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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 ’14

My show-going in 2014 started out slowly, all thanks to grad school. But, thankfully, by the summer, it was in full swing again. So, there is plenty to gush about on my annual list. Always so grateful for the Bay Area offerings…and no doubt one of the reasons I continue to call it home, especially as travel is a bit fewer and farther between these days. Performer friends, if you’re show’s not on here, I didn’t see it <wink, wink>. I hope you enjoy my musings! What were your favorites of the year?

1. Cher, with Cyndi Lauper, at SAP Center – San Jose

Cher tops my list. Surprised? Cyndi was her opening act, with a voice still in surprisingly rocking’ shape. Can she really be 61? And, for that matter, can Cher really be 68?! (Don’t answer that.) Highlights were “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Believe” (a remix), a “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” and “Half Breed” carnival-themed set, and a Burlesque-themed set (incl. “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me”), a duet with Sonny, and a staging in which she was floated above the audience, as if a religious icon (not that she isn’t). The show was really perfectly crafted…and OFFICIALLY her last. It indeed felt like a farewell. No one could pull off what she did. My friends and I had a ball, shaking our tail feathers and lip-syncing from our nose-bleeds once things heated up.

2. Matt Alber, at Great American Music Hall

Matt is the only solo repeater this year. He topped last year’s list. His brother, Lou Jane was the opening act this time. Matt’s set included “The Wind,” “The Stars,” “Field Trip Buddy,” “Rivers and Tides,” “Handsome Man,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Rescue,” “Make You Feel My Love,” “House on Fire,” “Spectacularly,” “Brother Moon” (duet with brother, Lou Jane), “Always” (a jazzy, ACAP cover), “End of the World,” “Walking on Sunshine,” “Send in the Clowns”. It was a transfixing and warm, familial night. He alternated between piano and guitar accompaniment. His band and some classical instrumentalists joined for various songs, including a sensitively played cello, and his dad sweetly tickled the ivories as well.

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3. Karrin Allyson, Jazz at Filoli Gardens

Her smoky tone and easy swagger make her one of my jazz favorites of late. Highlights included “All You Need to Say (Never Say Yes),” which features the moving line: “Search to find true happiness and the world will say yes – yes is all you need to say.” Also, Simon & Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will,” “All I Want” (Joni Mitchell), “What a Difference” (with Kenny Washington), Cat Steven’s “Wild World,” “O Baquino,” and “I Can Do Anything As Long As I Know You Love Me,” a beautiful new song by her. This is also a fantastic, intimate outdoor venue.

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4. “Luster,” SFGMC, with Ann Hampton Callaway, at Davis Symphony Hall

This show featured “Tyler’s Suite,” a commissioned tribute to Tyler Clementi. Out of the three SFGMC shows I attended this season, this one was the stand-out. The chorus soloists were surprisingly solid, and the chorus delivered finely textured harmonies. Ann did an improvisational piano solo before which she asked for names and local/SF places of note from the audience, and incorporated them into her song. She had us rolling in the aisles. And that voice! So soulful, nurturing, contralto-ey. Cuts to my heart.

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5. Nutcracker, SF Ballet

This production is still very fresh after 10 or so years, and delivers on all its holiday promise. Highlights were the Grand Pas de Deux, featuring Yuan Yuan Tan, and her VERY dashing prince, Luke Ingham (not pictured; I wonder if HE was “taught to be charming, not sincere”), and the magical snow scene, very moving with audible en pointe and snowfall onstage. They do NOT scrimp on the amount…for five minutes your head is in the Sierras. Calling the Zamboni!

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6. Norma, SF Opera

The level of musical attunement, and true bel canto shared between Sondra Radvanovksy and Jaime Barton is a rarity these days. It harkened back to the Sutherland/Horne pairing in its best moments. How to say it…Rad’s voice is never not interesting to me. I don’t understand her vocal production, which makes it fascinating. It’s richly textured at best…buzzy at worst. Reminiscent of Callas in the lower range, and belted utterances. She was very liberal with the gossamer pianissimi, and offered some thrilling full-throttle high notes. Barton displayed moments of Horne in her lower chest. She knows how to move, and seems really “in her body,” which offered a sensuality. She’s also the most youthful Adalgisa I’ve yet seen, which made Pollione’s passion all the more believable. The production offered some nice detail, but didn’t inspire, and the Avatar-style makeup was mystifying. Norma’s two children were beyond precious.

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7. Jimmy James, at Rebel

Highlights included his impersonations of Cher, Bette (doing “Feliz Navidad“), Barbra, Billie, and Liza (doing “Single Ladies”!!!) had us alternately in tears and stitches. He is a very skilled entertainer, with an incredibly versatile and impressive voice. I hope he’s fast becoming more of a gay household name that he should already be, aside from his ’80s appearances on the talk show circuit as THE perfect Marilyn impersonator.

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8. Esalen Work Scholar “Reading,” in the Solarium

It was a privilege to sit in on this informal, private event. It featured teacher John Smith’s “If I Were a Robin,” and included original songs and poems/prose by the students. My emotional response to the event was no doubt stoked by the Big Sur setting, and the crackle of new writers growing their creative wings. Here’s “…Robin” from a previous show.

9. Showboat, SF Opera

What a treat to see this great american musical for the first time, and performed at this level. Standout performances were by Morris Robinson as Joe, and Kirsten Wyatt as Ellie Mae. Patricia Racette’s rendition of my favorite “Bill” was beautifully and movingly handled. Not operatic in the least. Perfectly scaled down. The production was beautiful and really served the piece.

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10. Mary Lambert, at the Nourse Theatre

Mary is such an open-hearted, disarming, and authentic artist. She warmly invites you into her unique vision and storytelling. Highlights included “Jessie’s Girl” (cover), “My Body,” “She Keeps Me Warm,” and “No Secret” (encore). Her themes of body image, and mental illness/health are much needed in our current culture. Young Summer was the opening act. She was reminiscent of Lana del Rey.

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Other Notable Performances:

• Michael Fabiano, as Rodolfo, La Boheme, SFO, delivered Golden Age tenorial squillo and passion
• Heidi Melton, in recital, SF Performances, SF Conservatory of Music, a Merola/Adler star returns again, incl. idiomatic and stunning Sibelius and Strauss sets
• Jef Valentine, in Panorama, ACT Costume Shop, a beautifully committed and personal vision of the Peter Pan legend
• Sean Patrick Murtagh, in Holiday Test Drive II, Martunis, incl. a perfect, refulgent “Oh Holy Night”

Favorite Drag Show of the Year:

MASCARA “Burlesque,” hosted by the Castro Country Club, featuring irreverent, moving, messy, unforgettable numbers by Uphoria, Serenity Heart, Jada Stevens, Dina Isis, Dusty Porn, and more. All in service of, to inspire, and raise funds for the queer recovery community.

Top 5 Best Movies of the Year (that I saw):

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Into the Woods
3. Boyhood
4. Love is Strange
5. The Theory of Everything

Check out last year’s list >

Share your favorites. And, here’s a toast to what 2015 brings!

jcm’s Top 10 SF Performances of ’12

In the midst of the embarrassment of riches jcm partook in this year, above all, it was the year of the art song, “Hasa Diga Eebowa,” and contemporary american opera (and THIS without even having seen Moby Dick ;-(. This was particularly good news for art song and american opera, as it’s more the norm to bemoan their demise these days.

In capturing the highlights of the year, the performance and production were weighed most heavily, but in the case of new material, the script and score were of course considerations. Oh, and who can help some personal biases slipping in? Not jcm (ie: West Side Story = the greatest show ever written)! SO, here goes…

1) Sandrine Piau, (Susan Manoff, piano) CalPerfs, Hertz Hall

It was as if a gentle, gamine spirit had landed for just an hour or two, gracing us with her rare magic. She left us transfixed, susceptible to the whims of her potent storytelling. The program was studio-ready in its refinement and attention to detail, yet never bland or white-washed. She uses her lyric instrument to full advantage, painting a broad palette of tones and expressions. The very satisfying program featured french, german and english sets of Fauré, Bouchot, Chausson, Mendelssohn, Strauss and Britten, followed by a generous set of encores: “Voyage a Paris,” “Clair de lune,” and Strauss’s “Madchen Blumlein.”

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TIE

Karina Gauvin,  (Michael McMahon, piano) Weill Hall at the Green Music Center

The Bay Area has been given a great gift in the form of the new Green Music Center. In structure it is reminiscent of the great Musikverein of Vienna. It is nearly all wood, which is visually rich, and acoustically perfect. In a word, intoxicating. This was the inaugural recital of the hall’s vocal series. They programmed very well, especially as Karina’s Bay Area appearances are rare. Highlights included: “Le Printemp” by Hahn, “Phylidé” and “L’Invitation au Voyage” by Duparc. For her encores, she performed Weill (ie: Weill Hall) and the Scottish “Ae Fond Kiss.” The latter was deeply satisfying. Her english diction is stunning, and her textual delivery particularly soulful. On a personal note, her sister and mother were in the audience, just a few rows in front of me. She shared that this was the rare performance they were able to attend, and dedicated a song to her sister. A special night indeed.

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2) The Book of Mormon, National Tour, Curran Theatre

It takes you by the balls, and won’t let you go. I’ve rarely seen the kind of go-for-broke commitment from a cast as this. 21 year-old Grey Hensen, who played Moroni and Elder McKinley, as well as Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham stole the show. I live for Gavin Creel, but oddly he seemed not to embody the role as much as to act it. Surely he’s settled into it by now, or will fully by its UK West End run. The first 20 minutes have to be the most perfectly crafted portion of almost any Broadway show I’ve seen LIVE. You know…those laughing-and-crying at the same time moments? The vocal power in the ensemble numbers was very impressive. Having an 8 year-old behind us in the audience made the profanity and vulgarity seem even more raucous and saucy.

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Continue reading jcm’s Top 10 —>

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