San Diego Arts 2017: Theatre

2017 was an average year in San Diego theatre. Nothing wrong with that, just that there wasn’t a “shining star” production that blew audiences away. “Average” for San Diego is at a high level: we have a theatre community that works hard to achieve excellence – and often makes it.

We get a lot of new and newer work here, a point of pride for many of the companies. Yes, a lot of it is concentrated in the large theatres, and La Jolla Playhouse has made a point of creating its season around new work. The Old Globe chimes in from time to time with a piece like Benny & Joon, but lately its output has been a mixed bag of recent plays that aren’t world premieres, appearances by young troupes such as Fiasco and Pig Pen, solo shows such as James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, and whatever material by Steve Martin it can get its hands on (and, send to Broadway).

Tarrytown‘s Bryan Banville, Tom Zohar and Kay McNellen
Photo courtesy of Studio B Photo Productions

We point with pride to having two La Jolla Playhouse presentations nominated for Tony® Awards in the same season and seeing a third, Ayad Akhtar’s play, Junk, open on Broadway this fall. But, the Playhouse in 2017 took some strange turns. Three new musicals debuted, and two of them, Escape to Margaritaville and SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical, found easy paths to Broadway for this spring despite mixed critical receptions. The third, Disney’s Freaky Friday, did a previously-scheduled two-stop tour and was then abruptly licensed for high school productions.

I realize that there are commercial considerations, even in nonprofit theatre, but mining fame for little more than profiteering is a pretty cynical way to pay for taking chances on new work. Meanwhile, a savvy and tuneful chamber musical called Tarrytown snuck into town courtesy of Backyard Renaissance Theatre, performing at Diversionary’s “black box” rehearsal room, and provided at least as much satisfaction as the other new musicals San Diegans saw this year.

The Company of In the Heights
Photo by John Howard

And, perhaps that’s the point of an “average” year – there’s nothing playing that announces itself as being important, new: attention must be paid. Rather, the pleasures are more individual, in shows that sneak up on you. They are performances like Tom Stephenson’s that not only took over Part 2 but became the centerpiece of Intrepid’s production of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3). Or, sterling creative work like Carlos Mendoza’s “choreography for non-dancers” for Moonlight Stage Production’s In the Heights. Or, ensemble perfection, as in Ion Theatre’s The Ballad of Emmett Till. Or, even when an artist transcends expectations, as Hershey Felder did in his solo show, Our Great Tchaikovsky. Or, exceptional creativity, such as in Rob Lufty’s direction of Shockheaded Peter, for Cygnet Theatre. Or, the ability to make something familiar new, as Long Beach’s Curbside did in Flight, an acrobatic telling of St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, which played the Fringe Festival this summer.

These are pleasures not to be taken lightly, but they are also pleasures that are not always easy to find. And, they have little or nothing to do with commercial success, unfortunately.

There are two new musicals that trade on fame coming in 2018. One focuses on the life of Princess Diana of Great Britain and the other on the life of Anita Bryant, Princess of Orange Juice. One of these two will be presented by Diversionary Theatre, which, since the arrival of Executive Artistic Director Matt M. Morrow has been redefining what “gay” and “queer” mean in the local theatre world. The other will be presented by La Jolla Playhouse. Can you guess which one is which? Can audiences potentially find pleasures in both? The answer, of course, is yes.


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