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Stages of delight

December 16, 2007|CHARLES McNULTY

One could hardly call it a vintage year for new musicals, but there were small theatrical delights to be had, the best of which were marvelously unexpected. Here, in alphabetical order, are the memorable sleepers as well as the blockbuster and camp extravaganza that sweetened the annual mix:

"after the quake," La Jolla Playhouse. This collage of two Haruki Murakami stories, delicately adapted and directed by Frank Galati in a production that originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, was quaveringly brought to life by an ensemble that, like its Japanese author, was able to effortlessly slip between conscious and unconscious realms.

"Black Watch," UCLA Live at Freud Playhouse. The National Theatre of Scotland's acclaimed production may not have made for the most sophisticated drama, but, boy, was this company able to convey the emotional cost of military service in Iraq with its mesmerizing combination of dead-eye stares and choreographic grace.

"Can-Can," Pasadena Playhouse. David Lee's freewheeling production made the most of the dazzling score and seductive Parisian atmosphere of Cole Porter and Abe Burrows' 1953 musical while adding a fresh comic kick of its own.

"Durango," David Henry Hwang Theater. The West Coast premiere, courtesy of East West Players, of Julia Cho's family drama about assimilation and its discontents was directed by Chay Yew with scrupulous emotional subtlety and strength.

"Heads," Blank Theatre Company. EM Lewis' beautifully acted hostage drama, set in war-torn Iraq, left out the political preaching but slowly opened up into a metaphor suggesting both the necessity and futility of hope.

"Tug of War," Getty Villa. The Malibu hills are looking more and more like the center of classical theater in America thanks in part to this verbally adroit adaptation of a farce by Plautus, directed by Meryl Friedman to wring maximum bawdy silliness out of a rejuvenated Roman relic.

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona," Old Globe Theatre. One of Shakespeare's lesser comedies was given a lusciously loopy outdoor staging by the inexhaustibly inventive Matt August.

"Xanadu," Broadway. This theatrical re-creation of that awful 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie, performed by a game team of roller-skating zanies, relieved the Broadway summer doldrums with a giddy laugh-fest.

"Wicked," Pantages Theatre. "Avenue Q" may have tickled more, but this musical juggernaut dishing the back story of the Wicked Witch of the West continues to entrance audiences with the untold antics of Oz.

"Yellow Face," Mark Taper Forum. This farcical faux documentary by David Henry Hwang, inspired by one of his playwriting flops, investigates racial and cultural authenticity in a play that knows when irony must give way to sincerity, and vice versa.

The worst

Broadway's "Young Frankenstein" may be the monster dud of the season, but there were a couple of notable clunkers closer to home. "Ray Charles Live!" at the Pasadena Playhouse had virtually no soul despite the magnificent catalog, and "Atlanta" at the Geffen Playhouse went down in flames even with its lovely bluegrass score.


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