@ This Stage Staff

@ This Stage Staff

The Seasoning of La Mirada Wins the Big Ovation

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The cast of "Spring Awakening." Photo by Michael Lamont.
The cast of “Spring Awakening.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

2013-2014 marks the 20th anniversary season of McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s partnership with La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts — a collaboration that has not only created productions for local audiences but also for national tours. On Sunday La Mirada’s team had even more reason to celebrate by winning the most prestigious Ovation Award — best season — for its 2012-13 offerings, along with two other Ovations, on the heels of 24 Ovation nominations.

The 2012-13 La Mirada/McCoy Rigby series opened with the premiere of a revival of Jekyll & Hyde, which then proceeded on a tour that played the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in February and opened on Broadway in April. The series continued with a booking of Winter Wonderettes, but that holiday show was not eligible for Ovations consideration last year (because essentially the same production had previously played other venues in the area), so it couldn’t be considered as part of the “best season” nomination, either.

But all the other shows were part of the “best season” group. Next up was the comedy Boeing-Boeing, followed by a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that featured the Ovation-winning performance of Beth Malone (best actress in a musical). The season climax was the first local production of the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal since the Broadway-related original played the Ahmanson Theatre.

to me  Brian Kite accepts Ovation Award as Best Director of a Musical for "Spring Awakening" from actor Val Kilmer.
Brian Kite accepts Ovation Award as Best Director of a Musical for “Spring Awakening” from actor Val Kilmer. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Meanwhile, outside the McCoy Rigby series but still considered part of the Ovation-winning “best season,” La Mirada also produced an intimate re-staging of Spring Awakening, which garnered an Ovation as best director of a musical for La Mirada’s artistic director, Brian Kite.

Kite and McCoy Rigby executive producer Cathy Rigby were on hand to revel in the evening’s festivities. “It’s certainly thrilling! It was a great night for the theater,” Kite exclaims. “It was a lot of fun, we had several members of the staff there — people who devote so much time, energy and effort to that place. It was just a really great way to spend the night and celebrate together. We were pretty proud. We’ve been working there for a long time and just really trying to do good stuff. It was really nice to have folks agree that we’re doing the right thing.”

Tom McCoy — the other half of the McCoy Rigby team, both professionally and personally — was unable to attend the ceremony because he was in China, where the McCoy Rigby production of Miss Saigon, which debuted at La Mirada in 2012, is opening. For Rigby, however, the night was the perfect way to reminisce about McCoy Rigby’s 20-year collaboration with La Mirada. “I’ve been saying since that night that this has been the most amazing way to celebrate an anniversary with La Mirada Theatre. I remember back when we started with the very first show, which was To Kill a Mockingbird with Bruce Davison. It was scary! We were sitting in the very back row just hoping that the audience would like us, and the time has just flown by.”

When asked about the process of choosing the seasonal programming, both Kite and Rigby attribute much of the credit to McCoy and his ability to find a balance of commercial hits and creative risks. “Tom and Cathy start really early with people sending them ideas, and people pitch me ideas all the time,” explains Kite.

“As we get closer, we start picking and choosing what we want. Lately, we’ve been taking more and more chances. Tom’s been there for 20 years. I’ve only been the artistic director for five. He always makes an effort to get a nice mix of things that are commercially successful and also do some riskier stuff. There was some fear about whether Next to Normal would sell, but thankfully we took the leap and it ended up being a huge hit for us. That was really exciting.”

Bets Malone and the cast of "Next to Normal" at La Mirada Theatre. Photo by Michael Lamont.
Bets Malone and the cast of “Next to Normal” at La Mirada Theatre. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Not only did Next to Normal pay off at the box office, but it was met with tremendous critical acclaim and received eight Ovation nominations: production of a musical in a large theater, acting ensemble for a musical, music direction (Darryl Archibald), director of a musical (Nick DeGruccio), lead actor in a musical (Robert Townsend), lead actress in a musical (Bets Malone), featured actress in a musical (Tessa Grady) and lighting design in a large theater (Steven Young).

Kite’s pared-down rendition of Spring Awakening was another daring gamble which ultimately resulted in seven Ovation nods and a win for Kite himself. For this production, Kite pushed the boundaries not only with the musical’s rather risqué content, but also the scope and proximity of the audience’s experience. “Sometimes we do want to give a different experience, like with Spring Awakening. We have 1,251 seats at La Mirada, but for Spring Awakening we used only the stage for the audience and performers. So it was only 199 audience members per night. That’s it. So that was pretty innovative for our audiences.

“The Los Angeles theater community is very familiar with intimate theater, but many of the patrons who go to these larger theaters haven’t really had that experience, they just stick to the larger houses. That’s terrific for us, but I also wanted to bring a more intimate theatrical experience to them in a way they possibly hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t a small show. We had a full orchestra, choreography, cast, costumes, sets…yet did it intimately in a small space.”

According to Rigby, the formula for the La Mirada/McCoy Rigby success is a balancing of creative endeavors and astute supplemental programming. “There’s a lot to take into consideration. There’s the artistic side and there’s the financial side. We are a for-profit, therefore we don’t have any fundraising and we have to make it work. Fortunately we are in an incredibly supportive city who gives us a budget and then we try to make money that will go back into the city.”

Cathy Rigby
Cathy Rigby. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

In 1977, the City of La Mirada converted the space from a movie theater into a live performance venue, which is owned and operated by the city itself. Kite credits much of the theater’s continual success and survival to the city government’s constant involvement and support. It’s a venue that has been embraced by the city.

“Since the theater was set up in 1977, it has always had this interesting mix of things that it does,” Kite explains. “We  have our main season, but we also do some presentations during the year like concerts, and then we also rent the theater to community groups. For example, every dance studio in South LA County and Orange County has their recital there. So even during the leaner times that we went through, we’ve had this three-fold attack that has helped us a lot.

“We’ve just kept our head down, watched our bottom line, and we take chances that we hope will pay off creatively and at the box office. We’ve been incredibly lucky that the city of La Mirada has been the final piece of that which fills in any gaps, which they’ve done for 37 years, and that’s a huge burden to have lifted off of us. They have their limits, of course, but we’ve always stayed within those limits, and they’ve supported us. Government does support the arts.  The proof is right here.”

That communal sentiment extends even further with La Mirada, thanks to its dedicated efforts to feature Los Angeles-based performers and designers. For Rigby, this guiding principal is one of the key attributes to the company’s success. “I think that the thing we try to do every time, whether it’s a small play or a huge musical, is to really cast it with the best people and work with the best artistic designers. I’m sure everybody does that, but after 20 years, you have a group of people that you know and you trust. We bring in new people every year, but we also have this core group whom we know no matter how many Ovations they win, they will treat this as if it is the most important show of their life.”

And who better to attest to this than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers star Beth Malone, who took home the lead actress in a musical prize for her portrayal of Milly? “As far as the fine folk at La Mirada go, they’re are just the best!” Malone gushes. “They treat you like family. Tom and Cathy have us to their house and throw a huge party for us. Amazing! It’s like they know what’s important in life, not just in business. They only work with nice people because life’s too short and it ends up infusing the productions with goodness that the audience can feel. I’m a huge fan.”

But wait a second…Beth Malone and Bets Malone, both nominated in the same category for productions with the same company? LA theatergoers have often scratched their heads over the Malones’ (no relation) parallels, which are made even more confusing by the fact that both are well-known for their performances in The Marvelous Wonderettes and its offshoots. Both are prominent leading ladies in the LA theater community.

Kevin Earley and Beth Malone in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Kevin Earley and Beth Malone in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

For Beth Malone, who is currently starring Off-Broadway in Fun Home at the Public Theater, the win came as a complete and utter surprise. “I was sitting on my couch in the East Village having a bicoastal Skype date after my show when [fellow Seven Brides actor] Karl Warden’s text popped up. Then the texts started flooding in. I honestly and truly did not expect to win. At all. I had texted Bets congratulating her earlier that day. I still think she was robbed. But also, it felt unexpectedly good to win. To have that communal pat on the back… I felt very loved, and I missed my LA theater community.”

According to Kite and Rigby, the accolades bestowed on both of their leading ladies were well-deserved. “I have to give [director] Glenn [Casale] credit for a brilliant piece of casting with Beth,” Kite says. “She was just the exact, right person to play that part, and she brought everything that she possibly could to that role. She’s tough, she’s sweet, she’s charming, she’s funny. I think that a lot of people came to Seven Brides not knowing what to expect and I think they were just delighted to see that Beth was fresh and new and she brought such energy that people really responded to it. She was so fun to watch up there, and we all liked following her character’s story.”

For Malone, this was a character after her own heart. “When Glenn Casale first talked to me about it, I went on YouTube and looked for some source material because I knew the movie was in a style that even then was archaic. But there was really no productions on YouTube either. It really was a show that needed someone to re-think it for modern audiences, and there’s a lot there to work with. Milly is a strong woman who is doing fine alone. She’s gainfully employed, she can hold her own in a rough crowd. She would never marry unless it was for love. Then she meets Adam and is tricked into having seven men to care for, but instead of whining or quitting she bucks up and turns the situation around. What’s not to like?”

“What’s not to like?” seems to be the question du jour as Kite, McCoy, Rigby and the rest of the La Mirada family blaze further into their current 20th. Having just finished Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, the company is currently presenting the wrenching drama Rabbit Hole, which runs through November 17. “So we do the blockbusters, but we also try to look for other pieces that are important,” Kite explains. “Rabbit Hole is a play we’re doing this season which is very powerful and moving for the audience, and I think our audience is now really starting to expect that with some shows they’re going to come in and tap their feet, some where they’re going to challenge themselves, and I think that’s the way to put together a great season. Now we’re not doing avant-garde, eclectic, crazy stuff at La Mirada — that’s not the place for it. There are lots of places in Los Angeles where they can do that, but La Mirada is a large commercial-style theater that can do big shows, so we want to take advantage of that big stage.”

Michelle Azar, Carter Roy, Kalie Quinones, Melanie Lora, Amy Rutberg and Marc Valera in "Boeing Boeing." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Michelle Azar, Carter Roy, Kalie Quinones, Melanie Lora, Amy Rutberg and Marc Valera in “Boeing Boeing.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

And they will be taking advantage of that large stage aplenty. The season continues in 2014 with Yasmina Reza’s outrageous play God of Carnage, and then the spring and summer kick into high blockbuster gear with two of the most popular and successful shows in history — Cats and Les Misérables. Kite, who will direct this production of Les Mis, assures us that these shows aren’t meant to just be popular…they’re meant to be groundbreaking. “We like to bring in some big blockbusters, but there’s got to be something special about them. Yes, we’re doing Les Mis this season — and it’s Les Mis. It’s been around for 25 years. But, there’s never been a large, new production of Les Mis here that hasn’t been Cameron Mackintosh’s tour. We’re the first to have the rights in the Los Angeles area, which sounds crazy, but it is unique.”