Don Shirley's theatrical highlights of 2019

2019_Eight_Nights_0074.jpgZoe Yale and Karen Malina White in "Eight Nights." Photo by Jenny Graham.

Looking for a New Year's resolution? Try seeing more LA theater in 2020. It might be necessary to show some resolve in the face of the growing number of distractions.

Beyond the usual complaints about LA distances, traffic and the price of tickets, LA theaters currently face competition from the increasingly urgent televised drama from Congress, the White House and the upcoming most-important-election-ever. And then there are the proliferating temptations of streaming movies and TV. Even stage devotees might be lured to sprawl on the sofa for the wonderful Canadian theater-centric TV series "Slings and Arrows" -- instead of going to see actual LA theater.

Still, for those of us who believe in that live-person-to-person alchemy that happens on stages but can't happen on screens, Los Angeles continues to offer enviable opportunities.

Here are the highlights of the LA-focused theater I saw in 2019 -- arranged alphabetically, more or less. As always, bear in mind that even especially active theatergoers can glimpse only a fraction of what's locally available in any given year. I saw almost 160 productions, but that's probably no more than a third of the professional productions that opened in Greater LA this year.

A Christmas Carole King. No theatrical production in Los Angeles in 2019 was funnier than this latest Troubadour Theater mashup, which officially opened last weekend and closes next weekend, at El Portal in North Hollywood. An updated version of a previous Troubies show, it sets the Dickens holiday story to the surprisingly appropriate tunes (and spoof-enhanced lyrics) of the Carole King songbook, managing the terrific trick of making fun of the source while also demonstrating just how great it is - and, of course, adding lots of references that only locals might appreciate. Master Troubie Matt Walker even references A Noise Within's annual "A Christmas Carol," mostly in order to charmingly deprecate his own version. And speaking of A Noise Within...

A Noise Within. The spring season of Pasadena's A Noise Within opened with a "Glass Menagerie" in which the hearts of Tennessee Williams' characters shattered indelibly, to the accompaniment of audience sobs. Geoff Elliott directed. The company's fall season began earlier than usual, in August, with Michael Michetti's commanding take on Nick Dear's adaptation of "Frankenstein," featuring Michael Manuel as a remarkably articulate Creature. This was clearly Manuel's year at ANW - he also played Iago in "Othello" and, in the fall, Tilden in a welcome return of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child." Later, the company's "Gem of the Ocean" marked the first time I've ever witnessed a shouting spectator walk out on a play at ANW. She was upset about the frequent use of the n-word by one of August Wilson's (African-American) characters, and she didn't hesitate to add her own voice to the drama.

Antaeus. Glendale's classics company expanded its horizons in the fall by producing, in rep, two premieres. But these new plays were thematically united as stories of Americans haunted by the darker chapters of their previous countries' 20th-century histories. Stephanie Alison's Walker's "Abuelas" cut deeply into the personal dilemma of an Argentinian-American's heritage from the days of Argentina's "desaparecidos," while Jennifer Maisel's "Eight Nights" traced the transformation of a Nazi victim into an American matriarch over the course of eight individual nights of Hanukkah, between 1949 and 2016. They were preceded by Stephanie Shroyer's sharp-eyed staging of Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," which also tackled the theme of disputed motherhood in a post-war world, as Walker does in "Abuelas." No, "Chalk Circle" isn't set in America, but it was written when Brecht lived in Santa Monica, as a refugee from the Nazis.

"Big River." Speaking of the n-word (see A Noise Within, above) it sometimes causes controversy in discussions of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." But the rousing musical that's based on the novel is almost as irresistible as the flow of the river itself. It certainly was in Kirby Ward's staging at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre. The actors provided much of the instrumental accompaniment as well as their strong voices for Roger Miller's score, and they flowed frequently into the audience -- but then part of the audience was seated on the stage. A remount in LA, anyone?

"Falsettos" and "Indecent". Before an undistinguished second half of 2019, the Ahmanson Theatre had strong late spring/early summer runs of two imports from the East Coast: James Lapine's sparkling revival of William Finn's "Falsettos" and the local premiere of Paula Vogel's klezmer-infused "Indecent." The latter expanded beyond its theater-history roots - the stormy story behind the early 20th-century play "God of Vengeance" - into the larger context of Yiddish culture, the threats to its survival and its integration into the New World.

"Friends With Guns." Both barrels blaze in Stephanie Alison Walker's play - and not only at characters on two or three sides of the gun controversy, but also at one of the friendly couples' husbands -- because his domineering attitudes toward his wife make matters worse. All of this is set in the progressive haven of LA's West Side. Randee Trabitz's staging for the Road Theatre in North Hollywood helped make this one of the year's most provocative plays (also see "Antaeus", above, for more on Walker's year in LA theater).

"The Great Leap." For more on BD Wong's triumphant rendition of Lauren Yee's expedition across the Chinese and American cultural walls in the late 20th century, see my last column. Kudos to Pasadena Playhouse and East West Players for cooperating on this production, at the playhouse.

"Handjob." For more on Erik Patterson's journey through the cultural minefields of the Me Too era, see this column, referring to Chris Fields' Echo Theater premiere production in Atwater. No, I still won't give away any spoilers, because this play deserves a second production soon.

IAMA Theatre. Pronounce it as "I am a theater." More opportunities to say its name are appearing as IAMA rises rapidly among LA's smaller companies, often performing in small spaces within larger, higher-profile venues. I enjoyed its premiere of Jonathan Caren's LA-set "Canyon" at LATC (set to re-appear next year in CTG's Block Party at the Kirk Douglas) and its West Coast premiere of Daniel Pearle's "A Kid Like Jake" on the smaller stage at Pasadena Playhouse, where Sarah Utterback and Tim Peper were terrific as the nervous parents of an unseen child whose tastes tend toward transgender.

salvage-5.jpgChristopher Fordinal, Leonard Earl Howze and Nina Herzog in "Salvage." Photo by Ed Krieger.

"Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole" and "Skintight." These were my favorites at the Geffen Playhouse last year. The first, by Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor (who also directed), is one of those rare showbiz musicals that is vibrantly about something beyond the celebrity himself and his greatest hits - and most of it takes place in LA. Joshua Harmon's comedy "Skintight" isn't set in LA, but it should have been - if you buy the idea that Angelenos worship youth more than in most other areas.

"M. Butterfly." Speaking of the ever-growing conversation about gender ambiguity (see "IAMA," above), it was a great idea for South Coast Repertory to bring us David Henry Hwang's revival of his landmark play, somewhat re-written for the current times. Desdemona Chiang's direction was the first time the play was staged by an Asian-American woman.

"Men on Boats." Continuing in the same lane of plays exploring gender, Son of Semele brought us Jacklyn Backhaus' all-female play about John Wesley Powell's all-male expedition that explored the entire length of the Grand Canyon in 1869. Barbara Kallir's inventive staging had a sly sense of humor that I'll guess was absent from the original expedition.

"The Mother of Henry." A single mom finds employment at the Sears in Boyle Heights in 1968, just as her youngest son is sent to Vietnam. Guiding her through the times, as they are a-changin', is her vision of the Virgen de Guadalupe, but this particular manifestation of the Virgen knows her own limits. Evelina Fernandez ("A Mexican Trilogy") packed her script with poignance and comedy in its premiere at LATC, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela.

"Ragtime." It was a good year for enthusiasts of "Ragtime," which ought to be dubbed the national musical. You could see the McNally/Flaherty/Ahrens masterpiece, based on the Doctorow novel, in David Lee's midsize staging at Pasadena Playhouse, or on an intimate scale at Chance Theater in Anaheim, where Casey Stangl was in charge. I'm grateful that I saw both.

"Salvage." This tiny but soulful folk-country one-act, with a book by Tim Alderson, who also assembled the score from songs by himself, the late Mark Heard, Pat Terry and the late Randy VanWarmer, offers the year's best LA-nurtured score of a musical. Produced outside the auspices of any of the well-known LA theater companies, it has been extended into mid-January, at the Lounge in Hollywood.

"Uncle Vanya." Although LA lacked any major productions of Chekhov's work this year, Jack Stehlin's small-scale but vivid "Vanya" made up for the gap. In this age of climate crisis, we again see how prescient the late-19th-century writer was in the scope of his environmental concerns. His characters often express their cares about what we might think of them, more than a century later, so I'm happy to assure their spirits that we still share their pain - and their comedy. Through December 21 at New American Theatre in Hollywood.

Also still playing:

I saw the original "Frozen" animated movie just before seeing the stage musical version. I'm nowhere near the movie's target audience, but if you too are older than, say, 30, consider this - that the stage musical is much better, at least from a relatively adult perspective. It helps that this version, opening its tour at the Pantages, has a two-sisters song that isn't in the movie or the original Broadway production. But most of all, I appreciated the fact that I didn't have to keep looking at the animated characters' gigantic eyes - which constantly suggest that they're Disney-princess dolls instead of human beings.

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