Bryan Banville and Katie Banville in "Miracle on 34th Street." Photo courtesy of San Diego Musical Theatre
At the Horton Grand Theatre downtown, San Diego Musical Theatre is staging Miracle on 34th Street, a “Live Musical Radio Play” that has become a yuletide tradition for the company. This year boasts an almost entirely new cast – the versatile Steven Freitas, who sometimes plays two characters at the same time, is the one returnee from 2017. Among the fresh faces to the show are Bryan and Katie Banville, as well as young Isabella Pruter, who dazzled earlier this year in the San Diego Rep’s musical Fun Home. Ralph Johnson takes over the role of Kris Kringle. Miracle is a sentimental, Santa-centric affair that doubles as free advertising for Macy’s. Given the declining state of brick-and-mortar department stores, the pub can’t hurt, especially at this time of year.
Miracle on 34th Street runs through Dec. 23.
There’s nothing particularly novel about telling a story in reverse chronological order. Harold Pinter did it (Betrayal). “Seinfeld” did it (“The Betrayal” episode). That playwright Lindsey Ferrentino (Ugly Lies the Bone) does it in her new play The Year to Come should not be the attraction of this world-premiere at La Jolla Playhouse. What should be is how Ferrentino paints a portrait of a family that’s fractured by its differences yet somehow still faithful enough to each other to gather every New Year’s Eve.
The Year to Come, directed by Anne Kauffman, is not as funny as it tries to be in some places (mostly in Act One), nor as moving as it hopes to be in others (mostly in Act Two). Yet it’s strangely absorbing to watch its characters move uneasily back in time (the play starts in 2018 and returns, scene by scene, all the way to 2000), accruing all the scars and life lessons that will explain their dysfunction at the play’s outset. Everyone’s got issues, some obvious from early in The Year to Come, others revealed in the past, even well in the past. Ferrentino has crafted that fate-filled past to explain who these people will become: an argument-prone family that reunites on the last day of each year on Frank’s (Jonathan Nichols) and Estelle’s (Jane Kaczmarek) well-appointed Florida patio, complete with pool (yes, there’s one on stage).
Some of the interpersonal conflicts seem easy and contrived: Frank’s a macho right-winger of Cuban heritage; Estelle is Jewish; son Jim (Adam Chanler-Berat) is gay, and his lover-then-husband Sinan (Pomme Koch) is a Muslim; Aunt Pam (Marcia DeBonis) has ovarian cancer; she’s married to an African-American ex-standup comic (Ray Anthony Thomas). Etcetera etcetera. But again, when the years roll back, the tensions and miscommunications residing in them provide perspective. If only it was that easy for the rest of us.
The Year to Come features some exceptional performances. In addition to Kaczmarek’s loving and vulnerable Estelle, Peter Van Wagner as family patriarch Pop-Pop basks in two audience-pleasing sequences – the first in a monologue urging his brood to quit complaining and enjoy life; and the second when he plays guitar and rocks out to “Viva Las Vegas.”
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/12/18.)
At the close of a year in which Coronado’s Lamb’s Players Theatre distinguished itself with a long-running, unforgettable production of the musical “Once,” it’s appropriate that its annual Festival of Christmas offering is a product of strong musicianship.
In fact, four cast members from “Once” return to both act and play music in the 2018 festival’s original show “Reaching for the Stars,” written and directed by Kerry Meads: Caitie Grady, Manny Fernandes, Jimmy Marino and Angela Chatelain Avila. They’re complemented by an assemblage of some of San Diego’s finest theater vocalists, including Sandy Campbell, Joy Yandell Hricko and Cashae Monya. The all-star collaboration results in a holiday treat that the entire family can enjoy.
The setting for “Reaching for the Stars” is a recording studio located in a “Commuter Friendly Neighborhood” – in other words, directly beneath the deafening roar of passing trains. (The sound effect is called upon almost to excess.) This plot device guarantees some instant sympathy for good-guy partners Niko Penney (Michael Oakley) and Christian Lane (Luke Harvey Jacobs) who own and operate the struggling studio. More pragmatically, the studio setting affords the show’s intertwined characters reason and opportunity to break into music-making and song. Jon Lorenz, at Lamb’s for 16 years, is musical director, and in the parlance of recording studios, he pushes all the right buttons.
On the narrative front, “Reaching for the Stars” is fairly bursting with plot complications beyond Niko’s and Christian’s financial plight: Faith (Grady, who also plays exquisite keyboards) is missing her husband, who’s serving in Afghanistan, at the holidays; ebullient nighttime DJ Patrice (Monya) is losing her nighttime radio gig; single mom Melody (Yandell Hricko) has the holiday blues in a big way; Christian’s sister Grace (Sarah Busic) has set up their widowed dad Matt (Fernandes), quite unbeknown to him, on a blind date with an internet match (Campbell). Hovering over everything and seemingly everyone is old Van (Jim Chovick, a familiar face in Lamb’s productions) -- philosopher of the neighborhood, friend to all and smiling purveyor of unsolicited aphorisms like “Too bad there’s not a GPS for life.”
But “Reaching for the Stars” is really about the live music, which includes inspired takes on traditional carols (employing in the process everything from bossa nova to spoken-word flavoring) and heartfelt performances of numbers like Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith’s “Maybe This Christmas” and cast member Jimmy Marino’s own “(Nothing Like Spending) Christmas With You.” The ensemble, meanwhile, delivers a rousing rendition of the spiritual “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and turns the frequently solemn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” into a celebratory jam session.
There’s also the sheer perfection of Sandy Campbell singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” a cappella. That alone is guaranteed to give you a lump in your throat and a warm feeling deep inside.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 12/10/18.)
Sofia Jean Gomez stars in "A Doll's House, Part 2." Photograph by Jim Carmody
From the instant that Sofia Jean Gomez appears, transported as if from the canvas of some magnificent painting to the stage, the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 bursts into life. Commanding and charismatic, Gomez is perfect as Nora Helmer, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece who exited that play empowered and who returns twice as empowered in Lucas Hnath’s 2017 sequel. Even with a more than capable supporting cast of Rene Thornton Jr. (as Nora’s spurned husband, Torvald), Linda Libby (as the Helmers’ faithful nanny, Anne Marie), and Danny Brown (as grown daughter Emmy), Gomez proves wholly magnetic in one of 2018’s most exquisite performances.
As for the play itself, A Doll’s House, Part 2 suggests that 15 years after Nora walked out on her husband and young children, slamming the door with righteous emphasis at the end of Ibsen’s original, she returns, not out of contrition or affection but for a much more pragmatic reason. Enjoying a career as a popular writer who’s crusading as an unencumbered woman against the institution of marriage, she has discovered that Torvald never officially divorced her. Until he does so, she faces being forced to repudiate her convictions or risk prosecution. (Remember: this play, as with its inspiration, is set in pre-20th-century Norway when and where women’s rights were few.) In Hnath’s play, Nora must convince Torvald to grant her the divorce she needs without compromising the very principles of identity and self-determination that caused her to storm out in the first place. Her efforts seek to involve Anne Marie and then (reluctantly) Emmy, setting up the one-act production as a series of confrontations between Nora and the other three. How Gomez’s Nora responds to the retaliations, entreaties and bargaining is the attraction of this show, directed by Sam Woodhouse.
There’s little doubt what Nora will eventually do, but that does not diminish the tension of her interactions or the strength of Gomez’s restrained yet intense interpretation. Also worthy of acknowledgement for their contributions to this production are scenic designer Sean Fanning and costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/15/18.)
"Waitress" serves up comedy and romance at the Civic Theatre. Photograph by Joan Marcus
From the end of Act One through the first half-hour or so of Act Two, it appears as if everyone in the musical Waitress is in heat. Maybe it has something to do with all that pie.
Having her share of the fun is pregnant Jenna Hunterson (Christine Dwyer), a waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner in down-home USA who’s having a fling with her gynecologist (Steven Good). When the fling goes full throttle, the pies become nearly as naughty a prop as in the puerile “American Pie” flick. But Waitress, based on the 2007 indie film starring Keri Russell and written by Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics) and Jessie Nelson (book), is not the least puerile. Its take on love, which is really secondary to the search for identity and independence going on with its main character, is never smarmy.
Broadway San Diego has brought Waitress to town for the first time, and not even the dubious acoustics of the Civic Theatre can diminish its charm. Between Bareilles’ breezy ensemble tunes and earnest ballads, the many inventive names for pies, and a cast of characters universally likable (except for Jenna’s intentionally abhorrent spouse), this musical is as savory as pastry right out of the oven.
Waitress runs through Sunday Dec. 2 at the Civic Theatre, downtown. Tickets $26.50 to $126.50. www.broadwaysd.com
Dallas DeLeon (left) and Aaron C. Finley in "Clint Black's Looking for Christmas." Photo by Ken Howard
But for its country music-inflected tunes and a plot constructed around a returning soldier’s psychological trauma, Clint Black’s Looking for Christmas would fit nicely among the Hallmark Channel’s sugary and sentimental holiday movies. This world premiere on the Old Globe’s intimate White stage is a predictable yuletide diversion embracing familiar tropes of the season: the shopping crush, the precocious child’s Christmas pageant, etc. The plight of surviving Army veteran Mike Randolf (Aaron C. Finley), who’s literally haunted by the ghost of his best friend (DeLeon Dallas) killed in Afghanistan, is thoughtfully explored in terms of its impact on Mike’s wife and child (Liana Hunt and Kaylin Hedges). Black’s songs, all but four of them taken from his 1995 album “Looking for Christmas,” comfort and distract, guaranteeing that Mike’s woes won’t undermine a happy ending or a happy Christmas.
Clint Black’s Looking for Christmas is prone to cloying cuteness when it’s not occupied with the soldier’s anguish, but throughout it certainly has its heart in the right place.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/28/18.)
As soothing as a hot cup of Earl Grey, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley imagines a post-“Pride and Prejudice” scenario in which heroine Elizabeth Bennet, now married to her beloved Mr. Darcy, is hosting family and friends for Christmas at her family estate in Pemberley. Chief among the guests is young sister Mary (Nadia Guevara), who is beautiful but bookish and seemingly uninterested in romance. That doesn’t last for long in this charming if sedate play written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. Mary soon encounters a candidate for romance (Carter Piggee) who is as awkward as she but just as infatuated.
New Village Arts’ production directed by Kristianne Kurner (who also designed a magnificent set) relies on the script’s refined, drawing-room conversation, its quaint British-isms and featherweight romantic conflicts over which Jane Austen devotees swoon. It’s all very pretty and proper, with whatever edge it possesses provided by the talented Guevara.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/18/18.)
The setting for the forthright musical This Beautiful City is Colorado Springs in 2006, around the time of that year’s midterm elections. There, a Rocky Mountain high prevails: Evangelicals galore are getting high on Jesus. That’s bad news for non-believers. It’s even worse news for anyone following an alternative lifestyle. The faithful, with their frozen, imbued smiles, are fighting a ballot measure that would acknowledge same-sex domestic partnerships. The locus for all the fire and brimstone is the New Life Church, founded by Ted Haggard.
Into this pit of intolerance ventured the Civilians, an investigative theater company from New York City. Its interviews with principals on both sides of the holy war resulted in This Beautiful City, written by the group’s Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman (who passed away last year from complications related to HIV/AIDS). Though it debuted 10 years ago, This Beautiful City is only now receiving its San Diego premiere: at Diversionary Theatre under the direction of Matt Morrow. The production there is spirited and wonderfully performed. It boasts an ardent, versatile ensemble of actors, all portraying multiple persons in the Colorado Springs maelstrom. The standouts are Michael Cusimano and Tony Houck, who besides their characterizations play guitar and keyboards respectively.
The tone of the show wavers between parodying the nearly too cultish to parody evangelicals and striking serious chords about the hate masquerading as love that beset the picturesque Colorado community. When the scandal surrounding Haggard (which led to his downfall) arrives, This Beautiful City goes from simmer to boil.
Much of the time, the humor is more persuasive than the show’s quieter moments, some of them as sanctimonious as the sanctimony being assailed. Throughout, however, the musical numbers of Friedman reverberate with emotion in the small but acoustically sound Diversionary space.
Its presence on the local theater scene now, when holiday fluff will soon take over almost completely, guarantees that thoughtful alternatives are available. This Beautiful City asks its audiences to ponder the true meaning of love and good will.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/21/18.)
Hannah Logan (center) stars in "Melancholy Play." Photo by Jim Carmody
There are those, either out of a desire to nurture or out of just plain desire, who find extremely sad people a turn-on. That’s what bank teller Tilly (Hannah Logan) has going for her in Sarah Ruhl’s invitingly peculiar Melancholy Play, being staged by InnerMission Productions. Tilly’s sheer morosity charms, in order: her neurotic shrink Lorenzo (Scott Striegel), a tailor named Frank (Patrick Mayuyu), her hairdresser Frances (Cristyn Chandler), and Frances’ lover, a nurse named Joan (Vanessa Dinning). Ruhl’s characters, all on stage at the same time either interacting or silently standing behind window frames, speak in benumbed profundities to the subject of sadness – as a condition and as an attraction. Then Melancholy Play turns sharply askew, becoming, as the play is described in the addendum to its title, a contemporary farce. When Tilly turns happy (a birthday scene, complete with sing-along, is the show’s manic moment), those around her turn melancholy, Frances to such a degree that she also turns into an almond. An almond, the program notes explain, is the shape of the “gray matter inside each cerebral hemisphere involved with the experiencing of emotions.”
In spite of the determined weight and absurdity of Melancholy Play, the production directed by InnerMission’s Carla Nell is a balm for the anxiety of life at its most hectic, and the nearly slow-motion action of the players is hypnotic. Chiefly Logan’s Tilly. Logan wrings every ounce of emotion from her haunted character, whether succumbing to sobs or earnestly addressing an almond in her hands. The triumph is, she never comes off as nuts.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/14/18.)
Luke Monday and Taylor Magee in "She Loves Me." Photo by Ken Jacques
The burning question in the romantic musical “She Loves Me” isn’t whether unknowing lonely hearts club correspondents Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash will get together. It’s what misunderstandings and harmless complications will ensue before they do. That’s the charm of this underappreciated show written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (with a book by Joe Masteroff). Bock and Harnick are better known for composing “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opened on Broadway in 1964, a year after “She Loves Me” debuted. “She Loves Me” is no “Fiddler on the Roof,” but as a Scripps Ranch Theatre production directed by Ted Leib demonstrates, it’s festive fun ideal for the arrival of the holidays.
If the premise of “She Loves Me” strikes a familiar chord, it should. The root of the story is a 1937 play by Hungarian Miklos Laszlo. It inspired the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner,” with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as the initially dueling co-workers who don’t realize that each is the other’s romantic correspondent.
Nearly a decade afterward came “In the Good Old Summertime,” with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. “She Loves Me,” which returned the story to the stage but as a musical, followed in 1963. (Thirty-five years later, the film “You’ve Got Mail” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan found the correspondents communicating via this relatively new medium called the internet.)
The enduring connection between these various incarnations and the palpable appeal of “She Loves Me” is the would-be lovers’ all too human insecurities. By whatever names, they hunger for true love even as they fear they won’t measure up.
“She Loves Me” is not blessed with a signature song. Neither is the setting, a perfume shop in Budapest in the mid-‘30s, particularly compelling. Its snappy characters and unflagging spirit of fun carry the day. SRT’s ambitious staging (a cast of 14, multiple set changes, two musical accompanists) is the company’s most wholly satisfying since its excellent “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” two years ago.
Taylor Magee, possessing a sparkling soprano, delights as Amalia and gets laughs too in her Act 2 “Vanilla Ice Cream” number. Luke Monday is likable and natural as Georg, at home with both song and antics. The ensemble-driven “She Loves Me” guarantees everyone, right down to the delivery boy (Josh Bradford), a tune of his or her own. Basking in the opportunity are supporting players Tara Sampson, Danny Campbell, Joseph Grienenberger and Tanner Vidos.
There’s also a cleverly choreographed (by Marc Caro-Willcox) café scene (“A Romantic Atmosphere”) in which Georg finds out that Amalia is his “Dear Friend” correspondent. She, of course, won’t learn the truth until the inevitable happy ending.
Considering the tight confines of the Lenbough Legler Theatre stage, a “She Loves You” this seamless is no small achievement for the SRT cast, crew and musicians. Sure, this is a love story that’s been told multiple times before, but the payoff of two lonely people finding each other never gets old. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 11/13/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat