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L.A. area theaters hope to strike holiday gold

Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse and A Noise Within will stage Christmas shows this year. Such productions can be a good source of revenue.

December 01, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • “A Christmas Carol" has drawn about 450,000 to South Coast Repertory since 1980.
“A Christmas Carol" has drawn about 450,000 to South Coast… (Henry DiRocco, South Coast…)

"What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?" — Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol."

At the box office there is no "Bah! Humbug!" The recompense that two big Southern California theaters reap from Christmas plays would quiet even Ebenezer Scrooge's scoffing.

But the holiday-theater franchises that the Old Globe in San Diego and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa enjoy have eluded — or gone unsought by — L.A.'s four biggest nonprofit stage companies.

PHOTOS: Holiday plays throughout Los Angeles

This year, however, they all have new holiday productions in the fire, and the Pasadena Playhouse and A Noise Within hope theirs will turn into the perennial chestnut Los Angeles County has lacked.

Holiday perennials are not easy to achieve, but when they click they become a theatrical gift that keeps giving — earning ample year-end revenue, reaching an expanded public, and initiating youngsters into theater-going. Center Theatre Group, in its 46th season as L.A.'s flagship stage company, is putting on its first Christmas production — a new version of "A Christmas Carol" by Chicago's Second City comedy troupe at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. So is the Geffen Playhouse, with "Coney Island Christmas," a new comedy by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies about Yuletide consternation within a Jewish family in 1930s Brooklyn. But neither is touting its show as a renewable resource just yet.

"It's a script that makes me laugh out loud when I read it," CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie said of "The Second City's Christmas Carol Twist Your Dickens!" But he isn't ready to envision it as a sugar plum to serve yearly. "Whether we'll do another one, I don't know. I couldn't begin to go down that path yet."

In the two counties south of L.A., nearly 1 million playgoers have seen the two reigning Christmas plays — and that's not counting San Diego Repertory Theatre's "A Christmas Carol," which ended a 30-season run in 2005.

Sometime between now and Dec. 29, the 500,000th person will stroll past the Dr. Seuss-inspired Christmas tree on the plaza at the Old Globe in Balboa Park and take a seat for the 15th annual presentation of its musical, "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"

In Costa Mesa, some 450,000 playgoers since 1980, many multiple-repeat customers, have taken in SCR's "A Christmas Carol."

Hal Landon Jr., has monopolized the role of Scrooge since the beginning. For many repeat viewers, part of the suspense in this 33rd season will be whether Landon can still coax his 71-year-old frame through his trademark somersault across the bed as Scrooge joyously greets Christmas Day, grabbing and donning his top hat before he hits the floor and scampers off to literature's most touching Christmas dinner with Tiny Tim and the rest of Bob Cratchit's clan.

Executive director Paula Tomei says audience surveys suggest that about a third of the audience, which totals about 15,000 annually, makes "A Christmas Carol" a yearly feature of its holiday celebration. About two-thirds of the audience, drawn mainly from Orange County, doesn't see any other plays at SCR, so "A Christmas Carol" is an important cog in fulfilling one aspect of a nonprofit company's mission — reaching people who otherwise might not experience live theater.

"There are adults now who played Tiny Tim when they were children and are bringing their own families to see the show," Tomei said. "It speaks to the enduring value of the production in people's lives."

It also has enduring value for the company's coffers. "A Christmas Carol" typically plays to 90% to 95% of capacity at the 507-seat Segerstrom Stage, Tomei said, and this year's projected box office take from 36 performances is $750,000, or about 17% of the 2012-13 season's expected ticket revenue.

The show, an in-house adaptation of Dickens' 1843 novella written by SCR's former dramaturge, Jerry Patch, demands a large cast — 17 adults and eight children. But one of the economic advantages of a holiday perennial is that the set pieces, costumes and props don't have to be created and paid for more than once, apart from whatever refurbishments and replacements might be needed as the years go by.

Presented as a non-subscription stand-alone, "it helps subsidize other programs," Tomei said — a sort of living, renewable endowment that the company has come to rely on as a fiscal anchor for its overall seasons.

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