From butterfly kisses in ‘Elf’ to a proud throng of Tower Theatre protestors, my Top 20 cultural events of 2021 reflect an unforgettable year

Memo to Apple: You know how the fitness trackers in your watches and phones have various levels to describe cardio activity (walking, jogging, swimming sprinting)? I have a suggestion for another such level, this one a maximum calorie-burner:

Shawn Williams in ‘Elf: The Musical.”

Has anyone ever expended as much effort on the Roger Rocka’s stage as Williams in this silly, frilly, good-hearted musical? Williams darts through his amiable role as Buddy the Elf like a hummingbird on caffeine. His wide-open smile flashes like casino neon. He brims and bubbles with eager goodwill. His manic energy rises up and blocks out any outside thoughts about Covid-19, or inflation, or the certain prospect that our sun one day will expand to wipe out humanity.

Related stories: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2020

It’s for this forget-our-sorrows reason that I’m making Williams, and the Good Company Players production of “Elf” in general, the lead-in to my Top 20 list for 2021.

Once again, my annual Top 20 list – a tradition I started at the Fresno Bee so many trips-around-the-sun ago that I’ve lost track, and one that I’ve enthusiastically continued at The Munro Review – does not reflect a “normal” arts year.

Then again, what is normal these days? I’m just thrilled that 2021 opened up enough to let us once again experience live performance, even if you have to wear a mask. If the truncated amount of performance time leaves 2021, like the year before it, with an asterisk in the record books, so be it.


Some general notes:

• The full title of this list, 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/literary arts; and visual arts. (And a bonus one, too.)

• 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 2021 list. Except for Shawn Williams and “Elf,” selections within categories are in alphabetical order.

Good Company Players

Greg Ruud and Shawn Williams ponder butterfly kisses in ‘Elf: The Musical.’

Shawn Williams in ‘Elf,’ Good Company Players

My admiration for this hard-working and talented Fresno actor goes beyond just this show, of course. I’ve long been a fan. And his work in 2021 has been exemplary. His role in the tender and captivating two-person musical “Daddy Long Legs,” starring opposite the exquisite Meg Clark, also helped cement his place for me on this list. Also, he gets to say my favorite bit of stage dialogue of the year, this to Greg Ruud, who plays his exasperated and decidedly non-fatherly father:

“I want to give you a Christmas present, but I don’t have any money, so which would you prefer: a thousand butterfly kisses or a bracelet made of my hair?”

I laughed and laughed at that one. And in these times, that’s a very good thing. [Read my 2019 review of “Elf: The Musical”] [Read my interview with Shawn Williams and Meg Clark] [Read my review of “Daddy Long Legs”]

Chris Colfer, “All Together Now,” Good Company Players

Andrew Scott

Chris Colfer

It’s no secret that “Glee” star Chris Colfer, a Good Company Players alum and Clovis denizen, really hated his time attending Clovis Unified – junior high school especially. There were whispers that he’d turned his back on his hometown forever. But time seems to have healed some of these wounds, and Colfer’s offer to do a benefit performance for GCP at Shaghoian Hall turned into a heartfelt, gorgeously sentimental experience.

He was a terrific host. Warm and funny, he laced his crisp sense of humor with just the right amount of acerbity. Responding to the audience’s generous applause when he walked on stage the first time, he quipped: “The last time I was on this stage I lost a talent show, so that means a lot to me.” [Read my interview with Colfer] [Read my review]

Fresno City College

Adam Khouzam in ‘The Line.’

‘The Line,’ Fresno City College

Zoom theater wasn’t as big a thing in 2021 as it was the year before, but it sure got better. Director Karina Balfour’s fiercely topical and moving “The Line” gave us a glimpse of health-care workers battling Covid-19 in New York City. (Authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen are well known for their penetrating documentary-style plays such as “The Exonerated” and “Coal Country,” which draw heavily on in-depth interviews.) Actors filmed their roles by themselves remotely, but Balfour and video editor Steven Chin achieved a polished, professional look and feel to the production, even with backdrops of living rooms, bedrooms, garages, home offices and even blank walls.

The stories in “The Line” were chilling, exasperating and sad. We had heard many of them before: the lack of protective equipment; the overrun intensive-care units; the grieving families unable to share last moments with their loved ones. I easily got caught up in the angst and anguish of it all, but I could also marvel at the resilience of human beings under great pressure. [Read my preview] [Read my review]

‘Matilda,’ Children’s Musical Theaterworks

Julie Lucido

With a gestation period as long as a human’s, this on-again, off-again production did a death dance with Covid-19 and lived to tell about it. Director Julie Lucido used an ingenious system of rehearsal “pods” to rehearse the “Matilda” cast in small enough groups to be safe. The cast had to perform in clear plastic shields, but there was no barrier between their excitement and the audience.

Adding to the impact was a core of Fresno-area theater veterans, including Michael Brandon Fidalgo is a wonderfully smarmy Mr. Wormwood and Karina Balfour as a garishly good Mrs. Wormwood. And then there was Randy Kohlruss as Miss Trunchbull. He played the role with a stomp and a clenched, booming, tank-like presence. Hunched over like a predator on the prowl, with his bowl-cut bangs and low, rumbling roar of a delivery, I immediately thought of a rampaging T. Rex in “Jurassic Park” — and also a wild pig snuffling for truffles. [Read my analysis/appreciation]

Fresno State

Carlos Sanchez, left, and Wade Pierson in ‘This Is Our Youth.’

‘This Is Our Youth,’ Fresno State

This exhilarating university production, directed with a sure and knowing hand by Brad Myers, was one of the finest I’ve seen at Fresno State in recent years. Kenneth Lonergan’s funny, profanity-laced, drug-fueled, philosophically weighty script for “This Is Our Youth” came to life with a puppy-dog-meets-tuft-of-toughness performance by Carlos Sanchez in the leading role of Warren, a listless ‘80s Manhattan teen slacker whose mostly unremarkable wild weekend serves as the transition from adolescence to adulthood. (Sanchez alternated the role with Tyler Murphy). The cast of three soaked up Lonergan’s philosophical musings about friendship, discipleship and self-worth with a deftness that empowered both them and the audience. [Read my review]

Brian Feldman

Brian Feldman, center, in the wacky ‘txtshow (on the internet),’ was a distinctive offering in the 2021 Rogue Festival.

#TXTSHOW (On the Internet),’ 2021 Rogue Festival

Many months later, I’m still tickled by the experience of this trippy show, one of the highlights of a completely virtual Rogue Festival. Brian Feldman, a Washington, D.C.-based fringe performer, has taken a live version of “#TXTSHOW (On the Internet)” all over the world, and during lockdown he sat in his apartment doing the same thing on Zoom. The conceit is simple: The audience writes the dialogue by means of sending direct chat messages to Feldman. You write it, and he’ll say it. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t say anything of his own volition; he is merely a talking puppet, and you’re pulling the mouth strings. And because my fellow audience members did not seem as prolific as me on a keyboard, I ended up “writing” much of the show, helped along by two from Milan, Italy, who gleefully fed Feldman a bunch of Italian swear words.

By the time it was over, I was getting into the swing of putting words in an actor’s mouth. Here I was, sitting in my home office on the West Coast, typing words on a screen and having them spoken by a man 2,300 miles away whom I’ve never met. There’s something, well, powerful about that. Even when he does curse in Italian. [Read an interview with Brian Feldman] [Read my review]

Edgar Olivera

‘Zoot Suit,’ Selma Arts Center

For its first full-scale production back in its regular theater space, Selma Arts Center staged the most ambitious show of the year. Director Juan Luis Guzmán’s love for the material was evident throughout, from the emphatic production design (which immersed you in World War II-era Los Angeles with flash and grit) to the masculine swagger of unjustly accused characters resisting the insidiousness of racism.

Among the highlights: Mason T. Beltran’s bristly and nuanced performance as the central character of Henry Reyna, Antonio Olivera III’s nonchalance and playfulness as the narrator Pachuco, Karina Balfour as a crusading journalist, Steven Montalvo’s choreography and a hard-working ensemble.

The result: a vibrant, splashy, chilling and heartfelt production. [Read my preview interview with Juan Luis Guzmán] [Read my Top 10 list about the show]

‘And Suddenly With the Angels,’ Coro Piccolo

With his resonant and euphonious voice, narrator Alan Peters guided us through a spiritually themed program by Coro Piccolo (a smaller choir under the umbrella of Fresno Community Chorus) that included inspiring versions of “Divinum Mysterium,” the delightful “Patapan” (adapted from a Burgundian Carol), and some choice excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, all conducted by Anna Hamre and accompanied by collaborative pianist Joungmin Sur and a first-rate instrumental ensemble.

This concert marked the official post-pandemic debut of the chorus to the general public. [Read my review]

Gary Payne Photography

Fresno City College’s Kevin Cooper, fifth from left, is nominated for a Grammy, along with the members of Agave Baroque.

Kevin Cooper’s ‘American Originals,’ Agave Baroque

Fresno City College guitar professor Kevin Cooper is a founding member of Agave Baroque, which specializes in string chamber music of the 17th through 20th centuries. The group’s album “American Originals,” which was recorded at the Big Red Church (First Congregational Church of Fresno), is nominated for a Grammy award. The album is a collaboration with the world-class countertenor Reginald Mobley and features the music of Black and brown composers from North and South America.

The free streaming concert in March was gorgeous. Mobley’s voice was ethereal and soothing; his duet with Cooper in Justin Holland’s “Dream Faces” was a highlight. Cooper learns later this month if he’s a Grammy winner. [Read my story/review]

“The Nutcracker,” Central California Ballet

After a lamented absence, the classic holiday tradition returned to the Saroyan Theatre. One inspirational element: the diversity of this year’s cast. In her dancing career, Lively Arts Foundation artistic director Diane Mosier was discriminated against because of race. She was delighted to break that cycle with this year’s “Nutcracker,” which featured Paunika Jones, a former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, as the Snow Queen. Lawrence Chen played the Snow King. Mosier told me: “I like the fact that our guest dancers are of all races.”

 ‘Christmas Voices,’ Soli Deo Gloria

For Fresno’s premier women’s choral ensemble, the chance to perform in public again (and without masks!) was a joy. Add to that the sentiment of the season, and “Christmas Voices” was a rousing success. I loved the variety and compelling musical textures of Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols,” which took up a good chunk of the program. Guest soloist Laura Porter on harp was stunning. [Read my review]

The Tower Quartet

A December concert after a long absence was a major 2021 moment for The Tower Quartet.

‘The Eternal Question,’ The Tower Quartet

This return-from-Covid concert at University Presbyterian Church (which was repeated the night earlier in Selma) included a commissioned piece by Fresno State professor Bryce Cannell. His “Ash Tree Sketches,” or “Bocetos de fresno,” was individually crafted for the quartet, featuring “four rearrangeable sketches that illustrate the predilections and personalities of each member.” I was entranced by the Brahms Piano Quintet, featuring guest artist Drew Quiring on piano, which affected me profoundly. This classic piece, with its interludes of folk-music inspired buoyancy, is uplifting program was by turn exhilarating, dynamic, athletic and incredibly tender. [Read my interview with Lianna Elmore] [Read my review]

Memorial concert, Orpheus Chamber Ensemble

Jack Fortner founded Orpheus Chamber Ensemble in 1978, and most would agree he expanded Fresno’s musical horizons in ways no else ever has. A Nov. 14 concert at Fresno State’s Wahlberg Recital Hall was a way to say goodbye to Fortner, who died in June 2020 (but whose memorial service was postponed by the pandemic.)

The climax came with the North American premiere of Fortner’s final piece, “AISEA.” A star-studded chamber ensemble embarked on an eclectic adventure that combined winds and strings, vocals, percussion and performance art. Near the end, most of the players stood up from their music stands, grabbed wood blocks and castanets and other percussive objects, and started filing and thumping off the stage with the whimsy and individuality of an amiable but plodding circus parade. As they bopped and rattled, their highly trained musicianship melted away into the far more primal act of banging sticks on things to make noise. On stage, only jazz saxophonist Benjamin Boone and soprano Briggs remained, offering a final, three-minute riff together. And then, darkness.

What a way for Fortner to take a final bow. [Read my review]

California Opera

The cast of ‘Norma.’

‘Norma,’ California Opera

Two years in the making, this fully staged production was the product of artistic director Edna Garabedian’s single-minded determination to continue opera in Fresno, pandemic or not. “Norma,” performed at California Arts Academy, was a stirring union of professional singers and community members passionate for the art form. Among the principal singers, Todd Wilander, who brought an impressive Metropolitan Opera pedigree to the role of Pollione, really shined in the second act.

And California Opera favorite Alexandra Jerinic delivered a robust, melancholy turn as Adalgisa – a performance even more remarkable when the audience learned afterward that she had just lost her mother. Rick Adamson’s stage direction was quite good, particularly in the way he moved the ensemble on and off the stage. [Read my interview with Edna Garabedian]

Garrick Ohlsson, Keyboard Concerts

Garrick Ohlsson has performed more times at Keyboard Concerts than any other pianist.

In Keyboard Concerts’ first live concert of the post-vaccine era (do you notice a theme here?), the piano great devoted the first half of the concert to Beethoven, including a stunning Sonata in C minor that included a trill so mesmerizing that it brought to mind a seething, agitated beehive in which individual notes try to break out of the swarm and dominate, but can’t help but be sucked back into the power of the whole. Garrick Ohlsson then spent the second half on four Chopin works that seemed, in contrast,  o float above us.

Smooth, whipped, airy, almost confectionary in tone — Ohlsson didn’t appear so much to strike the keys as smoothly paddle through them. [Read my interview with Garrick Ohlsson] [Read my review]

Fresno Philharmonic

Joyce Yang helped the Fresno Philharmonic kick off the 2021-22 season.

Joyce Yang, Fresno Philharmonic

Conductor Rei Hotoda arranged the concert order so that piano virtuoso Joyce Yang, who has wowed audiences in previous engagements with the Fresno Philharmonic, was featured in the first work performed by the orchestra in the post-vaccine age. It made for an auspicious start to the 2021-22 season.

Slow and plaintive, Yang’s initial interaction with the piano set a magical tone. From there she smoothly hurdled through Listz’s thundering opening. With the piece’s difficult keyboard pyrotechnics thrown at the player at the beginning, it’s as if the composer is an exclusive nightclub bouncer who only lets the cream of the crop into his establishment; Yang slipped right in as if she owns the place.

As for Hotoda, after so many hours of making music on Zoom or in front of video cameras, she obviously relished the chance to conduct for a live audience. Her players, too, looked and sounded invigorated. [Read my interview with Joyce Yang] [Read my review]

‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall,’ Fresno State

In one of the most impressive museum-show “gets” in the history of Fresno State’s Phebe Conley Art Gallery, the university’s Center for Creativity and the Arts teamed up with the McClatchy Fresno Art Foundation to bring this show directly from the Brooklyn Museum. I ended up particularly well versed in this remarkable exhibition after unleashing 35 beginning Fresno State media writers on the topic. With each story my students wrote, the more I came to appreciate the works and viewpoints of the participating artists, all of whom were born after the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

Topping off the end of the exhibition’s run, Fresno State’s Benjamin Boone and his jazz quartet teamed up with poet Faylita Hicks for an exhilarating evening of original music. [Read my exhibition preview piece] [Read a feature article by Tyler D’Errico] [Read a feature article by Arianna Dominico]

The Munro Review

Isa D’Arleans, above, has big plans for ‘No Time to Waste’ to tour the country.

‘No Time to Waste,’ The Progressors

Artist Isa D’Arleans worked for six years on this immersive, multi-media art installation that was unlike anything we’d ever seen at Fresno’s ArtHop. In “No Time to Waste,” she is determined to put such issues as climate change, gender inequality, LGBTQ rights, homelessness, racism and others at the forefront — all under the banner of The Progressors, the non-profit organization she founded. Just two visitors at a time tour the interior of the 40-foot shipping container and are given just two minutes in the moody lighting and sensory overload to experience the 21 paintings, video (by collaborator Skylar Thomas) and audio contained within. (“I don’t want people to get too comfortable in there,” she says.)

The paintings are ethereal, colorful and meditative. The most provocative quality is the cacophonous nature of the experience, both visually and aurally. The whole thing is designed to travel (hence the shipping container), and D’Arleans has grand plans to bring the exhibition to larger audiences. I was so taken with it that I celebrated the publication of my 1000th Post for The Munro Review with the exhibition and invited my TMR members and donors. [Read my review]

Evany Zirul and Heather Anderson, Fig Tree Gallery

For decades, Evany Zirul – an artist and retired surgeon – has perfected her technique of lightweight wire sculptures, a recent development in a long sculpting and drawing career. Her material of choice is the lowly recycled coat hanger, which she manages to craft into airy, whimsical, stirring forms that seem to dance of their own accord. Her latest show included all new works, which I previewed in an in-depth video project in September.

Zirul was paired in October at Fig Tree Gallery with Heather Anderson, whose last show at age 95 gathered her paintings together in a salute to the incomparable beauty of the Sierra Nevada. She’s known for her bold brushstrokes and use of vibrant – often psychedelic – colors. As an arts educator and environmental activist, Anderson has worked to draw attention to the landscapes that so many of us take for granted. [[Watch my video of Zirul] [Read my interview with Anderson]


The Munro Review

Tower Theatre protests

Finally, I’d be remiss without including a nod on this list to the remarkable coalition of Tower Theatre lovers who have come together in a methodical and unrelenting campaign to keep the landmark from becoming yet another historic theater swallowed up by a fundamentalist church. Weekly Sunday protests at the theater have now stretched into their second year. Organizers are conducting a new letter-writing campaign regarding one year of inaction by the City of Fresno regarding the illegal use of the theater by Adventure Church.

This is a vastly complicated and slow-moving issue that involves zoning, religion, discrimination, money and much more. My best read post of the year (by far) was the in-depth February piece I titled “With the neighborhood so opposed, why would Adventure Church want to buy the Tower Theatre?” I’ll let you dive into that — and other coverage — for the details. But the important thing to take away is that the issue is not going away.

This is grassroots activism and democracy in action. I’m proud of the pro-Tower District, pro-arts, pro-tolerance and pro-common-sense volunteers who have donated so much of their time and energy to making our city a better place. Now if only our elected representatives can respond.

The Munro Review has no paywall but is financially supported by readers who believe in its non-profit mission of bringing professional arts journalism to the central San Joaquin Valley. You can help by signing up for a monthly recurring paid membership or make a one-time donation of as little as $3. All memberships and donations are tax-deductible.

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 (5)

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thank you, Donald. From my space, it was a very barren year. I experienced only two of your favorites; Nobody Promised You Tomorrow; and No Time To Waste. I’m extremely grateful to have seen this Rand hope to see much more this year. So far it isn’t going very well! Thanks for always being out there

  • Steph

    I’m with Jackie, but I at least got to see a handful of these.

    You did miss one: #21 – Despite a raging and continuing pandemic, the force and unending drive of one true artist continued. Like many talented people in the Valley, this person could be doing his work in any major city and market with wild success, but he has chosen Fresno as his palette.

    Based on keyboard tracking software, this brilliant sculptor of prose has likely clicked varying letters a million-plus times, yet he still continues to produce original adjectives and poetic musings (or soft condemnations) which hold his readers spellbound.

    Audra has a street. Pessano has a theatre. Saroyan’s got an entire building (with questionable sound quality).

    I know you’re very humble Donald, but someone should at least present you one day with a golden typewriter inscribed with “#21,” because your art should be on this list every year.

  • Adele Graves

    Great article filled with lots of information as well as compliments. Keep up your great work.

  • Margie Vogt

    I was only able to see
    Elf, out of the events you listed, but it sure did give me joy!! What a wonderful way to ring in the the holidays, and enjoy live theater!
    And I totally agree with you about Sean Williams; his performance was so energetic & fun, a real gem!! He’s been one of my favorites since we met about 7 years ago, & watching him get better & better has been so exciting!! I love seeing him be recognized for his work! 👏🏼


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