This year, Theatre Eddys attended and reviewed 129 shows locally along with nine shows in Ashland, Oregon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and forty-two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Of the 129 local productions that were plays, musicals, and solo performances, a top “5 E” rating was awarded to productions of 25 different companies. The most “5 E” ratings for locally produced shows (versus touring productions) went this year to Berkeley Repertory Theater, a company that had a particularly stellar year with six “5 E’s,” followed by four “5 E’s” awarded to both Marin Theatre Company and San Francisco Playhouse
Choosing “Top Lists of the Year” is made complicated by so many outstanding productions in a region blessed with so many phenomenal companies of all sizes (over 300 stages in the SF Bay Area). Even more distressing are all the outstanding productions I did not get to see and are thus not represented in the following lists, often due to an extensive travel schedule outside the region.
In 2019, one production deserves special recognition for both production qualities and the sheer effort of converting an entire theatre to accommodate the demands. While “The Eddys” generally recognizes only Bay Area produced shows, this touring show is worthy of being named
Most Outstanding Bay Area Production of the Year 2019:
Joe Murphy & Joe Robertson
The lasting power of The Jungle is that never again can anyone who entered last spring Salar’s Restaurant in the completely transformed Curran Theatre – never again will that person look at a headline about rubber dinghies and leaking rafts that have been sent across the Mediterranean on journeys to unsure destinations but also to hoped-for freedom without seeing the tear-stained face of Okot; without hearing the voices of Helene, Norullah, or Safi; without remembering Little Amal as she wandered among us with a smile so innocent and so heart-breaking.
Seeing the The Jungle was not a passive experience. Whether sitting above or in the midst of the action, co-creators Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson demanded that each of us become an active, temporary inhabitant of the once-vibrant community of immigrants in Calais, France. Only as such can we walk away forever changed by stories we realize are never ever two the same.
And now for The Eddys, 2019. Theatre Eddys selects as the following as best of the best among the 129 local productions seen in 2018:
Theatre Eddys Top 10 Plays in 2019,
San Francisco Bay Area Productions
- Jazz. Adapted by Nambi E. Kelley; based on the Book by Toni Morrison. Marin Theatre Company.
In Marin Theatre Company’s achingly stunning, grippingly engaging West Coast premiere of Nambi E. Kelley’s Jazz, the memories behind and the subsequent events of one woman’s violent face-slashing act proceeded n the April-May 2019 production in a style much like that of the play’s and book’s title, “Jazz.” With each encounter of the story taking on an air of improvisation; with parallel scenes that both blended and clashed in duet, and with words that musically flew alternatively in harsh staccato and in long, hypnotic extensions, Awoye Timpo directed Jazz to a beat that mirrored the new music form that was sweeping through the streets of the 1920’s Harlem that Nambi E. Kelley’s play visits.
- Oedipus El Rey. Luis Alfaro. Magic Theatre.
Ten years ago, Magic Theatre staged the world premiere of Luis Alfaro’s gripping, disturbing, and bone-chilling Oedipus El Rey – a modern retelling of Sophicles’ Oedipus Rex where questions of what is destined and what is possible to change are posed. Ten years later, the Magic revived the play that has since seen over twenty productions across the country; but since the initial run, Black Lives Matter, headlines about over-crowded prisons disproportionately filled with brown and black men, and a president who spouts almost daily disparaging remarks about non-white people made the June production of Oedipus El Rey more relevant and more immediate than ever.
- Sovereignty. Mary Kathryn Nagle. Marin Theatre Company.
Indian-rights lawyer and a member of the Cherokee Nation, Mary Kathryn Nagle, is also an accomplished playwright. She has written an extremely powerful and educating play, Sovereignty, that connects the history of her own ancestors and their legal battles for Native rights with present-day congressional and court challenges that still threaten those constitutional rights. With a cast and creative team that included a number of Native American members from various tribes, Marin Theatre Company presented the West Coast premiere of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty in a production that was nothing short than a must-see.
- King of the Yees. Lauren Yee. San Francisco Playhouse.
A wild and wooly two hours awaited audiences in Lauren Yee’s House of the Yees, a rollercoaster-ride adventure at San Francisco Playhouse early in 2019 where the fourth wall quickly collapsed, where plot lines were few but not missed, where stories of San Francisco politics and personalities abounded, and where reality gave way to fantastical forays into worlds that made Beach Blanket Babylon seem tame in comparison. SF Playhouse brought this love letter to the Chinese Community and to The City itself in a fabulously funny and eventually heartwarming tale where a play within a play becomes a daughter’s story about finding a door and a way to enter into who she really is, “deep down.”
- Exit Strategy. Ike Holter. Aurora Theatre Company.
In the few, opening minutes of Aurora Theatre’s grippingly relevant, Bay Area premiere – Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy – Margo Hall – backed by a stellar cast, director, and creative team – proved once again why she is one of San Francisco Bay Area’s most revered actors as she so powerfully represented the pent-up frustration of teachers everywhere who have spent a lifetime in under-funded, largely ignored schools of mostly black and brown students that often end up on the School Board’s chopping block..
- Eurydice. Sarah Ruhl. City Lights Theater Company.
Perhaps no prior production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice has quite ventured into the territory that was tread by City Lights Theatre Company with its thoroughly engaging, fascinating, and impacting bi-lingual “Eurydice.” Each of the English-speaking actors was paired with an actor using American Sign Language, blending the two languages to underscore in ways imaginative and enlightening a play whose focus is communications across worlds and between people where speaking to each other is next to impossible.
- Becky Nurse of Salem. Sarah Ruhl. Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
In response to the patriarchal, male-as-hero stories and histories that have ever since been the common thread of those witch trial years of both Salem and all throughout Europe, Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem provides a female-oriented view of both those times and of the lasting effects on one family and community, doing so in ways a bit naughty, a lot funny, and altogether engaging and entertaining. She, Director Anne Kauffman, and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre cast and team bring a year-end world premiere (still in production) that should definitely have long legs for many more staged outings in the new year and beyond.
- Kings. Sarah Burgess. Shotgun Players.
Shotgun Players’ production of Sarah Burgess’ Kings in the spring was another 2019 play nothing less than a ‘must-see.’ Performances were each memorable, with Sam Jackson’s Sydney Millsap particularly worth the price of the ticket. The play feels as if it had to be written only last week, so timely it is. Hopefully, Kings is a play that will be produced coast-to-coast on many regional stages between now and November 2020 when the recently-elected women of Congress — the real Sydney Millsaps — will need all of us to step forward and ensure their fights to resist the siren calls of lobbyists and to ‘work on policy that matters’ continues to be rewarded at the ballot boxes of America.
- Othello. William Shakespeare. African-American Shakespeare Company.
Even if one has seen Othello a dozen times, the autumn production of the Shakespeare classic by African-American Shakespeare Company was one not to be missed. Its timeliness, innovation of casting, and sheer acting prowess made this Othello one to be long remembered and discussed by its audiences.
- The Great Leap. Lauren Yee. American Conservatory Theater.
With much the physicality, tension, and excitement of a up-and-down-the-court game of hoops, American Conservatory Theatre brought Lauren Yee’s fast-moving, furiously funny, and heart-grabbing showdown between two world-power giants and foes that have graduated in 1989 from ping pong to basketball to prove which system is the better. And in the midst of this hoop-filled showdown on June 4, 1989, the world watches in horror as tanks roll across Tiananmen Square.
Five Theatre Eddys Honorable Mention Plays in 2019
(In Alphabetical Order of the Producing Company)
–> Home. Geoff Sobelle. Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
–> When We Were Young and Unafraid. Sarah Treem. Custom Made Theatre Company.
–> In Old Age. Mfoniso Udofia. Magic Theatre
–> The Gentleman Caller. Philip Dawkins. New Conservatory Theatre Center.
–> Elevada. Sheila Callaghan. Shotgun Players.
Theatre Eddys Top 10 Musicals in 2019,
San Francisco Bay Area Productions
- Kiss My Aztec! John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone (Book); Benjamin Velez (Music and Arrangements); David Kemp, Benjamin Velez & John Leguizamo (Lyrics). Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
With its laugh-a-minute (more like many laughs a minute) book and songs that are everything from X-rated to rib-tickling to awesomely inspiring, the world premiere Kiss My Aztec! left its audience with a final message that the predominately white and probably well-off audience of Berkeley Repertory Theatre needed to hear loud and clear: “Clap your hands; work that tan because the world is getting browner.” This celebration of Latinx history, culture, and music – most of which has too long been ignored in the world of The Great American Musical – so deserves to be at the top of the list for this and any year.
- Paradise Square: A New Musical. Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan (Book); Conceived by Larry Kirwan; Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (Music); Nathan Tysen (Lyrics); based on the Songs of Stephen Foster. Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
In what is now regarded as the first inner-city slum in America — one teeming by the early 1860s with muddy filth, mosquito-bearing disease, rampant street crime, and blatant prostitution – marital, family, and friendship blending of unlikely races and cultures established the seeds for tap, vaudeville, jazz, and even modern rock. The hidden but important history of this mid-nineteenth century, New York City neighborhood known as Five Points was the focus of the largest undertaking for Berkeley Repertory Theatre in its fifty year history, with thirty-two actors and eight band members presenting the astounding, breath-taking world premiere musical, Paradise Square: A New Musical.
- Once. Enda Walsh (Book); Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglov (Music and Lyrics); based on the Movie by John Carney. 42nd Street Moon.
Besides leaving the theatre with the notes and phrases ringing in our ears from memorable numbers like “Falling Slowly, ” “If You Want Me,” and “Gold,” we audience members also exited Once in June with hearts uplifted by a story where sadness and happiness unexpectedly meet and hold hands tightly in gratitude.
- Pride and Prejudice. Paul Gordon (Book, Music, and Lyrics). TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
A much-loved book that for many generations has inspired numerous plays and films, Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice now is given a new interpretation as a beautifully scored and wittily written musical by Paul Gordon (book, music, and lyrics). Its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley could have hardly been more visually, musically, and emotionally rewarding as the perfect package for audiences to find under the Bay Area’s 2019 tree of holiday, theatrical productions.
- Cabaret. Joe Masteroff (Book); John Kander (Music); Fred Ebb (Lyrics). San Francisco Playhouse
As powerfully conceived and directed by Susi Damilano, SF Playhouse’s revival and re-conceiving of its 2008 stellar production of Cabaret was in every respect even more startling, unsettling, and yes, sensational in 2019. The director and her cast heeded us not to forget the horrific atrocities of the Nazi past while also speaking volumes to our current times with warnings to pay attention, stay alert, and take a stand before it is too late.
Flower Drum Song. Richard Rodgers (Music); Oscar Hammerstein II (Lyrics); David Henry Hwang (Book). Palo Alto Players.
Palo Alto Players offered a gift to Bay Area audiences in producing the rarely performed Flower Drum Song, but the present was all the more welcome because of a production that was conceived and performed with the look, sound, style, and acting one might expect of a company and stage much larger.
- Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics); Hugh Wheeler (Book). Hillbarn Theatre.
Since the 1979 premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, both musical theatre and opera companies have been challenged with its ridiculously rapid lyrics; songs with ranges stretching several octaves; and a story that is gory, repulsive, and yet altogether compelling (and often funny). But even against such demands, Hillbarn Theatre opened in January a Sweeney Todd that was nothing short of spectacular, no matter how many times one has seen the famous tale in the past.
- Passion. Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics); James Lapine (Book). Custom Made Theatre Company.
Custom Made Theatre Company’s personal and up-close Passion was a collage of emotions laid bare for our examination and contemplation – infatuation, lust, jealousy, despair, vexation, ecstasy, to name a few. Director, cast, and production team triumphed in staging a musically enrapturing, visually compelling, and dramatically captivating Passion that was a summer-must for all theatregoers, but especially for San Francisco’s Sondheim fanatics.
- Caroline, Or Change. Jeanine Tesori (Music); Tony Kushner (Book and Lyrics). Ray of Light Theatre.
Ray of Light Theatre once again proved that the company reigns supreme in presenting rarely done, musically challenging, and message-rich musicals. ROL did so with a big cast of voices spectacular; a full orchestra superb; as well as direction, choreography, costuming, lighting, and sound stunning in every respect.
- Groundhog Day, the Musical. Danny Rubin (Book); Tim Minchin (Music and Lyrics). San Francisco Playhouse
With a turntable that spins as if it were the top of a 45rpm record player, scenes and a cast of twenty whirl day after day before us, each February 2 in Groundhog Day, the Musical becoming ever-more outlandish and exasperating for poor Phil. All is accomplished under the incredible direction of Susi Damilano whose genius for guiding a myriad of continually moving parts and people is born out in just the first few minutes of the two hours, thirty minutes of this super-duper, laugh-a-minute, get-your-hanky-ready evening (still in production through January 18, 2020).
Five Theatre Eddys Honorable Mention Musicals in 2019
(In Alphabetical Order of the Producing Company)
–> Violet. Brian Crawley (Book & Lyrics): Jeanine Tesori (Music); based on the The Ugliest Pilgrimby Doris Betts. Bay Area Musicals.
–> A Little Night Music. Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics); Hugh Wheeler (Book). Lamplighters Music Theatre.
–> Next to Normal. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. Los Altos Stage Company.
–> Bright Star. Steve Martin (Music, Book, Story) and Edie Brickell (Music, Lyrics, Story). Palo Alto Players.
–> Urinetown the Musical. Mark Hollmann (Music and Lyrics); Greg Kotis (Book and Lyrics). Sunnyvale Community Players.
Theatre Eddys Top 3 Solo Shows in 2019,
San Francisco Bay Area Productions
- Border People. Dan Hoyle. The Marsh.
Under the astute, sensitive direction of his co-developer, Charlie Varon, Dan Hoyle presented at The Marsh, San Francisco, the premiere of Border People, “dedicated to those who cross borders geographically or culturally, by choice or by necessity.” Based on interviews he had in such diverse communities as the South Bronx projects, Canadian refugee safe houses near the U.S. border, and border towns along Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, Dan presents through January 18, 2020 eleven individuals who tell us their frank, emotionally packed stories – all authentically unveiled in their own words, voices, and cultural/personal idiosyncrasies.
- How I Learned What I Learned. August Wilson (Co-Conceived with Todd Kreidler). (in co-production with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Ubuntu Theatre Project)
In a near-two-hour gentle rambling and remembering of experiences, philosophies, and learnings, revered veteran actor Steven Anthony Jones was most believably, most astonishingly August Wilson. Starring in the one-person autobiographical play that the playwright wrote and first premiered three years before his death in 2002, the much-revered, veteran actor Mr. Jones presented in January/February a captivating, enlightening, and often wonderfully humorous How I Learned What I Learned.
- Who Killed Sylvia Plath? Lynne Kaufman. The Marsh.
In Lynne Kaufman’s one-woman show, Who Killed Sylvia Plath, Bay Area veteran actress, Lorri Holt, took on the role of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet – awarded after Plath’s death as was most of her now-recognized praises as a writer – and went about in seventy minutes attempting to uncover for herself and for us answers about the poet’s early-in-life suicide: “Why did I do it? Would I do it again if given a second chance” Was it a good career move?” The Marsh production was a powerfully conceived piece of work by Lynne Kaufman and one performed with magnetic intensity by a seasoned treasure of the Bay Area, Lorrie Holt.
– The Jungle: Pictured, Jonathan Nyati, Tommy Letts & Ammar Haj Ahmad; photo by Little Fang.
– Jazz: Pictured, Dezi Solèy & C. Kelly Wright; photo by Kevin Berne.
– Oedipus El Rey. Pictured, Gendell Hing-Hernandez, Armando Rodriguez, Esteban Carmona & Juan Amador; photo by Jennifer Reilly
– Sovereignty. Pictured, Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa; photo by Kevin Berne.
– King of the Yees. Pictured, Krystle Piamonte & Francis Jue; photo by Jessica Palopoli.
– Exit Strategy. Pictured, Adam Niemann & Margo Hall; photo by David Allen.
– Eurydice. Pictured, Leah Cohen and Lauren Rhodes; photo by Taylor Sanders.
– Becky Nurse of Salem. Pictured, Pamela Reed; photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company.
– Kings. Pictured, Sam Jackson; photo by Ben Krantz.
– Othello. Pictured, Isabel Siragusa & L. Peter Callender; photo by Joseph Giammarco
– The Great Leap. Pictured, BD Wong, TIm Liu, Arye Gross & Ruibo Qian; photo by Kevin Berne.
– Kiss My Aztec! Pictured, KC de la Cruz, Chad Carastarphen & Angelica Beliard; photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello, both in conjunction with Berkeley Repertory Theater.
– Paradise Square, A New Musical. Pictured, The Cast; photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello, both in conjunction with Berkeley Repertory Theater.
– Once. Pictured, The Ensemble; photo, Ben Krantz Studio.
– Pride and Prejudice. Pictured, Justin Mortelliti & Mary Mattison; photo: Kevin Berne.
– Cabaret. Pictured, John Paul Gonzalez & the Kit Kat Dancers; photo by Jessica Palopoli.
– Flower Drum Song. Pictured, Emily Song; photo by Joyce Goldschmid.
– Sweeney Todd: The Demon Butcher of Fleet Street. Pictured, Heather Orth & Keith Pinto; photo by Mark and Tracy Photography.
– Passion. Pictured, Juliana Lustenader & John Melis; photo by Jay Yamada
– Caroline, Or Change. Pictured, Jasmyne Brice; photo by Nick Otto
– Groundhog Day, the Musical. Pictured, Scott Taylor-Cole & Ryan Drummond; photo by Jessica Palopoli.
– Border People. Pictured, Day Hoyle; photo by Peter Prato.
– How I Learned What I Learned. Pictured, Steven Anthony Jones; photo by Kevin Berne.
– Who Killed Sylvia Plath? Pictured, Lorri Holt; photo by David Allen.