My Top 20 cultural events of 2017

I offer my picks for the best of the year in theater, classical music, dance, opera and visual arts

For more than 15 years, I’ve written a year-end piece I refer to simply as my “Top 20.” The full title, I guess, would be “Donald’s Top 20 Cultural Events of the Year in the Central San Joaquin Valley.” Or, because there’s only one of me and far more offerings each year than I could ever attend (even if I went out almost every night), the most realistic way to describe this yearly endeavor would be “Donald’s Top 20 List Out Of All the Stuff He Manages To Get To.”

“Cultural” is a pretty broad term, and I have to narrow that down a bit, too: In this case think of it as shorthand for “theater-classical-music-opera-dance-poetry-visual-arts.” As in years past, 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.

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In the end, does love prevail? Laurie Pessano, as Mrs. Tottendale, and Charles Rabb, as Underling, in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Photo / Good Company Players

I’ve also fiddled a little this year with the structure of this list: Rather than a hodgepodge of 20 events, I’m grouping my shout-outs by three categories: theater (with 10 entries); and music/dance and visual arts (with five each).

In years past, I would sit at my desk at the Fresno Bee and compile this list. That’s changed for me this year when I stopped working for the newspaper at the end of May. Now I’m independent. So this year’s effort is a hybrid of coverage from the Bee and from my new endeavor, The Munro Review.

As you read my take, remember that 1) I’m just one person; and 2) I love to get feedback. What do you agree with? What do you think I left off?

Here’s my 2017 list. Selections are in alphabetical order.


THEATER

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Younger woman, older man: Kindle Cowger sings ‘On Monday.’ Photos / Kyle Lowe

“35MM: A Musical Exhibition,” Selma Arts Center. Leave it to the boundary-pushers in Selma to program a rarely performed, esoteric song cycle offering a different set of characters and story for each musical number. Co-directors Dominic Grijalva and Michael Flores, working with one of the best local casts of the year, created a taut, mesmerizing and emotional musical experience. (Kindle Cowger, as the tragic heroine of an abusive relationship, gave a tremendous performance.) There were parts of the show that were so beautifully staged and grippingly sung that I almost swooned. [Read my review.]

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Visual and aural spectacle: The cast of “Green Day’s American Idiot.” Photo / Fresno City College

“Green Day’s American Idiot,” Fresno City College. Director Charles Erven’s greatest accomplishment in this slick, fierce show was finding the sweet spot between alienation and celebration. A pumped-up student cast was supported by Christina McCollam Martinez’s charged and insistent scenic and lighting design, Austin Dozier’s pummeling projection design, and Cristal Tiscareno’s impressive punk-inspired choreography, which had a crouched, feral, fist-pumping aesthetic that nevertheless still found moments of stillness. [Read my review]

“Beautiful,” Saroyan Theatre. The first-rate national tour from Broadway in Fresno showed why this slick and heartfelt show is among the strongest jukebox musicals in the Broadway canon. Sarah Bockel offered a strong voice and dramatic dexterity as Carole King, whose life story unfolds with the help of her lineup of famous songs, and Sarah Goeke was a standout as her friend and songwriting rival Cynthia Weil. (Fun fact: the real Weil and Barry Mann, her husband, were in the Fresno audience.) This national tour was the real deal: an Actors Equity production with experienced actors (some from Broadway) and a first-rate scenic and lighting design to match. [Read my review]

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Let there be blood: Cheyenne Breshears as Rachel Jackson and Michael Seitz as Andrew Jackson. Photo / College of the Sequoias

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” College of the Sequoias. Director Chris Mangels and his vital young cast offered a rousing production that was daring, profane and sometimes completely over the top, even exasperatingly so. Michael Seitz brought a charisma and briskness to the stage as the title character that had you believing he could crawl his way up from humble frontier roots to overpowering the entrenched political establishment of the United States. [Read my review]

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” Good Company Players. One of the must-see performances of the year. Director Denise Graziani recreated the magic of the company’s 2011 production with three returning cast members and a slew of happy newcomers. I think this romp is one of the funniest Broadway shows ever written, especially for musical-theater lovers, which made me predisposed to the material but also a potentially exacting critic. This version lived up to my expectations. What a joy it was to see Steve Souza return as Man in the Chair, whose showtune fantasies take him to a better place. [Read my review]

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Let it go: James Schott plays Jerry in the StageWorks Fresno production of “The Full Monty.” Photo / StageWorks Fresno

“The Full Monty,” StageWorks Fresno. One of the big hits of the summer, this robust and meaningful production was anchored by a sterling cast (Dominic Grijalva and Meg Clark were standouts), and choreographer Josh Montgomery delivered one number after another of stirring dance moves. Director Joel C. Abels offered a sense of frolic and fun in his clever and nuanced staging of the show, but he also didn’t neglect the show’s anti-establishment, underdog underpinnings. [Read my review]

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Past fling: Ted Nunes is Eilert and Brooke Aiello is Hedda in “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

“Hedda Gabler,” The New Ensemble. Brooke Aiello has wanted desperately for years to play Hedda, so she took the plunge and produced the Ibsen classic herself. And how lucky Fresno was for her ambition. This tiny production, presented on a makeshift stage at Fresno Pacific University, offered a role of a lifetime for her as she made Hedda her own: the way she slumped into Victorian era chairs when she sat in the background observing the follies of others; the way she added a hint of salaciousness, like a few drops of food coloring, to a conversation without breaking any social rules. But this also was a wonderful ensemble piece, crafted with care by director Heather Parish, featuring one of the strongest casts (including Chris Carsten and Casey Ballard) all year in a Fresno-area theatrical event. [Read my review]

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Complex character: Ian Smith plays Quasimodo in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Photo / CMT

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Children’s Musical Theaterworks. There were two major productions of “Hunchback” in 2017, the other being a fine offering from the Selma Arts Center, and I don’t in any way want to diminish Selma’s version by putting CMT’s production on this list. But in terms of children’s theater, CMT’s version was a standout, thanks to Abigail Paxton’s inspired direction and obviously deep emotional and intellectual connections with the material. I walked out very impressed. [Read my review]

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Joshua Slack and Arium Andrews star in “Native Son.” Photo / Fresno State

“Native Son,” Fresno State. Richard Wright’s classic period novel, set 80 years ago in a racially segregated Chicago, received a fresh and provocative stage adaptation that had plenty to say about present-day race relations. One of the themes explored by director Thomas-Whit Ellis was the idea of surveillance of the black body in U.S. society — specifically that of the central character of Bigger Thomas, the 20-year-old black man accused of killing a white woman. Ellis found a way to make the audience part of that surveillance, turning us into voyeurs in a story that had only one possible conclusion. Jalen Stewart was a standout as a manifestation of Bigger’s deteriorating psychological state. [Read my review]

“Peter and the Starcatcher,” Good Company Players. I know this brisk and silly prequel to “Peter Pan” wasn’t for everyone. But I loved Emily Pessano’s stellar direction, which deftly strangled most of the show’s more obnoxious excesses while finding the crisp humor and underlying warmth. The strong cast included a triumphant Teddy Maldonado, whose Black Stache swished and stumbled with superb comic timing – he took us on a long, slow train to Flamboyant Town – while at the same time cracking us up with a huffy masculinity. Kudos, too, to David Pierce’s beautiful set, a work of art in itself. [Read my review]

Honorable mentions: Martin Dockery, Rogue Festival; “Heathers,” Fresno State, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Selma Arts Center; “Mothers and Sons,” StageWorks Fresno, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Fresno State.


VISUAL ARTS

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Five friends: Leslie Batty’s exhibition “Redress” includes a series of portraits of close friends modeled on Michelangelo’s sybils from the Sistine Chapel.

Leslie Batty’s “Redress,” Fresno Art Museum. Batty’s mixed-media works in this perceptive show hit hard on themes of immigration, race, sexuality, American inclusion and the treatment of marginalized populations. Even as she found her voice politically, Batty also explored the idea that “all politics is personal.” She gave the viewer a glimpse into some of the spirited discussions about the recent presidential election she had with her husband (whose portrait is featured prominently in the show). [Read my interview]

Franka Gabler’s “In Sync,” Spectrum Art Gallery. Gabler’s moody-ethereal sensibility can border on the ghostly, as early morning mists dance in the early-morning light. Her landscape photography, which I got to peruse both at her Spectrum show and on her home-studio tour as part of the wonderful Sierra Art Trails, draws on her practiced eye (she has a doctorate in plant pathology) and capacity for finding distinctive ways to view nature’s bounty.

National invitational of the Pastel Society of the West Coast, A Sense of Place gallery. Ginny Burdick’s Sense of Place gallery, across the street from Fresno High School, nabbed a high-profile regional show featuring some of the country’s best pastel artists. Best in Show winner was Rita Romero of San Francisco. (And Burdick, herself an accomplished artist, had one of her works selected by outside jurors.) In total, 92 pieces were presented. It was fun to see all that talent in just a couple of rooms. [Read my interview]

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Sergio Teran’s “Devil Winds” at Arte Americas

Sergio Teran’s “South of the Grapevine,” Arte Americas. Teran, a Southern California artist, wowed me with his 14 works in the show, which included paintings, prints and mixed-media drawings. Among the high points: his lucha libre mask motifs (his uncles were lucha libre wrestlers) and his fascinating examination of bicultural identity. [Read my interview]

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Nancy Youdelman’s ‘Speaking in Colors, 2015.’ Photo / Michael Karibian

Nancy Youdelman’s “Fashioning a Feminist Vision, 1972-2017,” Fresno Art Museum. A long-awaited and richly deserved retrospective of Youdelman’s distinguished career. As she described it, her work is feminist but also feminine, reflecting a lifetime of sewing, a real love of fabrics and buttons, and a love of gardens. Curator Michele Ellis Pracy carefully selected 65 pieces, ranging from Youdelman’s trademark encaustic-encrusted vintage dresses to weird and wonderful shoes. It was a stellar show for a stellar artist. [Read my interview]

Honorable mentions: “Geek Artistique,” Chris Sorensen Studios; Jeff Grandy, Sierra Art Trails


MUSIC AND DANCE

Bach’s Mass in B minor, Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale. Emil Cioran, a Romanian philosopher and essayist, put it this way: “Bach’s music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe cannot be regarded a complete failure.” Timing-wise, I lucked out that my farewell column for the Fresno Bee after 26 years could be about a piece once described as the “Everest” of classical music. By the time the majestic “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us Thy peace”) rolled around with conductor Anna Hamre and the singers building the sound, layer upon layer, as if constructing a musical staircase, they extended a hand to the audience to guide us up those final steps. [Read my final Bee column]

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Direct from New York: Ballet Hispánico.

Ballet Hispanico, Lively Arts Foundation. A lovely splash of big-city dance excellence, direct from New York, in a program that included “Con Brazos Abiertos,” in which choreographer Michelle Manzanales explored iconic Mexican symbols that she was reluctant to embrace as a Mexican-American child growing up in Texas. Certainly one of the dance highlights of the year.

Juan Felipe Herrera poet laureate concert, Fresno State. For two years, the homegrown Herrera served as the 21st poet laureate of the United States, helping cement Fresno’s poetry reputation nationwide. In a May event on campus, he reprised the closing concert at the Library of Congress that marked the end of his term. (Fresno State composition professors Benjamin Boone and Kenneth Froelich wrote original music set to his poems, and Cari Earnhart’s Fresno State Chamber Singers premiered the pieces.) It was a fitting departure as poet laureate for a man who has always wanted to give a “voice to the people.” [Read my review]

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Rei Hotoda’s inaugural Fresno Philharmonic concert as music director. In a lot of ways, 2017 was the Year of Hotoda. It was the first time we got to watch this dynamic conductor on the podium, in her March audition concert to be the orchestra’s new leader. When the announcement of her appointment was made at a standing-room-only event, in June, supporters of the Fresno Philharmonic seemed to swoon. And the love affair has only continued as Hotoda has brought warmth and vitality to her first three concerts at the helm of the orchestra. We’re looking forward to much more musical pleasure to come. [Read my review]

“Our Town,” Fresno Grand Opera. This sensitively staged, beautifully sung January production turned out sadly to be the opera company’s last offering. (Fresno Grand Opera declared bankruptcy in March.) The loss leaves a gaping hole in this community’s artistic fabric. But at least we were left with the delicate and meaningful “Our Town” as a lingering memory. At one point in the show, the main character of Emily says about life: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” We should always remember those words. [Read my commentary]

Honorable mentions: “Die Fledermaus,” Fresno State; Ken Cowan, Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

3 thoughts on “My Top 20 cultural events of 2017”

  1. The Fresno cultural arts scene was outstanding in 2017. My wife and I had the opportunity and privilege to see a number of the performances listed. The great CMT production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was not a children’s performance. It was stunning. It was difficult for me to decide which was better, Hotoda’s premier performance or Anna Hamre’s Bach Requiem. Both were outstanding and better than anything offered by the Bay Area where we enjoyed the arts from 2001 to 2016. It will be hard for 2018 to beat 2017.

  2. Dear Donald,
    Excellent and comprehensive coverage of 2017 here in the valley, and not bad at all especially for one person who at this time remains uncloned!

    I would like to call your attention to our next Pacific Artist Series concert on Thursday, January 25, 2018, at 7:30 PM at the McDonald Hall Atrium at Fresno Pacific University. Ahyeon Yun, an exquisite pianist from South Korea, did her doctoral dissertation at Arizona State on my five Sonatinas and will perform them all in a CD release recital that evening. May I send you a complimentary CD and tickets to this event? I am also available for Thursday evening live interviews and I believe I could make the pianist also available, although not live on the Thursday evening before the event. Please let me know your preferences for this program.
    In Christ, Walter Saul

  3. Donald thank you for all your hard work this year reporting and keeping the arts alive and strong . Many amazing performances this year ! Here’s to 2018 !

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