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SDGLN theatre critic Jean Lowerison's 'Best of 2015'

Either this was a great year for theater or I’m getting soft in my old age: I gave my highest rating to a full 25 of the 120 plays I saw this year. Could it be that theater is just that good?

Ten of the best shows are musicals -- and that’s not counting the musical solo and near-solo shows.

Musicals

Excellent productions of old favorite musicals included Welk's "Hello, Dolly!" and "Cabaret," Moonlight's "The Music Man," Cygnet's "My Fair Lady" and Intrepid's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

Coronado’s “Avenue Q” wins the prize for best musical most critics missed.

New discoveries: San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “My Mañana Comes,” Moonlight Stage Productions’ “Big Fish” and Cygnet’s “Dogfight.”

Not to be forgotten is San Diego Rep’s fine production of the four-time Tony nominated country-bluegrass musical “Violet,” about a disfigured woman fighting for the life she deserves but has long been denied.

But the big winner in this category was La Jolla Playhouse’s premiere of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Broadway-bound “Come From Away,” a riveting musical about 9/11 and the planeloads of passengers stranded in Newfoundland when the U.S. closed its airspace on that day.

In the plays-with-music category, Cashae Monya shone in ion’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” Eileen Bowman wowed as Judy Garland in Intrepid’s “End of the Rainbow” and Sandy Campbell was stunning as Maria Callas in ion’s “Master Class” (and so was Priti Gandhi as one of her students). La Jolla Playhouse’s “Indecent” gets an A for production values and the klezmer-inflected score, though the script needs some work.

Director of a Musical

Some of my favorites: Christopher Ashley, for “Come From Away” at La Jolla Playhouse; Sean Murray, “Dogfight” at Cygnet; Steven Glaudini, for “Big Fish” at Moonlight; Sam Woodhouse for “Violet” at San Diego Rep; Darko Tresnjac, for “Kiss Me, Kate” at the Old Globe.

Actor in a Musical

Kevin Bailey was a hoot as gumshoe Sam Galahad in the hilarious spoof of noir films “Gunmetal Blues” at North Coast Rep.

Richard Bermudez wrung all the comedy and pathos out of the King of Siam in Welk’s “The King And I.”

T.J. Dawson and Marc Ginsburg lit up Moonlight’s terrific “Shrek: The Musical” as the Ogre and shrimpy Lord Farquaad, respectively.

James Vasquez was a hoot as prissy servant Jacob in San Diego Musical Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles.”

Michael James Byrne swiveled those hips and sang up a storm as the leather-jacketed Elvis stand-in Chad in Moonlight’s infectious jukebox musical “All Shook Up.”

Actress in a Musical

Cynthia Ferrer may have been the best Dolly Levi ever in Welk’s fine “Hello, Dolly!”

Victoria Strong was just that in Welk’s “The King And I.”

Catie Marron was a lovely, sweet-voiced Kate Monster in Coronado Playhouse’s fine “Avenue Q.”

Sharon Rietkerk has a great time playing several blondes in North Coast’s satire on gumshoe literature, “Gunmetal Blues.”

Plays

There were too many fine plays to describe individually. Let me just list some of them and their excellent directors.

Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeous “The White Snake”

Ion’s searing “‘night, Mother,” with Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and Yolanda Franklin (Glenn Paris)

“Oedipus el Rey,” San Diego Rep’s take on the Oedipus legend (Sam Woodhouse)

“The Whale,” Cygnet’s meditation on obesity and the father-daughter bond (Shana Wride)

“Trouble In Mind” and “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” at Moxie (Delicia Turner Sonnenberg)

“The Quality of Life” at Intrepid (Christy Yael-Cox)

“Parlour Song” from Renaissance (at ion), directed by Lisa Berger

“The Lion in Winter” at the Avo (Moonlight Stage Productions), directed by Jason Heil

“Freud’s Last Session” at Lamb’s Players (Deborah Gilmour Smyth)

“Uncanny Valley” at San Diego Rep (Jessica Bird)

Director of a Play

Glenn Paris, for “’night, Mother” at ion; Christy Yael-Cox (Intrepid’s “The Quality of Life”); Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, for both “Trouble In Mind” and “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” at Moxie; Sam Woodhouse, for San Diego Rep’s “Oedipus el Rey;” Deborah Gilmour Smyth, for “Freud’s Last Session” at Lamb’s.

Actor in a Play

I’m a sucker for droids (especially cute, talented ones), so I loved Nick Cagle in San Diego Rep’s “Uncanny Valley” and Justin Lang in Moxie’s “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.”

Richard Baird was riveting in two Pinter plays (New Fortune Theatre’s “The Birthday Party” (at Moxie); “Betrayal” at North Coast Rep) and in New Fortune’s “Henry V” at ion.

Tsering Dorjee Bawa was fascinating both as actor and puppeteer in San Diego Rep’s “The Oldest Boy.”

Manoel Felciano was one of the best Festes ever in the Old Globe’s “Twelfth Night.”

Mike Sears was heartbreaking in Backyard Renaissance’s “Parlour Song” at ion.

Robert Smyth and Fran Gercke were worthy and watchable verbal and philosophical adversaries in “Freud’s Last Session” at Lamb’s Players.

And everybody’s favorite tickler of the ivories Cris O’Bryon got to show both acting chops and musical ability in Intrepid’s “End Of The Rainbow” at the Lyceum.

Actress in a Play

Kudos to Dagmar Krause Fields, who was a terrific Eleanor in Moonlight Productions’ “The Lion In Winter.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous (but wonderfully played), Samantha Ginn made a big impression as that wondrous smart-mouthed dog “Sylvia” at New Village Arts.

Monique Gaffney turned in a scalding performance as a black actress tired of stereotypical roles in Moxie’s “Trouble In Mind.”

Jessica John got to play both the smoldering sexuality of a bored housewife in Backyard Renaissance’s “Parlour Song” and a ridiculous but horny accountant in the raucous “Unnecessary Farce” at North Coast Rep.

And Dana Hooley was fascinating as the proprietress of a sometime boarding house in New Fortune Theatre’s production of Pinter’s “The Birthday Party,” in which everybody either lies or is deluded.

Solo Performance

David Turner, spot-on as an actor who works in Barbra Streisand’s personal “museum” in “Buyer & Cellar” at the Old Globe, was a shoo-in in this category until “Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin” hit La Jolla Playhouse. Turner and Felder now share the honor.

Set design

Jerry Sonnenberg did a terrific revolving set for “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” at Moxie Theatre.

Sean Fanning’s wonderfully cluttered set for Cygnet’s “The Whale” set the tone for this meditation on the father/daughter relationship.

Brian Redfern’s cleverly designed set for San Diego Rep’s “My Mañana Comes” made those balletic waiters’ moves possible.

New plays

Impressive this year (and important for the future of theater) was the number of premieres, led by La Jolla Playhouse with a whole season of new plays.

Two new plays by locals were also excellent: actor Mike Sears’ thought-provoking fantasy “When It Comes,” and Delia Knight’s moving “Disappearing Act” effectively takes on PTSD and suicide among combat veterans.

In a category by themselves were two Asian-influenced plays – Mary Zimmerman’s stunning “The White Snake” at the Old Globe and San Diego Rep’s “The Oldest Boy,” in which the visual effects were almost as important as the stories.

Out of Town:

South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of “Vietgone,” their “Tristan & Iseult” and La Mirada’s “Pride & Prejudice (the musical) were impressive, as was Lucas Hnath’s new play “The Christians” at the Mark Taper Forum.

That’s it for this year. Hope next year is just as good.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.