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Make a Quick Right on Easy Street: The Manhattan Beach Community Church Theater is at it Again!

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Business majors, put down your books. Here’s how you can rise to the top without straining your eyes.

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” opened on Broadway in 1961 and proceeded to garner seven Tonys plus the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962. The musical starred Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee, both of whom reprised their roles when Broadway went Hollywood.

The Manhattan Beach Community Church Theatre (MBCC) is sometimes more gutsy than their name implies. They tend to stage straight plays in the fall – and their fare, often at the behest of Jack Messenger, has included Greek, Shakespearean, and new, original dramas. The fall musicals usually revisit familiar fare, and that brings us to Charlie Stowe, who directed (with his wife, Sally) “How to Succeed…” back in 1968 (currently Stowe is the musical director, with a 25-piece orchestra under his command).

Angela Asch and Charlie Stowe. GLORIA PLASCENCIA, CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

Angela Asch and Charlie Stowe.
GLORIA PLASCENCIA, CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

At that time the church did not have its present performance area, and so the musical was mounted in the newly-completed Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College. “We were the first show in there,” Stowe says. Other productions, he adds, were done in local schools (Leuzinger High School, for example). On site productions at MBCC finally began in 1970, and it’s been a fairly consistent ride ever since.

A long history

Well, it’s been 45, 46 years since the group’s first shot at “How to Succeed…” and probably enough time to harvest a new crop of young people who haven’t seen it.

Angela Asch is among the cast members, and she’s also the show’s choreographer. She points out that the original choreographer was Bob Fosse: “I like his style; he’s a good one to emulate.”

“Angie started in the early ‘60s,” Stowe says.

“No, I did not!”

Stowe corrects himself: It would be a mathematical impossibility, anyway, considering that Asch is 36 years old. It was her mother, Heidi Johnson, whom Stowe first met during the Kennedy-Johnson years. That is, the Johnson from Texas years. Heidi Johnson is still involved with the church theater and she’s in the current play. Not only that, she was choreographing shows for the group decades ago.

“Angie has taken over that job,” Stowe quips.

Angela Asch, Heidi Johnson, and Kevin Paul. COURTESY MANHATTAN BEACH COMMUNITY CHURCH THEATRE

Angela Asch, Heidi Johnson, and Kevin Paul.
COURTESY MANHATTAN BEACH COMMUNITY CHURCH THEATRE

Asch, who lives in and also teaches in Redondo Beach (at Washington School), first appeared with the MBCC theater when she was five years old. That was a production of “Godspell,” and Asch was in the orchestra where she played the kazoo. “But my first real musical here was the year after, in 1984. I did ‘Carnival.’ My dad (Taylor Thompson) directed that one. That was my real start.”

She went on to sing with the church choir and to star in various plays and musicals at the church.

Like Charlie Stowe and various others, too, of course, Asch has remained committed to the theater aspect of the church. Stowe, however, doesn’t hesitate to explain that interest among church members to be actively involved in the shows is not quite what it used to be, and so they’re often driven “to do a lot of missionary work, trying to recruit people.”
To an outside, this seems both good and bad. Bad because the program could be in serious jeopardy if no one in the church wanted to act, and good because some fine actors have been brought in from the outside to infuse vitality into the show and to raise the bar on the quality of the production, which always includes a diverse mix of amateurs and then semi-pros (and even real pros, as we saw with “Much Ado About Nothing,” staged last year).

That’s how Stowe brought in Kevin Paul as the lead character in “How to Succeed…” Stowe worked him over a little until Paul cried ‘uncle,’ or some variation of this. Paul has been seen locally at the Norris Theatre (“The Producers,” “White Christmas”) and on TV (“NCIS Los Angeles” and “Robbery Homicide Division”).

Going for the gold

The new show has a large cast, and more impressive is the fact that they’ve been rehearsing since early January.

“I’m a perfectionist,” Asch says, “so I like to try to make it the best it can be” – referring to her choreography – “and give the people a challenge that they can work towards.”

“Angie is pretty tough,” Stowe adds; “wields a big whip!”

Asch says that she adheres to the script – to the writing and to the time period, which is early 1960s: “It’s a classic; it won a Pulitzer, so it works well for a reason. This should be a show where (people) come in and forget their troubles and just enjoy everybody else’s story, and a lot of good catchy tunes that they’ll hopefully go out the door singing – if we do our jobs right.”

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” was written by Abe Burrows, Willie Gilbert, and Jack Weinstock, with music by Frank Loesser. It’s about a window washer named J. Pierrepont Finch who wants to take the elevator rather than climb the stairs to success in the World Wide Wicket Company. He moves up each rung, from washing windows to sorting mail, from vice-president to chairman of the board, somehow charming all and sundry who cross his path.

“The hero in this show listens very carefully to find out what different people’s favorite things are,” says Stowe, “and then they just happen to be what his favorite things are too.”

“It all comes crashing down on him,” Asch says, “and he still finds a way to squeak through. It’s a funny story.

Angela Asch, Heidi Johnson, and Kevin Paul. COURTESY MANHATTAN BEACH COMMUNITY CHURCH THEATRE

Angela Asch, Heidi Johnson, and Kevin Paul.
COURTESY MANHATTAN BEACH COMMUNITY CHURCH THEATRE

“I like doing musicals,” she continues. “Everybody loves the songs and the dancing and the color and the excitement, but I really like it when a musical (also) has a good book. Many musicals have great music but the storyline is just fluff. This one actually has a really good story; the lines are written very creatively.”

Alan Peterkovsky, who previously was at the helm for “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Barefoot in the Park,” is directing – and this is his first musical, so let’s wish him luck.

Did I mention that Stowe and his wife became involved with the MBCC theater in 1958, and that they kind of took the reins in 1962 or 1963? Well, that’s a long time ago, and Stowe has been claiming that this is his last show.

“He said that last time,” says co-producer George Jackson.

“He’s said that a lot,” says Asch.

Stowe himself chimes in: “It’s my eighth last show.”

“He always gives a great closing speech about how wonderful it was,” Asch laughs, “and then all of a sudden he comes back.”

Kind of like a rock band’s farewell tour – until they find themselves strapped for cash.

Stowe seems to remember just about every show the church theater has staged over the last half century.

So, out of all of them that you’ve been involved with, which one’s been the most memorable for you?

“Well, ‘Music Man,’” he replies. “I played Harold Hill. We did that twice, and the guy that played it after me was… I hate to tell you, but he was better than I was.”

Asked what shows he would have liked to have staged but didn’t, or couldn’t, Stowe mentions the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He also cites “Titanic.”

“We wanted to fill the place up with water to do ‘Titanic,’” he says with a sly smile, “but the trustees here didn’t really go for that.”

If you go

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

The Manhattan Beach Community Church Theatre

303 S. Peck Ave., Manhattan Beach

Friday and Saturday, April 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, April 6 and 13 at 2 p.m.

Tickets, $20

Call (310) 379-3139 or email MBCCtheater@yahoo.com