After The Sun Sets, Curtain Time Beckons Aficionados Of The Arts
Travelers planning a visit to this most southern of California cities are sure to pack their swimsuit, camera and maybe even a surfboard, but few think to throw in opera glasses.
“The best thing about San Diego is we’ve got it all—the surf, the sun, the zoo, Shamu. But when the sun goes down, the curtain comes up,” said Alan Ziter, executive director of the San Diego Theater League.
In addition to its mild weather conditions and an abundance of water sports, San Diego offers 57 performing arts groups with reputations that attract nationally and internationally renowned talent.
Recognizing its potential draw, California’s second-largest city recently formed the Commission for Arts and Culture.
Working toward the goal of turning San Diego into a cultural center, Victoria Hamilton, executive director, said the commission is currently creating the city’s first cultural destination brochure for potential visitors. Clearly, San Diego may no longer simply be on the map for cultural arts—it may be forging the route.
However, as one theater-loving resident of seven years hypothesized, “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Dallas, Minneapolis and Chicago prior to moving to San Diego and without doubt, this city offers the best variety of culture of all of my previous homes. Unfortunately, that fact is Southern California’s best-kept secret.”
San Diego’s theater, dance and music opportunities include Broadway musicals, contemporary and classic plays, dinner theater, opera and the symphony. Among its top venues are the following:
La Jolla Playhouse
When Des McAnuff, artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, was in his late 20s, he was lured from the lights of New York City to the serenity of San Diego’s ocean community, La Jolla (meaning “the jewel” in Spanish).
Nestled in a grove of eucalyptus trees and situated on the University of California campus overlooking the Pacific, the playhouse is his forum today. McAnuff was brought to La Jolla in 1983 for one purpose—to successfully guide the newly revived playhouse to a theater that in 1987 was said “in danger of becoming the hottest new theater in the country.”
It was no small feat, but from the first season that Amanda Plummer played the lead in “Romeo and Juliet” to the past season when Lynn Redgrave asked to work with the director in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” the Playhouse has never been at a loss for talent.
That talent was recognized with seven Tony Awards for Roger Miller/William Hauptman’s “Big River,” which McAnuff opened at La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 before taking to Broadway.
That same year, he and Stephen Sondheim developed a friendship while working on the Playhouse’s run of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” And the Playhouse has steadily worked with America’s clown, Bill Irwin, most recently in the 1991 production of “The Regard of Flight.”
Old Globe Theater
The city’s Elizabethan-styled, tri-theater complex is situated in the middle of the city’s 1,074-acre Balboa Park and is at the back door of the notable San Diego Zoo.
The original theater, fashioned after Shakespeare’s Globe Playhouse in London, was constructed as a temporary entertainment attraction for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, but the city fell in love with the theater’s Shakespeare productions and wouldn’t let the Globe die.
Intimate Theatrical Experience
A summer evening of Shakespeare performed on the Old Globe’s outdoor Festival Stage provides a trip to the old country. This walk back in time was possible even in the theater’s recent presentation of “The Merchant of Venice,” executed with a twist—in contemporary dress.
The smaller Cassius Carter Center Stage is in the round and gives the viewer a more intimate theatrical experience with the actors entering not stage left or stage right but down the same aisles used by the audience.
However, the centerpiece of the Old Globe’s three theaters is the 581-seat main stage where Neil Simon chose to premiere his play “Rumors” prior to its opening on Broadway. A.R. Gurney Jr.’s “The Cocktail Hour,” “Suds” and the triple-Tony-winning “Into the Woods” also originated on this stage before their New York runs.
It is not by accident that the Old Globe has grown to national prominence, but in large part due to the direction of Jack O’Brien who, like McAnuff, made his original mark in New York—with his Tony Award-winning direction of Broadway’s “Porgy and Bess.”
Recipient of the 1984 Special Tony Award for regional theater, the Old Globe is the longest-established professional theater in California and continually works with artists of the caliber of Sada Thompson, David Ogden Stiers and Hal Holbrook. Understandably, a highlight of the Globe’s history is the visit by Queen Elizabeth II to unveil the lobby’s bronze statue of William Shakespeare.
San Diego Repertory Theater
Located in downtown’s pastel-painted, multilevel Horton Plaza shopping complex, the San Diego Repertory Theater began as a troupe performing in Balboa Park and moved to a playhouse in 1982. Since 1986, it has performed in the Lyceum.
Rep’s World Premieres
Staging more than 20 world premieres, including Russian playwright Nicolai Koliyada’s “Slingshot,” which later played in Moscow, the theater also received an invitation to take its production “Holy Ghosts” to the prestigious American Theater Exchange Festival in New York, where it received both public and critical acclaim.
The Rep, as locals affectionately refer to the theater, recently staged its longest-running play, “The Rocky Horror Show,” patterned after the campy movie. Called “a success and a kick” by the Los Angeles Times, the theater invited the opening-night audience to come in drag, suggesting that “men might wish to wear eyeliner or high-heeled shoes and the ladies could consider chains or a five o’clock shadow.” Not to be mistaken for California kink, the Rep was having pure theatrical fun. This is the same theater, after all, which annually stages its holiday production “A Christmas Carol.”
Gaslamp Quarter Theater Company
Downtown’s historic Gaslamp Quarter houses a theatrical company named for its locale.
According to producing director Kit Goldman, the Gaslamp, which during the past 10 years has become known for its refined productions of Noel Coward and Harold Pinter, is moving in a new, contemporary direction. However, after viewing any production in its comforting splendor, a stroll around the corner for a glass of sherry at the newly renovated, century-old Horton Grand Hotel keeps the audience blissfully in the past. And only a few blocks south across the trolley tracks is the state-of-the-art San Diego Convention Center.
San Diego Civic Light Opera
In its 46th season it produces Broadway-quality musicals which are staged at the Civic Theater in winter and during the summer months at the historic outdoor Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park.
Producing a variety of work from Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” the Starlight has acquired such a loyal following, season tickets are remembered in wills and passed down from children to grandchildren.
In the same way, the city limits present no boundaries to the many season ticket holders from Los Angeles who make the trek south on the San Diego Freeway to take advantage of the first-class entertainment.
The recent presentation of “Evita” starred Derin Altay, the actress cast by Hal Prince to replace Patti LuPone in the original Broadway production’s title role. And the season’s finale, “Man of La Mancha,” will head to Broadway in 1992 after its Starlight run.
Smaller theaters such as this one employ local artists and produce main-stage productions, as well as multicultural and educational projects. Although in a league of their own, the quality is nevertheless equally as impressive as the Globe or La Jolla Playhouse.
And because of its location next to the Kingston Hotel, a perk of the Blackfriars is a hotel/theater package which is offered. The Horton Grand Hotel (in conjunction with the Gaslamp Quarter Theater) serves up a package as well.
“Although only these two hotels offer packages at this time, several of the major downtown hotels provide complimentary shuttles to and from the theaters,” said the Theatre League’s Ziter when asked about the support available for the out-of-town cultural arts lover.
Sushi Performance and Visual Art
If a more unusual evening is desired, alternative entertainment can always be found here. The Sushi consistently presents performance and dance artists such as Whoopi Goldberg in its experimental works.
“Sushi is to San Diego what Soho is to New York and North Beach is to San Francisco,” explained a local theater-goer.
San Diego Symphony Orchestra
San Diego’s cultural arts scene is not exclusive to live theater.
On San Diego Bay, under the stars at Embarcadero Marina Park, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra performs a lineup of close to 20 musical programs in its “SummerPops Series,” from Broadway favorites to patriotic themes to spicy Latin hits.
Here spectators can dine in style while enjoying the musical feast and a finale performance symphonically synchronized to fireworks. During the winter, the season continues with classic performances by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra at its beautifully refurbished Copley Symphony Hall.
San Diego Opera
The United States has at least 2,000 theater companies and more than 1,200 symphony orchestras, but only 140 opera companies. San Diego is home to one of the top ten of these opera companies, the San Diego Opera.
Becoming a producing company in its own right with its first production of “La Boheme” in 1965, the company presents five grand operas at the Civic Theater each season, beginning in January and ending in May.
One-Stop Ticket Shopping
The ease of selecting the right performance for a reasonable price can be accomplished with one stop at the copper-roofed TIMES ARTS/TIX gazebo in Horton Plaza.
Patterned after New York’s Times Square TKTS booth, the gazebo is also located on an appropriately named street, Broadway, and sells half-priced, day-of-performance tickets as well as full-price, advance-sale tickets. Open Tuesday through Saturday, half-price tickets for Sunday and Monday shows are available Saturday.
A second outlet is located at the San Diego Convention Center but hours vary. Daily information is given at (619) 238-3810. Having discovered this convenience, visitors to San Diego comprise over 30 percent of the TIX booth patrons. Of additional help to the out-of-towner is an entertainment listing found in each Sunday and Friday’s San Diego Union.