The stereotype of Valley residents is that once you drive over the hill, everyone is over the hill — if not numerically, then philosophically. However, since work began on the new Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge, San Fernando Valley residents have had hope that the spectacular new structure could undo a million cultural-wasteland jokes, providing the locals with not only outstanding local shows but a sense of pride.
The building is indeed everything the Valley hoped for: soaring walls of glass enveloping an acoustically tuned, 1,700-seat theater, a smaller theater and a lecture hall and classrooms. The center opens with a gala on Jan. 29, followed by the first season of programming.
Unfortunately, it's at that point — the programming — where the Valley Performing Arts Center's ambitions run aground. “It's a huge disappointment,” sighs musician and Dangerous Minds blogger Brad Laner, an architecture aficionado who bemoans the fact that the center's lineup is nowhere near as big, beautiful and modern as its building. “The North Valley is a part of Los Angeles — we don't live in the sticks. So why do we get stuck with this milquetoast dinner theater?”
No one expects the center to be Spaceland North. But rather than reflecting the diversity of the one-third of Los Angeles known as the SFV, the center's inaugural season seems designed to appeal to one group: wealthy and wizened philanthropists with “potential donor” written all over them. Rather than undoing years of razzing by the rest of L.A., the center appears to be underscoring it by offering performers who appeal to a Valley archetype: I'm old, I'm rich and freeways scare me.
Not that there's anything wrong with being old. But it is worth noting the median age of the starring performers in this inaugural season is 65; the median age of Valley residents is 34.
For instance, octogenarian Ed Asner is due to play the role of wheelchair-using President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nearly octogenarian Joan Rivers is here but not as a comedian. Instead, she is a lecturer, delivering a history lesson titled “My Life in Show Business.”
No one should confuse the age of a performer with his or her appeal across generations. But when you mix a steady diet of older performers with other artists whose appeal is decidedly skewed to older audiences, you have programming that is safe, and stereotypically suburban.
The lineup also features established Broadway stars like Marvin Hamlisch, Joel Grey and Patti LuPone. Opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, big in the 1980s and '90s, makes an appearance, as do soft-rock stalwarts Shawn Colvin and Roseanne Cash.
In the center's defense, it would be foolish not to realize that young theatergoers are (a) rare and (b) not where the money is. Yet elsewhere in Los Angeles, performance halls are staging shows with much broader appeal. Just a Sepulveda Pass away, UCLA Live's current lineup features an eclectic roster (median performer age, 55): the Carpe Diem String Quartet, Wallace Shawn, John Waters, the L.A. Ballet, Maya Angelou and the editors of The Onion.
As composer Greg Harris, a Valley resident, puts it: “I was really looking forward to going to some cutting-edge performance right in our neighborhood, but that appears not to be happening.”
Harris frequently attends concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, UCLA's Royce Hall and the Skirball Center. He wonders why the new Valley Performing Arts Center can't schedule modern composers and more international artists. “It would be good to see them expand their ideas about what can be brought to the Valley as a world-class art center.”
For now, however, the opportunity for Valley residents to see fresher performances still means hitting the freeway. And for those of us living in the Valley, that's a double whammy. No one makes fun of Culver City's lack of museums or Venice's lack of philharmonic orchestras, but topography means there's a special degree of ridicule reserved for the Valley. Instead of boosting our opportunities and our esteem, this center seems destined to serve as another reminder that the SFV is still Lucy to L.A.'s Ricky: not ready for the Copacabana. Waaaa.
In true Valley style, however, you will be able to count on one thing at Valley Performing Arts Center: There will be plenty of parking.