Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
Theater Year in Review
By Pat Launer , SDNN
December 30, 2009
There aren’t too many areas that showed a bump in the decidedly downtrodden 2009. But theater in San Diego was alive and well and thriving. Everyone was feeling the pinch, of course. Corporate donations were down for all non-profits, but there were some fabulous productions and performances, and there was also some serious personal giving.
NEW PLACES, NEW SPACES
The biggest donations went to the Globe, which unveiled its stunning, $22 million renovation and brand spanking new arena stage and education center. There’s a name on practically every square foot of the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center that includes the Karen and Donald Cohn Educational Center Education Center and the gorgeous, state-of-the-art Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (look beneath your feet; there are donor names everywhere). But these generous San Diegans deserve to be recognized for their largesse – especially in such tough times.
Cygnet Theatre began producing exclusively in its wonderfully restored new Old Town Theatre. Mid-year, the company announced the decision to move on from its Rolando space, which is being taken over by Moxie Theatre, after five peripatetic years, finally settling into its own home. Moxie started off the year with a bang, in residency at the La Jolla Playhouse, a wonderful and welcoming program that began last year, to house upcoming theater companies. Lamb’s Players Theatre began regular productions in its new space (in addition to its Coronado home), downtown at the Horton Grand Theatre. “Boomers” had a long and successful run, followed by “ Godspell .” And Lamb’s will be bringing the glorious “Joyful Noise” (already a reprise production, having premiered at the theater ten years ago) back for a brief run in January. Late in 2009, Dale Morris announced that he’s leaving his 9-year tenure as producer at Compass Theatre (formerly 6th at Penn). ion theatre will be taking over that space, and will hopefully still make it available to other homeless companies; the tiny 49-seat venue has been a welcome home to many small, experimental, gutsy and in some cases, excellent pieces of work.
There was no dearth of new plays on local stages, of the large and small variety. The Old Globe premiered two huge new musicals: “The First Wives Club” and “Sammy.” Both were clearly in the early stages of development, and need considerable re-thinking before they move on. But they very likely will move on. The Globe also did something new and youth-oriented, hip — and hip hop: it commissioned and premiered “Kingdom,” first at Lincoln High School and then at its home base. That energizing new outreach program will be repeated in 2010 with “Street Lights,” coming in February. The La Jolla Playhouse had a banner year, beginning with an exciting Page to Stage production of “Peter and the Starcatchers ” (which had, perhaps, the most wildly inventive first act of any show in 2009). The Playhouse commissioned a gorgeous new adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” premiered a promising new musical, “Bonnie and Clyde,” and opened yet another show on Broadway — “Memphis,” the R&B/Rock ‘n’ roll musical that got its start in La Jolla in 2008, under the direction of Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley. Look for more Broadway openings from among these local premieres.
There were provocative new works at the Playwrights Project’s annual presentation of Plays by Young Writers, winners of their statewide competition, and at UC San Diego’s always inspiring Baldwin New Play Festival. Vox Nova continued its premieres by local writers. The La Jolla Playhouse teamed up with the SDSU School of Theatre, Television and Film and L.A. ’s Autry Museum for the first local Native American Festival of New Plays, helmed by Randy Reinholz (Choctaw), Director of SDSU’s Theatre/TV/Film School and producing artistic director of Native Voices at the Autry. The Festival was preceded by an eight-day Playwrights Retreat that paired Native playwrights with professional directors, dramaturges, actors and designers. The experimental program, which brought in Native theater-folk from around the country, seemed to be successful, and should be repeated next year, preferably tapping into more local Native voices.
READINGS , READINGS EVERYWHERE
Readings proliferated on San Diego stages in 2009. There was barely a Monday evening without several readings, presented at just about every theater in town. These are, admittedly, inexpensive to produce and quick to put together, but they’re enormously satisfying experiences that allow for the best of our performers to appear in some of the most electrifying works of theater, given minimal rehearsal time, no props or scenery, and typically, minimal costuming. There were new works (the San Diego Playwrights Collective, co-founded by Tim West , Jason Connors and Carmen Beaubeaux, premiered this year) and old (the newly-launched Intrepid Shakespeare Company began a compelling series of free readings of the Bard, reduced, entitled “Free Will”). Some of the most memorable readings of the year were Cygnet’s terrific “Assassins” (the Sondheim musical), “My Name is Asher Lev” (an adaptation of the best-selling Chaim Potok novel) at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Write Out Loud’s “Mary and Myra” about Lincoln’s wife) and Moonlight Foundation’s presentation of Edward Albee’s “Seascape,” which featured an especially delectable performance by Joshua Everett Johnson , one of our most talented young actors. Josh has gone off to make his way in New York ; he promises that he will be back at New Village Arts next year, at least for a couple of shows. It would be great if larger audiences could get to see these plays as full productions in the near future.
YOUTH ON PARADE
2009 was a particularly strong year for young performers and youth theaters. San Diego Junior Theatre did a magnificent job with “Les Misérables ,” and the J* Company created an eye-popping production of “The King and I,” with a stellar performance by Danny Myers as The King. Satya Chavez was a standout as Bloody Mary in the J*Company’s “South Pacific.” Young performers were outstanding in adult shows as well: Ian Brininstool and Thor Sigurdsson in North Coast Rep’s “Over the Tavern”; Lucia Vecchio in Lamb’s Players’ latest Festival of Christmas play, “Christmas Stars.”
A PROLIFIC YEAR
Although the economy weighed heavily on everyone’s mind in 2009, it wasn’t evident in the array, flair or ebullience of local theater productions. There were more plays overall; even though some theaters cut back the number of performances or, in some cases, the number of productions, there was more to see all around. I broke all my own personal theatergoing records, attending 245 productions over the course of the year. One way that some companies curtailed expenses was with smaller-cast shows. Others reprised prior productions that had proved popular and were already cast and designed. So we saw repeat (command?) performances of Cygnet’s “Bed and Sofa,” “Fully Committed” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”; Moxie’s “Dog Act”; “Don’t Dress for Dinner” at North Coast Rep; and “The Hit” at Lamb’s Players Theatre. Even “Wicked” and “The Lion King” made return visits, but Broadway San Diego knows that audiences will always flock to a blockbuster. Those were, admittedly, excellent productions, as was the wacky “Monty Python’s Spamalot .” And the year ended with a number of popular holiday perennials: “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (12th year at the Old Globe), “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” (4th year for Cygnet) and “A Christmas Carol” (3rd time at North Coast Rep). New Village Arts’ “ Santaland Diaries” was a huge success for the North County company; it should become an annual tradition.
There seemed to be a surfeit of deep and disturbing dramas this year, perhaps another reflection of the mood of the country; or perhaps it was just coincidence. But we got to see the darkest, most unsavory underbelly of society in first-rate productions such as Compass Theatre’s “Killer Joe” ( slimebucket trailer trash, created by Pulitzer and Tony-winner Tracy Letts) and “American Buffalo” (foul-mouthed thugs à la David Mamet); food obsession and pedophilia in “The Sugar Syndrome” (Moxie), pedophilia and murder in “The Glory of Living” ( InnerMission Productions); and gritty, inner city endurance (“ Topdog /Underdog” at UC San Diego). There were thought-provoking plays such as “Doubt” (San Diego Rep, which also revived “The Threepenny Opera” to excellent effect), “Six Degrees of Separation” (a jaw-dropping production at the Globe), “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (an invigorating new adaptation of Raymond Carver stories, by Fred Moramarco, under the banner of his Laterthanever Productions); “Red Light Winter,” Triad Productions’ highly dysfunctional love triangle; and, on death, dying and survival, “The Shadow Box” at Scripps Ranch Theatre, “Rabbit Hole” at North Coast Rep, Mo’olelo’s “Nine Parts of Desire,” about women in war-torn Iraq; and ion theatre’s darkly semi-comical “Cripple of Inishmaan ,” as well as ion’s collaboration with Diversionary Theatre on “ Ben t” (where the action takes place in a Nazi concentration camp). Stepping outside San Diego , I saw two superb, unforgettable dramas in L.A. that must be mentioned – and should come here as soon as possible: Center Theatre Group’s brand new “ Ben gal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo” and the gut-wrenching, fact-based, 1998 historical musical, “Parade.”
A BIT OF FLUFF
There was plenty of sheer escapist fare, for those who prefer to get away from heavy thoughts and distressing news during their time in a theater. For just plain fun, there was: “ 42nd Street ,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “The Foreigner” at Moonlight Stage Productions; “The Musical of Musicals, The Musical” at SDSU; an independent production of “ Zanna , Don’t! (Ariel Performing Arts); “The Little Dog Laughed” and “Twist” at Diversionary; “Four Dogs and a Bone,” “Be Aggressive” and “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at New Village Arts; “Over the Tavern” and “Shipwrecked” at North Coast Repertory Theatre; and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ” at the Welk Theatre.
All the shows and performances I mentioned I really liked. For my final Best of the Year choices, you’ll have to wait for the results of The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence, coming to the Westin Gaslamp Quarter on January 18. You can be there to share in the festivities, and get first crack at the winners; tickets are at www.thepattefoundation.org .
Now, have yourself a merry little New Year… and make sure to include lots of theater! San Diego is nationally renowned as a ‘theater town’ – only too many San Diegans don’t know it. Spread the word – and the theater joy!
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” – heart-rending, heartbreaking and full of heart (and music!)
Cygnet Theatre, extended through 12/31
Read Review at: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-12-16/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/i-do-i-do-santaland-diaries-christmas-carol-its-a-wonderful-life-theater-reviews-news
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.