Heart-rending family stories. Traditional and post-modern Shakespeare. Rousing musicals. The past year in San Diego theater was one to savor. Here are the best of the best:
All My Sons, Intrepid Shakespeare Company: At one point during this stirring production, I overheard two women sitting beside me crying. It was understandable: Encinitas-based Intrepid's realization of Arthur Miller's tense drama about the disintegration of a post-World War II family was as deeply involving as anything seen all year. Tom Stephenson and Brian Mackey stood out among a faultless cast under the direction of Christy Yael-Cox. The deceptive tranquility of a Midwest backyard was an ideal setting for a deconstruction of the American Dream.
The Who and the What, La Jolla Playhouse: Despite its copout ending, this world-premiere of Ayad Akhtar's treatise on love, faith and identity was the highlight of La Jolla Playhouse's year. (The Who and the What began life in 2013 as part of the Playhouse's inaugural DNA New Works Series.) The filial and philosophical tug-of-war between a Muslim-American father (Bernard White) and daughter (Monika Jolly) made for riveting theater in intimate environs, with weighty questions left hanging in the air long after the lights dimmed.
Time and the Conways, The Old Globe Theatre: At first blush, there seemed to be nothing about this time-traveling costume piece to engender so much raw emotion. But the combination of British playwright J.B. Priestly's flamboyant characters and an extraordinary Globe staging by Rebecca Taichman cast an enduring spell. The slow movement of the interchanging sets, accompanied by the gentle playing of a piano, transitioned one era into another, conveying the bittersweet flow of time.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Moxie Theatre: A terrific performance by Cashae Monya distinguished Moxie's production of Lynn Nottage's lyrical play. Just a year ago, Monya, in a completely different kind of role, stole the show in Moxie's The Bluest Eye. Crumbs is a tale of connection, and an ensemble that also included Vimel Sephus, Jada Temple and Jennifer Eve Thorn was faithful to Nottage's theme. Moxie Artistic Director Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg, who'd been involved in Crumbs' very first production in 1995, directed this sensitive staging.
Red, San Diego Repertory Theatre: The Rep's Lyceum Stage was transformed into the studio of abstract painter Mark Rothko, with startling results. Broadway veteran (The Lion King) John Vickery truly inhabited the role of the driven but internally conflicted Rothko, with able support from Jason Maddy as the artist's wide-eyed assistant, Ken. When the furious act of painting began, Red became theater within theater, a wildly entertaining but decidedly thought-provoking proposition.
El Henry, La Jolla Playhouse / San Diego Repertory Theatre: No production was more adventurous than this collaboration between the Playhouse and the Rep, directed by Sam Woodhouse. Staged in the outdoor SILO space at Downtown's Makers Quarter, El Henry was an apocalyptic, Mad Max-like retelling of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, adapted by Rep artist-in-residence Herbert Siguenza. With its dystopian setting, low-rider cars and gang-war intensity, El Henry was thrilling site-specific theater.
Les Miserables, Lamb's Players Theatre: It's no surprise that Lamb's Players Theatre kept extending the run of this Broadway classic, directed by Robert Smyth and presented in comparatively cozy 350-seat confines. The Lamb's Les Miz was magical, not only for the feat of pulling off such a spectacle in a theater of that size but also for stalwart performances by Brandon Joel Maier as Jean Valjean and Randall Dodge as his relentless adversary, Javert. If only the over-celebrated film version from 2012 had been this exhilarating.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane, San Diego Repertory Theatre: To launch its 39th season, the Rep presented the touring production of Mona Golabek's one-woman show, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder. Golabek, a classical pianist, portrayed her mother, Lisa Jura, and told the story in words and music of Jura's quest to become a concert performer in the face of the Nazi regime. The mingling of earnest Golabek's monologue, her supple keyboards and historical screen projections made for an unforgettable evening.
Next to Normal, San Diego Musical Theatre: Give San Diego Musical Theatre credit for stepping out of its audience's comfort zone and presenting this Pulitzer Prize-winning show about a woman's mental illness and the family affected by it. Bets Malone was a wonder in the principal role of Diana, and 16-year-old Lindsay Joan, as Diana's daughter Natalie, flexes formidable vocal power. Next to Normal is a musical with no easy answers or tidy conclusions wrapped in a bow, but its messages of struggle and survival couldn't be more important.
Much Ado About Nothing, Intrepid Shakespeare Company: Delightful Shakespeare in the summertime, and not even at The Old Globe Theatre. Richard Baird, who recently founded the New Fortune Theatre Company, directed a thoroughly engaging Much Ado, which co-starred Sean Yael-Cox and Shana Wride as inevitable lovers Benedick and Beatrice. Support from Ruff Yeager, Matt Thompson, Tom Stephenson and others, along with tenderly rendered live music, ensured that this was definitely not a show about nothing.
Honorable Mention: North Coast Repertory Theatre's Freud's Last Session, Diversionary Theatre's Bare: a Pop Opera, New Fortune Theatre Company's Henry V, Cygnet Theatre's Spring Awakening.
Dirty Dancing: Yep, it's the stage version of the 1987 film about a teenage girl and the oh-so-sexy dance instructor with whom she's smitten. Presented by Broadway San Diego, it runs Jan. 6 through 11 at the Civic Theatre, Downtown. broadwaysd.com
Gidion's Knot: The intellectual single mother of a son who's killed himself confronts his teacher in a tense meeting that plays out in real time. Opens Jan. 2 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. patioplayhouse.com
Steal Heaven: Famed activist Abbie Hoffman is in Heaven, running a boot camp for dead radicals who want to head back to Earth to be effective change agents. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it opens Jan. 3 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
The Nutcracker: This is not the ballet! This is an updated musical-theater adaptation of the holiday classic, about a little girl who goes on a fantastical adventure as she grieves for her deceased brother. Through Dec. 31 at New Village Arts in Solana Beach. newvillagearts.org
Win Place or Die My Jockeys are Killing Me: Mystery Café's latest comic-caper dinner-theater production is set at the Thoroughbred Club at Upson Down Race Track. It's ongoing at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net