Our Town, Our Theater : To be sure, celebrating 20 Years at Center Stage was a fun, not solemn, occasion

From left to right: Kelly Ary, Dan Gunther and Peter McCorkle sing about the origin of Center Stage at the theater Saturday night. NIK BLASKOVICH/NEWS-PRESS
From left to right: Kelly Ary, Dan Gunther and Peter McCorkle sing about the origin of Center Stage at the theater Saturday night. NIK BLASKOVICH/NEWS-PRESS

Do we take the Center Stage Theater for granted? Board member Laurel Lyle put forth this question on Saturday night at the end of a short but very much appreciated celebration of 20 years of community theater. The black box at the top of the tiled stairs above the California Pizza Kitchen has been this reviewer’s destination several times a year, and to imagine Santa Barbara without it…well, it would be a pretty bleak existence for community arts. The evening — a reception, a comedic performance and a post-show champagne toast — was an affectionate tribute to a space that has been an essential part of the city’s downtown arts scene.

It could have been a formal affair, an evening that celebrated longevity and took it as a sign of cultural importance with a capital C.I. But this is Center Stage, and that means creativity comes first, stuffiness dead last. It says something when the actor in the closest thing approaching a business suit spends his moment in the performance doing a voice over.

That was Brian Harwell, launching the Rod Lathim-conceived evening with a snarky little send-up of the now-common pre-show warning to turn off cell-phones and pagers. It was the warning we’ve all wanted to hear, berating those with smart phones who haven’t learned to turn the things off yet, and the people who insist on unwrapping hard candies.

That set the tone for the evening, a roast of sorts, a collection of in-jokes that varying sections of the audience got immediately, and left the other sections wishing they knew the salacious details.

Mr. Lathim, one of the original Center Stage board members and director of its very first production, struck the right balance between irreverence and respect, and knew that a majority of his targets were in the audience. (Some sassed back, as was their right.) Nancy Nufer and Devin Scott also scripted some of the segments, mainly an award show parody that threaded through the hour-long show.

Mr. Lathim contributed songs as well, starting off with a parody of “Rock Island Line,” which chugged along with Kelly Ary, Dan Gunther, Peter McCorkle, Devin Scott and Katie Thatcher trading lines. Other songs in the evening provided satirical rewrites of Stephen Sondheim numbers like “Putting It Together” and “Losing My Mind” (the latter a tribute to stage manager Brad Spaulding).

Then a scene from history, a recreation of the meeting between the suits of Reininga Corporation and Center Stage’s board. The suits seemed most adamant that Paseo Nuevo would not be called a “mall,” but instead a “shopping center.” They also thought a black box would be a host for “Shakespeare on a stool” and “storytelling for kids,” and could not see why the space would need risers, lights and a sound system. They were wrong on both accounts, bless ’em, as they were on their belief in family entertainment. The mall’s black box has seen its share of blood and scandal along with the stuff for the kiddies. It’s art, man.

The award ceremony parody paired Ms. Nufer, past-manager of Center Stage (and she of the rubber limbs and face), along with Mr. Scott, playing as much of the irritated straight man as he could. Here’s where everybody got some good-natured ribbing: Julie McLeod, Maurice Lord (he’s never going to live down that dead goat prop), Woven, Michael Smith, City@Peace (did they really drop water balloons on shoppers?), the late Bob Potter (in his memory, please burn Bush in effigy, they noted, which is pretty close to what Mr.Potter did in his last few plays), theater critics including Charles Donelan and Steven Libowitz, and even Sant Barbara Theatre and Ensemble Theatre (mostly because of their titles.) Some jokes sounded like they cut deep, but nobody was mortally wounded.

Several jokes pointed out how Center Stage shares its backstage area with the mall’s janitors and employees on break, which set up a dance routine choreographed by Melody Waluk to Leonard Bernstein’s “The Rumble,” in which young ballerinas took on mop- and broom-wielding janitorial staff.

Ms. Nufer and another former manager, Greg Lee, sang a duet about managing (another Sondheim rewrite) and then it was over to Laura Lyle for the wrap-up speech, noting that the stipend of $40,000 hasn’t changed since the beginning. Mayor Helene Schneider also gave thanks, symbolically carrying over from Harriet Miller, who really pushed for Center Stage during her council term.

The evening ended with a curtain call and raised glasses of champagne on the terrace. What will the next 20 years bring? Stick around and find out, was the answer.

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