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jcm’s Top 10 Show Picks of 2017

This year benefited from the serious good will of many friends…sharing comps, gifting me tickets, or taking me as their date. I could nearly call this it the Cheap & Free Top 10 of SF, and yet I’m clear it may not have been so cheap for them, so that’s not quite accurate. Whatever the case, it is with an special level of gratitude that I share my ninth annual jcm’s Top 10 Show Picks of the SF Bay Area.

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

1) La Temple de la Gloire, Philharmonia Baroque, Zellerbach Hall, April 28

QUELLE GLORIEUSE! To see such a lovingly and idiomatically rendered rare gem of French Baroque opera was utterly transporting, from the fantastically pompous overture replete with Falcon Crest-like trills, to the appearance of a queen bedecked in silver Glinda costume, with Statue of Liberty-esque headpiece. It had not been performed since its original debut in 1745!

The cast’s training in early music style showed in their trills, and phrasing, and they were clearly not just putting on this style. It included countless sumptuous french lyric sopranos, and more than one true, ringing haute-contre (incl. the virtuosic Aaron Sheehan). The dance troupe perfectly balanced fluidity and restraint, and was headed by a true baroque dance star, Olsi Gjeci (from Vlorë, Albania). He was entrancing, in embodying qualities of femininity and masculinity, from his white lily entrance, to his Bacchus drunken antics.

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Photo; Jeff Phillips

The Philharmonia Baroque Chorale sounded 3X its size in spirit and volume (were they miked?). The orchestra perfectly bubbled and lilted. A fanciful ostrich served up very sexy legs. The costumes would make Mackey or Galliano swoon. Bacchus and Érigone’s impossibly saturated and colorful East Indian-inspired costumes stood out. I could go on. Breathtaking. The Trajan scene was the only scene that dragged a bit for me.

It was allegedly a “million dollar production.” Well, it showed. And to see such a packed house, and hearty response to a baroque opera really says something. BRAVI!!!

Here is a fascinating video showing the making of and preparations for the production.

2) Coco Peru: The Taming of the Tension, Oasis SF, March 8

I inadvertently went to “church” on this eve…and encountered a priestess that made me sob, swoon, and snort. She was sentimental, spiritual, with a heavy helping of sarcasm. She is Coco Peru! I’ve never paid much attention to her (I’ve always been more a fancier of Jackie Beat and Varla Jean), but now I’m a believer.

This artist takes “drag” where it rarely goes…to meaningful places. Through compelling and riotous storytelling, with a sense of intent and conviction that is faultless.

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Her setlist included: I Touch Myself, The Fear (Lily Allen cover), Somewhere That’s Green, Nowadays, The Killing Moon (Echo and the Bunnyman cover), and humor/subjects incl. “The circles” (re: a certain Spanish lizard), Liza & Shirley, Chita, love, social media, “yaaassss queen,” theatre etiquette, facial fillers, 8 more years (before retirement)…

“For years I’ve helped young people find their voice. Now I want to say shut the fuck up. Our world is not your reality tv show.”

How did Coco end up above Hamilton? Well, she speaks my language, so it landed right at the center of my heart.

3) HAMILTON, Orpheum Theater, March 9 (SF Premiere!)

I was stunned and awed by Andy Blankenbuehler’s masterful choreography. Sensual, passionate, high concept, organic. Having played in high school theatre with Andy, and connecting with him again at this performance, my lens was no doubt skewed towards his contribution to this iconic show. Every moment rich with choreographic storytelling.

A particular heart palpitation movement the dancers did really resonated to me. Andy titled it the “Martha Graham” moment. A few months later at a local dance workshop through Pop Star Booty Camp, I was able to try a portion of Andy’s “The Room Where it Happens” choreography, taught by Derek Mitchell, resident choreographer. It was a real thrill, and really got under my skin.

Aside from the PBS documentary, and the Tonys, I hadn’t exposed myself to the soundtrack or show in any meaningful way, so I was able to experience this performance very much in the moment, almost as new material. (Truth be told, something about an over-produced sound quality to the soundtrack, and Lin Manuel’s voice didn’t draw me in.) LIVE, it’s a whole other beast.

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Photo: Joan Marcus

I favored Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica, and Amber Iman in the small part of Maria (with rich, alto, Sarah Vaughan tone). I couldn’t keep my eyes off the male ensemble dancer, Andrew Wojtal, who also played a judge for a blink, among other small roles. He was a major talent, so committed to every movement. I enjoyed qualities about each of the leads, and especially appreciated the rawness and realness of Michael Luwoye in the title role. It was great not having any celebrity casting choices to distract.

The role of the King of England (Rory O’Malley) was indeed much needed humor in the midst of the intensity and great amount of words to take in of the hip hop/poetry slam style of much of the show. The tender and sassy moments (i.e. the Schuyler Sisters) were for me the most accessible, given my lens and tastes.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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jcm’s Top 10 SF Performances of ’11

It’s time for my third annual Top 10 round-up. These don’t attempt to be comprehensive reviews…but rather an Amuse-bouche of the most stellar performances I witnessed by the Bay, in ’11. How in the world can I compare a Pop Star to a Handel opera, you ask? Well…I warm up the jcm-ulator, and out come the tabulated results. It doesn’t lie. I seem to be trending towards opera, with musicals taking a back seat. Why? They sing louder, higher and without mics?

1) RING Cycle, SF Opera  details

With the carefully crafted characterizations of a stage play, this Cycle was a well-deserved hit and had the city abuzz with Wagner. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde was an utter triumph, equal parts true Wagnerian and singing actress. Stunning SFO leading role debuts were offered by Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, and Daveda Karanas as Waltraute. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Francesca Zambello’s concept was fortunately not too heavy-handed, largely staying out of the way of the story and score…more often informing it, and only periodically misstepping. I found the Industrial Revolution concepts throughout Das Rheingold to be the most iconic and potent. However, the mythic Die Walküre was the emotional highpoint, featuring the burnished, virile tenor of Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund. Siegfried was also surprisingly engaging. I had the good fortune of serving as Super Captain and Supernumerary in Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

2) Stacey Kent, Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel  details

I fell in love with her voice three years ago. After stalking her tour schedule for a Bay Area performance, I got to experience her art live at last. She’s a real pixie…a gentle spirit, with a frail flutter to her vibrato. She completely transported me and her audience, casting a convincing spell. Her palpable, loving connection to her band leader, sax player and husband Jim Tomlinson added to the glow. She embodied “less is more,” drawing us in, rather than overworking her numbers in a too extroverted manner. Her set included lots of brazilian and french songs unfamiliar to me, some off her just released album. Come back soon Stacey!

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In the Bleak Midwinter

Happy Christmas to you!


Click on the image or link below (and turn up your volume) to enjoy my favorite performance from
Christmas in the Ballroom 2011 (a track off our live CD).

It features our chorale of 9 and pianist in a simple, largely unison arrangement of the Holst classic, by Catherine Bennett. So atmospheric and peace-filled.

The photography is from my february visit to beautiful Telluride, CO.

May you have peace and joy!

In the Bleak Midwinter