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Weekend Preview: Holiday Theater and December Nights

Audio

Aired 12/3/09

The holidays always bring some yuletide warhorses to the stage along with some exciting new fare. We'll find out what San Diego theaters are offering in December and start off with some tips for this weekend's December Night

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Food, wine, and holiday traditions are the focus of our eclectic Weekend Preview. If you still aren’t ready for the holidays after hearing about the “SantaLand Diaries,” December Nights and Beaujolais Nouveau, you certainly will be. We’ve got a lot of events and places to talk about so let me get to it and introduce my guests. Erin Chambers Smith is the Senior Editor of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative and former editor of San Diego City Search. Erin, welcome.

ERIN CHAMBERS SMITH (Senior Editor, Balboa Park Online Collaborative): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And James Hebert is the theatre critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. James, welcome.

JAMES HEBERT (Theatre Critic, San Diego Union-Tribune): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s start out, as I said, let’s just go for it because we’ve got a lot of things to talk about. I know that you’re going to make a lot of recommendations, Erin, but before you talk about December Nights in Balboa Park, we should mention again that you work for the Balboa Park Online Collaborative just so nobody gets the wrong impression.

SMITH: Yes, I do.

CAVANAUGH: So with that, begin by giving us a general sense of what December Nights is. How long has it been around, that kind of thing.

SMITH: December Nights is the city’s largest holiday celebration. It’s been around 32 years. A lot of people might know it – back when it started it was called Christmas on the Prado. It was a very small celebration focused around the international cottages in the park, and it’s grown to encompass, you know, food, music, dancing, decorations, trees, lights, I mean, it’s a two-day long sort of holiday extravaganza. It always happens at the beginning of December. It’s kind of seen as sort of a kickoff to the holiday season in the city.

CAVANAUGH: And what’s new this year at December Nights?

SMITH: One of the largest new sort of exhibits that’s going to be at December Nights is a Native American Heritage Center. One of the Indian casinos is sort of putting it on. I think it’s Barona that’s doing it. It’s going to be a whole center about Native American heritage. They’ve going to have dance, they’re going to have sort of examples of different tribal ceremonies, they’re going to have a craft station for kids where they can paint pumpkins and gourds, and so that’s probably the largest new event that’s going to be there this year.

CAVANAUGH: And we should, of course, say that this is always a very family friendly event.

SMITH: Yes. It’s in the evening. This Friday, it’s only open 5 to 10 this Friday but then it’s open all day long Saturday, and lots and lots for families and kids to do. Some of the other favorite things that are returning this year, I love the International Spirits tent. This is where you can go in, of course you do have to be 21 to get into this tent, but you pay a certain fee, you get in, you show your ID, and then you can taste different spirits from around the world. So spiked hot chocolates and spiced wine and all different kinds of things. And what I love about the way they set this up is it’s sort of like a beer garden setup where you enter but then each of the booths that are around the circle, they also serve outside the back. So if you’re not 21, you can have the non-alcoholic version from the back side…

CAVANAUGH: Ooh…

SMITH: …of the booth this year. So I thought that was kind of a clever way to get everybody involved.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that really is.

SMITH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And you can also learn how to go green with your holiday decorations, right?

SMITH: Yeah, SDG&E is one of the sponsors of December Nights this year, and if you bring in – they have a whole sort of setup set up in the pavilion right outside the Prado kind of in that central roundabout there by the Museum of Art. SDG&E will be there. And if you bring in a string of your old incandescent lights, they will replace up to 3 strands with more energy efficient LED lights for you.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s great.

SMITH: Yeah, kind of a – they’re going green this year.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know the zoo isn’t technically open but is any part of the zoo part of December Nights?

SMITH: Yes, I think this is such a cool thing and I don’t think people really realize this. The zoo is closed but they are going to have that front area, that front entrance area open and for $4.00 you can take a ride on the Skyfari tram that goes up and over the zoo. There’s no on/off privileges, so you won’t get off at the other end, you’ll just go in one big circle.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, okay.

SMITH: But imagine what that would look like to see all the lights of the whole park lit up from way up in the air, and it’s only $4.00. I love that. They also have that little miniature train ride that goes right outside the front, that’s also open and it’s only $2.00 for a ride.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve been giving us all the good news about December Nights and everybody who’s been there knows the bad news is it can sometimes be a crush of people.

SMITH: That’s very true.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to park or navigate through?

SMITH: Yep, and these tips are my own personal tips. I grew up in San Diego. I’ve been going to this my whole, entire life, every year. And my best tips are Highway 94 is your friend because Highway 163 is going to be your worst enemy…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, that’s true.

SMITH: …on Friday or Saturday. Same with Highway 5 and Laurel, I mean, those are just going to be jammed. They expect a couple hundred thousand people, like I said. So Highway 94 while it’ll probably still get a little bit of traffic, that takes you right into downtown and there’s two different options to take a free shuttle from downtown. There’s Petco Park, so if you take Highway 94 to Petco Park, you can park there and I think it’s $3.00 to park all night, and then they have shuttles running up to the park. And then also in the City College parking lot right downtown, they have lots of parking and then free shuttles from there going to the park. So I would say kind of head downtown, head towards Petco Park and then get up to Balboa Park from there.

CAVANAUGH: Very interesting. December Nights starts Friday at 5:00 and goes to 10:00 p.m. Hours on Saturday are noon to 10:00 p.m. Jim, let’s move on to the new Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at the Old Globe. Before we talk about – we’re going to talk about a couple of plays around town but…

HEBERT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …this new Center was basically unveiled recently. Tell – Is it now open to the public?

HEBERT: Actually, it’s not quite yet. It’s going to be unveiled – the first production there is the musical called “I Do, I Do.” And that opens actually next week, and they’re also having this gala fundraiser with a couple of the stars from “South Pacific” on Broadway, so that happens a week from – or, actually this coming Monday. But after that, there’s an open house the following Saturday where the public can come see the new facility.

CAVANAUGH: Now you have seen the new facility. Describe it for us, if you would.

HEBERT: Yeah, so what they’ve done, it’s a $22 million project and the centerpiece of it is really the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, which is a new theatre in the round space. It replaces the old Cassius Carter Center Stage…

CAVANAUGH: Right. Right, yes.

HEBERT: …which had been there for something like 40 years and it – You know, it’s amazing, that space really hosted so many great shows over the years and yet it was really kind of a makeshift space. It was carved out of an old restaurant that was originally built in the 1930s. And so they – it didn’t really have anything like a lighting grid. They had to sort of stick lights into the ceiling. And it didn’t have a fly loft or, you know, any of the things that you really see in modern theatres. And so Conrad Prebys and a lot of other philanthropists around town contributed to making this new theatre happen and it’s part of a complex that includes an education center and new dressing rooms and all kinds of really – it’s very nice and state of the art.

CAVANAUGH: So is this going to change the kind of plays that can be put on in the Old Globe complex?

HEBERT: You know, I’m not sure that right away it’ll really change the kinds of plays that are done but it’ll definitely open up new possibilities for staging those plays. The theatre in the round traditionally at the Globe has been used for developing a lot of new plays and I think that’ll continue but I’m thinking that maybe eventually, as word gets around about the capabilities of this space, that more young writers or writers who want to sort of test out new plays will want to come there, you know, and use it as an incubator because it’s always been good for that and I think it’ll be all the better now.

CAVANAUGH: Even better now.

HEBERT: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on to the North Coast Rep and “A Christmas Carol,” the North Coast Rep is bringing back.

HEBERT: Right.

CAVANAUGH: It’s a critical favorite. It’s an adaptation of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” Why is this particular adaptation so acclaimed?

HEBERT: Well, you know, we’ve probably all seen a million versions of…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

HEBERT: …”Christmas Carol” in movies and musicals, and there’s probably a video game Scrooge out there somewhere. But, you know, what’s really nice about this production is it’s kind of pared down and it gets sort of a sense of the core of the story into it. It’s done in a way that uses humor and it also uses some carols that are interspersed throughout the show. And it’s really Jacqui Goldfinger, who’s the adapter of it, really found a way to use the acting ensemble to be almost like a Greek chorus as well as playing the characters in the play, and it really zips along. And, you know, the – it’s done so well that it’s actually being – I just found out about this, it’s being done at five other theatres around the country this year…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

HEBERT: …which is quite a coup for a relatively small theatre like North Coast Rep. You know, it doesn’t happen that often that they’ll develop a play like this that’ll catch on and so widely…

CAVANAUGH: In this adaptation. That’s remarkable.

HEBERT: Yeah, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: What about the cast? Who’s starring?

HEBERT: Well, this year, you know, they have Jonathan McMurtry in the lead role and he’s almost like the godfather of Ebenezers around San Diego. He’s a – he’s been acting here for decades and he’s been an Associate Artist at the Old Globe actually for a long, long time. But he did a lot of the “Christmas Carol” adaptations that San Diego Rep did. They had a, I think, a 20 or 25 year tradition of doing this show every year and they did all kinds of crazy adaptations. They did a gangster version and a circus version. And he was in a number of those, so he’s going to be the lead guy and it’s really a – I think that should really make it a fun show. They’ve had a history of good directors for this piece and good actors. Ron Choularton, another great local actor did it the first two years, so…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, he was here last week. I remember that.

HEBERT: Oh, okay.

CAVANAUGH: North Coast Rep is also staging short runs of other holiday plays. Tell us about these little short plays.

HEBERT: Yeah, they’re doing a couple of other fun little productions kind of one-night productions. I think they’ve done a couple of these in the past before. One of them—I’m forgetting the exact title—but it’s something like “Sister Mary’s Christmas Catechism” and, you know, they’re a little more offbeat and they’re kind of interspersing them between the run of the “Christmas Carol” so it adds a little bit of extra flavor there. They’ve gotten – they’ve really – they’re really starting to get a franchise going on the holiday shows, which is great.

CAVANAUGH: Well, “A Christmas Carol” opens on December 9th and runs through the 27th at North Coast Repertory Theatre. The next thing we’re going to talk about is a street food festival in Little Italy and, really, Erin, do we have to say anything more than that?

SMITH: No. Done. Next topic.

CAVANAUGH: Where precisely in Little Italy is this?

SMITH: Okay, so the deal with the street food festival this weekend, it’s going to be at the Little Italy Mercado, which is Little Italy’s version of the Farmers Market in San Diego, which happens on Saturday morning. It happens along Date Street from, you know, I think it’s up towards Columbia all the way down to India and past. It kind of, you know, there’s runoff onto the side streets there but Date Street is the main street. And the group Cook’s Confab is putting on this street foodfest and that’s a group of local chefs, really the best local chefs in the city of San Diego that get together once a month to cook together as a group. And they either – Most of the time, they do a big fancy dinner, you know, with beer pairings or a big fancy dinner featuring pork products or bacon or whatever, and then a lot of the proceeds go to charity. But for December, they’re doing a really fun street food festival so all these great chefs are going to get together and cook their favorite street food.

CAVANAUGH: And what kinds of foods are going to be available?

SMITH: All kinds of food. Everything from, you know, gourmet hot dogs jazzed up with all kinds of things, to tacos. I know one chef had ceviche on the list that he was going to make. And, I mean, the kind of chefs that are going to be participating, Nathan Coulon of the Quarter Kitchen. He’s one of my favorite chefs in the city. He’s from the Coulon family that used to run the Belgian Lion. His mother Michele has the Coulon Dessertier in La Jolla. Christian Graves from JSix, really known for his local focus and sustainable food. Trey Foshee from George’s is going to be there. So lots of really like the best chefs in the city. Tickets, $15.00 to get in and you can try all their favorite street foods.

CAVANAUGH: And one last question about this. Is it the kind of food you’re going to eat there or can you actually buy food presents?

SMITH: Well, the food at the street food festival, they’re going to be cooking it right there and you eat it right there. I mean, that’s sort of the schtick with street food. But it’s in conjunction with the Little Italy Mercado where they…

CAVANAUGH: Ah, I see.

SMITH: …have all kinds of fresh food and, I mean, it’s like a farmers market but, I mean, there’s people selling, you know, olive oil from Temecula and really great homemade humuses that are in really neat packaging. And there’s even people with jewelry and blankets and flowers, so it’s a really big farmers market.

CAVANAUGH: The Street Food Festival takes place this Saturday morning from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 in Little Italy. The “SantaLand Diaries” is something that people who listen to Public Radio are probably very familiar with. This is a play that we know, Jim. It opens at the New Village Arts. Where do you think the story of the “SantaLand Diaries” ranks in David Sedaris’ work?

HEBERT: Wow. Well, it’s – as you know the “SantaLand Diaries” actually debuted on Public Radio, I think, in 1992 and then was made into a play I think about four years later. And I, you know, I think it’s kind of hard to compare to his other work. It’s certainly got that acerbic wit to it. It’s got a lot of bite to it but it’s a very different animal and especially being now a stage piece. But it’s become really popular and one reason is that since it’s a solo show a lot of smaller theatres do it and it’s become pretty popular over the years. Actually, I think the Old Globe did it a couple of years ago, two years in a row, so it’s not just the small companies that have produced this. But it was most recently done at Cygnet Theatre, and this will be the first go around for New Village Arts in Carlsbad.

CAVANAUGH: And for people who don’t remember, the “SantaLand Diaries” is the rather bittersweet story of an out of work actor who’s working as a Christmas elf.

HEBERT: Right.

CAVANAUGH: And at – the New Village Arts is being directed by Kristianne Kurner. She’s the artistic director at New Village. She has some of her own experience, I hear, to draw on.

HEBERT: Yeah. So she was at grad school in New York City and she actually worked, as David Sedaris did, as a department store elf. And so presumably she’ll have some, you know, inside knowledge about that whole experience, which should be fun.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us about the lead actor.

HEBERT: Yeah, so Darren Scott is playing – he’s the actor in the show. And he has been in quite a few shows around town. He’s kind of become part of the – both Cygnet and New Village Arts ensembles. And, you know, I think he’s a good fit for it. He was in a show at Cygnet earlier this year called “Love Song,” which was this kind of quirky, whimsical little piece, and he had a good touch for that. And he was in this really odd show Cygnet did a few years ago called “Biederman and the Firebugs” and he played this kind of demented clown character, pretty memorable, so I…

SMITH: I was going to say, it sounds like my nightmares.

HEBERT: Yeah, it was a little scary, so – But, you know, yeah, he – he had the sort of feel for that dark humor, which I think, you know, you really need for this show. So…

CAVANAUGH: A good fit for the chief elf.

HEBERT: Right.

CAVANAUGH: The “SantaLand Diaries” opens December 10th, runs through the 23rd at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. Erin, our next topic is a different kind of event…

SMITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …but it is an event all the same. The French wine Beaujolais Nouveau is here. Now, for those of us who don’t know about this wine, please explain it.

SMITH: So, yes, when the Beaujolais arrives, it’s a very bit event in sort of the wine community. Beaujolais Nouveau, it’s a kind of wine made from the Gamay grape in France, in the Beaujolais region of France. And historically, it’s – they’ve been making it for, you know, over 100 years and it’s sort of been a celebration of the end of the harvest. So once the harvest is over, the Beaujolais is a quick wine. It only ferments for a couple of weeks, and they only make it specifically just to celebrate the end of the harvest. So it ferments quickly and it’s meant to drink quickly which, in the wine world, means it’s not the best quality wine ever but it’s not supposed to be. They’re not making it to win awards or to, you know, sit in the oak barrels for years and years. It’s just meant as sort of a celebration of the season. And so that sort of over the past 75 years or so, they started shipping it to the States and shipping it around the world and so you know when they finally ship the Beaujolais, the fall is here and it’s sort of a time to celebrate.

CAVANAUGH: What does it taste like?

SMITH: It’s a very light, very fruity kind of wine, not a lot of tannins in it, very easy drinking. Like I said, quality – it’s not even really sort of about the quality, it’s more a sign of the season and sort of a fun, celebratory wine to drink.

CAVANAUGH: And, as you say, people can pick it up in stores and some local restaurants…

SMITH: You’ll start seeing it in stores. I mean, you’ll see it in stores all year long but, really, it’s meant to drink within about six months of bottling. So when you see it in stores now and it’s this year’s – the Beaujolais that’s just come over, that’s the one that you want to buy. And it’s really inexpensive. It’s usually around between $10 and $15 a bottle. You’ll start seeing it in grocery stores and at Trader Joe’s. And some of the French restaurants in San Diego, they all had big parties when it arrives, the Beaujolais Nouveau parties. I think the Beaujolais day was technically November 19th, I think, this year. But the Wine Vault & Bistro has a great wine list, I know they have some Beaujolais there. And the Blue Bow Inn, a cute little French restaurant in Kensington, they featured the wine on their menu and I think they are actually making a glaze or a sauce with it as well for a little while.

CAVANAUGH: Put it on your list.

SMITH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Jim, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” Black Nativity, The Musical. Long title. It’s the offering from Common Ground Theatre. Tell us a little bit about this company and about the musical, if you would.

HEBERT: Yeah, so Common Ground Theatre is San Diego’s, I think, longest extent African American theatre company. It was founded by Floyd Gaffney, the late Floyd Gaffney, who was really kind of a legendary figure in local theatre. And they’re under a new artistic director now and, you know, I don’t know a whole lot about the show because – but it really kind of caught my eye because it sounds so different from a lot of what you see out there at the holidays. It’s got an incredible array of styles of music and performance. They’re talking about everything from gospel to hip-hop to, I guess there’s some ballet in there and there’s some Crunk so…

CAVANAUGH: Crunk?

HEBERT: Yeah.

SMITH: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

HEBERT: And…

CAVANAUGH: So it is a musical, we can confirm that.

HEBERT: Yeah, it’s essentially musical and it’s, you know, it tells the story of the nativity but it’s got a couple of twists to it, one of which is that apparently they’re having a minister from local churches come in for each performance. And so to me it sounded as though it would have this kind of revival meeting feel, which I think would be really fun and very, you know, fitting for the holidays, kind of an uplifting and soulful experience.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the Common Ground Theatre’s presentation of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” Black Nativity Musical opens December 4th and runs through the 13th. Let’s talk about a new restaurant: Claire’s on Cedros. Erin, what is it that – it’s in Solana Beach…

SMITH: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …by the way. What do you like about this place?

SMITH: It opened up earlier this summer and they have a really neat philosophy about being green and eco-friendly but not just in their food, so it’s not just sustainable produce and, you know, sustainable ingredients and eco-friendly food but they really built the restaurant from the ground up to be sustainable as well. So things like solar panels, low flow water faucets in all their bathrooms and in their kitchen. They actually have a green roof so they have vegetation planted on their roofs. They used a lot of reconstituted materials in the building and the culmination of all those efforts was that they received a Gold certification from the LEED…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

SMITH: …Certification Standards Board, which is pretty groundbreaking for a restaurant building in the city of San Diego. So they were, you know, surprised about it and happy about it, and it’s a really neat little local kind of breakfast spot.

CAVANAUGH: We have to kind of move on Claire’s on Cedros a little bit but I do want to ask you what kind of menu items do you like?

SMITH: The most important thing to know about Claire’s on Cedros is in terms of the food, it’s only open until three o’clock so it’s definitely your place for breakfast and lunch. They have an in-house bakery so try all their baked goods. They make them right there in-house. And nothing on the menu is really over $15.00. Most…

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

SMITH: …things are priced around $10.00, so it’s a really nice price plan.

CAVANAUGH: Claire’s on Cedros is in Solana Beach. It’s open from six to three, as you say, during the week and seven to three on weekends. And our final offering on this weekend Preview is “An American Christmas,” this tradition from the Lamb’s Players. Jim, tell us about this offering this year.

HEBERT: Well, you know, I saw this last year for the first time and it’s really a whole experience. It’s – They have it in the ballroom of the Hotel Del and what Lamb’s does, they have a really large and longstanding acting ensemble and they bring everybody in and they – the premise of it is that it’s a Christmas – You’re celebrating a Christmas with this family, the Marshall family, from 100 years ago. So this year it’ll be 1909, the Christmas season. And Robert Smyth, the artistic director, does a lot of research to find out sort of what was going on at that time and so it brings a certain authenticity to what happens. They sing traditional songs and they, you know, tell stories kind of based on what’s going on in 1909. But it also – one funny – one fun thing about it is it kind of happens all around you. So, in fact, there are times when the ensemble members are like serving you coffee, so you have the – you know, these actors you’ve seen around town and they’re pouring you a cup of joe, which is kind of a novel experience.

SMITH: Umm-hmm.

HEBERT: And it makes it really fun. It’s very homey and very festive basically.

CAVANAUGH: So while this is a theatre presentation and a dinner at the Hotel Del, it’s really quite a night out both in terms of cost and dressing up…

HEBERT: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …and all of that.

HEBERT: Right, it’s definitely a splurge. The tickets start at $115.00 and they go up from there, and that’s for a five course meal plus the whole – I think it’s a three hour event. So, you know, it’s definitely something that if you want to treat yourself, if you’re putting yourself on your Christmas list, you might want to, you know, give it a try. Or for somebody who’s – somebody else who’s on your list. It’s, you know, maybe not something you’re going to do every year or twice every year, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know “An American Christmas” opens on December 13th, runs through the 27th at the Hotel Del Coronado, and tickets are available through Lamb’s Players Theatre. Well, thank you so much. We had so much to talk about and we managed to do it.

SMITH: Yes, good job, guys.

HEBERT: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Erin Chambers Smith and James Hebert, thank you so much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you.

HEBERT: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Happy holidays.

HEBERT: You, too.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that this show is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Josette Herdell, Sharon Heilbrunn, Megan Burke, and senior producer is Natalie Walsh. Production Manager is Kurt Kohnen, with technical assistance from Tim Felten. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. Our executive producer is John Decker. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, hoping you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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