Stirring drama and exhilarating musical comedy capped a memorable year in theater in San Diego. Here's a look at the best of the best:
The Bluest Eye, Moxie Theatre: A co-production with Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company, this adaptation of Toni Morrison's first novel tells the heartbreaking story of little Pecola Breedlove (Cashae Monya), an African-American girl in 1940s Ohio starving for friendship and love. Moxie's Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg directed a faultless cast in a potent production that demonstrated restraint in its most unspeakable moments without sacrificing the impact of the play's indictments of racism, incest and domestic abuse.
Tribes, La Jolla Playhouse: The sound of silence was unforgettable in the Playhouse's production of Nina Raines' 2010 play. A family scrupulously portrayed by Jeff Still, Lee Roy Rogers, Thomas DellaMonica, Dina Thomas and Russell Harvard wrestles with questions of communication and "normalcy," with deaf son Billy (Harvard) at the center of onerous, life-changing decisions. The engrossing, multilayered play had as much staying power as anything on stage locally this year.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, The Old Globe Theatre: Now on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, this laugh-riot understandably wowed Globe theater-goers in the spring. Just as he did in Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife a decade earlier, Jefferson Mays brilliantly inhabits multiple characters in Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's zany show, a cousin to the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets. No musical comedy in town all year was as inventively produced or as entertaining.
The Federal Jazz Project, San Diego Repertory Theatre: The poetry of Culture Clash co-founder Richard Montoya and the musicality of jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos were made for each other. (Castellanos' lush playing provided the backdrop for a memorable Montoya monologue in Culture Clash's Bordertown back in the '90s, also at the Rep.) A south-of-Broadway San Diego nightclub was the setting for this intrepid show, one bold enough to cast two women as "San Diego" and "Tijuana" and to cut away from the narrative for a foot-tapping jazz jam session.
Grey Gardens, Ion Theatre Company: Linda Libby's rendering of the soul-searing "Another Winter in a Summer Town" is just one devastatingly beautiful moment in this production of a 2006 musical (by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, with book by Doug Wright) based on a 1975 documentary about the Bouvier Beales, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie." Ion's little theater in Hillcrest was just the right setting for this claustrophobic telling of the disintegration of an American royal family.
Extraordinary Chambers, Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company: Mo'olelo's Seema Sueko is moving on to the Pasadena Playhouse, but she leaves an estimable legacy behind, including directing the thoughtful Extraordinary Chambers in the summer. The extent of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia is, sadly, little known to so many of us—at least 1.7 million people died in the '70s. David Wiener's play is shocking and enlightening, and Greg Watanabe's Dr. Heng was one of the most chilling figures on stage locally in 2013.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Old Globe Theatre: The two Shakespeare productions in this year's summer festival at the Globe (A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice) were outshone by the Adrian Noble-directed Rosencrantz, which starred Jay Whittaker and John Lavelle, each superb. Tom Stoppard's three-act deconstruction of Hamlet never flagged, and its comic existentialism provided just the right change of pace for open-minded summer audiences.
Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, Ion Theatre Company: Ron Choulartan's truth-seeking tiger got most of the buzz, but it was Brian Abraham's topiary artist, Musa, who best inhabited the volatile spirit of Rajiv Joseph's play set in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ion's Claudio Raygoza directed and also appeared as Saddam's son, Uday, and Evan Kendig and Jake Rosko portrayed U.S. soldiers immersed in the chaos in Iraq. An ongoing search for answers, and for God, fueled the raw tension.
A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, San Diego Repertory Theatre: Herbert Siguenza, artist-in-residence at the Rep, wrote and starred in this delightful one-man show about the great master from Malaga, Spain. Not only does the likable Siguenza quip, philosophize and rant throughout; he also creates a body of Picasso-like paintings and sketches. Music and stage projections add to the entertainment, and by the time it's over, you really feel as if you indeed spent a weekend with the man who said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."
Young Frankenstein, Moonlight Stage Company: Who saw this coming? A production of Mel Brooks' 2007 musical-stage adaptation of his own film that was just as much howling fun as the movie. Yes, the songs are only so-so and the sight gags obvious, but it's hard to see how anyone could fail to have a good time. Jessica Bernard even managed to pull off the impossible, to rival the late, great Madeline Kahn's performance as Dr. Fronk-In-Steen's madcap fiancée.
Honorable mention: North Coast Repertory Theatre's Time Stands Still, The Old Globe Theatre's Other Desert Cities, Intrepid Shakespeare Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream, San Diego Repertory Theatre's Venus in Fur.
Beauty and the Beast: A jerk-face prince is turned into an awful-looking creature, and the only way he can reverse it is to claim the heart of a woman using only a newfound winning personality. Presented by Broadway San Diego, it runs Jan. 7 through 12 at the Civic Theatre, Downtown. broadwaysd.com
In the Time of the Butterflies: The true story of four sisters who challenged Dominican dictator Generalissmo Rafael Trujillo in 1960. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it opens Jan. 4 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
Forever Plaid: Paid Tidings: The wholesome revue of 1950s-style harmony singing returns—again. Through Dec. 31 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net