Top 20: From the dank trenches of World War I to Dinuba’s Manuel Muñoz, it was a memorable 2022
All you saw on stage was the fog.
Then a faint figure appeared, at first nearly indecipherable, then slowly coming out of the mist. As Hunter Oehlschlaeger moved forward, it was easy in the opening moments of “All Is Calm” to feel as if you were there on the World War I battlefield with him.
Then he sang a capella. His plaintive tune, titled “Will Ye Go to Flanders,” seemed to hang in the air like a peal from a distant bell. The other men in the CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre cast joined Oehlschlaeger. I knew within the first five minutes of the show how special this production was — and how it would make my Top 20 list of memorable arts and cultural moments of the year.
Related stories: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2021
And: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2020
And: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2019
And: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2018
And: DONALD’S TOP 20 CULTURAL EVENTS OF 2017
Each year I pick a lead-in to the list, and this year I select Oehlschlaeger, and the CenterStage production of “All Is Calm” in general, for the honor. I feature “All Is Calm” on the January episode of “The Munro Review on CMAC.”
My guests include Oehlschlaeger, Darren Tharp (an actor in the show and the company’s artistic director), Roger Bergman (vocal director) and Susan Koehler (director). I hope you’ll have a chance to listen to our interview. (On TMR, I’ll also soon be posting an interview with Oehlschlaeger, who impressed me as a very mean Bill Sykes in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Oliver!” — yes, that same “Oliver!” that scandalized Clovis Unified, and, no I refused to add that silly incident to my Top 20 list.)
As a special treat, Oehlschlaeger sings a number from the show.
For the arts, 2022 was a chance to open up again after a couple of surly years of the pandemic. Things still aren’t normal for arts organizations and institutions, alas. (Witness the entire production of Fresno State’s “The Comedy of Errors” having to shut down because of Covid infections just a few weeks ago.) But with vaccinations, masks, perseverance and a whole lot of understudies, the arts are on the mend.
I often group my list together by genre, but for this year, I took a looser approach. (Note that besides the top position on the list, the rest is presented randomly, with no preference indicated by numerical order.) 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.</span>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?
Now let’s get to the rest of the list.
Measure P gets rolling.
For our second entry on the list, I feature another special guest: reporter Doug Hoagland, who wrote about Measure P, approved by the voters to fund the arts (and mostly the parks) in Fresno. Is a fraction-of-a-cent increase in the sales tax the sexiest or most impactful story of the year, much less the decade? Probably not. But for arts supporters in the city of Fresno, Measure P is a big, big deal.
In his October article, Hoagland dived into the arcane world of how this $7 million annual windfall for the arts will be distributed. Short answer: a special Measure P commission, specified by the ballot measure, is supposed to act in the interest of all in deciding how to divide up the money. Long answer: Life (and politics) is complicated, and at least in the initial stages of setting up the funding process, members of the Fresno City Council were rather heavy-handed in terms of stepping in and making decisions themselves. I hope that TMR’s coverage will at least put council members on notice that a) $7 million is a lot of money; b) we’ll be watching closely.
The Tower Theatre.
All I have to do is say those three words, and it summons so many memories: For more than a year, a group of community activists protested against selling the iconic theater to Adventure Church. And you know what? They won. The city bought the theater, and it’s going to be used for the arts.
Meg Clark singing “A Change in Me” from “Beauty and the Beast.”
This Good Company Players production (which is still playing as of this writing at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater) was a solid holiday hit with a strong cast. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful Belles through the years, but there’s something in particular about Clark’s touching rendition of “A Change in Me,” which comes late in the second act, that really sparkles. For a moment, her character takes on a depth – a weary, time-to-grow-up inevitability – that made me think of her as a real person, not a Disney construct. Clark has consistently delivered top-notch performances all around the central San Joaquin Valley, and in each one she finds something fresh and distinct. We’re lucky to have her.
A stirring year for Selma Arts Center
OK, I’m sort of cheating on this one. I couldn’t decide between three wonderful productions in 2022: “The Spongebob Musical,” “Pippin” and “Oedipus el Rey.” Each one was presented with depth and feeling, and each one shined in my memory long after the curtain fell.
For “Spongebob,” it was the zany design and bombastic energy of the creative team, led by director Dominic Grijalva, which pulled scenes and effects for what I’m sure was the tiniest fraction of what they likely cost on Broadway. Grijalva didn’t skimp on the emotional component, either. These characters checked the boxes you’d expect from the TV show, but there’s a lot more to them than you get in the cartoon. The sea creatures felt it all: love, fear, anger, compassion, jealousy. And happiness. Which made me happy.
“Pippin,” meanwhile, was yet another Selma musical bursting with ambition and impact. (Talk about audacious programming: staging the big and showy “Pippin” in the same season as the over-the-top “Spongebob.”) Director Summer Session made the show work better for me than the recent Broadway revival. She found just the right balance of life-to-the-fullest enthusiasm with the musical’s darker, menacing side, which creeps up on you like slow-moving cold. And a standout among the strong cast was Leif Bramer in an exhilarating turn as the Leading Player.
Finally, under the category of Now for Something Completely Different, Selma Arts Center shifted gears to present Luis Alfaro’s bristling “Oedipus el Rey,” a retelling of the Sophocles story, set now in contemporary Southern California Chicano cholo culture. To round out my mini- tribute to Selma directors, Rodolfo Robles Cruz’s emphatic staging served well the melancholy and mayhem in Alfaro’s script.
Mark Standriff in “A Man for All Seasons.”
What a powerful and incendiary show this was, and Standriff, playing Sir Thomas More, was unforgettable. Standriff described it as a role of a lifetime. I can see why. The character spent most of the time being restrained and logical. To sense what’s going on inside, an actor has to give us tight glimpses through the eyes, the face, the voice and the way he carries himself. There’s a fine line between playing a fully realized character and a cardboard saint. Standriff gave us the former throughout. This Good Company production at the 2nd Space Theatre deserved a full house every night.
Theater in Madera.
The greater Fresno area welcomed a new theater company in 2022, and that’s always something to be thankful for. The Madera Theatre Project made a splash in a beautiful new facility at Matilda Torres High School, and it particularly impressed with two shows from its inaugural season: “Harvest Moon,” an ambitious “ancestral agricultural memory” that brought the fields to the stage; and a much heralded production of “All My Sons,” directed by Brad Myers, which I missed in person but was given the opportunity to view in a taped version. I look forward to many more drives to Madera.
Our own Lee Herrick has to be on this list.
The Fresno City College poet was recently named by Gov. Newsom as California’s poet laureate. As founder of LitHop and published poet, Herrick has always been an inspiration to both his students and the community at large. It’s wonderful to think of him getting more exposure statewide. May his reign involve many thousands of beautiful words and open minds.
Keyboard Concerts lands a world star.
Yunchan Lim is the youngest pianist to ever win the prestigious Van Cliburn award, and his visit to Fresno for Keyboard Concerts was a classical music highlight of the year. The concert was so popular it was moved from Keyboard’s usual digs at the Fresno State Concert Hall to the much larger Shaghoian Hall. Lim is a household name in South Korea, and people of Korean descent came from all over the country to attend the concert. It made me appreciate all the more the level of artistry that Keyboard Concerts brings to Fresno. I wrote: “As these soloists perform vastly complicated pieces with hundreds of thousands of notes, most of the time from memory, they seem somehow more than mere 10-fingered mortals. It’s as if they are touched by the gods, or, at the least, connected by a psychic ethernet cable to some greater artistic hard drive.”
“Dance Nation” hit all the right steps.
This provocative show, the first full-scale theater production from UR Here Theatre, was not an lot of things you might expect from the title: It was not a brassy musical, or a cheer-for-the-underdog inspirational story, and it didn’t even really have all that much dancing. Instead, this sharply etched play (by Pulitzer Prize-finalist Clare Barron) about a group of young dancers at a national gave us fascinating insights into adolescence and womanhood, with a majority of the 13-year-old girl characters played by a cast ranging in age from 28 to 58. Director Ruth Griffin made the most of the play’s taut framework, which featured tender monologues, brash performance pieces, fierce dance numbers (by Griffin and Siena Simas), wry humor and a general all-around sense of smartness.
Coro Piccolo hit all the right notes.
People love the December concerts titled “And Suddenly the Angels” (which made my Top 20 list in 2021) by Coro Piccolo, one of the ensembles of the Fresno Community Chorus. I do, too, but my favorite concert of theirs this year was one dedicated to the Norwegian composer Ola Yey-go and his “Dark Night of the Soul” and “Luminous Night of the Soul.” What an amazing choral experience.
Tens of thousands embraced Van Gogh.
”Beyond Van Gogh” was a big, big deal for the Fresno area, simply because of the vast number of people who attended. Was the show my preferred way of experiencing (or even being introduced to) a great master painter? No, but I did admire the scale and scope of the presentation. The visual sweep of the images and the sophisticated animation presented Van Gogh in a new way. If even a fraction of the attendees go on to support local artists and museums, that would be a grand thing.
Oh, yeah, that little old show. Who needs Broadway when you have a Broadway-quality tour stopping for a few weeks in your city? Relive the experience by going to my special “Hamilton” coverage page. I gave you enough Ham for an Easter brunch.
All hail the banjo.
Sometimes a performance hits me not for its scale or grandeur but simply because of its gentleness. Keith Alessi brought his banjo to the Rogue Festival and wowed me with his tender little show about surviving cancer and reveling in the healing power of music. For one night, we were all banjo players.
Big things at Arte.
Talk about an up year: Arte Americas can celebrate 2022, what with a big new $7 million grant from the state and lots of attention, but the best part of the year was its stunning “Boom Oaxaca” exhibition. Instead of using its big grant from the McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of the James B. McClatchy Foundation to bring in a national touring show, the scrappy staff at Arte opted to create an original exhibition acknowledging a vibrant region of Mexico. If you missed the exhibition, you can still relive it through my CMAC show. (A special tour starts at the 12:42 mark.)
“In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play” was a stellar production from Shine! Theatre, and in particular actors Brooke Aiello and Michael Petersen. Sara Ruhl’s sharp, witty play occasioned my favorite extended “lead” (the top of a story, for those not enrolled in my media-writing class) of 2022, which I liked so much upon rereading it just now that I’ve decided to reproduce it for you, just because I can:
“Dear God in His heaven!” she cries, marking the first orgasm in “In the Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play).”
It isn’t the last.
A reader musing on the above line of dialogue might have a number of questions: Under what circumstances does the exuberant moment occur? Considering the small size of the Back Room at The Revue, how close will I be sitting to it? If a writer wants to be true to the character in the play who is exclaiming this sentiment – if a writer (yes, it’s me) wants to express exactly how Mrs. Daldry would punctuate this quotation as the words fly from her mouth – should the “g” in God and “h” in His be uppercase or lowercase?
I’m happy to answer all three:
1. She is using a vibrator. Or, to be more precise, having a vibrator used on her.
2. You could be sitting in the second row, like I was, which I’d estimate was about 8-10 feet from the action.
3. Of course Mrs. Daldry would use a big G and a big H! It’s the late 19th century in upstate New York, for Heaven’s (with a big “H”) sake. She’s a good, churchgoing lady, I’m sure, one who would be proper even in her most intimate moments.
‘Electricidad’ pumped up the voltage.
”Electricidad” is one of two plays by Luis Alfaro from his “Othello” trilogy on this list, the other being “Oedipus el Rey” at Selma Arts Center. For “Electricidad,” director Gina Sandi-Diaz gave us a Fresno State show that crackled.
In his adaptation of Sophocles’ classic “Electra,” Alfaro weaves the timelessness of bare-knuckle, cutthroat family human drama into the specificity of a modern-day (but still somehow mystical and magical) East Side of the City of “Los.” (Alfaro indicates the tiempo is “right now, baby.”) The combination sizzles. Adding to the impact were stellar performances from Ellie West, Carlos Sanchez and Dalicia
The glaciers are ‘Melt’-ing.
One of the priorities for Fresno Philharmonic music director Rei Hotoda is music by contemporary composers. As evidenced by the first Masterworks concert of the 2022-23 season, featuring Juan Pablo Contreras’ “MeChicano.”
Another commissioned standout was Kenneth Froelich’s “Melt.” It’s not every day a composer tackles a topic like climate change, and it was very effective. He told me he sees the piece on different levels. On one hand, he was clearly inspired by climate change and the concern he feels that should be taken deadly seriously. On the other hand, he hopes that there’s room for people who might not be on the same wavelength as him politically – but who can still appreciate the emotional intensity he brings to the piece.
Chester Arnold’s retrospective soared.
In the midst of several blockbuster shows and big names at the Fresno Art Museum — Andy Warhol, Alexander McQueen — my favorite was the first-time retrospective of the Northern Californiapainter Chester Arnold. irst-time retrospective of the work of Northern California painter Chester Arnold. Featuring 20 large-scale paintings and a number of miniatures, the exhibition filled the front of the museum with a lineup of intriguing narrative images, many of them with fascinating perspectives and dreamy, surreal influences.
Manuel Muñoz is a native of Dinuba, and even though he lives in Arizona now, he writes only about the Valley – because he knows it so well. His latest book of short stories, titled “The Consequences,” spotlights among other themes people who are often treated as invisible: agricultural laborers whose lives are disrupted by deportations and border crossings. My phone interview with Muñoz, on the occasion of him coming to speak at Fresno State, was one of my literary highlights of the year.