San Diego has an international reputation for quality theater. And far too many locals aren’t aware of it.
In the past 25 years, we’ve sent at least 45 shows to Broadway. We average around two a year. The most recent, the La Jolla Playhouse’s Come From Away — 38 planes diverted to the small Newfoundland community of Gander during 9/11 — begins previews in New York at the Schoenfeld Theatre February 18. It’s scheduled to open March 12. If this one doesn’t fly, Broadway ain’t got wings.
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
The Tony-winning musical Big River originated at the La Jolla Playhouse, as did Jersey Boys, I Am My Own Wife, The Who’s Tommy, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Memphis, plus Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, among others.
1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
The Old Globe Theatre has shuttled at least 20 shows off to the Great White Way. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which won four Tony Awards in 2014, including best musical, came through the Globe on its way to New York, as did August Wilson’s immortal Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 1988 and Two Trains Running in 1991. Other Globe gifts: Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Jack O’Brien’s Damn Yankees, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The Full Monty.
The La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe have also won Tony Awards for Achievement by a Regional Theatre.
121 Broadway, Downtown San Diego
San Diego Musical Theatre is now in the historic Spreckels Theatre (which makes for a perfect fit) does top-shelf, professional productions. Their upcoming season includes 9–5, Damn Yankees, and Pump Up the Volume.
8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido
1100 Third Avenue, Downtown San Diego
In North County, Moonlight Stage Productions offers an outdoor summer season often with sold-out performances, as does The Welk Resort Theatre year-round. Broadway/San Diego has brought touring productions to the Civic Theatre for decades. On January 3, 2018, it will top them all when Hamilton comes to town. The smash hit of smash hits will run through January 28.
In recent years, SDSU has produced epic versions of Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar, with over 200 singers, actors, dancers, and musicians for each. SDSU is one of three universities with strong masters’ of fine arts programs. University of San Diego does classics and has ties with the Old Globe. UCSD’s department of theatre and dance ranks among the top three in the country.
79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
Currently in its 41st season, the San Diego Repertory Theater should have earned a regional Tony Award by now. The Rep has one of the most eclectic theatrical menus in town. The popular company Amigos del Rep does staged readings of Latino works. The Rep also offers expert talks and post-curtain discussions on each play: how they relate to San Diego and the world. Next up: Laura Eason’s’ comedy Sex with Strangers opens February 23.
1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Lamb’s Players Theatre, now in its 40th season under artistic director Robert Smyth: traditional and non-traditional fare with some of the most polished ensemble acting around. Next up: Shadowlands, William Nicholson’s love story about Joy Davidson and confirmed bachelor C.S. Lewis. Opens February 24.
4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Diversionary Theatre, now in its 31st season producing gay-lesbian theater in University Heights. Since Matt Morrow became the artistic director, the company’s been on a roll. Next up: Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride and Well, running in repertory.
North County Companies.
New Village Arts. Opened in Carlsbad in 2001. It began and remains an adventurous company, mounting edgy theater from Sam Shepard and Beth Henley to the classics. In recent years New Village has successfully staged musicals in its relatively small space. Their Big River being a recent and highly praised example. Next up: Clifford Odets's musical Awake & Sing.
North Coast Repertory Theatre. Tom and Olive Blakistone founded the Solana Beach theater in 1983, which stages classics (often newly translated) and comedies in its 194-seat space, and which hires 85% professional actors. NCRT was the subject of a flattering article in American Theatre, 2015. Next up: Tony Kushner's The Illusion, February 25.
6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
Several companies began just over a decade ago. Somehow they weathered the economic crisis, the real estate fiasco, and a grim time for the arts. Aptly named Moxie Theatre, currently in season 11, stages plays about women, primarily written by women, but not just for women. Artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is one of local theater’s most decorated artists, with several Craig Noel Awards to her credit, and prestigious directing assignments to come. Current production: Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door (an African-American professor questions his identity).
4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Cygnet Theatre, season 14. Has earned its place on the top rung of local companies. In the intimate thrust-staged theater, Cygnet mounts musicals, classics, and controversials (i.e., its recent, incendiary Bad Jews). Next up: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman’s musical On the 20th Century, about a train ride from Chicago to NYC. Opens March 18.
3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Ion Theatre. You could park two SUVs, maybe, in its 49-seat space next to a cleaner’s. This intimacy’s one of their biggest strengths, since Ion favors tough, often raw theater.
444 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Intrepid Theatre began in Encinitas. Season 7 finds them in residence at the Horton Grand. Intrepid can boast two of the top productions in the past two years: The Quality of Life (Craig Noel Award for 2015) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Next up: Perfect Arrangement, Topher Payne’s 1950s comedy about the Red Scare and two unlikely witch-hunters. Begins February 11.
Among relatively new companies — if you don’t count San Diego’s International Fringe Festival — two stand out. New Fortune Theatre staged a handful of shows and has won at least as many awards. They present “contemporary classics and classics in contemporary settings.” Their recent Les Liaisons Dangereuses gave evil a sophisticated veneer.
Backyard Renaissance is a “homeless” company, whose growing legion of followers now track them down. Next up: Beth Henley’s Abundance (two mail-order brides come west in the latter half of the 19th Century). Opens March 16.
Go see a show! If you attend only one theater, try another, or two. If you’re new to live theater, here’s the deal: it moves at a human speed. Most movies and TV explain everything and corral audiences into a general response. Live theater encourages, even incites, the imagination to participate. No laugh track or swoony background music will tell you how to feel. You can laugh when you want and have your own unique experience. To paraphrase Meatloaf: Just let the drama tell your heart what to do.