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Year-end review: Jean Lowerison picks the best theater of 2011

In years like this, I’m glad I don’t limit myself to one winner in each category. The choices are just too tough.

Several of the best shows were seen out of town or live in HD, courtesy of London’s National Theatre. But there was plenty of great theater to be seen locally.

Drama

In Los Angeles, I saw my favorite play of the year on the American stage: Yasmina Reza’s “God Of Carnage,” now out on film (titled “Carnage” and with a different cast).

London gave us the most intelligent “Hamlet” I’ve ever seen, thanks to Rory Kinnear and a smashing supporting cast. National Theatre also brought us a fabulous “Frankenstein,” in which the stars exchanged roles each night – which was bracing, utterly riveting theater.

Locally, it was a good year for classics. New Village Arts gave us a wondrous fine “Death Of A Salesman” and a near-perfect “Of Mice And Men.”

Ion theatre had a terrific year, with its astonishing “Angels In America” and excellent productions of both “Grace,” “bash” and “The Woolgatherer.”

This is not to slight North Coast Repertory’s fine “My Name Is Asher Lev” or Lamb’s Players Theatre’s excellent “Trying.”

Comedy

Moxie Theatre came through with great productions of both Sarah Ruhl’s sardonic “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and Liz Duffy Adams’ word-drunk romp about Aphra Behn and her contemporaries, “Or.”

North Coast Repertory Theatre did a terrific job on the frantic farce “Lend Me A Tenor,” and South Coast Repertory came through with a fabulous “Pride And Prejudice.”

Scripps Ranch Theatre gave us the funny baseball piece “Rounding Third,” and The Old Globe offered the amazing and amusing story of George Bernard Shaw’s romance in “Engaging Shaw,” which proved to be just that.

National Theatre of London offered a splendidly rollicking new take on “The Servant of Two Masters” called “One Man, Two Guvnors.”

Director of a play

Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, for their astonishing “Angels In America;” Delicia Turner Sonnenberg for “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and Matthew Wiener, for “Lend Me A Tenor” are at the top of my list.

Close behind: Richard Baird, for Diversionary’s “Edward II;” Daren Scott’s wondrous “Of Mice And Men” and Lisa Berger for New Village Arts’ “Simpatico.”

Actor in a play

Two of my favorite performances: Manny Fernandes’ wonderful, heartrending Lenny in New Village Arts’ “Of Mice And Men” and Kyle Sorrell’s portrayal of Prior in ion’s “Angels In America.”

Jack Missett and Brian Mackey deserve kudos in at least two plays each: Missett in “Simpatico” and as Willy Loman in “Death Of A Salesman” and Mackey in ion’s “The Woolgatherer,” “bash” and in Cygnet’s “The Glass Menagerie.”

Let’s not forget Robert Foxworth in San Diego Rep’s “Superior Donuts,” Ross Hellwig in Diversionary’s “Edward II” and Robert Borzych in Diversionary’s “Dooley.”

In a class by himself: Rory Kinnear, who gave NT Live audiences the best Hamlet ever. Yes. Ever.

Actress in a play

Aubrey Saverino was radiant in San Diego Rep’s “In The Next Room, or the vibrator play.”

Jo Anne Glover sparkled in Moxie’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and again in the company’s “Or.”

Rachael VanWormer was terrific in two productions at ion: “bash: latter-day plays” and “The Woolgatherer.”

And young Lucia Vecchio knocked everybody’s socks off with her spot-on portrayal of Anne Frank in OnStage’s “The Diary Of Anne Frank.”

Supporting actor in a play

David Ellenstein was excellent in a rare onstage turn in North Coast Repertory’s “My Name Is Asher Lev.”

Kyle Sorrell was darkly funny in ion’s “The Lieutenant Of Inishmore.”

Brian Mackey, in Cygnet’s “The Glass Menagerie,” Jack Missett in New Village Arts’ “Of Mice And Men,” Shaun Tuazon in Diversionary’s “Dooley” and Owiso Odera in The Old Globe’s “Groundswell” also deserve mention for their fine performances.

Supporting actress in a play

Catalina Maynard, in ion’s “Angels In America,” Tonya Pinkins in “Milk Like Sugar” at La Jolla Playhouse and Diana Reasonover in Mo’olelo’s “Stick Fly” will not soon be forgotten.

Nor will Wendy Maples, in Diversionary’s “Fair Use” or Rachel Baum in Triad’s “The Curse Of The Starving Class.”

Musical

The best musical I saw this year was in Anaheim, where Chance Theatre produced a stunning “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” complete with its clever libretto and featuring terrific, opera-quality voices. Yes, it really is an opera.

National Theatre (London) offered a terrific “FELA!” in its NT Live series
Locally, it was a season of classic musicals: Lamb’s Players’ fine production of “The Music Man,” Cygnet’s terrific “Cabaret” and hilarious “Little Shop of Horrors,” and those gutsy folks at ion managed to pull off an impossibility: squeezing the big Broadway show “Gypsy” into its pocket-sized Hillcrest space. Bravo, Glenn and Claudio.

Bucking the oldies-but-goodies trend, the Old Globe offered a fine production of “Jane Austen’s Emma.”

Actor in a musical

Tom Andrew in MiraCosta College’s excellent “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” B. Slade in San Diego Repertory’s “The Who’s Tommy,” Randall Dodge in Welk Resorts Theatre’s “The Fantasticks” and Geno Carr in “The Servant Of Two Masters” at Lamb’s Players top my list.

Actress in a musical

Linda Libby in ion’s “Gypsy: A Musical Fable,” Melissa Fernandes in Cygnet’s “Little Shop Of Horrors,” and Karson St. John in Cygnet’s “Cabaret” top the list.

Supporting actor in a musical

It’s had to top Doug Davis and Randall Hickman in Moonlight Stage Productions’ “Hairspray,” but young Derek Gaffney was also terrific in ACT San Diego’s “Spring Awakening.

Up-and-coming Katie Whalley was excellent in ion’s “Gypsy: A Musical Fable,” as were veterans Linda Libby and Melissa Fernandes in Cygnet’s “Cabaret.”

Director of a musical

Des McAnuff’s Broadway-bound “Jesus Christ Superstar” tops this list, but that’s not to slight Sean Murray’s fine “Cabaret” at Cygnet, Claudio Raygoza and Kim Strassburger for ion’s “Gypsy: A Musical Fable,” Jeff Calhoun’s “Jane Austen’s Emma” at the Old Globe or Steve Glaudini’s “Hairspray” at Moonlight Stage Productions.

Best music

Paul Gordon’s music for The Old Globe’s “Jane Austen’s Emma” and Dan Moses Schreier’s music for The Old Globe’s “Much Ado About Nothing” top my list, along with Blair Robert Nelson’s music for Diversionary’s “Dooley.”

Choreography

Bill T. Jones’ choreography for NT Live’s “FELA!” (the show is now at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles) was in a category by itself, but David Branner’s work on Cygnet’s “Cabaret” isn’t to be ignored, nor are Michael Mizerany’s choreography for Diversionary’s “Dooley” or John Vaughn’s for Moonlight’s “Hairspray.”

Greg Graham gets a special award for choreography around furniture obstacles for The Old Globe’s “Somewhere.”

And a special award goes to Sari ‘Seddy’ Altwal, whose dancing sparkled in “A Likely Story” at the UCSD Undergraduate New Play Festival.

Costume design

Jeanne Reith gave us some wonderfully imaginative costumes for Lamb’s Players’ “The Servant Of Two Masters.”

Jennifer Brawn Gittings gets recognition for San Diego Repertory’s production of “In The Next Room (or the vibrator play).”

Kudos also to Shirley Pierson for Cygnet’s “Little Shop Of Horrors” and Kate Stallons for San Diego Repertory’s “Superior Donuts.”

Lighting design

Michael Gilliam, for The Old Globe’s “Jane Austen’s Emma” and Karin Filijan, for ion’s “Angels In America, and Michelle Caron’s designs for Diversionary’s “Fair Use” were my favorites.

Sound design

My favorites here were Melanie Chen’s design for ion’s “Angels In America” and Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s work on Lamb’s Players’ “The Book Of The Dun Cow.”

Set design

South Coast Repertory’s “Pride And Prejudice” shone, thanks in large part to set designer Kate Edmunds’ clever integration of sets and projections, intelligently packing a lot of set changes into a small space.

Here at home, Tobin Ost’s design for The Old Globe’s “Jane Austen’s Emma,” Marty Burnett’s great set for North Coast Repertory’s farce “Lend Me A Tenor” and Michael McKeon’s wonderfully detailed job on the set for Lamb’s Players’ “Trying” stood out.

Ensemble cast

Ion’s “Angels in America,” Moxie’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and North Coast Repertory’s “Lend Me A Tenor” are at the top of my list.

Also worthy of mention are North Coast Repertory’s “Five Course Love,” New Village Arts’ “Simpatico” and, up L.A. way, the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s excellent production of Melissa James Gibson’s “This.”

Touring production

Des McAnuff, artistic director emeritus of La Jolla Playhouse, brought us his excellent Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on its way to a March Broadway opening.

Also fine were Broadway San Diego’s productions of “Next To Normal” and “Shrek: The Musical.”

School productions

I didn’t see as many as I’d have liked, but the best college production I saw was MiraCosta’s excellent “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

California Youth Conservatory did a fine “Ragtime” and ACT San Diego’s “Spring Awakening” was also fine.

Congratulations to all on a fine theater year.