Ruth Hale moved to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City with her husband in 1943, both harboring dreams of becoming actors. When they couldn’t catch a break in Hollywood, Ruth decided to write and produce her own scripts and opened the Glendale Centre Theatre (GCT) in 1947.
Seven decades later, the GCT is still thriving, now focusing on revivals of classic musicals such as the current production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” According to current GCT head Brenda Beitlein, the theater’s in-the-round seating arrangements place the focus of the 385-seat audience squarely on the performances and costumes. It’s also the flagship in the Hale Centre Theatres chain, which operates four other locations in Arizona and Utah and is the longest continuously running, privately owned and operated theater company in America.
“Ruth started this as a 200-seat theater in a house, but when she started selling out, she went to the city asking for parking and a bigger space,” Beitlein recounts. “Because there wasn’t room for a traditional, large proscenium stage, she placed a 17-by-20-foot stage in the middle of the space and had everyone seated around it. She wanted to follow in Shakespeare’s words that ‘it’s all about the acting,’ so we perform with minimal sets and rely on talent and costumes.”
The costumes are indeed a major attraction in “Dreamcoat,” which has thrived since 1970 as the first of legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s many smash-hit musicals. It follows the Biblical saga of Joseph and his coat of many colors as it comes to vibrant life while he endures a series of adventures en route to reaching his destiny as a great leader.
The current production stars Robert Marra as Joseph, returning to the role he originated for GCT in 1996 in the first of five editions of the play. In fact, the cast features six members from that production, a fact that Beitlein finds “heartwarming” and likens to a forming a “second family.”
The key figure in that de facto family is Lee Martino, a former choreographer for singer-dancer Paula Abdul who has directed and choreographed GCT’s shows for the past 25 years. According to Beitlein, Martino “really takes the shows under wing,” overseeing every aspect of the shows from sets to costumes in addition to the performances.
“I think what makes this place special is that it’s family entertainment, and intimate theater with large production values,” says Martino. “It’s an almost immersive experience because it’s in the round, so you see the show from every angle and we use the aisles. It’s a visceral experience when you get there, yet at the same time the production values are so fantastic.”
With a busy season ahead of her, Beitlein is already planning the next two shows out: “Godspell” opens March 6, while “West Side Story” follows soon after. Learning to adapt to the times by establishing new marketing strategies including a “crossover” approach intended to draw theatergoers away from other prominent venues such as the Pantages in Hollywood and the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA, she is proud of her present and looking forward to her own children taking over in the future.
“’Joseph’ holds a very special place in my heart, because it’s so entertaining and there’s so much heart and warmth,” says Beitlein. “And there’s a message about forgiveness, hope and redemption, with music from country to calypso to 50s rock n roll. It’s terrific.”
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” runs through April 7 at the Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale. Tickets are $20 to $34. Call (818) 244-8481 or visit glendalecentretheatre.com.