Into the Woods at the Ahmanson(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Into the Woods at the Ahmanson
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Though the salesgirl-to-celebrity dream draws plenty of shouldn't-ever-be's out west, there is also a wealth of the world's greatest actors, writers, musicians, and technicians on hand to make live theater in Los Angeles something to cheer about. On any night of the week, L.A. offers a banquet to theatergoers. Beginning with the landmarks, here's a closer look at the scene.

The Lion King, which opened back in October of 2000, roars on at the Pantages Theater and the toe-tapping tribal tale continues to pack 'em in. But the jury is out on James Lapine's new production of a revised version of Into the Woods, for which he wrote the book to Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics, now running at the Ahmanson Theatre and starring Vanessa Williams as the Witch. Events like the (Broadway-bound) Woods revival are par for the course at the Ahmanson. Since its founding in 1967, the theater--like it's neighbor, the Mark Taper Forum--has become one of the city's premiere producing institutions and presentation houses. Currently at the Taper, Brian Bedford directs and acts in a pair of plays by Molière, The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold, under the umbrella title Molière Comedies.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, which in 1983 began its summer seasons of classics under the stars in Topanga Canyon (the site was once the front yard of Geer, who played Grandpa on The Waltons), has announced that this season will open with The Merchant of Venice. Later, Richard Peaslee and Adrian Mitchell will provide the words and music for Peter Hall's adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Reprise! Broadway's Best, like New York's Encores! series, showcases classic American musicals with top-notch performers; past shows have featured the likes of Jason Alexander, Kelsey Grammer, Lucie Arnaz, Steven Weber, Stephanie Zimbalist, Tony Danza, Maureen McGovern, Charles Nelson Reilly, and David Hyde Pierce. Under the artistic direction of Marcia Seligson, Reprise! opens its anxiously awaited fourth season with Follies at the Wadsworth Theater; later, Anything Goes and Kismet will be produced at the group's regular stomping grounds, UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

Silverlake's Company of Angels was founded in 1962 out of an acting class led by the legendary teacher Jeff Corey, and can boast Victor French, Sally Kellerman, and Richard Chamberlain among its alums. The troupe's current production features Charmaine Mancil in Ladies and Gentlemen...Miss Ethel Waters, her own play about the legendary actress and singer. Earning rave reviews, The Strip at the Evidence Room has all the signs of turning into a cult phenomenon--a weekly "live comic strip" featuring original work by hot writers, live music, and a fun, free-floating atmosphere.

Side Show at the Colony
Side Show at the Colony
Another cult hit just opened, for the first time in L.A. at the Colony Theatre: Side Show, the flop Broadway musical about Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton on the vaudeville circuit during the Great Depression.

Hollywood may not be known as a particularly innovative place, but there's plenty of exciting fare to be found in the smaller theatrical houses. The Actors' Gang, under the artistic direction of Tim Robbins, is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, delivering the goods in Chekhov's classic The Seagull. Nancy Balbirer's critically acclaimed one-woman show I Slept with Jack Kerouac has returned to the Court Theatre, while Stages Theater Center is showcasing Sandra Quarterman's Shak'n, Part One, a lively, one-woman performance art piece set to the words of William Shakespeare. And, just in time for the Enron scandal, Hudson Backstage Theatre presents Trista Baldwin's satirical ElectroPuss, which lambastes the misguided allegiance of member of the American workforce to the corporations that scam them.

Fountain Theatre has won plenty of plaudits during its 12-year history; the company snagged DramaLogue's Production of the Year award for The Golden Gate in 1990, its very first year of existence. Currently, Fountain is offering a rare production of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, considered to be a fictionalized account of the playwright's relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Stephen Sachs (director of After the Fall and author of Golden Gate) and Deborah Lawlor founded the Fountain to present new and established plays in year-round seasons, and Simon Levy joined as producing director/dramturg in 1993.

Fools, Neil Simon's comedy based on a Russian-Jewish folk tale about a village cursed by stupidity for two centuries, is currently being presented by Actors Co-op at the Crossley Terrace Theatre in the First Presbyterian Church. The Co-op, a Christian theater group founded in 1987 by David Schall, has displayed remarkable range. Also Russian-themed is a Dostoevsky/Gogol-inspired montage of motion, music, and dialogue called Dumbshow, a compelling nonlinear production directed by Tina Kronis at Sacred Fools Theater. The versatile company is also presenting Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand's adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Created in 1989 to combine an openness to new ideas with a hardball vitality and social awareness, Open Fist Theater Company is offering two short plays from George F. Walker's Suburban Motel series, "Adult Entertainment" and "Problem Child," which focus on the gritty dynamics of drug abuse, sex, and crime in cheesy motel rooms. And speaking of social awareness, Irving Welch's adaptation of his book about Scottish heroin addicts, Trainspotting, is directed by Roger Mathey at Theater/Theatre and features Justin Zachary as the unemployed, uncertain Mark Renton. Moving down into the heart of Los Angeles, we find who else but Tori Spelling replacing Shari Simpson in the latest incarnation of Maybe Baby, It's You at the Coronet Theatre. Peter Webb directs as Spelling high-steps her way through 11 bittersweet comic vignettes about the search for love.

The Geffen Playhouse
The Geffen Playhouse
The Geffen Playhouse, a non-profit company associated with UCLA, was originally built in 1929 as the Masonic Affiliates Club (or MAC) for students and alumni; its gorgeous architecture would later inspire the renowned Mediterranean style of the rest of the campus. The theater is named for film and record mogul David Geffen, whose foundation dropped a major endowment on the place in 1994. Currently, the Geffen is presenting God's Man in Texas, David Rambo's tale of a televangelist immersed in a power struggle.

Down by the beach, we find Orange County's South Coast Repertory, founded almost 40 years ago by two struggling actors (teacher David Emmes and would-be movie star Martin Benson) and now a prestigious regional playhouse with two stages and an $8 million annual budget. SCR's 18,000 subscribers are currently enjoying Lobby Hero, the latest from Kenneth "This is Our Youth" Lonergan.

SCR is far from the only theater among the beachside towns surrounding Los Angeles: You've also got the Edison Theatre (home to the California Repertory Company) and the Laguna Playhouse, with its gorgeous Moulton Theatre on Laguna Canyon Road, right off the Pacific Coast Highway. But you don't have to travel that far from the city proper to find beautiful theater here. As a closer look reveals, it's everywhere.