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James Hebert’s picks for the best of San Diego theater in 2019

"Cambodian Rock Band" brought the playwriting sensation and University of California San Diego grad back to town for a powerful La Jolla Playhouse staging of the music-propelled piece.
(Jim Carmody)

A look at theatrical highlights that helped define the year on local stages

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With a stage scene as fertile and busy as San Diego’s, it’s never easy to try and distill a year’s worth of theater down to a “10 best.”

Which is why I’m going with 15. (Sue me.)

I also can’t pretend to have seen every show produced here in 2019 (see: “busy stage scene” above), much less reviewed them all. (One that I caught up with late, San Diego Rep’s world-premiere musical “33 1/3: House of Dreams,” proved an entertainingly and smartly performed work-in-progress, and one you’ll likely be hearing more from.)

If I had upsized the list to 20, strong candidates would’ve included La Jolla Playhouse’s “Kiss My Aztec!,” Cygnet’s “The Last Five Years,” North Coast Rep’s “Amadeus,” New Village Arts’ “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and the Old Globe’s “As You Like It” and “The Tale of Despereaux.”)

Here, some highlights among shows I reviewed over the course of a year absolutely packed with memorable productions:

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“Cambodian Rock Band,” La Jolla Playhouse

A scene from "Cambodian Rock Band" at La Jolla Playhouse.
(Jim Carmody)

This music-driven stunner of a piece by Lauren Yee — a University of California San Diego grad who has become one of the celebrated young playwrights in the nation — pulsed with a bold mix of family drama, humor and history at the Playhouse. As our review had it: “Whether meditating on genocide or reveling in the ecstasy and raw fury of rock, this work is straight-up electric.”

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“Almost Famous,” Old Globe

It's all happening -- the cast of the "Almost Famous" musical, based on Cameron Crowe's early days as a rock journalist.
(Neal Preston)

Fans of the original movie’s shambling charms will be pleased to know that writer-director Cameron Crowe (a favorite son of San Diego) kept all the heart and rock mojo intact in adapting his own, cult-y coming-of-age film for the stage — with big help from composer Tom Kitt and an ace cast. It’s a show that might well be saying “Hello, Broadway!” soon.

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“The Coast Starlight,” La Jolla Playhouse

Camila Canó-Flaviá, Rhys Coiro, Mia Barron and Nate Mann (from left) in "The Coast Starlight."
(Jim Carmody)

Sometimes it’s hard to say why a play hits you the way it does, but Keith Bunin’s Playhouse-commissioned piece about six strangers whose lives intersect (in ways both real and imagined) aboard a California train left me feeling a little derailed in the best, most soul-aching way. (I’ll admit I have a soft spot for wistful and bittersweet stories involving locomotives.)

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“Life After,” Old Globe

Sophie Hearn in the U.S. premiere of the musical "Life After" at the Old Globe Theatre.
(Jeremy Daniel)

Just when you think you’ve seen about everything a musical can do, along comes someone like the young Canadian writer-composer-lyricist Britta Johnson to grace the form with her own, fiercely poetic vision. As directed by Globe artistic chief Barry Edelstein, “Life After” proved a thing of luminous beauty, heartache and humor in its U.S. premiere.

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“Bad Hombres/Good Wives,” San Diego Rep

Daniel Ramos III, Jose Balistrieri and Salomon Maya in San Diego Rep's world-premiere comedy "Bad Hombres/Good Wives."
(Jim Carmody)

How lucky is San Diego to have Culture Clash co-founder Herbert Siguenza doing his singular thing right here in town, as San Diego Rep’s resident playwright? (Answer: Very.) The latest from the ever-fertile mind of the writer-actor mashed up Molière and modern-day politics winningly (and very funnily).

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“Angels in America,” Cygnet

Debra Wanger and Alex Bodine in Cygnet Theatre's "Angels in America: Perestroika."
(Daren Scott Photography)

Cygnet artistic chief Sean Murray’s revival of Tony Kushner’s dual-part masterwork, set amid the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, reminded us why the epic play’s meditations on fear, bigotry and redemption still matter so much.

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“The Hour of Great Mercy,” Diversionary

Andrew Oswald (left) and Dana Case in Diversionary Theatre’s “The Hour of Great Mercy.”
(Simpatika)

This quietly moving world-premiere drama, set in a remote Alaska town, announced the arrival of a significant new voice in Miranda Rose Hall, and continued the LGBTQ-centered Diversionary’s admirable commitment to new work.

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“Romeo and Juliet,” Old Globe

Louisa Jacobson in the Old Globe Theatre's "Romeo and Juliet."
(Jim Cox)

Barry Edelstein’s imaginative rethinking of the Shakespeare favorite brought some wild surprises (Morrissey! A giant sandbox! Barry Manilow!) but stayed true to the heart of the piece, while also managing to comment cleverly on how its tropes have been subsumed by pop culture.

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“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Diversionary

Jeremy Wilson in Diversionary Theatre's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
(Courtesy photo)

Nobody rocks quite like Hedwig, and the genderqueer actor Jeremy Wilson rocked the role of the mouthy, hard-living heroine like nobody’s business in Diversionary’s worthy 20th-anniversary revival.

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“Gabriel,” North Coast Rep

Richard Baird, Jessica John, Annabella Price, Catalina Zelles, Lilli Passero and Alan Liitlehales (clockwise from left) in North Coast Rep’s “Gabriel.”
(Aaron Rumley)

Moira Buffini’s taut, fraught play about a mysterious arrival on a remote, Nazi-occupied island during World War II gripped audiences with its committed acting at North Coast Rep, including a memorable turn by young Catalina Zelles.

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“West Side Story,” Moonlight

The Jets from Moonlight Theatre's "West Side Story"
Don’t mess with these Jets from Moonlight’s production of “West Side Story”
(Adriana Zuniga)

Steven Glaudini, Moonlight’s producing artistic director, put up a hard-hitting revival of the great, ever-durable musical; the show’s focus on the corrosive power of prejudice felt pitch-perfect for the times.

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“Sister Act,” San Diego Musical Theatre

Miriam Dance (center) and the cast of San Diego Musical Theatre's "Sister Act."
(Ken Jacques)

This sprawling and kinetic show is the kind of musical that’s right in SDMT’s wheelhouse, and the company’s production proved a winner, with a vibrant lead turn from Miriam Dance and strong support from Bethany Slomka and Sarah Errington.

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“Herland,” Moxie

Rhona Gold (from left), Christine Cervas Nathanson and Meg Stoll Tron in Moxie Theatre’s “Herland.”
(Daren Scott)

The young playwright Grace McLeod’s funny and inventive play is that rare piece that puts the lives of older women onstage and gives them full dramatic dimension; the women-centered Moxie made the music-minded piece sing.

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“American Buffalo,” Backyard Renaissance

Marcel Ferrin, Francis Gercke and Richard Baird (from left) in Backyard Renaissance Theatre's "American Buffalo."
(Daren Scott)

David Mamet’s play is returning to Broadway soon, but Backyard Renaissance brought its own sharp feel for the cuttingly funny and desperately sad to the company’s revival of this ‘70s-era story about a crime caper gone wrong.

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“Servant of Two Masters,” New Village Arts

The cast of "The Servant of Two Masters" at New Village Arts.
(Daren Scott)

Bonkers in the best way (at least most of the time), NVA’s deliriously antic adaptation of the 18th-century Carlo Goldoni classic moved us to write: “The plotting can get a little byzantine (Italian for ‘What in God’s name just happened?’).”


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