Rabbi-impresario brings Broadway to Beverly Hills

On a bright Friday morning, Rabbi David Baron, Los Angeles’ rabbi-impresario, wore dark sunglasses and a suit as he strode past the marquee of the art deco Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills. Inside the 1,910-seat venue, a vast, art deco-inspired pulpit — designed by an Emmy-winning art director and now a permanent “set” — was already in place for the services Baron would lead for his Temple of the Arts that evening.

But this weekend, a very different set will be in place (and the rabbi will don his producer’s hat) to debut the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills “Broadway to Beverly Hills” series, with Luis Bravo’s “Forever Tango” — “a sultry Latin variation on ‘Riverdance,'” as the New York Times called it in 2004. The theatrical series will continue this spring with short runs of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” and the Janis Joplin saga, “Love, Janis.”

The series is not specifically Jewish, although there will be some Jewish programming, Baron says. Rather, it’s part of a much larger “vision” the rabbi has had for the property since his synagogue began renting space in the eight-story landmark 15 years ago.

“This historic complex was built in 1929 as a vaudeville movie house by the Fox Co. and designed by one of the great motion picture theater architects of that period, S. Charles Lee,” he says.

Eventually, it became a theater for live productions owned by the renowned Nederlander Producing Co., which presented its own shows as well as rentals.

But as other venues closed in Beverly Hills (the Canon Theatre was demolished in 2005), Baron saw an opportunity: “a home for my temple and also something much bigger,” he says. “People hate shlepping to the Pantages in Hollywood or downtown to see Broadway-caliber shows…. I had a dream of being able to preserve, restore, maintain and revitalize this complex, and this theater, and to make it a real community hub, a cultural, performing arts center for the entire area.”

Think the 92nd Street Y minus the health club — with lectures, concerts, rental shows, co-productions, an in-house “Broadway” series, even movie premieres.

Five years ago, the rabbi — who has the “exceedingly well-groomed visage and piercing blue eyes of an actor,” W magazine said — began lobbying his landlord to sell him the entire building at 8440 Wilshire Blvd.

“A few prominent donors stepped up to help me,” Baron says of his campaign.

It didn’t hurt that Baron’s congregants include people like director Brett Ratner and Larry King, who helped him get Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to speak at the temple on Yom Kippur 2006.

And then, Baron adds — sounding more like a rabbi than an impresario — a miracle occurred.

“I walked into First Bank just after the chairman of the board had returned from a prayer breakfast at the White House with President Bush, who had talked about faith-based initiatives and helping nonprofit institutions accomplish more in their communities,” he recalls. “And the manager said, ‘We’ve loaned money to six churches, and we need a temple. Do you think you’d ever need to borrow money?’

“I thought to myself, ‘Who walks into a bank and they offer you money?’ And I looked up, and I said, ‘Thank you Hashem.’ I really believe this was beshert, meant to be,” the rabbi remembers.

Baron procured the building to house his Beverly Hills Performing Arts Center (which includes the theater) in 2005. He says he has now raised about a quarter of the center’s $25 million campaign, which includes the building’s purchase price, renovation costs, an endowment and an after-school performing arts program that should begin in several months.

In 2006, the theater hosted the West Coast premiere of the film, “Dreamgirls” — its first movie premiere since “Exodus” in the 1960s, he says; there have been sold-out events with artists such as James Taylor and Annie Lennox.

Now flyers distributed around town are proclaiming the start of the “Broadway” series — which might cause some confusion because one of the shows advertised, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind,” has been replaced with a touring production of “Cats” (“Whistle’s” current tour has been canceled). Further, the “Broadway to Beverly Hills” title isn’t quite accurate because only two of its three shows, in fact, ran on Broadway (“Love, Janis” has played elsewhere).

Don Shirley, a former Los Angeles Times theater writer and now the theater critic for CityBeat, was disappointed to hear about the cancellation.

“The only one of these shows that I definitely was planning to see was ‘Whistle Down the Wind,'” he said by e-mail. “Although I’ve never seen either ‘Whistle’ or ‘Love, Janis,’ ‘Whistle’ sounded more ambitious and original than the ‘Janis’ show and had a slightly longer run. (I’ve seen ‘Forever Tango.’) ‘Cats’ has had at least nine lives in various touring incarnations that have played L.A., and I have no desire to see it again. If the number of people who feel as I do is as large as the number of people who would be impressed by its ‘Broadway’ status, they could have a new set of marketing problems.”

Shirley also noted that the new series “has very short engagements. That might be smart at the beginning, in terms of financial risk. But the runs … are so short that they might not even be reviewed by the L.A. Times and almost certainly not by the weeklies, so I’m not sure they’ll be noticed — ‘put on the map,’ as you say. Of course, if the target audience consists of people in Beverly Hills who don’t want to go even as far east as the Pantages [to see this kind of show], maybe it’s just as well that the runs aren’t much longer.”

Baron, for his part, insists he is “using ‘Broadway’ as a generic term to indicate shows that are of Broadway caliber.” Ticket sales for “Forever Tango” have already earned back the six-figure cost of the production, he says. And he is aiming for that local audience.