Ten decades. A century. No matter how you look at it, 100 years is a long time to be in business — especially for a live theater organization. But Laguna Playhouse has defied the odds as it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
In October of 1920, a group of Laguna Beach residents began performing plays inside local homes. Two years later, the group’s first full production, “Suppressed Desires” by Susan Glaspel, was presented in an old vulcanizing shop on Coast Highway.
In 1924, The Playhouse — built at a cost of $5,000 — opens at 319 Ocean Ave. and served as the home of The Laguna Playhouse through 1969, when the Playhouse’s current Moulton Theatre (named after the Moulton family benefactors) opened.
Fast forward a few years to 2020, as the Laguna Playhouse celebrates a century and claims the moniker of the longest continually operating theater on the West Coast.
The Laguna Playhouse recently announced its 100th season, which begins this July and runs through June 2021. It’s a season packed with musicals, comedies, dramas, and even an American premiere.
According to Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann Wareham, she and Executive Director Ellen Richard have been working on the 100th season programming for several years.
“We wanted to put our best foot forward and celebrate the playhouse, and bring in playwrights and shows that mattered,” Wareham said during a recent phone interview. “It’s our most varied season yet.”
If variety is the spice of life, it is indeed the Playhouse’s most seasoned season.
The 2020–21 season kicks off with the hit Broadway musical “Legally Blonde, The Musical,” based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the MGM motion picture. It runs July 22–Aug. 16.
“Not a lot of regional theaters do this play,” Wareham said. “It’s a well-constructed musical, and it’s perfect for summer in Laguna.”
After that comes the U.S. Premiere of “Kim’s Convenience,” Sept. 23–Oct. 11. “Kim’s Convenience” was the most successful new Canadian play of the past decade, and takes place in a family-run Korean convenience store, and is a funny and heartwarming ode to generations of immigrants.
“It’s had a number of successful productions in Canada, and then was adapted into a popular Netflix series,” Wareham said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring it to Laguna Playhouse.”
Next up on the schedule is “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” Nov. 4–22. Written by Alfred Uhry, who also penned the Playhouse’s excellent production of “Driving Miss Daisy” last season, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play.
Set in Atlanta in 1939, the play revolves around a Jewish community preparing for Ballyhoo, the social event of the year, at which attendees confront their own prejudices, desires and beliefs.
“Alfred is an old friend of mine who is in his 80s, and I’m delighted that we are doing it,” said Wareham, who added that Uhry will be here for some of the rehearsals. “His ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ was a big hit here but ‘Balyhoo’ is the one that won the most awards.”
The Playhouse starts 2021 with laughter as the theatre presents “The Explorer’s Club” Jan. 20–Feb. 7. This British farce set in the 19th century was written by Nell Benjamin, who also co-wrote the music and lyrics for “Legally Blonde — The Musical.”
Wareham describes the play as “wildly funny and smart and clever.” It’s 1879 London, and the prestigious Explorers Club is in crisis: Their acting president wants to admit a woman — a decision that requires a stiff drink, but their bartender is legendary as the worst in town.
Things shift to a courtroom setting for “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Feb. 24–March 14. Written in 1951 by Herman Wouk and based on his Pulitzer Prize novel of the same name, this acclaimed psychological courtroom drama portrays a mutiny of naval officers aboard the fictional U.S.S. Caine. Like jurors at a trial, the play covers only the court-martial itself and the audience knows only what various witnesses tell of the events on the Caine — unlike the 1954 film version which starred Humphrey Bogart.
“This is a big show, and it’s part of the joy that we can bring bigger, full bodied works to the season,” said Wareham, who noted that the success of the Playhouse’s production of “12 Angry Men” showed that the audience has an appetite for courtroom dramas.
Another musical hits the Laguna Playhouse stage March 24–April 18 next year: “La Cage Aux Folles” with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The show was the winner of a Tony Award for Best Musical in 1984 and then Tony Awards in 2004 and 2010 for Best Musical Revival.
Herman passed away last December, and Wareham said this is a beautiful way to honor him during their 100th season.
“It has a gorgeous score,” she said, adding that they are planning a few surprises with the casting. “It’s a big show, a big physical production, and it’s a bit of a celebratory occasion.”
The Laguna Playhouse’s 100th season closes May 26–June 13, 2020, with “A Shayna Maidel,” the story of two sisters separated since childhood and reunited twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
“This play is a favorite of Ellen Richard — it’s a beautiful story,” Wareham said. “Having this kind of play about family and faith and forgiveness is right for our time.”
Two bonus plays not part of the playhouse’s regular season include another Lythgoe Family Panto Dec. 3–27. This year, it will be “The Wonderful Winter of Oz,” presented as a traditional British Family Panto with big laughs, magic, dance, and music.
Also on the schedule is another one-man show starring Hershey Felder. He is bringing back his legendary production of “George Gershwin Alone” to help celebrate the playhouse’s 100th season.
There will also be several special 100th anniversary events to be revealed at a later date.
“We’re celebrating not just the last 100 years, but looking toward the future by presenting important works that reflects as much where we are going as where we have been,” Wareham stated.
Subscriptions to the Laguna Playhouse 2020–21 season are on sale now and range from $268 to $408.
“Subscriptions are really an investment in the playhouse,” said Wareham. “It’s the first step in making a commitment to keeping theatre alive.”
For more information, visit lagunaplayhouse.com or call (949) 497-ARTS (2787).