jcm’s Top 10 Show Picks of ‘15

It’s time for my seventh annual Top 10 Bay Area round-up. Seventh?! Can it be? As always, this doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive Bay Area review list, more a fun way to highlight what was most memorable for me in ’15. As a student working full-time, there are plenty of great offerings I have to pass on (i.e. dance and plays are sadly missing from this Top 10), but this tradition is a constant reminder of the embarrassment of riches we have to draw upon here. No doubt one of the things that keeps me in the Bay Area, despite the ever-unfriendly cost of living. Care to share your favorites of ’15?

1) Stacey Kent, Venetian Room, The Fairmont Hotel

Stacey was near the top of my list in ’11. She was slated to return to SF in ’13, but had to cancel. After that long wait, she returned at last again this year. She and her band were as transfixing as before. Few can weave the spell she does. There is a sort of personalized intimacy about her craft.

In some patter between songs she shared that she had taken part in the commemorative Corcovado festival honoring the Cristo Redentor monument in Rio de Janeiro, telling magical stories of meeting and working with the great Marcos Valle. With excited humility she said that one of the Brazilian jazz greats had upheld her to the younger generation as the model for modern bossa nova technique (perhaps more than even the current native Brazilian singers, was the assumption). I wasn’t surprised by this. Her clean, distinct, but always compelling tone and delivery are like a modern day Astrid, or Blossom Dearie. Never to be mistaken for another, but in that lineage.


In this concert she performed This Happy Madness, Só Danço Samba, The Face I Love (Marcos Valle), Waiter Oh Waiter, O Barquinho, The Changing Lights, So Nice, One Note Samba, How Insensitive, Waters of March (duet with husband, Jim Tomlinson), I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face, and Ice Hotel.

After she performed “How Insensitive” she said “I be that hit home.” To see if that’s true, check out the lyrics here.

2) Les Troyens, Opening Night, SF Opera

This opera sat on my wishlist for decades. There was a false start during the Rosenberg era, when it was announced but pulled due to the onset of the recession. It was last mounted at SFO in the late ‘60s. So rarely performed, and so challenging to mount, it’s no surprise it took so long for the SFO to do so. It was worth the wait.

Opening night held three surprises. The first was the 25th Anniversary of Susan Graham’s debut with SFO. The second was the onstage presentation to La Graham of the SF Opera Medal by David Gockley. This whole affair was very moving, and included long, rapturous applause. During her acceptance speech, she spoke about her debut as Minerva, in Ulysses, as well as notable memories from Iphigenie…, and Xerxes. The third was that this was one of only a few performances that included stellar high tenor Bryan Hymel, as he pulled out early in the run.

Les Troyens,ROH; 20th June 2012,   Les Troyens,ROH; 20th June 2012,

The orchestra, chorus, and ballet were essential to the production’s success. Highlights included Graham’s devastating Adieu, fière cité, during which she stood onstage alone, in front of a plain black curtain, and appeared to be welling up as she sang. The audience was rapt. The Nuits d’ivresse duet was sensual and intoxicating, with Hymel particularly tender and affecting. He had a more slender voice than expected, but a thrilling top, which he is lauded for. Chong Wang and Rene Barbera delivered glorious ariettes of sorts. Antonacci proved her singing-actress status. Sasha Cooke was stunning, offering a dark, clarinet-like tone. She seemed a true vocal successor to Susan, and it felt as if one could see a passing of the torch here, in their particular vocal fach. The metallic-looking horse was a stunning, giant malleable puppet, not unlike the dragon from the SFO Ring Cycle. Berlioz’s orchestration was like a soothing bath.

3) Mighty Real, The Brava Theater

This musical based on the life of local, SF legend Sylvester was the love-child of a gay couple from NY. Broadway producers had turned it down, but they championed this important SF story. One of them, Anthony Wayne starred in the title role. Another producer, Cheryl Lee Ralph, was present, and offered a moving speech after the bows. She shared that “Sylvester was a man who walked in the light of his own truth.” Indeed. The musical made that loud and clear. And they brought him very much to life.


Many from the local City of Refuge fellowship were in the audience. This added to the aliveness of the show, through audience reactions. Wayne as Sylvester offered a falsetto that never faltered and stellar storytelling abilities. The supporting cast was very memorable, especially the women who portrayed Martha Wash and Tina Turner (in Proud Mary). It made me long for the disco days, which I am too young to have fully experienced (aside from a long-time Donna Summer obsession via cassettes).

It shared a story of sadness and loss, but also transcendence. It was deeply moving to mix with men seated near us who lived through this SF era.

4) Die Meistersinger, SF Opera

What would make one insane enough to choicefully sit for an opera 5:45 hours long, after a full day of school? My rational brain alone couldn’t answer that, but my heart and soma can. The score is a good start. It offers the same lushness and earthy sensuality of Tristan und Isolde.

The last time I saw it was at The Met in the early ‘90s. That time, I sat in nearly the last row of the house (if not THE last row) next to an older German woman who laughed throughout. I found her more interesting than the opera and had a hard time not nodding off. I wasn’t ready for it, and clearly wasn’t getting the humor as she was.


This production landed as fresh and on point to me, and I never tired of it. It was graced by a tenor (Brandon Jovanovich) and soprano who called to mind Golden Age voices and required no suspension of disbelief. Rachel Willis-Sørensen brought the refulgence and tone of Christa Ludwig with a top extension. She is my biggest new diva crush. I long to hear her in many other more meaty roles.

The choral “Awake!” at the end was like a somatic flood of humanity and sacred grace. Sitting next to Terri Steuart, Prez of the Wagner Society of Northern California didn’t hurt. She out-opera-queened us a hundredfold! I also loved the production curtain, which presented a sideways, sepia-toned handwritten score.

5) Kanakolu: 30 Years of Hula, Palace of Legion of Honor

Patrick Makuakane and Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu presented this overwhelmingly beautiful array of hula dance. I can see this becoming an annual tradition, as there is a feeling of coming home, and certainly a strong sense of spirituality and ritual about it. I watched in wonder at the humanity, joy of life, unaffected sensuality and sexuality, and physical grace on display throughout, as well as the legacy of tales and spirituality.


There were too many highlights in this very thoughtfully programmed show to note, but I was impressed by the breadth of musical genres represented, from Roy Orbison’s/Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou, to Boy George’s Bow Down Mister, to traditional songs. It was impossible to look away from leading dancer Ryan Fuimaono. He’s quite a master of this craft.

6) The Rocky Horror Show, Halloween, Victoria Theatre, Ray of Light Theatre

Having performed as a Phantom in ROLT’s last production of Rocky, this was a must-see. And, what better night to see it on than Halloween?! It’s difficult to separate out the vibe and energy of the holiday from the show itself, but both synergistically made for a memorable, charged, naughty night.


D’Arcy Drollinger as Frankenfurter was a slam dunk. He easily carried the night, and had the audience wrapped around his little finger. He offered a great balance of glam, and delicious camp, yet his love for the role and the show was still palpable. I found Riff Raff (Paul Hovannes) and Columbia (Mary Kalita) to be particularly compelling too. Hovannes offered a strong and welcome sexuality to the role, rather than the traditional more purely creepy take.

The giant curving staircase set offered plenty of drama and variety in the staging. The “Don’t Dream it Be It” scene felt far more spiritual, light-filled, and artistic than usual. Kudos ROLT on your Rocky redux!

7) Matt Alber, Swedish American Hall

This is Matt’s 3rd time on my list, also appearing in ‘13 and ‘14. He has damn good original material, and is master of the cover tune. He gets me every time, and his instrumentalists this time were particularly adept.


His brother Bryce offered the opening act. Armistead Maupin appeared as a special guest, reading some personal prose with instrumental accompaniment (not unlike the song “Joe Wolfe” on his latest album). His new musical partner, and boyfriend Aaron Curry joined him for a number of tunes. They are appearing as The Lonelies moving forward, and it appears he is setting aside his solo career at least for a time. That was concerning to me, but I suppose trust wherever his instincts, passion and talent take him.

Song highlights included The Wind, (a cello solo), The Sand, Handsome Man, Field Trip Buddy, Rivers and Tides, Up to My Neck in You (an ACDC cover, by The Lonelies), Rescue, Heartbreaker (by Mariah Carey!), Walk with Me, (a Kenny Rankin-inspired ACAP song), Brother Moon, Old Ghosts, End of the World, and a Mary Lambert tune. I hope that with his move to Oklahoma we don’t see him much less in SF.

8) As One, West Edge Opera

The WEO really found their stride with a season that will be hard to top, with three well-mounted operas, performed in unique venues around town. This chamber opera was mounted at the Oakland Metro in the Jack London Square area. The intimate transgender story at the center of the libretto is what got me there. I enjoyed the excitement of experiencing a world premiere in a non-traditional venue, despite the hot indoor temperature, and audible nearby traffic noises.

The score by Laura Kaminsky had familiar touches of Glass, baroque, Grieg and Christmas song woven in. In this way it was a bit of a pastiche, however I enjoyed the music. The first 2/3 range dramatically quite true for me, however a transgender friend in attendance felt the story was too basic in its expression and focus, and longed for more depth. Perhaps too Trans-101?


I really enjoyed Dan Kempson, the baritone, in his dramatic commitment, natural presence and easy vocal technique. The opening scene provided the central prop of a tall elliptical floor mirror (with an empty center). This offered a fascinating dual pantomime, with each of the two characters on either side of it, gazing at one another/themself. I found this very effective and moving.

The vocal parts soared above the instrumental ensemble, at times as if separate, perhaps to speak to the disconnect between the character and the world around them.

9) Kiran Ahluwalia, SFJazz Center, Miner Auditorium

I discovered this artist via her international hit “Saffar.” The album which that song comes from is my favorite of hers to date – the perfect melding of east and west. This concert featured many songs from her latest album Sanata: Stillness, which stylistically does not resonate as much to me, but experiencing these songs live not surprisingly gave them more life.


She started the concert singing her biggest hit off Sanata…, Hayat, through a megaphone. That gave it a strong edge, and force. As she introduced the next song Jhanjra, she shared: “I think about civil war within ourselves. How do we deal with it? We stand up, and we win.” I appreciated these perspectives, in encouraging us to look inward. Next up was a Punjabi song, called Jaane Na, and it had an amazing beatbox-like intro (ala Bobby Mcferrin). Tamana was about not having shame in one’s female sexuality. She went into the audience and cupped her hands to her mouth as she sang, as if she strongly wanted this message to be heard, or was shouting into a vacuum of sound. Ijuk pajieyani (Pakistani) was about intoxication. Shaam-E-Gham was a ghazal about unrequited love, using a poem written by the last Emperor of India. He was a great poet not a great warrior, and had a great love of India. Mustt mustt was also Pakistani, and about being intoxicated with the divine. She shared that “It’s a conversation…and please take away darkness that surrounds us.” Her final song, Lament was almost psychedelic and chaotic. She hypnotically struck the cymbal erratically.

Please return to the Bay Area Kiran! You have almost single-handedly introduced me to the music of India, and I so appreciate this journey you are taking me on, and for all those in the West you are opening musical doors for. My desire to experience India is stoked by your music. Your voice is important!

10) Patty Griffin, The Fillmore
Darlingside: opening act
Billy Harvey: bass, piano, harmonica

Patty spoke to how special it was to return to The Fillmore. You could feel that vibe. Such a soulful, commanding presence and voice came out of a quite unassuming and compact figure. Initially, I thought of her as a Bonnie Raitt-type. Some of that comparison still rings true as far as genre, but she is clearly her own artist.


Highlights included Moon Song, Servant of Love, Girls and Boys, Wade in the Water, Made of the Sun (dedicated to her mom), Good and Gone (eerie), Hurt a Little While, Heavenly Day, Let it Be the Night, Truth #2, Tony, We Shall All Be Reunited (full cast)

Other notable performances:

• Nadine Sierra as the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor, SF Opera
She is having her moment right now, with major debuts at SF Opera and The Met. Her time has come, and it is well deserved. A rare talent.

• Hadleigh Adams, Cabaret, Martunis
Highlights: Vissi d’arte excerpt, “All Through the Evening” from the AIDS Quilt Cycle, and “Craigslist Ads” by Gabriel Cajun. His story of coming out to his father, and his father’s very difficult response was deeply moving and saddening.

Love and Information, ACT, Strand Theater, Inaugural Show
The simple staging and lighting, and use of the space were notable.
Christina Liang was particularly compelling. Less effective moments felt a bit like the SNL skit (i.e. “performance arty”), but the overall experience of the Strand was exciting. An important new theatre for SF in a time of more closures.

• Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stern Grove Festival
With Bhi Bhiman, opening act, and Aoife O’Donovan, guest star

• Left & Right Shark (Katy Perry concert), and Imagine Dragons, Genentech Gives Back Concert, AT&T Park

Most Overrated:

Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye, Orpheum Theater
Well, she IS 82?! Perhaps I should be more forgiving. I enjoyed the opening biographical video, but once she hit the stage I expected more numbers, and instead got mostly her roasting/heckling the front row, which was awkward to me.

What were your Bay Area favorites for ’15?

Check out last year’s list.

1 comment so far

  1. […] Check out last year’s list […]

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