Last year at this time, La Jolla Playhouse was announcing it would roll out four world-premiere shows for its 2016-17 season, an ambitious commitment to new work. Now, for 2017-18, the Playhouse is quadrupling down.
The theater is once again announcing it will produce four new works for its coming season, which will include six productions altogether. (The other two shows have yet to be revealed.)
One of the projects has already been announced — and has received more or less global attention: “Escape to Margaritaville,” the musical built around the songs of Jimmy Buffett.
But the newly unveiled productions also include a second big musical centered on a major pop star: An as-yet-untitled project based on the life and music of Donna Summer, and directed by Playhouse artistic director emeritus Des McAnuff. The other two new works announced are both non-musical plays by up-and-coming writers: Rachel Bonds’ “At the Old Place,” and Hansol Jung’s “Wild Goose Dreams.”
A look at what’s on the way:
• “Escape to Margaritaville,” May 16 to June 25, 2017: The planet’s legions of “Parrotheads” (as Jimmy Buffett fans dub themselves) can rejoice. Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley, who is directing this very likely Broadway-bound musical, says Buffett himself has been deeply engaged in the ongoing development of the show.
“He’s been very involved at every step,” said Ashley (who’s in the middle of directing the last pre-Broadway staging of another Playhouse-launched musical, “Come From Away,” in Toronto.) “He’s been part of every reading we’ve done, every staging workshop. He’s writing either one or two new songs for the score. And also just offering reflections on songs — talking about what the story impulse is in a song, and how do we bring it to theatrical life. He’s right there at the center of those conversations.”
The show, as mentioned previously, “is really not the story of Jimmy Buffett’s life — although some of his songs are biographical,” Ashley noted. “So various moments in his life have been given to various characters. I think if you know Jimmy Buffett’s biography very well, you will recognize lots of things.”
“Escape to Margaritaville” was written by Greg Garcia (“My Name is Earl”) and Mike O’Malley (“Survivor’s Remorse,” “Shameless”); the Playhouse has previously described it as “the story of a tropical island resort and its part-time bartender, part-time singer and full-time charmer who thinks he’s got life all figured out — until a beautiful, career-minded tourist steals his heart and makes him question everything.”
• “Untitled Donna Summer Project,” November/December 2017: Donna Summer, who died in 2012, was the reigning Queen of Disco in the 1970s, but also helped influence other genres through such work as “I Feel Love,” a song that’s considered a pioneering moment in techno music.
“You can make the case she was the voice of a generation,” said Ashley of Summer, who had 14 Top 10 hits and sold some 140 million records. The show, which will include about 20 of Summer’s songs, “basically explores her life from performing in her parents’ living room as a kid, to the wild toboggan ride that was her life through pop culture.”
Ashley explained that the show “is framed by her last concert at (New York’s) Studio 54, and it’s very much a dance musical. So much of that music was written for a kind of communal dance explosion, and it was written to be danced to.”
Director McAnuff is practically synonymous with the Playhouse: He led the revival of the then-moribund institution in 1983, and served two long stints as its artistic chief, bringing it to national prominence. He also built a huge Broadway career (“Jersey Boys,” “The Who’s Tommy” and more), and most recently was the artistic leader of Canada’s Stratford Festival before returning to life as an independent director.
McAnuff’s last Playhouse directing project was “Sideways” in 2013.
• “At the Old Place,” July/August 2017: Playhouse associate artistic director Jaime Castañeda will direct the new Rachel Bonds play (he most recently staged Mike Lew’s “Tiger Style!”). As Playhouse press material describes it: “In her mid-40s and facing a breaking point, a literature professor returns to her childhood home in Virginia only to discover two young people camped out on her lawn.”
Ashley described it as “a piece about the roads not taken, and about how life sometimes gives you second chances at some choices.” He said of Bonds: “She’s a real rising star in the theater world right now. She’s got a world premiere a month before and month after us. She’s hitting in a big way.”
• “Wild Goose Dreams,” September/October 2017: This one’s by another rising newcomer, Hansol Jung. It will be directed by Leigh Silverman, who has major New York credits with “Chinglish” and more. (She also directed a Playhouse workshop of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” a few years back.)
The play centers on a North Korean defector who has left her family behind, and launches into an online romance with a lonely South Korean father. “It’s very inventive; how the play puts the online world onstage is very playful, and there’s a real dark humor to the piece,” Ashley said, adding with a laugh: “Online and North Korea — I’ve never seen that onstage before.”
— IF YOU GO: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, on the UC San Diego campus. Tickets for the 2017-18 shows will be available only by season subscription for the time being. More details: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org