The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was wall-to-wall entertaining, smart, and funny.
  • The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was wall-to-wall entertaining, smart, and funny.
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For musicals, San Diego must be World Premiere Central. We see all kinds, in varying stages, and send two or three to Broadway each year. But once in a blue moon, one’s produced here that’s so polished and terrific, it looks like the result of years of rehearsal.

Des McAnuff’s Jersey Boys was one such production. Opening night felt fully wrought and wonderful.

The local production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder made 2013 a Blue Moon year. The musical — book by Robert L. Freedman and music by Steven Lutvak — world-premiered elsewhere. But the Old Globe’s staging was more than a pre-Broadway shakedown. The story of a pauper’s rise to high nobility by murdering all relatives in his way, Guide was wall-to-wall entertaining, super smart, and funny. Song after song — from homages to Mozart and bawdy music halls — enchanted.

The musical showcased Darko Tresnjak, former artistic director of the Old Globe, who directed the piece brilliantly, and Jefferson Mays, graduate of the MFA program at UCSD, who played eight distinct characters with genius (he also sang “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” which must rank among the most loopy/psychotic in musical theater history).

Guide earned raves on Broadway. Big deal. We no longer need them to validate our treasures.

The most exciting new musical score? Easy: the numbers Gilbert Castellanos “composed and curated” for the Rep’s Federal Jazz Project. A world-class trumpet player and local icon, Castellanos’s score traced the history of Latino Jazz and its connections to San Diego: boogie, bop, Cuban-Mexican, danzón, and contemporary styles.

Musicals flourished all year, but two others stood out: Lamb’s Players klezmer-ized Fiddler on the Roof and the San Diego Rep’s In the Heights — something old, something new. Both concerned threats to traditional ways: Anatevka, a Jewish shtetl, by Russians; Washington Heights by gentrification. Both were splendid (Lamb’s is reprising Fiddler this January at the Lyceum).

Robert Smyth directed Fiddler and Sam Woodhouse directed Heights. They also directed two of the year’s best dramatic productions: Smyth did Wit for Lamb’s Players and Woodhouse (codirecting with Kim Rubenstein), Venus in Fur for the Rep. There’s no award for such masterful double-duty, probably since it’s so rare. I can’t recall it before, in the same year, let alone by two directors. But there should be. So if it happens again, I propose the honoree receive a Smyth-Woodhouse Award or, better still, a Woodhouse-Smyth, which gives it a tony, British lilt, for outstanding directorial versatility.

Wit mesmerized. For some, the production might have been too powerful, since it followed the last days of a woman dying of cancer and did not hold back. At first, Vivian Bearing, self-stuffed scholar, refuses to go gently. After painful stages, she finds hard-won peace. Deborah Gilmour Smyth, her head shaved, her struggle blazingly felt, gave one of the year’s finest performances as Vivian.

Gilmour Smyth’s approach, you could say, was vertical: she dug deep, then deeper, then punched through the bottom line. What Caroline Kinsolving did in Venus in Fur was more lateral. She played two women, over a century apart: Vanda, a dufus “ack-treece,” auditions to play sophisticated Dunayev, a fictional, 19th-century dominatrix. Kinsolving shot from one period — and acting style — to another with astonishing spontaneity. And precision. And clarity.

This year also saw familiar faces, Randall Dodge and Linda Libby, shining in role after role: Dodge in South Pacific (twice, at Welk Resort and at Moonlight Stage), The Wizard of Oz (Moonlight), and The Sound of Music (San Diego Musical Theatre); Libby in Cygnet Theatre’s Company, where she was the jaded Joanne — imagine Dorothy Parker times ten — and as Lady Bracknell, a stentorian foghorn in Cygnet’s stately/funny The Importance of Being Earnest.

Claudio Raygoza, whose Ion Theatre had another banner year, did a monologue in Shining City that must have been 15 minutes long, maybe more, but never felt it, Raygoza was so spellbinding. Jeffrey Jones’s Randall P. McMurphy, in New Village Arts’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was a mile-a-minute, riffing whacko — and unforgettable.

Directed by Adrian Noble, Miles Anderson’s Shylock, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Old Globe, was also outstanding. He began as the most charitable person in Venice (it’s in the text, though “comic,” or just ignorant stagings overlook it); he turned the other cheek and forgave in advance, until pushed too far. Anderson gave the role a complete and anguished arc.

2013 marked the final year of Adrian Noble’s reign as head of the Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival. His work, including last summer’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, was consistently excellent. Let’s hope Noble doesn’t wait ’til the next Blue Moon to return to San Diego. In the meantime, actors interested in performing the Bard should memorize his book/master class: How to Do Shakespeare (Routledge paperback, 2010).

Paul Tazewell’s costumes for the La Jolla Playhouse’s otherwise misbegotten Side Show were a cut above the rest, especially his gaggle of freak-outfits. I remember watching the Playhouse’s The Tallest Tree in the Forest (which could also use earnest tweaking) and being struck by the clarity of the sounds. They recalled the design for the Old Globe’s Opus, about a string quartet, back in 2009. A program check for Tallest Tree’s sound designer turned up Lindsay Jones, who also did Opus.

Three sets stood out this year: Robert Brill’s micro-realistic reporters’ room for His Girl Friday at La Jolla Playhouse; David F. Weiner’s extraordinary design for Mo`olelo’s Extraordinary Chambers: huge, strangler fig tree roots engulfed an Angkor Wat–like space; and Alexander Dodge’s palatial interior of a Palm Springs House Beautiful in Other Desert Cities: tall windows, a fireplace like a rocket ship, and a living room wide as a tennis court. Some people said the set was so big it dwarfed the actors. But that was one of its points: that and “people who live in glass houses,” etc.

In local theater history, 2013 was the Year of the Festival. From the time theaters first went indoors, there’s always been a nagging sense that other, less formal venues — and “nontheatrical” kinds of performances — might be just as effective. In the past few decades, following the famous Edinburgh Fringe, festivals have sprung up around the world. Just about everywhere but San Diego, so it seemed.

Since 2010, the La Jolla Playhouse has offered its Without Walls program, designed to break down the “walls” of traditional theater: plays staged inside cars, at a botanical garden, in Little Italy. This year the Playhouse offered an entire festival of nontraditional, site-specific works. By all reports, it was a success.

As was the inaugural San Diego Fringe Festival, a three-day affair held at various downtown venues. Fringe brought in acts from around the country, even overseas. The only persistent criticism: it was too short.

Which allowed almost no time for word-of-mouth to spread, in particular about Sean Sullivan’s “Best of Fringe” solo performance in Baby Redboot’s Revenge. Word has it that both festivals will have longer runs in 2014.

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