I work a lot of nights.
But every year at this time, when I sit down to compile my list of Top 20 cultural events of the year, I wince when I think about all the things I wanted to see and experience but missed.
That’s the hazard of this job: One person, an entire valley.
Still, I get out to as much as I can. I kept pretty busy in 2016, and as hard as it is, I’ve narrowed down my list.
Some boilerplate: As I explain each year, I have to throw several stipulations into the mix. 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.)
And I declare up front that I cover more theater events than anything else because they’re the most likely to be repeat performances, meaning that my reviews can be useful to readers trying to decide whether to go to a future show.
I joke every year that I would need a clone (or two) to personally get out to all the cultural events in the central San Joaquin Valley, but it’s very true. That’s one reason I’m asking you to check out my list and then give me some feedback. You can discuss my choices, critique my omissions and offer your own suggestions at www.fresnobeehive.com, and I’ll put together a “People’s Choice” category incorporating input from readers. That post also includes my five honorable mentions for the year.
That said, here are my Top 20 in alphabetical order.
▪ “Animal Farm,” College of the Sequoias. Director Chris Mangels delivered a daring, edgy musical adaptation that offered a sly recalibration of the source material. With a hometown twang, the emphasis shifted from Cold War bombast to a y’all-in-the-red-states-now setting.
▪ Janai Brugger, Fresno Pacific University Artist Series. The Metropolitan Opera singer offered an exquisite concert that ranged from gauzy and nostalgic to sturdy and reverential.
▪ “Dead Man Walking,” Fresno Grand Opera. The company’s exhilarating and daring production, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book about capital punishment, steeped us in a deeply textured and emotionally soaring world that offered no easy answers, just a scathing sense of humanity.
▪ Fiber arts exhibition, Fresno Art Museum. Who knew that tapestry, embroidery, weaving, crochet, quilting and appliqué could be so thrilling? Jeff Sanders’ stunning “Earth View II” tapestry, leading off the exhibition, set the scene for a show marked by innovation and experimentation.
▪ Fresno Community Chorus 60th anniversary concert. This emotional and inspiring tribute to the longevity of one of our community’s most solid cultural institutions ranged from tender to grand.
▪ Fresno Philharmonic conductor search. The selection committee looking for a new music director has only experienced two candidates so far, but – not to wimp out on you here – both Sameer Patel and Daniel Meyer made red-hot appearances in the first concerts of the 2016-17 season. There are still four more applicants to come. Some hard choices ahead!
▪ “The Glass Menagerie,” Good Company Players. Amelia Ryan, in one of her greatest performances, eschewed any form of Southern Gothic scenery-chewing and instead gave us moderation: quiet suffering, restrained dignity, muffled desperation. Director J. Daniel Herring directed his fine cast with consummate skill.
▪ Todrick Hall, “Straight Outta Oz.” The YouTube sensation and former “American Idol” contestant soared at the Tower Theatre with his autobiographical concept-album take on the “Wizard of Oz” story. Hall is one of those bracingly original, hard-to-define souls who knows how to find his light on the stage and never let it go.
▪ “Heathers,” Selma Arts Center. How very. Wonderfully staged, beautifully sung, crisply designed and sharply directed, this production was so good, the eagles wanted to fly with it. Kudos to director Dominic Grijalva and a fiercely dedicated cast.
▪ Theodore Kuchar’s last Fresno Philharmonic Masterworks concert. Fresno bid adieu to the noted conductor after a 15-year tenure, and he left after giving us a rousing program of Antonín Dvorak, Sergei Prokofiev and Vasily Kalinnikov.
▪ The first LitHop. Fresno poet laureate Lee Herrick helped corral 140 writers into a memorable day of celebrating the city’s strong literary tradition, topped off by our own U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. We’re looking for more LitHops to come.
▪ “My Fair Lady,” Good Company Players. Dan Pessano worked his directorial magic once again by taking a classic Broadway musical and presenting it in a fresh and intimate way. Chris Mangels and Teddy Maldonado, as Henry Higgins and Alfred Doolittle, offered sterling performances, and newcomer Breanne Gallagher trilled her way into our hearts as Eliza.
▪ “Music and Verse,” Fresno Grand Opera. The company’s innovative series, which paired Fresno-area poets and Fresno State composition students, birthed seven new art songs. This was a grand, cutting-edge experiment that paid off.
▪ “Passion Play Part 1 & 2,” Fresno State. Director Ruth Griffin embraced the Magical Realism of Sarah Ruhl’s intriguing play with perceptive choreography and stylized movements, and a strong ensemble cast delivered memorable performances.
▪ Joan Agajanian Quinn exhibition, Fresno Art Museum. Quinn, a prominent Los Angeles art patron, collected portraits of herself gifted to her by such big names as Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The exhibition became a fascinating commentary on vanity, perception and reality.
▪ Joshua Taylor in “Awkward Conversations With Animals I’ve _______,” Rogue Festival. This fine piece of theater was what fringe festivals are all about: Finding a daring new work (playwright Rob Hayes’ outrageous one-man piece about bestiality debuted it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), then offering a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance of a complex and meaningful script.
▪ “Tommy,” StageWorks Fresno. Inspired direction by Joel C. Abels combined with a group of nearly 20 supporting players who were so cohesive and attuned to each other that it was almost like watching one person traipse through the show playing different characters.
▪ “Toruk,” Cirque du Soleil. For sheer visual spectacle and artistry, you couldn’t top this inspired “prequel” to the movie “Avatar.” A stunning video projection system and a massive, inflatable rubber-and-steel set took us new places in terms of wowing the eyes.
▪ Robert Weibel exhibition, 1821 Gallery & Studios. His beautiful “Personal Totems” show was a segue from the artist’s signature gunpowder techniques into a delightful dalliance with small, multimedia wooden-figured spirit guides.
▪ Betsy Wolfe, Visalia benefit concert. The Broadway star (who is currently finishing a run in “Falsettos”) returned to her hometown for a heartfelt, relaxed, homespun and inspired evening. Sentimental and memorable? You bet.