Richard Baird and Amanda Evans in "The Cherry Orchard." Photo by Ken Jacques
By most reputable accounts, Anton Chekhov regarded the last play he wrote, “The Cherry Orchard,” as a comedy. Or at least as more of a comedy than a brooding drama in the fashion of much of his earlier work.
It would be a stretch to call North Coast Repertory Theatre’s new production of “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by David Ellenstein, a comedy, though it does deliver a few chuckles if not laughs in its two-plus-hours. Those are elicited more by a couple of supporting characters than by circumstances of the script itself (an adaptation by Jean-Claude van Itallie): the sotto voce mutterings of ancient manservant Firs (James Sutorius); the haplessness of clumsy clerk Yepikhodov (Jackson Goldberg); the magic tricks and ventriloquism of quirky governess Charlotta (Sofia Jean Gomez – always great to see her on the stage, by the way).
But “The Cherry Orchard” is not a mere Chekhovian tale of ennui in a crowded household. It’s rooted in the convergence of the old and the new in the Russia of 1903, when the aristocracy began to find itself on the way out and the bourgeoisie was emerging. The cultural and societal implications of this shift are what are most fascinating, and most enduring, about “The Cherry Orchard.”
It is, however, very deliberate storytelling. While the crux of the matter – prideful estate owner Lyubov Ranevskaya (Katie MacNichol) is on the verge of losing her property, including her beloved cherry orchard, to auction on account of unpaid debts – is articulated early in the going, there is more at stake. Much, much more.
Lyubov is not only in these dire straits, but she’s home from France, where a lover had been taking advantage of her, and also home confronting the terrible memory of the son she lost to drowning.
Daughter Anya (Riley Osborn), her “angel,” is home too, and in love with a perennial student, Peter Trofimov (Michael Raver), a leftist who pronounces amid all his revolutionary blather that he’s above love … though he isn’t.
Adopted daughter Varya (Amanda Evans), stern head of the household, is a prig and. so she says. a wannabe nun – mostly because the man she loves, the wealthy merchant Lopakhin (Richard Baird), is unable to or won’t propose marriage to her.
Lopakhin is really the central figure in “The Cherry Orchard,” a former serf on the estate who is now rich and powerful enough to be influencing the fate of the imperiled property.
But wait. There’s more.
The clumsy clerk is in love with wide-eyed housemaid Dunyasha (Katy Tang), who is in love with Yasha (Michael Louis Cusimano), a manservant and hanger-on of Lyubov’s who’s about as likable as a cherry pit.
Pishchick (Ted Barton), another landowner in debt, is determined to pry money out of Lyubov. He is likable in spite of that.
Intertwined and in conflict, they all parade on and off the North Coast Rep stage, complicating the story but doing so immaculately costumed (by Elisa Benzoni) and precisely directed (by Ellenstein).
Strong performances abound, Baird chief among them. His Lopakhin exemplifies the societal transformation at the time, and his inner conflicts are expressed with an eloquence true to Chekhov.
This “Cherry Orchard” is staged with veritable reverence for the play. It’s a classic produced with classical intentions.
“The Cherry Orchard” runs through April 2 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
The Greasers in La Jolla Playhouse's "The Outsiders" musical. Photo by Rich Soublet II
The poetry of Robert Frost I can see. But I never understood how Ponyboy Curtis, the tormented but cerebral teenage hero in S.E. Hinton’s ‘60s novel “The Outsiders,” drew inspiration from of all books Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” That was supposed to teach a restless, orphaned boy about survival in a world where he felt alienated and threatened?
In Adam Rapp’s stage book for La Jolla Playhouse’s “The Outsiders, A New Musical,” Ponyboy’s inspiration instead is Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” which is not only a more fitting text for the story but the source of one of this show’s best songs.
That’s just one upgrade to “The Outsiders” story.
This stage musical adaptation is an exciting, adult interpretation of Hinton’s novel. It’s a far superior telling of the tale of Ponyboy, Johnny Cade and their fellow Greasers to Francis Ford Coppola’s tepid and sentimental 1983 film, which will be most theatergoers’ reference point.
“The Outsiders” is one of the most promising world-premiere musicals to debut locally in some time. Danya Taymor directs a young and passionate cast. Music composed by the Texas duo Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) along with Justin Levine, the show’s arranger, is of the No Depression variety with a couple of rousers (such as “Run, Run Brother”) incorporated in just the right spots. The choreography by Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman is often spectacular, especially during a gang warfare sequence in the rain that is destined to be “The Outsiders’” onstage signature.
While the animus between the protagonist Greasers and the spoiled rich socials (called the Socs) isn’t apt to make anyone forget “West Side Story,” it does provide a basis of conflict from the outset. It’s into this arena of tension and aggression that 14-year-old Ponyboy (Brody Grant) and his best friend Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch) find themselves without particularly asking for trouble. A violent scuffle and a killing ensue, after which the shell-shocked boys flee in panic.
Their friend and mentor is Dallas Winston (Da’Von T. Moody), ex-con and veteran Greaser who’d be street-smart on any street in America, let alone one of Tulsa’s. Under his direction, the boys find a hideout far from town.
Ponyboy has left behind not only his presence during the killing, one committed by Johnny who was trying to save him from being Soc-drowned, but also the two older brothers (Ryan Vasquez and Jason Schmidt) who love him and comprise the rest of his orphaned family.
How the boys go from being the hunted to heroes (something that transpires with less than credible swiftness) and the price that they pay for that heroism defines a second act that is even more emotional than the first.
Conveying the depth of feeling that Ponyboy feels both for Johnny and for his brothers is central to bonding with “The Outsiders,” and young Grant makes that happen. The moving songs “Great Expectations” and “Throwing in the Towel” express beautifully Ponyboy’s struggle between hope and surrender. Lakota-Lynch, as the hard-luck Johnny, sweetly exhorts his friend to “Stay Gold.” When the song is reprised, it will be hard for audiences to stay dry-eyed.
Given the one-dimensionality of the Dallas played in Coppola’s film by Matt Dillon, there’s welcome depth and nuance to the iteration played by Moody. His ultimate fate is altered in this show from the novel and movie to one that feels uncharacteristic of the Dallas character, but there’s no questioning Moody’s fiercely felt performance or what we hear pouring out of him in the anguished “Little Brother” near show’s end.
The various Socs are narrative ciphers. The most significant among them is Cherry (Piper Patterson), whose gesture of friendship to Ponyboy precipitates the deadly ambush near the jungle gym in which her drunken Soc boyfriend Bob (Kevin William Paul) is stabbed. She’s still somewhat of a one-note character.
There’s no question that the plight of Ponyboy and Johnny propel “The Outsiders” toward its triumphs and tragedies. They are almost upstaged by that bare-fisted gang fight in the pouring rain, a feat of choreography like few I’ve seen. If the audience applauds when it’s over, you can’t blame them.
Technically speaking in this scene and in others, “The Outsiders” is impressive. The projection design by Tal Yarden recurringly transforms the Mandell Weiss Theatre into a Tulsa moviehouse screening Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke. The versatile set by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian brings the warring Greasers and Socs together in a junkyard flanked on one side by a shiny Corvette and on the other by a beat-up jalopy. Lighting by Isabella Byrd evokes the sense of alienation and foreboding.
The church fire that was so dramatically realized in Coppola’s film is underplayed to a fault in this show, and perhaps 10 minutes of exposition could be whittled from its first act, but “The Outsiders” could and should be headed one day for a Broadway premiere. It undoubtedly has great expectations.
“The Outsiders A New Musical” runs through April 9 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Antonio TJ Johnson and Joy Yvonne Jones in "The Ferryman." Photo by Daren Scott
The Irish wouldn’t appreciate the analogy, but Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman” is a play of Shakespearean scope. You’ve got three and a half hours of drama. You’ve got a huge cast, including children and live animals. You’ve got a complex and psychologically rich interweaving of family members, allies and enemies. You’ve got the backdrop of a major conflict – in this case not a battlefield war but “The Troubles.” You’ve got song on stage, madness on stage and violence on stage.
I rest my case.
That New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad is the first company outside of London or New York to produce “The Ferryman” is not only a coup for the NVA, but a triumph of ambitiousness. What a way to officially open its renamed Conrad Prebys Theatre at the transformed Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center.
“The Ferryman’s” been open since the end of January and it’s virtually sold out through the end of its run on March 5. It took me awhile to get a ticket, but I have to say it was worth it, and the three-plus-hour, two-intermission sitting didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as did driving home in a pouring rainstorm. Looking back, the weather was compatible with the overriding mood of the story of the Carney family at harvest time in Rural County Armagh in 1981.
Not that everything is dour, in spite of the tragic sacrifice of the Irish Republican hunger strikers very much palpable in the atmosphere. Harvest time is above all a time to celebrate and rejoice in being together, and as the massive Carney clan convenes at the start of the play there is laughter and playfulness amid the tension.
“The Ferryman” traffics in parallel narratives: the personal travails of the family and the political upheaval in their midst.
Head of the family Quinn Carney (Thomas Edward Daugherty, showing no signs of rust after having been away from his craft for 20 years) embodies both. He has a martyr of a spouse (Mary, portrayed by Kym Pappas) and a sister-in-law (Caitlin, played by Joy Yvonne Jones) who makes his life happy again. On the other hand, he is soon threatened by an IRA thug (Max Macke) to keep silent about the murder of Caitlin’s husband – Quinn’s brother – Seamus. If Quinn pursues justice for his brother, his feelings for Caitlin will be revealed. There’s even a family priest (Daren Scott) employed as a reluctant go-between.
The IRA has also infiltrated one of the family’s cousins, Shane Corcoran (Layth Haddad), who is among the harvest participants and revelers at the Carney farm. His presence proves volatile, explosive.
Under the same roof is Quinn’s Aunt Patricia (Grace Delaney) militantly swearing ruin to Margaret Thatcher and her foot soldiers, and a hapless Englishman named Tom Kettle (Dallas McLaughlin) who harbors a secret that will lead to disappointment and disaster.
All this plus delusional Aunt Maggie (Dagmar Krause Fields) whose grasp of reality is a slippery one; Uncle Patrick (Antonio TJ Johnson), ever-quoting mythology and the de facto presider over family festivities; Carney sons James Joseph (Nick Daugherty), Michael (Ben McLaren) and baby Bobby (portrayed onstage by a real, honest-to-goodness baby); Carney daughters Shena (Juliana Scheding), Nunu (Priya Richard), Mercy (Lucy Zavatterro) and Honor (Lena Palke); and … I’ve got to stop. My typing fingers are tired.
There are so many layers to “The Ferryman” story – too many to go over here – that it requires a family tree diagram and a recap of Irish rebellion history, both available in the handout program. What keeps the production from sinking under the weight of its own density are the script’s recurring mysteries, like everything else in this show depicted with care under the great direction of Kristianne Kurner; moments of joyous Irish dancing that are frustrating to watch because you’d rather be down on the stage with the actors; and of course some outstanding performances.
Besides Thomas Edward Daugherty’s stalwart and sensitive turn as Quinn, Johnson brings bigger-than-life presence to Uncle Patrick and Delaney unwavering intensity to Aunt Patricia. Among the young actors, Haddad shines as Shawn Corcoran, unwitting pawn of the manipulating Muldoon.
Doug Cumming’s scenic design, of the various cozy rooms, corners and stairwells of the Carney farmhouse, instill the new NVA theater with a touch of Ireland. Even when things are dark and dangerous inside the Carney home, it invites the viewer into a world where little things like a toast or a family meal or hearing “Erin go Bragh” in song can melt the heart.
Could as much as 20 minutes have come out of this show? Certainly. “The Ferryman” is a veritable saga. It’s hard to say whether it’s more estimable as a family or political drama, for each in its way is worthy of attention. It leaves us with much to consider and to reflect upon, including how happiness can become pain and how friends can become foes.
It was Charon who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx on a journey for hoped-for immortality. This “Ferryman” transports us on a different kind of journey but one as equally concerned with the living and the dead.
“The Ferryman” runs through March 5 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.
Emily Lopez and Will Blum in "Sunday in the Park with George." Photo courtesy of CCAE Theatricals
There. I’ve finally seen “Sunday in the Park with George.” Nearly 40 years after it opened. My personal Sondheim holy grail. You can’t blame me. The bio-musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat has only been produced in San Diego County once before – that was when the much-missed ion theatre staged it seven years ago at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Sorry I missed that. “Sunday,” which has enjoyed a couple of Broadway revivals, too, never seemed to be having one when I was in New York.
So here it is in 2023, produced by the thriving CCAE Theatricals company at the California Center for the Arts’ Center Theater in Escondido. T.J. Dawson directs a lush “Sunday in the Park with George” that stars Will Blum, a charming Broadway veteran of “Beetlejuice,” “Grease” and “The Book of Mormon.” Opposite him – and superb as Seurat’s model, Dot (apparent pointillism pun there) – is Emily Lopez, who is just as touching as great-grandson George’s 98-year-old grandmother Marie in the musical’s awkward and somewhat desultory second act.
Written by James Lapine with Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, “Sunday in the Park with George” is eccentric as “Broadway musicals” go. Sondheim eschews big power ballads and hummable novelties in favor of a libretto mostly characterized by short, repetitive bursts of song – not unlike the way in which a pointillist artist might meticulously create. Its sweeping “Sunday,” which closes both acts of the show, is more conventional, and with the company in full voice outright gorgeous. Otherwise the likes of “Finishing the Hat” and “Children and Art” are Sondheim at his most playful.
All is revealing of Seurat, depicted as a man so obsessed with his singular artistic inspiration and attention to detail that he allowed Dot’s love to go unrequited. Their numbers “We Do Not Belong Together” and “Move On” speak to this in wrenching fashion.
“Sunday in the Park with George” requires an audience’s patience. It moves along slowly and at times in what seems like fits and starts – especially in the first act. There really are just two fully drawn characters, George and Dot. (You could argue George’s mother, I suppose). The rest are figures that live forever in Seurat’s painting that inspired this musical: “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte.” The nurse. The cook. The baker. The man with a horn. The soldier and his cardboard likeness. The woman with the baby carriage.
If you give yourself over to what’s happening onstage – that this is a painting that comes alive – it may strike you that you’ve never seen a show like this before, and that maybe in spite of its very mixed critical reception when it first opened “Sunday in the Park with George” merits the plaudits it received, including a Pulitzer Prize.
It is weakened, however, by Act 2, set 100 years after the first – in 1984. This George is a “modern” artist tortured by self-doubt, by the glad-handing business of the art world and by loneliness too. He may be more sympathetic than Act 1 George, but he’s nowhere near as interesting.
Blum does wonderwork throughout, credit him for that.
This CCAE production is first-rate on a technical level, with scenic backdrops in motion that evoke Seurat’s work (George Gonzalez scenic design), perfect period costumes by Janet Pitcher, Patrick Gates’ projections and sublime lighting by Michelle Miles. It all brings to mind the “Pageant of the Masters” experience up in Laguna Beach, where costumed figures live and breathe inside a picture frame.
Elan McMahan, as reliable as musical directors come in San Diego County, leads an excellent orchestra just beyond the stage.
Only when walking to the car after the show and Googling Seurat did I realize that he’d died at 31 years old, a tragedy.
He does live on in “Sunday in the Park with George.”
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs through March 5 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido.
Laura Crotte and Diego Josef in "Under a Baseball Sky." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Baseball as metaphor is a tried and true storytelling device, as uniquely American as the national pastime itself. But its micro-lessons about hitting, throwing and running that become macro-lessons for human beings who feel behind in the count are international. Universal.
Jose Cruz Gonzalez’s “Under a Baseball Sky” is an American story. Where else but in the land of the red, white and blue (and in his play, the land of a newly-elected-to-the-presidency Donald Trump) could a naturalized mother from Mexico be arrested – and ultimately deported – for having a broken taillight? Where else could gentrification tear out, bit by bit, the fabric of a neighborhood, forcing an old woman from her home and reducing a kids’ baseball playing field to a trash heap?
The unnamed Latinx neighborhood in Gonzalez’s world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre is reflective of these deep-rooted injustices and inequities, yet throughout a tale with no shortage of inner pain there is hope, something we all cling to when we’re behind in the count.
Elderly but full of feisty fight, Eli (Laura Crotte in a bravura performance) resides next door to the derelict lot where once her children Paloma and Santiago played ball. There are specters in these midsts, as young Teo (Diego Josef) soon discovers when he begins working for her as part of his probation after threatening the life of a bully at school. In the middle of the two is even-keeled Chava (Joseph Morales), assigned to supervising Teo’s rehabilitation while also looking out for Eli, whom he considers an institution in the neighborhood.
What seems a straightforward enough premise is soon populated (possibly overpopulated) by secrets, tensions and scars of the soul. Eli is not only losing her home and her health but is mourning the untimely loss of both of her grown children and, it turns out, suffering for having betrayed them when she believed as mothers tend to believe that she was protecting them. Teo, meanwhile, agonizes that he is to blame for his mother’s arrest and detention, having been preoccupied with his own crises when he could have been fixing that broken taillight.
It isn’t long before the hard line between Eli and Teo begins to soften. The catalyst? Baseball. A shed on Eli’s property holds baseball keepsakes that a spellbound Teo can scarcely believe. Before long the old woman is putting on a catcher’s mask, crouching with her catcher’s glove and encouraging the boy to show her his fastball. Utterly charming, this is relief from the anguish and self-recriminations otherwise in the air.
In the intimate environs of the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (on an inspired set by Anna Louizos that will gradually metamorphose) the five actors must navigate a narrative heavy with not only Eli’s and Teo’s personal traumas but the black cloud of Trumpism, the aforementioned beast of gentrification, anti-labor mobsters and even ghosts. This is a LOT packed into one 90-minute affair, the astute direction of James Vasquez and a stellar supporting cast (Ana Nicolle Chavez and Cesar J. Rosado complete the ensemble) aside.
Gonzalez’s script relies more than a few times on well-worn advice from Chava to young Teo, sometimes sounding like what a manager might tell a nervous hitter or a relief pitcher with the bases loaded. The family drama that engulfs Eli, Paloma and Santiago overpowers what Gonzalez wants to say about the importance of baseball in Mexican-American communities, to me the most compelling aspect of “Under a Baseball Sky.”
Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that baseball does prove a balm and a needed catharsis for all involved when it matters most.
A final note of acknowledgement of sound designer Leon Rothenberg, responsible for the atmospheric crack of the bat and thump of fastball into mitt leather that are heard crisply and clearly in the theater-in-the-round. It sounded like baseball. That’s the sound of spring and the hope that accompanies its arrival every year.
“Under a Baseball Sky” runs through March 12 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Mike Sears and Farah Dinga in "Birds of North America." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
The tall trees beyond retired John’s Baltimore County back yard twitter with birds in autumn, though less and less as the years pass and the consequences of man-made climate change work their will. In between the diminishing music of the birds, father and daughter struggle to connect on almost every level.
Moxie Theatre’s 74th production in its 19th year is Anna Ouyang Moench’s one-act “Birds of North America,” which was first seen here in 2017 as part of the Wagner New Play Festival at UCSD. Then as now, the part of John, an avid backyard birder (don’t call it bird-watching, he says), is played by Mike Sears. His is a nuanced performance of slow-burn silences, grouchy pronouncements, stubborn assertions and sudden passive aggressions. Yet there is tender admiration inside him for the winged creatures whose appearances he documents in his ever-present birding record book.
Farah Dinga is John’s daughter Caitlyn, fighting the good fight most of the time with the weight of disappointments oppressing her. Her greatest disappointment may be the lack of the kind of relationship she craves with her old dad. (Her mother and brother are referred to many times in the play but never seen.) Dinga makes Caitlyn both worthy adversary and poignant counterpoint to Sears’ father character. Theirs is an affecting and wholly believable performance.
“Birds,” directed at Moxie by Lisa Berger, unfolds as a series of short, tense mini-scenes, each one a year or so later than the previous. Not as much changes as you’d expect as time goes by. John and Caitlyn spar and let intended hurts slip out and don’t seem to grasp that they have anything in common. Even their respective views through binoculars of the backyard birds are rarely the same.
Moench has avoided the predictable trope of the conservative father and liberal daughter, instead reversing the philosophical stances. John is a fierce environmentalist, Caitlyn employed first by a right-leaning website and later an oil company, which comes closest to anything in the play to summoning her father’s rage.
We keep waiting, through all the animus, for a father-daughter breakthrough. And waiting. And waiting. The sniping back and forth will remind many families of their own disharmony, including the frequent polemics, familiar and tiring as it sounds after a few rounds onstage.
What’s missing from the outset is an understanding of why Caitlyn makes these visits, why she seems to want a closer relationship with her father so badly. Is it because she is distant from her unseen mother or brother? Because love in general for her has been fleeting, even elusive? Hers is by far the more complex character of the two in “Birds of North America,” but even with Dinga’s complete commitment to their portrayal (the play’s post-miscarriage scene is devastating), Caitlyn’s yearning to know John better must be more complicated than just a child wanting a parent’s love and not feeling it.
While Moench’s script may have its weaknesses, there’s no short-changing the co-stars of “Birds of North America,” nor the fine directorial hand of Lisa Berger. The backyard scenic design by Robin Sanford Roberts with its sturdy trees and burnished leaves is lovely, while Matt Lescault-Wood’s sounds of birds winging gently by and overhead create a peaceful contrast to the discord beneath.
If Moench is making a statement about our recklessness with the natural world – and she is – it’s a subtly integrated one, which is much to her credit. Shouting rarely solves anything, as John and Caitlyn might attest.
“Birds of North America” runs through March 5 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
Catalina Maynard in "El Huracan." Karli Cadel Photography
What’s a mere hurricane compared to the storms in the mind that make reality murkier and connections to loved ones more tenuous?
In the late summer of 1992 in Miami, Hurricane Andrew looms. Inside one Cuban-American home, Harvard student Miranda has returned to “help” her mother Ximena and grandmother Valeria, who is slipping gradually and heartbreakingly into dementia.
Before we even get there, we’re in the audience at the Tropicana Club in Havana where a young Valeria and a dashing partner are dancing to the joyous escapism of Frank Sinatra singing “In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon”). The magic and music will give way to the helpless circumstances in the Miami household.
There are many layers to Charise Castro Smith’s beautiful “El Huracan,” now onstage at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. It’s more than a story of slipping away, more than a so-called memory play. In the best local production of the year so far (I know, it’s only January, but you have to start sometime), the synergy of the playwright’s sensitivity and a superb cast results in a profound and enduring theater experience.
The Valeria we meet at the outset (Amalia Alarcon Morris) is disoriented and delusional, much to the frustration and pain of daughter Ximena (Catalina Maynard) and granddaughter Miranda (Sandra Ruiz). But dwelling deep inside precious memories she has other lives: the playful relationship with her sister Alicia (Carla Navarro) and the courtship by her true love Alonso (Manny Fernandes).
In spite of her friction with her mother, Miranda is able to connect with Valeria in a way Ximena cannot, even to the point of getting her to perform a little magic as she had when a performer. But Miranda’s flirtation with Fernando (Christopher Cruz), the young man who’s in the home to prepare and safeguard it from the coming hurricane, leads to tragedy.
It’s afterward when years pass right before our eyes that the subject of forgiveness becomes paramount in “El Huracan,” directed with great acumen by Daniel Jaquez. It’s also the point when the play centers no longer on Valeria but on Ximena, who has inherited her mother’s terrible disease.
In both English and Spanish, Castro Smith, who is Cuban-American and from Miami, articulates the desperation of loss: of memory, of course, but also to some degree hope. I wished my own Spanish were better, for I might have appreciated all the more the tenderness residing in “El Huracan.”
Maynard’s performance is a special one, particularly in the last 15 minutes of the 95-minute production. The distance in her eyes and the anguish of Ximena’s internal struggle are wrenchingly sad.
Ruiz’s transformations over the years of the “El Huracan” story establish Miranda as a woman whose heart was always in the right place even if her will was not. Morris does wonderful things with Valeria throughout, always able to be affecting and somehow luminous.
Hurricane Andrew is almost an afterthought in the telling of this tale, though sound effects by Eliza Vedar are a reminder of its fury. (It is still considered to be the most destructive hurricane to ever hit Florida.) Guaranteed you won’t be thinking about it when the lights dissolve into darkness at production’s end.
“El Huracan” runs through Feb. 19 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
The cast of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci." Photo by Jim Cox
If only studying science or art history had been as engrossing in school as it is in Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” in which the bromides, theses and philosophies of the great master are animated by movement, acrobatics and stage play.
The contradiction is that theatrical doesn’t necessarily translate to theater. While inventive and mostly diverting throughout its 90 minutes, “Notebooks” nonetheless taxes the attention span. Without a narrative arc or characters to invest in or any sort of palpable dramatic tension, this production of Zimmerman’s 1993 work at the Old Globe Theatre demands both patience and suspension of expectations.
Yes, the unpredictability of its sequences is part of the allure, along with scenic design by Scott Bradley that enables climbing, roping, perching and fanciful entrances and exits by the eight performers (all named Leonardo). Within this playground realm, they pose and perform while the words of da Vinci are heard as they move and react. I found myself mesmerized by what was onstage and only half-listening. I’m just not that receptive to intellectualized dissections of active processes such as painting.
Even if I personally would rather be mystified without explanation by what heights an artist or scientist can reach, da Vinci was compelled to break them down for us in the reportedly 20,000 or more pages of notes he made in his remarkable lifetime. You can be amazed by “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” if you give yourself over completely to its stagey exposition, directed at the Globe by Zimmerman.
The set pieces are meticulously conceived, to the point of appearing choreographed. They are also difficult to describe and to do justice to here, for each movement, paralleling da Vinci’s dissertations, is a significant part of the whole. They are pensive and thought provoking if not emotional, the representation of a brilliantly imaginative mind that operated like clockwork and gave the world order and understanding.
The athletic and expressive “Leonardos” are to be commended: Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel and Wai Yim. So too should Mara Blumenfeld for her costuming (based on Allison Reeds’ original design).
Chiefly, “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” establishes that with a genius, the left and right sides of the brain can not only function together but do so prodigiously and with eloquence. To some extent, this unusual piece is a journey inside that brain and its wondrous workings.
“The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” runs through Feb. 26 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Left to right: Karole Foreman, Ciarra Stroud and Anise Ritchie in "Blues in the Night." Photo by Aaron Rumley
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Blues in the Night,” the illusion of a premise – three women occupying separate rooms in a Chicago hotel in 1938 – dissolves into the background pretty quickly. At the forefront are the songs, 25 of them, and three dynamic performers (Karole Foreman, Anise Ritchie and Ciarra Stroud) who sing their hearts out.
Sheldon Epps conceived this show 40 years ago as a revue, completely sung through and composed of blues songs, torch songs and no-good-man novelties. While its runs off Broadway and on were brief (less than two months in each case), “Blues in the Night,” named for the standard by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, enjoys production life today because the music is just so damned good.
At North Coast Rep, the vocalists, which also include Elijah Rock, are accompanied by a crack band under the musical direction of Larry Hartley: conductor Kevin Toney on piano, Roy Jenkins on bass, Danny King on drums, Thomas Alforque on trumpet and Malcolm Jones on reeds. Directed at NCR by Yvette Freeman Hartley, “Blues in the Night” is a smoky nightclub experience without the smoke, variously likable and heart-rending as each particular song dictates.
Many of the evening’s numbers are Bessie Smith compositions: “Baby Doll,” “Wasted Life Blues,” “Blue Blues,” “It Makes My Love Come Down,” “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues,” “Reckless Blues.” Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith brought a visceral baring of soul to the idiom, the sort of anger, heartache and world weariness that shadows foredoomed romance. Every ounce of that attitude is expressed in this revue, with the three women taking turns and intermittently singing together about good loving gone bad.
The characters are unnamed, but their descriptions are revealing. Foreman is the Woman of the World, one who’s seen and felt it all and carries the sadness to prove it. Ritchie is the Lady from the Road whose trunk of cabaret costumes is full of broken dreams. Stroud is the Girl with a Date who’s just finding out how fickle love can be. Rock is the Man in the Saloon, charming but likely to break any and all of their hearts “just like a man.”
Just as the sorrow emanates from performances like Foreman’s turn on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Ritchie’s rendering of “Lover Man,” the lament immortalized by Billie Holiday, and Stroud’s interpretation of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me,” the humor crackles when Foreman exhorts, double-entendres flying every which way, about her “Kitchen Man” or Ritchie struts to “Take Me For a Buggy Ride.”
The choreography by Roxane Carrasco, like the mood shifts from song to song, ensure that “Blues in the Night” keeps moving, and its two hours never waver. Marty Burnett’s set provides a sultry backdrop for these immersive performances.
“Blues in the Night” won’t give you a case of the blues. Quite the opposite. It may, however, remind you that love can be an uneasy and capricious proposition.
“Blues in the Night” runs through Feb. 12 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Cygnet Theatre's production of "Water by the Spoonful" was among the best theatrical productions of the year. Karli Cadel Photography
It’s never easy wrapping up an entire year of theater – its highs, its lows, its joys, its sorrows. Theater is such a rich and sprawling pageant of artistic craft and emotional expression. Those who make it reside in a magical world in which each living, unfolding moment matters. Those like myself who watch, listen and feel are, for a couple of hours in the darkness, privileged to share a bit of that magic.
After very little live theater locally in 2020 and 2021, it returned revived and reinvigorated this past year. Thank you to all the theater-makers who’ve ridden out the pandemic and continued to create, produce and perform. Your spirit and resolve are felt.
Now, to my choices (in alphabetical order) for the five most outstanding plays and musicals of 2022 …
• “An Iliad,” North Coast Repertory Theatre. Ten years after I first saw the one-person drama by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare onstage (at La Jolla Playhouse), The Poet’s monologue is more graphic than ever. North Coast Rep’s production starring stentorian-voiced Richard Baird was explosive and relentless, rather like the warfare itself that the 90-minute play indicts. Providing haunting accompaniment behind a scrim was Amanda Schaar on cello.
• “As You Like It,” New Fortune Theatre Company. Speaking of Baird and Schaar, the theater troupe they co-founded in 2014 returned to live productions after a five-year hiatus with a gloriously unfettered staging of Shakespeare’s romp in the Forest of Arden. The choice of venue – the little park behind Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma – was perfect, heightening the sense that you were seeing The Bard the way his work was meant to be seen.
• “Desert Rock Garden,” New Village Arts Theatre. To my mind the most compelling world-premiere play produced in San Diego County this year, “Desert Rock Garden” was written by Roy Sekigahama, whose parents were interned in a relocation camp during World War II. His one-act about the improbable friendship between an elderly man (Lane Nishikawa) and a young girl (Chloris Li) at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah was thoughtful and uncompromising.
• “Iron,” Roustabouts Theatre Company. What an opportunity to experience one of San Diego’s greatest actors, Rosina Reynolds, in a tense, claustrophobic play worthy of all her skills. In Roustabouts’ production of Rona Munro’s play set inside a prison in Scotland, Reynolds (portraying Fay, a woman serving a life sentence) shares the stage with her real-life daughter Kate Rose Reynolds, playing Fay’s estranged daughter, Josie. It’s a potent combination.
• “Water by the Spoonful,” Cygnet Theatre. Not your prototypical addict’s story, “Water by the Spoonful” is multilayered and wrenching in both its storytelling and its characterizations. A steely Steven Lone is its central figure, Elliot, a tormented Iraq War veteran. In his sphere are his birth mother Odessa (Catalina Maynard), cousin Yaz (Melissa Ortiz) and chat-room denizens Bryan Barbarin, Emily Song Tyler and Christian Haines.
• “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’”, Old Globe Theatre. A world-premiere reimagination of the legendary Fosse’s original 1978 production, this tireless celebration of the art of dance was composed of a series of vignettes over two and a half hours, swiftly paced and often spectacular. A company of 20 performers dazzled on sets conceived by Robert Brill. The second act doesn’t match the impeccable first, but this felt like a big Broadway show, sparing nothing.
• “Cabaret,” Cygnet Theatre. Cygnet remounted its 2011 production of “Cabaret” for this 2022 summertime engagement, again with Sean Murray directing. Morphing from fever dream to nightmare, this “Cabaret” struck on a visceral level. Most affecting among the stellar cast that included Karson St. John, Megan Carmitchel and Will Bethmann were Linda Libby as a heartbreaking Fraulein Schneider and Eddie Yaroch as the Jewish shop owner who loves her.
• “Lempicka,” La Jolla Playhouse. This bio-musical about the dauntless Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had for it beforehand, though the Playhouse’s production of the Carson Kreitzer/Matt Gould collaboration was dynamic and ambitious. Broadway veteran Eden Espinosa co-starred with high-tech projections and versatile set pieces, making for an imperfect but immersive trip into art history and history period.
• “Million Dollar Quartet,” Lamb’s Players Theatre. I don’t know how many times Lamb’s Players Theatre extended this rock ‘n’ roll songfest’s run, but there was a reason audiences kept coming. The jukebox musical about a Sun Records session that brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins equaled irresistible fun. Each actor singing and playing was a treat, with Charles Evans Jr. standing out as the Man in Black.
• “Witnesses,” California Center for the Arts, Escondido Theatricals. The first original musical staged by CCAE Theatricals, a world premiere, was poignant and unforgettable. The witnesses were five Jewish teenagers whose secret diaries were the source of this important show with a book by Robert L. Freedman and stirring songs by multiple composers. This was the production that unquestionably announced the arrival of the 2-year-old CCAE Theatricals.
• I salute local theater critic Pat Launer, who is retiring after 40 years and some 5,000 reviews. She’s as much a part of the San Diego theater scene as are its producing companies. I’m proud to call Pat a colleague and even more proud to call her my friend.
• The closing, at least for now, of the 46-year-old San Diego Repertory Theatre was an immeasurable loss for theater here. That its suspension of operations announcement in June was followed by allegations of racism and misogyny made this all the sadder.
• Like so many in San Diego, both inside and outside the theater community, I mourn the passing of longtime critic and journalist Welton Jones. Not only was Welton a co-worker of mine at the San Diego Union-Tribune for many years, but later, after we’d both left the paper, it was he who assigned me my first theater review, for the San Diego Story.com site that he helped launch with Mark Burgess. This was the start of my life as a critic.
More important, Welton Jones was a delightful gentleman – a great storyteller, a fine journalist, a devoted historian. He also had a laugh like no one else’s and a generous heart. I miss him already.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.