Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

The Times and the Tonys, Gypsy and the Fringe

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Have you ever noticed how the LA Times overdoes the Tony Awards? Overdoses on them, you might say?

This morning’s LA Times carried five articles, two sidebars and a front-page photo about last night’s Tony ceremony. The Arts & Books section from a week ago Sunday (the June 5 issue) featured three Tony-related photos on its front page, which referred to three feature stories inside the section that covered two full pages. Last week, the Wednesday and Friday Calendar sections offered front-page feature articles billed as Tony “previews.”

Some theater practitioners might be charitably inclined to look at the glass as half-full — at least the Times is overdoing a theater-related topic. This never happens when it covers any other theatrical subject.

But for the LA Times, the Tonys are as much of a TV story as a theater story. The fact that the ceremony is broadcast live surely explains much of the Times’ avid interest in it.

True, the Tonys cover only a small slice of the theater that’s available in a city that’s approximately 2,500 miles (flying distance) from most of the Times readers — most of whom will never see any of the nominated productions. None of that matters. If a sizable fraction of those readers are going to watch the Tonys on TV, the Times apparently believes that massive action is required to let the TV viewers know the context of what they might see on TV — and then to report the usually-predictable results the next day.

Meanwhile, the Times barely covers LA theater awards at all. The morning-after story on the Ovation Awards ceremony (which — full-disclosure — is produced by the same LA Stage Alliance that also produces is usually written on the basis of a press release, without anyone from the Times in attendance at the ceremony. Will the Times ever precede the Ovation Awards or LADCC events with a series of long feature stories about the contenders? Perhaps, but only when the Ovation or LADCC awards ceremony is broadcast (as opposed to cablecast or streamed) live.

To make myself clear, I’m not a fan of overdoing awards coverage in general. But if the LA Times is going to over-cover the Tonys — which are amply covered by many other news organizations — why not at least begin to cover the Ovations in the newspaper’s home town, where the LA Times would have virtually no competition?

Perhaps the key here would be to get the New York Times to cover the Ovations. Then the LA Times would quickly over-cover the Ovations, too.

ON THE OTHER HAND: The LA Times is sponsoring a panel discussion Tuesday, billed as the Los Angeles Times Culture Monster Roundtable: The Role of L.A. in the National Theater Scene.

The makeup of the panel immediately drew a virtual howl from Colin Mitchell at the Bitter Lemons website. His main beef seems to be that the 99-seat theater community won’t be adequately represented, although it produces most of the productions in town. He acknowledged that one artistic director of a 99-seat company would be on the panel, but he dismissed Tim Robbins of the Actors’ Gang as too much of a celebrity to count as a representative of the 99-seat theater community. His complaint had drawn a remarkable 31 online comments by Monday afternoon, most of them in agreement with Mitchell (including five comments or replies from Mitchell himself).

No one seems to have noticed that one of the other announced panelists, the playwright Beth Henley, is a veteran of the 99-seat theater community here, if not an active representative right now. The Victory and the Met have produced Henley premieres, and Henley was also active behind the scenes at the Met, when it was more active in general.

A far more conspicuous gap in the representation on the panel is the lack of anyone from LA’s midsize theaters. Why not include Tim Dang? Barbara Beckley? caryn desai? Ellen Geer? Ben Donenberg? Wren Brown? Jose Luis Valenzuela? Geoff Elliott or Julia Rodriguez Elliott?

GYPSY, THE FRINGE, AND 100 SAINTS: I was out of town for three weeks in May, and out of the country for part of that time. I didn’t learn about the death of Arthur Laurents until I returned, and I didn’t get to see the West Coast Ensemble’s revival of Gypsy, for which he wrote the magnificent libretto, until yesterday. It had opened on May 13.

Jan Sheldrick and Stephanie Wall in GYPSY

After seeing the show and then reading a few of the mixed reviews from opening weekend, maybe that was just as well. Perhaps I saw a better performance than I would have on the opening weekend. I was gripped from beginning to end by Richard Israel’s staging. As is often the case when seeing a show in sub-100-seat intimacy after seeing many productions of it in very big theaters, I caught a number of fresh nuances, especially in the superb performances of Jan Sheldrick as Mama Rose, Stephanie Wall’s older Louise (her “Little Lamb” is the most dimensional performance of this sometimes seemingly expendable number that I can recall) and Michael Matthys’ Herbie.

While watching this Gypsy, it also struck me that Hollywood is the perfect neighborhood for this show, yet I don’t recall seeing any previous productions of it in Hollywood. The Gypsy theater is just a couple of blocks from the Kodak, where American Idol continues to stoke the modern version of Mama Rose’s yearnings on a gargantuan scale. Remember, Mama Rose was really doing it for herself, not for her daughters — nowadays, she would have auditioned for American Idol before she was 20.

But beyond that televised behemoth, Hollywood in general and the sub-100-seat world in particular are also known for attracting a lot of would-be stars who will probably never make it big. Gypsy isn’t only about showbiz; there are tiger moms and clueless strivers in other fields as well — but it would be good if every showbiz wannabe who comes to Hollywood could see this Gypsy, in the heart of Hollywood. Even the cast of Gypsy itself could benefit from thinking about what Laurents’ book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are saying. Gypsy requires a number of child actors, and as I read their effusive thanks to Mom and Dad and their agents in their bios, I wondered if the ironies of doing this particular show were sinking into their brains — or into those of their parents.

Gypsy’s venue, the Theatre of Arts, also reminded me of last year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, just as the second annual Hollywood Fringe is just getting underway. Theatre of Arts was the Fringe headquarters last year.

Almost by definition, the non-curated Fringe attracts “a lot of would-be stars who will probably never make it big” — along with a few who probably will make it big in one form or another, whatever that means. I’m grateful that Hollywood has always lured these people, and I wish them luck in general, but I also wish they could all see this Gypsy (which isn’t officially part of the Fringe). It’s an important text for a wannabe’s education. Fringe participants: the message of Gypsy isn’t completely hopeless — although Mama Rose never became a star, her daughter did. But think about the costs.

After Gypsy, I moseyed over to the new Fringe headquarters at Artworks Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard, where there is already a buzz of excitement, even though the Fringe hasn’t officially opened. Many of the Fringe shows are already up in previews, or, in the case of the show that I was going to see, 100 Saints You Should Know, it opened weeks ago and is simply concluding its run by participating in the Fringe.

Brendan Farrell and Kate Huffman in 100 SAINTS YOU SHOULD KNOW

Kate Fodor’s 100 Saints is a wonderfully realized drama about the human need to search for some spiritual component of life despite everything that argues otherwise. I think I’m going to remember Fodor’s characters, as portrayed by Lindsay Allbaugh’s cast, for a long time. It also made a great alternative to watching the Tonys telecast. I try to attend an LA production every year during the Tonys, but 100 Saints was a lot better than many of my previous anti-Tony experiences.

By the way, 100 Saints is an Elephant Theatre Company production. Last year about this time, Elephant was producing another worthy play, Supernova, but it wasn’t enrolled in the Fringe. I’m glad that Elephant enrolled 100 Saints this year, because only with more finely crafted ensemble pieces like this will the Fringe overcome the unavoidable rap that it has just a few too many solo showcases.

Gypsy, Theatre of Arts, Arena Stage, 1625 N. Las Palmas, Hollywood. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 3. Closes July 31. 323-655-0108. or


100 Saints You Should Know, Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes June 26. 877-369-9112.

Gypsy photo by Carla Barnett

100 Saints photo by Sven Ellirand