At the end of our first full year of operation (and quite a year it’s been, with readership steadily growing, writers Janice Steinberg and David Dixon joining our former SanDiego.com crew of Welton Jones, Ken Herman, Kris Eitland, Kraig Cavanaugh, and me) we thought it would be fun to provide a look back and some of the high and low-lights of the past year.
But, first we want to celebrate ourselves just a little. It’s been a good year for SanDiegoStory.com. You’ve taken to us and rewarded our writers with your own boos (when you disagreed) and bravos (when you thought we did something particularly well). Mostly, it’s been bravos. Among our highlights were Kris’ reviews of dance programs held at the strip club, Les Girls; Ken’s positive notice of Joshua Bell’s performance with the San Diego Symphony, which went viral when Mr. Bell posted a link on his Facebook page; and most recently Janice Steinberg’s review of the Tel Aviv Dance Fest attracted international attention. And, as you might expect, readers value Welton Jones’ opinions on local theatre, as his reviews receive steady readership throughout a particular show’s run on our stages.
We won some awards, too, for work published at SanDiegoStory.com, as well as for other publications. We might brag just a bit and say that our writers dominated the arts categories at the San Diego Press Club’s competition this year.
So, thanks for finding us and for reading us. We’re expanding our coverage again, and we’ll bring in one or two new writers in order to do so. Our first bravo, then, goes to you, our readers, for appreciating excellence in arts journalism in San Diego.
Now, assembling a “boos” and “bravos” section from our writers turned out to be a lot like herding cats. Our contributors were somewhat reluctant to issue that many “boos,” preferring instead to reward outstanding work with “bravos.” So, with that caveat, here are their choices for 2013:
Dance: Kris Eitland
- Fingertips Toward Floor, Head Follows or The Lazy Sexy Peepshow, New Adventurers: The most unlikely partners, Anya Cloud who is very tall and Eric Geiger who is on the short side, maximized juxtapositions in their seductive, slamming duet that became a tribute to the resilient human body, accented by a distinctive score.
- Hot Guys Dancing, Diversionary Theatre: Director Michael Mizerany assembled top choreographers to create premiere dances of substance that celebrated acceptance and ordinary guys, and they did it with humor, emotion, and subtle hints of sexuality.
- Carmina Burana, City Ballet of San Diego: The grand production combined vivid dances about medieval monks, beer guzzling, and courtly eroticism, and Carl Orff’s dramatic “O Fortuna” was played live with orchestra and 100-voice choir.
- The Adventures of Don Juan, San Diego Ballet: Maxim Tchernychev’s sleek portrayal of the legendary lover and scoundrel featured his distinctive Russian training infused with a hip and mature vibe, in a knockout role staged especially for him, by Javier Velasco.
- Trolley Dances, San Diego Dance Theater: Jean Isaacs’ annual site-specific adventure had choreographers set dances in Barrio Logan and areas near the new library to illuminate Chicano communities, historic murals, homelessness, and the value of charity and education, the pinnacle being Isaacs’ emotional dance accompanied by the Sacra Profana Choir
Dance and Performance Art: Janice Steinberg
What excited me most this year wasn’t just dance, it was theater and puppetry and performance art, as San Diego became the site for festivals! There were two events that – as I put it in a review – extended the festival atmosphere beyond the theater and transformed public space.
- The WoW (Without Walls) Festival at La Jolla Playhouse October 3-6 is my top pick because it included Kamchàtka, a physical theater troupe from Barcelona. Wearing shabby immigrant overcoats and moving – with superb physical awareness – in a timid, huddled group, the eight members of Kamchàtka roamed the Playhouse grounds creating magical in-the-moment intersections between art and life.
- Our first Fringe Festival took place July 1-7 at multiple downtown venues. The highlight for me was the staging of two pieces written by the brilliant, poetic Philip-Dimitri Galas, a native San Diegan who invented his own form, “avante-vaudeville,” and died in 1986 at the age of 32.
- Gallim Dance, the New York-based company created in 2007, made its area debut last February at the Old Town Temecula Theater. Gallim’s director, Andrea Miller, a veteran of Israel’s Batsheva dance company, does work that’s visceral and smart. And kudos to the TemeculaTtheater, whose terrific dance series has featured a number of significant debuts.
- In Lucy Guerin’s “Weather” (reviewed by Kris Eitland), dancers embodied winds, rain, and other natural forces in dreamlike sequences under a sky filled with “billowy clouds” (actually, the overhead installation turned out to be thousands of plastic trash bags). ArtPower! presented the Australian dance company in its debut here.
Speaking of Art Power! I am so bummed over the departure of Marty Wollesen! Marty! signed his name with an exclamation point and added one to ArtPower!, the presenting organization at UCSD that he guided and built for nine years. I get it that it was time for him to move on to new challenges, but!!!!!
- Sometimes, in our resource-starved dance economy, City Ballet of San Diego’s dream of becoming an important company with a challenging repertory and top-tier dancers seems like Don Quixote charging windmills. And then City Ballet puts on a show like “Ballet on the Edge” November 8-10, with two outstanding debuts: one of the best pieces I’ve seen from resident choreographer Elizabeth Wistrich and a smart, sexy piece by up-and-comer Geoff Gonzalez. Go, Don Q!
- One more boo, though: I’m tired of contact improvisation being presented as performance. Lower Left Performance Collective used to know how to take the tools of contact and – with a lot of pre-planning and creation of scores – make work with depth and complexity. But I’m seeing too many pieces that feel like I’ve just walked into a contact class – no doubt fun for the participants but tedious to sit through.
Music: Ken Herman
- Carlsbad Music Festival. Every September composer-impresario Matt McBane turns sleepy Carlsbad Village into a contemporary music wonderland with the Carlsbad Music Festival. McBane and his accomplished accomplices celebrated their 10th season in 2013 with a breathtaking avalanche of performers. The Calder Quartet, Room Full of Teeth, Peter Sprague, Steven Schick, and Claire Chase headlined the roster of performers, but then every festival boasts musical heavyweights. What sets Carlsbad apart is the joyful exuberance that surrounds and is abetted by its musical offerings. Ranging from Bartók’s canonical String Quartets to the current Pulitzer Prize-winning composition of Caroline Shaw, this festival of contemporary music manages to challenge the mind and touch the heart in equal proportion. And that is a miracle in the realm of new music.
- Music in Museums. For the last six years, Art of Élan, that cleverly unconventional chamber music series, has made its home in the San Diego Museum of Art’s Hibben Gallery, a room glowing with colorful Baroque portraits and cityscapes. Curated by Kate Hatmaker and Demarre McGill, the musical fare of Art of Élan ranges from Baroque to contemporary, with an empahsis on younger American composers, and Élan’s performance level is dependably first rate. But what makes this series singular is the ambience of the Hibben Gallery. Across the plaza at the Mingei International Museum, Camarada, another seasoned local chamber music enterprise directed by Beth Ross Buckley, opened a Sunday afternoon series in the fall of 2013 in that museum’s airy rotunda. While the rotunda does not boast the trove of paintings in the Hibben Gallery, at intermission it is possible to stroll among the Mingei’s beautifully displayed art objects and traditional crafts. This expansion of sensual pleasures makes music performance in these Balboa Park museums a genuine delight.
- David Bruce’s San Diego Symphony Commission. When the San Diego Symphony was planning its Carnegie Hall debut and tour of China in the fall of 2013, someone wisely decided that a new work would make an excellent calling card. “Night Parade,” David Bruce’s 14-minute tone poem of nocturnal city happenings, filled that bill nicely. His orchestration craftily engaged the orchestra’s strengths—skilled wind principals and a crack percussion team—and he unleashed a stream of consistently engaging themes. A commission is always a bit of a gamble, and this one paid off.
- New York Polyphony at the Athenaeum. The soloistic virtuosity of the four male singers that comprise New York Polyphony reminded me of a great string quartet rather than a compact chamber choir. Their November 1, 2013, program at the La Jolla Athenaeum ranged from Gregory Brown’s daring, contemporary “Missa Charles Darwin”—a collection of writings by the famous scientist shaped into the format of a Catholic Mass—to an actual Mass by the Renaissance English composer Thomas Tallis. The polish and musical conviction of this quartet commanded my attention inevery measure they sang.
- BachCollegium San Diego’s Spring Messiah. Because certain portions of this Handel oratorio are done so frequently and so haphazardly, not many music lovers know the actual complete oratorio. Fortunately, Ruben Valenzuela and his BachCollegium San Diego are the glorious exception to this lackluster rule. Performing the complete oratorio in an historically informed instrumental and vocal format (yes, it is a three-hour journey) has become a hallmark of Valenzuela’s early music endeavors. In March of 2013, I heard BachCollegium’s presentation of the work at San Diego’s First Presbyterian Church, one in which the 17-member chorus (including soloists) did justice to the oratorio in a manner that the composer himself might have recognized.
- San Diego Ignores the Britten Centennial. With minor exceptions, San Diego’s musical institutions ignored the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one of the leading composers of the last century. In Los Angeles, for example, under the leadership of Los Angeles Opera’s intrepid Music Director James Conlon, Britten 100/L.A.: A Celebration united an array of area performing arts organizations, universities, music schools, major venues and other cultural institutions in a broad catalogue of Britten performances and lectures, including a performance of his “War Requiem” at Disney Concert Hall and the upcoming opera Billy Budd by Los Angeles Opera at the Chandler Pavilion. Two local groups participated in this project, the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus (David Chase conducted the “Sinfonia da Requiem” in June) and the La Jolla Music Society, although due to Conlon’s unexpected surgery in August, he was unable to conduct two Britten orchestral pieces on SummerFest’s closing concert. His last minute replacement, Raymond Leppard, did present the “Simple Symphony,” Op. 4.
But we heard no Britten from either San Diego Opera or the San Diego Symphony, and the San Diego Master Chorale, the area’s foremost choral organization, only managed to program two smaller Britten pieces over the year 2013. Britten wrote prolifically for choirs, the stage, and the voice, and the only local program in 2013 that acknowledged this broad contribution was San Diego State University’s choral director Patrick Walters’ all-Britten concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Nov. 22, the composer’s birthday. This was a rewarding concert that included the SDSU Orchestra and Chamber Singers, as well as another choral ensemble from California State University, San Bernadino. It was sad that our leading professional performing arts institutions shirked their duties and left this excellent musical opportunity to be carried out by university students and their teachers.
Theatre: David Dixon
- A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder: Who knew that the Alec Guinness black comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” would inspire a huge crowd-pleaser? Jefferson Mays gave one of the most challenging performances of any actor this year at The Old Globe by successfully playing eight distinct characters with unique personalities. Mays was unforgettable as he brilliantly sang many clever musical numbers that Gilbert & Sullivan would have loved. The show has been getting rave reviews on Broadway, and I hope that it gets plenty of well-deserved Tony nominations.
- The Importance of Being Earnest: Sean Murray allowed audiences the opportunity to spend a day watching back-to-back productions of The Importance of Being Earnest and Travesties. While I appreciated the creative direction Murray brought to the latter, his interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s classic farce was an utter delight. The game cast, which featured stand out work from Brian Mackey, Jordan Miller and Linda Libby all expertly handled classic dialogue from the beloved playwright.
- Old Globe 2013 Shakespeare Festival: Last summer marked the end of an era. Artistic Director of The Old Globe’s Shakespeare’s Festival, Adrian Noble, will no longer be in charge. He concluded his run with genius and panache. This year’s Festival was consistently strong. The selections of comedies ranged from enchanting (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to existential (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) to unsettling (The Merchant of Venice). Directors Noble and Ian Talbot presented a memorable event that will be remembered for years to come.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: After seeing the New Village Arts production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one wonders why the play is not as well-known as the novel and film of the same name? Director Claudio Raygoza captured the tone of Ken Kesey’s original story, while also making the stage adaptation a more intimate experience. Filled with raw pathos, hilarious conversations and gut wrenching performances, the insane asylum drama had no shortage of emotional power.
- The Brothers Size: The stylish drama about two African-American brothers gave audiences the chance to find out why Tarell Alvin McCraney is considered to be one of the most acclaimed new writers in theatre working today. Director Tea Alagic created a dreamlike experience with the help of Jonathan Melville Pratt’s percussions and Gina Scherr’s lighting design. What stands out the most about this staging was the chemistry between Joshua Eliza Reese and Okieriete Onaodowan as the two brothers. Their realistic bond led to many well-earned laughs and tears.
Theatre: Kris Eitland
- Young Frankenstein, Moonlight Stage Productions: Igor’s shifting hump, horses neighing, Mel Brooks’ outrageous Borscht Belt humor, and a fearless cast, made the musical a monster comedy hit, all driven by the hysterical turn of Larry Raben as frizzle-haired Dr. Frederick Frankenstein.
- The Car Plays, Paul Stein: Viewers became trapped hitchhikers when five mini-dramas set inside cars unfolded inches away, ranging from the silly and mundane, to surreal and deadly serious, and the smart cast was perfectly tuned to the mission of the WoW Festival.
- Seafoam Sleepwalk, Basil Twist: With homages to James Bond and JAWS, the world-premiere puppet-drama had a giant Aphrodite goddess emerge from the waters of La Jolla Shores Beach and soundscape performed live, a seaside highpoint of the site-specific WoW Festival, La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls.
- South Pacific, Moonlight Stage Productions: Director Steven Glaudini balanced nostalgia and raw emotion in this classic musical about forbidden love and racism that still resonates, and director/conductor Elan McMahan drew pitch-perfect songs from the cast and orchestra that performed under the stars.
- Warrior’s Duet, Circle Circle dot dot: Directors Katie Harroff and Anne Gehman created cathartic and empowering dance-theater about a family’s response to terminal illness, based on the poems of Charlene Baldridge and her late daughter, Laura Morefield.
Theatre: Bill Eadie
- Bravo to San Diego audiences for supporting theatre companies that were harmed rather thoroughly by the recession. New Village Arts Theatre made a comeback after losing the local premiere of Next to Normal last season (a youth company snuck in with a one-weekend run of this show instead – boo to them if they did it without securing rights). Lamb’s Players Theatre rebounded somewhat from having to let go of its resident company. And, Diversionary Theatre seems to be making a comeback after the sudden departure of John Alexander, its Executive Director.
- Bravo to a variety of theatres that offered site-specific performances. Headlining this group were the first San Diego Fringe Festival, which crammed an orgy of performances into a long East Village weekend, and the La Jolla Playhouse’s WithOut Walls Festival, but there were plenty of others. The quality of work was often variable (and a minor boo to the Playhouse for turning a lot of the festival over to the UC San Diego Theatre and Dance program, exposing both its strengths and its weaknesses in the process), but these events had audiences thinking and talking about theatre while in non-theatrical spaces – and that was all to the good.
- Bravo to Barry Edelstein at the Old Globe for putting audience-oriented educational programs front and center by hosting them himself. Mr. Edelstein’s knowledge of Shakespeare was on copious display this year, both in programs sponsored by the Old Globe and in ones sponsored by other organizations. Other theatre companies do audience education (San Diego REP comes first to mind), but boo to those who don’t do these programs or who don’t promote them. Audience education doesn’t have to be a money-loser, as the Globe’s programs amply demonstrated.
- Bravo to Seema Sueko for bringing Mo’olelo Performing Arts to the point where she could accept a major fellowship in Washington, DC, and then feel comfortable doing the inevitable with such an honor – accept a position elsewhere (in this case, Pasadena Playhouse). Seema leaves Mo’olelo with a strong board and a staff that will manage the transition away from the company’s founder. Break a leg in Pasadena, Seema. San Diego will miss you. No boos on this one.
- Bravo to Vista, for providing an environment for theatre to thrive in North County. With Moonlight Stage Productions making a successful transition from Kathy Brombacher to Steve Glaudini and Doug and Randall at Premiere Productions running shows at three theatres – and the Welk – Vista truly qualifies as one of the more unusual theatre towns in the country. But, boo to Broadway Vista, one of Premier’s professional theatres, for refusing critics’ requests to review their shows by saying, “We’re sold out.” Sold-out you may be, but it’s a cop-out to keep reviewers away.
Theatre: Welton Jones
Boos and bravos for 2013, in no special order, alternating for balance:
- Bravo to the touring American Idiot, a surprisingly satisfactory variation of the prodigal son based on songs by the rock ‘n’ roll group Green Day. Significantly more than a jukebox musical.
- Boo to the touring Evita for trying to make this caustic spectacle into a dumbed-down love story.
- Bravo to Claudio Raygoza for his chilling, loathsome turn as Sadaam Hussein’s son in Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Ion Theatre.
- But Boo to director Raygoza and local favorite Ron Choularton for getting the title role of Tiger so wrong.
- Bravo to the revival of the Broadway cult flop Side Show at the La Jolla Playhouse. It’s always bracing to see perseverance pay off.
- Boo to the Playhouse, though, for choosing to stage Nina Raines’ Tribes, a tone-deaf play about deafness.
- And Boo also to the LJP for mounting John Guare’s fantasy pastiche of old-time newspapering His Girl Friday, cherry-picked from the 1939 Howard Hawkes film of that name which itself was a mash-up of the splendid 1929 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page. Genre classics should be messed with more carefully.
- But at least the Girl Friday project acknowledged its source. In everything produced by the Old Globe for its entertaining musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, there is NO mention of the source, the 1949 British film classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Boo
to letting the lawyers push the artists around.
- But a solid bravo to the Globe’s Adrian Noble, any year’s best-director nominee, for his intoxicating use of Mahler’s music in The Merchant of Venice.
- And an enduring bravo to the Globe for being the sort of enduring artistic institution that can summon, for a production of Shaw’s Pygmalion, such lustrous long-time associates as Kandis Chappell, Don Sparks and Paxton Whitehead.
That’s it for Boos and Bravos 2013. Happy New Year, everyone!