Here, in alphabetical order, are my 2015 theater highlights.
“Amélie,” Berkeley Repertory Theatre: An enchanting act of theatrical translation that brought the French film to the stage in a production directed by Pam MacKinnon that wisely opted for reinvention rather than replication. Samantha Barks in the title role added texture to the romantic whimsy that the show’s authors (Craig Lucas, Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen) tastily whipped into an uncloyingly delicious crème brûlée.
Anna Deavere Smith, the Broad Stage and Berkeley Repertory Theatre: This year we’ve had far too many painful reminders that this is anything but a post-racial society. Anna Deavere Smith’s rendition of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s magnificent “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in “Never Givin’ Up” at the Broad Stage and her tackling of the school-to-prison pipeline in “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre brought moral clarity and theatrical vigor to civil rights struggles that are as alive today as they were half a century ago.
“A Permanent Image,” Rogue Machine: John Perrin Flynn’s production of the Samuel D. Hunter domestic drama occasioned some of the finest ensemble work of the season. Anne Gee Byrd, Tracie Lockwood, Ned Mochel and Mark L. Taylor imbued each dramatic moment with a density of familial strife.
“Come From Away,” La Jolla Playhouse: A 9/11 musical set in Newfoundland? This small, stirring and unpretentious show, written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a Canadian husband-and-wife team, told the story of a Canadian town that generously pooled its resources to host thousands of passengers whose flights had been rerouted on that fateful autumn day of the terrorist attacks. Christopher Ashley’s production let the simple goodness of ordinary people outshine sensational evil.
“Fun Home” and “Hamilton,” Broadway: These musicals, both of which began at the Public Theater, have brought new currency to an art form too long enthralled to dopey movie adaptations and jukebox nostalgia. One is about a lesbian’s coming-to-terms with her closeted father’s suspected suicide, the other is a multicultural version of the Founding Fathers story told in rap. Bold maneuvers can sometimes fail miserably on Broadway, but “Fun Home” is the reigning Tony winner for best musical, and “Hamilton,” the hottest ticket in New York, is the odds-on favorite to pick up the award next year.
“Girlfriend,” Kirk Douglas Theatre: Boy meets boy in this sweet, tender and delightfully awkward musical inspired by Matthew Sweet’s 1991 alternative rock album of the same title. With a book by Todd Almond, the show poignantly traced the slow awareness of a special bond between the class jock and the class sissy.
“The Great War,” REDCAT: More than 100 years have passed since the start of World War I, and we’re still sorting through its manifold causes and lingering legacies. What history books often render abstract, puppets and miniature objects made painfully vivid in this ingenious live-animation film created by Dutch theater company Hotel Modern and composer Arthur Sauer.
“The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek,” Fountain Theatre: Athol Fugard’s drama, set during and after apartheid, explores seismic societal change through characters who are learning to live with their anger, guilt and resentments. Another in the Fountain Theatre’s series of expertly acted productions of the great South African playwright.
“Spring Awakening,” Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts: This Deaf West Theatre revival, which moved from Beverly Hills to Broadway this year after a successful run in 2014 at Inner-City Arts’ Rosenthal Theater in L.A., beautifully re-imagines Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2007 Tony-winning musical. In the company’s signature style, singing entwines with signing to movingly capture the angst, alienation and longing of the teenage characters on the confounding cusp of sexual adulthood.
“Straight White Men,” Kirk Douglas Theatre: On the surface Young Jean Lee’s play may look like an old-fashioned family drama. But the playwright, an expert at theatrical disorientation, slyly grapples with privilege, hypocrisy and liberal guilt.