Life’s a cabaret: Donald’s Top 20 cultural events of 2019

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.”

Pictured above: Meg Clark in ‘Cabaret.’ Photo: Selma Arts Center

“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; film; 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 2019 list. Selections within categories are in alphabetical order.



“The Book of Will,” StageWorks Fresno. It’s sad and fitting that the first show on my list turned out to be the last offering from one of Fresno’s great theater companies. Part sober historical docudrama and part light-hearted stage sonnet to the joys of the theater, this intriguing take on the preservation of Shakespeare’s legacy was brought to life by director J. Daniel Herring in a rousing production. I was deeply moved by cast members Mark Standriff and Sunshine Cappelletti, not just for the emotional heft they brought to the production but also the way they brought to their roles the disciple’s absolute conviction — a burning, evangelical certainty that words do matter. [Read my review]

StageWorks Fresno

Joel C. Abels in ‘La Cage Aux Folles.’

“La Cage Aux Folles,” StageWorks Fresno. Thanks to the vagaries of alphabetization, StageWorks gets the next show on my list, too. And this one was a heartfelt, glamorous spectacle that (in retrospect) seems fitting as the last StageWorks musical on the books. (I know, I can’t keep getting all StageWeepy on you. That was the last time.) Joel C. Abels gave a memorable performance as the drag queen Albin, and co-directors Herring and Josh Montgomery crafted an intimate, fiercely funny show that felt fresh even more than 35 years after its Broadway debut. [Read my review]

“Cabaret,” Selma Arts Center. The most potent production of the year. This blistering, beautiful experience melded exceptional performances from Meg Clark as Sally Bowles and Abigail Nolte as the Emcee, haunting and submersive direction by Michael C. Flores, a brilliant small orchestra and an outstanding production design into a must-see experience. I’ve seen lots of “Cabarets” in my time, and none of them impacted me like this one. I’m featuring Flores as a special interview on the January episode of “The Munro Review on CMAC” (see above) to celebrate my Top 20 list, so don’t miss it. [Read my review]

Selma Arts Center

Jared Serpa in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.’

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” Selma Arts Center. A beautifully kinetic and intellectually charged experience. Director Ruth Griffin brought us a meticulously staged, fiercely acted and emotionally potent experience. A highlight was Jared Serpa, superb as the central character of Christopher. In his big chance at a hugely important (and showy) role, he succeeded in spectacular fashion. [Read my review]

Fresno State

Arium Andrews and Jimmy Haynie in ‘Fat Pig.’

“Fat Pig,” Fresno State Theatre. In this brutally good production, a good-looking man falls for an overweight woman. Then he worries the whole time what his buddies — and, by extension, the rest of his world — will think. Directed by Brad Myers with an accomplished hand that made the material feel both ruthless and meditative, the standout cast (Arium Andrews, Jimmy Haynie, Andrew Mickelson and Hannah Berry) delivered strong acting and a gripping emotional experience. [Read my review]

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“Identity,” The Fools Collaborative. This one-time, pop-up event featured short theater pieces, poetry, and a variety of other performance art and styles. I was impressed with the emotional texture of many of the offerings. The politics of our time are unsettled when it comes to immigration and identity, and this close-knit, moving evening captured some of that turbulence. I hope we get to see more collaborative events from various theater companies in the future. [Read my preview]

Good Company Players

Miguel Molinar, Chris Mangels and Amalie Larsen in ‘Man of La Mancha.’

“The Man of La Mancha,” Good Company Players. Two powerhouse performances — from Chris Mangels and Amalie Larsen — anchored this fiercely good production, which I can say moved me more than the Broadway revival I saw many years ago. The singing was glorious, the acting bountiful, the design finely wrought and the feeling tremendous, and director Julie Lucido brought it all together in a way that felt both scrappy and accomplished. [Read my review]

“New Wrinkles,” Fresno City College. Once again, this premier senior musical revue proves that it’s still a theatrical powerhouse. This year’s show, titled “California Dreamin’,” bustled with a sense of polish and heartfelt enthusiasm. The first act, in particular, offered stagecraft, acting, singing, direction (by David Bonetto) and book that all soared. Mac McIntosh, one of the show’s golden-toned star singers, offered a sweet, superb rendition of “They Call the Wind Maria” that I thought was one of his best ever. [Read my review]

Good Company Players

Emily Pessano and Teddy Maldonado in ‘She Loves Me.’

“She Loves Me,” Good Company Players. What a charming, sweet, old-fashioned and yet contemporary musical experience. Director Elizabeth Fiester brought together a stirring cast, all of them excellent, ranging from Emily Pessano and Teddy Maldonado in the leading roles (they played co-workers who didn’t realize they were writing to each other as part of a lonely-hearts correspondence club) to a superb Michael Fidalgo as the semi-smarmy salesman who brought a bit of a bite to all that sweetness on stage. Did I already say the show was charming? I can do it again and again. [Read my review]

The national tour of ‘Wicked.’

“Wicked,” Broadway in Fresno. It’s still amazing. Erin Mackey as Glinda and Mariand Torres as Elphaba both offered subtle variations on their respective roles (within the strict parameters of a Broadway tour, of course) that made their characters seem fresh. This national tour at the Saroyan Theatre felt vibrant and rousing. [Read my review]


“The Big Tell Showcase,” Central Valley Community Foundation. This stellar local event featured five-minute documentaries from 10 local filmmakers about the “incredible people and places that make this region so amazing.” I asked CMAC producer Kyle Lowe to offer a suggestion for this list, and this was his pick. He says was a great event this year.


Ailey II

Carl Ponce Cubero made his professional Fresno debut.

Ailey II, Lively Arts Foundation. Every seat in the Saroyan should have been filled for this superb New York company. A highlight was the homecoming of dancer Carl Ponce Cubero, a Porterville native who got to perform in Fresno for the first time. [Read my review]

Isabel Bayrakdarian concert. The well-known opera singer — along with a handful of impressive instrumentalists and an appearance by the vocal ensemble Fresno Coro Vox Aeterna — offered a memorable commemorative performance celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gomitas Vartabed, the father of Armenian music. I particularly liked the children’s songs and lullabies, when the glories of Bayrakdarian’s voice were paired with Jill Felber on flute and Ellie Choate on harp. The result was short and lively pieces that seemed to come from the quietest, most childlike depths of the soul. [Read my review]

“Between Figure and Ground,” Fresno Philharmonic. The orchestra offered a number of fine concerts in 2019, and this was my favorite. From the world premiere of Dinuk Wijeratne’s lush, Fresno-inspired “Between Figure and Ground” to the season-ending exclamation point of a vigorous Prokofiev Symphony No. 5, the atmosphere in the hall was electric. [Read my review]

Michael Krikorian, Keyboard Concerts. Sometimes the hometown-boy-makes-good angle is irresistible. Krikorian, a graduate of Fresno State who went on to get a doctorate in music at USC, performed to a wildly appreciative audience at Fresno State. It reminded me that listening to a pianist isn’t just about the notes; it’s as much about the chemistry. [Read my preview]

Nathan Laube, Keyboard Concerts. I love the organ, and this concert allowed me to hear for the first time a mighty classic: Laube pounded out a condensed version of none other than Johann Sebastian Bach’s mighty “Clavier-Übung III,” one of the most complex pieces of music ever written. [Read my review]

St. John Passion, Fresno Master Chorale. The Chorale is on fire recently, but this is the concert that really stands out for me. Brian Thorsett, a professional guest tenor, filled two roles in the production. As the Evangelist, presumably a stand-in for St. John himself, he acted as narrator. And Thorsett also handled the duties of bass soloist, popping in now and then with color commentary on Jesus’ last days. Thorsett’s vocal tone was as pure and his articulation as piercing as a brisk, rushing mountain stream. Beautifully staged and wonderfully sung, the performance was memorable. [Read my review]


Fresno Art Museum

A work from ‘Rethinking Fire.’

Bryan David Griffith, Fresno Art Museum. Griffith’s show “Rethinking Fire” showed us that Wildfires aren’t bad. Or good. They just are. They’re part of the regular cycle of nature. Griffith received a grant to study wildfire in the West and develop new work for the traveling small group exhibition “Fires of Change,” funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. His fascination with and understanding of the process — not just the firefighting part, but the cycle-of-life part — is what gave the works in this show such depth. [Read my review]

Mac Mechem

Mac Mechem, Fig Tree Gallery. My writing about Mechem’s show “Trumpocracy: A Visual Critique” got me the most Facebook hate comments of the year. So he must be doing something right. Mechem is a longtime figurative painter whose social-realism approach is steeped in wry, biting commentary. At their best, Mechem’s works take on a satirical agitprop impact, echoing and amplifying the political propaganda that permeates our lives. [Read my preview]

The Munro Review

I catch up with Mariposa artist Scott McGrath at Sierra Art Trails.

Scott McGrath, Sierra Art Trails. McGrath creates custom, hand-forged metalwork, often for fancy homes in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. His studio in Mariposa is a must-see. I love when I find a gem like this on Sierra Art Trails, which opens studios and galleries throughout the Sierra foothills to art lovers. [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 (6)

  • Steph

    As usual I enjoyed your list.

    Here’s something I’d love for you to do: Come up with 20 questions about a person’s life in the arts. What inspired them, why they chose that job, their first show, their favorite show and why, what keeps them going, if they were god and could change one thing about their job, etc etc.

    Then put together the column, merging the similar answers (they’ll all say they wish there was more money in art).

    Choosing the questions is likely easy.

    Choosing the top-20 talents to question is gonna be the hard part. You could likely cull 20 people just from GCP. How will you pick your hall of famers?

    Massive ask, I know, but I’d love to hear the answers from your diverse list, hearing from looongtime heroes such as Dan Pessano, Ginger Reed, David Pierce, Joel, etc and contrasting those with the new bunch, Miguel Gastelum, Meg Clark, etc etc.

    C’mon, Donald! Only you can do it!

  • Suw

    I agreed with all of your theatrical comments for the plays I was able to see. I am especially impressed with The Selma Art Center’s number and quality of plays. I know it wasn’t your “cup of tea” but at the top of my list would have been A Gentleman’s Guide. How does this small theatre company afford to pay the rights on so many plays including some that are Tony Winners recently on Broadway and with touring companies doing the rounds? I loved, loved, loved the
    Book of Will and my favorite touring show was Something Rotten. Enjoyed you reminders of a good year in theatre.

  • Jeanne Behnke

    Happy New Year Donald! Thanks for all you do in keeping the Arts alive in the Central Valley.

  • Edith Barnette

    Great to read an uplifting year-end critique of your various venue choices. I am an appreciative fan of your Munro Review. Keep up the good work, and Happy New Year!

  • Thank you, Donald, for all that you do to support the cultural streams of the Central Valley. Beauty and talent truly abound in our area. Thank goodness there is an articulate, attentive, hard-working someone keeping their fingers on the pulse (and on the keyboard), their eyes on the opportunities, and their heart in the thick of it all. Sincerely – Thank you!


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