Donald’s Top 20 cultural events of 2018

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-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 have repeat performances.

I’m grouping my shout-outs by three categories: theater; music/dance and visual arts.

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 2018 list. Selections within categories are in alphabetical order.


“Bring It On,” Selma Arts Center: Could this be the most technically difficult and specific Broadway musical to pull off ever? It’s gotta rank up there. You essentially need a cast of professional cheerleaders who can also act, sing and dance — call them quadruple threats. Director Michael Christopher Flores put his actors through a grueling pre-rehearsal cheerleader camp, and while I never thought I was watching cheerleading pros up there on stage, I was impressed — no, mesmerized — by the terrific sense of espirit de corps from the entire company. They connected emotionally on a fierce and unified level. Fierce performances from Kenzie Stafford, Maya Sosa, Jimmy Haynie and Kay Wilkins added to the production’s lustre. [Read my review]


“The Book of Mormon,” Broadway in Fresno: Though time (and likely the times) has dampened a little of this goofy show’s shock value, I still found it as crisp, funny, tuneful and outrageous as when I first saw it in 2011 with the original cast on Broadway. This was the best of the national tours to come to the Saroyan Theatre in 2018 in terms of precision, polish and stagecraft. And the sound in the Saroyan was much better for this second Fresno visit. [Read my review]

StageWorks Fresno

Haley White as Alison in “Fun Home.”

“Fun Home,” StageWorks Fresno: Beautifully staged and acted, this local premiere resonated with emotion, passion and a finely wrought sense of wit and insight. Director J. Daniel Herring coaxed memorable performances from many of his cast members, including Haley White, Thani Brant and Novi Alexander (all playing the central role of Alison, the artist who immortalized her unconventional childhood in a graphic novel) and Amalie Larsen. My dominant memory, however, is that of local theater veteran Terry Lewis, who gave one of the best performances in his career (and I’ve seen a lot of them) as Alison’s conflicted father. Still gives me shivers. [Read my review]

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Good Company Players: Was this my favorite “Joseph” ever? It could be. (I’m tempted greatly by my recollection of the 1996 Good Company version.) Director Robert Sanchez sprinkled contemporary references throughout, and Tim Smith (as Joseph) and Heather Price (as the Narrator) were very good. [Read my review]

StageWorks Fresno

Daniel Abels Rodriguez in ‘The Last 5 Years.’

“The Last 5 Years,” StageWorks Fresno: Real-life married couple Taylor Abels Rodriguez and Daniel Abels Rodriguez found a fresh and compelling way to play out this tale of a relationship between a husband and wife whose unequal halves never find a way to merge into a pleasing whole. Director Joel Abels’ staging in the Fresno Art Museum gave the production the intimate feel it deserved, and a fine live orchestra sealed the deal. [Read my review]

“Legally Blonde,” Children’s Musical Theaterworks: Here’s a memory that a bunch of CMT kids will have the rest of their lives: getting to perform a number with Laura Bell Bundy, who originated the role of Elle Woods in the Broadway production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” Bundy conducted a pre-performance workshop with the cast, and her presence obviously had a big impact on the local production, which opened just a few days later. Mallory Parker, playing the Fresno version of Elle, was terrific, and director Vanessa Gonzalez figured out lots of good ways to keep this complicated show moving briskly forward. [Read my review]

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Renee Newlove as Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure’ for Woodward Shakespeare Festival.

“Measure for Measure,” Woodward Shakespeare Festival: What was it like to watch Shakespeare’s problematic tale of sexual harassment and abuse in the same week that the nation was riveted on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings? Weird, troubling and emotional, thanks to director Aaron Spjute’s production. And when Renee Newlove, herself a survivor of sexual assault and rape, found herself facing that kind of assault while playing the stalwart character of Isabella on stage, it threw me into that weird place where theater and real life mingle in strange and meaningful ways. [Read my review]

“Steel Magnolias,” Good Company Players: How many times, either on stage or screen, have I seen this oft-performed title? I’ve lost count. But this snappy, meaningful production at the 2nd Space Theatre, directed by Denise Graziani, has to be one of my all-time favorite versions of the title. You can chalk that up to the excellent cast — Laurie Pessano, Valerie Munoz, Elizabeth Fiester, Tessa Cavalletto and Chlorissa Prothro — whose crackling chemistry made you long for a chatty hair salon of your every own. [Read my review]

The cast of the alcohol-fueled ‘S’Will.’

“S’Will,” The Fools Collaborative: Every “top” list needs at least one guilty pleasure, and this is mine. (Let’s just say the memory of this unconventional Rogue Festival show includes snort-laughing.) The cast (Casey Ballard, Kristin Crase, Miguel Gastelum, Camille Gaston, Randall Kohlruss and Haley White) offered a lovingly mangled condensation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Each night one cast member an hour before performance was randomly chosen to get really, really drunk. (At the performance I attended, Gastelum got the honors, and what a ruddy and magnanimous drunk he was.) I think an entire theater company could be built on this premise, though it’d probably go under because of the cost of employee health insurance. [Read my review]

Fresno City College

Brad Myers as Charlie in ‘The Whale.’

“The Whale,” Fresno City College: Playing a 600-pound man named Charlie, local actor and Fresno State director Brad Myers took on his heaviest role yet. It’s a terrific, mesmerizing and deeply affecting piece of work. Ensconced in a fat suit, Myers had limited mobility other than from the neck up,and he relied almost exclusively on his voice and eyes to make the character work. Director Charles Erven and a sharp supporting cast made this a terrific, mesmerizing and deeply affecting piece of theater. [Read my review]

“The Wolves,” Fresno State: Directed with a keen naturalistic flair by Kathleen McKinley, this ensemble piece was showcase for the university’s women actors, who portrayed nine high school girls on a club soccer team called the Wolves. Playwright Sarah Delappe’s dialogue is brisk, jumbled and partial, which is to say it’s much closer to actual spoken discourse than what we most often hear on the stage, and McKinley handled it almost like a choral conductor. A great part of this show for me was how the playwright and actors captured the in-betweenness, so to speak, of teenage girls as they navigated the stretch between childhood and adulthood. [Read my review]


“Best of the West,” Lively Arts Foundation: Six professional dance companies were represented at the Saroyan: From the stately shuffle of the bride and groom Day of the Dead characters in Oakland Ballet’s “Luna Mexicana” to the vigorous physicality and red-and-black blur of machismo in the Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre’s “Gayane,” the evening was a wonderful mix of contemporary and classical ballet. What a wonderful smorgasbord. [Read my review]

“Celebrating Bernstein,” Fresno Community Chorus: 2018 was a year to binge on Bernstein, and this concert was a delight. The chorus featured three of its illustrious ensembles — the Master Chorale, Coro Piccolo and a new group, Quintus — at Shaghoian Hall, along with a fine orchestra, all under the nuanced baton of Anna Hamre. Four pieces by Leonard Bernstein, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, were performed. His “Chichester Psalms” was a highlight. [Read my review]

“Heaven and Earth,” Fresno Philharmonic and Fresno Master Chorale: Focusing broadly — very broadly — on matters of spirituality (including Poulenc’s Gloria”), music director Rei Hotoda crafted a program that was catholic in the true sense of the “small c” version of the word. It felt encompassing. One of my favorites on the program was Tan Dun’s “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds” which enlisted the audience as (non-union) musicians playing their cell phones on cue. [Read my review]

“Vibrant Colors,” Soli Deo Gloria: To mark the 10th anniversary of this fine women’s choral ensemble, music director Julie Carter commissioned local composer Kevin Memley to write the piece “Immortal Harps.” Precisely prepared and exuding a sense of joy, the singers turned the program into a beautiful event. [Read my preview]

Wind Symphony of Clovis: Just before jetting off to Chicago as one of two bands in its category to participate in one of the most prestigious musical conferences in the world, the Wind Symphony played a send-off concert at Shaghoian Hall. It was stellar. Whether under the baton of Gary P. Gilroy, Christine Keenan or Lawrence R. Sutherland, the ensemble had that razor-sharp tightness that can only mark musicians in creative and spiritual sync with each other. [Read my review]

Fresno Philharmonic

Anna Hamre and Rei Hotoda, plus soloists and orchestra, taking bows for Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem.’

“War Requiem,” Fresno Philharmonic, Fresno Master Chorale and Alta Sierra Intermediate School Chamber Singers: Without a doubt, my most profound musical event of the year. For 80 intermissionless minutes, it felt as if I were transported to another time and place by Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece. From the pomp and ceremony of war to its gritty, chaotic and claustrophobic trenches — from the blasts of terrifyingly big guns to the gentlest moments when the monster artillery fell silent — the experience for me was raw, moving and visceral. At the end, I wept, as I’m sure did many in the audience. [Read my review]


Robert Weibel’s latest exhibition featured collage and watercolor techniques.

“Carried Ashore: Another Cartography,” Robert Weibel, Vernissage: The artist’s newest fascination is using old maps, along with watercolors, to create a series of works dominated by the image of one human figure carrying another. His show at Vernissage gallery just really spoke to me, both for its precise and textural collage technique but also the feelings of depth that he achieved. [Read my interview]

“Kay Sekimachi: Master Weaver,” Fresno Art Museum: The more you learn about Sekimachi and experience her exquisite textile works, the more the nimbleness and nuance of her creations becomes evident. Happily, you still have a few more days to experience her retrospective at the Fresno Art Museum. It continues through Jan. 6. [Read my interview/review]

Model Katerinan Guerrero, left, and artist Kristine Doiel at “Trashique 2018.” Photo / The Munro Review

“Trashique 2018,” Fresno Art Museum: An aircraft hanger at the Fresno airport was transformed into a shimmering creative oasis in one of the most sparkling and successful social events of the year. My favorite, from artist Kristine Doiel, was a tribute to mid-century designers Charles and Ray Eames — and, yes, it was all made from recycled materials. Including the stylish hat, which was made from a Costco box. [Read my review]


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (4)

  • Adele Graves

    Hard to compare as I didn’t see them all- but for absolute fun and a smile on your face when you left
    “BRING IT ON” was the winner.
    I grant you I’m prejudiced, but you sat in the audience immersed in fun and music and left smiling ear to ear.

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thanks again Donald. I so enjoy reading your observations. I was pleased to have seen all but two of the plays, all of the visual arts, and none of the musical performances. Not that I don’t like it, but with so many season tickets and other activities, musical performances get lost. Great job this year!

  • Sloan Johnson

    I’ve counted on you for years to keep me current on the Arts in Fresno. I’m happy that I can continue to do so

  • Edith Barnette

    Great way to start the New Year reading your colorful informative critiques Donald. They definitely have made me make a resolution to attend more of our great local “art” events.


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