Casey Likes (center) in "Almost Famous" at the Old Globe Theatre. Photograph by Neal Preston
A provocative mixture of new work and old favorites comprised a memorable year in San Diego theater. Here are the 10 best:
Almost Famous, Old Globe Theatre: Cameron Crowe’s stage-musical adaptation of his much-loved 2000 autobiographical film was an irresistible trip back to the ‘70s, a warm and joyous work that on a visceral level exceeded the charms of the original movie. Crowe’s script lent added heft to the character of eccentric rock critic Lester Bangs (played at the Globe with grit by Rob Colletti), and songs Crowe wrote with Tom Kitt bolstered a score that also included tunes used in the film, such as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.” “Almost Famous” also enjoyed a stellar cast led by Casey Likes as William Miller, the young Crowe character, and Solea Pfeiffer as a beguiling if tortured Penny Lane.
Cambodian Rock Band, La Jolla Playhouse: If there was a just-about-perfect show in 2019 it was this one, a chilling and intelligent theater-going experience. Written by UCSD MFA graduate Lauren Yee, “Cambodian Rock Band” integrated a powerful story about a daughter discovering her father’s horrors and survival in his native country with live music performed by cast members onstage. That music, the songs of L.A. band Dengue Fever and traditional Cambodian tunes, provided an urgent backdrop to a tale that needed to be told. Joe Ngo’s performance as the father was masterful and moving.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on American Themes, Cygnet Theatre: This 25th-anniversary staging of Tony Kushner’s epic two-part masterpiece was the highlight of Cygnet’s strong 2019 season. With its sweeping commentaries, complex characterizations and sheer length (over six hours total – “Part One: Millennium Approaches” and “Part Two: Perestroika” were staged on separate nights), “Angels” is after a quarter-century still an ambitious project for any theater. It has lost none of its potency, as this Sean Murray-directed production demonstrated.
An Experiment With An Air Pump, Backyard Renaissance Theatre Co.: In its adventurous and sometimes offbeat four-year history. Backyard Renaissance has hit the mark more than a few times. But never with a bull’s-eye like its production of Shelagh Stephenson’s time-traveling piece. Both a mystery and a harrowing human drama, “An Experiment With An Air Pump” filled the La Jolla Playhouse’s little Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre (Backyard Renaissance was the resident theater company for 2018-2019 at the Playhouse) with tension and anguish. Jessica John, Robert Smyth and Francis Gercke led an exquisite cast.
Sweat, San Diego Repertory Theatre: The first of two Lynn Nottage-written plays on this list, “Sweat” was the most formidable of several San Diego Rep productions that soared this year (others included Julia Cho’s “Aubergine,” Hebert Siguenza’s “Bad Hombres/Good Wives” and the hit-parade musical “33 1/3: House of Dreams”). The plight of anxious and oppressed plant workers in blue-collar Pennsylvania was explored with both dignity and ferocity under the direction of the Rep’s Sam Woodhouse. Social, political and racial hot points and a committed ensemble cast made for high drama.
The Hour of Great Mercy, Diversionary Theatre: A tour de force for actors (principally Andrew Oswald as a Jesuit priest diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Diversionary’s staging of Miranda Rose Hall’s play also managed the impressive feat of proffering multiple themes (among them faith, forgiveness, life’s fragility) without ever losing its way. Besides Oswald, Tom Stephenson distinguished himself as a man tormented with grief over the death of his daughter and taking his anger out on the world via his one-man volunteer radio station. Rosina Reynolds directed with utmost sensitivity.
Intimate Apparel, New Village Arts Theatre: The other Lynn Nottage play on this list, “Intimate Apparel” was a portrait of an African-American seamstress reaching out for love and what seemed like impossible dreams. At Carlsbad’s New Village, Tamara McMillian inhabited that role with grace and restraint, and received fine support from Cashae Monya as the seamstress Esther’s wayward friend. Though a lengthy affair, this one, under the direction of Melissa Coleman-Reed, never dragged and never stopped touching you.
Gabriel, North Coast Repertory Theatre: There was much to admire about this suspenseful wartime drama written by Moira Buffini and directed at North Coast Rep by Christopher Williams: an atmospheric tale with twists and turns; a lurking mystery; and a marvelous ensemble that included Richard Baird as a pompous German major, Jessica John as a keen but conflicted widow, and Catalina Zelles, delivering the year’s standout young-actor performance. Taut and haunting, “Gabriel” deftly shared its surprises and its secrets.
West Side Story, Moonlight Stage Productions: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “West Side Story,” a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet,” is BETTER than “Romeo and Juliet.” Moonlight Stage Productions helped prove my point this summer with a brave and uncompromising staging of the classic musical, directed by Steven Glaudini and co-starring Michael James Byrne and Bella Gil as the star-crossed (and doomed) lovers caught between the warring Jets and Sharks gangs.
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, OnStage Playhouse: Talk about leaving it all out there on the stage: That’s what Teri Brown and Charles Peters did, courageously, in the Chula Vista theater’s production of the intimate play by Terrence McNally. Indeed for a couple of hours, the small OnStage space felt like the unkempt New York studio apartment it was portraying, one inhabited by two people baring their loneliness, their fears and their love.
Honorable Mention: San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 33 and 1/3: House of Dreams; North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Amadeus; Backyard Renaissance’s American Buffalo.
"A Christmas Story" is based on the popular 1983 film. Photo by Ken Jacques
The tale’s narrated onstage by a grownup – reliable local actor Steve Gunderson – but make no mistake: San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Story” is kid-centric and kids-dominated. Chief among them is young John Perry (JP) Wishchuck, who stars as the bespectacled boy Ralphie, whose Christmas dream is to receive a Red Ryder BB Gun. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because “A Christmas Story” is an adaptation of the cult-fave 1983 film, the one that TBS marathons every year.
This 2012 musical, with a book by John Robinette and music/lyrics by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen”), is utterly warm-hearted and very faithful to the original film. SDMT’s production features lots of laughs (many from Jake Millgard as Ralphie’s beleaguered dad) and even more dancing, niftily choreographed by Jill Gorrie.
Cathryn Wake and Robert Joy in "Ebenezer Scrooge ..." at Old Globe Theatre. bbbPhoto by Jim Cox
It may sound incongruous to re-set Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” in San Diego in the early 20th century, but incongruity is all part of the freewheeling fun of the Old Globe’s “Ebenezer Scrooge’s BIG San Diego Christmas Show.” While the kiddies are next door in the Globe’s main theater this holiday season enjoying “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”, grown-ups have the alternative of Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen’s spoof inside the smaller Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.
Rife with anachronisms, inside jokes and clever San Diego-centric references, the one-act “Ebenezer” more or less follows the narrative of the well-trod Dickens story while departing from it in consistently entertaining ways. The joking-and-singing cast of five directed by Greenberg is terrific: Dan Rosales, Cathryn Wake, Orville Mendoza, Jacque Wilke and Robert Joy, who plays Scrooge. All the others occupy multiple roles during the show as well as manipulate the production’s many props and stage effects.
The Globe may be hoping that “Ebenezer Scrooge’s BIG San Diego Christmas Show” becomes another holiday tradition, like “The Grinch.” You know what? It should.
It takes craftiness to dramatize an 80-day trip around the world on a theater stage. New Village Arts has plenty of that, using little more than costume changes, various countries’ flags, and a few modest props to create the illusion that adventurer Phileas Fogg is trekking by train, ship, and even elephant to and through lands including India, Hong Kong, Japan and the U.S. All to get back to London in time to win a bet. Craftiness and misadventures aside, the whirlwind trip (if you can call a two and a half hour show a whirlwind) becomes wearying. But NVA”s new production of “Around the World in 80 Days,” based on Jules Verne’s novel, is a musical. The North County duo the Shantyannes composed more than a dozen tunes for the show which definitely inject some life into its familiar story.
Those tunes are performed onstage but inconspicuously by a band clad as pirates: Kyle Bayquen, Andrew Snyder, Trevor Mulvey, Nobuko Kemmotsu and conductor/keyboardist Tony Houck. While most of the lyrics serve strictly expository purposes, the music is jaunty and much in the spirit of the not-very-serious story. At New Village, choreographer Jenna Ingrassia-Knox keeps the young cast always on the move, and director Kristianne Kurner employs a likable ensemble (Rae Henderson, Alexander X Guzman, Jasmine January and Olivia Pence) to advance the narrative, sing choruses and portray multiple characters.
Of the principals, Frankie Alicea-Ford is well suited as Fogg, the main character but one whose demeanor of smug confidence almost never wavers. AJ Knox does well by the bumbling, hardly menacing Fogg adversary, Inspector Fix. Farah Dinga is beguiling as Aouda, the Indian woman saved by Fogg from a fatal sacrificing. As Passepartout, Fogg’s valet, Audrey Eytchison boasts boundless energy but ultimately irritates more than entertains.
Projections behind the actors aren’t vivid enough to be especially memorable, leaving the flags and costumes and fake mustaches to convey changes in locale. For sheer holiday escapism and a stocking full of silliness, “Around the World in 80 Days” is a fitting diversion, and it runs through Dec. 22.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/11/19.)
Will Bethmann as the store elf Crumpet in "The Santaland Diaries." Photo by Simpatika
, David Sedaris’ 1996 essay “The Santaland Diaries” has lived on because of the one-act play adapted from it by Joe Mantello. Because the story of Sedaris’ hapless and exasperating experience of being an elf at Macy’s doesn’t really date (in spite of the diminishing status of brick-and-mortar department stores), it’s still possible to wring laughter out of his wry, sometimes-spiteful reminiscences onstage.
Will Bethmann does just that at Diversionary Theatre, where Anthony Methvin directs a swift (one hour in length) and spry “The Santaland Diaries.” For the audience, this is grin-and-chuckle rather than chortle-and-guffaw material. The narrative would probably be just as effective were Sedaris himself standing there reading his essay. Still, Bethmann works hard for every grin and chuckle he gets, and they add up quickly in such a short show.
Note: Get yourself photographed with Santa Claus before the performance.
Given the signature David Mamet profanity exercised in “American Buffalo,” it might seem incongruous to be enamored of the script’s musicality. Yet there’s no better way to interpret the harsh but brilliantly rhythmic quality of the 1975 drama’s dialogue. Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s production of “American Buffalo” articulates this quality to a tee, owing to a smart director (Rosina Reynolds) and two actors (Richard Baird and Francis Gercke) who clearly intuit the incendiary tone but also the rat-a-tat vibrations of Mamet’s play.
The tale of a Chicago junk-shop owner (Gercke), his brutally neurotic crony (Baird) and a wrongheaded plan to burgle a house and supposedly turn a con back on a con artist quickly becomes convoluted. But it’s so much fun watching and listening to the actors fret and f-word their way through the proceedings that the quest for a rare and (maybe) expensive coin matters little. What a delicious theatrical departure for the holidays.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/4/19.)
In 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi, an American of Japanese heritage, stood on principle and defied a U.S. government order to “sign up” for a wartime internment camp. His case would go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Hirabayashi’s remarkable story comes to life in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s staging of Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths.” The one-person show stars Ryun Yu, who during the course of 90 minutes portrays Hirabayashi throughout the years of his fight against racial discrimination and for justice. Yu also plays others who factored in: his friends, his family, his prosecutors, his legal team. Yu’s is an affecting, dignified performance that transcends “legal case.” The marginalization, mistreatment and even imprisonment of men, women and children because of their race and color is tragically not a thing of the past.
Jessica Kubzansky directs “Hold These Truths” at the Rep, where well-timed sound effects (designed by John Zalewski) foster the illusion that Yu is not alone and that history, of a shameful kind, is unfolding around him.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/4/19.)
David McBean (left) and Tom Stephenson in "A Christmas Carol." Photo by Ken Jacques
From the way he grumbles over his pathetic supper of gruel to his stony scowl elicited by any mention of Christmas, Tom Stephenson’s Ebenezer Scrooge is delightfully Scroogey. He grimaces at well-wishers, growls at carolers and, in Cygnet Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” intermittently seems to break the fourth wall and share his meanness and miserliness with the audience.
Stephenson is the anchor of Cygnet’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, now in its sixth year as a Victorian-bedecked play-with-music in Old Town. (Previously, Cygnet had staged “A Christmas Carol” as a radio play in an equally charming if slightly more stilted incarnation.) Those who’ve seen Stephenson’s Scrooge in past years will enjoy the subtle nuances of characterization he always brings to the role as well as the new musical touches here and there in this surefire production directed by Sean Murray with a score by Billy Thompson.
In the ghostly story of “A Christmas Carol” … wait. No synopsis is necessary, right? What counts is the telling of the tale, and Cygnet once again does so with warmth, ingenuity and just the right degree of humor.
Besides Stephenson, everyone else from 2018’s talented cast returns, each of them playing multiple roles. Patrick McBride is a sympathetic and stiff-upper-lipped Bob Cratchit as well as a booming Mr. Fezziwig (accent on the wig). The versatile and expressive Melissa Fernandes inhabits everyone from Mrs. Cratchit to Scrooge’s put-upon charwoman with vigor and spirit, while Melinda Gilb demonstrates once more that she can kick up her heels as Mrs. Fezziwig one moment and wail like one of the Cratchit kids the next.
Charles Evans, Jr.’s gentle acoustic-guitar playing is an atmospheric complement to his many portrayals throughout, and Megan Carmitchel’s tender vocals grace the reprises of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” reworded for this storytelling. Rivaling Stephenson for sheer charisma is David McBean, who makes showy entrances as both Marley’s fettered ghost and as the towering, grandly robed Ghost of Christmas Present.
Music director Patrick Marion supports the ensemble on piano. The production’s merry choreography is by Katie Banville.
Back to the aforementioned ingenuity of Cygnet’s “A Christmas Carol”: In addition to their characterizations, the cast members other than Stephenson are busy manipulating puppets (design by Michael McKeon, Lynne Jennings and Rachel Hengst), creating sound effects as resonant as the rattling of heavy, dragging chains or as slight as the chirping of birds. Many of these embellishments are holdovers from Cygnet’s radio-play version of “A Christmas Carol” and are just as effective in furthering escape into Dickens’ story.
“A Christmas Carol,” first published in 1843, is often less regarded among Dickens scholars than his sweeping, novel-sized works, but its imagery and depth of language are undeniable. Cygnet Theatre’s adaptation naturally takes liberties with its use of the original story, but there is admirable respect for its richness and intricacy. Then as now, love and compassion reside in its holiday tidings.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 12/4/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.