As with theaters everywhere, South Coast Repertory and its audiences have begun readjusting to pre-pandemic schedules of live productions. The venerated regional company is ringing in the new year with the children’s musical “Last Stop on Market Street.”
Opening Jan. 16 and slated for a run of four performances, the show is the lone 2021-22 season production in SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences and Families series.
Of particular note is that the show is directed by Oanh Nguyen, the founding artistic director of Chance Theater in Anaheim. At least in Orange County, crossover between small companies like Chance and behemoths like SCR is a rarity.
But since 2009, Nguyen has had a hand in multiple SCR shows over a range of programs and series, like its youth theater shows, StudioSCR stagings, NewSCRipts readings and Segerstrom Stage productions. And the basis for his involvement has been the interest SCR co-founder Martin Benson took in Nguyen in the late ’00s.
Chance got onto Benson’s radar as the company was completing its first decade. Their paths crossed, Benson recognized a diamond in the rough, and a working relationship developed that has also become a friendship. While it’s not clear whether referring to Nguyen as Benson’s protégé is accurate, what is clear is that Benson helped nurture Nguyen’s talents and became, in effect, the younger man’s mentor.
Benson has been paying it forward, in effect, for decades now. Nguyen notes that he isn’t alone in having received wisdom and guidance from Benson.
“He has mentored many folks, people around the industry. A number of theater leaders I’ve run into have had a close relationship with Martin,” Nguyen said. He notes that the roster, too lengthy to enumerate here, includes not just theater companies but also “individual artists” not just here at home in California but throughout the U.S.
Chance Theater and Nguyen, however, are the only Orange County theater company Benson has worked with and guided so extensively and intimately. His interest in Nguyen and in Chance Theater is unique in that no other Orange County theater operation and no other fellow founding artistic director of any such theater has garnered the amount or level of attention as Benson has paid to Nguyen and his company.
‘Market Street’ Just the Latest Example
‘Last Stop on Market Street’
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 2 p.m. Jan. 16 and 22, 2 and 4:30 p.m. Jan. 23
Tickets: $32-$44 general, $26-$38 children 4-12
Information: 714-708-5500, scr.org
Published in 2015, “Market Street” is a children’s book written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. It captured numerous awards, including the 2016 Newbery Medal and a 2016 Caldecott Honor. It was later adapted for the stage by Cheryl L. West, with music and lyrics by Lamont Dozier and Paris Ray Dozier.
The story follows a 7-year-old boy named CJ (Christopher Mosley) and his adventures with his Nana (Karole Foreman) as they board and ride a city bus. The experience cements their bond while teaching young audiences lessons about empathy and trust.
Nguyen said although it’s thought of as a children’s show, “Market Street” is something that can be enjoyed by all ages, and he sees echoes and similarities between the show and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” another contemporary musical that has broad appeal to all ages, as well as to the more traditional “The Wizard of Oz.”
He characterizes the show as “a family story and an adventure story wrapped up in pop, R&B, and hip-hop music.” Casting of the show, he notes, posed “a real challenge. We needed artists with the acting talent to tell the emotional beats of the story, while also showing off their dancing and singing skills. Many also needed to play multiple, dynamically different characters, and some needed to be musicians.”
Nguyen said once the design team was in place, “it was a breeze to start exploring the world of this musical. I’ve worked with many of them before, so it allowed us to jump right into the work.” Four of those on Nguyen’s team – choreographer Kelly Todd, scenic designer Fred Kinney, costume designer Adriana Lambarri and sound designer Jeff Polunas – have all plied their crafts at Chance Theater on multiple occasions.
The Chance connection extends to the seven cast members, four of whom – Chris Mosley, Dony Wright, Klarissa Meese and Monika Pena – have appeared at Chance. By the same token, a significant number of those involved with “Market Street” have previously worked at SCR. The exceptions are actors Mosley and Wright, each making his first SCR appearance.
How Nguyen became a part of SCR
Oanh Nguyen at SCR
Oanh Nguyen began working with South Coast Repertory in 2009 and ever since, has been tapped repeatedly for a wide variety of projects:
“Last Stop on Market Street” (2022 Argyros Stage)
“Jesus Hates Me” (StudioSCR series, 2010 Nicholas Stage)
“Abundance” (2015 Segerstrom Stage)
“Chinglish” (2012 Segerstrom Stage)
“The Warrior Class” (2011 NewSCRipt reading)
“Misalliance” (2010 Segerstrom Stage)
“Falling Leaves” (2009 NewSCRipt reading)
“The Happy Ones” (2009 NewSCRipt reading and Segerstrom Stage)
“Elemeno Pea” (2012)
StudioSCR series, 2011-2013
SCR’s Acting Intensive Program (2015)
By the time Nguyen was first invited to work at SCR, he was already directing extensively at numerous Southern California venues including East West Players, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Chapman University, Cal State Fullerton and Azusa Pacific University.
“Last Stop on Market Street,” Nguyen said, is his fifth directing position with SCR – “sixth if you count ‘Jesus Hates Me’” – but the genesis of Nguyen’s connection with the company rests in the 2009 NewSCRipts Reading of “The Happy Ones.”
Benson describes the play as a story about “two men who lose families for various reasons. One of the characters is Vietnamese. I’d heard of Oanh, so I said ‘let’s hire Oanh since he has a Vietnamese insight that none of us have’” – so Benson phoned Nguyen to say: “I want you to be my director.”
Nguyen was, in fact, credited as associate director of the show. As Benson recalls, “Playwright Julie Marie Myatt and I were very impressed by him.” In fact, the reading was so successful that it motivated SCR to produce “The Happy Ones” as a full production later that year that Benson directed, associate-directed by Nguyen.
The success of “The Happy Ones” reading is essentially what kick-started what has become an ongoing collaboration between Nguyen and SCR. His success with “The Happy Ones” reading led to his being brought back during the 2009 season to direct his second NewSCRipts project, “Falling Leaves,” but it also helped spark a new program at SCR.
Nguyen said “The Happy Ones” had ignited interest within SCR to create a new program, utilizing its 94-seat Nicholas Studio space, “to showcase the incredible work and artists in Southern California theater.”
This idea, he said, ultimately led to the creation of the StudioSCR series – and the first local theater company SCR wanted to spotlight was Chance Theater. Nguyen said that “after much discussion, our funny and arresting production about young lost souls, ‘Jesus Hates Me,’ was chosen to launch the program.”
Chance Theater’s Choreographer Kelly Todd is Also a Regular at SCR
Kelly Todd’s choreography has been seen throughout Southern California theaters for decades. The 2004 production of “Closer Than Ever” was her first show at Chance Theater, and since then she has choreographed dozens of shows at the Anaheim Hills venue.
Like Oanh Nguyen, Chance’s founding artistic director, Todd has forged a solid working relationship with South Coast Repertory that started in 2013. Hisa Takakuwa, who directs SCR’s conservatory program, was searching for a choreographer for her summer education (youth theater) production of “Seussical,” and Nguyen suggested Todd for the job.
Nguyen said that in the handful of years prior to that, “SCR’s artistic staff was made aware of Kelly’s work through seeing productions at the Chance after I started working at SCR” in 2009. Todd’s “Seussical” work led to invitations to choreograph Takakuwa’s summer players stagings of “Peter Pan” and “Annie.”
When David Emmes directed “Absurd Person Singular” on the Segerstrom Stage, he had a staffer contact Todd and ask her to “choreograph,” in a sense, the cast’s physical movements.
Director Marya Mazor had worked with Todd in Chance’s production of “Nerve,” so when hired to direct the Theatre for Young Audiences production of “Ivy and Bean,” she tapped Todd as choreographer.
When Kent Nicholson was assembling his team for “Light in the Piazza,” his queries around SCR asking who he could use to choreograph led him to Todd. Like Takakuwa, he was suitably impressed with her work, tapping her again for “Once” and “Sweeney Todd.”
When SCR was preparing its first post-pandemic production of “A Christmas Carol,” production manager Matt Chandler contacted Todd, inviting her on behalf of director Takakuwa to do the show’s choreography.
For Nguyen, having Todd choreograph the upcoming family musical “Last Stop on Market Street” made perfect sense. He’s had a first-hand look at her work at his own theater for more than 15 years and has watched her SCR career blossom right alongside his own.
Todd said Latin, disco, rap and hip-hop comprise the six musical numbers, and that the show’s more rhythmic, percussive musical score suits it ideally to the creation and performance of dance moves.
Because Nguyen’s 2010 re-staging of the Wayne Lemon satirical comedy was such a hit, SCR appointed him the producing associate for the first three seasons (2011-13) of the StudioSCR series. When Benson directed Shaw’s “Misalliance,” also in 2010, he again tapped Nguyen as associate director. And, in 2011, he was associate director of yet a third NewSCRipts reading, “The Warrior Class.”
By now, word of Nguyen’s good work had spread within SCR. Director Leigh Silverman tapped him as associate director of the 2012 production of David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” and director Marc Masterson brought him on as assistant director of the 2012 production of the West Coast premiere of Molly Smith Metzler’s “Elemeno Pea.”
Among more recent SCR projects, Nguyen was asked to direct the 2013 Theatre for Young Audiences production of “The Night Fairy”; he again worked with director Benson as associate director of Beth Henley’s “Abundance” (2015); and he was guest director of the Acting Intensive Program in 2015.
Nguyen’s time working at SCR on various productions gave him a behind-the-scenes look at how professional productions are mounted. “I got to really see how all the different elements of a show come into being,” he said, singling out not just Benson but, among others, David Emmes (SCR’s co-founding artistic director, alongside Benson), artistic directors Marc Masterson and David Ivers, and dramaturg John Glore. Each, he said, “has a very different focus, and I’m very grateful how much of their experiences they have been willing to share.”
The sum total of his projects “allowed me to connect with every aspect of SCR, from artistic to marketing to development, and more. In many ways, this was my master’s degree in how a large regional theater operates.”
Origins of the Nguyen-Benson Connection
Benson said from his perspective, tapping, utilizing and fostering the talents of Nguyen has been and continues to be a no-brainer. “He’s so smart and so personable, and he has a good theater sense of what plays and what doesn’t.” Everyone involved with “The Happy Ones,” Benson said, was impressed with Nguyen and enjoyed working with him: “The cast loved him, the playwright loved him, and I loved him and really wanted to work with him again.”
The confluence of Nguyen being in SCR’s orbit at just the right time, Benson noted, got the StudioSCR series off to a bang. “We sent him out all over L.A. and environs to find interesting projects to put in a smaller theater, to give them a chance to play at SCR and to give audiences a chance to see what other theaters are doing.”
Nguyen, he said, was “just dedicated” to the task, bringing in shows from various Southern California theaters over a two-year period. “We took his recommendations,” Benson said, “because he proved to be reputable.”
Both Benson and Nguyen are fuzzy as far as pinpointing the time and place of their first contact. Nguyen said as Chance opened in 1999, “it has been too long for me to recall an exact date, but I can say that in the beginning, Martin was one of the first industry giants that would sit down with us and share his wealth of knowledge and experience of close friends starting and building a nonprofit theater company from scratch.”
Benson recalls that his initial contact with Nguyen and Chance grew out of his desire to share the wealth of his knowledge of and experience in running a theater company in Orange County.
He notes that when he and Emmes launched South Coast Rep, they were inspired by the theater program at San Francisco State University, their alma mater, and by Jules Irving, the program’s leader and the artistic director of Actors Workshop.
Benson said he “saw a ton of shows at the Workshop” and that he actively recruited from among those enrolled in the program to help populate the fledgling Orange County company. He said he and Emmes found encouragement from the fact that Irving “came down and saw us.”
After some 45 years of having been immersed in SCR, Benson said he “hadn’t really seen much theater here in Orange County. I decided I had been remiss in not going around checking on smaller theaters.” Having first worked with Nguyen in 2009, he paid a visit to Nguyen’s Anaheim Hills theater.
“It really impressed me,” Benson said. “It wasn’t filthy. They were polite to audiences. And they were doing really good work.”
The makeup and M.O. of Chance’s board was one area where Benson knew he could have a positive impact. From the first board meeting he attended, he could see things were “all wrong.”
“I could see that they had a really nice bunch of people, but the board meetings were social events,” a combination of cocktail hour and informal gathering. I brought a little bit of cred, I think. I said, ‘Guys, you have to be more businesslike. You’re never gonna grow as a theater and you’re not gonna attract more people unless you conduct it like a business. You’re just gonna be a club.’”
It took roughly four months, but the board heeded Benson’s advice and suggestions, “and that improved things. They had good, strong people, and that helped.”
Nguyen said at some point between 2009 and 2012, he decided to invite Benson to become a Chance board member. “I proposed the idea to Martin and he generously and kindly agreed. Our board and company were thrilled to have him join us in 2012, and he’s still on our board.”
A year later, Laurie Smith Staude joined Chance’s board, then Bette Aitken in 2014 and Susan Bowman in 2016. All three had previously been board members at SCR and all three are still with Chance.
Benson said he was highly impressed with Chance’s use of digital technology to promote its shows and get the word out about the venue – nor did his advice to Nguyen and company ever extend into the artistic arena. “I never did involve myself in anything artistic unless asked, as when Oanh would ask ‘what do you think?”’ But I wouldn’t go in and say ‘You need to change the staging’ of a show.”
Nguyen will be the first to say the benefits of having Benson in his life can’t be described in measurable terms.
“From our very first meeting until now, Martin Benson exudes warmth and friendliness. He disarms you with his humor while slyly teaching you lessons with his many fascinating stories. Our friendship evolved out of working together on a number of productions and sharing our experiences running and building our theater companies.
“I have viewed Martin as a mentor since our very first meeting. It was clear from day one that Martin had much to teach me as an artist and as an arts leader. He has seen it all and has hilarious stories to prove it. He is also deeply connected and familiar with the process of making theater.
“He sees and hears the full production play out in his mind before the first rehearsal. At the same time, he leaves room for others to improve on his vision once rehearsals begin, since he’s acutely aware of what brilliant actors and designers bring to the table.”
Are Benson and Nguyen kindred spirits? Hard to say, but Nguyen’s admiration isn’t a one-way street.
Asked if what the two have is a working relationship or a friendship, Benson said, “It’s both. I can rely on him and he knows he can rely on me.”
Nguyen, Benson said, is “really an extraordinary character – his whole history, how he had and his family had to leave a brother behind in Vietnam and how many years passed before the family could go back for him.
“He’s such a wonderful human being, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.