On Theater: ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Hairspray’ were this year’s top pro shows

On Theater: ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Hairspray’ were this year’s top pro shows
Micah Figueroa, Anthony Fleming III, Javen Ulambayer and Christopher Donahue in Lookingglass Theatre Company's production of “Moby Dick,” adapted by David Catlin. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

It was a very good year, as Sinatra might sing, for local professional theater — represented by South Coast Repertory and the Laguna Playhouse — in 2017 as these two Equity houses marked 53 and 98 years in operation, respectively.

Both theaters stretched themselves, artistically and technically, during the year, and the resultant products of these ventures topped this column's list of outstanding productions on the SCR and Laguna stages.


For South Coast Rep, the outstanding show also was the oldest idea — Herman Melville's classic novel “Moby Dick” brought to the stage with resounding force and fury by director David Catlin, who also adapted the book.

This column hailed the show as "a stunning, robust production that often spills out over the proverbial fourth wall, at one point flooding the audience with a virtual watery effect."

Runner-up honors go to another show with deep chronological roots — "A Doll's House, Part 2," a "captivating conception" by playwright Lucas Hnath and directed by Shelley Butler. The show went on to a warm reception on Broadway with Laurie Metcalf starring.

Earning honorable mention was "The Roommate," Jen Silverman's dark cornbelt comedy neatly directed by Martin Benson. This column termed the show "fresh and vital in its presentation, a compelling production."

At the Laguna Playhouse, a pair of oldies but goodies topped the quality list. At the summit was the musical "Hairspray," the stage version of a 1988 movie that earned eight Tony awards in its Broadway incarnation.

Director Paula Hammons assembled a top-flight cast and well-choreographed ensemble to recreate the story of a teenage girl's battle with segregation in 1962 Baltimore. It proved a worthy challenger for arts festival-goers' attention.

In second place was another golden oldie of even more distant vintage, Reginald Rose's TV-born jury room drama "12 Angry Men." "Director Michael Matthews' excellent ensemble creates a riveting, no-holds-barred production" is the way this column put it.

Number three on the Laguna list is "Chapatti," a bittersweet two-character comedy by Christian O'Reilly about a pair of animal lovers (a dog for him, multiple cats for her). It was an ideal show for "those who have discovered love late in life." David Ellenstein directed.

Moving to individual acting honors, the top performances at South Coast Repertory were delivered by Christopher Donahue in "Moby-Dick" and Shannon Cochran in "A Doll's House, Part 2."

At Laguna, the prime performers were Richard Burgi in "12 Angry Men" and Annabella Price in "Chapatti."

So much for the local professional playhouses. In two weeks, this column will turn the spotlight to community and college theaters' top achievements during 2017.

(This is the first in a series of three columns reviewing local theater in 2017.)

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.