Theatrical highlights of 2016

district-merchants-prod-ds.jpg​Kristy Johnson and Helen Sage Howard Simpson in "​​District Merchants." Photo by ​Ben Horak/SCR.

I'm skeptical of year-end highlights lists, because they encourage comparisons of theatrical apples and oranges.

Still, each year I look forward to writing my own highlights list. Besides covering some of the favorites that I've already publicly praised, these lists also give me a chance to admire other productions that I didn't mention earlier in the year, when they were up and running. Usually, these shows didn't fit into the theme of the column I happened to be writing at the time or else they had closed in between columns.

So, regular readers of this column might find a few surprises as they survey my favorites of 2016, listed here in (more or less) alphabetical order:

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. It's Time. Solo shows often lack the variety and conflict that arise more naturally in plays with many characters. But James Lecesne's multi-character solo about the search for a missing teenager in a New Jersey town obliterated such concerns in Center Theatre Group's staging at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Also, in the related but hardly identical genre of strictly autobiographical and local solos, master West Side raconteur Paul Linke's latest, "It's Time," will continue amusing and moving audiences for at least three weekends in 2017, Jan. 7-22, at Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica.

Cloud 9. Caryl Churchill's brilliant comedy about the dissolution of colonial and sexual constraints, using the same characters in two very different eras, began the final year of Antaeus Company's residency in NoHo with a bang - which, let's hope, will continue to reverberate when the group moves to Glendale in 2017.

Destiny of Desire. District Merchants. Telenovela met Bertolt Brecht in Karen Zacarias' sizzling "Destiny of Desire" at South Coast Repertory, directed with brio by Jose Luis Valenzuela. But let's not overlook another West Coast premiere that was occurring at more or less the same time next door, in SCR's adjacent, smaller space - Aaron Posner's "District Merchants." It's a fascinating American take on "The Merchant of Venice" in the 1870s, staged by Michael Michetti, who had recently directed Posner's somewhat similarly-styled "Stupid Fucking Bird" for Theatre @ Boston Court.

disgraced-prod-ds.jpgDisgraced. A secular Pakistani-American attorney is the focal point of Ayad Akhtar's provocative play, leading to reflections on the intersection between mainstream American culture and Islam. KImberly Senior's staging for Center Theatre Group, at the Mark Taper Forum, excavated the play's fault lines with maximum impact. Right: Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Eccentricities of a Nightingale. In Tennessee Williams' improved rewrite of his own "Summer and Smoke," directed by Dana Jackson for Pacific Resident Theatre, Ginna Carter dared to be more eccentric than usual as the central character Alma, without sacrificing our ability to see Alma's yes, soul.

Fly. This musicalized, choreographed play about the World War II Tuskegee Airmen and the racism they faced was one of the best Black History Month productions ever, flying far above predictable inspirational tropes with dynamic tap and soaring projections. It was staged at Pasadena Playhouse by Ricardo Khan, who wrote it with Trey Ellis, in a co-production with Crossroads Theatre of New Jersey.

Going to a Place Where You Already Are. Office Hour. South Coast Repertory produced four world premieres by women in four months. These were my favorites. Bekah Brunstetter's "Going..." probes gently, with a wonderful sense of humor, into the notion of an afterlife among two related couples of different beliefs and generations; Marc Masterson's staging was irresistible. Julia Cho's "Office Hour" is very different - a not-so-gentle probe into an adjunct professor's confrontation with a troubled young student who sends signals of being a potential campus shooter; Neel Keeler's harrowing premiere depicted both the student and the teacher as Korean- Americans.

bekkah-brunstetter-scr.jpg"Going to a Place Where You Already Are" playwright ​Bekah Brunstetter. SCR

The Imaginary Invalid. Romeo and Juliet. Our rotating classical rep companies, Pasadena's A Noise Within and Topanga's Theatricum Botanicum, each offered a "Romeo and Juliet" as well as Constance Congdon's adaptation of "Imaginary Invalid" this year. Theatricum went farther out on conceptual limbs in both plays. I preferred A Noise Within's "Romeo", staged by Dámaso Rodriguez. To a slightly lesser degree, I also preferred Theatricum's gender-swapped "Invalid," directed by Mary Jo DuPrey with Ellen Geer in the title role.

John is a father. Julie Marie Myatt's tale of an LA man who finally meets his grandson in Phoenix, after years of estrangement with his now-dead son's family, was an extraordinary experience in the hands of director Dan Bonnell and the brilliant Sam Anderson in the soft-spoken but intensely felt title role, at Road Theatre's venue on Magnolia Boulevard.

Kentucky. Leah Wanako Winkler's comedy is the best new script East West Players has staged in years. A rebellious daughter returns home from New York to Kentucky for her younger, more conventional sister's wedding, in the process facing down their abusive white father and their submissive Japanese mother. Amusing music and movement help lift it out of the dysfunctional-family-drama pit. Deena Selenow directed.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. How often do we see a classic Western tale on stage, treated seriously instead of as a parody? Rubicon Theatre in Ventura introduced British playwright Jethro Compton's dramatization of Dorothy Johnson's short story to the United States, with Jenny Sullivan directing Gregory Harrison in the role made famous by John Wayne. Would someone please bring this to LA County?

Merrily We Roll Along. See my last column for more on Michael Arden's masterful rendition of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical, which takes us backwards through the relationship of three friends, starting with their midlife strife in LA. It closed Sunday at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.

A Mexican Trilogy. A Mexican family moves to Jerome, Arizona, then to Phoenix, then to LA over the course of the last century. Playwright Evelina Fernandez's saga, previously seen in three separate chapters, finally came together in an improved marathon version that appeared in two installments, lasting about six hours, at Los Angeles Theatre Center. It was the best example yet of the music- and movement-infused style of director Jose Luis Valenzuela, who then took the style over to "Destiny of Desire" (see above) at South Coast Rep. Because the LA Times didn't even review the latest version, someone should bring this "Trilogy" back soon so it can reach a wider audience.

The Model Apartment. Donald Margulies' '80s-set drama, about Holocaust survivors who attempt to escape their aggrieved daughter as well as their past in a Florida condo, finally got its LA due (following a faltering premiere here in 1988), under the direction of Marya Mazor, at Geffen Playhouse.

My Maṅana Comes. Pocatello. Two plays set in restaurants. Elizabeth Irwin examines immigration dramas and economic inequality behind the swinging kitchen door of a busy New York bistro in "Maṅana". The action starts with a slow simmer, then Irwin gradually raises the heat. A gifted ensemble, guided by Armando Molina, made all the right moves, at the Fountain Theatre. Meanwhile, Samuel D. Hunter's "Pocatello," set in the dining room of an Italian chain franchise in Idaho, also looked at hard times but from outside the big cities. It found that sweet spot between laughter and tears in John Perrin Flynn's production at Rogue Machine's new home in southeast Hollywood.

urinetown-prod-ds.jpgUrinetown. Coeurage Theatre's revival of the Mark Hollman/Greg Kotis musical, in which brave citizens fight authoritarian overlords during an intense water shortage, remains blissfully tongue-in-cheek, but it's also surprisingly topical in the wake of Donald Trump's electoral-college triumph and his loose talk of privatization. Kari Hayter's nifty staging at the ultra-intimate Lankershim Arts Center maintains a sharp focus. It's scheduled to re-open after the holidays, on Fridays and Saturdays, Jan. 6-Feb. 25. Coeurage maintains a pay-what-you-want policy at all performances. Photo by Nardeep Khurmi.

A Walk in the Woods. Lee Blessing's 1987 two-hander about Soviet and American arms negotiators seemed much more timeless in John Henry Davis' version than it did when we were closer to the (1982) negotiations that inspired it, thanks to the performances of Tony Abatemarco and David Nevell. The language almost sounded Beckettian at times in this International City Theatre revival in Long Beach.

In case you're wondering about "Amélie"

"Amélie", the new stage musical adapted from the French movie, may look tempting to fans of the film. But think twice. It's at the Ahmanson Theatre, which is too big for such a featherweight contender. Even one of the show's fans, the LA Times' Charles McNulty (who original saw "Amélie" in smaller Berkeley quarters), wrote that its presence in the Ahmanson is sometimes "like an amuse-bouche is being served on a turkey platter." Good line, but the show's charms in the big hall are so elusive that the line could be edited down to "a turkey."

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