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Downtown's Broadway Meets Paris In Theatrical Runway Production

By David Markland
Published: Thursday, October 14, 2010, at 02:35PM
Donna Rayford of A Night in Paris David Markland

It’s not your basic Nora Ephron boy-meets-girl story. When Donna Rayford married former UCLA football star, Michael Durden, the couple planned a honeymoon in Paris. That dream was cut short when Durden passed away only five months after the wedding.

That, along with an abusive past relationship, inspired Rayford to create “A Night In Paris,” a theatrical runway show being held Saturday night at the Million Dollar Theatre. A portion of the proceeds benefitting Safe Passage, a non-profit that provides support and services to women and children who have been victims of domestic violence.

Rayford says the different elements of the show brings her life full circle. She was a dance theatre director while attending Millersville University, and a fashion buyer for East Coast based Bon-Ton department stores.

To evoke the Parisian theme of the show, Rayford—the producer, director, and star of the show—is draping the lobby of the Million Dollar Theatre with lights, and filling the theatre with the smells of European foods. A twenty foot tall Eiffel Tower made of balloons will tower over guests as they enter the building.

On stage, more than two dozen professional models will perform, dancing and posing against a theatrical set with scenes set in Paris, all to showcase designs from designers including Chan Gaines, London’s Roy Smoothe, and Remy Hou.

The seeds of the project came to her in her sleep. She says she’d wake up and write down her dreams, which would eventually become the vignettes in the show. When she looked over some of her dreams, she saw there was a timeline to them, and a project came to shape. Last April she began casting models and designers, and bringing in a team of experts from the fashion and acting worlds.

Bobbie Bell, a runway coach, says she’s trained models who have gone on to win “Americas Top Model,” work on “Deal Or No Deal,” and a coveted spot on “Price Is Right.” Bell collaborated with Rayford in creating certain scenes. Ontwanet Moran, Alana Smith, and Lauren Venise with Onlave Signature Productions are providing their expertise in choreography and theatre to the show as well.

For an elegant formal scene she looked to Dion Julian, who made his mark in the fashion world designing

numerous members of the first and second '92 and '93 Olympic Dream Teams, including Scotty Pippen, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, assistant coach George Raveling and several others, and for the cover of the February '93 cover of GQ Magazine he designed a suit for Magic Johnson. He’ll debut a line of velvet smoking jackets on stage at “A Night In Paris.”

The jackets, “are my way of bringing swagger to the show.” Charlie Sheen is a fan, having ordered a smoking jacket and 32 sets of pajamas from him, according to Julian.

Additional striking designs being debuted include high couture gowns made of leather, vinyl, and fur by Delisé Ana, and a corset and dresses made of balloons from Katie Brian and Addi.

Kiko Ellsworth, the show’s co-executive producer, toplines the cast with credits including “Dexter,” “Heroes,” “General Hospital,” and “Bad Boys 2.” Some of the models she cast are Lauren LaGrone, Sabrina Aryadad, and Gregg Jacobson.

French supermodel and actor Eebra Tooré was in Los Angeles for another project and preparing to leave when he heard that about the show and its focus on his home. He submitted his headshot to Rayford, who hired him on the spot.

Tooré is often recognized on the streets of Paris from his modeling work and a stint on the French version of reality show “Temptation Island.” On stage, Tooré is stoic and intimidating, perhaps evoking Marlon Brando, his favorite actor. He says, “I recognized myself in him after reading his autobiography, ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me.’”

Rounding out the show’s cast of 40 are eight ballerinas from the Blankenship Ballet Company, based out of the nearby Alexandria Hotel. Founder Mark Blankenship says he’s excited his troupe will be “part of a really remarkable tapestry that’s being put together.”

When the lights dim, the on stage production of “A Night In Paris” will be bookended by scenes from “Fashion Haus,” a “dramedy” that will be projected on a screen over the stage. The video tells the story of two designers, played by Rayford and Ellsworth, competing to do a show for a Coco Chanel like character.

The results of their competition will then be performed on stage by the models, who will dance to choreographed scenes reminiscent of “Moulin Rouge” and “Cinderella,” all recreated with a little theatrical magic at the Million Dollar Theatre.

Rayford decided on the Broadway location after looking at about twenty other Los Angeles theatres. “It’s hard to find a theatre of this scale with as much backstage area,” she says, pointing out that the dressing rooms and other areas behind the curtains could accommodate between 85-100 people.

The venue also had a budget friendly bonus: a pre-existing set built for “Luisa Fernanda: A Spanish Musical,” staged at the Million Dollar earlier in the year. While designed to replicate old Spain, the set’s grand wooden doorways and faux marble stairs seem at place in any European setting, and perfect for model entrances and posing.

More importantly, she says the Million Dollar Theatre matched her vision of a venue that “could match Paris in history and architecture.”

To designer Dion Julian, “A Night In Paris” is a perfect complement to Fashion Week.

“Most (fashion) shows don’t have a lot of entertainment value,” adding that the combination of fashion and theatre “could be the shot of adrenaline Downtown needs.”

“A Night In Paris” / Sat Oct 16th / VIP reception: 6pm; Show: 7pm / Million Dollar Theatre, 307 S. Broadway / tickets: $10-$150 / crownjewelstudios.com

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