jcm’s Top 10 Show Picks of 2019

I’m gaga reflecting on another rich year of San Francisco Bay Area opera, music, theatre, drag, dance… Welcome to my 11th Annual TOP 10 List! As always, reflecting on these is part of how I enjoy the pleasures of the year all over again, and an essential part of that was sharing in most of these with a good friend. I hope you enjoy perusing them as well. The top two offerings here fulfilled long-standing dreams/wishes to see each LIVE. That alone made them notable for me, even setting the amazing results aside.

What were your top shows/live artists? Share in the comments below…and hope to see you at a venue in 2020!

1) Heart: LOVE ALIVE Tour, Sept. 6

Ann Wilson is in ASTONISHING vocal shape at 69 years old…far beyond what I expected. She cast a heartfelt, passionate, witchy spell, and served up breezy, personable storytelling intros to each song, with a warmth I didn’t expect. 

It dawned on me that perhaps only because she’s still alive and kickin’, is she not considered the legend that Janis Joplin is. I mean, c’mon…this is a GODDESS in our midst! Why aren’t we bowing down before her? Even the masterful Linda Ronstadt can’t sing anymore. And this woman sounds like she’s 35. Plus, she also whipped out a masterful flute solo (ala Lizzo)…who knew?!

Heart_Ann_Wilson_Concord_Pavilion

Her sister, Nancy is not far behind at 65. It was a nearly spiritual evening, with musical highlights incl. Magic Man, Dog & Butterfly (duet), Love Alive, Mistral Wind, The Boxer (a fantastic cover of a Simon & Garfunkel favorite!), and the fabulous encores: Alone (Ann’s anthem belt), Barracuda, and Stairway to Heaven (picking up on their Kennedy Center Honors’ tribute). Their hits have always been special to me, as my siblings and I used to belt them in our falsettos, racing down Cincy freeways.

This was my first time at the Concord Pavilion, which felt like quite a trek from San Francisco (even with a friend), but in a beautiful, natural, oh so very NorCal setting. It’s similar to Shoreline, but a more dramatic, inspiring location.

2) Rusalka, SF Opera, Jun. 13 (Unofficial Final Dress Review)

My favorite international DIVA, Rachel Willis-Sørensen was in divine, refulgent voice. I always liken her timbre to Golden Age German mezzo Christa Ludwig, but with thrilling, easy high notes. (I’m thrilled to have scored tickets to see her at Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2020 as Donna Anna, in a sold out run.) She was a chameleon throughout the night, and well supported by the costume/wigs/makeup team…Act I: ala The Ring (the 2002 film), Act 2: ala Katy Perry, Act 3: ala Lady Gaga or Bowie in Labyrinth. She is no doubt the full package.

Brandon Jovanovich was virile and passionate, his Czech sounding so idiomatic (to my ears), with just the right throatiness and nasality. Yet another powerful role assumption this finest of dramatic tenors has blessedly brought to our house.

Rusalka_Rachel_Willis_Sorensen_Cory_Weaver

Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Jamie Barton was hysterical and offered a complete, 3D character. She just simply WAS Jezibaba, with a huge, booming voice. Act I was the highlight, Act III was powerful, and Act II sagged just a bit, based on the less seasoned Foreign Princess. Conductor Eun Sun Kim, recently announced as our new SF Opera Artistic Director (!) lent inspired leadership to the proceedings. I’m proud of the company for this historic promotion.

The opera ballet was surely the most playful and fun I’d ever seen (usually they feel like the bathroom or losenge break to me), with its camp, whimsy, mythic tone, and choreo by Andrew George. The Wood Nymphs were spectacular, particularly Natalie Image, who is a star-in-the-making. All three were perfectly whimsical and absurd. A welcome taste of Bouffon/buffoonery.

3) This Side of Crazy, New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC), Oct. 17

After performing some old skool #SouthernGlam in the “Happy Hour is a Drag” pre-show in the NCTC lobby, I stayed to experience the MainStage offering, Del Shores’ world premiere commission. Kate Boyd, scenic designer, offered an amazingly detailed, and intimate set that really drew one into the story, and created a real sense of place. I felt like I was really IN that home. The writing was masterful, with at least 25 quotable, quippy one-liners…surely a Del Shores specialty. Wes Crain curated costumes that with each entrance elicited a gasp or snicker. Just right.

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Ditty Blaylock (Christine Macomber, left) & Bethany Blaylock (Amy Meyers, right) / Photo: Lois Tema, New Conservatory Theatre Center

Christine Macomber was a tour de force as the family matron Ditty Blalock, a narcissistic, self involved joy, but wrapped in a messy sort of love. I’d LOVE to know more about her past, and her own trauma. That could easily be a Part II play (calling Del Shores!).

The actresses portraying the Blaylock daughters/sisters were a very well-rounded trio. You could feel their dynamic synergy at all times. Alison Whismore was particularly affecting as the neurotic, chain smoking, gaunt, and just on-the-edge Abigail Blaylock. Cheryl Smith and Amy Meyers were also excellent and committed as the other sisters.

So many laughter and tears. This is silver screen ready! Throw Olympia Dukakis or some celeb in that role (or keep Christine!) and it’ll be the next Steel Magnolias. As Ditty exclaimed to her daughters: “I taught you to have conviction, even when you don’t mean it.” (close, if not exact quote).

4) Max Richter & ACME, SFJazz, Herbst Theatre, Oct. 14

Richter is best know as the composer of The Leftovers, Shutter Island and Arrival soundtracks, and was performing with the string quintet ACME, New York’s American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

During the second half of the concert, they performed a small portion of his 8.5 hour composition titled SLEEPwhich was written as a protest to all the “noise” and data in our society and consciousness, and based on the neuroscience of sleep. The piece was reaching it’s final climax, with the very pure soprano Grace Davidson singing repeated high notes, as the strings swelled. It was very hypnotic and transcendent.

Max Richter image

At that very moment, my friend and I felt the balcony shake. I grabbed her hand, gazing on in trepidation and disbelief, as the music played. A few around us acknowledged it with a stirring as well, so we knew it wasn’t just us. We weren’t sure if it was a quake, or something large being moved downstairs. As I meditated on it, and acknowledged it was Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I sensed perhaps The Native Spirits of The Ramaytush letting us know their presence. It seemed transpersonal, or synchronistic at the least. 

Afterwards, it was confirmed we had all experienced a 4.5 EARTHQUAKE, perhaps not (entirely) a spiritual emergence. 😉

Richter’s music can be bit trite at times, with its similar, repetitive intervals, and the reverb mic affects in his live shows, but alas. It was a night to remember, for many reasons.

5) Dina Martina, SF Oasis, Jan. 22

Gut splitting laughter. Bemusing stories that make no logical sense, and leave you looking around for meaning.

You want to fix her lipstick, or her whole look, really…but that’s expressly why you love her so.

She has crafted a fully formed, and from-another-planet-persona. And I’m totally here for it! Lord knows what numbers she did. I just remember my belly hurt and mouth was sore (from laughter) after. Not sure what happened, really. Probably as she would like it.

Dina-Martina-Ears-Oasis-SF

6) Saul, Philharmonia Baroque, First United Methodist Church, Apr. 14

Nic McKegan started the concert by apologizing for needing to sit throughout it (due to an injury or strain). It didn’t impact the night, given the command he held over the proceedings. Saul offers quite a satisfyingly epic overture.

Yulia Van Doren, as Merab brought forth glorious tone in her first recit., which she returned to at the end in the more plaintive airs. Her audible gasps/inhales in the more fleet airs was a bit distracting and marred her technique. We wondered if it was an expressive affect, or out of necessity for breath. Sherezade Panthaki as Michal brought an earnest sweetness to her role.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, as David melted us on his first extended “ohhhh” utterance. His tone is other-worldly, unaffected, and emitted with great expressive ease. It’s strongly woodwind in quality, most clarinet-like, closer to a mid-century alto (i.e. Kathleen Ferrier) than the more recent mezzo style (i.e. David Daniels), although with a Von Stade tonal moment here and there. He never pushed outside his column of sound, and always lent perfect support on a cushion of air. Sensual yet innocent. Virile yet boylike. He always communicates with a pure sense of sincerity. The best diction of the night too, along with Okulitch. One can easily fantasize about all the variety of roles we’ll hear from him. Such a gift to be seeing him locally so frequently as he launches internationally.

Aryeh_Nussbaum_Cohen_Countertenor

Jonathan Smucker relished and reveled in his character roles, with excellent dramatic commitment, bringing to mind Peter Pears. Daniel Okulitch as Saul was the largest scale and most operatic vocally. This felt a tad out of place from the early music approach largely surrounding him, but his virility and force were felt. Aaron Sheehan as Jonathan brought his customary easy coloratura, and tender tone. Christian Pursell proved a worthy SF Opera Adler Fellow, with world-class technique in his two brief roles.

The final large funeral piece for chorus was glorious. The PB Chorale brought much pleasure, performing so evenly and consistently all evening, and truly singing as one. Each vocal part and phrase came in organically, like a beautiful modulated fog horn, particularly in the final piece.

The orchestra had so many special highlight moments. The Symphony of the Carillon, included an organ solo with flourishes, flute solos (apparently symbolized mourning in Handel’s time). The carillon bells, incl. Jory Vinikour’s bravura turn on this keyboard glockenspiel (deemed “squirrels in a cage” by past reviewers”), and whistles, incl. sublime fluting by Janet See and Mindy Rosenfeld were a real novelty treat.

I knew NONE of the pieces in this oratorio, an unusual state for me, for such a celebrated baroque piece. They made a great case for this piece, and this was a great introduction to it.

7) Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist, by Tom Lenk, PianoFight, Jan. 26

Tom Lenk brought his always hilarious, histrionic and manic persona to this role. The “you remind me of…” portions which featured her various roles, and a quick lighting spotlight cue were the funniest.

Also, her references of various far out “roles” she played were uproarious, such as “in the movie DieHard I appeared as “Christmas”. Here’s a small taste of Tom’s Tilda, out of context.

Byron+Lane+and+Tom+Lenk+in+Tilda+Swinton+LA

The low production values were spot on, especially the all white bubble wrap dress and white shirt on backwards (pictured), which looked like a couture blouse.

Her supporting cast were solid and played great foils to her. PianoFight is a great ongoing addition to our local small theatre offerings. The black box has a strong intimacy, and immediacy.

8) San Francisco Symphony; Ravel, Mozart & Sibelius; Davies Hall; Mar. 17

The program offered Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin; Mozart: Violin concerto #3, with Christian Tetzlaff; Sibelius: Symphony #2

The Ravel (and Mozart) were like a therapeutic, atmospheric music bath, offering a dreamlike reverie. The SF Symphony played them with great delicacy, and a dancelike lilting. In the Ravel I could feel the stylistic connection to Debussy. Much of this genre/style of music REALLY appeals to me in a new way, as I near 50. Perhaps a bit of an acquired taste all these years, but it attunes to my nervous system more now.

The orchestra, especially the strings were completely of a piece, played as one. The oboe solo in the Ravel was as if totally on a cushion of breath. I was surprised to recognize much of this piece. Perhaps it airs on KDFC a lot because it is easy on the ears, for working or driving. lol

San Francisco Symphony

The Mozart violin soloist offered a great deal of finesse, dynamic subtlety and tenderness. I wanted more rhythmic drive and clarity throughout and a bit more power. It was almost as if he were playing jazz at times. The diminuendos in and out were so gradual. In his Bach encore, I was convinced two instruments were playing. Virtuosic!

The Sibelius vernacular is foreign to my ear. Individually the chords were glorious but I couldn’t sense where they were going. 

I kept trying to hear Wagner or Strauss and aside from moments it’s of course a different vernacular. Fascinating staccato strong techniques, grandiose, regal…SO Scandinavian. A woman behind me, who I later found was a BIG Sibelius afficionado was crying during this piece, and its finale. The horns were spectacular and as smooth as butter…glorious playing.

9) Joyce DiDonato, SongPlay, Zellerbach Hall, Feb. 20

This show got off to a tight start, with the first set having a lot of artifice, ala Renee Fleming-isms. It seemed she was trying or working a bit too hard, and it took me a while to settle into the pastiche.

But to meld or straddle these genres while emceeing and offer backstory takes A LOT of skill. She clearly has the capacity to pull it off. I loved the opening of Joyce’s Lullaby of Birdland as much as I disliked it’s ending. The impressive five-piece band was led by Craig Terry, who also made the unique arrangements.

Her emerald green dress was a highlight. An unexpected pop of color. (Glad she didn’t go with more obvi blue, red or black.) I loved how she invited in each jazz instrumentalist individually. A fresh construct. Musical highlights were the clean simplicity of Nel Cor, and Will He Like Me, from She Loves Me had a sincerity to it. The Tu lo Sai arrangement was so rich. The interplay of her voice with the trumpet were skillful, playful and fascinating.

Joyce DiDonato Songplay Berkeley

The Spanish drama of Quella Fiamma was truly surprising, if a bit too broad and campy even for me. The accordion solo was a romantic highlight. I could have used much more of it. And the trumpeter utterly virtuosic! I struggled with her opening phrases in some instances. Very tight vocal delivery. You can feel the vocal strain and push. And it edges towards crooning and bleeting at times.

The contemporary Lean Away was a touching and uncomplicated song. I loved the lyrics about what feels like or takes you “home” (the wind, a melody, or love). The Vivaldi encore was like a joyous romp. It felt unfortunate it was left to the end. The jazz/classical (coloratura vs. scat) blend worked best in this piece. And La Vie en Rose was a lush, glorious, fragrant ending! Hertz Hall would have been perfect size. It was about 2/3 full.

10) Ring Them Bells, SF Gay Men’s Chorus, Nourse Theatre, Dec. 7

They had the Nourse really decked out! The proscenium lighting and two Christmas trees flanking the stage on either end were festive. I was feelin’ it! It offered the perfect holiday date night out in Hayes with a friend, starting with dinner at Lers Ros, and then this die-hard annual merry-making.

The musical highlights for me were the more pensive ones (I know I’m biased). Those included Angels in Seven (a variation on Hark the Herald Angels Sing), What Child is This, Glow, Like a River in My Soul, and their signature Silent Night, with the final verse in utter silence, using only sign language. Honestly, THAT alone would be a reason to return to this concert annually. The Velocity Handbell Ensemble lent a nice, fresh tone to the evening with their offerings.

The SFGMC are one of the true treasures of our beloved city. And it’s heartening to see they are very much still artistically alive. Soloists Dave Caldwell & Mark Mezak (in O Holy Night), and Case Nafziger (in Silent Night) offered resplendent singing and tone.

Our First Christmas was a very emotional piece, staged with a gay “couple” sitting by their Christmas tree and hearth, opening gifts, kissing… It was tender, sweet, and a bit cloying for myself and my guest.

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Sagging theatre etiquette can really disrupt a show. A HERD of nearly 40 late arrivals trickled in during the first 4 songs. In my book that ain’t ok. It, and the very loud and over zealous usher on a head-set (think Paul Blart Mall Cop) ruined those songs. #BahHumbug!!! Being form the midwest, you just don’t arrive late en masse. So, I feel it’s more of a regional sf/ca cultural thing, than “traffic,” “the rain,” “the waiter,” or whatever reasons given. #JudgyMcGee

THE BEST OF (not incl. above):

Pene Pati‘s Romeo, Romeo et Juliette, SF Opera 
He has the loveabilty and charisma of Pavarotti, and fluid voice and technique. His temperament would perfectly match Nemorino in L’elisir! The final note of Ah, lève-toi soleil was a gossamer piannisimi, as he also went down into a kneel, and raise his arms to his side…amazing. (I wasn’t swept away by his Juliette, or this production this time.)

 Best Small Festival: Dancing in the Park, Golden Gate Park, Music Concourse
Highlights: AXIS, which integrated a dancer in a wheelchair, was deeply affecting and inspiring; Academy of Danse Libre, social period dances; and Nemenzo Ori Tahiti, offered a very large group doing expressive hula

Best Outdoor Concert Format: Flower Piano, Golden Gate Park, Conservatory of Flowers
Highlights: Samantha Cho & Florin Parvulescu: Beethoven, Debussy & Grieg; Paulo Sultanum & Guests: Brazilian Groove; Awesome Orchestra Collective (David Möschler, Cond.): A full symphony orchestra worked through and performed two major piano concertos by Chopin and Rach, with Allison Lovejoy, Piano

Best Drag Theatre Show: Harry Poofter & The Sorcerer’s Rhinestone, SF Oasis
They delivered true ensemble work, with a sassy, creative rewrite of this madly popular book. Jef Valentine’s uproarious and spot-on “Snap” (i.e. Snape in platform heals), and Elsa Touche’s brittle Minerva McGonnagurrrl were stand-outs, and the Todrick Hall full cast dance number to Nails, Hair, Hips, Heals the highlight.

• Best Drag Show: Latrice Royale Night, MOTHER, SF Oasis
Highlights: Latrice’s futuristic Fifth Element spot-on opera lip-sync with a body hugging, synthetic costume; Elsa Touche’s classy Postmodern Jukebox; and Gia, Miss Shugana & Madd Dogg’s numbers.

Kronos Quartet with Aoife O’Donovan, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Their collaboration offered several moving numbers, featuring her pure, unaffected voice, in the Pete Seeger at 100 Tribute.

• Arlyss Hays’ soprano soloist, Messiah, St. Dominic’s Church, Dec. 16
This is a glorious young soprano, serving up a perfect, pert Rejoice Greatly and plangent He Shall Feed His Flock.

Vladimir Pestov’s Cali, Cirque du Soleil, Amaluna
He was easily the most memorable part of the show, as a slithering lizard man with an enormous fluid tail — his acting and movements were impish, and juggling agile.

Top 10 Movies:
Parasite

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marriage Story (Netflix)
Song Lang (Frameline Festival, about Vietnamese Popera, ’18)
Rocketman
Yesterday
Booksmart
Dolomite is My Name (Netflix)
5B / (docu. about SF General AIDS Ward)
The Sounds of Silence

Trixie Mattell: Moving Parts / docu.

Best Series:
Fosse/Verdon (impeccable!)

POSE (Season 2)
Dead to Me (Season 1)
Sex Education (Season 1)
Insecure
Atypical (Season 1)

Best Comedy Specials:
Azis Anzari: Right Now

Wanda Sykes: Not Normal
Jenny Slate: Stage Fright

Peruse last year’s list too…

I’m so looking forward to seeing what the 2020 season brings! Any shows/artists your especially excited about seeing LIVE?

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