San Diego Theater Shines In The New Year And Restaurant Week Begins
Thursday, January 14, 2010
2010 brings a wealth of new plays to San Diego stages, including the world premiere of "Whisper House" from Tony-award winner Duncan Sheik, and and a musical about the worst singer in history. We'll talk theater with the Union-Tribune's Jim Herbert and get a taste of San Diego Restaurant Week from Chef Bernard Guillas.
San Diego Restaurant Week runs from January 17th - 22nd.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We all know it's a big weekend for football fans in San Diego. What you may not realize is now is also a big time for theatre. San Diego is living up to its reputation as a major regional theatre hub with a world premiere musical at the Old Globe, an apocalyptic fantasy at San Diego Rep, and the story of one really bad singer at North Coast Rep. We'll be surveying the plays around town, and hearing what's coming up during San Diego Restaurant Week all on this edition of the Weekend Preview. I’d like to welcome my guest, Jim Herbert, theatre critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
JIM HERBERT (Theatre Critic, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thanks, Maureen. Nice to see you.
CAVANAUGH: Later in the show, we’ll be speaking with Chef Bernard Guillas, the executive chef of the Marine Room in La Jolla. Right now, let’s get into the theatre around town, Jim. The world premiere, world premiere of the musical “Whisper House” opens at the Old Globe. Lyrics and music composed by Duncan Sheik. Tell us about him.
HERBERT: Well, Duncan Sheik is – was originally known as a pop star. He does very sophisticated pop music. He broke out in 1996, I think, with a song called “Barely Breathing.” And he’s made like a half dozen albums since then and pretty successfully. But he also now is known for composing the score to a musical called “Spring Awakening” and that musical was a huge hit on Broadway. It actually won, I think, eight Tony Awards and was named Best Musical, and that really made his name in theatre circles, which was, you know, I think interesting, especially for him, because he wasn’t really a theatre guy. His – The lyricist and book writer, Stephen Seder, who kind of worked out the story—it’s adapted from a German play by Frank Wedekind…
CAVANAUGH: You’re talking about “Whisper House” now.
HERBERT: Yeah. No, I’m sorry, I’m still on…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, you…
HERBERT: I was talking about “Spring Awakening.”
CAVANAUGH: Okay, yes, go ahead.
HERBERT: Sorry to…
CAVANAUGH: That’s all right, the Tony Award winner, “Spring Awakening.”
HERBERT: So, right, exactly.
HERBERT: Exactly. So that’s kind of how Duncan Sheik made his name.
CAVANAUGH: And what is “Whisper House” about?
HERBERT: So “Whisper House” is – it’s essentially a ghost story and, excuse me, it’s – it tells the story of a boy, pardon me, who is – he’s fatherless. He loses his dad in World War II. And because of that, he is sent to live in an old lighthouse in Maine, a remote lighthouse with his aunt. And he finds out while he’s there that the place is a little bit haunted so…
CAVANAUGH: It’s just a little bit haunted.
HERBERT: Yeah, right. Well, nine ghosts. I guess that’s maybe more than a little bit so…
CAVANAUGH: And it’s based on Sheik’s own childhood in Hilton Head, South Carolina, isn’t it?
HERBERT: Yeah, it’s partly based on that. It’s actually – The story came from a guy named Keith Powell who, if you watch 30 Rock…
HERBERT: …you might know him as the guy who plays Toofer on that show.
HERBERT: But he also has a theatre background and he kind of came up with the concept for this story about a kid and a lighthouse. And then Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the book for this musical – actually, it’s not a musical, it’s kind of a play with music…
HERBERT: …but they worked up the story together. But Duncan’s childhood does play into it. He grew up, he spent part of his boyhood in South Carolina and he talks about how there was a lighthouse there in Hilton Head that he spent a lot of time running up and down and he also, I guess, went on these campouts on an island nearby and the camp leaders would tell ghost stories and he – it was very kind of a gripping, memorable time for him and that plays into the feel of this, so…
CAVANAUGH: So we have a ghost story which is a play with music.
CAVANAUGH: And there is an actress in it that many people should be familiar with, Mare Winningham. How does she figure into this creative team?
HERBERT: Well, Mare Winningham plays the aunt, the kind of spinster aunt, in this piece, and she’s actually become a pretty familiar face in San Diego lately. She was just here in “Bonnie and Clyde,” the big musical at La Jolla Playhouse. And then in 2008, she was in the Old Globe’s revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” which was a really, really great show. So – but most people know her for movies, especially for the Brat Pack film, “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which came out in, I think, ’85.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
HERBERT: So she was one of the kids in that, and she’s been in a lot of other great movies since then.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Jim, how big a deal is it to have this world premiere at the Old Globe?
HERBERT: Well, you know, the Globe has done a lot of world premieres and a lot of really big ones, too, a lot of shows that have gone to Broadway. You know, as you know, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and, most recently, “A Catered Affair.” But what’s a big deal about this is that Duncan Sheik, this is his return, his first time back on stage since “Spring Awakening.” And that show really – “Spring Awakening” really developed such a cult following because it was something really completely different on Broadway. It really transformed Broadway in the same way that, ten years before, “Rent” did because it’s essentially – “Spring Awakening” was an alternative rock musical that, you know, they did crazy things like, you know, these characters based in – or dressed in 1800s school kid uniforms and they’re suddenly pulling wireless microphones from their uniforms and singing these alt-rock songs. So that show was a huge phenomenon and Duncan Sheik’s been working on projects for the stage since then but this’ll be the first time he’s actually back to it after about three, four years. So I think it’s very eagerly awaited.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want everyone to know that “Whisper House” runs through February 13th at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. You also wanted to mention another play playing at the Old Globe.
HERBERT: Yeah, “Lost in Yonkers,” the Neil Simon play is going to be the first kind of proper production in the Globe’s White Theatre, which is their new theatre in the round space. It had kind of a soft opening last month but this’ll be the official opening of that. They run – These plays run pretty much concurrently so…
CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on. The drama “Boom” opens at San Diego Rep this weekend. What’s this play about?
HERBERT: That is a really good question.
HERBERT: It’s incredibly…
CAVANAUGH: I said it was an apocalyptic fantasy. Am I wrong in that?
HERBERT: That’s getting there. That’s part of it. It’s actually – it’s hard to describe because, you know, for one thing, it doesn’t really fit into any neat categories. I guess the basic, the germ of the plot is it’s about this blind date that kind of ends in apocalypse and not because the people don’t like each other…
HERBERT: …although they don’t really get along. But I guess the slightly longer version is it’s about a scientist named Jules who learns from reading the body language of fish that he’s studying that a comet is going to hit the earth and so he sort of – he comes up with this plan to – puts a Craigslist ad out for a blind date and when this college woman shows up, it turns out he’s built this survival shelter for the post-comet period. And his idea is that they will be the ones to repopulate the earth, kind of like a “Dr. Strangelove” concept. And it’s complicated by the fact that he’s – he is actually gay so he is not really that excited about the repopulating part but – so it goes on from there. And it’s a pretty good story.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this play, you actually were part of the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. You read this play as part of the jury. I wonder if you can tell us just a little bit about what it’s like to sit on that jury. I mean, what is it like to read these plays and rate them for a possible Pulitzer?
HERBERT: Sure, yeah. It was a really interesting process and we – There were five members of the jury and we read about, I think, 70 plays nominated from theatres all over the country, some really famous playwrights, some, you know, you never heard of. But it was fascinating to just see the range of plays that were out there. And I – We consulted mostly by e-mail. We were sent, you know, we – every few weeks we’d be sent a huge pile of plays to read and then we would sort of make our individual choices and consult by e-mail. And it was remarkable, actually, how much consensus there was in that portion of it. And then finally a year ago we met in New York to come up with the final – our final choices, so “Boom” was in that mix and it was really completely different from anything else we read. But it made it up pretty high in the debate about, you know, what should be the finalists just because even though it’s kind of an oddball story, it really brings up some pretty deep ideas about our place in the universe and the creation myths and that kind of thing. So…
CAVANAUGH: Do you think that San Diego audiences are ready for a play like this at the San Diego Rep?
HERBERT: I think a lot of it – I think so but I think a lot of it might depend on how it’s staged because, you know, I was thinking about how difficult this kind of play is to actually realize live because it’s one thing to read it on the page but I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what they do with it. I mean, just for example, there’s one stage direction that says, a comet hits the earth and is somehow simulated. So you figure that if you’re a director that’s not a lot of help.
CAVANAUGH: Somehow simulated.
CAVANAUGH: That’s great.
HERBERT: Yeah, so…
CAVANAUGH: That’s helpful.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to tell everyone you’ll have to see how they work that out. “Boom” is currently running at San Diego’s Rep – San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Theatre in downtown’s Horton Plaza and it runs through January 31st. There’s a comedy playing at North Coast Rep. It opens this weekend. It’s called “Glorious.” It’s the true story of the worst singer in the world. Jim, tell us about it.
HERBERT: Yeah, the full title – I might need to take a deep breath for this. “Glorious! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins: The Worst Singer in the World.” Interestingly enough, last year San Diego – or, North Coast Rep, which is doing this play, did another show called “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (as told by himself).” So they’re only doing the really long titles. But this play is about, as the title indicates, Florence Foster Jenkins, who was in the first half of the last century a pretty big attraction as a singer even though, you know, it said that she didn’t have a sense of either rhythm or pitch, which, I understand, are both pretty important to music. So – But she became a big hit and part of it was the curiosity factor, you know. We think of, in some ways, maybe of that being a modern phenomenon with, you know, everybody loves to watch the horrible auditions on American Idol and the people like – someone like William Hung, you know, becomes a huge star. And in a way, you know, I think maybe she was kind of the William Hung of her day although she sang more opera and that kind of thing.
CAVANAUGH: And she actually made it to Carnegie Hall.
HERBERT: She did, yeah, in 1944 she made it to Carnegie Hall and she performed there and then I think she lived another month after that. And at the time, she was, I believe, in her seventies, she was 76 years old. So…
CAVANAUGH: And she really was a very bad singer. Who – This sounds like it would be a wonderful role. Who’s playing Florence Foster Jenkins?
HERBERT: Yeah, it’s Susan Denaker, who is great in these kinds of larger-that-life roles. She’s been in – She’s a very elegant actress who’s in past North Coast Rep shows like “The Dresser” and “No Way To Treat A Lady.” And, you know, I don’t know if she can actually sing but I guess, you know, for this role maybe – maybe it doesn’t really matter. So…
CAVANAUGH: Well, “Glorious” opens at North Coast Rep this Saturday and it runs through February 7th. And…
HERBERT: Just a…
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Yes.
HERBERT: I’m sorry to interrupt but just to mention, we mentioned “Lost in Yonkers.”
HERBERT: The star of that show, Judy Kaye, who actually is a very acclaimed singer, opera and Broadway, she’s a Tony winner. She actually was in a different play about this same person, about Florence Foster Jenkins, called “Souvenir,” which came out about the same time so it’s funny that there’s such a fascination around this character, that there were two plays out there, you know, about her. “Souvenir” was on Broadway and it hasn’t come to San Diego yet. But Judy Kaye’s here in town now in “Lost in Yonkers.”
CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Well, that’s, you know, just the ebullience that this woman had in trying to make this big splash must be wonderful to watch.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let’s move on. A comedy from Moxie Theatre called “Expecting Isabel” opened last weekend. What is this one about?
HERBERT: Well, it’s essentially about a couple who are trying to have a baby and they have to go through fertility treatments and it’s partly – the core of the story is about their struggle with that, the things they go through. Although, it is a comedy, it deals with the kinds of hoops that people jump through and the irony – I think the playwright has talked about this and I know Jen Thorne, who directed the show has talked about how there’s kind of an irony in the fact that with all the, you know, over the past few decades, the revolution in birth control methods, how people, you know, became good at controlling whether they’re going to conceive or not but then things flip around and they have to go back to, you know, the medical field to figure out how they’re going to have a baby when they do want to. So…
CAVANAUGH: Now one of the interesting things about this production is that the director, Jennifer Thorne, spent all the rehearsals very pregnant.
HERBERT: Yes. Right.
CAVANAUGH: So she must’ve had a particular insight into the direction of this play.
HERBERT: Yeah, she actually is due to have her second child on January 28th so she was talking about how she just wanted to make it to the opening. And I talked to her this morning because I thought, you know, I actually hadn’t heard whether she had had the baby or not. The play opened last weekend. And so I guess she’s still hanging in there and she’s still on course. She hasn’t had – hasn’t given birth yet. So she was able to, I think, bring a certain sense of authenticity to a lot of this, a lot of how this was staged.
CAVANAUGH: I would imagine. Now Moxie Theatre has a permanent home now, right?
HERBERT: Yeah, they are now – it’s kind of a semi-permanent home. It’s their home at least for the season. And they are subleasing it from Cygnet Theatre. It’s actually the former home of Cygnet Theatre, which has now moved to the Old Town Theatre, a bigger space and they did a beautiful job of revamping that. So the old Cygnet Theatre where Moxie is now is in the Rolando District and it’s a nice space. It’s kind of a funny place because it’s in a little strip mall. You could easily miss it. But Cygnet had a lot of success there. They built their – they’re now one of the bigger companies in town and they started out from nothing at that space so I think there’s good karma or mojo or something going on there.
CAVANAUGH: Well, “Expecting Isabel” is currently playing at Moxie Theatre on El Cajon. And we move on to Cygnet Theatre now. It’s – I wanted to – August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” opening at Cygnet. It’s a little ways off but we did want to mention it here. Tell us about what “The Piano Lesson” is and what August Wilson – the importance of the work.
HERBERT: Sure. So August Wilson, who passed away about five years ago, is a really iconic African-American playwright and he’s best known for his “Pittsburgh” cycle of plays. It’s a ten-play cycle and each play is set in a different decade and it kind of tells the story of the African-American experience through the prism of kind of this loose collection of family characters. And what’s interesting to me is that he actually wrote these plays not in the sequence that they’re set even though they go from – I think it starts in the 1910s, but he didn’t write them in order so somehow he kept that all straight. But two of those plays won Pulitzer Prizes and one of which was “Fences” and the other of which is this play, “The Piano Lesson,” which Cygnet is doing at the end of the month.
CAVANAUGH: And they are doing it at the end of the month. I want everyone to know it’s not this weekend but “The Piano Lesson” opens on Saturday, January 30th and it runs through February 28th, and that’s the Cygnet Theatre production. We’ve just talked so much about plays, there’s so much going on, Jim, you must be so busy.
HERBERT: Yeah, it’s tough. A lot of shows opening at the same time and I wish a lot of times I could be two places at once, you know, it’s difficult. But, you know, at the same time it’s great that we have that luxury here in town. I mean, just amazing plays being done and it’s really a good time for theatre here, I think.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we want to switch gears right now and talk about an event coming up that is really very important to people who love good food. And I want to welcome a second guest, Chef Bernard, the executive chef of the Marine Room in La Jolla. Chef Bernard, welcome.
BERNARD GUILLAS (Executive Chef, Marine Room Restaurant): Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be there.
CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about San Diego Restaurant Week. It begins next week. Now what does that mean for food lovers in San Diego?
GUILLAS: Well, for food lovers in San Diego, it means we’ll have a unique opportunity to experience some San Diego trendiest restaurant putting forward their best menu and services for a fraction of the usual price. So you have three tiers. You have a $20.00 menu, $30.00 menu and $40.00 menu.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And what will these restaurants be offering?
GUILLAS: They will be offering, I would say, a – it will be a three-course meal so you will have a choice of three appetizers, three main course and three desserts. So the Marine Room, for example, I cannot bend the rules because I wanted to give three desserts to everyone, so you know me. So I designed a really cool little sexy dessert and the menu is $40.00, at the Shores, the menu is $30.00. But there is so many restaurant in San Diego participating. You have about 180 restaurant total, so this is a really good way to, I would say, get out of the house, enjoy the beautiful restaurant scene, and also enjoy the different style of cuisine that we have in San Diego. I mean, we have – we are very eclectic when you look at it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, talk to us a little bit about some of the participating restaurants.
GUILLAS: Well, participating restaurant, I know that you have George’s, you have the – well, most of the restaurant downtown. I mean, it’s really a big array. So I would say the best thing for everyone to do is go to Sandiegorestaurant.com – San Diego’s Restaurant Week dot-com – Sorry, Sandiegorestaurantweek.com. They will have everything listed for you. You can search the web by locations, by cuisine, by price and by style, so that makes it really exciting.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Chef Bernard, we know that the recession has hit some restaurants pretty hard. I’m wondering, how important is an event like this, San Diego Restaurant Week, for the restaurants participating in, if nothing else, just getting people used to going out again.
GUILLAS: I think it’s very important because when you look at it, we got hit pretty hard in 2009 but it was not only the restaurants, I mean, it’s pretty much everybody’s lives got pretty much put upside down. So starting new with 2010, twenty-ten, like they say where you’re trendy, it is a good way to get out the house and really enjoy the restaurant and support the community. And I know that that Restaurant Week most likely will be packed. Most restaurant have extended an extra week, so it’s going to be two weeks instead of one week. I know that we are doing it already. But I think that people just want to get out. They just say, you know, they’re kind of tired to listen about what’s going on with the banking and what’s going on with unemployment and – and all the things that we have to deal with. So if we can put a little ray of sunshine in our lives and start a new year on the really positive note celebrating life, it would be a fantastic thing to do, and I think that people are doing it.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have any insider info on some of the prix fixe menus?
GUILLAS: Well, I know that, for example, at the Shores, we have a incredible lobster tail. I know that they have some – I mean, most of the chefs have designed menus who are really, really exciting. So there is a lot of local fish and a lot of local organic vegetable and fruit who are in season right now that are showcase on the menus but, as I say, I would like everybody to go to Sandiegorestaurantweek.com to really enjoy and really search what they are look – what is the best restaurant, the most exciting thing for them. The thing that I will recommend, though, because it’s always one of those challenges, make your reservation way in advance. As you will see, that restaurant will get full at specifics time. I will say that that if you want at six o’clock, seven o’clock and eight o’clock, you better call really soon because you – they would not be available.
CAVANAUGH: How popular, Chef Bernard, have these events been in the past?
GUILLAS: Well, I can tell you that for the Marine Room, for example, you know, a regular week would be like 100 to 150 covers at nighttime during the week and a couple of hundred on the weekend. But with Restaurant Week, it’s between 400 and 500 people coming for dinner. And I’m not the only one. It’s pretty much everyone participating really get very, very, very busy.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like you’re very busy already. How are you preparing for this?
GUILLAS: Well, you know, it’s just a matter of getting everything organized so I organize the menus, I organize the prep list, and really trained everyone. And, you know, it’s really – it’s a very, very simple week if you’re very organized and you can really do fantastic food and also pair it with incredible wines. My sommelier, Lisa Redwine—her name is Redwine…
GUILLAS: …has created an incredible wine list just for Restaurant Week at the Shores, for example, and at the Marine Room and it’s really fantastic. I mean, glasses of wine at five, six, seven, eight dollars a glass and so you can really have a great time, really celebrating San Diego best restaurants.
CAVANAUGH: You’re making us hungry, Chef.
GUILLAS: Well, I gotta tell you, I am hungry myself. I am ready to go out and – but, unfortunately for me, it’s going to be like I got to cook up a storm all next week and I will go out the week after when everybody still carry on that Restaurant Week and we’ll be able to enjoy my friend and enjoy life.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for being with us, excuse me, I really appreciate it. And I want everyone to know San Diego Restaurant Week runs from January 17th to the 22nd and you can learn more by going to Sandiegorestaurantweek.com. Chef Bernard Guillas, the executive chef of the Marine Room in La Jolla told us all about Restaurant Week. And I want to thank Jim Herbert, theatre critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Thanks so much, Jim.
HERBERT: Thank you. Good to be here.
GUILLAS: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: You have been listening to These Days on KPBS. If you’d like to comment about anything you hear on the program, just drop us a line, KPBS.org/thesedays. Thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of the week.