jcm’s Top 10 Show Picks of 2018

WELCOME to my 10th ANNUAL (!) post of the finest shows that the SF Bay Area has to offer. I’ve loved taking in local live/stage shows all these years, and sharing my resonances and reactions with you. In that vein, I pass on to you Langhorne Slim’s poignant message (from the Rooster Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, my #5 entry below): “Wishing you peace, love & ALL THE SWEET SHIT in life!”

Especially in the past few years, the amount of what I’ve been able to experience has necessarily lessened, so this is hardly a comprehensive list. But I know what I like, and am grateful to have sampled even this much crème on top of another year of shows!

What were your favorite Bay Area performances of the year? Please share in the comments.

1) Erasure, World Be Gone Tour, The Masonic, August 17

Andy Bell gave us all (esp. the gays) a lesson in what 50-something can look like. He displayed boundless energy and a giving spirit, a fearless and bold play with his sensuality/sexuality (donning a faux tattoo full body tight), a voice nearly as fresh as in their earliest recordings (starting in ’86)…and THIS from someone who has had BOTH hips replaced! It was wonderful to dance with them for nearly half the concert. It was nearly impossible to stay in our seats.

erasure Fredy Rimando

(credit: Fredy Rimando)

Their setlist included every hit I craved to hear: Oh L’Amour, Ship of Fools, Breathe, Just a Little Love, Chains of Love, Sweet Summer Loving, Victim of Love, Phantom Bride, World Be Gone, Who Needs Love Like That, Atomic (Blondie cover), Love to Hate You, Blue Savannah, Drama!, Love You to the Sky, Sometimes, Always, Stop!, Encore: A Little Respect

2) Stacey Kent, I Know I Dream, The Fairmont, February 24

This was my second time seeing Stacey, her husband and bandleader Jim Tomlinson at the Fairmont. This concert was just as transporting. I lapped up the broad range of songs she performed, from diverse cultures and song traditions. But it is her Bossa Nova repertoire that will remain my favorite from her. Thankfully, this setlist offered at least 4 of them. Stacey always leaves me wanting more…just like travel, love, and sex, which most of her songs are about.

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Highlights included: Make it Up, (a Jobim song), Les Amours Perdues, Happy Talk (by Rogers & Hammerstein), The Very Thought of You, Polka Dots and Moonbeams (Sinatra’s first hit, a requested song), Bullet Train, To Say Goodbye (by Edu Lobo, Brazilian), La Rua Madureira, Je Palle d’amore (by Nina Ferrer, performed as a samba, with a more hopeful air), Mon Jardin Hiver

The lyrics to their original, Make it Up really resonated to me:

“I love you and you love me
And I can’t tell you why
You’d have thought by now we’d have figured out
The reason and the rhyme
You love me and I love you
And it’s been this way so long
That if we knew what were doing
We’d be doing it all wrong
So let’s just make it up as we go along.”

3) Roberto Devereux, San Francisco Opera, September 18

Sondra Radvanovsky displayed dramatic and vocal fearlessness. A voice of this grand scale (aka true dramatic coloratura) was a treat in this repertoire. It made me crave some Wagner rep. from her, perhaps Senta, or even an attempt at Isolde, neither or which she has performed. Her final mad scene was surprisingly beautiful, and affecting. Her haggard and harried appearance never disrupted the sung line. It elicited a level of feeling from me the rest of the opera hadn’t, as much of it was VERY technically polished, but perhaps a bit too period.

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(credit: Cory Weaver)

I really liked the production, particularly the mini opera that accompanied the overture. Jamie Barton delivered gobs of glorious tone, and with great dramatic commitment, even if some of the surtitles, and period cultural considerations elicited laughter. As always, she called to mind Marilyn Horne’s fach, but with cleaner technique. I could have done without her rape by the Duke.

Russell Thomas was very impressive too. It was great to see this trio back together again after our ’14 SFO Norma!

4) The Humans, Orpheum Theatre, June 12

This one-act play, written by Stephen Karam, and directed by Joe Mantello opened on Broadway in 2016. This tour brought big names Daisy Eagen (Brigid), and Richard Thomas (Erik).

I was very drawn to the placidity and ease of the character of Rich, a social worker, played affectively by Luis Vega. The moments of calm were few and far between, and therefore had a strong affect. Aspects of the interruptive, and rapid-fire family dynamic had some cadence like a neurotic Woody Allen family, but without that lightness. In this context, it recalled an opera (albeit spoken), with finely textured and overlayed voices, in parts such as baritone, alto, soprano, etc.

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Allegedly, it was originally intended to be a thriller. That shifted before it opened, but some vestiges of that could still be felt. There was quite a bit of dissonance and fear throughout, and the trauma of 9/11 very much hovered, also via the inexplicable banging and noises upstairs.

There were many familiar and clear archetypes and stereotypes at play: the controlling Jewish mother, the angsty lesbian daughter…

5) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Golden Gate Park, Rooster Stage+, October 5

At the Rooster Stage, I was introduced to Langhorne Slim, and Gregory Allen Isakov performed one of our favorites, “The Stable Song.”

Patti Griffin had us all dancing and swaying with “Shine a Different Way,” and “When it Don’t Come Easy.” The lyrics in the latter: “If you forget to love me, I’ll remind you.” really landed.

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(credit: James Tensuan, SFC)

Alison Krauss delivered studio-perfect performances, with layered harmonies, including “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart,” and an a cappella encore of “It is Well With My Soul.”

Across the street, “Live from Here”” host Chris Thile, performed with Gaby Moreno, and Lindsay Buckingham delivered his first solo appearance after his split with Fleetwood Mac. We saw him perform two solos with electric guitar: “Never Going Back Again,” from the group’s blockbuster 1977 album, “Rumours,” and “Big Love,” from its 1987 release, “Tango In the Night.”

6) Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce, Curran Theatre, Nov. 28

I just couldn’t resist finding out what all the buzz was about with Taylor. A few of my drag family had lip-synced to “Judy’s” numbers in the past, but I’d never seen Judy live. (Judy is Taylor’s preferred pronoun.)

The highlights of this show included the second half opener “Winchester Cathedral” (Crosby, Stills & Nash) and its accompanying costume by Machine Dazzle (!). Overall, I preferred the simpler, more traditional numbers (no surprise there), including “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night” (which elicited tears), and the perfect encore of “How Can I Keep From Singing.”

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(credit: Little Fang Photography)

Scene highlights included “Consensual Touch Santa,” the Angel Gabriel burlesque (performed by James Tigger Ferguson), and “O Holy Night,” ripe with raunchy and playful interpretive (pagan/queer…) gestures and audience participation. 

The presence and backing by the local Elder Choir was quite moving, and I loved this focus and construct in these times of such a focus on youth in our culture and commercialism.

The aspect of tribute to Taylor’s drag mother, Mother Flawless Sabrina throughout was moving, as well as the integration of family trauma into Judy’s stories. Judy was amazingly potent voice, always at 200% of commitment and presence.

I never thought I’d see a Christmas tree descend a pole (as in pole dancing or fire house pole). Now I can say I have.

7) Head Over Heals, Curran Theatre, April

This Go-Go’s jukebox musical with Miss Peppermint, Rachael York, and a fantastic cast made up this pre-Broadway run. The opening scene to “We Got the Beat” was jaw-droppingingly sexy and potent, in performance and costumery. The highest point, which it never fully reached again, but the show still gave a lot to recommend it.

A few of my favorite iambic pentameter verse lines: “I am not vain. i am objective. <sideeye>” and (to paraphrase) “dost thou sever my creative fugue. it will induce trauma.” I’m still trying to work that one in to everyday convo!

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(credit: Joan Marcus, The Associated Press)

I wasn’t all that into the Go Go’s during their fame, but I certainly felt young again with all these ’80s tunes rushing by. 

The costumes were DIVINE, particularly the fabric and silhouettes of the ensembles’. And I favored the gender non-confirming aspect of how the men were dressed. Spencer Liff’s choreo was fresh and inventive. The spoken verse and beat of the music really were a perfect match. A great vision come to life.

8) Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, Freight & Salvage, May 18

This performance was part of the third annual Berkeley Bluegrass Festival. Laurie appeared with guitarist Molly Tuttle and fiddler Brandon Godman, Sean Watkins with The Bee Eaters, and Crying Uncle!

Laurie’s highlights included: “(You Can’t Choose Who You Love) Love Chooses You,” “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” “My Walking Stick” (Irving Berlin, performed as a Tango here), “The Blackest Crow,” and “Texas Blue Bonnets” (with Molly Tuttle).

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(credit: Gene Balzer)

Lyrics excerpt from Love Chooses You:

“And it seems we’re two people within the same circle
It’s drawn tighter and tighter till you’re all that I see
I’m full and I’m empty and you’re pouring through me
Like a warm rain fallin’ through the leaves on a tree…

Tell me now if I’m wrong
Are you feelin’ the same
Are your feet on the ground
Are you callin’ my name
Do you lie awake nights
Please say you do
‘Cause you can’t choose who you love
Love chooses you.”

Crying Uncle included founders Teo and Miles Quale. Teo was on mandolin and vocals, and Miles on fiddle and vocals. They brought me to tears several times, and evoked plenty of laughter and playfulness too. They have an insane fleetness and virtuosity at such young ages.

With both Crying Uncle and Sean Watkins, yearning for more textual importance, which Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum brought in spades. The story is half of bluegrass for me.

9) #Shesus Christ Superstar, Ray of Light Theatre, May 25

Amazingly, Ray of Light Theatre offered something conceptual brilliant and new, and yet confirmed they did nothing to change the score nor lyrics. The all-female cast and concept bright about some very provoking and compelling iconic moments. Seeing Mary Magdalene nurture and care for Shesus, and the sense of a female tribe, in the form of the apostles was very palpable and strong.

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Hayley Lovegren as Herod (pictured above) was hysterical and offered perfect comic timing. Maita Ponce as Mary Magdalene found a perfect balance of sweet and edgy, i.e. warmth with grunge. Jocelyn Picket as Judas was so tireless vocally. And Heather Orth as Caiaphas was just campy enough, including her classic cocktail moment/exit, and the only one able to sing all of the original low notes in the score, which were very impactful. I especially loved the moments where Orth was backed by her political cohort, in power dresses…smacking perfectly of a Vladimir Putin cabinet.

Shesus (Janelle LaSalle) had a phenomenal and expressive voice. Her acting was a bit remote and restrained throughout, but she brought 400% in her Gethsemane solo, directed dramatically to God above, in the form of the stage spotlight from the balcony.

10) Sandra Bernhard’s Sandemonium, Blue Note Napa, Nov. 17

There is something comforting about sitting at the feet (literally, we were right next to the stage) of a minister of her particular brand of sass, and sharp outspokenness. She still has her edge, and her “voice,” and it still feels essential! Her magic lens is that, like Kathy Griffin, she manages to be both an insider and an outsider in the celebrity constellation. In this vein, she delivered the sincere response of a plebeian public (aka us), in her short story about receiving an email invitation from Jane Fonda to a party, which was meant for Sandra Bullock. It was the best moment of the night.

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(credit: Michael Buckner / Getty Images for F.E.C.)

The 90-minute show was a saucy mix of cabaret, stand-up, and rock-n-roll. She brought her raw singing voice, and fearless, ballsy take no prisoners approach to a diverse variety of songs. Highlights included her tambourine laden, revival-style meeting rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” celebrating spiritual freedom. Most poignant was “Everything’s Alright,” from Jesus Christ Superstar.

She referenced her own position in the #metoo movement, suffering at the hands of male comics over the years. Her stand-up primarily offered her perspectives on national and local politics. She shared some seemingly off-the-cuff commentary on various campy magazine ads, via her hotel room and flight. This part may have gone on a bit too long for such a short show. I enjoyed when she folded in humor and candor about her wife and daughter, giving us what feels like real insights into her personal life. 

Additional PERFORMANCES of note:

From the West Edge Opera, Peleas et Melisande, August 4th
Kendra Bloom, Melisande / She is a star in the making, with a fantastic instrument. She never over-acted. In a short talk by Frederica von Stade before the season began, she touted this prodigy of hers. She wasn’t kidding. Clearly big things are on the horizon for this singer.

Afrain Solis, Golaud / He offered the most fully realized performance, and legit operatic technique of the night. He’s ready for the big stages. I feel we were lucky to see him before that ascension happens.

From ACT’s production of Walking on the Moon, June
Zach Reznick, Walker / In the role of the hippie, he offered mellifluous and unforced voice and acting through. And had a beautiful face and physique to boot, as well as star quality. Shades of one of my favorites, Gavin Creel…AND he’d make a perfect Berger in HAIR too!

Support local performing arts and artists!

Top 10 Movies of the Year:

McQueen (documentary)
The Favourite
Won’t You Be My Neighbor (docu.)
Black Panther
Black KKKLansman
Ideal Home
Bel Canto
The Puzzle
8th Grade
The Tales of Armistead Maupin (docu.)

Unique films of interest:
Maria By Callas: In Her Own Words (docu.)
Paradise Lost (São Paolo)

Must-see new series:
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
POSE
Wanderlust (with Toni Collette)
GLOW
The Crown

(Comedy) Special:
Nanette

See last year’s list here.

…and share your favorite ’18 Bay Area performances in the comments below.

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