I’ve seen my last show of 2015, so now it is time for a look back. I don’t believe in awarding “best of”s, or creating artificial award shows. I’m just one person. Rather, I prefer to look at the year and discuss those shows and performances that, at the end of the year, left a lingering impression I’m still talking about.
Let’s start by exploring the shows that I saw in 2015. Here’s the list; I omitted most of the pure concerts such as Tom Paxton, Muse/ique Planet Bernstein, Neil Diamond, Rick Recht and Sheldon Low, and Noel Paul Stookey. I also omitted the two movies: Into the Woods and The Big Short. In total, I saw 68 stage productions, 6 concerts, and 2 movies.
Most Talked About
I think one measure of a show is how much you find yourself citing and mentioning it to others. In that category, I think the top of the list is Pulp Shakespeare or Bard Fiction. This was a retelling of the movie Pulp Fiction, but as if Shakespeare wrote it. Since then, I’ve actually seen Pulp Fiction, and grown to appreciate the show even more for their attention to detail and their approach to humor. I never knew that Quentin Tarantino was such an interpreter of the bard. I meant to ask Bill Shakespeare about it when I saw him at the Nottingham Festival, but I forgot.
Another show that I kept talking about during the year was The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam. This was the first show that I had seen that had focused on Cybersecurity. I ended up booking it for the ACSAC conference (where I do local arrangements), and it was performed with a Nigerian senator and two members of the Nigerian money laundering commission in the audience. It helped convince them to present a case study at the 2016 ACSAC.
It is rare that I see a show more than once. This year, that happened twice. One time was with a show that also fell into the “Most Talked About” category: Astro Boy and the God of Comics at Sacred Fools Theatre Company (FB). I happened to see this on a rainy day on my own while my wife was out of town and was blown away by the humor and creativity. I took her back to see it, and she was equally blown away.
A second time was with a show at REP East Playhouse (FB): Jesus Christ Superstar. The first time I went it was one of worst REP shows I had seen in my years going there. The second time I went, it was one of the best. So what changed? They replaced the actor who was playing Judas, and brought in live music. Two little things made a gigantic difference.
The year saw me trying a number of new companies. Which companies impressed me the most, and made me want to pay attention to their work and monitor them for potential repeat performances?
The first was Sacred Fools Theatre Company (FB), where we saw Astro Boy and the God of Comics. I’ve heard about the company for years, but never made it to a show. This show just blew me away. Sacred Fools has just moved from their longtime space near LA City College to the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood — I look forward to their doing great productions there.
The second was Theatre 68 (FB). This company has been producing in the smaller space at the NoHo Arts Center (FB), and we’ve seen two of their shows: Serial Killer Barbie and Who Killed Santa?. Both were wildly inventive, and executed with remarkable creativity.
I’d add some runner ups (because we’ve seen at least one show there before, IIRC): Anteaus Theatre Company (FB) and Uncle Vanya; Theatre of Note (FB) and Entropy; and Zombie Joes Underground (FB), where we saw three shows.
As you read through the list, you’ll see that I tend to like musicals. There were some particular shows this year that were pure surprises: shows I still mention and remember well. We can divide this into a number of groups: Brand-New Musicals, Turnarounds, and Broadway shows.
Musical Surprises (I) – Brand New Musicals
Leading the pact here was Loch Ness – The Musical at the Chance Theatre (FB). This was a new musical: a telling of a love story between a girl and a mythical monster. Creatively done. Creatively executed. Beautiful music.
The second was Words by Ira Gershwin at the The Colony Theatre (FB). This introduced me to Gershwin’s story, and introduced me to a lot of music that I had never connected with before.
Musical Surprises (II) – Turnarounds
This category covers productions of shows that were failures during their initial Broadway runs. In this category, the leader was the immersive staging of Carrie – The Musical at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). This was a show whose Broadway incarnation had been held up as a massive flop; it was an example of how not to do a show. The La Mirada staging turned that around in an creative fashion. It found the heart of the show. It emphasized that the heart of the show was a statement of the impact of bullying, which was very timely.
A close runner up was the beautiful staging of The Bakers Wife at The Actor’s Co-Op (FB). This was a failed Steven Schwartz musical, which even he forgets to mention. But the story and the music is timeless, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.
The third surprise was the Kelrik Productions (FB) incarnation of Violet. Starring Kristin Towers-Rowles (FB, FB) as Violet, this was just a — to paraphrase Steve Stanley — wow. A remarkable production from a company that is better known for their youth-oriented productions.
Musical Surprises (III) – Broadway
This category includes musicals that were successes on Broadway, and were then either revived or toured to Los Angeles.
First up in this category is the student production of The Drowsy Chaperone at CSUN, produced by the CSUN Theatre Arts Department. Drowsy is a fun musical, and CSUN had fun with it, making it pure fun for the audience. They had the joy of being able to produce this gem on the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) stage, and it demonstrated the remarkable quality of this student organization. The VPAC programming team should make a commitment — as part of their service to the campus community — to put up at leats 2 CSUN Theatre musicals a year, and to let them run two weekends each.
The second Broadway show was the recent national tour of The Bridges of Madison County at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). This was a show that was moderately successful on Broadway, but I had written off as “chick-theatre” — another The Light in the Piazza. I went to see it primarily because I’m a Jason Robert Brown (FB) completist. The show surprised me: it was blown away by the tenderness of the story, the beauty of the music, and the quality of the performances.
A notable runner up in this category was he Good People Theatre Co (FB) production of Closer Than Ever at Hollywood Piano in Burbank. C’mon now: Maltby and Shire music on a 9½ foot Mason & Hamlin (FB) grand piano. Unspeakably beautiful.
We saw a number of classics this year, including Brecht, Chekov, and Shakespeare. Both of the most memorable were variations on Shakespeare.
Hamlet is an interesting play. Traditionally a very dark play, it has served as the inspirtation for numerous retellings in different contexts. The Four Clowns (FB) company had an interesting take on it in Four Clowns Present Hamlet. They presented one of the funniest Hamlets that I have seen — one that I still remember fondly to this day. In doing so, they took something dark and inaccessible and made it accessible to a broader audience without neutering the story.
The second was the Theatricum Botanicum (FB) production of As You Like It. I had a bad taste in my mouth from the last time I had seen the show, an incredibly bad production (titled As U Lyk It: A California Concoction) at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006. This production was set loosely in the context of the Civil War, and came off beautifully. It presented the Shakespeare, again, in a wonderfully accessible manor. I should also mention the wonderful Theatricum Botanicum (FB) production of Green Grow The Lilacs the next day — it provided a wonderful understanding of Oklahoma that I had not had before.
An honorable mention should go to Anteaus Theatre Company (FB) and Uncle Vanya — again a remarkable production of something that is hard to get right.
There are a few productions that stand out for their dramatic impact and performances, exhibiting a good mix of story and performance.
First up is the Circle X Theatre (FB) production of Trevor. This was a remarkable story about a former TV chimpanzee named Trevor and his owner, Sandra in the decline of his career. Trevor simply wants the life that he had: to work and actor and be with people like Morgan Fairchild, and achieve success like his mentor, Oliver. Sandra simply wants a home with Trevor and a life that she knows. When a new neighbor with an infant child moves in and is threatened by the risk to safety that Trevor creates, the motivating factors of the story are set up. The Sheriff is called in; he brings in an Animal Control Officer to assess the situation. When the assessment occurs, the situation rapidly goes south. Strongly moving performances from the leads: Laurie Metcalf (FB) as Sandra Morris and Jimmi Simpson (FB) as Trevor.
Second is The Colony Theatre (FB) production of The Best of Enemies. The Best of Enemies tells the true story of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater. C.P. Ellis, at the time of the start of the play, was the Exaulted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Durham NC. Atwater was a prominent black civil rights leader in the same community. As 1971 started, Bill Riddick was sent by the Federal Government to handle the long-delayed desegregation of Durham schools. To do this, he organized a series of charettes to bring the entire community together to solve the problem. Riddick realized that the charettes could not succeed if the entire community was not behind them — meaning not only the black community or those in favor of civil rights, but those — such as the KKK and its factions — that opposed segregation. He therefore worked to get Ellis and Atwater to chair the Durham Charette — called Save Our Schools. He had no idea of whether it would succeed or fail. This play is the story of that effort. Strongly moving performances from Larry Cedar (FB) as C.P. Ellis and Tiffany Rebecca Royale (FB) as Ann Atwater.
The Honorable Mention in this category goes to Lombardi at the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB). The story has less of an impact, but did feature a powerhouse performance of Bert Emmett (FB) as Vince Lombardi.
Looking back over the theatrical year, it demonstrates the wonderful breadth and depth of the Los Angeles theatre ecosystem. From bare-bones productions of remarkable theatre at Zombie Joes Underground (FB) to first-class theatre at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) or the Pantages (FB); from intimate theatre in 99-seat and under venues to mid-sized Equity houses to Broadway tours: Los Angeles — and Southern California in general — presents a remarkable range of theatre. The community ranges from actors who make their living on the live stage, to quality actors whose bread and butter is TV and movies, but who love to exercise their acting muscle on the stage; or those who love the theatre but primarily work in other fields. Then there are those like me: the “professional audiences” who don’t have the skills or the imagination to be on stage, but who are the critical reflectors: the audience that processes and amplifies the energy of the actors.
This year saw an attack on this ecosystem by the Actors Equity union; but as the year ended, the sparring parties were back in negotiation. Hopefully, their result will enhance the ecosystem as opposed to destroying it. After all, we are all for improving the ecosystem, not destroying it (or, as we were saying in April, “We’re for change, but not this change.”)
On Christmas Day, we saw one of the few movies we see. Using Fandango, the two tickets cost almost $30. One can see intimate theatre in Los Angeles for that price (certainly if you use a discount service like Goldstar). Unlike movies, theatre is different at each performance; it is not a chosen best peformance, but one with slight imperfections that makes it unique. As we all know, what shapes our beauty is our imperfections; perfection is cold.
May 2016 find you healthy, happy, and at a Southern California theater performance.
🎭 🎭 🎭
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: The new year, 2016, starts with “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) on January 2nd. This is followed by “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB) on January 16; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start. However, given there has been no announcement, I feel safe booking all weekends in January (I’ll note that if there is no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP). February starts with a hold date for “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The rest of the February schedule is empty except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). I expect to be filling out February as December goes on. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.