By James Shilander
A local theatrical institution will be returning to life this month with performances from major stars.
The Pasadena Playhouse, California’s state theatre, will officially reopen Tuesday, Oct. 12, with “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Up” star Ed Asner presenting a one-man production “FDR,” and Leslie Uggams, who last appeared before local audiences in early 2009 during the Playhouse’s production of “Stormy Weather,” starring in a review of her own performance life with a tour of the great American Songbook in “Uptown Downtown.”
It’s been a more than eventful year for the venerable theatre, which closed in February amid financial problems. However, the theatre emerged from chapter 11 bankruptcy in less than four months, following a spirited campaign that brought donations from subscribers and other donors, highlighted by an anonymous $1 million matching contribution drive. Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, who has helped to oversee the restructuring of the theatre together with Executive Director Stephen Eich, said he always believed the Playhouse would reopen, and that it was only right to provide its loyal patrons with theatrical experiences worthy of the history of the Playhouse.
“To a certain extent I never thought of the theatre as closed,” Epps said. “I felt it was more of an ‘intermission.’ I had such a belief that we would deal with the financial issues. When we open I’ll just be feeling happiness and joy that we’ll be producing again and doing shows that people can be proud of.”
Asner began touring the country with “FDR” last year. He noted that his run at the Pasadena Playhouse, Oct. 12-Nov. 7, would be the longest of any he’s had while touring with the show.
“I’ve been doing one-nighters all over the country,” Asner said. “I’m eagerly hoping to see what my energy level is going to be like.”
While not a regular at the Playhouse, Asner said he’d performed charity readings or other events there.
“I’ve always highly respected it,” he said.
Asner, who was born in 1929, grew up with Roosevelt as a revered figure. Like many of his generation, Asner said he remembered exactly where he was when the news came down that Roosevelt had passed away.
“It was like God the Father died,” Asner said. “The feeling was ‘Good God, we’re destroyed.’”
Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, he said, many did not have a high opinion of Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, who had been a senator in neighboring Missouri.
“We misjudged Truman,” he said.
Asner said he’s become more aware of the way his own moods and physical status affect his performance while touring with the show, as well as the differences in audiences.
Uggams, who is perhaps best known for winning a Tony Award for “Hallelujah, Baby,” said the version of “Uptown Downtown,” that audiences will see at the Playhouse, which will run Nov. 16 to Dec. 12, will be different than the one that premiered in New York last year. The show allows Uggams to share stories of her time in show business, while singing various selections from the songbook, including pieces from “Hallelujah, Baby!”
“This is one of those things where you don’t realize what you have,” Uggams said. “I’ve been doing the songbook for years, so we just expanded it. The response to it was so great. I realized that everything I’ve been singing about is my journey.”
Most of the stories, she said, she hadn’t told outside of her personal circle.
“These were stories that I’d told my husband for years, and he said ‘You have to talk about these things,’” she said.
The title of the piece refers to Uggams’ life growing up in Washington Heights and initial performances at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, then her journey toward singing in downtown New York clubs and on the Broadway stage.
Uggams said the production at the Playhouse would include an expanded section dealing with her years performing on television. That work came into sharper focus this year, she said, after the death at 99 of songwriter Mitch Miller, who Uggams performed with for many years on “Sing Along with Mitch.”
Epps said both Asner and Uggams were exactly the type of performers the Playhouse hoped to attract.
“They’re artists, performers of the highest caliber, with a very long history and are well known. It will be nice to see some familiar faces.”
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena. For tickets call (626) 356-7529 or visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.