With last November's staging of the widely acclaimed Doubt at the Civic Theatre, the Broadway/San Diego people performed their most vital public service to date. That show is one of the most absolutely magnificent I have ever seen, a symphony of otherworldly production values and the theatrical epicenter of recent Roman Catholic disgrace. But even as I catch my breath at the memory, Don Telford suggested that San Diego could now go the entry one better.
'Had the Balboa Theatre been open at that point,' the San Diego Theatres Inc. president and chief operating officer said, 'that's where Doubt would have played. It would have been much more appropriate than the Civic because of the intimacy of the space. It's more appropriately sized [for] a closer connection between the audience and the performers.'
It's a cinch the resurrected downtown venue is patron-friendly, because its 1,300 seats are widely distributed over two levels. And all those chairs do address some--some--of the nagging questions surrounding San Diego's perceived shortage of seats for live performance. But for Telford, the Balboa--opened in 1924 as a movie and legitimate stage theater, in continuous use until the early '90s and now one of the final Horton Plaza Redevelopment Project targets--is first and foremost a historical restoration. The five-story building at 868 Fourth Ave., set to reopen in late November, will mirror its predecessor in virtually all respects, from the deco exterior to the tony audience chamber, which has been reconfigured for sight-line improvement, acoustics and accessibility.
The nonprofit San Diego Theatres will manage the venue for the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), whose parent City Redevelopment Agency furnished the $26 million for reconstruction. Preliminary designs were created in August of 2003 by Phoenix architect Westlake Reed Laskonsky.
Beforehand, Telford said, 'there was a lot of outreach to potential users to involve them in the process and ask what their needs were and what they would like to see in the theater and how it was equipped.' San Diego's Classics for Kids music education program and the city's California Ballet classical dance company are among those likely to seek tenancy.
'The Balboa Theatre is going to be a very special space,' Telford said, 'and I think people will enjoy it. It does serve a nice niche with its size and location, and I think it will become very popular.'
Telford's probably right, at least if the project's latest predecessor is any barometer. The Balboa will launch just over two years after the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre reopened; that facility, which dates to 1929, is now the site of everything from opera to film programs to laser shows to dance to rock pieces to mainstream theater. Downtown's resident population of 30,000 is expected to triple by 2030, and it's anticipated the Balboa will haul in similar events to accommodate the urban lifestyle geeks in that sector.
But both Telford and Donna Alm, CCDC marketing and communications vice president, alluded to a crucial element in the health of downtown San Diego performance. Smaller venues (say under 300 seats) may herald fewer receipts, but they're also necessary to the bigger, more colorful picture.
'It's important that we have a variety of venues,' Alm said, 'because they're opportunities for local talent to grow, and they're also great opportunities for people within a community to access theater a lot easier. We're not in the business of building theaters. We're in the business of redeveloping the neighborhood downtown and making good climates for theater as well as everything else. If we do it right, the climate will be there for small theater to work.'
That must be bittersweet news for groups like Ion Theatre Company, arbitrarily displaced last year from the 74-seat New World Stage on Ninth Avenue, and Fritz Theatre, which a few summers ago tried to eke something out in the modest basement of the Sixth Avenue Bistro. If activity at the Balboa generates interest in satellite facilities, well, more power. But for now, Telford said, seating downtown has little to do with the size of the venue--it's often a matter of 'the right space at the right place at the right time for the right show.' If Doubt ever hits San Diego again, he'll have covered all four bases.
But wait, there's more
Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow
The Turn of the Screw: Henry James liked good ghost story as much as the next great novelist, but his apparitions were intellectual types, extensions of everyday reality rather than screamers from the otherworld. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher pretty much felt the same way when he adapted James' 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw for the stage--and he wound up with a pretty good tale of suspense, horror and repressed sexuality. Oct. 4 through Nov. 11, Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., College Area. $27-$32. www.cygnettheatre.com or 619-337-1525.
Cadenza: Mozart's Last Year: Some scholars quietly entertain the idea that Antonio Salieri, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's greatest rival and no musical chopped liver himself, may have killed the Mozemeister in a fit of rage. If that's true, then he probably would have done it when Mozart was at his physically weakest and succumbing to a fatal illness. But lore has it he managed to look at death on his own terms--and his trip into the 11th dimension must have inspired some confidence, too. Oct. 5 through 28. Vantage Theatre, 2125 Park Blvd., Balboa Park. $18-$22. www.showboxoffice.com or 619-235-6135.
The North Park Playwright Festival: The peeps over at the North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe liked their last four playfests so much that they've decided to do it again this year. The venue may be the smallest in San Diego (35 seats), but there's a big bunch of theater going on inside. Oct. 12 through Nov. 3. North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe, 2031 El Cajon Blvd., North Park. $12-$14. www.northparkvaudeville.com or 619-220-8663.
Zombie Prom: The musical Grease is arguably the Broadway standard bearer for plays about teen angst and the rock tunes that go with it. The SDSU School of Theatre, Television and Film wants to take the whole idea a step further, so it's come up with Zombie Prom, wherein a girl gets and loses a guy and winds up with a very unusual character instead. Oct. 19 through 31. Don Powell Theatre, 5500 Campanile Drive, SDSU. $13-$15. www.theatre.sdsu.edu or 619-594-6884.
The Rat Pack--Live at the Sands: They were the rich man's Beatles (well, minus one), and they were nearly entertainment legends just about the time the lads first set foot on a stage. The Rat Pack--Live at the Sands, a Broadway/San Diego entry, re-creates an iconic evening at Las Vegas' Sands Hotel with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Nov. 19 through 25. San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., Downtown. $19-$60. www.broadwaysd.com or 619-570-1100.