Steven Anthony Jones and Amari Cheatom (foreground) in "Jitney." Photo by Joan Marcus
The daunting struggles for survival and personal dignity reside in Jim Becker's gypsy cab station. The year is 1977, the place Pittsburgh's embattled Hill District. The play is "Jitney," the first work written in the late August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" though the latest chronologically of the 10. As staged at the Old Globe Theatre and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, it's a penetrating, hang-on-every-word drama that touches sparks with every interpersonal conflagration.
The bracing intensity of the play is heightened by the richness of its principal characters: old Becker himself (Steven Anthony Jones), whose rules are posted on a wall in the ramshackle garage and whose iron fist is softened by a practically paternal sensitivity to those in his employ, however flawed; Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), an old gossip with a hot head and a weary but resignedly workmanlike way of doing his job -- taxiing fares that the name cab companies won't accommodate; Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), whose very name defines his youth, impetuosity and sometimes reckless bravado; Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), whose alcoholism makes driving for Becker at best a day-to-day proposition. He's an old soul more comfortable reminiscing about his days as a suit-maker for Billy Eckstine and Count Basie; and Booster (Francois Battiste), Becker's 39-year-old son, who is released from prison after serving 20 years for killing his girlfriend and who shows up at his father's door -- the father whose heart he shattered and who never visited him in the pen.
"Jitney" hinges on two ominous and complex conflicts: the bitter and unexpected reuniting of Becker and his son, and the prospect that the garage, out of which Becker's car service operates, will be shuttered to make way for a vaguely promised redevelopment project. But the rumblings of this play are woven in, out of, and in between the crisis points and realized in a series of conversations, revelations and showdowns (including one with a heavily breathing Turnbo aiming a gun at stiffly defiant Youngblood).
The beauty of "Jitney" is that neither its storytelling nor its characters is without tenderness. For all their flareups and foibles, the men of Becker's car service care about each other and definitely return the affection their boss holds for them. Youngblood, too, is in his swaggering way trying to make a life for the mother of his child (Nija Okoro) and their two-year-old son.
There is no tenderness between Becker and Booster. Just the searing flame of anger and the pain of disappointment and loss. Their faceoffs in the garage are fierce with tension. Anything could happen.
Santiago-Hudson directs with a palpable appreciation for Wilson's words and affords his cast room to explore their characterizations, as if moment by moment. The Globe production incorporates atmospheric original music by Bill Sims Jr. in transitioning between scenes, with the riffing notes a striking parallel to the riffing being voiced onstage and creating a jazzy tableau beneath Jane Cox's lighting. The set by David Gallo is meticulous and funkily shopworn, with even the suggestion of one of the old jitney automobiles behind musty window glass.
August Wilson's legacy at the Old Globe is a well-established one. "The Piano Lesson," "Two Trains Running" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" each premiered at the Balboa Park theater. "Jitney," first produced in Pittsburgh, did not begin at the Globe. But its arrival four decades later only burnishes that legacy.
"Jitney" runs through Feb. 16 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Don't be fooled. This is not a happy Thanksgiving in "The Humans." Photo by Jim Carmody
Meet the Blakes -- and brace yourself for a major depressive episode.
Father Erik is over-drinking, under-sleeping, having nightmares and harboring secrets.
Mother Deirdre is fighting a losing battle with counting calories and is (barely) staving off weepiness.
Daughter Aimee has been given the gate by her lover and is about to be given the same by her employer, a prestigious Philadelphia law firm. She also is suffering from ulcerative colitis and is facing surgery.
Daughter Brigid can't find work as an artist and is being paid under the table to tend bar so she can collect unemployment. She's cohabitating in an unsettlingly noisy (mysterious sounds!) basement duplex in the Big Apple's Chinatown with Richard, a 38-year-old graduate student two years away from collecting a richly sustainable legacy.
And grandma Fiona, aka "Momo," has slipped irrevocably into dementia.
In Stephen Karam's tense but deadening "The Humans," this physically and psychologically ailing entourage assembles for Thanksgiving at Brigid's and Richard's apartment. No ordinary Thanksgiving dinner will ensue.
Of course, is there ever in any household an ordinary Thanksgiving? The one depicted in "The Humans," onstage at the San Diego Rep's Lyceum Theatre under the direction of Todd Salovey, starts out ordinary enough: the prototypical family bickering, teasing, squabbling, at-the-table tensions, intended and unintended revelations and resentments. But perhaps two-thirds of the way through this 95-minute drama, "The Humans"' Thanksgiving evening becomes most extraordinary. Existential? Yes. Extrasensory? Getting closer. Supernatural? Could be.
Playwright Karam seemingly crafted the foundation of the play as if he'd placed a hidden microphone inside the house where a non-Norman Rockwellian Thanksgiving gathering were taking place. Anyone will recognize a moment -- or many moments -- that sound exactly like theirs on such an almost traditionally uncomfortable occasion. At the outset, this makes for a somewhat slogging beginning, as if we're obliged to eavesdrop more than observe and absorb. But Karam's characters, incredibly self-indulgent though they may be (except for poor afflicted "Momo"), are animated and unignorable even in their acute sufferings. This is due in great degree to the Rep's cast.
Jeffrey Meek is wrenching (more and more so as the denouement approaches) as patriarch Erik Blake, with Elizabeth Dennehy aptly unnerved as Deirdre and Kate Rose Reynolds tough but tormented as Brigid. The most human of "The Humans" is Amanda Sitton, whose aching honesty elicits true sympathy for the unlucky and unhappy Aimee.
These superior performances, though, aren't able to wholly compensate for a script that is endeavoring to accomplish far too much. Karam has said that he started out writing a thriller that became a family drama, rather than the other way around -- which is what seems to have happened here. Either way, the thriller/chiller/whatever atmospherics of "The Humans" don't ring true to me at all. The dark and relatable realities of these family members always seem more credible than the sound and lighting effects and deliberate allusions to death and desperation and the fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The humans in "The Humans" are by and large tortured people, though they have each other. Yet they wallow, and the story turns to SFX and delusions of deeper significance along the way to a numbing conclusion.
"The Humans" runs through Feb. 2 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre's Lyceum Theatre, downtown.
Hunter Saling and Rachel Weck in "Bloomsday" at North Coast Rep. Photo by Aaron Rumley
Though Robert, one of the play’s principal characters, derides James Joyce’s epic “Ulysses” time and again (even though as a professor he teaches the book), Steven Dietz’s “Bloomsday” is a sheer homage to the venerable 20th-century novel set in Dublin. Dietz crafted a sweetly enigmatic story that intentionally honors many of Joyce’s bold literary devices in “Ulysses”: alternating narrators, non-linear storytelling, jumps back and forth in time, ruminations that, while not quite streams of consciousness as in the novel, are nonetheless dreamy and self-indulgent.
Confession: I’ve never read “Ulysses” all the way through myself. Whether one had seemed to be the question in the air during intermission Saturday night at the North Coast Rep, which is presenting the San Diego premiere of “Bloomsday” under the direction of Andrew Barnicle. In eavesdropping as inconspicuously as possible, I picked up on the reality that no one who was asked this question answered in the affirmative.
But knowledge of “Ulysses” or even of Joyce isn’t absolutely essential to following “Bloomsday,” which on its own merits could be appreciated as a parallel-time love story replete with cogent if not exactly subtle messaging about second chances. The North Coast Rep cast, too, is an appealing one, with all but one of the four actors making their debut at the Solana Beach theater.
It’s quickly apparent in the 35-minute-long first act that American Robert (Martin Kildare) and Dubliner Cait (Jacquelyn Ritz, the one North Coast Rep returnee) are not merely observing but are counseling and advising the two younger versions of themselves: Robbie (Hunter Saling) and Caithleen Rachel Weck). But for one surprise reveal about Cait that arrives in the second act, the audience knows how the fleeting romance between her and Robert, and between their younger selves, will end. The mind games going on and the lyricism of Dietz’s language (another nod to Joyce?) are where one’s attention lies.
“Bloomsday’s” Act 2, in which Robbie and Caithleen rather cutely thrust and parry, picks up the pace from a short but sluggish opening act, and it’s in the younger lovers’ flirtations that our emotional investment in the play comes to the forefront. When it’s stopped cold by the present-day Robert and Cait’s acceptance of reality, our disappointment for them is just as emergent.
Weck and especially Ritz work very hard at their Irish accents. This effort toward authenticity, however, can be a bit distracting. The most memorable attempt actually comes from Saling in a sequence at a pub where Robbie has been cajoled by Caithleen to read from “Ulysses” out loud. There isn’t a lot of humor in “Bloomsday,” and what there is most of the time succeeds. It could probably have used more.
It’s a shame that the North Coast Rep production winds up nearly two weeks before Valentine’s Day because in the main, “Bloomsday” is a plaintively sentimental love story with a well-intended cautionary for all who hesitate to follow their hearts.
“Bloomsday” runs through Feb. 2 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
"Dear Evan Hansen" is making its San Diego debut. Photo by Matthew Murphy
“Dear Evan Hansen” takes a single premise – a misunderstanding over a letter – and exploits it to a vast, illogical and highly emotional conclusion. That narrative-wise the 2016 stage musical is inherently … well, problematic … proves little if any detriment to the impact of actually appreciating its two and a half hours: Many among the opening-night crowd at the Civic Theatre, where Broadway San Diego is presenting a national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” cried on and off throughout. This show, written by Steven Levenson with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, won the Tony for Best Musical and seems to have won hearts too because it connects with people on a personal level. It speaks to the chasm of darkness inside those who feel disconnected from those around them, from those who love or supposedly love them, or more frighteningly from the world at large.
Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a high school boy being raised by his divorced mother (Jessica E. Sherman), his father having split to pursue a new life with a new family back when Evan was 7. The sweet, gangly Evan suffers from social anxiety and over-apologizing to the point that he is in therapy, and among his prescribed psychological treatments is to write letters of affirmation and positivity to himself. When one of them, which among other things expresses his hidden feelings for a girl named Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle), is swiped from him by Zoe’s angry and bullying brother Connor (Noah Kieserman), Evan’s fate (and that of others) will change: Connor takes his own life, and when the letter headed “Dear Evan Hansen” is found in his possession, it is assumed that Evan was the troubled youth’s only friend. What begins for the frazzled Evan as a means of comforting Connor’s grieving (or in denial) family gets quickly out of hand. Lies beget lies beget lies, even as Connor’s family (John Hemphill, Claire Rankin, La Rochelle) draw him close to them.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a dialogue-heavy musical, which can be tricky within the Civic Theatre’s undependable acoustics. But the show’s non-singing sequences allow for essential character development. We get to know not only Evan but his anguished mother in particular more fully than if only in song. The score is melodic and purposeful and dominated by confessional tunes (“Waving Through a Window,” “Requiem,” “If I Could Tell Her”) and the profoundly cathartic “You Will Be Found,” which distinguishes Act 1 and is reprised later.
Because Evan’s plight and the consequences of the misunderstanding (including the commemorative campaign in Connor’s memory that unfolds) are driven by social media, the visuals and digital accoutrements of personal technology make up the very set itself -- dinging and pinging and echoing a chorus of “virtual community voices,” and in so doing cementing “Dear Evan Hansen” as a theatrical product and critical reflection of the digital age. Social media is not new, nor was it when the show opened in 2016, but the seismic complications it has wrought among young people especially are at the foundation of this show.
Anthony is most sympathetic in the role made famous on Broadway by Ben Platt, making Evan less a nerd than a sweet but damaged youth. While the supporting cast is solid around him, no one else strikes the resonant chords that Anthony does, though Sherman comes closest in the painful “So Big/So Small” in Act 2, where Heidi Hansen expresses the desperation any mother out of her depth might express.
Messages here for after the show: Kids, talk to your parents. Parents, talk (and listen) to your kids.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through Jan. 12 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
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.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat