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Help wanted: New hero for Reprise Theatre Company

February 17, 2012 |  1:33 pm

Reprise 1
The announcement by Reprise Theatre Company on Friday that the theater company is canceling the spring production of “The Apple Tree” and “entering into an exploratory phase in order to assess its future programming and the funding of that programming” is saddening but hardly surprising.
In a statement issued by the theater’s press representative, Reprise Managing Director Christine Bernardi Weil explained, “based on analysis of recent sales trends, we have projected that we will be unable to meet the required ticket sales and fundraising to responsibly mount the rest of our 2011/12 Season.”

These are tough economic times, to be sure. But they’re only made harder by a leadership vision completely at odds with the theater’s limited resources. And if box office is off, it’s not simply because musical theater aficionados are drastically cutting back. “Once bitten, twice shy” pertains as much to bad romance as to bad Sondheim. 

Reprise 2Reprise was once in the business of offering concert-like stagings of overlooked or fuzzily remembered musical theater gems. Since Jason Alexander became artistic director in 2007, the company has attempted to pull off fully staged revivals of gargantuan musical theater classics, such as “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Damn Yankees.” The theater has also tried to rehabilitate forgettable commercial works that were better off left for dead, such as “I Love My Wife” and (I kid you not) an expanded version of “They’re Playing Our Song.”

Ambition has occasionally overcome forbidding economic and artistic obstacles. Last year’s “Cabaret” was a darkly joyous surprise, and Michael Michetti’s lean, mean staging of “Man of La Mancha” in 2009 had me booming “The Impossible Dream” to my neighbors’ dismay for many months afterward.
But more often than not the results have been what you might expect given the abbreviated rehearsal schedules and tight budgets of Reprise productions — second-rate retreads of shows that already live vividly in our imaginations and aren’t in any danger of falling out of the repertoire anytime soon. (“Kiss Me, Kate” might just be my all-time favorite musical, but even I could have waited a little longer for a better revival to come along than last year’s flat-soda version.)

Perhaps it’s time for Alexander to find a new hobby for his post-“Seinfeld” years. What about becoming the chairman of the Reprise board of directors? That way, his fundraising and networking skills would still be a boon to the company. He has certainly worked his Rolodex magic in getting top-flight talent to perform at special events. And his heart is undoubtedly in the right place — the man’s not in it for the money.
But if Reprise wants another act, it’s going to have to once again rethink its artistic identity. And that means finding an artistic director who won’t be driven by his own musical theater nostalgia and sentimentality.

I’m not too filled with regret that “The Baker’s Wife,” the musical flop not even Patti LuPone could rescue, was called off. (“There’s a saying in the theatre that if Hitler were alive today, his punishment should be to send him out on the road with a musical in trouble,” writes LuPone in her dishy stage memoir. “ 'The Baker’s Wife' would have been the perfect sentence for Adolf.”) And I’m definitely not crying into my collection of original cast albums that “The Apple Tree” won’t be bearing fruit this spring.
But I will shed a tear if Reprise vanishes because the hero who sought to save the company was the wrong person for the job. There are other ways Alexander can show his musical theater love in Los Angeles. He can act in a lighthearted musical comedy (as long as it’s not very vocally demanding). If he must, he can also direct from time to time (readings preferably). And most helpful of all, he can throw his full weight of support in finding an artistic director replacement who will energize the company and the community he has genuinely if inadequately tried to serve.


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--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty 

Photos: Upper: Jason Alexander. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times. Lower: The Reprise Theatre Company production of "Kiss Me, Kate" May 10-22 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. Photo credit: Ed Krieger