Arts & Entertainment
Musicals, one-man shows and black comedy prevail
Published Thursday, 30-Dec-2004 in issue 888
This year has been contrary in lots of ways, including weather and politics. The theater year came in like a lamb, but it’s going out roaring with one of the best musicals to come down the pike in years: La Jolla Playhouse’s Jersey Boys, about those ’60s icons Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
In fact, this has been a great year for musicals in San Diego: Crowns, The Last 5 Years (really an opera), Lucky Duck, The Fantasticks, the Broadway-bound Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Starlight’s terrific Sweeney Todd were all crowd-pleasers. Los Angeles got into the sweepstakes with another “musical” (read: opera) – Tony Kushner’s moving Caroline, or Change at the Ahmanson.
We had some great one-man shows, too: David McBean’s hilarious Fully Committed at Cygnet, Rosina Reynolds’ fabulous Shirley Valentine at Sixth @ Penn and later at North Coast Rep, and the inimitable Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays at La Jolla Playhouse, which opened on Broadway earlier this month under Des McAnuff’s direction. And let’s not forget Dennis J. Scott’s rendering of David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.
In the drama category, there were several standouts. In alphabetical order: North Coast Rep’s stunning production of The Chosen wins my “Whew!” award for not ruining one of my all-time favorite books, and also for providing one of the most satisfying evenings in the theater this year. Lamb’s Players gave us a solid production of the classic Dial M for Murder, and excellent performances by Jennifer Austin, Rick D. Meads and Matt Scott.
The Greeks are always good for affecting drama, as Sixth @ Penn’s Hecuba demonstrated in spades. Robin Christ’s bravura performance anchored this production, and Charlene Penner’s serpentine Polydorus lent an appropriately ghostly presence to poor Hecuba’s sorrows.
Ion and Common Ground Theatres teamed up for a spectacular production of A Raisin in the Sun, mirroring the 20th century classic’s return to Broadway. The too infrequently seen Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, along with P. Shekinah Perkins and Monique Gaffney, brought audiences to their feet with their fine acting.
Saturday Night at the Palace and The Maids win in the thematically “blacker-than-a-hundred-midnights-down-in-a-cypress-swamp” division for their searing portrayals of racism, classism and masochism. Both were presented at 6th @ Penn Theatre.
Two fine dramas win in the Best Under-Attended Play category (this is not an insult, but a plaint): Mo’olelo’s Remains, about an exchange student killed in Israel (Seema Sueko wrote and starred), and Stone Soup Theatre’s production of Lee Blessing’s Two Rooms at the Firehouse in La Jolla, about a hostage in Beirut. Both plays are timely and powerful; I hope both are produced again soon.
Comedy pickins were a little slim this year. It’s not that there weren’t any comedies, it’s that too many seemed more like sitcoms than plays. The funniest were the one-man shows: the previously mentioned Crystal and McBean and Scott’s Santa’s elf. But here are the best of the comic plays:
Cygnet’s Bed & Sofa, based on a silent film, impressed for its quirky good humor and lack of dialogue, and fine acting.
At the Old Globe, Fiction offered a comedic take on writers and death (yes, you read it right) that made us both laugh and think – a rare combination. Art at Lamb’s Players did pretty much the same thing, though the topic there was the nature of art.
Diversionary Theatre’s production of Nicky Silver’s Fit To Be Tied provided at least one act of nonstop laughter, and a chance for Jill Drexler to steal the show.
We were not wanting for great performances this year. Here are some of my favorites:
Douglas Lay and Giancarlo Ruiz for Kiss of the Spider Woman
Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and P. Shekinah Perkins in A Raisin in the Sun
Jill Drexler in Fit To Be Tied
Robin Christ for Hecuba
Ron Choularton and Cristina Soria for Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes and The Lover
David McBean in Fully Committed
Annie Hinton for The Book of Liz
Seema Sueko in Remains
Paul Morgavo, Rebecca Johannsen and Julie Sachs for Two Rooms
The award for Best Stagecraft is split between La Jolla Playhouse’s Jersey Boys and two Old Globe plays: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Lucky Duck.
Best Directing awards go to Des McAnuff for Jersey Boys, Sean Murray for the wordless Bed & Sofa at Cygnet and Darko Tresnjac’s outstanding and beautifully staged productions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and the seldom-performed The Two Noble Kinsmen.
The best costumes were at the Old Globe, and the winners are Gregg Barnes for the wild and wacky duds of Lucky Duck and Linda Cho for the classic lines that made Antony and Cleopatra such a pleasure to watch.
It’s a tie for Best Script: Steven Dietz for Fiction and Becky Mode for Fully Committed.
And now the quirky awards, particular to this year:
Richard Baird gets the Most Adventurous Performance award for his wall-rattling interpretation of Macbeth for Poor Players Theatre.
The Fastest Talking Award goes to Seema Sueko, whose title character in The Intelligent Life of Jenny Chow at the Cassius Carter had many in the audience gasping for air.
And the winner of the Audience vs. Critics award goes to the Old Globe’s musical Lucky Duck. This charming retelling of the Andersen tale got a standing ovation every night, but was savaged by most local critics. The audience was right.
Apologies to everyone involved with the plays I did not see, most especially those at Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista and New Village Arts in Carlsbad, which I have yet to visit. I resolve to get to those theaters, and many others, next year.