Review: BWW's Michael L. Quintos Picks Best of O.C. and Beyond for 2018

Review: BWW's Michael L. Quintos Picks Best of O.C. and Beyond for 2018

As with each passing season, 2018 proved to be another exceptional year for theater not only in Souther California in general but also in Orange County---my home base.

This year, the OC finally welcomed the debut of what has become this century's most awarded and most renowned stage musical ever about the Founding Father etched regally on the 10 dollar bill. Meanwhile, So. Cal. enjoyed a powerful surge of new stage works that explored Asian-American experiences, a positive step forward in the presentation of diverse voices we seldom hear from on the stage. A pair of touring musicals---both opening in the O.C. in early 2019---made such an impact in their Los Angeles engagements for me personally that I had to include them in my list, even though I have not "officially" reviewed the productions for print.

With that said, here is my "Best of 2018" from Orange County and adjacent locales nearby---a mixture of outstanding shows and brilliant performances that made a lasting, memorable imprint in my theatergoing experience this year. Follow me on Twitter or Instagram: @cre8iveMLQ

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1. HAMILTON

Touring Production ("Philip Tour")
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

All that hype and endless accolades and awards? Completely justified. A work of genius from start to finish HAMILTON will certainly go down in history not only for its incredible music and storytelling but also for its purposeful vision of depicting America's past with the faces of America's present. As I stated in my review earlier this year, this production not only successfully reignited my love for this show (after years of just spinning the cast album on repeat), but it has also promptly solidified it as, in my humble opinion, one of the best musicals of all time. Apart from being one of the most undeniably creative stage shows ever produced for the American theater, HAMILTON is also one of the most deeply moving and shrewdly intelligent stage musicals I have ever experienced---made even better thanks to an insanely talented ensemble cast that raps, sings, and acts their way into this gripping, very American story.

2. DEAR EVAN HANSEN

Touring Production
CTGLA Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa --- January 1 - 13, 2019

Though this Tony award-winning musical doesn't arrive in the OC until the first two weeks of 2019, I cannot let my year-end, best-of list go without mentioning one of the most impactful, emotionally affecting shows I have ever seen in my life. I'm glad that nearby Los Angeles was able to lure the national tour early to the Ahmanson Theatre for a long healthy run this past fall, allowing the lucky few to experience the show after spending two years (like me) belting out the original cast album. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a contemporary, very of-the-moment theatrical work, but its themes of teen angst and debilitating loneliness are timelessly resonant, particularly for those of us who suffer from social anxiety, low self-esteem, or perhaps even a combination of both. My tears flowed early and often, even as I watched a young man do something pretty bad (well, morally ambiguous, at best). I purposely went to see the show with the alternate Evan---Stephen Christopher Anthony---in the role, and he was nothing short of fantastic. I look forward to seeing the full time Evan in the next few days and have a good ugly cry all over again from press seats.

3. WAITRESS

Touring Production
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Can you recall the last time you were truly enamored by a stage musical? Well, that is exactly what transpires while watching the all-together endearing hit stage musical adaptation of WAITRESS. Like the warmest of embraces, the yummiest of comfort food, and the most cherished camaraderie of dear friends or loved ones, WAITRESS is, overall, quite an adorable, extremely likable show. Even its forgivable flaws are trounced by its irresistible delicacy and its winsome machinations. Even better: the stage iteration noticeably improves on its source material, not only with the addition of Sara Bareilles' perfectly fitting songs, but also with the mesmerizing staging of Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus. Together with book writer/adapter Jessie Nelson, the all-female creative team does provide a palpable, inspiring pro-feminine vibe that feels somehow more energized and livelier, perhaps because many of the periphery characters all get an extra boost of stage time, making way for sassier, sitcom-ready line readings from almost every single character, big or small.

4. CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND

World Premiere Regional Production
South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa

The tragic events surrounding the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime in mid-70's Cambodia serves as the overarching backdrop that links the past and the (near) present in Lauren Yee's stunning new play CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND---which received its World Premiere production at Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theatre South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Originally commissioned by SCR as part of its CrossRoads Initiative, this powerful and searing new drama---sprinkled with welcome bits of comedy and, yes, head-shaking rock concert music interludes---had its initial staged reading at last year's Pacific Playwright's Festival and has been brilliantly transformed into an absorbing, full-fledged production under the admirable direction of Chay Yew.

5. SOFT POWER

World Premiere Regional Production
CTGLA Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

Heartbreaking, snarky and humorously triumphant, SOFT POWER surprised me quite a bit this year. A sharp, biting satire that straddles heightened fantasy and present-day cautionary tale, the musical-within-a-play attempts a "what if" scenario by combining a real-life incident involving Tony award-winning playwright (and book author) David Henry Hwang re-imagining the events of the 2016 Election---in which Hillary Clinton wins---through a revisionist Chinese viewpoint many decades into the future via musical numbers by Tony award winning composer Jeanine Tesori. How To Get Away With Murder's Conrad Ricamora turns in a superb performance.

6. BRIGHT STAR

Regional Theater Production
Musical Theatre West, Long Beach

A pleasing, under-appreciated little gem of a musical, BRIGHT STAR---the quiet yet surprisingly powerful bluegrass musical crafted by husband-and-wife team Steve Martin and Edie Brickell---thankfully received a second chance at local stage glory as Musical Theatre West's highly anticipated 66th Season opener. Endearing and emotionally sweeping, BRIGHT STAR is a no-frills, narrative-driven musical that's less about flash and more about its human-connective qualities, the very ones that will likely touch audience members in a much more cerebral, satisfying way. While it is seemingly intimate in execution, just below its rustic surfaces lay a more epic, modern-minded musical that's mired in heartbreak and tragedy---but yet still ultimately enveloped in hope, triumph, and love.

7. COME FROM AWAY

Touring Production
CTGLA Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa --- February 5 - 17, 2019

Another hit Broadway musical that won't arrive until February 2019 in the OC, COME FROM AWAY nonetheless makes my list thanks to its feel-good message of hope and human kindness that we could all certainly use a little more of lately in these uncertain times we live in today. Just like BRIGHT STAR, this musical is another unassuming, unexpected gem that hits audiences with an emotional wallop with its brilliantly non-stop pace of criss-crossing first-person narration from people who endured those remarkable few days. This original musical tells the heartwarming true story of the small Canadian town of Gander who unexpectedly became the refuge for thousands of stranded airplane passengers from all over the world when the September 11th attacks grounded every plane on the globe. Filled with humor, reflection, and pathos, COME FROM AWAY is one of those shows everyone needs to see if only to remind us that there is still pockets of goodness in the world---and all of us can learn from it.

8. THE KING AND I

National Tour
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Featuring outstanding performances from a cast led by Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana, the beautiful and exquisite national tour production of Lincoln Center Theater's Tony Award-winning revival of the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic THE KING AND I left me and rapt audiences utterly spellbound by its sweeping opulence and gorgeous, reverent staging---which notably combines the elegance and grace of the classic musical many of us have known and loved for decades with a knowing sensitivity to modern times that we exist in today. It is no surprise that this truly magnificent production is yet another feather in the cap of director Bartlett Sher, whose superb revivals of SOUTH PACIFIC and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF have certainly cemented his knack for refreshing classic musicals to glorious new heights while still honoring their original visions.

9. THE COLOR PURPLE

National Tour
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

While its original production, as most Broadway shows go, offered the expected big sets, first-rate costumes, and impressive production values, the 2015 Tony Award-winning revival production of THE COLOR PURPLE was decidedly more subdued and scaled-down by comparison, allowing the songs, the story, and the cast performances to shine on their own merits instead. The resulting show is a powerful, uplifting one, bathed in a loving, spiritual embrace that shines a light on the struggles, the insecurities, the passions, and the tenacity of African-American women living in the early decades of the 20th Century. I can say without hesitation that this revival production is an excellent way to experience this beautiful, touching, and ultimately triumphant musical.

10. NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT

Regional Production
Musical Theatre West, Long Beach

By far the biggest pleasant surprise I sat through this year, MTW's vibrantly entertaining NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT on paper, seems like just another ad-hoc jukebox musical repurposing 21 time-tested songs from the rich George and Ira Gershwin songbook. Perhaps. Yet, though it may not have had the buzz that other high-profile shows may have had initially, something happens when you see it ... and it just completely surprises you in the best possible way. This buoyant and sublime new regional production of the 10-time Tony Award-nominated 2012 musical comedy which lit up the stage at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach was an irresistibly silly and infectiously tuneful stage show that had me smiling from start to finish. This roaring 20's throwback with modern sensibilities provided lots of zany antics, lots of witty one-liners, and lots of spectacular song-and-dance showstoppers that had me wondering---where has this show been all my life?

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

ALADDIN (Tour)
Pantages Theatre, Hollywood

ALLEGIANCE
EastWest Players/JACCC, Los Angeles

Review: BWW's Michael L. Quintos Picks Best of O.C. and Beyond for 2018
ALLEGIANCE - Photo by Michael Lamont.

BIG FISH
Chance Theater, Anaheim

EMMA - THE MUSICAL
Chance Theater, Anaheim

GUYS & DOLLS
Musical Theatre West, Long Beach

LITTLE BLACK SHADOWS
South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa

SOUTH PACIFIC
La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts, La Mirada

Review: BWW's Michael L. Quintos Picks Best of O.C. and Beyond for 2018
SOUTH PACIFIC - Photo by Austin Bauman.

VANYA & SONYA & MASHA & SPIKE
South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa

VIETGONE
EastWest Players, Los Angeles

OUTSTANDING EXPERIENTIAL THEATRE

THE CAR PLAYS
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE

ALLEGIANCE
EastWest Players/JACCC, Los Angeles

BIG FISH
Chance Theater, Anaheim

Review: BWW's Michael L. Quintos Picks Best of O.C. and Beyond for 2018
BIG FISH - Photo by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.

CABARET
McCoy Rigby/La Mirada Theatre, La Mirada

CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND
South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa

THE COLOR PURPLE (Tour)
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

COME FROM AWAY
CTGLA / Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

EMMA - THE MUSICAL
Chance Theater, Anaheim

HAMILTON (Tour)
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

NEWSIES
McCoy Rigby/La Mirada Theatre, La Mirada

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT
Musical Theatre West, Long Beach

ON YOUR FEET (Tour)
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

SCHOOL OF ROCK (Tour)
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG
South Coast Repertory

Review: BWW's Michael L. Quintos Picks Best of O.C. and Beyond for 2018
THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG - Photo by Debora Robinson.


SOFT POWER
CTGLA / Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

WAITRESS (Tour)
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

OUTSTANDING BROADWAY CONCERT

Liza Minnelli & Michael Feinstein in Concert
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

OUTSTANDING CABARET SHOWCASE

THE BROADWAY PRINCESS PARTY
Featuring Laura Osnes, Courtney Reed, Susan Egan
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa (Dec. 2017)

OUTSTANDING SOLO SHOWCASE

Nathan Gunn: Flying Solo
The Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach

OUTSTANDING SPECIAL THEATRICAL EVENT

Annie at the Hollywood Bowl
Directed by Michael Arden

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR

(In Alphabetical Order)

Joan Almedilla
THE KING AND I (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Stephen Christopher Anthony
DEAR EVAN HANSEN (Tour), CTGLA Ahmanson Theatre

Amy Aquino
THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG, South Coast Repertory

Devin Archer
BRIGHT STAR, Musical Theatre West

Carrie Compere
THE COLOR PURPLE (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

John Cudia
SOUTH PACIFIC, McCoy Rigby/La Mirada Theatre

Kelley Dorney & Eric Sciotto
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, Musical Theatre West

Christine Dwyer
WAITRESS (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Mandy Foster
EMMA - THE MUSICAL, Chance Theatre

Ana Gasteyer
ANNIE, Hollywood Bowl

Laura Michelle Kelly
THE KING AND I (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Ethan Le Phong
ALLEGIANCE, EastWest Players/JACCC

Tracey A. Leigh
KINGS, South Coast Repertory

Jeff Lowe
BIG FISH - THE MUSICAL, Chance Theatre

Maiesha McQueen
WAITRESS (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Anna Mintzer
BRIGHT STAR, Musical Theatre West

Joseph Morales
HAMILTON (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Shoba Narayan
HAMILTON (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Joe Ngo
CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND, South Coast Repertory

Christiane Noll
DEAR EVAN HANSEN (Tour), CTGLA Ahmanson Theatre

Conner Peirson
THE BOOK OF MORMON (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Jessica Phillips
DEAR EVAN HANSEN (Tour), CTGLA Ahmanson Theatre

Chauntae Pink
LITTLE BLACK SHADOWS, South Coast Repertory

Christie Prades
ON YOUR FEET (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Sarah Rosenberg & Stacy Highsmith
THE TIME SHE PROPOSED (The Car Plays)
Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Lea Salonga
ANNIE, Hollywood Bowl

Jeff Skowron
SOUTH PACIFIC, McCoy Rigby/La Mirada Theatre
CABARET, McCoy Rigby/La Mirada Theatre

Carla R. Stewart
THE COLOR PURPLE (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Daisuke Tsuji
CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND, South Coast Repertory

John Tufts
I AM MY OWN WIFE, Laguna Playhouse

Nik Walker
HAMILTON (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Stephanie Renee Wall
SOUTH PACIFIC, McCoy Rigby/La Mirada Theatre

Elena Wang
ALLEGIANCE, EastWest Players/JACCC

Nikisha Williams
THE COLOR PURPLE (Tour), Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Jacqueline Wright
THE OTHER PLACE, Chance Theatre

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Photo credits (from top collage): HAMILTON by Joan Marcus; THE KING AND I by Matthew Murphy; BRIGHT STAR Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West; WAITRESS by Tim Trumble/Segerstrom Center for the Arts; CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND by Jordan Kubat/South Coast Repertory.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

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