By Donald Munro
Picking my Top 20 cultural events of the year is never easy. But that’s part of the fun of the exercise. It reminds me of how busy you can keep yourself attending some great stuff in the central San Joaquin Valley.
As I emphasize every year: Keep in mind that for purposes of this list, I’m using “cultural” as shorthand for “theater-classical-music-opera-visual-arts.” (Or, to be more specific: Stuff That Donald Munro Covers That He Manages To Get To.) Unless I cloned myself and refused all vacation time, there’s no way I could attend every event I’d want to. But I try to get to as many as I can.
And I’ve left off some major cultural news items from the list — including the announcement of Fresno Philharmonic music director Theodore Kuchar’s upcoming departure in 2016 and the new joint venture between the Fresno Grand Opera and Modesto’s Townsend Opera — in favor of live cultural experiences.
An addition to my ritual: I’ve included my first-ever “People’s Choice” designation after soliciting nominations on social media.
You can discuss my choices, critique my omissions and offer your own suggestions at fresnobeehive.com. Here’s my list in alphabetical order.
- “The Addams Family,” Good Company Players. Sometimes a production just has Itt. All the cylinders in this goofy engine of pop-culture genuflection ran smoothly: sharp and witty direction by Dan Pessano, accomplished acting from an accomplished ensemble, spot-on costumes, strong sets, sturdy choreography and innovative lighting and projection design.
- George Akina’s farewell performance in “The King and I.” This was one of those times when as a critic it was impossible to separate the personal — what I knew about an actor beyond his or character — from my perception of a show. Akina was battling advanced prostate cancer when he took on the pivotal role of the King in this wonderfully staged and beautifully costumed Good Company Players show. He delivered a vigorous, heartfelt performance that never betrayed he was sick. When he sang this simple line in the song A Puzzlement” — “Everyday I try to live another day” — it was a moment I’ll never forget. He died Oct. 10, several months after his last role.
- “Cancer Chronicles,” Chris Sorensen Studio. When Ken West was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he and his wife, Oakhurst photographer Wendy Denton, decide to collaborate on this photo project following him on his journey. The exhibition included gripping and poignant images as West faced his illness, to be sure. But it also brimmed with a broad and joyous sense of humor.
- Sarah Chang, Fresno Philharmonic. The violin superstar helped the orchestra celebrate its 60th anniversary with grace and style. Yes, she’s worth the hype. There was a fierceness to Chang as a musician, a sturdy and muscular confidence to her playing, that added a level of complexity to the image of elegant fashionista crafted these days for so many women players by classical music’s marketing gurus.
- Annette Corcoran, Fresno Art Museum. Simply put, I was entranced by this Pacific Grove artist’s “Fantastical Form” exhibition, which consisted of exquisitely crafted ceramic teapots in the shapes of birds. For all of Corcoran’s meticulous process and attention to detail, what sets her works apart is a feeling of liveliness and spontaneity. Birds are attentive and forever vigilant creatures, and while these are forever frozen in a moment, the artist manages to convey a sense that they are about to fly away.
- Faure Requiem, Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale. There can be something immensely tender and contemplative about hearing a requiem performed — a liberating permissiveness to let your mind can drift back in time to a way things once were, remembering those who are no longer with us. The chorus offered a wonderfully prepared, moving performance.
- Camille Gaston in “The Mountaintop,” StageWorks Fresno. In Katori Hall’s fanciful depiction of the night before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., director Joel C. Abels coaxed an amazing performance from Gaston: Her performance was rich, textured and vulnerable. And often achingly funny. For this talented local actress, it was a breakthrough performance.
- Jeannette L. Herrera at Arte Americas. The artist’s ferociously appealing paintings in oil and acrylic in this retrospective were rowdy, funny, violent, tender, explosive and passionate. Fantastical creatures, Peruvian imagery, religious icons, sexual gyrations, unabashed nudity, street culture and personal trauma all swirled together into a colorful stew.
- The national tour of “Jersey Boys.” With its Equity cast and vocal power that punched through the Saroyan Theatre with the impact of an approaching big rig, this production was a rung above some of the smaller tours that come through Fresno. (Note: I left the excellent, near-Broadway quality of “Wicked” off this list because it was here just a few years ago.) In “Jersey Boys,” what I liked best about the pacing of the show was the genuine suspense it built into the introductions of some of the group’s most beloved songs.
- “Les Miserables,” Fresno Grand Opera. In terms of sheer scale and ambition, this production was memorable. The principal actors were recruited either from the original Broadway company or the most recent national tour, and two of them went from Fresno directly to the new Broadway revival. Strong visuals and vocals were a highlight.
- “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” College of the Sequoias. Chris Mangels (who also soared in 2014 as the harumphing brother in “The Normal Heart”) led an enthusiastic cast in this big-hearted musical, co-directed by James McDonnell and Linda Amaral, which is based on the unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. The show’s impressive production values (including Mangels’ first-rate sets) and vigorous attention to detail made for an amusing and clever evening.
- “The Normal Heart,” StageWorks Fresno. Playwright Larry Kramer’s anger bleeds through this look at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and it still has an impact 30 years later. The production, directed with heartfelt commitment by J. Daniel Herring, was important in several ways: as an exercise in provocative local theater, as a history lesson, and as a lens into human nature.
- “The Nutcracker,” Fresno Ballet Theatre and Central California Ballet. I attended both “Nutcracker” productions of the year, and I walked away from both cheered by the community spirit and festive mood on display. There’s a lot to be said for ritual and tradition in our often throwaway culture, and watching young, aspiring dancers rub elbows with professionals always restores in me a faith in talent that is to come.
- Garrick Ohlsson, Keyboard Concerts. When the piano virtuoso performed the third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, I felt so immersed, so infused with the music, that I screwed my eyes shut to be alone with the notes swirling in my brain. Beethoven wrote a famed series of trills in that third movement, called the Andante, that seems almost impossibly long. In Ohlsson’s fervent interpretation, those trills seemed to pile on top of each other, shattering and shimmering with an ethereal urgency, building into a frenzy of sound.
- “Raw Meat and Dignity,” Fresno Dance Collective (NOCO). Amy Querin’s semi-autobiographical dance performance, a highlight of the Rogue Festival, offered an interesting contrast between pushing back at the objectification of women and finding pride in femininity. The result was moving, thoughtful, thrilling, meaningful — and gorgeous.
- “The Taming of the Shrew,” Woodward Shakespeare Festival. Along with the traditional female roles, women played the men in gender-specific costumes. Director Aaron Spjute imbued the production with a studious, attentive feel that preserved the silliness without the whole thing descending into sloppy war-of-the-sexes buffoonery. It was a nice way to celebrate a 10th anniversary season.
- Taylor 2 Dance Company. The six busy dancers in this hard-working modern-dance company — who take many of the works created on the larger company and double up parts to make them happen — offered a stirring, graceful and emotionally cacophonous performance on the small Tower Theatre stage. Near the end of the famous “Esplanade,” when the scurrying dancers whipped themselves into a near frenzy as they repeatedly leaped into each other’s arms, you can only smile and then marvel at the sheer beauty of humans trusting, touching and transcending.
- “Turning Pages: Intersections of Books & Technology,” Fresno State’s Madden Library. Books come in many forms: printed, audio, pop-up versions, digital. This exhibition, deftly curated by Tammy Lau and Jennifer Crow, nudged the viewer toward a greater appreciation of the staying power of books, no matter the format or technology that made them possible.
- “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Artists’ Repertory Theatre. Director Brad Myers had to take over the leading role of George just weeks before this classic play by Edward Albee was set to open, and how lucky we were. Myers, along with Leslie Martin, Justin Ringhofer and Bridget Martin, gave us a production that was by turns vicious, chilling, hilarious and tremendously tender.
- Wu Man, Fresno Philharmonic. Playing the pipa, a lute-like Chinese instrument, the famed Chinese musician gave an exhilarating performance. The moment her fingers began to dance on the strings, her instrument became like an extension of herself. Wu entranced the audience with the various personalities of her instrument. The range she demonstrated was amazing, from the tiniest pinprick of a note to a full-fledged grating effect that sounds like a washboard. It was a mesmerizing and joyful romp.
People’s Choice: “Summer Soire,” Fresno Dance Collective (NOCO) and Fresno Philharmonic. This performance at the Fresno Art Museum was a stellar summer evening. I’ll turn the podium over to reader Timmy Bryant, who writes: “Simply elegant and engaging. It felt three-dimensional in that there were beautiful aerial performances outside all around you (in the museum courtyard) before you were drawn into the cave of their wonders (the museum interior, where dancers performed to a string quartet), so to speak. It was though we were caught up in a neo-Shakespearean river via “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I heartily agree.