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Pasadena Playhouse wins Tony for regional theater amid hot streak

Pasadena Playhouse will receive the 2023 Regional Theatre Tony Award, becoming only the second Los Angeles institution to earn the honor and continuing its triumphant streak after years of turbulence.

The prize, which includes a $25,000 grant, will be presented at the 76th Tony Awards on June 11 in New York.

The Tony Awards Administration Committee made the announcement, on the recommendation of the American Theatre Critics Assn., on Tuesday, a week after the Writers Guild of America agreed to not picket the event, allowing the televised broadcast to proceed in a revised form.

The Mark Taper Forum, in 1977, was the first L.A. theater to receive the Regional Theatre Tony. Other Southern California recipients include the Old Globe in 1984, South Coast Repertory in 1988 and La Jolla Playhouse in 1993.

“That is why this feels so meaningful,” said Danny Feldman, producing artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse, about the Tony win, “because there were so many of us just a few short years ago who were not really sure whether we were going to get through.”

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The award marks an astonishing turnaround for Pasadena Playhouse, which was on the verge of shutting down in 2010, when it laid off most of its staff, canceled the remainder of its season and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Rescued by the generosity of donors, the theater was back on shaky ground when producing artistic director Danny Feldman was appointed to succeed long-term artistic director Sheldon Epps in 2016.

Feldman, a Los Angeles native and UCLA graduate who served as managing director of Reprise Theatre Company before becoming executive director of New York’s LAByrinth Theater Company, arrived at Pasadena Playhouse at a time of spiraling crisis. Soon after being appointed producing artistic director, he received a phone call from the chair of the board of directors saying the Playhouse would have to shut down again if it didn’t raise $1 million in a month.

“The first season had to be restructured,” he said. “There was not enough money to operate the theater for longer than a month at a time.”

Steadying the ship was the first order of business, and it took a fair amount of time. “Our revival of ‘Ragtime’ was our first big swing, and that was 2019,” Feldman said. “We were still at that point on shaky ground. That is why this feels so meaningful, because there were so many of us just a few short years ago who were not really sure whether we were going to get through.”

In a black-and-white photo, two men stand in front of a bookcase, one holding a large open book.

Pasadena Playhouse founder Gilmor Brown, right, with his father, Orville Brown, in Pasadena in 1935.

(Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection / UCLA Library)

Founded in 1917 by Gilmor Brown, a resourceful and unstoppable theater impresario, Pasadena Playhouse began as a community theater. Early success inspired more than a thousand community members to buy the land at 39 S. El Molino Ave., on which a state-of-the-art theater was planned. In 1925, the handsome Spanish Colonial Revival building, now included in the National Register of Historic Places, opened its doors.

Under Brown’s leadership, the theater drew attention through its programming ambition. Premieres of demanding new works, including Eugene O’Neill’s “Lazarus Laughed” (with its scores of roles requiring a volunteer army of players), were a staple. Festivals devoted to the full range of Shakespeare spoke to the scale and seriousness of the mission. In 1937, the state Legislature voted unanimously to designate Pasadena Playhouse the official State Theatre of California.

The proximity to Hollywood added to the theater’s cachet. Pasadena Playhouse was dubbed the “Star Factory” for the number of young talents that would be discovered on its stages. As the era of silent films gave way to “talkies,” the Playhouse became an important center for acting training.

In 1928, Brown formally established a school of theater arts, which quickly built a national reputation as young Hollywood hopefuls flocked from across the country to break into the movie industry. Notable alumni from the school’s extensive history include Eve Arden, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Sally Struthers, Jo Anne Worley, Robert Preston, Mako, Raymond Burr and Jamie Farr.

After Brown died in 1960, the Playhouse began to falter. The Taper’s emergence in 1967 created a new cultural center of gravity and the rise of university drama departments eroded the Playhouse’s enrollment. Sputtering for years, at one point padlocked by the IRS, Pasadena Playhouse finally went dark in 1969. Wrecking balls hovered as the building moldered in foreclosure, but resurrection would not be denied even if it took the better part of two decades.

By 1986, the theater, which had been purchased by the city of Pasadena, was back in business. The main stage was buzzing again. This rebirth was made possible by the intervention of real estate developer David Houk, but it wasn’t until Stephen Rothman and Susan Dietz were brought in as producing directors that the Playhouse was able to start rebuilding its audience.

Sheldon Epps stands in front of the Pasadena Playhouse.

Sheldon Epps, artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse for 20 years, had a profound impact on the theater.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Sheldon Epps was appointed artistic director of the Playhouse in 1997, making him the first person of color to lead a major theater in Southern California. His 20-year tenure was distinguished by attention-grabbing musicals (including the Broadway-bound hits “Baby It’s You” and “Sister Act: The Musical”), celebrity vehicles (“Looped,” starring an inspired Valerie Harper) and, most crucially, new and classic work of social import, including a 2006 revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. But his most profound legacy is in the way he made diversity and outreach part of the theater’s DNA.

Reached by phone, Epps reflected on what this Tony Award means for the theater he helped transform: “It’s thrilling and, from my point of view, overdue good news. At a time when many, many theaters are struggling to survive, it’s a great celebration of the fact that the Playhouse survived and frequently thrived for more than a century.”

Feldman acknowledged Epps’ heroic role in making the Playhouse “the regional theater that it is today.” Given how elusive financial stability has been, the feat is all the more remarkable. “There’s always been a bit of struggle tied to the theater,” Feldman said.

The last few years brought an unexpected challenge with a once-in-a-century pandemic closing the Playhouse for 20 months. The challenges remain formidable, but Feldman said the theater is finally on secure footing. This miraculous reversal has come not by scaling back artistic vision but by pressing forward more boldly.

Pasadena Playhouse launched one of the biggest initiatives in its history this year — the Sondheim Celebration, a six-month-long festival in honor of the Broadway lyricist and composer who died in 2021. Feldman received the news about the Tony Award the day after the opening of “A Little Night Music,” the final main-stage production of the Sondheim festival, and the timing felt like validation for dreaming big.

But it’s not simply ambition that characterizes the Feldman era. It’s also artistic excellence. Standout work in recent seasons includes a vibrant new take on “Little Shop of Horrors” starring George Salazar and Michaela Jaé Rodriguez and an intensely gripping production of Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City.”

“‘Little Shop’ for me was such a magical moment because, like the Sondheim Celebration, it got at the core of what we were trying to do,” Feldman said. “We brought disparate communities together and connected a musical that I consider a classic to what’s happening today.”

Inside the Pasadena Playhouse's main auditorium.

The interior of the Pasadena Playhouse.

(Jeff Lorch)

Pasadena Playhouse is unapologetically a Los Angeles theater. “One of the goals is to leverage the extraordinary talent we have in L.A. — a talent that has always felt like an underutilized resource,” Feldman said. “We bring in artists from New York sometimes, but we’re primarily Los Angeles-focused, because we have extraordinary talent here and we like to feature that and build around that.”

The Tony, Feldman said, is important recognition not only for the Playhouse but also for Los Angeles theater more generally.

“We need to own our narrative a little bit,” he said. “We have the best orchestra in the world. We have an incredible modern dance scene. Our museums are on point. We are a cultural force. And I don’t think we’ve quite accepted that yet. I hope this shows that work is happening here at a world-class level in our community.”

The story of the Playhouse, Feldman said, is one of “resiliency” and “scrappiness.” Survival has been touch-and-go, but now the theater that Brown and the Pasadena Playhouse community built, that Houk (along with Rothman and Dietz) brought back from the dead, Epps modernized and Feldman turned into Los Angeles’ finest, is a Tony winner.

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