jcm’s Top 10 Show Picks of 2016

I’m back for my annual musings on the finest SF/Bay Area live performances of the year (#whatiattended)! As always, there’s a very healthy dose of opera, musical theatre, and jazz here, so they are more than well represented. And, I’m well aware of some great shows I had to miss because of my budget, or other commitments, but alas…it’s still a scrumptious array. Reflecting on these is a favorite way I savor and reexperience them once again.

What were your favorite Bay Area performances of the year?

1) Champion, Opera Parallèle, SFJAZZ Center

This unique jazz opera by Terence Blanchard is about the life of world champion boxer Emile Griffith, including his struggle with trauma-related dementia. A deeply affecting, tragic story, with gay content that was very impactful on a personal level. It features a great score, which deserves to land on the stages of the top American opera companies. It was heading to the Kennedy Center next, so it at least also had that audience. Unfortunately, it’s up against Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird” (featuring Lawrence Brownlee), so I fear it’s doubtful two jazz/jazz-oriented operas can have major legs. But, I get ahead of myself. This evening (Feb. 27th) had a sense of event, with Tuck and Patti, and Terence Blanchard in the audience, and lingering in the lobby afterwards as well. And we had the good fortune there of briefly meeting the contemporary opera legend, baritone Robert Orth, who passionately played Howie Albert.

The opening scene was so alive it reached out and grabbed the audience. The orchestral palette was rich, with the percussion and bass real stand outs. The orchestral hand-clapping-as-percussion really resonated. Former Merolini Karen Slack lit up the stage as Emelda Griffith, as did Arthur Woodley as the elder Emile, who was devastatingly real. The Herman’s Hole/”pussy” scene, with its fluid sexual expression was compelling and confusing, reflecting his confusion and the surrounding culture. Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny ‘Kid’ Paret was also very touching, a great physical actor, with a pleasing lyric voice in the midst of all the dramatic voices. A couple of scenes featured an actual boxer/dancer/percussionist who moved onstage in an unstoppable fashion.

Some lighting/projection cues revealed glaring flaws, and a couple of voices sounded tired. Also, where we sat there were frequent challenging sight lines, but it was thrilling to experience this opera in a true hall to jazz.

2) Dolly Tour: Pure & Simple, Shoreline Pavilion (Mountain View)

Not much needs to be said about this legendary woman. There may be many great drag impersonators of her, but there is only 1 Dolly. Her mix of goodness, simplicity, and yet worldliness and acceptance seems to be without peer.


It was a lovely night out as well, reminding me of concerts of my youth at Riverbend in Cincinnati. My favorite songs/moments included “Little Sparrow/If I Had Wings,” “9 to 5,” and two vocal quartets: “I’ll Fly Away,” and “The Seeker,” which skewed more towards bluegrass. Also, “Coat of Many Colors” and her new single “Pure and Simple” were really lovely.

I was in some disbelief that she sang it all live. The nuance and tone was so fresh…as if she was 25 again. She offered many quotable moments. When inviting a handsome band member to the spotlight for a featured musical moment, she shared: “I said I was married I didn’t say I was blind.” Her costumes take a page from Elvis’ book…bell bottoms and sequins for days!

Click here for her full set list

3) Cabaret, National Tour, Golden Gate Theatre

The Emcee, Randy Harrison surely brought in audience based on his Queer as Folk celebrity, but he exceeded my expectations on stage. He offered a more solid, robust voice and technique than I expected, and than most of this role previous exponents had. I also appreciated that he used his voice in a somewhat less caricature-y fashion. He expressed plenty of lithe, engaging movement as well.


Photo: Joan Marcus

Andrea Goss, a petite Sally Bowles, was fantastic, offering a gamine, pixie appeal. Her small-scale delivered a big presence and impression. My date, who has seen a dozen or so Cabaret productions put her in his top 3…the slew of past celebrity Sallys not holding up real great by comparison.

As is often the case with this show, the love story between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz tugged on many a heart string. The set design, and how it was used was engaging throughout, integrating the orchestra in an authentic way, true to the milieu.

4) David Gockley Farewell Gala, SF Opera

A momentous gala comes to an opera house only once every decade or so. This night offered one of those at SF Opera, honoring outgoing artistic director David Gockley. Hosts Frederica Von Stade and Thompson Hampson were almost unbearable, delivering mostly awkward, seemingly forced banter, including “…and I’ll see you downstairs”-flirty type comments. And Dede Wilsey and the big guns didn’t really need mic time either, in my opinion. Someone with more gravitas, like Catherine Cooke or Anna Maria Martinez should have been emcee. Or, JUST Flicka, who would have surely kept it classy.


Photo: Drew Altizer

Also, I didn’t care for side projection panels with the artist’s name, aria and opera. They were well enough designed, but these galas are for the real fans who know all that…so, it wasn’t needed and a bit distracting. A gala is most effective when the art is allowed to speak for itself.

BUT, now for the good part(s). It was such a joy to get lost/fall apart/bask in the sonic field and emotional outpouring of that starry constellation. Highlights included Anna Maria Martinez’ “Ain’t it a Pretty Night,” offered rapt stillness and passionate control, Michael Fabiano‘s “Quando le sere al placido,” and his SMOLDERING Manon duet with the glorious Nadine Sierra! Also, Dolora Zajick’s immense “Voi lo Sapete,” Sasha Cooke’s tearful “Adieu Fière Cité” and Karita Mattila in the Act i finale of Die Walküre.

Such gratitude for this wealth of talent and prowess. I love this art form. We must keep supporting it!

5) Fred Hersch, Sweetwater Music Hall (Mill Valley)

I’ve been under the spell of this artist for decades, first discovering him on the Janis Siegel album SHOW HOT WIND. More recently, I found that he is also from Cincinnati (Walnut Hills H.S.), and is an out gay man. His dramatic and tender story of surviving a month-long AIDS-related coma are featured in the new documentary “The Ballad of Fred Hersch.” All this connecting me even more to his art.

This venue has a wonderful ambience, and aside from the bar noise (i.e. modern register), is the perfect, intimate setting for such a show.


Photo: jcm

My favorite numbers were “For No One,” “My Old Man,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Valentine,” the least embellished/improvised number, and most traditional in approach.

The full set list, in order: “Oiha Maria” (Jobim), “O Grande Amore” (Jobim), “West Virginia Rose” (a song for his mother), Down Home (by Bill Frisell, guitarist), Whirl (dedicated to Cincinnati ballerina, Susanne Farrell), “For No One” (from the Beatles’ Revolver) My Old Man (Joni Mitchell), Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and “At the Close of the Day,” the Brazilian “Doce a Coco (ragtime-like), “After You Go,” “The Nearness of You, a Monk tune (he said he always ends with a ballad and a Monk song), and “Valentine.”

6) Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil, Paramount Theatre (Oakland)

It was a thrill to be able to see Caetano Veloso live for the first time. My Rio trip in 2015 further whet my appetite for Brazilian jazz, and his tender, sweet voice has summoned me, ala Chet Baker, for many years. I didn’t grow up with this music, but this concert further helped me feel like I did. The set backdrop featured a collage of abstract flags, full of vibrant Brazilian colors, with geometric shapes appearing and disappearing depending on the lighting. It was simple, yet compelling, without ever distracting.

As the concert got going, the audience brought forth the most rhythmic and on-the-beat clapping I’ve ever heard.


Photo: jcm

There was an awareness that this may be their “farewell tour,” at least as a duo, yet Caetano’s voice is as fresh as a 20-year old tenor, with the wisdom and expression of a sage. And Gil’s guitar playing as passionate and fleet as the same. In trying to connect them and their very special dynamic to any similar duo in my culture, the closest I could come up with was Simon and Garfunkel. They embodied grace, style, vulnerability, open-heartedness, ease, and quiet command. Two men sitting like this and collaborating so intimately was profound…energetically the kind of man I want to be in the world.

Tonada de Luna Llena, performed by Caetano was a real highlight. The full set list (in order) was: Coração vagabundo, Tropicália, Marginália II, É luxo só (João Gilberto cover), É de manha, As camélias, Sampa, Terra, Nine Out of Ten, Odeio Você, Tonada de Luna Llena (Simón Díaz cover), Eu vim da Bahia, Super homem, Come prima (Tony Dallara cover), Esotérico, Tres Palabras (Javier Solís cover), Drão, Não Tenho Medo da Morte, Expresso 2222, Toda menina baiana, São João xangô menino, Nossa Gente (Avisa Lá), Andar com fé, Filhos de Gandhi. ENCORES: Desde que o samba é samba, Domingo no parque, A luz de tieta, Leãozinho, Three Little Birds (Bob Marley & The Wailers cover).

7) Opera in the Park, Sharon Meadows, Golden Gate Park

This year’s OitP landed on a not atypical freezing summer day in SF. This no doubt kept many people at home, as the crowd wasn’t nearly as robust as usual, but it was still an indispensable day, given the lineup and selections.

The Tender Land Overture and later Elgar Nimrod Variation were very soulful and welcoming. The latter was the first part of the beautiful 9/11 tribute. Larry Brownlee is a god. His “Pour Mon âme” was truly buoyant, spirited and seemingly with great ease, despite 9 high-Cs. He literally brought the “sun,” as one wasn’t to be found in sight. His “All Night, All Day” spiritual left not a dry eye on the meadow. So tender and naturally rendered. Here’s his studio recording of that song.


Video Image: Arnie Gubins

Other highlights included J’nai Bridge’s “O ma lyre immortale,” George Ganidze’s “Nemico de la Patria”. Lucas Meecham was a vocal delight in both Tchaikovsky pieces, with his warm, always well placed, on-the-breath technique. It’s always a treat to hear Berlioz, so I appreciated Irene Roberts’ “L’amour l’ardente flamme,” particularly her radiant top range. I thought it strange that J’Nai sang “He’s Got The Whole World in His HAND.” Although lovely, that was an amusing distraction.

All in all, it was one of the most pleasing programs here in years, as I didn’t have to slog through any cutesy duets or greatest hits arias (aside from the Largo al Factotum). Good work SFO and artists!

8) The Oldest Living Cater Waiter, SF Fringe Festival, Piano Fight

This one-man show was written by and featured Michael Patrick Gaffney. It was voted Best of Fringe! He delivered it with such commitment, including what felt like real tears, which were also elicited from the audience. He and it was engaging, vivid, incredibly personal, tender, uproarious!


It shared such universal themes of anxiety around and awareness of whether we are leaving a mark, or not. Of feeling valued, or not valued. Of the struggles of urban survival, as a creative person. And the struggles of life, and our own self-worth. It included a positively hysterical Kristen Chenoweth story, which I won’t spoil here, as the show will surely be remounted. But, let’s just say, they went to the same high school.

It was so nice to see a show in SF that’s not a tour, and that is of the quality of something Off-Broadway. Refreshing!

9) Aida, SF Opera

Admittedly, RETNA’s creative collaboration on this production is what got my date and I out to see it. Well, AND Verdi, of course. None of the singers alone were enough of a draw on paper. This score just has such a rich, fragrant sense of place, it feels like travel in itself.

Leah Crocetto was very committed, and offered plenty of vocal delicacy and strength throughout. The upper most notes were not floated ala the finest Verdian sopranos, but she didn’t shy away from them. Ekaterina Semenchuk really brought it in the Ministry of Heaven Scene. Brian Jagde has a huge voice, summoning a lot of Vickers/Kaufman, baritonal and throaty tone in the Tomb Scene.


Photo: Cory Weaver

RETNA’s aesthetic, the stage direction, and the choreography breathed a lot of new life into the opera. The entrance of the prisoners brought tears. The more contemporary costuming and chamber opera feel accentuated the feelings of grief and loss. The choreography, particularly combined with the use and movement of the black bands of fabric hanging from above the stage was compelling. And the dance with the 8 men and 1 woman in the Triumphal March scene was genius, with woman as metaphorical spoil of war, or the feminine energy as victim in the masculine wartime.

The RETNA paintings in the lobby added a real sense of event, particularly the one in black glitter painting. That’s one I’d love to have up in my home. <add to cart>

10) Powder Her Face, West Edge Opera, 16th St. Train Station (Oakland)

West Edge Opera is doing A LOT RIGHT these days! First off, they’re offering operas that are provoking, rarely done by larger companies, or ones that are perfect for a smaller setting. Secondly, about the setting…Oakland’s 16th Street (abandoned) Train Station is a fascinating space, with decades or wear and stories that add richness and a festive sense of urban renewal to the experience. Acoustically it’s challenging, and overly resonant, especially for english-language dialogue. Thirdly, WEO is casting great young singers who are also great actors and movers.

Experiencing this opera felt like an adventure. My opera crush, the handsome Hadleigh Adams, particularly in the role of The Judge (played by The Duke) really pushed his boundaries, vocally, character-wise and physically. This titillating production, the sexual aspects of the story, and his presence were fearlessly sexual on a level more real than most opera companies would allow. The vibrant and colorful lighting was very juicy and impactful.


Photo: Cory Weaver

Emma McNairy, a stratospherically high soprano in alt brought tireless, Laura Aiken-like tones. Because of the writing for this role, many/most of high notes were sung with a glissando/flan-like affect (not sure the right term here). At times, I wished it could be left off for a clean note, given her vocal virtuosity. She was FULL of character, and embodied the eccentric nature of The Maid.

The empty, grasping energy of The Duchess (Laura Bohn) was palpable. What this character grabbed for didn’t satisfy her. A poignant statement about wallowing in the pleasures of life. Bohn and Jonathan Blalock, as the Electrician were excellent as well.

Other Performances/Moments of Note:

> Jinx Monsoon as Little Edie, Peaches Christ’s Return to Grey Gardens, Castro Theatre

> Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

> Soloists Matthew Curtis (tenor) and Harlan Hays (baritone), Messiah: Part I, St. Dominic’s Church Choir

> “Vicino a te” from Andrea Chenier, SF Opera
It was a real treat to experience this rarely performed verismo opera live. But, despite George Ganidze’s rather complete, and at times glorious assumption of Gérard, since it didn’t make the list above, I highlight the duet “Vicino a te” as a truly great moment of the year. It didn’t erase memories of Tebaldi and Corelli’s video performances, but just to hear this music live was outright melting. There is little more galvanizing and romantic than this.

Best Drag Theatre & Drag Shows:

> Star Trek Live!: “Mudd’s Women,” Oasis
Leigh Crow as Kirk, Emily McGowan as Scotty, and Jef Valentine, Persia, and Jordan L’Moore as Mudd’s Women were especially hysterical. The scene with Val and Zelda Koznofski as Bones was quite legit.The show offered a great vibe, and it was clear they were having as much fun as the audience! The script was perfect for this smart, drag handling. The blatant sexism offered much of the fun play.

> Club Inferno, Thrillpeddlers, Hynodrome
Noah Hayden lit up the stage, David Bicha was camp perfection with his big ass as Sister Amy, Birdie Bob Watt mugged hilariously, and Leah Crow a real drama queen as Lucrezia Borgia. It was playful, debauched, campy, delicious!

> Queens of 2016: The Review, Balançoire
This show was a consistently fabulous night. Most memorable numbers by Elsa Touche (call me out, I’m biased), Mary Vice, Lemon Lemoine, Sendra Rose, Militia Queen, ShangHiieee, Vanilla Meringue, and more…

jcm’s BEST MOVIES of the Year:
The Danish Girl (Dec. 2015)
Carol (Dec. 2015)
Captain Fantastic
Florence Foster Jenkins
Life, Animated
La La Land

Check out last year’s list

Happy live-performance-going in 2017!

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