By Pat Launer
2006 was a political year, a year marked by peaks and valleys, comings and goings, stasis and change. And so it was in the local theater scene.
Politics reared its head onstage in pieces old and new. Some plays commented directly on current governmental shenanigans — such as the comical, traveling Son of a Bush, brought to us by Miracle Theatre Productions; or Todd Blakesley’s earnest, angrily motivated but eminently fair A Patriot Act: The Trial of George W. Bush, produced by Sledgehammer Theatre. Some stellar revivals had enormous topical relevance, from the war-torn Ajax to the religious fanaticism of The Bacchae (both at 6th @ Penn); from Darko Tresnjak’s gloriously (and humorously) gory Titus Andronicus at the Old Globe to the searing Mother Courage (La Jolla Playhouse), with its focus on war profiteering and postwar survival. Then there was UCSD’s provocative Molière, a Cabal of Hypocrites (stunningly directed by Barbara Berlovitz, co-founder of the brilliant Théâtre de la Jeune Lune); Cygnet’s Atwater Fixin’ to Die, about the reprehensible mentor of Karl Rove; Sledgehammer’s Chiang Kai Shek, about power gone mad; and the craziness of the Capital in the Globe’s Lincolnesque.
There was drama onstage and off – some thrilling entrances, but too many regrettable exits. We lost three wonderful theater supporters last year: beloved actor/write Kurt Reichert; philanthropist Judith Munk, who hosted so many excellent theatrical endeavors in her beautiful Folly Garden in La Jolla; and John Guth, long-time, lovable North Coast Rep actor/singer/ideaman for whom I named a new Patté Award – the John Guth Award for Behind-the-Scenes Brilliance (check back next week for the winner, after the Patté Awards event of Jan. 8; watch the whole show on KPBS-TV at 4pm on January 14. And look for the webcast soon afterward on my website: www.patteproductions.com . If you want to catch the live simulcast, go to http://kpbs.org/patte.asx at 8pm on Monday night).
In 2006, two-time Tony winner Des McAnuff announced that he’d be leaving the La Jolla Playhouse to return to his roots in Canada ; he’ll be part of a trio of artistic directors at the prestigious Stratford Festival in Canada , not far from Toronto , where he began his career as a rocker/composer/lyricist. But he won’t leave before mounting The Farnsworth Invention, his last contribution to the successful Page to Stage program he initiated in 2001. And just as his contract at LJP expires in April, he’ll be directing his first opera, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, at the San Diego Opera. McAnuff’s triumphant Jersey Boys is still knocking ‘em dead on Broadway, and a national tour is about to begin. In both his tenures at the Playhouse, Des certainly helped to bring national attention to San Diego as a springboard for noteworthy projects and productions.
But perhaps no profile was higher last year than the Old Globe’s Jack O’Brien. He continued to make a Big Impressive Name for himself in New York – with multiple awe-inspiring projects, most deliciously, the heady Tom Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Centre, which has been getting incredible reviews. Ben Brantley, of The New York Times, named the “ravishing” Part I, Voyage, one of the top ten productions of the year. Meanwhile, Jack served as advisor for his Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Musical, which made an enormous splash on Broadway, despite mixed reviews. For several weeks, it was the top-grossing show on the Great White Way . Our hearts are with Jack and his many successes, but we sure miss him here at home.
Our other big local losses were of the structural sort; theater spaces dropped like flies in ’06. After 15 years of profitable, audience-friendly programming, Miracle Theatre Productions had to move out of the Theatre in Old Town , forced out by the draconian demands of the State of California . The financially and artistically outrageous requirements of the State made the space unattainable and undesirable for any local theater company – and many were interested. A real tragedy.
In the middle of 2006, the theatrical house of cards began to fall. Calvin Manson and his Ira Aldridge Repertory Players lost the cozy North Park space they’d created. And the year ended on a really sour note, when the City, citing codes that had previously been acceptably met, booted out the two flowering downtown theaters that had become home to many peripatetic companies: ion’s New World Stage on 9th Avenue and the 10th Avenue Theatre, lovingly restored by Evoke Dance Theatre and the new base for Sledgehammer Theatre. Now, add all these groups to the ever-expanding list of homeless theaters: Sushi, Moxie, Mo’olelo, Stone Soup, Asian American Repertory Theatre, Black Ensemble Theatre and the Fritz. The City and State were supremely arts-unfriendly last year, despite words to the contrary spouted by the Mayor at the annual, end-of-year meeting of the Performing Arts League. The League, however, ended the year on a high-note, introducing its energetic new executive director, Jacqueline Siegel.
Another breath of warm, fresh air was the new space acquired by New Village Arts in the City of Carlsbad . But regs and codes have also delayed their opening, and they’re back at Jazzercise to open their next two shows.
Surely, it wasn’t all bad news. There was a slew of magnificent productions and a host of evocative readings – most prominently, the collaboration of Black Ensemble Theatre and Cygnet Theatre for the August Wilson Plays. The first series of five has been so well received that the next five are being planned, and a Festival featuring the master’s full, 10-play, century-spanning cycle, is under discussion. Vox Nova launched auspiciously with readings of new work by Mac Wellman and founder Ruff Yeager, with a premiere by Susan Yankowitz (directed by Kirsten Brandt) to come. Despite the departure of Walt Jones and Amy Scholl, Carlsbad Playreaders continued its strong series of readings, and many other theaters got into the ‘readings’ act.
A few new theater companies popped up last year, among them, Amy Biedel’s Tonic Productions and Matt Thompson and Lance Smith’s Plutonium Theatre. New plays fared very well last year, with scads of venues: from the Playwrights Project to UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival to the Fritz Blitz and the Actors Festival.
We were treated to some terrific touring productions, courtesy of Broadway San Diego: Wicked, Doubt (with the formidable Cherry Jones), The Lion King, Movin’ Out and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Our two most highly anticipated local productions proved to be the biggest disappointments, over-hyped and underwhelming: The Wiz at the La Jolla Playhouse and Twyla Tharp’s The Times They are a-Changin’ at the Globe, which opened and closed in rapid succession on Broadway.
So, in sum, definitely a year of highs and lows, of excellent productions and performances (more on that next week), but also some unfortunate letdowns. As always, the theater ever-resilient community will weather the storm. But it sure would be nice to have unequivocal community support, so theater directors and producers could focus less attention on survival and more on Doing the Good Work.
Here’s to a great theater, and more arts-friendly times ahead in ’07!
NEWS AND VIEWS
…Further Comings and Goings: Michael Anthony, the talented, high-spirited artistic director of San Diego Junior Theatre, resigned at the end of the year, for ‘personal reasons.’ Desha Crownover, an alumna of both UCSD (bachelor’s degree) and SDSU (master’s in acting), who’s been at JT for a decade, takes over as full-time General Manager, just in time to celebrate JT’s 60th season. We wish Michael all the best of everything; he’ll be much missed.
On the up- side, Dea Hurston was recently made a Commissioner for Arts and Culture. She and husband Osborne have been long-time cheerleaders and supporters of San Diego Theatre.
… Bad news, good news: The folks at New Village Arts are understandably disappointed about the delay of their new space, which means that Crimes of the Heart is pushed back to Feb. 10 (previews 2/8 and 9) and Three Sisters opens on Feb. 16 (preview 2/16), both at Jazzercise in Carlsbad. The exciting play-pairing runs in repertory through March 18. And, on the plus side of the ledger, the company is thrilled to announce the first NVA Ensemble, an A-list of San Diego actors: Amanda Morrow, Amanda Sitton, Dana Case, Daren Scott, Fran Gercke, Jack Missett, Jessica John, Joshua Everett Johnson, Kristianne Kurner, Manny Fernandes, Ron Choularton, Sandra Ellis-Troy, Tom Zohar and Wendy Waddell. Powerhouse potential!
… Moving Sale : Miracle Theatre Productions is heading out of the Theatre in Old Town (see the sordid details, above). And they’re selling off their costumes, scenery, props, set pieces, theatrical equipment, furniture, computers, show memorabilia, office supplies and more. Jan. 11 and 12, 12-5pm and Jan. 13, 9-5 pm. At the Theater, 4040 Twiggs St . For further info, call Paula at 619-688-2491 X 105.
… Looking for Homeless Theatre Company! The FunHouse, a cute little space near SDSU and Cygnet Theatre, is up for sale. It has built-in seats for 30 and additional space for 16 folding chairs. The theater boasts free parking, easy freeway access, computerized stage lighting, AC and affordability. See photos and info at improventures.com/resources/funhouse/for-sale.htm.
… Arts Plan… Join with arts educators and leaders for AERO San Diego , the Arts Education Roundtable of San Diego. Help to define the direction of quality arts education in our community. Wed. Jan. 10, 10 am- 12 noon at the San Diego County Office of Education, 6401 Linda Vista Road , SD92111, in the Joe Rindone Regional Technology Center . Everyone is invited. RSVP to Jennifer Oliver: Jennifer@yasandiego.org .
…More on education: With nearly 4000 affiliated schools, the Educational Theatre Association is the country’s largest organization for theater educators. Touting the enormous effect theater can have on students’ lives, interactions, self-esteem and problem-solving abilities, they recently announced the most-performed musicals of the 2005-2006 school year: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; Grease; Once Upon a Mattress; Anything Goes; Seussical, the Musical; Little Shop of Horrors; Into the Woods; The Music Man; Oklahoma!; Fiddler on the Roof; Footloose; and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Not many surprises, but there’s some great music in there.
.. And even more on youth theater : The California Youth Conservatory, headed by actor/singer/artistic director Shaun Evans, has a new identity. They’re now the California Young Actors Conservatory, which will include a new Board of Directors, a new corporation and 501(c )3 status. Their latest production, The Secret Garden, continues this weekend in the Lyceum Space.
… And on the other end of the age spectrum: CAST, San Diego ’s only Senior theater, specializes in musicals like the long-running Palm Springs Follies. The group has performed twice at the National Senior Drama Festival and recently brought down the house at the national conference, with its Broadway Cabaret. That show will be presented on Jan. 13 at 2pm in the Saville Auditorium on the campus of San Diego City College (15th and C St. ; parking available adjacent to the theater).Info at: 858-467-9516.
… A dynamic duo of triple threats: Identical twins Shelly Hart Breneman and Shauna Hart Ostrom are back with their cabaret of songs, dances and stories, Our Story Our Songs, under the banner of Gemini Productions. The sibs have performed together since childhood; they were wonderful in Premiere Productions’ Side Show last year and they’ll reprise one of that show’s heartrending numbers, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” Both received degrees in music/performance. In their offstage life, Shelly is a teaching artist for the La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego Opera. Shauna is Communications Director for the Actors Alliance. They’ll appear onstage for one weekend only, Jan. 19-21, at the Broadway Theatre in Vista (340 E. Broadway). 760-806-7905
… News from 6th @ Penn: The Eight Reindeer Monologues by Jeff Goode was the most successful ‘off-night’ show in the past five years. The theater will bring the dark comedy back for a holiday return in 2007.Another successful 6th @ Penn production, which premiered in 2003, was Trolls. Artistic director Dale Morris has asked the composer Dick DeBenedictis to re-fashion the show with a Christmas theme. It’ll be-titled All This and Heaven, Too, and will premiere here next winter. This weekend, 6th @ Penn brings back Slut (Jan. 4-21), which had an off-night run early this season. As the title suggests, it sports ‘mature’ themes. At the same time, the first Challenge Theatre runs off-nights (Sun.-Wed., Jan. 7-24) at 6th . The mini-festival, helmed by artistic director Michael Thomas Tower , is called War of Quiet Flowers, featuring plays by Jim Caputo, Jason Connors, George Soete and Matt Thompson, as well as the poetry of Carrie Preston. Should be something to see!
.. Speaking of something to see, you won’t want to miss the staged reading of A Little Night Music, a benefit for Cygnet Theatre. Their prior benefit readings have been superb: My Fair Lady and Assassins. Killer cast in this one, too, including Tom Andrew, Amy Biedel, Sandy Campbell, Melissa Fernandes, Melinda Gilb, Susan Hammond, Walter Mayes, Sean Murray, John Nettles, Jeanne Reith and more. The musical is Sondheim’s wry, witty look at love, loss, age and social position. And it features the brilliant composer’s most famous song: “Send in the Clowns.” Two nights only – Jan. 22 and 23 — with pre-and post-performance receptions. Tix at www.cygnettheatre.com or 619-337-1525, ext. 3#.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Look for the List next week; the theater season is heating up… big time!
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Start working on what was undoubtedly one of your New Year’s resolutions – seeing more theater, of course!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.