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Looking back on 2015 theater

comefromaway_123015The year 2015 in San Diego theater—one to remember—challenged the mind, the senses and the heart. Here are the best of the best:

Come From Away, La Jolla Playhouse: No offering in 2015 packed the power and poignancy of this co-production between La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Playhouse’s Christopher Ashley brilliantly directed the world-premiere musical that immersed audiences in the experiences of the passengers of 38 airliners who were forced to land on 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, and those of the townspeople who cared for them. Spouses Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the show, which deserves a Broadway run someday.

The Twenty-Seventh Man, Old Globe Theatre: Can a performance be a tour de force for three actors at the same time? Such was the case with Hal Linden, Ron Orbach and Robert Dorfman in Nathan Englander’s trenchant one-act play about three Soviet Jewish writers—victims of “The Night of the Murdered Poets” under Stalin’s regime. Tragic and intelligent, The Twenty-Seventh Man told an all-too-little known story with penetration, nuance and dignity—a

Why Children’s Theater Matters

Why Children's Theater MattersThe children’s theater movement is led by Europe, but the U.S. is not far behind. And we’re not just talking about the bustling theater town of New York. The third largest children’s theater in the world is tucked away in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Other mid-sized cities—from Dallas, to Tempe, to Nashville, are also cooking up kids’ fare in full-time children venues.

With the introduction of No Child Left Behind, many schools that used to round out reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic with a yearly jaunt to see Shakespeare in action, or Jack ascending the beanstalk, have now scrapped these field trips in favor of spending more time preparing for standardized tests and drilling “fundamentals”. The question is, how can you, as a parent, pick up the slack?

No one would argue the importance of literacy or fractions, but study after study has shown that the arts are more than fluff. Longitudinal data of 25,000 students involved in the arts, conducted at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education by Dr. James Catterall, shows that consistent participation greatly improves academic performance and significantly bumps up standardized test scores. Students who make time for the arts are also more involved in

How Theater for Young People Could Save the World


March 20th is World Theater for Children and Young People Day. Some of you might be thinking, “Oh lord, why do we need a day to celebrate actors being silly, wearing bright colors and singing obnoxiously at squirming kiddos and bored parents?”

But if you think that’s what Theatre for Young People is, you’re missing out on truly powerful, hilarious, bold, engaging, surprising theater that might just save the world.

Around the world artists are creating a new stripe of Theatre for Young People that combines the elegance of dance, the innovation of devised theater, the freshness of new plays, the magnetism of puppetry and the inciting energy of new musicals. Kids have access to more and more mature theatrical visions premiering from Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center to Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre to San Francisco’s Handful Players to Ireland to Adelaide to Kosovo to Cape Town.

These plays range from re-imagined fairy tales and adaptations of favorite books to brand-new plays and electric new musicals about everything from physics to bullying to the American Civil War.

But how could theater, especially theater for young people, really matter in a world as fraught and disparity-scattered as ours?
The Amazing Adventures

Todd Pavlisko Collects Punk-Loving Pals for Gimmie

Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie is curator Todd Pavlisko’s homecoming potluck for misfits, with contributions from six artists and 10 local collectors attracted to contemporary works outside the mainstream. Two shows in one, Gimmie draws its title and Punk inspiration from the Black Flag song of the same name, featuring the lyrics, “I need some more / Don’t know what for.” Touring the collectors’ exhibit in the Weston Art Gallery’s lower level is like visiting a holiday dinner set up in the basement for angst-ridden adolescents and eccentric aunts and uncles. Both are minimalist spaces where provocative and thoughtful discourse takes place, unexpected pairings work and you discover that ideas you originally thought were weird are actually cool. Collector George Kurz admits to that kind of revelation himself. One piece he contributed to Gimmie is a hanging sculpture of plastic bottles from New York artist Tony Feher. “I remember seeing his work for the first time probably 10 years ago in a New York gallery, and I was totally confused,” Kurz says in an email interview. “I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that something

Modern Living Finds Fun Amid Function

At The Carnegie’s Modern Living: Objects and Context, curators Matt Distel and BLDG present two types of environments for considering artists’ household-inspired sculptures and design firms’ tables, lamps and more. The exhibition explores where the definitions of design and art merge and diverge. Can something functional also have aesthetic value? Should an object intended as sculpture be put into everyday use?  On opening night Dec. 4, it wasn’t long before visitors gravitated from thoughtfully viewing pieces in a museum-like setting on the first floor to lounging in an upper gallery that’s been reimagined as a patio in Los Angeles. Similar objects fill both rooms, but the furnishings take on new purpose upstairs, where teams of design firms and artists created three living spaces for their objects. In the “backyard,” a simulated bedroom and a dining room, the show’s vibe changes from looking to living.  Distel, The Carnegie’s exhibitions director, said Modern Living was inspired by the new restaurants and businesses in Northern Kentucky, downtown and Over-the-Rhine. “I felt I’d been seeing a lot of stuff by designers that looked like art, and art that looked

Historicism in Paint

Currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art is Heroism in Paint: A Master Series by Jacob Lawrence, featuring the world-renowned painter’s first venture in creating a series of historical paintings — The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture series, which launched his successful 60-plus-year artistic career and made him into a de facto historian. Lawrence was profoundly influenced by artists of the Harlem Renaissance, whom he often came into contact with but were a decade or so older — so he had plenty of role models to look to as a young artist. The painter was not only exceptional for being a successful black artist in his day, but he was also a recipient of prolonged arts boostership: Lawrence began classes at the Harlem Artists Guild as a teenager, was a recipient of numerous fellowships and grants and was enrolled as an easel painter in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. As a result of this mentorship and early arts education, he painted the cycle of 41 colorful, tempera-on-paper paintings about the first successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1938 at the

Phyllis Weston Mastered the Art of Friendship

Phyllis Weston relished bringing together art and people from all backgrounds. A classic lady and a modern woman, the gallerist and arts advocate died Dec. 6 at age 94. Weston founded Closson’s downtown gallery in 1964. In 40 years as director, she gave many prominent artists their starts. Weston also helped found what’s now Enjoy the Arts, was a Cincinnati Opera trustee and was behind Cincinnati Ballet’s founding. In her 80s, Weston realized the dream of running her own space. Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery opened in 2006 and became the Phyllis Weston Gallery in 2010. The tiny dynamo was a constant presence, showcasing a new generation of Cincinnati artists. Throughout her storied life — she once had a screen test with Orson Welles — “Phyllis from Galion, Ohio” exuded small-town warmth. “I just love people,” she’d say. Some share what they loved about her. John Ruthven, “the 20th Century Audubon” – He had his first major show around 1967 at Closson’s. “I was the new kid on the block and given the back gallery on the

Violet’ opens San Diego Rep’s 40th season

If you travel the theater circuit at all, you’ve no doubt experienced a few heavy-handed productions that employ screen projections to alert the audience as to the significance or definition of a given scene. If executed with technical savvy, this device can have artistic merit. It can just as equally come off as condescending. No need for such a gimmick with Violet, the Jeanine Tesori/Brian Crawley musical based on Doris Betts’ book The Ugliest Pilgrim that opens the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 40th season (congratulations, Rep!). Violet is about the nature of beauty—what it is, what it isn’t, how it’s beheld. This is as clear as a big ol’ harvest moon hangin’ over North Carolina. Y’all.

Forgive the Southern flavor. You can’t help it with a story that unfolds entirely in the 1960s American South. Violet (a stridently impressive Hannah Corrigan) is on a pilgrimage from her Carolina hometown to visit a Jimmy Swaggartlike televangelist (Jason Heil, working up a sweat) whom she hopes can heal the facial disfigurement she’s suffered with since a childhood accident. On this multi-stop bus trip, she meets a couple of young soldiers, macho yet insecure Monty (Jacob Caltrider) and an intense African-American sergeant, Flick (Rhett

Not your average fish story

Imaginative” is the word that best describes Big Fish, Moonlight Stage Company’s closing offering of its outdoor amphitheater season. Its trippy screen projections, versatile set pieces and colorful costumes combine to transport you to a circus, to an open field of daffodils, to an Old West town, to the cave of a giant and more. These are all memories from the manically creative mind of Edward Bloom (Josh Adamson)—or are they? Are they instead fantasies? Fish stories if you will?

You may remember Daniel Wallace’s novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions or more likely Tim Burton’s 2003 film based on the book, Big Fish. This 2013 stage musical (book by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) is a natural extension. While less wacky and more sincere than Burton’s film, Big Fish the musical, directed at Moonlight by Steven Glaudini, is a mostly merry carnival ride, with just the right amount of human warmth. (Its conflict stems from Bloom’s son, played by Patrick Cummings, trying to find out “the truth” about his eccentric—and dying— dad’s past.) The always magnetic Bets Malone teams with the resourceful Adamson to give you true characters to root for, and the musical score

Hello, Dolly!’—once again

Dolly Levi, matchmaker and self-proclaimed circumventer of any obstacle in the way of a potential love match, is a BIG personality. So big that none of the “matchees” in her sphere of influence is even remotely as interesting. When Dolly’s not on stage, the void is a Broadway-sized one. Her name’s in the title of the show, for crying out loud.

But you knew all that. Hello, Dolly! has been entertaining theater audiences since 1964, and if the current production at Welk Resort Theatre directed by Ray Limon is any indication, Dolly shows no signs of slowing down. Hell, the famous title song, which goes “Dolly’ll never go away again,” seems misguided. She’s never been away.

The Welk’s Dolly, bursting with life thanks to Cynthia Ferrer, reigns over this production, bestowing all the requisite heart and laughter in Michael Stewart’s book (based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker) and Jerry Herman’s songs. She and the rest of the sizable cast also radiate from the stage in gaily colored period costumes designed by Janet Pitcher.

While the Welk stage is small for a show of this scale and its Hello, Dolly! sets are just adequate, the actors—from Dolly on down to the high-stepping waiters at

Footloose ‘In Your Arms’ celebrates amour

Though not all of its choreographed, wordless love stories have a happy ending, the Old Globe’s world-premiere In Your Arms is a joyous experience for the theatergoer and a triumph of artistic collaboration. Major playwrights, such as Christopher Durang, Terrence McNally and David Henry Hwang, wrote the show’s 10 vignettes.

Tony winner Christopher Gattelli is responsible for the direction and for the athletic, frequently sublime choreography. The original music is by Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime), with lyrics by his collaborator Lynn Ahrens.

The overarching theme of the vignettes, most of which tell stories completely in dance (performed by an impressive ensemble), is romance. While we get the cutesy (Alfred Uhry’s “Love with the Top Down”) and the overly sentimental (Marsha Norman’s “Life Long Love”), we also get Nilo Cruz’s sensual “The Lover’s Jacket,” Lynn Nottage’s heart-stopping “A Wedding Dance,” Carrie Fisher’s hilarious “Lowdown Messy Shame” and, best of all, Hwang’s hip, cinematic “White Snake.” The fabled George Chakiris even appears in the show-closing “Sand Dancing,” written by Ahrens. There’s something for every taste and every lover.

In Your Arms runs through Oct. 25 at the Old Globe Theatre. $36 and up. theoldglobe.org

Cassandra Medley’s Cell kicks off Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s new

The complex choreography of war

La Jolla Playhouse is getting a jump on its biennial Without Walls Festival (coming up Oct. 9-11) with a presentation of Liz Lerman’s dance-theater piece Healing Wars. In the spirit of the site-specific WoW Festival, Healing Wars allows audiences backstage before the show to encounter the play’s cast in moving (in both senses of the word) tableaux. This helps evoke Lerman’s trenchant messages about the scars that war inflicts on those who fight it and the healing that sometimes never follows.

This solemn multidisciplinary production melds the Civil War and our more recent conflicts in the Middle East with equal fervor and tenderness. Exposition is entwined in balletic choreography conceived by Lerman and Keith Thompson. The cast of eight, portraying figures from both time periods, includes Paul Hurley, a Navy veteran fitted with a prosthetic leg. Healing Wars weaves in and out of parallel wars and aftermaths, perhaps raising too many talking points—pain, medicine, physical scars, emotional scars, PTSD, the horror and senselessness of war, and the indiscriminate specter of death. But Healing Wars’ evocative period music, David Israel Reynoso’s set and costume design, and the sensitivity of its dance sequences, which speak more eloquently than words, are equally artful and

Nourishing drama at San Diego Rep

While the customers at a ritzy Upper East Side restaurant dine on overpriced fare, four busboys living paycheck to paycheck toil with remarkable precision and perseverance behind the scenes. But the teamwork and camaraderie among Peter (Edred Utomi), Whalid (Spencer Smith), Jorge (Jorge E. Rodriguez) and Pepe (Jose Martinez) becomes paranoia, desperation and ultimately worse in Elizabeth Irwin’s penetrating My Manana Comes at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. This one-act play faultlessly directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg must be appreciated on two levels: the rigor and meticulousness of the actors playing busboys hard at work, and the personal interactions between them that tell an important story about minimum-wage survival, exploitation of workers and clashing cultures.

Spanish is spoken abundantly during the action (Rodriguez and Martinez portray Mexicans working in the U.S. to better their families’ lives), though the tensions and confidences between the characters should be clear to all. Playwright Irwin has attempted to give each man a backstory, but in a one-act some are more substantial than others. One thing is for certain: Each man has something to cling to and something to lose—a fact no doubt lost on the unseen diners gorging on foie gras.

My Manana Comes runs through

Bottom’s up at a ghostly pub

If you’ve spent any serious time (or not so serious time) with pals at a corner bar you know that the more booze or whiskey consumed, the taller the tales. If that bar happens to be in Ireland you can count on the tales being spooky. In Conor McPherson’s The Weir, produced many times in Europe and in the U.S. since it was written in 1997, the bar is a rural Irish pub run by a good-natured innkeeper named Brendan. One dark, windy night, there’s drinking and storytelling aplenty in his place: from salty philosopher Jack, who runs a garage; from sad-sack handyman Jim; from smug businessman Finbar, and from Finbar’s companion, a lovely young newbie to the neighborhood named Valerie.

Atmosphere is as much front and center as the plot in New Village Arts’ affectionate interpretation of The Weir. It’s directed by Kristianne Kurner on a cozy pub set by Kelly Kissinger that practically begs you to hop right onto it, the better to order a Guinness and join the conversation. Some of that conversation’s a might difficult to understand early on, so thick are the Irish brogues (especially Ron Choularton’s, who plays Jack). But once all the characters are

A dark ‘End of the Rainbow’

She survived a cyclone in The Wizard of Oz, but Judy Garland could not survive the train wreck that was a life devastated by alcohol and drug abuse, and by the pressures of the kind of superstardom we take for granted today. The last few months before Garland succumbed, at age 47, are dramatized in Peter Quilter’s sometimes harrowing End of the Rainbow. As Garland in Intrepid Theatre Co.’s production downtown, Eileen Bowman knocks it out of the park. Her alternating flammability and vulnerability as the beloved but broken Judy transcends an overlong script with many foreseeable plot turns. And when she becomes Judy the front-and-center performer she belts out standards like “Come Rain or Come Shine” with deep-seated passion and swirling torment, all without doing a caricatured Garland impersonation. Jeffrey Jones (as self-serving fiancé Mickey Deans) and Cris O’Bryon (as Garland’s pianist for the London engagement dramatized in the play) offer sturdy support. This is, however, Bowman’s gig and, from somewhere beyond the rainbow, the immortal Judy Garland’s, too.

End of the Rainbow runs through Nov. 29 at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza, downtown. $16-$52. intrepidtheatre.org

As long as we’re talking about Judy Garland, why not bring up

Chapatti exudes warmth and restraint

Sometimes even the stubbornly unsentimental can be suckers for sentimentality. This is on display in Chapatti, Christian O’Reilly’s one-act play having its West Coast premiere at the North Coast Rep. The ingredients for soupiness are there: two lonely people finding love again, later in life; a faithful little terrier named Chapatti that we don’t see (there’s no dog on stage) but don’t have to; an old woman’s loving cat—her reason to live—which is run over by a car.

But Chapatti (the play, not the terrier), a world-premiere co-production last year between Ireland’s Galway Arts Festival and the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, transcends soap opera. So durable and downright human are its two characters, Dan (Mark Bramhall) and Betty (Annabella Price), that any pity you might feel for them is superseded by affection, and by admiration for each one’s nobility. Without trying they make each other laugh—yes, and make each other cry, too. But what goes on in between is the play’s strength.

The loss of one of the 19 cats that lives in Betty’s house is the (can’t resist this) catalyst for bringing the remote Dan and house-bound Betty together. Immersed, even obsessed, with an old, clandestine love now gone, Dan is

Watson aims at modern truths

Time travel propels Moxie Theatre’s production of Madeleine George’s The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. There’s a lot going on here. The play is a treatise on the complex, symbiotic relationship between human beings and the increasingly technological world in which we live. It’s also a cautionary narrative about the perils of relying on the safety of externals at the expense of open emotion. And it’s a “curious case” of love designed to conquer all but in the end, unable to.

The eponymous Watson is four different characters, all played by Justin Lang. Among them is Sherlock Holmes’ faithful cohort, of course. Another is that computer that whipped up on humans on Jeopardy. The Watson who’s one-half of the love story (a hormonal computer dweeb) is earnest and sensitive to the point that you prefer a robot. Jo Anne Glover is the object of his affections. Her character, Eliza, is achingly confused about the value and integrity of genuine feelings. This makes for a muddled conclusion. Eddie Yaroch, whether in present-day or historical roles, shines, and does so more brightly than do the proffered truths of this play.

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence runs through Dec. 6 at Moxie

Playhouse premieres Paula Vogel’s powerful ‘Indecent’

Paula Vogel’s Indecent stokes the emotional fires on multiple levels, not the least of which is sheer anger—especially about the quashing of freedom of artistic expression. Anger about intolerance and bigotry. Anger that a gifted Yiddish playwright’s spirit was just about broken, that dark unrelenting forces sought to subjugate, to erase, the Jewish culture.

Yet Vogel’s one-act play with music, a co-production between Yale Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, is constructed upon quiet, thoughtful reflection more than anger. It’s a sad, sensitive work created for the stage by Vogel and by director Rebecca Taichman that even in that sadness never loses sight of the resolve and life force of the Jewish people.

Right away, the narrative tells us that Indecent is a play about a play: Sholem Asch’s 1906 God of Vengeance, which affected and challenged audiences in Europe before coming to America and ultimately, in 1923, to Broadway where it was shut down and its cast charged with obscenity. The “obscenity” was the depiction of a lesbian relationship, a Jewish brothel and the renunciation and ill treatment of the Torah.

Indecent’s seven-person ensemble (plus three musicians, also immersed in the action) brings to life the staging of God of Vengeance, both

Zen and the art of parenting

Before you let holiday shopping get the better of you, consider catching Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy, which winds up its run at the San Diego Repertory Theatre on Dec. 6. A heady, expressive performance by Amanda Sitton, beautiful sets by Sean Fanning and haunting Tibetan music arranged by Michael Roth are just three of the reasons to bond with this enlightened story. It’s about parents confronting the heart-rending decision of whether to let their 3-year-old son, evidently the reincarnation of a lama (or teacher), grow up without them on the other side of the world in a monastery. Sitton portrays the boy’s mother and does so with such sensitivity that you’ll feel you are in her shoes.

Ruhl’s play has its draggy places, such as the Act One meet-cute flashback about the mother and the boy’s father (Napoleon Tavale). But what Ruhl (The Vibrator Play, The Clean House) imparts about academia, teachers and those who make the greatest sacrifices is smart and important. The sheer peace of the Buddhist way pervades all as Ruhl’s narrative melds with the production’s exquisite music and dance.

The Oldest Boy runs through Dec. 6 on the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage, downtown. $33-$66. sdrep.org

That green guy is at it, again

There’s a new Grinch in town. Stentorian-voiced J. Bernard Calloway, who some may remember from La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere staging of Memphis a few years ago, takes over as the Mean Green I Hate Christmas Machine. His antics, like all the Grinches before him in this Old Globe holiday perennial (now in its 18th reincarnation) are the best—and most satisfying for adults—part of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

On opening night, 8-year-old Mikee Castillo co-starred as Cindy-Lou Who, and she’s also a bright little star in the one-act, family-friendly production. Sure, this show can be cloying and heavy on Whoville sweetness: Some of the sugary songs are cavity-inducing. But there’s a reason it’s been around this long. It’s dependable and sincerely delivered yuletide entertainment.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
runs through Dec. 26 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. $24-$37. oldglobe.org

The other “grinch” in town is Ebenezer Scrooge, played once again by the stellar Tom Stephenson in Cygnet Theatreís annual production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is not colored green, but he’s just as mean as the Grinch—at least until Jacob Marley (David McBean, owning the stage) and three other ghostly visits

There’s no place like theater for the holidays

One takeaway from New Village Arts’ production of Walton Jones’ The 1940s Radio Hour; once you hear radio ensemble player Ginger Brooks’ (Marlene Montes) orgasmic commercial, you’ll never think of Eskimo Pies in the same way again.

Actually, the between-show commercials are the choice bits in NVA’s 90-minute representation of a New York City radio station’s holiday show, “recorded” in front of a studio audience, during the WWII era. A game cast sings and dances to a lot of period standards, and yes, there are the inevitable Christmas numbers, too. A prebroadcast segment that sort of introduces the characters seems pointless. The show-within-a-show itself, with the very funny Daren Scott as the harried emcee, would be enough on its own. Besides Scott and the aforementioned Montes, The 1940s Radio Hour benefits from the crooning and hoofing of Zackary Scot Wolfe and an impossibly perky Danielle Levas. The always entertaining Tony Houck, on piano, is a jaunty one-man band.

The 1940s Radio Hour runs through Dec. 31 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. $25-$47. newvillagearts.org

The music portion of Point Loma Playhouse’s Mistletoe, Music & Mayhem is the highlight of this debut production from a brand-new company led by estimable local

A not so merry Christmas revisited

Christmas Eve in 1864 is the setting for Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas, onstage at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights through Jan. 3. When stacked up against most of the holiday-oriented fluff in San Diego theaters this month, this talky musical that originally premiered in 2008 is intellectually rigorous. But with the cast of nine on a bare stage, seated much of the time with open books containing the script in their possession, A Civil War Christmas for all its gravitas is in essence a two-hour staged reading, with music.

Now there’s something to be said for that music, with not only the cast members but also the sonorous Encore Vocal Ensemble behind the stage and a pianist and fiddler handling live accompaniment. The expected Christmas carols notwithstanding, the songs from the Civil War era that evoke the horrors of the war, the plight of the freed slaves and the desperate mood of the nation divided are rendered with spirit and solemnity. When the music stops to tell the various intertwining stories of this night before Christmas the production flags. There are too many characters and subplots, for one thing, and for another some in the cast rely

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