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South Bay’s Norris Theatre opens “13” on Friday the 13th

August 13, 2010

At least two southland theatres are about to become thirty-somethings. Theatre of NOTE just turned 29. And the Norris Theatre is in its 28th season, built from the ground up by founders Agnes Moss and Joan Moe, into a 450-seat powerhouse on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. 

Artistic Director Jim Gruessing says the addition of musicals has been in just the past two seasons. “That’s when we started producing professional musicals. Our 3-play series used to be nothing but plays, but then someone said to us ‘You never do musicals’ so we did. We started with Thoroughly Modern Millie and that did well for us. Last year we did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and this year we open in September with Singin’ in the Rain.”

Not that Gruessing sees Westwood’s Reprise Theatre as a competitor, but it’s true that Forum was staged on the UCLA campus earlier this year. “I really wish we artistic directors and executive directors would get together once a year and find out what everyone’s doing.” A spring or summer meeting, he suggests. “I think a lot of times it’s coincidence. Sometimes a show is chosen because the set’s handy. A lot of times the civic light operas will say, well, if the set’s in San Diego, then we can share it with Thousand Oaks and Thousand Oaks can share it with Fullerton.” 

Such a meeting might have influenced someone’s decision when both Fullerton CLO and International City Theatre this year staged Backward in High Heels with overlapping dates. 

“Trying to get all of these creative people in one room would be a nightmare,” Gruessing figures, “but it would be very interesting and would benefit us to see what each other is doing. It would help us to look at our strengths and weaknesses. In this rough economy we really do need each other. Rather than compete with each other, we should look at how we can help each other. I know some producers believe it’s everyone for themselves, but I’m more of ‘How can you help us and how can we help you?’” 

He points to recent collaborations with Musical Theatre West (MTW) in Long Beach. “We brought up their production of Marvelous Wonderettes because it ranked high on our audience survey and they had it. We wanted to do it, and it worked out time-wise that there was only a week in between. I called Paul [Garman] and Steve [Glaudini] and it worked out beautifully.” 

In fact, it was MTW’s most recent production, 1776, that brought Guessing to the Norris eight years ago. “I was in that production,” he says, “as Richard Henry Lee.” The role most recently was filled by Davis Gaines.

Gruessing says the Norris tends to “shy away from what others are doing, particularly in our area. I wouldn’t call CLO South Bay a competitor either, they’re so much larger than us, and we let them stick to the big musicals. But if want to give our audience something like Singin’ in the Rain, we want to make sure it’s not on their slate for at least a year or two and certainly hasn’t been produced in the last 8 years.” 

The Norris attracts a rather affluent audience and, during the recession, Guessing says, “We did okay, surprisingly well. In fact, we had one of our highest grossing shows of all time in January, No Sex Please, We’re British. I think it had a little to do with the title, the subject matter, and our audiences tend to gravitate toward comedy.” 

Throughout the year, the theatre also brings in one- and two-night events. “And we have a full time education department. They produce 4-6 shows a year for a total of 1,800 students who come through the program as participants. We have dance, acting, audition prep classes – that’s been going on for ten years,” says Gruessing. “I think that’s unique to Southern California. While other theatres of course do education and outreach, ours is fulltime. We offer classes Monday through Sunday, ranging from ballet, tap, jazz, musical theatre audition, voice technique – we run the gamut for these kids who are from 5-19.” 

Get cast in a show, like 13 which opens Friday, August 13, and students pay $650 which covers all of the Norris’ classes for eight weeks.  “Debbie Martinez heads our education department. The kids have been doing things like Honk and the college age kids recently did Sweet Charity. Debbie heard that 13 was available to be produced. It had been at the Ahmanson and then had a short run in New York and she thought it would be a unique experience for the kids. The funny thing was, some of her students were in the Ahmanson production. She jumped at the chance to do something out of the norm, out of the comfort level of what we’re used to.” 

Singin’ in the Rain runs Sept. 24 – Oct. 10. Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. 

13, the Musical runs August 13-22. Times vary. (310) 544-0403; 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ed Haynes permalink
    August 13, 2010 11:03 pm

    “13” was a Mark Taper Forum original production.

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