Donald Munro

Donald Munro’s top cultural arts events in 2015

Ellie West, left, and Jordan Litz, right, play the leads in StageWorks Fresno’s production of the musical “Dogfight.”
Ellie West, left, and Jordan Litz, right, play the leads in StageWorks Fresno’s production of the musical “Dogfight.” The Fresno Bee

Before I sit down with the electronic archives with my stories for the year so I can put together my annual list of Top 20 cultural events, I close my eyes and remember.

What comes first to mind?

The aching moment in StageWorks Fresno’s exquisite musical “Dogfight” when Ellie West, playing a woman who becomes the object of a cruel Marine game in which soldiers try to bring the ugliest date to a party, sings “Before It’s Over.” Her character is vulnerable but also almost scarily strong, a risk-taker who hopes for the best but knows that she is leaving herself exposed to potential ridicule.

What else in 2015?

Several images flash through my mind: The emotional bond among audience, orchestra and singers in the Fresno Philharmonic concert commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The look on Chris Sorensen’s face when a crowd sings him happy 90th birthday. The downbeat leading into the throbbing sequence in Fresno State’s giddy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when the ensemble transforms from Shakespearean troupe into an EDM party.

Trying to narrow down all the cultural stuff I’ve seen and done and contemplated over the past year to the Top 20 can be harder than it seems. For one thing, 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.)

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 have a “People’s Choice” category incorporating input from readers.

And I declare up front that I cover more theater events than anything else because they’re the most likely to repeat performances, meaning that my reviews can be useful to readers trying to decide whether to go to a future show.

That said, here are my Top 20 in alphabetical order. (In the online version of the story, you’ll find links to my reviews of all of them.) You can discuss my choices, critique my omissions and offer your own suggestions at

1. “Alzheimer’s Stories,” Fresno Master Chorale. At times somber, jaunty and inspirational, this earnest exploration of a difficult theme, conducted with great insight by Anna Hamre, connected on both a cerebral and emotional level.

2. Photographer Matt Black at the Fresno Art Museum. The Exeter resident was Time magazine’s 2014 Instagram Photographer of the Year, and his show “From Clouds to Dust” exposed us to poverty, drought, stark beauty and an indomitable central San Joaquin Valley spirit.

3. “The Book of Mormon,” Broadway in Fresno. The professional theater event of the year regaled audiences with its goofy blend of shock and sentimental ah. Even though the sound wobbled, “I Believe” in the ability of this show to make you laugh so hard it hurts.

4. “Calaveras y Kahlo: Forever Frida,” Arte Américas. The 28th annual Día de Los Muertos exhibition and celebration felt particularly alive this year, somehow fitting for a Day of the Dead show, with a selection of museum-quality installed altars in its main gallery and a collection of art pieces with a Frida Kahlo theme. One of the standouts: Carlos Cisneros’ “La Reina,” which offered a skeletal Kahlo with a thorny hairdo and cigarette in hand, a monkey on her shoulder.

5. “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Good Company Players, and “The Playboy of the Western World,” Fresno State. Perhaps it’s cheating a little to go for a twofer here, but seeing these wonderfully written Irish plays so close together only added to the experience. Directors Denise Graziani (“Cripple”) and Brad Myers (“Playboy”) offered crisp and effortless comic ambiance.

6. “Dogfight,” StageWorks Fresno. Ellie West and Jordan Litz as the unlikely love interests both soared in Joel C. Abels’ impeccably directed show featuring a tight and polished ensemble.

7. “The Famous Haydell Sisters Comeback Tour,” Rogue Festival. With its “Spinal Tap”-style mockumentary format diving into the psyche of a former hit musical group, sisters Maybelle (Sadie Bowman) and Mattie (Donna Kay Yarborough) entertained with wildly entertaining satirical country music songs when they weren’t working through sibling rivalry.

8. “Hamlet,” Fourth Wall Theatre. Set in the present day, this Visalia production glided along so smoothly and with such sophisticated ease that when it stung, as it must, it genuinely hurt. Chris Mangels’ adaptation, direction and set design were powerful and piercing.

9. “In the Heights.” The Selma Arts Center put itself on the theater map with a strong local premiere of current Broadway, “It Boy,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 musical about a Dominican-American neighborhood of New York City. Director Dominic Grijalva corralled the energy and spirit of the large, sprawling ensemble into a cohesive whole.

10. “Janka,” 2nd Space Theatre (and June Havoc Theatre in Manhattan). I can’t let 2015 go by without one last hat tip to Janice Noga and Oscar Speace’s fantastic journey from austere local one-woman show to fully realized New York production. I got to follow along as Noga realized her dream, and it was a privilege.

11. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Fresno State. Director Kathleen McKinley crafted a frisky and ferocious production of the Shakespeare standard that was the funniest and rowdiest version of the play I’ve ever seen.

12. Shana Moulton’s video art, “The Hatchery: Fortress.” Held in the dilapidated former headquarters of Synanon near the entrance of Kings Canyon National Park, the Hatchery show was part of a worldwide exhibition sponsored by the Urban Arts and Media Organization. Moulton, raised in Oakhurst and a New York resident, added to the show’s vibrance and impact with “Swissperings,” a surrealist-tinged video episode about her agoraphobic, hypochondriac alter ego.

13. “New Wrinkles: All That Jazz,” Fresno City College. I get ribbed sometimes by readers who think I’m way too easy on the area’s famed 55-plus musical revue. But I’m serious: This is an inspiring and well-put-together production, and new director David Bonetto is making it even sharper (and streamlined). And the chance to see 90-year-old Mary Jane Cavanaugh-Fisch sing “Bye Bye Blackbird” made it all worth it.

14. Mark Norwood in “Shenandoah,” Good Company Players. As gruff as a tranquilized Fresno bear and with the rough vocal shadings of a stalwart character actor, Norwood brought a vigor and sadness to this classic show that felt fresh and immediate.

15. “Opera Remix: Classic Rock,” Fresno Grand Opera. Like any first date, there were a few awkward moments in the opera company’s innovative concert blending trained opera singers and famous arias with well-known rock anthems. But the innovative energy on display made the audience feel as if it were at the start of a grand adventure, and that’s a good thing.

16. Chris Sorensen 90th birthday. Fresno’s “Man of Steel” has welded together quite a retirement: Days spent tinkering in a vast, cluttered, one-man’s-junk-is-another’s-treasure-laden art studio bearing your name. Enough welding torches and scrap metal at your disposal to piece together a Frank Gehry building. Your fanciful metal sculptures found in private collections and in front of public buildings all over your adopted hometown. And scores of adoring artists and fans. Sorensen’s 90th birthday in June was a chance to celebrate.

17. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Fresno Grand Opera. Passion, power, raw intimacy: This blistering production wasn’t served on a doily. Stage director Brad Dalton brought out the beauty and beastliness in the classic Tennessee Williams tale, with a powerhouse leading performance by Carrie Hennessey as Blanche DuBois.

18. Summer Soire, Fresno Dance Collective. The city’s premier dance company returned in partnership with the Fresno Philharmonic and the Fresno Art Museum for a glittering, artistic and athletic evening.

19. “Venus in Fur,” Live Theatre Co. Brooke Aiello and Terry Lewis offered standout performances in David Ives’ blistering play about a mysterious audition. Director J. Daniel Herring offered a teeter-totter of an emotional and psychological journey.

20. “Witness and Rebirth: An Armenian Journey,” Fresno Philharmonic. Hundreds of instrumentalists and singers, the acclaimed soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, an original work by Serouj Kradijian: all came together in the world premiere of “Cantata for the Living Martyrs” in an emotional concert, conducted by Theodore Kuchar, that seethed with pain and resilience.

People’s Choice: StageWorks Fresno’s “Into the Woods” was a pleasingly intimate and minimalist production, crisply directed by Joel C. Abels, that boasted strong ensemble performances. Also among the favorites: Fresno City College’s “Bad Jews.”