Information on Phoenix Little Theatre in the 1970s is contained here. For a general history, go to the main page under “Companies.”
PLT CHANGES LEADERSHIP / March 11, 1970
Don Herring resigns as PLT’s managing director after two years; James Seeman takes charge. Mrs. Carl Tisor replaces Ira Osman as board president.
- SOMETIME IN THE 1970s
- BAREFOOT IN THE PARK.
- Playwright: Neil Simon.
- Cast: Barbara Walker McBain, others.
- Comments: Barbara Walker McBain was probably the era’s best comedy ingenue, though the term “ingenue” doesn’t really do her resume credit. (For example, her Gooch in Mame, hardly the sweet young thing, was outstanding.)
- NO EXIT
- Playwright: Jean-Paul Sartre.
- Director: Ruth Willis.
- Cast: Paty Lombard, Steven Mastroieni.
- Performed in Theatre One, Upstairs.
- Comments: The photograph below is historically significant for several reasons. For one, the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre have seldom been produced in Phoenix. Another is that it is representative of the kind of work done at Phoenix Theatre (then Phoenix Little Theatre) in the mid- to late 70s. Theatre One was a tiny stage located literally in the rafters of the theater. You had to climb to get there, the seats weren’t very comfortable, but the fare was exceptional. The best people worked there. No Exit was proof of that, with its direction by the legendary Ruth Willis and a cast that included Steven Mastroieni, one of the era’s most in-demand leading men, and Paty Lombard, one of its most fascinating and beautiful actresses.
- Playwright: Edward Albee (Pulitzer Prize).
- Cast: Steven Mastroieni, Sonya Missal.
One of the more unusual productions at Phoenix Little Theatre in the 1970s was the 1978 rendition of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Seascape. A couple on the verge of retirement find themselves discussing their relationship problems with a lizard couple who have emerged from the sea feeling that they are so evolved they must now live on land. It’s a combination of drama and comedy with a definite absurdist twinge. Steve Mastroieni had the part of the lizard man that won Frank Langella a Tony Award when he played it on Broadway.
- DECEMBER 1977
- THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND
- Playwright: Tom Stoppard.
- Cast: Barbara McGrath, Norman Marion, Ken Keefe.
- Comments: Did I see this? I was new in town, so maybe I didn’t. I don’t know how, though. Barbara McGrath has always been one of my favorites. If we are talking underrated actresses, she’s near the top of the list. She never gets the credit she deserves. I will never forget her and the accordion in A Delicate Balance. Who said Edward Albee couldn’t write comedy?
- APRIL 1977
- HEDDA GABLER
- Playwright: Henrik Ibsen
- Director: Ruth Willis.
- Cast: Sonya Missal, Jim Servis, George Soete, Bill Roberts, Faun Tanner, Marlene Saens, Katherine Michealson.
- Comments: Jim Servis was the first actor I reviewed in Phoenix. It was in the fluffy sex-comedy, Under the Yum Yum Tree. Imagine my surprise when he turned up with an outstanding performance in this Ibsen classic. Of course, he had the help of the incomparable Ruth Willis at the director’s helm, the underrated Sonya Missal as his Hedda and a strong supporting cast. It was a rare night at the theater.
- DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS
- Playwright: Eugene O’Neill.
- Director: Ruth Willis.
- Cast: Liz Romero, Philip Ashby, Maurice McGill, Jerry Nolan, Chris Macaulay, Robert Frazier, Sol Rudnick.
- Comments: In my book, and in the minds of many others, Ruth Willis could do no wrong. Her direction of Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic romance was flawless, as was the performance of her leading lady, Liz Romero.
- JULY 1977
- MAN OF LA MANCHA
- Book: Dale Wasserman.
- Lyrics: Joe Darion.
- Music: Mitch Leigh
- The musical was adapted from Wasserman’s non-musical 1959 teleplay, I, Don Quixote, which was in turn inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece, Don Quixote.
- Cast: Marlene Saens, Rick Grove, Steve Curry, Doug Cotner, Hugh Alsop, Damon Anthony.
- Set Design: Kenneth Kloth.
- Musical Director: John Clegg.
- Technical Director: Richard Stitt.
- Choreographer: Pat Read.
- Comments: Marlene Saens earned some of the best notices of her career for her performance in this one, as did her co-stars Rick Grove and Steve Curry. It was one of PLT’s biggest hits. The settings, supervised by Richard Stitt, were amazing. It was one of the first PLT shows I saw and, when the staircase came rumbling down from the ceiling of the stage, I just about jumped out of my seat.
- APRIL 1977
- THE MUSIC MAN
- Book and Lyrics: Meredith Willson.
- Director: Larry Liff.
- Music Director: Andrea Jill Gersten Higgins (Jill Obrand), assisted by Robert Davis.
- Cast: Larry Collis, Cecilia Allen, Jerry Loveland, Harry Higgins.
- Comments: Cecilia Allen was one of the “queen-bee” sopranos in town. Noted for her winsome beauty and sterling upper register, she topped the cast list of many of the decade’s best musicals. Larry Collis was her opposite on the male charts. Distinguished in looks, with a megawatt smile and a powerful baritone, he, too, prevailed on marquees.
- A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.
- Playwright: Tennessee Williams.
- Cast: Jacqueline Gaston, Rick Grove.
- Comments: Jacqueline Gaston’s performance as Blanche was one of the hallmarks of her illustrious career. Critics were beside themselves. It didn’t hurt that Rick Grove’s Stanley drew favorable comparisons with Brando’s. A hit, a palpable hit.
- AUGUST 1976.
- Two for the Seesaw.
- Playwright: William Gibson.
- Director: Stratton Powell.
- Cast: Jacqueline Gaston, Brian Grabo.
- Scenic and Lighting Design: Ken Kloth.
- MAY 1976
Book: Peter Stone.
- Music and Lyrics: Sherman Edwards.
- Directors: Larry Liff, Robert Davis.
Musical Staging: E. Carolyn Liff.
Musical Direction: John Clegg.
Cast: Ron Duffy, Sheldon Simon, Dick Totman, Robert L. Johnson, John C. Dahl, Richard E. Wentz, Dave Thompson, Rick Grove, Marlene Saens, Virginia Lee, Cecilia Allen, John Clegg, Marc Roma, Debora Allen, Jon David, Tom Bell, Ricci Alpers.
Comments: Larry Liff was one of the era’s “big guns” when it came to directors, so it is not surprising that he attracted a powerhouse cast, including not one but three of the best sopranos, Marlene Saens, Cecilia Allen and Virginia Lee. I came to the Valley a year later and had the opportunity to hear Sheldon Simon sing. His tenor was outstanding. (It’s a bit confusing: In one newspaper article, Sheldon is identified as playing John Adams; in another, Ron Duffy has the Adams part.) The male members of the cast read like a “who’s who” of the day: Ron Duffy, Dick Totman, Robert L. Johnson, Richard Wentz, Dave Thompson, Rick Grove, Marc Roma … No one can say PLT didn’t celebrate the nation’s centennial in style.
- PAINT YOUR WAGON
- Book and lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner.
- Music: Frederick Loewe.
- Music Director: Andrea Jill Gersten Higgins (Jill Obrand).
- Cast: Harry Higgins.
- Comments: A romantic side note to this production. Musical director Jill Obrand (as she was known then) met actor Harry Higgins during the show. They later married.
- JUNE 1973.
- THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL
- Playwrights: Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence.
- Director: Charles Vernon.
- Comments: The play centers on the night Henry David Thoreau spent in a Concord, Mass. jail after he was found guilty of refusing to pay a poll tax on the grounds the money might be used to support the Spanish American War, which he opposed.
- Jack Swanson Column, The Arizona Republic, April 26, 1973
Details one of the Legendary Opening Nights in Phoenix Stage History. For Search Index: Jack Swanson, Ron Duffy, Andy Bro, Linda Jenckes, Larry Soller, Phoenix Theatre.
- NOVEMBER 1970
- THE LION IN WINTER
- Playwright: James Goldman
- Director: Larry Liff.
- Cast: Everett King, Helen Begam, John Sankovich, Suzanne Goodman, Michael Lebeau, Denby Barnett, Steve Kessal. Court Pages. Lorinda Begam, Michael Begam, Julie McCormick, Una Eitsen.
- Costume Design & Stage Manager. E. Carolyn Liff.
- Assistant Stage Manger: Jan Mcnab.
- Scenic Design: Paul Estes.
- Lighting Design: Mark Giebelhaus.
- Comments: It’s funny how some productions have an apparently endless shelf life. I’m writing this in 2014, 43 years after Phoenix Little Theatre staged James Goldman’s comedy-drama, The Lion in Winter, and still people are talking about it. Although she was dismissed (albeit favorably) in three lines in Larry Rummel’s review, it is Helen Begam’s performance that seems to linger longest in the memory. Apparently she was magnificent. John Sankovich fans (they are legion, legion, I tell you) still recall his King Philip with a smile and, in any discussion of director Larry Liff, this play always seems to poke its nose into the conversation.
- MAY 1970
- CACTUS FLOWER
- Playwright: Abe Burrows. Based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean Pierre Gredy.
- Director: Trudy Hurley.
- Scenic Design: Stratton Powell.
- Lighting Design: Mary Lynn McLemore.
- Makeup Design: Gene Smith, Tracy Sholder.
- Cast: Bambi Newland, Jay Ryan, Carol Himelstein, Elaine Hopp, Ray Gaintner, Clark Quigley, Robin Milne, Shalimar Oats, Steve Kessel.
- Note: Carol Himelstein, who played the nurse, Miss Dickinson, , was compared favorably to the young Barbra Streisand in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.”
- Note: The production was so popular, it was extended for two performances.
- Below is Bina Breitner’s review which carried a ’70s-innocent headline.
- Playwright: Patrick Hamilton.
- Director: Daniel Witt.
- Scenic & Lighting Design: Stratton Powell.
- Makeup Design: Gene Smith.
- Costume Design: Margaret O’Malley.
- Cast: Patricia Witt, John Masterman, Daniel Witt, Diane Froese, Rosalind Beal, Jack Van Natter, J.B. Wagoner.
Below is Bina Breitner’s review from the Arizona Republic, Jan. 9, 1970