By May S. Ruiz
If you were at the Engemann Family Courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse at 8:00 last Thursday evening, you would have been happily surprised by snow falling on your head. It was a fun final touch to The Playhouse’s tree lighting ceremony which started promptly at 7 pm.
Danny Feldman, Producing Artistic Director, whose brainchild it was to have a Christmas tree at the courtyard during the holidays, opened the ceremony with Playhouse District Association’s Executive Director, Brian Wallace. This year, the Playhouse is participating in the ‘Spark of Love’ Toy Drive with ABC7 and the Southern California Firefighters and Pasadena’s Fire chief was also on hand.
The public was treated to Christmas carols sung by The Marshall Fundamental Choir and by cast members of The Playhouse’s production of ‘Little House of Horrors’ – Brittany Campbell, Tickwanya Jones, and Cheyenne Isabel Wells. A performance by the Bob Baker Marionettes enthralled kids of all ages.
Sometime during the night, Feldman wrapped a scarf around his neck in anticipation of a rare snowfall. And we were not disappointed – we were soon covered in sudsy ‘snow’ after the Christmas tree was lit at 8:00.
Chatting with me directly after the ceremony, Feldman says, “This is my third tree lighting at the Pasadena Playhouse – we actually did one when I was barely starting here but we didn’t do it the following year. Then we got a new tree and this is our second year with the new tree. I’m Jewish but I love Christmastime. I love the idea of giving and of people enjoying the holidays together. Our world is so divisive and crazy so it’s good to have everyone coming into one space that’s nice and cozy like our courtyard to light a big tree and to celebrate.”
“My message year-round, not just at Christmas, is that the reason I love what I do is having the opportunity to bring strangers in our community collectively to sit in a room, then turn off the lights and let them play make-believe together,” Feldman remarks. “It reminds us of our shared humanity with these strangers sitting next to us. You watch a show like ‘The Great Leap’ and it awakens something in you personally but then you look over and the people next to you feel the same way. That, in our world of phones and Twitter, isn’t an experience we have often. And we have to fight to protect those shared experiences. To me, this Playhouse is a temple to that. It’s really the place of community coming together and connecting with one another. And so I spend every day trying to create the space for that to happen. And the holidays, in particular, is an important time to refresh or memory – to remind us of the importance of that.”
The Tree Lighting occasion also included a show presented by professionals and students. Feldman explains, “We have partnerships with the public schools in Pasadena – every year we bring the entire PUSD 7th graders to see the play. What we often do is pick a different school each time to participate when we have an event. In the spring, we had a drum corps from one of the schools. We put on world-class plays but we also use our space to showcase local performers because we want to live up to our mission as a community gathering place.
“I grew up in the area and I’ve been to the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre in L.A. during school field trips. Watching a puppet show is a big deal for children. Adults see it from a different perspective but for a kid, just like the ones sitting at the front row today, it’s something entrancing. They focus on the movements of the marionettes and that’s magical.”
Feldman continues, “This year we wanted to do something that impacted the community in a bigger way. We knew that the Pasadena fire department has this drive so we called them and asked to partner with them – we’re one of their toys drop–off locations. We ask them to bring their fire truck, and speak to our audiences during holiday events.”
Recapping the year and looking forward to 2020, Feldman states, “This is one of our most successful years ever at The Playhouse. We had our big musicals – ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ – and they were epic for us. They broke all sorts of records. For our Christmas show, we’re having the Bob Baker’s ‘Nutcracker’ at the Carrie Hamilton Theater from November 30 to December 29. Holding it at the smaller venue means the puppets will be right on eye level with the kids which makes for a really captivating show; we’re expecting it to be a big success.
“We’re starting 2020 with a really powerful play with Alfred Molina, who’s a brilliant actor. It’s called ‘The Father’ and it will run from February 5 to March 1. I don’t want to say too much about it but it’s an extraordinary performance that people will be talking about for many years to come.
“Then we’ll have Holland Taylor, an Emmy Award-winning, Tony-nominated actress, who most people know as the Mom from ‘Two and a Half Men.’ I saw her perform this show, ‘Ann,’ on Broadway in 2013 and it was, for me, one of the greatest nights of theatre – I loved it and I’ve been trying to get her to do that show here and she finally said yes. So we’re doing that from May 27 to June 28. It’s a brilliant play about Texas governor Ann Richards who was a powerful politician in a man’s world, who was a democratic governor in a Red State. Again, it’s a very timely piece at this divisive time – it shows how Richards’s work and what she fought for brought people together. Holland Taylor did all the research, wrote it, and performs the character of Ann Richards. The play is inspirational, hysterical, and fun.”
“Next summer we’re doing ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ one of the greatest musicals of all time, which we’re putting a fresh, new spin on to update it. Musicals are expensive to produce but worth it, so we rely on philanthropic support. I wish we can do them all the tine – I love musicals and our audiences love them too. I think seeing a big musical like ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ in a 650-seat theatre with a big orchestra and a big cast is a truly amazing sensory experience; you don’t get that in a big theatre. Our production of ‘Ragtime’ just got ‘Best Production,’ ‘Best Direction,’ ‘Best Choreography,’ Ovation nominations. So we’re building upon those,” Feldman says in closing.
And so, under Feldman’s stewardship, we can expect the Pasadena Playhouse to continue to astound us with fantastic shows, to rouse us with stirring plays and, always, to let us come together as a community in joyous appreciation of the performing arts.