Last act, final scene. Curtain call.
As I bow out after 40 years of writing about San Diego theater (about 5,000 reviews and 500 interviews), I wanted to recall and celebrate some of the productions and people that have stood out and stayed with me over the years.
Theater is an evanescent artform. I wanted to pay tribute to the work that is gone but not forgotten.
There were tons of stellar moments and productions. Take a trip with me down ye olde memory lane, to see the sights through my rearview mirror.
Most Exciting Opening Nights
These were mostly musicals, and all but one were adaptations from other mediums (especially film), but the one original was deliciously unique — and true.
- “The Who’s Tommy” (La Jolla Playhouse, 1992) — Limousines and luminaries (like Liza Minelli) were there, and The Who, of course, one of the most influential rock bands of the ‘60s-‘70s, watching their amazing concept album come to life. Pete Townshend, The Who vocalist/guitarist, co-wrote the musical. There was wild screaming at the end.
- “Hairspray” (The Old Globe, 2004) — The 1988 film’s writer/director, John Waters, was there (with his spooky look and pencil mustache), and the whole audience was dancing in the aisles during the foot-stomping finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”
- “Jersey Boys” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2004) — The best of the jukebox musicals, IMO, because it didn’t try to wrap a silly story around a songlist; it told the tale of the rise and fall and rise of The Four Seasons, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. Lead singer Frankie Valli was there, as was the group’s composer, Bob Gaudio.
- “Almost Famous” (The Old Globe, 2019) — Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the original 2000 film about his fumbling but successful adolescent attempts to become a music journalist, wrote the book and lyrics for the musical. He was at the opening, as was Pennie Trumbull, who inspired the movie and musical muse/groupie, Penny Lane. And Bonus: Joni Mitchell was there! (Not such a great reception for the show when it opened on Broadway in November, but it’s still running)
- “Come From Away” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2015) — the only wholly original musical on this list, based on the amazing story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes carrying 7,000 passengers landed, when all air traffic was grounded after the 9/11 attacks. The heartwarming generosity of these people renewed your faith in humankind. And when all the real Ganderians depicted onstage stood up in the audience, it was a two-tissue moment. You can still see the original cast: streaming on Apple TV+.
Scariest Opening Night
- “God’s Country” (The Fritz Theatre, 1995) — The play was precarious enough, concerning the rise of white supremacists, but The Fritz took it right to the precipice: They invited Fallbrook resident Tom Metzger, founder and Grand Master of the Neo-Nazi group, White Aryan Resistance. And he showed up — flanked by two henchmen. Heavy tension in the house. Metzger stayed for the talkback, his quiet, measured voice belying his beliefs. He almost sounded reasonable. He wasn’t. (He died in 2020).
Productions I’ll Never Forget
- “Ragtime” (Moonlight Stage Productions, 2002) — Moonlight founder Kathy Brombacher directed a heartrending production. Based on the E.L. Doctorow book (which was made into an ill-conceived, miscast movie), the show is a fictional story of America, embodied in three subgroups: privileged whites, poor (Jewish) immigrants and the Blacks of Harlem. Made me weep.
- “The Ballad of Emmett Till” (ion theatre, 2017) — Beautiful, poetic, horrific; a lyrical take on the real-life story of a 14 year-old Black boy from the North, who didn’t know the “rules” of the Jim Crow South. He whistled at a white woman, and her husband and half-brother savagely beat young Emmett, shot him in the head and dumped him in the river. (His story lives on, as it should. He and his activist mother feature prominently in the 2022 film, “Till”).
- “1776” (Lamb’s Players Theatre, 2003) was a wonderful musical rendition of the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Expertly cast, marvelously performed, it showed what across-the-aisle compromise looks like. Also at Lamb’s, a heartbreaking production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1992), featuring the late, lamented David Cochran Heath as Atticus Finch, and his 9-year-old daughter, Carrie, as the character’s spunky offspring, Scout. Speaking of Lamb’s, the producing artistic director, Robert Smyth, and his wife, associate artistic director Deborah Gilmour Smyth, rarely leave their home turf. But when they did, to star as George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Intrepid Theatre, 2016), where sparks flew and they blew the roof off.
- “Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream” (La Jolla Playhouse, 1993) — Based on the beloved 1945 French film classic, brought to us, in all its gorgeous glory, by the (excellent, but no longer extant) Minneapolis-based Théâtre de la Jeune Lune. Brilliantly staged indoors and out. At the loading dock, before the onstage part began, “pickpockets” slithered among the audience. Spectacular.
- “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (The Old Globe, 2018) — A gorgeous but brutal production, based on the terrific 2007 novel by Khaled Hosseini. Set during the Afghan civil war, it’s about violence, female friendship, and survival at all costs. Memorably stunning.
- “Way Down River” (North Coast Repertory Theatre, 2016) — A harrowing adventure, based 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 woman try to navigate a rickety boat to safety.
- “Shockheaded Peter” (Cygnet Theatre, 2017) — Weird, wicked and wondrous. Grisly fairy tales, staged with cheerful, inspired depravity.
- “Eurydice” (Moxie Theatre, 2010) — Lovely, heartbreaking take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Exquisitely directed, acted and designed.
- A few from Diversionary Theatre: “Porcelain” (1994), “The Hour of Great Mercy” (2019), and “The Boy Who Danced on Air” (2016), three dramas and a musical, set respectively, in England, the U.S. and Afghanistan … each a chilling, revelatory tale that taught me so much about hidden corners of the LGBTQ community.
- “The Car Plays” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2012, 2013) — the highlight of the first two site-specific WOW (Without Walls) Festivals, held on the campus of UC San Diego. Five cars are lined up. Two people get in the backseat of a vehicle, and the play begins — in the front seat. Ten minutes later, you move into another car. Talk about intimate theater! It was thrilling (created by Paul Stein, of LA-based Moving Arts).
- Unsettling new insights from the Holocaust: “Witnesses” — the exceptional new CCAE Theatricals in Escondido (2022) — enacted harrowing diaries from teens other than Anne Frank; “Here There Are Blueberries” was a hair-raising world premiere from the Tectonic Theater Project (at La Jolla Playhouse, 2022) about what the higher-ups and female office-workers were doing behind-the-scenes at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
- Three magnificent and enlightening plays with pointed perspectives from other cultures: “Vietgone” (San Diego Rep, 2018), a hip, often-funny take on Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese Americans; “Cambodian Rock Band“ (La Jolla Playhouse, 2019), a killer play concerning survival — and music — during the 1980s era of the Khmer Rouge and the U.S. in the 2000s; and “Wild Goose Dreams” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2017), a fantasy about love, defection and flight between North and South Korea.
- The plays of August Wilson, Luis Valdez and Athol Fugard. Each is a genius at telling the stories of his people in the 20th century: African Americans, Latinos/Chicanos, South African whites and blacks. Produced at multiple theaters: from the Globe to the Rep to Cygnet, and others. Wonderful work that stands the test of time.
Theater Companies That Are Sorely Missed
- The Fritz Theater (1990s) — one of the most influential of San Diego’s small, storefront companies, founded by Duane Daniels, who was succeeded by Bryan Bevell, two wildly imaginative innovators. Their shows were risky and provocative. They introduced San Diego to playwrights like Maria Irene Fornes and Nicky Silver. Actors who worked there still talk about it. So do I.
- Intrepid Theatre (2010s) — still operating, but only with an educational program. Standout productions: “The Quality of Life” (2015) and “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3” (2017). Thought-provoking and superb.
- Poor Players (2000s)– Actor/director Richard Baird’s original company, which featured hip, impetuous, sparklingly well-spoken Shakespeare productions, including “The Merchant of Venice,” with Baird’s outstanding Shylock. After a hiatus, he formed another group, New Fortune Theatre (2014), which produces sporadically, but recently offered a delectable outdoor “As You Like It.”
- Sledgehammer Theatre (1990s-2000s) — True to its name, its productions were an assault to all the senses. When the testosterone-driven founders moved on, Kirsten Brandt took over, making it a tantalizing, innovative, feminist place.
- Blackfriars Theatre (1990s) — The small, first-rate company whose 1980s production of “Bent” inspired me to become a theater critic. Blackfriars, along with ion theatre (2010s) and The Fritz Theatre (2010s) and Sledgehammer Theatre, were San Diego’s most risk-taking companies. We need more of that. Most local theater fare is fairly safe these days, though OnStage Playhouse takes on hefty political issues, the Coronado Playhouse remains the only San Diego company to produce the incendiary musical, “The Wild Party,” rife with sex, drugs and murder; and Point Loma Playhouse is the only one to produce the titillating speculatory drama, “King Charles III.”
- Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company (2000s) — Led by petite powerhouse Seema Sueko, the company offered some powerful productions, but collapsed when Sueko departed.
- Asian American Repertory Theatre (2000s) and San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre (2000s) covered communities that need more representation. Niche theater companies serve a vital function.
- San Diego Repertory Theatre (46 years, ending in 2022) — The closing of the Rep, close on the heels of the retirement of co-founder Sam Woodhouse, was a sad loss for the community. The closure was abrupt, and shrouded in rumor and mystery. For decades, the Rep produced more diverse theater than any other company in town. So many actors, writers and directors got their start there. The Rep leaves a gaping hole behind.
Gifted Directors Whose Work I Almost Always Like(d)
- Past: Lisa Portes, Kirsten Brandt, Darko Tresnjak
- Present: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Rob Lutfy, Lisa Berger, Richard Baird, James P. Darvas
Solo Performances That Were Out of This World
- Jefferson Mays — “I Am My Own Wife” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2005). The Tony Award-winner is currently on Broadway getting raves for another challenging solo piece: playing all the roles in “A Christmas Carol”
- Herbert Sigüenza — The actor/writer’s “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” an inspired creation and characterization, was first performed at the San Diego Rep (2013), then at New Village Arts (2019), and filmed for everyone during the pandemic. As a playwright, Sigüenza also scored big with “El Henry” (2014) a spectacular, large-cast, outdoor, Latinx re-conception of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I,” part of the La Jolla Playhouse Without Walls series, in association with the San Diego Rep.
- Hershey Felder — The multi-hyphenated (actor-writer-musician-performer-director-producer) brought many world-renowned composers to vibrant, musical life (mostly at the San Diego Rep). Living in Florence during the pandemic, he added filmmaker to his hyphens, forming a film company and sending new composer stories (many hosted locally by the Rep) from all over Europe.
- Rachael Van Wormer (2022) — She was breathtaking in a dramatization of the gut-wrenching story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the first installment of Write Out Loud’s new Lit Alive program. We watch a Victorian woman go mad (thanks to her doctor/husband). Chilling.
Knockout Pandemic Productions
For two years, theatermakers were out of commission. But nothing can keep them down. They found amazing ways to keep doing what they do. There were Zoom scenes, plays and discussions, musical offerings, and when that wore out, they started filming. Brilliant! I also saw lots of work from theaters across the country. It all kept me sane. Two of the best:
- “Sofanisba” (2016), a semi-staged Zoom reading with a killer cast. It was produced by The Eastern Theatre (now Fenix Theatre), skillfully directed by Vanessa Dinning and starred a galvanic Jacquie Wilkie as the title character, a 16th century painter in the Spanish court.
- “The Dazzle,” from Backyard Renaissance Theatre, which filmed a three-person play (for safety’s sake, with no two actors actually onstage at the same time during filming). A harrowing true story of the reclusive Collyer brothers, highly intelligent hoarders in 1940s New York. Exquisitely directed by Rosina Reynolds.
Hopes for the Future of San Diego Theater
How can I possibly condense 40 years of theater memories into a list or a few pages? These just scratch the surface.
Now, looking ahead, here are some of my hopes for the future of San Diego theater:
- COVID receding, so more audience members feel safe to return, and theaters are full again
- More affordable spaces for nomadic theater companies
- More risk-taking in programming
- More productions geared to bringing in a younger audience
- More diversity onstage (this has been steadily improving), and behind the scenes as well (directors, designers and theater management)
Surely, San Diego will continue to be a cultural destination and a vital part of the national theater landscape. It has been an honor and a privilege to watch and write about the amazingly broad array of theater offerings over the decades.
My heartfelt thanks go out to the entire San Diego theater community, past and present, for your boundless talent, creativity, ingenuity and graciousness.
I won’t be writing about you any more, but I’ll be there — laughing, sighing, crying, gasping and applauding.
Note: A personal 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 writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her features, previews and reviews will remain at patlauner.com.