Don Shirley's theatrical highlights of 2018

Crucible-girls-ian-flanders.jpgA scene from "The Crucible." Photo by Ian Flanders.

Not long ago, plenty of stage-loving actors and producers spent months, even years, warning of the potential catastrophe that awaited Los Angeles theater if Actors' Equity changed the rules governing the payment of the union's members in productions at LA's small theaters. But Equity didn't retreat.

Neither has LA theater. With the new rules in effect for a couple of years now, greater LA is still a center of vibrantly alive theatrical experiences.

Here are some of my personal favorites from 2018. But first my usual caveat. So far I've seen 155 productions this year in greater LA, but that's fewer than half - or maybe fewer than even a third - of all the productions that were available.

I've arranged my selections in a mostly alphabetical order. But I'm also continuing my usual habit of drawing connections between productions -- and therefore sometimes mentioning two or three productions in the same paragraph, regardless of the first letter in the title.

Let's begin with the "C"s:

Cabaret and Cabaret. Los Angeles County hosted two very different but equally transfixing productions of the great Kander/Ebb/Masteroff musical: Larry Carpenter's on a big stage for McCoy Rigby Entertainment in La Mirada and Michael Matthews' intimate rendition on Celebration Theatre's tiny stage in Hollywood.

Cambodian Rock Band. Is it OK for a play that examines events surrounding the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia to be, well, lively? Yes. Exhibit A is Lauren Yee's poignant examination of a Cambodian man who played in a rock band before the genocide. He was captured but eventually managed to escape to the United States, where he raised an American daughter, who returns to his homeland as a prosecutor of war crimes. South Coast Repertory produced the play's premiere, directed by Chay Yew, with music by the contemporary LA-based group Dengue Fever, plus a few songs by writers who were killed in the genocide.

Coriolanus and The Crucible. The brilliant Roman general in Shakespeare's tragedy and the leading character in Arthur Miller's Salem-witch-trials drama are headstrong men who find it difficult to shade the truth, as they see it. How apt for Topanga's Theatricum Botanicum to pair them in last summer's alfresco repertory, in vital, expansive versions directed by Ellen Geer (the former with co-director Melora Marshall).

Cry It Out, Gloria and Forever Bound. The Atwater Village Theater complex, with four venues, is currently the beating heart of LA's small-theater scene. This year the heartbeats reached their peak in two productions of Echo Theater: Lindsay Allbaugh's staging of Molly Smith Metzler's "Cry It Out," a moving and amusing look at a community of several disparate first-time parents, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "Gloria," a workplace comedy that unforgettably morphs into a workplace tragedy, directed by Chris Fields. Atwater also was the home of Steve Apostolina's independently produced and LA-set "Forever Bound," which shifted moods almost as dramatically and as successfully as "Gloria," under the direction of Ann Hearn Tobolowsky.

Henry IV and Henry V and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Shakespeare's history plays normally aren't as popular as his tragedies or his comedies. But who could resist Tom Hanks as Falstaff in Daniel Sullivan's alfresco "Henry IV," smoothly adapted from parts 1 and 2, in the VA's charming Japanese Garden? Thanks, Shakespeare Center of LA. Chronologically speaking, it's too bad that "Henry IV" followed instead of preceded A Noise Within's strikingly designed "Henry V," which had plowed through Pasadena earlier in the year, guided by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Later in 2018, A Noise Within also scored with Geoff Elliott's revival of Tom Stoppard's brilliant alternative-"Hamlet" play, told from the perspective of the prince's doomed acquaintances. Rafael Goldstein, the protean actor who played the brash Henry V, transformed into the moody Guildenstern, in collaboration with Kasey Mahaffy's frisky Rosencrantz.

RED SPEEDO - 3.jpgA scene from "Red Speedo."

The Hothouse and The Art Couple and Red Speedo. These productions from LA's small theaters displayed pressurized but very different workplaces for largely satirical benefits. Nike Doukas staged Harold Pinter's '50s boss-from-hell "Hothouse" for Antaeus in Glendale. In "The Art Couple," Brendan Hunt imagined Neil Simon collaborating with young Sam Shepard on a version of "Odd Couple" that featured Van Gogh and Gauguin instead of Oscar and Felix, directed by Lauren Van Kuren for Sacred Fools in Hollywood. Lucas Hnath's "Red Speedo," staged by Joe Banno at the Road in North Hollywood, pitted human sharks against each other in the world of competitive swimming,

The Humans. Yes, it was yet another play about a fractious family reunion and was therefore not the most original pick for the Tony that it won. Still, Joe Mantello's staging of the best Stephen Karam play that LA has yet seen was a marvel of great acting and design, at the Ahmanson. Karam is an alumnus of three of Blank Theatre's annual Young Playwrights Festivals in Hollywood.

Native Gardens and A Raisin in the Sun. The former, a comedy by Mexico-born Karen Zacarías, observes neighbors and boundaries and walls in the microcosmic terms of an upper-middle-class area in DC. Under the guidance of Jason Alexander at the Pasadena Playhouse, it became fertile turf for resonant laughter. Also in Pasadena, but with a title that stands in stark contrast to "Native Gardens," was Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." It depicts more wrenching changes in neighborhoods than those in "Native Gardens." Gregg T. Daniel directed a powerful revival at A Noise Within.

Sell/Buy/Date and Skeleton Crew. Geffen Playhouse appears to be trying to shed any stereotype that it's a theater primarily for "the industry" by tackling scripts that aren't obvious screenplays-in-waiting. Its most successful efforts in that direction in 2018 were Sarah Jones' solo in which she embodied a variety of characters from the 21st-century sex industry (also seen later at the LGBT Center) and Dominique Morisseau's play about the vulnerable workers at a failing auto plant in Michigan.

Soft Power and Dear Evan Hansen. The Ahmanson presented the season's best new musicals. "Soft Power" was the most boldly original premiere that Center Theatre Group has presented in its Michael Ritchie era. David Henry Hwang's layered take on the Chinese and American cultural frontier unfolds into an imagined future Chinese musical that treats America in the same way that "The King and I" treated Siam - er, Thailand - decades ago, with Hillary Clinton standing in for the King. Jeanine Tesori's score, Leigh Silverman's direction and starry performances from Conrad Ricamora and Alyse Alan Louis helped build sentiment as well as satire. Then Benj Pasek's and Justin Paul's "Dear Evan Hansen" validated its Broadway reputation with help from a dynamite performance in the title role by the Santa Monica-reared Ben Levi Ross.

Vietgone. Qui Nguyen's Vietnam-immigrant saga uses contemporary American idioms and forms, including hiphop, to bring it all home, so to speak. Its LA premiere, from East West Players in Little Tokyo under Jennifer Chang's direction, was almost as good as the play's initial outing, at South Coast Repertory in 2015.

Raisin_CraigSchwartz_01.jpgA scene from "A Raisin in the Sun." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Decking the halls with holiday theater...

Don't worry if you missed the high-profile "A Christmas Carol" at Geffen Playhouse. Seeing it after opening night and relatively far from the often dimly lit stage, it felt cold and somewhat forbidding. Why produce a story about the value of human fellowship with only one human face visible on the stage, plus lots of special effects? There are plenty of other productions of "Christmas Carol" around LA and Orange counties, with more fellowship as well as more faces.

However, if you're somewhat adventurous, here are three less traditional (less clichéd?) shows that also embody the holiday spirit (or spirits) -- but without specifically religious content, which may or may not be on your wish list:

Come From Away, at the Ahmanson, is the Irene Sankoff/David Hein musical set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when a small town in Newfoundland was flooded with several thousand passengers on flights that had been diverted there because of the attacks. Although it isn't at all Christmas-specific, it's a glowing showcase for human kindness. Each member of Christopher Ashley's ensemble plays at least one passenger and at least one local. Although some of the characters are rather superficially sketched, the results are, more often than not, heartwarming.

The Year Without a Santana Claus is the latest musical farce from the always-topical Troubadour Theater Company, at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. Troubie auteur Matt Walker apparently remembers fondly, from childhood, the Rankin/Bass movie "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (based on a Phyllis McGinley book). But that doesn't prevent him from irreverently infusing its story with a stream of one-liners, sexy dance moves, the sounds of Santana (!) and more Spanish than I can recall ever hearing in a Trouble show. Still, most of the script is in English, including updated tongue-in-cheek lyrics for many of the songs. Naturally, he finds a great role for Beth Kennedy's Winter Warlock, an annual tradition beloved by Troubie fans. The source material is almost ridiculously thin, but I grinned and laughed throughout the entire show.

A Carol Christmas flips not only the title of the Dickens classic, but also the era, the location, and the gender of almost all of the story's leading characters. It's set in the present, in the United States. The Scrooge-like character is a woman, a boss named Carol. Also, the show is a musical, with catchy melodies and sometimes clever lyrics by Bruce Kimmel. I enjoyed most of it, and I appreciated the novelty. Group Rep produces it at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood.

Some may be drawn to "Love Actually Live" at the Wallis, in Beverly Hills, because they liked the movie "Love Actually." But the movie isn't enhanced by this adaptation from For the Record. Onstage actors not only sing numbers suggested by the movie soundtrack, but they also move so that they mirror some of the movie's scenes, which simultaneously appear in their original format on large screens. I found myself looking at the screens more than I looked at the live actors, who often appeared to be lit so as not to distract us from the movie imagery. I would have preferred seeing either just the movie minus the live stage activity -- or an original musical version of the story, minus the screens.

Sorry for the tardy report, but Cate Caplin's wonderful Actors Co-op revival of "She Loves Me", in Hollywood, closed last weekend. In case anyone is doing this 1963 musical a year from now, try to remember that a big countdown to Christmas is among its narrative strands. Actually, "She Loves Me" is a tonic in any season, as long as it's cast and performed as smartly as Caplin's version.

YWSC_367 copy.jpgScene from "The Year Without a Santana Claus." Photo by Ed Krieger.

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