The year 2017 has been arguably one of my favorite years for stages in the Bay Area. I can’t say the same about 2017 as a citizen in many ways though. Basic humanity has been on the decline, but so much wokeness on the part of so many citizens and artists has been inspiring. And while politics in our country is as divisive as I can remember, companies have responded by producing powerful and inspired work, creating critical, necessary spaces for artists and audiences alike.
My annual list of favorites does not include great work I was able to see elsewhere. Having visited New York twice this past year, seeing the absolute gem of a production, “The Band’s Visit” was magical. All great theatre can be measured by how long it stays with you long after the curtain closes, and I don’t see that show leaving me anytime soon. And in these modern times, where an American president seemingly finds glee at attacking his own populace, “Come From Away” is an incredible reminder of the pure goodness and potential of people. It was a much-needed antidote for these challenging times.
Closer to home, as hard as this was this year to choose my favorites, harder than most years honestly, I was able to narrow down my top 10 favorite shows of the past year. For this list, I have also not included most things that were on a tour. I have also linked my original reviews to the title of the show, which is also where you will find the photo credits.
So in order of the month I saw the show, here are my top 10 Bay Area theatre productions of 2017.
1. “Fun Home” – The Curran – February
Based on the true story of writer Alison Bechdel and her experiences dealing with her closeted father’s suicide, the story is a swift and succinct bit of nostalgia. It’s also inspiring in that this is the first Broadway show featuring a lesbian protagonist.
Despite the fact this was a tour, I decided to include the show because it signified the reopening of a Bay Area treasure, the Curran, which is a key cog in Bay Area Broadway theatre history.
With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, the two most powerful numbers in the show have so much to do with a young girl’s coming of age and sexual awakening. “Changing My Major” is loaded with gleeful, beautiful discovery. And I dare you to listen to “Ring of Keys” without a knot in your throat. Go ahead and try it. Were you able to fight back your tears? Yeah, didn’t think so.
2. “Jitney” – African-American Shakespeare Company – March
August Wilson’s poetic masterpiece about African-American cab drivers in Pittsburgh’s Hill District was beautifully produced by the company. In their first attempt at a play in Wilson’s famed Pittsburgh cycle, L. Peter Callender did double duty as both the director and the boss Becker. His explosive scene with his convicted son Booster, portrayed by Eric Reid, was a slice of perfection. Memorable characters come and go, but the last few minutes of the piece, with angelic voice Mahalia Jackson piercing the audience, solidify this production as one of the year’s best.
3. “Hamilton: An American Musical” – SHN – Spring/Summer
What can I say about “Hamilton” that hasn’t already been said? A love letter to musical theatre, Biggie Smalls, immigrants, operetta and the grand experiment of the United States of America, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s conception is a breezy 165 minutes of energy, sick beats, and an intoxicating score that has a little bit of everything. Audiences were further treated to Michael Luwoye in the title role, who is now ready to take over the role full time on Broadway.
If you didn’t see it, no worries. The Bay being the kick ass theatre market that it is, it will be Hamilton free for a year, but a big return is scheduled for 2019. And no, I do not plan to now add the tired puns about your shot and rooms where things happen. But make sure not to throw away…
4. “The Roommate” – San Francisco Playhouse – June
Susi Damilano and Julia Brothers were fantastic as a sort of perverse odd couple. The utterly safe and boring Sharon, portrayed by Damilano, gets her bad girls juju going when Brothers’ mysterious Robyn moves in, a big time New York City slicker who now finds herself in Iowa. A vicious scam, a secret passion and some breaking bad directed by Becca Wolf made this a production full of feministic and metaphoric magic.
5. “The Toxic Avenger” – San Jose Stage – June
This zany and irreverent musical with the world’s greatest name for a superhero alter ego, Melvin Ferd the Third, was a hilarious romp through toxic waste. San Jose Stage regulars such as Will Springhorn, Jr., Allison F. Rich, Courtney Hatcher and scene stealing newbies Branden Noel Thomas and Joshua Marx were magnificent. Directed with joyful force by Jonathan Rhys Williams, Shakespearean inspired lyrics such as “All my life, I’ve been a pacifist/But right now, you really got me pissed,” soared with joy and hilarity. A terribly fun night at the theatre from a company that does quirky better than anyone.
6. “An Octoroon” – Berkeley Repertory Theatre – July
The power of this wonderful piece, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Eric Ting, is how it pulls no punches when it comes to race. There were countless stories of people getting up and leaving during the show, and it was not a play that was comfortable. If amends are going to be made in regards to the racist history of this nation, those conversations are critical. What “An Octoroon” got so right is how it attacked conventions with biting, succulent satire. Plenty of hilarity lent itself to a whole lot of truth.
7. “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga” – TheatreWorks Silicon Valley – July
A new musical born from a chance encounter with a comic book in a second-hand book store. Bay Area playwright and composer Min Kahng composed music that delved deeply into the Japanese immigrant experience, that had its share of joy and heartbreak. A strong ensemble, featuring four women that play every character that the four young Japanese men came into contact with gave this piece a sparkling amount of depth and truth.
8. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” – Hillbarn Theatre – September
This warm musical tells the pathos-fueled story of Quasimodo and his quest for love and acceptance. Directed with great touches by Riley Costello, with Matt Bourne and Joseph Murphy handling the musical direction duties, the soundscape of the play, with a large pit chorus, was rich and intoxicating. In addition, the principal characters, led by Randy O’Hara in the title role, all brought their A games to the festivities.
9. “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations” – Berkeley Repertory Theatre – September
The record setter for tickets sales in Berkeley Rep’s illustrious history, this show was beyond magnificent, surreal even. With a cast and creative team that has Broadway written all over it, the show will make its way to New York City in the Fall of 2018. The story of the passionate and painful journey of Motown’s signature group The Temptations soars on the backs of its iconic music. Tunes such as “I Wish it Would Rain” and “Just my Imagination” are just a few of the hits in a show that will someday challenge “Jersey Boys” for jukebox musical supremacy.
10. “The Royale” – Aurora Theatre Company – November
A powerful play written by Marco Ramirez, this show tells the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson and his quest to become the first Black heavyweight champion. Greatly influenced by the complicated life of Jack Johnson, a man who won the heavyweight championship after years of chasing down multiple titleholders who had no desire to give a Black man a shot at the greatest title in sport, the play’s stylized approach showcased the barbaric ballet that is pugilistic prize fighting. Darryl V. Jones directed this critically acclaimed piece.
Thank you to all of you who have emailed, tweeted or stopped by the site. Thank you to all the great folks I featured for stories, and all of the publicists who make these interviews happen. Thank you to all of the identity-specific theatre companies who provide critical spaces for people of color to share our stories. Thank you to all the women who have bravely spoken out about harassment, thus moving towards the goal of making spaces safer and more respectful for everyone who enters those spaces. And thank you all for your passion about theatre, an art form that allows us to connect to the best writing and humanity civilization has ever seen.
I wish you all the best in 2018 and beyond, and look forward to sharing more great theatre with you all. See you at the show!
With all due respect Fun Home and Hamilton, although of course great productions, aren’t really Bay Area shows- both were cast and produced out of town and came here on tour. It would be nice to keep these lists localized to the hard working professionals that live and work in the area.