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S.T.A.G.E. Invades Los Angeles For The 32nd Time

And We Welcome It!

For the 32nd time in a row, the annual Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (S.T.A.G.E.) will be staged for the very first time at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts, in Beverly Hills.

As always, maestro David Galligan, as well as first-timer as S.T.A.G.E.’s Musical Director, Michael Orland, will have put together a full evening of cabaret- and historic-theatre songs, skits and humorous interaction with the paying audience. The event, as always, supports the work of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

And for the fifth time, the work of legendary Steven Sondheim will be on display, with known performers making it shimmer from shows such as Gypsy, Pacific Overtures, Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park With George and A Little Night Music, Do I Hear A Waltz, songs he has either written just the lyrics for, or both music and lyrics, in addition to added material. Some of the performers will be Mary Jo Catlett, Vicki Lewis, Rita Moreno, Amber Stevens West, James C. Mulligan, Alex S. Billings, Deborah Nishimura, Robert Yacko, Alvin Ing and Marissa Jaret Winokur, along with stalwarts such as the great Carole Cook and veteran performer Bruce Vilanch.

Since its first performance in 1984, Galligan, as director, and several of the performers, return year after year.  Galligan, 76 in two weeks, hasn’t spent a lot of time self-examining his motivations on his output of energy on this valuable event. “Michael Kearns, Jim Carroll Pickett, and Susan Obrow approached me back then about this new disease, then called GRID, which was impacting on all our gay friends.” Pickett himself died from AIDS.

“We found a small theatre, and knowing that artists will invariably say ‘yes’ to such a show, we went to the dozens of folk we knew – this close-knit community of artists who were concerned. I was a director, and although this kind of show was green to me, it worked when dozens of audience members paid ten bucks a ticket to watch. We borrowed the lights, using a water-stained backdrop, and Donna McKechnie, bless her heart, headlined. We opened up the back doors and put our cars into a V-shape, turned on the headlamps and used that as back-lighting for the chorus boys backing Donna. The audience went berserk.”

Inside the theatre, they took the existing Juliette Boxes, those second-floor box-seats, sprayed them with graffiti and had Bill Hutton and Dale Kristien sing the balcony song (“Tonight”) from West Side Story.  More pandemonium. 

Over the years they’ve performed at the Luckman Auditorium (at Cal-State Los Angles-- Galligan’s favorite site) for five shows; Variety Arts downtown; also at the now closed Embassy downtown; at the Huntington/Doolittle/Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood; at the Wilshire; and now at the beautiful Wallis.

Tom Burklund

He rehearses the talent for five weeks, individually and with Lee Martina’s choreography. For Galligan, as is true of all those who contribute time, energy and talent, there is no salary. “I continue doing this because it benefits so many, but it’s also certainly paid-back my investment of time, with my working on people’s cabaret acts, all around the country.”

Two of the great performers this year are Ms. Cook, amazingly now in her post-young, pre-dotage years, coming back for her 30th appearance, and Vilanch, an Emmy-Award winning writer, comic, and actor.

Carole Cook

For Cook, married for 52 years to respected actor Tom Troupe, it’s imperative to continue showing up because in spite of other Diseases of the Month that divert attention, HIV/AIDS is still with us world-wide and “we gotta fight it.” Known for her wicked ad-libs and comic songs, Cook generally is the highlight of the show, and will be again this year with her surprise working of a vintage Sondheim song.

“I was at L.A.’s [now closed] Shubert Theatre performing in “42nd Street,” and a darling actor in it became ill. He had come from money but his family immediately disowned him for getting this ‘exotic’ disease. We did what we could for him, but we didn’t know or understand what he was suffering from – nobody knew at the time. And it then decimated an entire generator of extraordinarily talented people.  That’s why I look forward to doing this show every year. I hate that we still have to do this, raising money to fight this disease, but we must. I believe in doing acts of kindness, and hoping that others will pay it forward.”

For Cook, doing the show is an end in itself. “I never worry about what it will lead to; I don’t think of my theatrical future when I’m there. You just want to be your best and achieve your potential. The most wonderful moments on stage are the quieter moments, the more thoughtful moments. The love from the audience is wonderful. Sometimes I feel like Judy Garland from the ovation I receive when I come out.  You want to meet that expectation and fulfill their hopes for the night – I want them to believe me, and that makes me want to keep doing it until I can’t.”

Bruce Vilanch in the middle

For Vilanch, 68, the feelings are the same. “We started doing it because nobody else was. Theatre people are special. Our show is needed because living with HIV/AIDS is expensive: meds, help, food, rent. Through the years we’ve had mountains of the dead, so we artists must step in to help. I have written material for the show for a number of years, but this time I’m just performing.”

He’s keeping a secret what he’ll be doing, but it’s a sight-gag, something unusual. “We’re making a twist on the normal Sondheim revue, which the audience will approve of.” 

And what does he take away from the experience?  “Goodwill.  The ability to support those who are still suffering and who need continued help. I’m thrilled that we have an audience who keep returning because the show is great and it’s their way of supporting the fight. These folk are the greatest audiences in the world because they can – and do – pick up on the subtleties.”

Vilanch is disappointed that that this kind of specialty show isn’t broadcast anywhere. They used to record them for CDs, which they sold (he even paid for a couple of the shows) but because of climbing costs, it has become, apparently, unaffordable.

In order to do the show, Vilanch has taken time off from his latest project, writing an original book that showcases the songs of Petula Clark. “It’s a shoehorn show, making the music work for the story. We open at Goodspeed Opera House, in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 28th. “No stars.  But we have hopes it’ll be the new ‘Mamma Mia.”

So there you have it: talented folk sharing their talents with us, entertaining audiences while raising money to fight a debilitating and dreadful disease.  The show will “sing out, Louise!” and the audiences will once again walk away edified with what they’ve experienced.

S.T.A.G.E.’s 32nd annual show plays Saturday, June 18th at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Tickets: