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Stellar Moments, Gifted Administrators: Critic Pat Launer Recollects the Finest in 40 Years of San Diego Theater – Instances of San Diego


A scene from
A scene from “Comve for Away” on the La Jolla Playhouse. Picture by Jim Carmody

Final act, closing scene. Curtain name.

As I bow out after 40 years of writing about San Diego theater (about 5,000 critiques and 500 interviews), I wished to recall and rejoice a few of the productions and people who have stood out and stayed with me through the years.

Theater is an evanescent artform. I wished to pay tribute to the work that’s gone however not forgotten.

There have been tons of stellar moments and productions. Make a journey with me down ye olde reminiscence lane, to see the sights via my rearview mirror.

Most Thrilling Opening Nights

These have been largely musicals, and all however one have been variations from different mediums (particularly movie), however the one authentic was deliciously distinctive — and true.

  • The Who’s Tommy” (La Jolla Playhouse, 1992) — Limousines and luminaries (like Liza Minelli) have been there, and The Who, after all, one of the influential rock bands of the ‘60s-‘70s, watching their wonderful idea album come to life. Pete Townshend, The Who vocalist/guitarist, co-wrote the musical. There was wild screaming on the finish.
  • Hairspray” (The Previous Globe, 2004) — The 1988 movie’s author/director, John Waters, was there (together with his spooky look and pencil mustache), and the entire viewers was dancing within the aisles throughout the foot-stomping finale, “You Can’t Cease the Beat”
  • Jersey Boys” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2004) — The very best of the jukebox musicals, IMO, as a result of it didn’t attempt to wrap a foolish story round a songlist; it advised the story of the rise and fall and rise of The 4 Seasons, Rock and Roll Corridor of Famers. Lead singer Frankie Valli was there, as was the group’s composer, Bob Gaudio.
Colin Donnell (left) as Russell Hammond and Casey Likes as William Miller.on the planet premiere musical, “Nearly Well-known” at The Previous Globe. Picture by Neal Preston
  • Almost Famous(The Previous Globe, 2019) — Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the unique 2000 movie about his fumbling however profitable adolescent makes an attempt to change into a music journalist, wrote the e-book and lyrics for the musical. He was on the opening, as was Pennie Trumbull, who impressed the film and musical muse/groupie, Penny Lane. And Bonus: Joni Mitchell was there! (Not such an excellent reception for the present when it opened on Broadway in November, but it surely’s nonetheless operating)
  • Come From Away” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2015) — the one wholly authentic musical on this record, based mostly on the wonderful story of the small city of Gander, Newfoundland, the place 38 planes carrying 7,000 passengers landed, when all air visitors was grounded after the 9/11 assaults. The heartwarming generosity of those folks renewed your religion in humankind. And when all the true Ganderians depicted onstage stood up within the viewers, it was a two-tissue second. You possibly can nonetheless see the unique solid: streaming on Apple TV+.

Scariest Opening Night time

  • “God’s Nation” (The Fritz Theatre, 1995) — The play was precarious sufficient, in regards to the rise of white supremacists, however The Fritz took it proper to the precipice: They invited Fallbrook resident Tom Metzger, founder and Grand Grasp of the Neo-Nazi group, White Aryan Resistance. And he confirmed up — flanked by two henchmen. Heavy stress in the home. Metzger stayed for the talkback, his quiet, measured voice belying his beliefs. He virtually sounded cheap. He wasn’t. (He died in 2020).

Productions I’ll By no means Neglect

  • “Ragtime” (Moonlight Stage Productions, 2002) — Moonlight founder Kathy Brombacher directed a heartrending manufacturing. Based mostly on the E.L. Doctorow e-book (which was made into an ill-conceived, miscast film), the present is a fictional story of America, embodied in three subgroups: privileged whites, poor (Jewish) immigrants and the Blacks of Harlem. Made me weep.
A scene from “The Ballad of Emmett Until” at Ion Theatre in Hillcrest.
  • The Ballad of Emmett Till” (ion theatre, 2017) — Lovely, poetic, horrific; a lyrical tackle the real-life story of a 14 year-old Black boy from the North, who didn’t know the “guidelines” of the Jim Crow South. He whistled at a white lady, and her husband and half-brother savagely beat younger Emmett, shot him within the head and dumped him within the river. (His story lives on, because it ought to. He and his activist mom function prominently within the 2022 movie, “Until”).
  • 1776” (Lamb’s Gamers Theatre, 2003) was a beautiful musical rendition of the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Expertly solid, marvelously carried out, it confirmed what across-the-aisle compromise seems like. Additionally at Lamb’s, a heartbreaking manufacturing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1992), that includes the late, lamented David Cochran Heath as Atticus Finch, and his 9-year-old daughter, Carrie, because the character’s spunky offspring, Scout. Talking of Lamb’s, the manufacturing inventive director, Robert Smyth, and his spouse, affiliate inventive director Deborah Gilmour Smyth, hardly ever go away their house turf. However once they did, to star as George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Intrepid Theatre, 2016), the place sparks flew and so they blew the roof off.
  • Kids of Paradise: Taking pictures a Dream” (La Jolla Playhouse, 1993) — Based mostly on the beloved 1945 French movie traditional, dropped at us, in all its beautiful glory, by the (wonderful, however not extant) Minneapolis-based Théâtre de la Jeune Lune. Brilliantly staged indoors and out. On the loading dock, earlier than the onstage half started, “pickpockets” slithered among the many viewers. Spectacular.
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns” (The Previous Globe, 2018) — A beautiful however brutal manufacturing, based mostly on the terrific 2007 novel by Khaled Hosseini. Set throughout the Afghan civil struggle, it’s about violence, feminine friendship, and survival in any respect prices. Memorably gorgeous.
  • Means Down River” (North Coast Repertory Theatre, 2016) — A harrowing journey, based mostly on a William Faulkner story. NCRT snagged the West coast premiere. It’s 1927, the Mississippi River has overflowed; a convict (Richard Baird, superlative) and a pregnant lady attempt to navigate a rickety boat to security.
  • Shockheaded Peter” (Cygnet Theatre, 2017) — Bizarre, depraved and wondrous. Grisly fairy tales, staged with cheerful, impressed depravity.
  • Eurydice” (Moxie Theatre, 2010) — Pretty, heartbreaking tackle the Greek fantasy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Exquisitely directed, acted and designed.
  • Just a few from Diversionary Theatre: “Porcelain” (1994), “The Hour of Nice Mercy” (2019), and “The Boy Who Danced on Air” (2016), three dramas and a musical, set respectively, in England, the U.S. and Afghanistan … every a chilling, revelatory story that taught me a lot about hidden corners of the LGBTQ neighborhood.
  • The Automotive Performs” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2012, 2013) — the spotlight of the primary two site-specific WOW (With out Partitions) Festivals, held on the campus of UC San Diego. 5 automobiles are lined up. Two folks get within the backseat of a car, and the play begins — within the entrance seat. Ten minutes later, you progress into one other automobile. Speak about intimate theater! It was thrilling (created by Paul Stein, of LA-based Shifting Arts).
  • Unsettling new insights from the Holocaust: “Witnesses” — the distinctive new CCAE Theatricals in Escondido (2022) — enacted harrowing diaries from teenagers aside from Anne Frank; “Right here There Are Blueberries” was a hair-raising world premiere from the Tectonic Theater Mission (at La Jolla Playhouse, 2022) about what the higher-ups and feminine office-workers have been doing behind-the-scenes on the Auschwitz focus camp.
Ben Levin (entrance) and Lawrence Kao in “Vietgone” on the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Picture by Daren Scott
  • Three magnificent and enlightening performs with pointed views from different cultures: “Vietgone” (San Diego Rep, 2018), a hip, often-funny tackle Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese Individuals; “Cambodian Rock Band“ (La Jolla Playhouse, 2019), a killer play regarding survival — and music — throughout the Eighties period of the Khmer Rouge and the U.S. within the 2000s; and “Wild Goose Goals” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2017), a fantasy about love, defection and flight between North and South Korea.
  • The performs of August Wilson, Luis Valdez and Athol Fugard. Every is a genius at telling the tales of his folks within the twentieth century: African Individuals, Latinos/Chicanos, South African whites and blacks. Produced at a number of theaters: from the Globe to the Rep to Cygnet, and others. Fantastic work that stands the check of time.

Theater Firms That Are Sorely Missed

  • The Fritz Theater (Nineteen Nineties) — one of the influential of San Diego’s small, storefront firms, based by Duane Daniels, who was succeeded by Bryan Bevell, two wildly imaginative innovators. Their reveals have been dangerous and provocative. They launched San Diego to playwrights like Maria Irene Fornes and Nicky Silver. Actors who labored there nonetheless discuss it. So do I.
  • Intrepid Theatre (2010s) — nonetheless working, however solely with an academic program. Standout productions: “The High quality of Life” (2015) and “Father Comes House from the Wars, Components 1, 2 and three” (2017). Thought-provoking and very good.
  • Poor Gamers (2000s)– Actor/director Richard Baird’s authentic firm, which featured hip, impetuous, sparklingly well-spoken Shakespeare productions, together with “The Service provider of Venice,” with Baird’s excellent Shylock. After a hiatus, he fashioned one other group, New Fortune Theatre (2014), which produces sporadically, however just lately provided a tasty outside “As You Like It.”
  • Sledgehammer Theatre (Nineteen Nineties-2000s) — True to its identify, its productions have been an assault to all of the senses. When the testosterone-driven founders moved on, Kirsten Brandt took over, making it a tantalizing, modern, feminist place.
  • Blackfriars Theatre (Nineteen Nineties) — The small, first-rate firm whose Eighties manufacturing of “Bent” impressed me to change into a theater critic. Blackfriars, together with ion theatre (2010s) and The Fritz Theatre (2010s) and Sledgehammer Theatre, have been San Diego’s most risk-taking firms.  We’d like extra of that. Most native theater fare is pretty protected nowadays, although OnStage Playhouse takes on hefty political points, the Coronado Playhouse stays the one San Diego firm to provide the incendiary musical, “The Wild Celebration,” rife with intercourse, medication and homicide; and Level Loma Playhouse is the one one to provide the titillating speculatory drama, “King Charles III.”
  • Mo’olelo Performing Arts Firm (2000s) — Led by petite powerhouse Seema Sueko, the corporate provided some highly effective productions, however collapsed when Sueko departed.
  • Asian American Repertory Theatre (2000s) and San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre (2000s) coated communities that want extra illustration. Area of interest theater firms serve a significant perform.
Sam Woodhouse. Courtesy San Diego REP
  • San Diego Repertory Theatre (46 years, ending in 2022) — The closing of the Rep, shut on the heels of the retirement of co-founder Sam Woodhouse, was a tragic loss for the neighborhood. The closure was abrupt, and shrouded in rumor and thriller. For many years, the Rep produced extra various theater than every other firm on the town. So many actors, writers and administrators bought their begin there. The Rep leaves a gaping gap behind.

Gifted Administrators Whose Work I Nearly At all times Like(d)

  • Previous: Lisa Portes, Kirsten Brandt, Darko Tresnjak
  • Current: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Rob Lutfy, Lisa Berger, Richard Baird, James P. Darvas

Solo Performances That Have been Out of This World

  • Jefferson Mays — “I Am My Personal Spouse” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2005). The Tony Award-winner is at the moment on Broadway getting raves for an additional difficult solo piece: taking part in all of the roles in “A Christmas Carol”
  • Herbert Sigüenza — The actor/author’s “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” an impressed creation and characterization, was first carried out on the San Diego Rep (2013), then at New Village Arts (2019), and filmed for everybody throughout the pandemic. As a playwright, Sigüenza additionally scored large with “El Henry” (2014) a spectacular, large-cast, outside, Latinx re-conception of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Half I,” a part of the La Jolla Playhouse With out Partitions collection, in affiliation with the San Diego Rep.
  • Hershey Felder — The multi-hyphenated (actor-writer-musician-performer-director-producer) introduced many world-renowned composers to vibrant, musical life (largely on the San Diego Rep). Residing in Florence throughout the pandemic, he added filmmaker to his hyphens, forming a movie firm and sending new composer tales (many hosted domestically by the Rep) from throughout Europe.
Rachael Van Wormer in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” produced by Write Out Loud. Courtesy courtesy of the theater firm
  • Rachael Van Wormer (2022) — She was breathtaking in a dramatization of the gut-wrenching story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the primary installment of Write Out Loud’s new Lit Alive program. We watch a Victorian lady go mad (due to her physician/husband). Chilling.

Knockout Pandemic Productions

For 2 years, theatermakers have been out of fee. However nothing can maintain them down. They discovered wonderful methods to maintain doing what they do. There have been Zoom scenes, performs and discussions, musical choices, and when that wore out, they began filming. Good! I additionally noticed plenty of work from theaters throughout the nation. All of it stored me sane. Two of the perfect:

  • Sofanisba” (2016), a semi-staged Zoom studying with a killer solid. It was produced by The Japanese Theatre (now Fenix Theatre), skillfully directed by Vanessa Dinning and starred a galvanic Jacquie Wilkie because the title character, a 16th century painter within the Spanish courtroom.
  • The Dazzle,” from Yard Renaissance Theatre, which filmed a three-person play (for security’s sake, with no two actors really onstage on the similar time throughout filming). A harrowing true story of the reclusive Collyer brothers, extremely smart hoarders in Forties New York. Exquisitely directed by Rosina Reynolds.

Hopes for the Way forward for San Diego Theater

How can I probably condense 40 years of theater reminiscences into a listing or a couple of pages? These simply scratch the floor.

Now, trying forward, listed below are a few of my hopes for the way forward for San Diego theater:

  • COVID receding, so extra viewers members really feel protected to return, and theaters are full once more
  • Extra reasonably priced areas for nomadic theater firms
  • Extra risk-taking in programming
  • Extra productions geared to bringing in a youthful viewers
  • Extra range onstage (this has been steadily bettering), and behind the scenes as properly (administrators, designers and theater administration)

Certainly, San Diego will proceed to be a cultural vacation spot and a significant a part of the nationwide theater panorama. It has been an honor and a privilege to look at and write concerning the amazingly broad array of theater choices over the a long time.

My heartfelt thanks exit to the complete San Diego theater neighborhood, previous and current, to your boundless expertise, creativity, ingenuity and graciousness.

I gained’t be writing about you any extra, however I’ll be there — laughing, sighing, crying, gasping and applauding.

Word: A private reflection on my time as a theater critic was published on Friday.

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts author and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her options, previews and critiques will stay at patlauner.com.

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