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.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat