lounge in the little lobby of an unprepossessing rehearsal studio in North Hollywood, indulging in opinions about new musicals and gossip about whether a certain musical theater star has recently worked with a plastic surgeon.

Cast members of the Reprise! revival of "City of Angels" are waiting for their turns at a publicity photo session in the adjacent room.

Mingling among the actors are a number of behind-the-scenes personnel, easy to identify by their contemporary street duds. One -- a tall, middle-aged man sitting on a sofa -- smiles at others' comments but offers no dish. Instead, Jim Gardia, the unassuming new leader of Reprise!, L.A.'s theater company devoted to vintage musicals, shares only favorable opinions ("Those shoes look great on you!").

Gardia was officially handed the job of producing director in December, after three years as the organization's managing director. His appointment came in the wake of the abrupt October departure of Reprise! founder Marcia Seligson. "City of Angels," at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, is Gardia's first show as boss.

Just about everyone at Reprise! professes delight at Gardia's ascension to the top job -- although most of them also emphasize that Seligson deserves "mountains of credit," in the words of frequent Reprise! director Arthur Allan Seidelman, "for having the idea of Reprise! and bringing it to fruition."

Robert Wunsch, president of the Reprise! board for a six-year period that ended Jan. 1, declined to directly compare the leaders but said, "Jim is uniquely qualified. He has talent, a wide range of experience and a tremendously warm relationship with the creative community -- a huge plus. Everyone feels supported and encouraged by him. He has already been handling the bulk of production responsibilities. But he stays behind the scenes. There is no self-aggrandizement there."

Ronn Goswick, who was the company's managing director for three years and has returned to stage manage shows including "City of Angels," says Gardia "is a lot more laid-back" than Seligson, who was "an on-top-of-you person, a micromanager."

Still, Seidelman points out that Gardia is more hands-on than Seligson because he has more previous theatrical experience than she did when she started the company. "That," he says, "will be to the benefit of the organization."

(Seligson, who was traveling outside the country, could not be reached for comment).

Gardia's love of the stage began when he performed in a children's theater company in Lynwood. He acted in productions at San Diego's Mesa College, a community college, but he also was a lifeguard who at the time intended to be a swimming coach. An American Sign Language course that he took came in handy on his first big-name theater gig -- he worked as an interpreter for the deaf at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978.

"I tried to work as an actor," he recalls, "but I was much better behind the scenes." Or maybe at the front of the house: He took a job in the box office at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills for a year.

After following a friend to Philadelphia in the early '80s, he spent five years there doing ASL interpreting, appearing in "a lot of musical theater" and waiting tables.

His work as a waiter at the Four Seasons brought him back to Southern California, when the company opened a hotel in Newport Beach. A friend from the Wilshire box office introduced Gardia to the staff at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, where he remained for the next decade.

"Very quickly he was running the box office, and pretty soon he was running my business," recalls then-Canon producer Joan Stein. "There is no one who combines his good taste, his good manners -- his parents really raised him right -- his love of artists, his wicked sense of humor. And he's a great problem solver."

She recalls that one winter when rainstorms and leaks left stains on the Canon walls, Gardia assumed a deadpan expression and explained, "That's part of the set design."

Gardia was company manager for the long-running "Forever Plaid" at the Canon, then became the theater's general manager. Stein, he says, "taught me the art of producing."

In 1997, after Reprise! opened with "Promises, Promises," Seligson hired Stein to produce an extension of the show three months after it had closed, and Gardia helped out as associate producer.

The small-scale commercial runs that were the Canon's specialty began to fade along with the 20th century, and Gardia left the staff in 2000. He briefly lived in Sonoma County, trying to escape the big city, but returned for freelance jobs at the Canon. Then Seligson hired him for the No. 2 job at Reprise! in 2002.

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