The 2017 remodel of LA theater

RottenTour_0014.jpgIf you see only one satire of musicals this month, "Something Rotten!" is the better choice. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

2017 was a pivotal year for Los Angeles theater, but not because the quality was better or worse than usual. It's because of institutional changes.

After two years of heated debate, new Actors' Equity rules finally took full effect in smaller theaters. Receiving far less attention were changes in the leadership of four of LA's larger nonprofit theater companies. Meanwhile, "Hamilton" - at the Pantages -- dominated the second half of the year, not only in terms of attendance, attention and profits but also in terms of innovation.

In most of my previous year-end summaries, I briefly comment on my favorite shows, arranged in alphabetical order. I'm still mentioning most of my personal theatrical faves this year, but I'm weaving my references to them into the context of discussions about these larger changes. Because I've already written about most of my favorites in earlier columns (which are available here), I'm going to restrict longer mentions only to those few shows that were highlights but which didn't fit into earlier columns.

Also, for those readers who simply want some recommendations about what to see during the holidays, feel free to skip to the last section of the column.

Let's start with our biggest nonprofit company, Center Theatre Group - the proprietor of the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre. Its artistic leadership hasn't changed this year, but I have some new respect for CTG due to one change in its branding. It has stopped billing itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company" -- which too often sounded as if CTG was claiming to be LA's only theater company. Bravo.

CTG was at its best this year with imported tours at its largest venue, the Ahmanson. They included three productions of superb musicals that are among the year's highlights: "Fun Home," Fiasco Theater's freshly minted revival of "Into the Woods," and the currently running "Something Rotten!" (see below for more on "Rotten!"), as well as National Theatre's revelatory production of the non-musical "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time". The Ahmanson also hosted "Bright Star," an amiable musical entertainment but not exactly a highlight.

Let's skip the regular seasons inside the Taper and the Douglas (gulp - I don't think I've ever done this in a year-end roundup). Instead, let's look at the other end of the CTG spectrum, "Remote L.A." This was a Taper "bonus" offering that never set foot inside the Taper. It was an example of literal street theater. In "Remote L.A.," the headset-wearing audience walked and rode trains around downtown LA as a group, guided by unseen GPS-like voices that also offered commentary on the ironies and complexities of what we saw. This production was part imported and part local -- an LA-specific version of a concept originated by a German company, Rimini Protokoll. As someone who has often chided the current CTG for ignoring new work about its own city, I found "Remote L.A." roughly comparable to manna from heaven.

Danny Feldman took the throne at Pasadena Playhouse this year, combining the artistic leadership with oversight of the business challenges, as producing artistic director. I was especially impressed with the playhouse's recent LA premiere of Mike Bartlett's "King Charles III," which explores what might happen when Prince Charles finally takes the throne of the UK. The script transcends royal gossip to become a portal into deeper themes and characterizations, aided by a modern form of Shakespearean blank verse. In the title role, Jim Abele created a very human king, who has waited decades for his moment and now wants to make it count for something substantive. Director Michael Michetti and a sterling cast made "King Charles III" entirely engrossing, and the announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry and LA's own Meghan Markle (who are more or less depicted in the play), during the Pasadena run, could hardly have been more serendipitous.

MWP-127web-500x500.jpgMichetti's staging of "King Charles III" was preceded in Pasadena by his direction of A Noise Within's revival of Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession," another British play that also seems strikingly contemporary in its themes -- even though it was written in 1893. Judith Scott and Erika Soto, as the dueling mother and daughter, created theatrical sparks, perhaps in part because the idea of women finding their voices is such a burning issue right now. Last spring I admired A Noise Within's "Ah, Wilderness" just as much, but "Mrs. Warren's Profession" was a better fit for 2017.

Speaking of women finding their voices, let's turn to South Coast Repertory, which artistic director Marc Masterson ls leaving at the end of the 2017-18 season, after seven years. Over the last couple of years, Masterson has provided southern California's strongest platform for successful new plays by women writers, who have traditionally been under-represented in America's theaters. I mentioned the company's strength in this department in my year-end roundup last year, but the 2017 crop of new plays by women at SCR was just as strong.

Besides Sandra Tsing Loh's "Sugar Plum Fairy" (covered in more detail below), Masterson offered Jen Silverman's "The Roommate," Aditi Brennan Kapil's "Orange," Amy Freed's "The Monster Builder" and Rachel Bonds' "Curve of Departure." Except perhaps for "Orange," all of these are among my picks for the year's best new plays.

Oddly enough, this particular specialty of Masterson's wasn't even mentioned in the official statement about his exit, released by South Coast in September, even though it approvingly cited several other highlights of his administration. As the company's board members search for a successor, they should keep women playwrights in mind and look for someone who is at least as committed to this goal as Masterson. We might assume that women candidates would be likelier to honor this goal than men. But Masterson has proven that an artistic director's gender isn't as important in this regard as much as her or his ability to find and produce wonderful new plays by women.

The Geffen Playhouse has been going through the rockiest time of transition among LA's major companies. Outgoing artistic director Randall Arney sued the company for age and disability discrimination in August after he was replaced by Matt Shakman, who is about 20 years younger. Stay tuned. Still, the company came through in 2017 with the moving solo musical "Lion" and the raucous comedy "The Legend of Georgia McBride."

East West Players' new artistic director Snehal Desai assumed full command this year and announced that East West's entire 2017-18 season would consist of co-productions with other LA nonprofit companies. In far-flung LA, it's always encouraging to hear that artists even know about each other's work, let alone co-produce, and I imagine that joining forces allows some more expensive projects to take place that otherwise wouldn't. Of the two collaborations mounted so far, I enjoyed "Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin" (with Rogue Artists) more than the revival of "Yohen." Earlier in the year, I also admired East West's own revival of "Next to Normal," staged by Nancy Keystone. It will be interesting to find out if this co-productions model will become the new normal at East West.

By the way, "Kaidan" was one of several fascinating productions this year (besides "Remote L.A.") that used unconventional spaces - or conventional spaces unconventionally. "Kaidan" took place in a mid-city warehouse. Also this fall, "Caught" was a site-specific piece inside the Think Tank Gallery. And Sacred Fools Theater enhanced its LA premiere of "Mr. Burns," a futurist epic about how an episode of "The Simpsons" enters the realm of myth, by staging it sequentially in three adjacent spaces at the company's Hollywood complex. Cornerstone Theater's "fellowship" rotated among four food-bank facilities, enrolling audience members in the effort to pack actual sack lunches for the hungry while they watched the actors.

All of these productions were restricted to relatively small audiences at any one performance. The creativity on display in them should be encouraging to the doomsayers who foretold the death of small theater in LA after the recent Equity rules changes.

Of course solo shows or almost-solo shows (such as "Turn Me Loose," starring Joe Morton in the smaller venue at the Wallis) are especially well-suited for intimate spaces. The most riveting solo of 2017 was Ensemble Studio Theatre's production of the autobiographical "WET: a DACAmented Journey," written and performed by Alex Alpharoah. It first played the bustling Atwater Village Theater, which was also the home this year of Echo Theater's premiere of Bekah Brunstetter's topical "The Cake" and Open Fist Theatre's premiere of the remarkable "Walking to Buchenwald," by Tom Jacobson. After its Atwater run, "WET" transferred to Los Angeles Theatre Center as part of LATC's valuable Encuentro festival. As the DACA struggle goes on with no resolution, "WET" deserves an even wider audience.

Finally, I can't forget another small-theater play, Evangeline Ordaz's "This Land." This intricate production crossed chronological lines in depicting the stories of more than a century of residents on one particular block in Watts. As director Armando Molina assembled the theatrical puzzle piece by piece, I realized that this is one of the most LA Observed-friendly productions ever. It was also an auspicious introduction to the new home of Company of Angels, in a corner of Boyle Heights that had never previously been on my theatrical map.

Laugh out loud

RottenTour_9089.jpgBlake Hammond and Rob McClure in "Something Rotten!" Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

During the holidays, comedy that lacks any obvious political overtones might be the best way to temporarily expunge some of the sky-high anxiety that has dominated the public mood in 2017.

So take note -- "Something Rotten!" at the Ahmanson Theatre is playing through New Year's Eve, and "Sugar Plum Fairy" is at South Coast Repertory through Sunday afternoon, December 24. These are two of the funniest shows of the year.

"Something Rotten!" is the Mel Brooksy musical (but not by Mel Brooks) about two brothers and playwrights in Elizabethan England, one of whom is bitterly jealous of the reigning superstar William Shakespeare. Their latest plan to one-up the Bard? Invent a new theatrical form -- the musical.

If you see only one satire of musicals this month, "Something Rotten!" is a better choice than "Spamilton" (a fellow CTG production, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through January 7). On the night I saw "Rotten!," audience members launched a standing ovation halfway through the first act, instead of waiting for the curtain call.

The creators of all this mirth are the Kirkpatrick brothers, songwriter Wayne and screenwriter Karey, plus Brit wit John O'Farrell. Their first pitch of the project to producer Kevin McCollum occurred in Karey Kirkpatrick's tiny LA studio. So maybe we can categorize this musical as slightly LA-bred, even though it played Broadway first?

sugar-pro4.jpgShannon Holt and Sandra Tsing Loh in "​Sugar Plum Fairy." Photo by ​Debora Robinson/SCR

"Sugar Plum Fairy" is definitely LA-bred, as is its creator Sandra Tsing Loh. It focuses on Loh's memory of her initially traumatic participation in a Chatsworth dance-studio production of "Nutcracker" when she was an adolescent in the '70s. An earlier solo version played the Geffen Playhouse in 2003, but this one is better, thanks largely to the addition of two other actors, Shannon Holt and Tony Abatemarco, to play the non-Loh characters -- all of them in a deliriously-designed staging by Bart DeLorenzo. For sheer hilarity, "Sugar Plum" easily tops not only its own previous incarnation but also Loh's "Madwoman in the Volvo," which was recently seen at South Coast and the Pasadena Playhouse.

By the way, our most reliable purveyors of holiday hilarity, the Troubies, are venturing outside their usual lair at Burbank's Garry Marshall Theatre (previously the Falcon) in order to explain "How the Princh Stole Christmas" - a mashup of music by Prince and story by Seuss -- at the larger El Portal Theatre in NoHo. Performances start this weekend and continue through New Year's Eve. "The Latina Christmas Special," in its third year at LATC, is also laugh-oriented, through January 7. And "Luzia," Cirque du Soleil's "waking dream of Mexico," in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium through February 11, includes some expert clowning along with its jaw-dropping spectacle.

Of course "A Christmas Carol" also usually comes with a few laughs. South Coast Repertory, A Noise Within and Independent Shakespeare all have their own versions. But if you want to observe the spirit of the Dickens classic, with or without seeing it (again?), consider Rubicon Theatre's "Carol" in Ventura, closing Saturday. Its opening was delayed by the power outage and the clean-up required after the Thomas fire passed nearby. Rubicon lost $50,000 in expected ticket sales and incurred $10,000 in clean-up expenses. So it's appealing for support beyond the residents of Ventura at a Gofundme page.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim at the end of "Carol," God bless the Rubicon, every one - or at least everyone who has ever appreciated the presence of such a professional theater company in downtown Ventura.

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