By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
At Newport Theatre Arts Center’s annual gala, board members and those who run and operate the theater did a lot more than unveil NTAC’s 2023-2024 season.
They gave tours of the venue meant to showcase recent upgrades to the lobby and the theater itself, and they hosted a silent auction designed to raise funds while promoting NTAC.
Of equal importance at the May 21 event was the announcement that the Newport Beach theater company’s five-play season has now, for the first time ever, been expanded to six productions, and effective this fall the traditional nighttime 8 p.m. curtain is being changed to 7:30 p.m.
Above all, as board president Michelle Bendetti noted during the gala, the event’s foremost purpose is to convey gratitude to NTAC’s most generous patrons – those whose ongoing donations have kept the theater company going even in lean times such as the recent pandemic – as well as to season ticketholders and, internally, to board members, staffers, volunteers, and those whose work on various committees made the afternoon’s celebration possible.
Last year’s gala delivered such thanks, too, but also a key reveal that the theater space had been permanently renamed the Rae A. Cohen Theater, in appreciation for Cohen’s lifelong work as NTAC’s leader and, in essence, its heart and soul.
Nothing so dramatic this time around, but there was plenty of buzz to accompany the festivities, touted as the 2023-2024 kickoff event whose centerpiece was the new season reveal.
The lineup, which had been kept tightly under wraps, begins with the musical “The Addams Family” in September and concludes with the comedic drama “On Golden Pond” in June and July of 2024, with a second musical, another drama and two comedies in between.
The gala’s first hour gave guests an opportunity to mingle while enjoying live guitar and vocal music, complimentary catered hors d’oeuvres and beverages from the bar; inspect and place their bids on the silent auction gift baskets on display; and interact with staff members who provided behind-the-scenes tours of the theater and its backstage area, dressing rooms, green room and scene shop.
To start the afternoon’s season reveal, guests filed into and nearly filled the 80-seat Rae A. Cohen Theater, which synched up with the estimated head count of 73.
Bendetti began by drawing attention to “the newly updated theater.” The lobby has gotten a complete overhaul that includes new carpeting, paint and furniture, new black-screen monitors, and a new bar repurposed (by board member and scenic artist Jim Huffman) from the top of the large serving table that had long graced the entryway area.
The theater itself has gotten a paint job. Also upgraded are its sound and lighting systems, improvements patrons will presumably notice in upcoming productions.
Bendetti’s first thank-you was to Cohen, noting that this beloved NTAC mainstay was a founding member of the theater company who presided over it, and its board, for 37 of its 45 years, using her first-rate interpersonal skills to develop relationships with all supporters.
Bendetti first pointed out that Cohen’s are “big shoes to fill—I can’t fill ’em!” then drew attention to Cohen, seated in the front row, and asked her to stand and be recognized by the audience, adding that Choen is “still on the board and still very active.”
The current president went on to thank the committee members and volunteers who engineered this year’s gala, and pointed out each board member, all but one of whom were present, and singled out board member Jim Huffman for doing the painting and graphics that have given the venue its new look.
“COVID really did a number on us and on our season,” Bendetti said. “We appreciate all of you for coming back and all of your donations and offers for assistance and offers to help and volunteer, and we so appreciate what we’ve been able to do because of all of you.”
The formal program continued with a preview of “Guys and Dolls,” which opens June 2 and brings the current season to a close, as cast members Daniel Berlin, Cameron Murray, Michelle de la Peña and Phillip Schnell performed “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “If I Were a Bell” and the show’s title number.
Huffman then took the stage for the main event: to announce the new season, with the reveal of each production accompanied by a pre-recorded synopsis.
The popular, ghoulishly-funny musical “The Addams Family” opens the season September 22 through October 22, followed November 17 through December 10 by “Inspecting Carol,” a comedy about an inept theater troupe struggling to stage “A Christmas Carol.”
Next up is the Jon Robin Baitz drama “Other Desert Cities” January 19 through February 11, 2024. “The Drowsy Chaperone,” billed as “a musical within a comedy,” runs March 15 through April 14. Closing the season are the classic 1941 Noel Coward comedy “Blithe Spirit” (May 10 through June 2) and the popular dramedy “On Golden Pond” (June 28 through July 21).
The names of the productions’ directors weren’t given and are expected to be announced at a later time.
Bendetti alerted guests to the fact that the new season represents the first time NTAC has ever fielded a six-play season. To encourage the purchase of season tickets and to help the public get the most for their money, patrons will be able to purchase all six productions for the price of five throughout the summer.
Patrons were then invited to return to the lobby to enjoy desserts, sip champagne as a toast to the new season and the newly offered and announced changes and improvements, and to take the NTAC tour.
Following the formal announcements, board members Bob Fetes and Andrew Kelley related to the Indy that NTAC had originally obtained the rights to the musical “Mamma Mia” and the light comedy “Clue” for next season, but that the rights were pulled when Segerstrom Center for the Arts announced touring versions of both shows on its 2023-2024 schedule.
NTAC’s board quickly secured the rights to “Drowsy Chaperone” and “On Golden Pond” as replacements.
Kelley also pointed out that the decision to shift the evening curtain time from the traditional 8 p.m. to 7:30 was driven by patrons, many of whom “brought this to our attention” and requested the change. He said the move, which goes into effect this fall with the start of the new season, received unanimous support from the board.
Kelley noted that the board saw numerous advantages and few drawbacks to expanding NTAC’s season to six shows, including less downtime between productions and the ability to annually present two musicals.
“Our audiences,” he said, “love musicals. They’re popular, sell well and are fun.” While producing such larger-scale shows might carry a higher price tag, “they also sell well and make more money.”
Newport Theatre Arts Center is located at 2501 Cliff Drive. Those who wish to purchase tickets or obtain more information about season tickets and upcoming productions can call (949) 631-0288 or visit www.ntactickets.com.