By Pat Launer
A new year gives a brand new chance,
And makes us take a backward glance.
LOOKING BACK ON 2007
It was a difficult year for the city and state, what with finances and fires. And it was a dramatic year onstage, too. Despite the political mayhem in Washington , politics wasn’t foremost on theatermakers’ minds. But drama was. Serious plays and themes outstripped comedies, though musicals are always around (especially in the summer) for leavening. But serious times call for serious themes, like Human Rights (6th @ Penn staged a whole Festival on the subject) as well as family dysfunction, outsider status and the intimate stories that roil as Big Things happen in the background.
It was a very good year for female writers on San Diego stages. We heard from local (or previously local) voices such as Annie Weisman (Lifted) and Marianne McDonald (Greek translations and the autobiographical Last Class), Janet S. Tiger ( Renny’s Story, The End of Death), Kimber Lee (The Adoption Project) and Leslie Ridgeway (Thy Will Be Done). The work of nationally known women was also featured: Eve Ensler (The Treatment), Paula Vogel (The Long Christmas Ride Home), Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) and Amy Freed (Restoration Comedy). And women directors did fine work here, too: from Kirsten Brandt (sadly, no longer a local) to Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Seema Sueko , Kristianne Kurner, Esther Emery and Deborah Gilmour Smyth.
It was a great year for Ensembles, wonderful, cohesive casts that took our collective breath away. Interestingly, this was also the case on Broadway, as Christopher Isherwood wrote recently in the New York Times. An outstanding ensemble is a conflation of strong casting, directing, commitment and congruity, when everything comes together to create a credible time and place, populated by palpable, plausible, three-dimensional people. The casts ranged from two to many, but when the magic happened onstage, it was mesmerizing.
Many new plays premiered in 2007, at UCSD (Baldwin New Play Festival), the Fritz Blitz, Playwrights Project and 6th @ Penn. And classics were revived in profusion, from the Greeks to the Americans, including O’Neill (Desire Under the Elms), Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?), Odets (Waiting for Lefty), Shepard (True West) and Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine). Harvey Fierstein’s work came under both categories — new and classic – in A Catered Affair and Torch Song Trilogy. A new company, San Diego Musical Theatre, reared its head (and bared its bottom) with a terrific premiere production of The Full Monty. Ion theatre built itself yet another new space, the Tenth Avenue Theatre is back in business, and anxious anticipation attends the re-opening of the historic Balboa Theatre this month (see below).
Readings , staged and concert- style, have justifiably grown in popularity recently. They’re a wonderful way to focus on the language and relationships in a play, without distractions. And they invoke our sorely under-stimulated imaginations. Especially strong offerings were provided by the excellent collaboration of Cygnet Theatre Company and Black Ensemble Theatre (five of the ten plays of the late August Wilson, a series to be continued this year), and Carlsbad Playreaders , among many others. Most theaters gave it a whirl, and I was lucky to be an active, onstage participant, at North Coast Repertory Theatre (Broadway Bound) and Diversionary Theatre (Something Cloudy, Something Clear). Periodically venturing onto the other side of the curtain keeps me honest and compassionate. A very promising addition to the local readers’ theater scene is a new company, Write Out Loud, dedicated solely to the reading of short stories, truly ‘theater of the mind.’
Several impressive touring productions came through town (Chicago, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Jersey Boys) and as usual, a handful of San Diego shows made it to Broadway or are on their way (The Farnsworth Invention, A Catered Affair, and maybe The Wiz and Zhivago ).
So, in projects large and small, in theaters intimate and expansive, there was a great deal of diversity and an impressive amount of talent displayed. There wasn’t as much risk-taking or edgy effort expended as in other years (Bring Back the old Fritz Theatre!!), but it was a good year for San Diego . We hope the funding for theater and governmental support of the arts increases dramatically in years to come; a new Administration may tip the balance in our favor. We can only hope.
THE SHOW: Jesus Christ, Superstar – The best line of the evening, by far, was the one I overheard: “Ted Neeley’s been playing Jesus longer than Jesus was alive.” Amen to that, brother. After 35 years (he starred in the 1973 film version of the 1970 rock opera), it’s time to hang up his crown of thorns. This Jesus’ hair is thin and stringy, and he’s balding. He has tricep batwings. His voice breaks in falsetto, and in his chest tones, he has the gritty rasp of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ David Clayton-Thomas. Shouldn’t Jesus have a pure, clear voice? Oh, but that’s only one of the myriad problems of the current touring production. In a word, it’s a mishmash . Director Dallett Norris, a Broadway roadshow veteran, doesn’t seem to know what he wants. He’s got the hippie-dippy moments of the movie (“Hosanna”) and the rock concert moments of the original show. But there’s little of the camp and humor (the Herod number really falls flat – and what’s up with those pink -red Crocs??) and none of the mind-boggling, groundbreaking flamboyance of early productions. There’s plenty of over- miked , over-lit, over-embellished singing, though, most of which obliterates the lyrics and a good deal of the meaning and emotion.
The acting is unconvincing; we really don’t care about any of these characters. Living Color’s Corey Glover hunches over and screams out his songs, all similarly. Judas is supposed to be the one who takes us on his emotional journey. But Glover acts and sounds pretty much the same at the end as he did at the beginning. He’s not charismatic enough to carry the show (and really, it is Judas’ show). Neeley has a few messianic moves and hand positions that he uses to excess, and his constant whispered talk to his private God, along with the stringy hair and drapey clothing, make him look like a homeless person you’d hand a dollar on the street. As Mary Magdalene, Tiffini Dodson has a strong and pleasant voice, and she does a nice but not stellar job on her songs, some of the best in the show (“Everything’s All Right,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”). In the acting department, it’s actually Craig Sculli as Pontius Pilate who seems the most anguished and ambivalent.
The costumes are a hodgepodge – a hippie appearance here, a (lame) Vegas number there, a droopy- drawered , Middle Eastern look over there, and those starched hats and black, seedy-looking Jews hover in the background. The scenic design has more of an erector-set than a rock concert feel, and the curved ‘bridge’ and hanging of Judas feel very much like Javert -time in Les Miz . But it was the crucifixion in real time that really sealed the deal. We heard every moan, groan, wheeze and whine of Jesus on the cross. And then, swaying more than he should in midair, he ascends to heaven, and a large drape comes flying down to obliterate his ascent (the shroud of Turin ? The shmatta from the last show? Who knows?). It was a big disappointment all around. The chorus sounded pretty good, though they looked ridiculously contemporary, even in their pseudo-ancient clothes. The four-piece “Orchestra” leaned heavily on the keyboards, though there were also quieter moments of acoustic guitar. Not much else was quiet here. This is one loud, shouted show, with insufficient variation and modulation. A few years ago (2002), there was a topical, anti-cult, leather-clad TV version that was striking in its experimentation, just as the original show was, in its own way and time. There’s nothing very inventive in this touring production, and nothing new. Just a ragtag grab-bag from productions past.
THE LOCATION: The Civic Theatre, through January 6
I caught a few shows at the end of the year. All are closed now, but they bear mentioning:
THE SHOW: Amahl and the Night Visitors . The Lyric Opera San Diego production of Giancarlo Menotti was pleasant but unremarkable. The staging was quite static; even the townsfolks ’ dance number was less than inspired. Young Spike Somers reprised his performance as the title character, debuted last year with Common Ground Theatre, under the direction of the late Floyd Gaffney. His voice is still high and sweet, but he didn’t seem to bring anything new to his vocal presentation or characterization. I missed seeing Daniel Louis Meyers, who was alternating in the role. Now Meyers is about to open in a dramatically meatier role at the San Diego Rep, in The Blessing of a Broken Heart, a role he assayed last year in a staged reading of the new work. The Kings in Amahl sang well, but displayed very little individuality or personality, and there’s plenty of room for that in the script. The high point of the production, without a doubt, was the velvety voice of Priti Gandhi, who started out at Lyric Opera many years ago. Now an international star, she’s returned ‘home’ once again, to thrill audiences with her rich, robust tones. Sheer delight in her every note.
THE SHOW: Thoroughly Modern Millie . Okay, so it’s the third time in 18 months I’ve seen the Morris- Scanlan-Tesori musical that sprang from the La Jolla Playhouse right onto Broadway in 2000. But there was a specific intention behind my attendance at this one. Nine years ago, I performed in Bye Bye Birdie with (among many other young ‘ uns in Leigh Scarritt’s kid-friendly production) 8 year-old Catie Marron. Then, she was one of the kids crooning ‘We Love You, Conrad.’ Now she’s 17, all grown up, the star of Millie at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. There were many endearing aspects of the production, including the costumes, the dancing and the girls. But Marron stood head and shoulders above the rest. She has developed into a bona fide triple-threat: a terrific dancer (she’s been tapping since early childhood), a natural actor and a superb singer. She’s poised, confident, mature, irresistible . And she also happens to be fourth in her class academically. She’s currently scoping out the best undergraduate musical theater programs, one of which I’m sure she’ll be entering next year. Remember the name… and hope she comes back to grace San Diego stages again. You go, girl!
THE SHOW: Disney High School Musical on Tour. I really wasn’t expecting much, since the recent J*Company production convinced me that this show had nothing whatsoever to do with the current state of the American high school, or the American musical, even if it is a neck-spinning phenomenon. But I was, I grudgingly admit, pleasantly surprised. This high school, squeaky-clean though it may be (no sex, drugs or even much rock ‘n’ roll, not to mention guns, knives or smoking whatever in the bathroom! – barely a kiss between the leads!), it was at least racially/culturally diverse, which makes sense, of course, since the action is set in Albuquerque . The leads (John Jeffrey Martin and Arielle Jacobs) were attractive and talented (she has an especially lovely voice). Former San Diegan Ellen Harvey (daughter of SDSU faculty emeriti Mike and Anne-Charlotte Harvey), who last breezed through town in the Mamma Mia! tour , was funny, if pushing too hard, as the melodramatic drama teacher, Ms. Darbus . Another former local, Chandra Lee Schwartz (who attended San Marcos High), was a hoot as the nasty, scheming villain, drama queen Sharpay . The choreography and dancing were ebullient, and the energy was very high. The orchestra (6 touring, 6 local) sounded great. And the kids in the audience, who were too numerous to mention, were exceedingly well behaved. There wasn’t even any singing along (as there had been in La Jolla ). And shockingly, there was no standing ovation. But the entire venture was well appreciated. It’s little more than a feel-good cash-cow for Disney, but in these disturbingly lemming-like times, it’s nice to get students even thinking about a song that says “Don’t Stick to the Status Quo.”
NEWS AND VIEWS ….
… You can still be there… at the hottest party around! A few Gallery seats are still left (just $25 for excellent seats plus Dessert Reception) for the 11th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence. Monday, January 14 in the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . If you can’t be there, be sure to watch the broadcast on Channel 4 San Diego (Cox and Time Warner) on Saturday, February 2 at 7pm. For tix , call the JCC box office: 858-362-1348.
Eighteen months ago, Todd Salovey, associate artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, adapted an award-winning spiritual memoir, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” by Sherri Mandell . It was his first theater creation. He staged a reading at the Rep which received very favorable responses.
The deeply moving, true story focuses on a Jewish-American woman who, seeking adventure and meaning in her life, moved her family to a settlement on the West Bank in Israel . They had just begun to adapt when disaster struck; her 13 year-old son was slain by a Palestinian terrorist. Although her highly lyrical writing is laced with the most profound grief and sorrow, Mandell’s story is ultimately one of healing, courage, inspiration and affirmation of life.
Now, Salovey has reworked his script and is presenting a workshop production, billed as a world premiere. The marvelous L.A. actor Lisa Robbins, and multi-talented local Daniel Meyers, reprise the roles they played to such aching effect last year. And they’re joined by some other young actors from the J* Company (including Danny Meyers’ talented younger sister, Rebecca), who play Mandell’s other children and additional roles.
Given the state of the world, this is something everyone should see. The Rep has planned a number of community events to ‘enhance your theater experience,’ ranging from a musical tribute to the slain boy, Koby Mandell (1/6), to a presentation by Peter Salovey, dean of Yale College and one of the world’s foremost scholars in the study of human emotion (1/13). On January 15, San Diegan Linda Bennett shares the story of her daughter Marla’s tragic death in a Jerusalem bombing. And on January 19, the book’s author speaks on resilience. The special activities take place after the evening’s performance. For further info, go to sandiegorep.com. The show runs for two weeks only, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre; Jan. 4-20.
… And, in a similar vein…. Onstage Playhouse in Chula Vista is presenting Nancy Gilsenan’s adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1980 film, “Ordinary People” (based on the book by Judith Guest), which starred Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, under the award-winning direction of Robert Redford. The story explores the aftermath of a son’s accidental death and the emotional damage it inflicts on the family. January 11-February 9, www.onstageplayhouse.org .
… For a little comic relief, try The World of Jewtopia , A Night of Comedy in the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson , creators and principal actors of Jewtopia , “the longest-running comedy in Off Broadway history” (hard to believe, but that’s what the press release says!) will be in town for one night only, combining scenes from their show, stand-up comedy, excerpts from their book and more. January 19 only.
… Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World… Scripps Ranch Theatre is presenting a staged reading of Jean Giroudoux’s 1950 comic fable, The Madwoman of Chaillot , with an all-star cast that includes Jill Drexler, Jim Chovick, Charlie Riendeau , Manny Fernandez, Amanda Sitton , Tom Andrew, Wendy Waddell, Sandy Campbell, Allan Salkin and Priscilla Allen. Can’t top that! All this, and thwarting a war-machine, too! January 25-26, on the campus of Alliant University (formerly USIU). www.scrippsranchtheatre.org .
…And speaking of readings, close on the heels of the upcoming full production of August Wilson’s Fences, Cygnet Theatre Company and the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre continue their series of staged readings of Wilson’s influential oeuvre of ten plays that chronicle the African American experience in the 20th century, decade by decade. Jitney is first up, on February 2 and 4, followed by Two Trains Running, King Hedley II and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which, like Fences, they did last year). The full production of Fences, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and starring Antonio “TJ” Johnson and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, runs January 17-February 24. www.cygnettheatre.com
… The Cygnet grows into a swan… Cygnet Theatre has just sealed the deal on a 10-year lease of the Old Town Theatre (vacant for a year, since Miracle Productions moved out). This allows the much-lauded 4 year-old company to spread its wings, adding a second, larger venue, with 250 seats, to their 150-seat homebase in the Rolando area near SDSU. As part of the agreement, Cygnet will provide $370,000 worth of improvements to the structure (including ADA access, a lobby remodel and new sound and lighting equipment), and will also offer daytime historical programming. The plan is to open the new space next fall, and mount ten productions each year, using both spaces. Very exciting New Year news, indeed. It was a long road; congrats to everyone concerned on an excellent decision.
…Rocky Balboa… And on the subject of long roads, it’s been a tortuous journey to the resurrection of the beautiful, historic Balboa Theatre downtown, which opened its doors in 1924. Now, the space is ready for its revival. The inaugural production in the newly restored theater will be Mark Twain Tonight, the solo show that Hal Holbrook has been performing for nearly half a century. January 19.
…Free Dance .. Dance Free !… Butterworth Dance Company is offering a free day of classes (each an hour long) on Saturday, January 5, from 10:00-4:00. Classes range from Beginning Modern to Beginning/Intermediate Ballet, to ‘Tricks and Inversions’ to Intermediate/Advanced Modern with founder/choreographer Traves Butterworth. At Studio BDC at NTC. The 2008 class schedule is available at www.butterdance.org.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
No HOT PICKS yet this year… the season is just starting to simmer and sizzle…
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Ring in the new year with ‘more theater’ on your Resolution List… and be sure to KEEP this one!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.
For more than 20 years, Pat Launer has been the only regular broadcast theater critic in San Diego . An Emmy Award-winner with a Ph.D. in Communication Arts & Sciences, Pat sees and reviews more than 200 local theater productions every year. For the past decade, she has hosted and produced The Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence, a gala community event that honors local theatermakers (“San Diegans making theater for San Diego ”) and celebrates the broad diversity of San Diego theater .