This year I saw a lot of theater and while timing wasn’t in my favor to complete reviews for much of anything I saw, I was struck this year by the number of really delightful surprises. 2019 was the year of new, different and unexpected performances/productions. There were a number of companies, plays and actors who I have come to know and know “what to expect” and in multiple cases risks were taken and paid off big time in a variety of ways. I was really proud this year to see so many companies and individuals really shine. Below is a list of productions that rank among my most favorite live theater memories this year and certainly serve as a testimonial in favor of the next big thing on the docket for these groups, playwrights, performers, designers and directors… Have a happy, arts filled 2020!
Bright Star – Palo Alto Players
Elizabeth Santana’s performance was indeed brilliant. She was supported by a fantastic ensemble, great musicians, and a top-notch technical production, but she shined the brightest she has ever. The staging was moving and entertaining in a outstanding way and set a VERY high bar. It was one of the very few shows I have ever considered getting to twice in a run. This was storytelling at it’s very best and Elizabeth led the team gloriously.
Silent Sky – City Lights Theater Company
For me this was a combination of a moving and intelligent script and great cast chemistry. There’s a subtle but powerful magic when actors connect with the words/themes AND each other, they lift each other up to a higher standard and effect. You can feel connection resonate in the air as they speak (or even when they don’t). This was a nuanced and empowering play that broke me in a lot of ways. Ugly sobbing ways, but good ways. The sets at City light always illuminate the production and in this case it absolutely elevated the entire experience. This one will linger with me for many years to come.
Cirque Eloize Saloon – Hammer Theater Center
If this group every comes through town again, I hope Hammer will book them and I encourage everyone to go see them. I am increasingly impressed with Hammer’s programming and love the eclectic and powerful selections I’ve seen. This production was a risk, but it paid off in a big way. A charming, enchanting, inventive and exciting showcase of simple but highly creative staging and intimate acrobatics all with a western saloon theme. FAR FAR FAR better than the last several Cirque du Soleil shows I’ve seen at a fraction of the price. My face hurt from smiling and I was dizzy from gasping at every athletic feat and ingenious stage picture created.
The White Snake – Silicon Valley Shakespeare
This was perhaps the most wonderful surprise of the year for me. It was a piece I knew NOTHING about. I didn’t know anything about the mythology or cultural significance behind it at all. I absolutely loved it. It was consistently performed, beautifully stylized, it was fresh and fun, poignant and aesthetically ethereal. I was entirely enamored by Evelyn Huynh’s performance, and the props, staging, choreography and all the production choices were cohesive and effective. I really hope SVS continues to seek out and perform these pieces that supplement their core Shakespearen program. I love the direction this play took each actor, audience member and the company and would love to see more of these transformative pieces steeped/rooted in our regions diversity.
Thoroughly Modern Millie – South Bay Musical Theater
This was a very special outing for my mom and I. I take her to a lot of productions now that she is widowed. She likes the company and to get out of the house, but she’s a bigger critic than I am and she’s a good sport for attending shows when she’s not in the mood. Typically she’ll sit politely throughout, not appearing to engage very often or react (aside from looking at her watch) and when its over she’ll simply ask me what I think and “agree.” She whispered to me twice during the Millie performance – once during a scene change when she mentioned “they really did a great job with the sets and props” and again after Forget about the Boy when she mentioned “They are really good”. We got to share many glances in the dark at the silly comic moments too. At the end, before we even got to the car she said “Well I thought that was pretty good!” Musically the production was tight as could be, the costumes were ABSOLUTELY fantastic (the details and the fit, superb!) and the sound quality (the orchestra, singers and the sound mixing – especially with all the movement!) were of the highest quality. It was outstanding and I love seeing such excellence from SBMT. It’s a great example that we can do standard, tradition musical pieces and still succeed in making them fresh and excel!
The How & the Why – Dragon Productions Theatre Company
Two women on stage. Two profoundly talented women. Their choices, their rhythm, their conviction was more than memorable. The direction, impressive . Talk about a conversation piece, too? So intelligent, so interesting. I genuinely wanted more and ended up doing research after. Compelling, smart, and exactly the kind of theater I love to “stumble” on. Bravo and a half!
Communicating Doors – Center Rep Theater
The time traveling plot sounded weird, but boy was it entertaining, primarily do to the superior comic acting of Sharon Rietkerk and Mark Anderson Phillips. Okay, and the costuming as well. And, the script. And, okay, pretty much everything. I was NOT sure at all what to expect going into it, but I was entertained. Worth the hour drive to the Lesher Center, which is beautiful and also… it doesn’t hurt that they sell ice cream at the front of the stage at intermission.
Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella – Foothill Music Theatre
A silly musical with a fun cast who looked as though they were having just as much fun doing the show as I was watching it. That type of joy is contagious and I was definitely charmed by the show. I had forgotten how humorous the show was and was thankful for the reminder.
Admissions – Los Altos Stage Company
A provocative, timely piece with flawless acting. This is small theater at it’s biggest and best. This play and cast would have worked anywhere, but the advantage to a small theater is you can FEEL the tension. What a tug of war emotionally this was. A great example of when all the parts (play selection, direction, casting, execution) come together to create a sum greater than those parts.
Flower Drum Song – Palo Alto Players
I still am not sure how a piece that seems not only dated but very much OUTdated can be done so well and have you giggling and virtually cheering. Is it possible that the fact that it’s so wrong makes it so right? This production was funny and pretty and familiar and very much not and I really admired the production values across the board. Sometimes you need to be reminded to lighten up and just laugh. I did.
The Other Mozart – Hammer Theater
Again, a great example of what Hammer is bringing in. A almost experimental, performance art approach – a one woman show about Mozart’s talented and forgotten little sister. Based on history and letters written between them this was a visually fascinating and very different piece. A great deviation from repetitive, expected offerings that abound. Mamma Mia this was not. Thankfully.
Soujourn – Pear Theatre
I’m a big fan of science and science fiction. We got both in this new, locally written play and I thought the result was intriguing and engaging. Maybe not hit competently out of the park, but a solid effort and far more polished all around then some other new works being produced. Contemporary, thoughtful, and solidly performed, I like that we have theaters incubating local writers and good ones at that. I hope audiences take the chance on them, I think they will be pleased more often than not. This one made a mark and we need more marks to be sure!
One Man, Two Guvnors – Palo Alto Players
Palo Alto Players had a banner year this year for sure, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the work of the cast (and director) of this show. Extremely difficult comedy with pacing, physicality, and improv all built in. A huge undertaking with a spectacular result.