Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1993

1993 — a roller coaster year for San Diego theater. Despite a helluva bumpy ride, everybody hung on and stayed mostly on track, though there were several detours for safe, commercial offerings rather than artistic risks.   Herewith, a few memorable scenes from the theater season:

John Highkin, of the Big Kitchen and the Fern St. Circus, proves true to his name when he shows up on stilts at the City Council hearings to protest severe arts cutbacks from the Transient Occupancy Tax.

Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, looking for all the world (and appearing on TV “to” all the world) like an up-all-night, unshaven techie in a lab coat, accepts the Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre.

In its 48th year, Starlight Musical Theatre, which went back to calling itself the San Diego Civic Light Opera, sticks its neck out again to co-produce a new musical (last year “Annie Warbucks,” this year, “Phantom”) — and gets its head chopped off. Buried in bills, SDCLO cancels its fall-winter indoor season.

San Diego goes bicoastal.   Following the La Jolla Playhouse’s smash-hit, “Tommy”, two more San Diego productions wend their way to Broadway, both from the Old Globe:    “Redwood Curtain” (highly under-appreciated on the Great White Way), and “Damn Yankees” (yet to be determined; tune in same time, next year).

The changing of the guard at the Union Tribune: Michael Phillips steps up to the number one theater-critic slot and, after 27 years, Welton Jones steps aside, to become Critic-at-Large.   With last year’s loss of the Tribune and the L.A. Times, San Diego has fewer people writing about theater than ever.

Fundraising bigwigs pitch for local theaters. Whoopi Goldberg comes back to the San Diego Rep, Pete Townsend does a benefit concert for the La Jolla Playhouse, and Moonlight Amphitheatre brings back its darling boy, Eric Kunze, who went from Vista to greener (Big Apple) pastures: in “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon”.

The plucky, highly professional Blackfriars Theatre Company gets summarily booted out of its storefront theatre space at the Bristol Court Hotel .   Undaunted, the company makes a landmark visit to the Soviet Union with its powerful production of “Abundance”, and bounces back to use the Gaslamp’s Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre. (No regular season this year from the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company; everyone’s loss).   Big Bronx cheer to the new owners of the Bristol Court …. And boo to the Salvation Army, too, for taking over the space long occupied by the nationally revered Sushi Performance and Visual Arts.    But Sushi forges on (in various locales) and announces its 14th season.

Old Faces, New Spaces: Upward mobility (new venues) for Lamb’s Players Theatre, Diversionary Theatre and the Fritz Theater .   Bon chance!

Nothing succeeds like prior success. Encore productions around town this year: Diversionary’s “Ten Percent Revue”, Sweetooth Comedy Theatre’s “A Piece of My Heart” (which was invited to Washington D.C. for the Veteran’s Day dedication of the Women’s Memorial), “Beehive” at the Theatre in Old Town , “Always… Patsy Cline” at the San Diego Rep, and the Lamb’s Players’ ever-popular “Joseph… and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.

Notes from the Fringe: UCSD students and alums step out in profusion this year, with exciting, site-specific productions from Theatre E (“Carthage/Fire” by high-profile local playwright Naomi Iizuka) and Undergraund! Inc. (a new translation of “The Bacchae”).   Talented young Matt Wilder directs both at Sledgehammer (“The War to End War”) and the La Jolla Playhouse “The Hairy Ape”)! And Sledgehammer’s Scott Feldsher is honored as a Directors Fellow by the Theatre Communications Group/National Endowment for the Arts.   

Those were the scenes; there were also some unforgettable acts.    Of the 90 productions I attended from January through October, here’s my top 20 (in no particular order):

“Redwood Curtain” and Hal Holbrook in “King Lear” at the Old Globe

“Twilight of the Golds” at Poway Center for the Performing Arts

“The Dybbuk”, “Death and the Maiden” and “Bessie’s Blues” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre

“Children of Paradise ”, “The Hairy Ape” and Culture Clash in “The Mission ” at the La Jolla Playhouse

“Sight Unseen”, part of the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre’s Festival of New Jewish Plays Blackfriars Theatre’s “The Unseen Hand”

“The Woods” at the Fritz Theater

“1776” at Moonlight Amphitheatre

“Boomers” at Lamb’s Players Theatre

“Personals” at The Theatre in Old Town

Starlight’s “ Oklahoma ”

“Noises Off” and “The 15 Minute Hamlet” at North Coast Repertory Theatre

Theatre E’s “Carthage/Fire”

The first two-thirds of Undergraund! Inc.’s “The Bacchae”, the last third of Sledgehammer’s “War to End War”, and the second half of The Fritz’s “Love Stinks” (by local playwright-to-be-watched, Karin Williams)

Since this column went to press in October, some eventful events may be missing.   The theater season ain’t over till the final Scrooge sees his final ghost.

©1993 Patté Productions Inc.