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The Sound of Musicals

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The dysfunctional Hoover family aboard the bus in the world premiere of ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ at the La Jolla Playhouse, through March 27. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

By Pat Launer

When the sun goes down in San Diego, the curtain goes up.
You may not know it, but our town is a theater mecca. Folks in New York know …. but here, not so much. Theatermakers love to come to San Diego to try out new work — or just to work.
We have two Tony Award-winning regional theaters (the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse). We send more shows to Broadway than almost any other city in the U.S. We also have nearly 100 other local theater companies, large and small, including an impressive array of college and university training programs with a high profile on the national theater map. SDSU has the country’s only musical theater MFA program. And, for the past decade, UCSD has been one of the top-ranked theater programs in the nation.
Together, San Diego theatermakers treat us to a mind-boggling array of provocative productions (I see well over 200 local shows every year), and dozens of world premieres. Our town has become a nationally-known destination for “cultural tourism,” playing host to some 1.5 million cultural tourists who spend close to $400 million here each year.
So, shouldn’t you be hip to the theater scene, too? That’s what I’m here for. I’ve been writing about theater and the arts in San Diego for more than 25 years. And I’m happy to be your guide every month to what’s on, what’s up and what’s coming to local stages.

In the Wings
The Big Buzz in theater this month is the world premieres of two musicals, both looking to make their way to the Great White Way (that’s Broadway, for you theater newbies).
You still may have time to catch the extended run of “Jane Austen’s Emma – a Musical Romantic Comedy” at the Old Globe that was lauded by critics and audiences alike.
In my review, I called it a winner, praising its charming, melodious score (by Tony-nominated composer/lyricist/librettist Paul Gordon), gifted director (Jeff Calhoun, who helmed the musical version of “Bonnie and Clyde” at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2009, soon to open on Broadway), the superb voices of the marvelously talented cast, and the stunning setting they had to play around in. Grab a seat, so you can say you saw it here first (through March 6;
The other great source of melodic anticipation is “Little Miss Sunshine,” a musical adaptation of the beloved, Oscar-winning 2006 movie. The world premiere began previews at the La Jolla Playhouse in February, with the official opening on March 4; the show continues through March 27 (
The creative team is high octane and highly regarded; the writer/director is the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winner James Lapine, whose past collaborations include two Stephen Sondheim musicals (“Into the Woods” and “Sunday in the Park with George”). But when seeking a soundscape for the quirky Hoover family of the film, he turned to composer/lyricist William Finn, with whom he’d successfully partnered on “Falsettos” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
You may recall “Miss Sunshine’s” hilariously off-the-wall road-trip story, seen through the eyes of precocious, 10 year-old Olive (played by 10 year-old New Jerseyite Georgi James, who left the Broadway cast of “Billy Elliot” to come play in San Diego). Olive convinces her wacky family to pile into the beat-up, yellow VW van and make their way to California from New Mexico, so she can compete in the “Little Miss Sunshine” child beauty pageant.
Disaster ensues with every mile, from breakdowns to body theft to death, thanks to Olive’s depraved grandpa, depressed uncle, selectively mute teen brother and her parents’ shaky marriage. The one thing that’s unshakable is Dad’s faith in the family.
Tony Award nominee Hunter Foster plays Richard, a motivational speaker who, he says, has “the weight of the world on his shoulders, trying to be a good father, son and husband — and keep his family and marriage together.”
“The creators are brilliant,” said Foster during an enticing sneak preview for the press. “The score is great, the lyrics are smart and surprising. And the story is heartwarming, touching and moving… It’s an emotional journey, not just a physical one, about a dysfunctional family that learns how to be a family again.”
So, hop on the bus. There’s a San Diego theater waiting for you.


Pat Launer, long known as “the voice of theater in San Diego,” is an Emmy Award-winning arts writer and theater critic who’s written for newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and online. Her theater reviews can be heard weekly on KSDS-FM, and she writes regularly for Pat has been named a Living Legacy by the Women’s International Center.

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