The Old Globe Theatre's production of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" tops the list of best shows of 2018 in San Diego. Photo by Jim Cox
The most hyped, and probably the most impressive, production of the year in San Diego was the national tour stop of Hamilton back in January. But locally staged dramas and musicals shone brightly in 2018, with many of them addressing vital and sensitive issues.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Old Globe Theatre: Discomfiting in its brutality yet breathless in its beauty, the stage adaptation (by Ursula Rani Sarma) of Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel could not have been more impactful. Directed by Carey Perloff, Nadine Malouf and Denmo Ibrahim delivered striking performances as two Afghan women trying to survive and striving for freedom in Kabul at its deadliest (the years between 1979 and 2001). Original music by David Coulter contributed another layer of artistry to a remarkable production.
Cloud Tectonics, New Village Arts Theatre: Teatro Pueblo Nuevo, New Village’s bicultural outreach initiative, mounted its first mainstage production with this emotionally rich interpretation of Jose Rivera’s dreamlike 1995 play. Challenging in its non-linear perceptions of both time and love, Cloud Tectonics transported audiences to an L.A. at first grim, then pulsating with possibilities. NVA’s associate artistic director Nadia Guevara starred in this sensual outing directed by Herbert Siguenza.
The Last Wife, Cygnet Theatre: The last wife of the title is Katherine Parr, No. 6 in Henry VIII’s marital history. As written for the stage by Kate Hennig and powerfully portrayed by Allison Spratt Pearce, Katherine challenges not only her boorish and bullying king (Manny Fernandes), but the impenetrability of the monarchy. She also exudes and indulges a sexuality that adds heat to what is anything but a staid historical drama.
Cardboard Piano, Diversionary Theatre: The shocking moments of violence may have unnerved some audience members, but probably not at Diversionary Theatre, which consistently stages uncompromising works. Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, having its West Coast premiere at the University Heights theater, was no exception. A love story couched in the turmoil of Uganda at the turn of the new millennium, this was a production that epitomized intensity. The committed cast included Kate Rose Reynolds, Andrea Agosto, John Wells III and Wrekless Watson.
Once, Lamb’s Players Theatre: How could such an overly sentimental movie become a joyous theater experience? The answer rang out loud and clear in Coronado during Lamb’s Players Theatre’s loving presentation of Once. As the story’s lovers, Caitie Grady and Michael Cusimano spoke their hearts best with music (Grady on keyboards, Cusimano on guitar), backed by a talented ensemble of actor/musicians who turned the goings-on into an Irish-inflected concert with each foot-tapping performance.
Seize the King, La Jolla Playhouse: The playwright known as the pioneer of hip-hop theater, Will Power, dared to reimagine Shakespeare’s timeless Richard III in streetwise, frequently profane vernacular. The essence of Richard’s depraved ambition, however, was not sacrificed in the name of artistic license, making this world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse a treat for academics and pop culturalists alike.
Fun Home, San Diego Repertory Theatre: A graphic novel by Alison Bechdel was the inspiration for this reflective musical that was the highlight of a very good season at the San Diego Rep. As the grown Bechdel, Amanda Naughton recounted the life-changing moments of her discovering her sexual identity while also learning the truth about her closeted father (Jim Stanek). What could have been self-conscious instead resonated as honest and very real.
The Madres, Moxie Theatre: One of four American companies rolling out the world premiere of a play by Alison Walker, Moxie Theatre honored the mothers, the “madres” of the sons and daughters kidnapped or killed by the Argentine dictatorship, circa 1976-’83. A sense of desperation and claustrophobia prevails in the storytelling, all of it occurring in the Buenos Aires apartment of a madre named Josefina (Maria Gonzalez).
The Father, North Coast Repertory Theatre: Give North Coast Repertory Theatre, which relies heavily on comedies and safer dramas, credit for not only presenting Florian Zeller’s anguished play about a father slipping further and further into Alzheimer’s disease, but for its effectiveness in doing so. None of that would have been possible without a superior performance from James Sutorius as 81-year-old Andre and taut direction by David Ellenstein.
A Jewish Joke, The Roustabouts Theatre Co.: The year’s finest solo show featured Roustabouts Theatre Co. co-founder Phil Johnson as screenwriter Bernie Lutz, torn between his dreams of a hit in Hollywood and his conscience (the House Un-American Activities Committee is pressuring Bernie to inform on his partner). In 90 sweat-inducing minutes, Johnson created a painfully sympathetic character who even amid his torment managed to crack a few jokes.
Honorable Mention: San Diego Repertory Theatre’s A Doll’s House, Part 2; the Old Globe Theater’s The Wanderers; La Jolla Playhouse’s (with Cornerstone Theatre Co.) What Happens Next; Diversionary Theatre’s The Loneliest Girl in the World.
(Article originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/26/18.)
David McBean (left) and Tom Stephenson in "A Christmas Carol." Photo courtesy of Cygnet Theatre
Everyone needs a little Dickens, especially this time of year when the commercialism of the holidays serve as a stark reminder of the divide between the have’s and have not’s. Beneath the spookiness and sentiment of his “A Christmas Carol” is Dickens’ commentary about the urgent need to take care of one another, including the poor and destitute. This doesn’t mean his tale can’t be enjoyed on a more superficial level, of course. Either way, Cygnet Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol in Old Town directed by Sean Murray is reliable and redemptive.
From the pre-show caroling by the actors to the delightful period costumes and wigs to warm, fun-loving performances from that cast (Tom Stephenson as Srooge and in multiple roles David McBean, Melissa Fernandes, Melinda Gilb, Patrick McBride, Charles Evans, Jr. and new this year, Megan Carmichael), Cygnet’s Carol is one worth singing about. On that note, two new songs have been added this year, though one of them, an Act 2 number given to the ghouls who steal the dead Scrooge’s effects, feels forced in. Still, there’s no serious quibbling with a festive production that, much told as its story may be, brims with the spirit and fellowship of the holidays.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/19/18.)
The sweet satisfaction of the tribute show Always … Patsy Cline is hearing echoes of one of the most distinctive singing voices in the history of American music, a contralto supple, trilling, and rich with emotion. No one can duplicate the voice of “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” or “Walking After Midnight,” but the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Always … Patsy Cline has Katie Karel, and she does Cline’s memory and legacy proud. Karel’s co-star in the two-woman show created by Ted Swindley is Cathy Barnett, portraying a fan who becomes Cline’s confidante for a night during a tour stop in Houston and then her pen pal up until the time of her idol’s death (at only 30 years old) in a plane crash.
Always … Patsy Cline was last seen in these parts three years ago when it was produced by OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. The North Coast Rep production, like that one, is packed with performances of songs made famous by or associated with Cline – more than two dozen of them. Barnett’s cowgirl-fangirl bit becomes repetitive as the show goes on, but without it Always … Patsy Cline would be just a tribute concert. The friendship that the two women discover, like the infectious music, holds this show tightly and warmly together.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/19/18.)
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.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.