In chronological order, these were the year’s most notable moments in the arts, from this editor’s highly personal perspective.
“Vietgone” at American Conservatory Theater (March)
The wild 1970s-set comedy by Qui Nguyen about young Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. ends with perhaps the year’s most touching scene between one of the fellows and his survivor father; their dialogue covers seemingly every political, social and emotional aspect of the Vietnam War in ways history book writers must dream about.
San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ “Bridges” at Davies Symphony Hall (March)
There wasn’t a dry eye in the hall when the nearly 300-voice choir in its 40th anniversary concert performed Atlanta composer Joel Thompson’s searing 2016 work, “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” which is based around the final words of seven unarmed black men — including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin — who were wrongly killed at the hands of authorities.
“Angels in America” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (April)
Tony Kushner’s AIDs-era set “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” directed by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone — taking on homophobia, race, politics and the world’s uncertainties — is as relevant today as it was in the 1990s. What’s most remarkable is that its seven hours (back-to-back performances of “Millenium Approaches” and “Perestroika”) fly by. There’s no wristwatch checking as audiences absorb Kushner’s instantly empathetic, funny, human characters, dialogue and situations.
Anthony Ray Hinton’s “The Sun Does Shine” (April)
Anthony Ray Hinton, 62, who was exonerated in 2015 after spending three decades behind bars in Alabama on false murder charges, because he’s black, visited Book Passage in Corte Madera to promote his inspirational, impossible-to-put-down memoir “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.” On the phone before, he shared how faith; his longtime friend and his mom; his fantasies about Sandra Bullock and Halle Berry; his attorney Bryan Stevenson; and reading good books helped him survive so many years of incarceration.
“Book Club” interview with Mary Steenburgen (May)
Though the comedy starring the legendary Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen about friendship, love and sex left a fair amount to be desired, it was a delight to chat on the phone with the lovely Steenburgen, who dished about her own romantic life with her husband Ted Danson; the subject of older women in film; and her fast friendships with her co-stars — none of whom she’d worked with before.
“Soft Power” at the Curran (June)
David Henry Hwang’s brilliant world premiere “Soft Power” was 2018’s best new show: The smart, funny, satirical musical within a play touches on timely and timeless political and cultural points telling a story of America and China’s clashing cultures — along with joyful Rodgers & Hammerstein references (great music by Jeanine Tesori), a hilarious and empathetic Hillary Clinton, and a darling romance.
“Broken Bone Bathtub” at an Oakland residence (July)
New York performance artist Siobhan O’Loughlin soaked in a tub in an East Bay bathroom (one among several local spots on her tour) telling a fascinating tale about how a bike accident wrecked her hand and left her vulnerable; by the end of the show, she had everyone in her 10-person audience also sharing their stories about difficult (and healing) events in their lives.
John Oates at Haight Street Art Center (August)
In town on his big summer arena tour with Daryl Hall, the singer-songwriter on a night off appeared solo with radio personalities/podcasters Renee & Irish Greg at an intimate pop up in The City, where, to the delight of an old super-fan, he played acoustic versions of lesser-known 1970s-era H&O tunes “Had I Known You Better Then” and “Crazy Eyes.”
Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Oracle Arena (August)
The only disappointment with the Electric Light Orchestra genius’ show in Oakland — his first U.S. tour in 37 years– is that he didn’t play “Strange Magic.” Otherwise, the unassuming British mastermind of the distinctive 1970s band (and his appropriately reverent, talented musicians) grooved through his catalog of catchy rock-meets-classical hits amid a classy light and video show.
Kenny Washington at the Sound Room (August)
The jazz great — easily the Bay Area’s best vocalist — went on for two blissful, wonderfully and uncharacteristically long sets with Jeff Massanari on sleek guitar in the cozy Oakland spot.
“Roberto Devereux” at San Francisco Opera (September)
In her local debut, dazzling soprano Sondra Radvanovsky revealed a seemingly endless gamut of emotions as Elisabetta, the Queen of England, in the rarely presented Donizetti work; her performances made history the instant they concluded.
Fact/SF’s “death” at CounterPulse (September)
Innovative choreographer Charles Slender-White marked the 10th anniversary of his contemporary troupe Fact/SF with the engrossing premiere “death” at CounterPulse, the final piece of a series closing out a two-year investigation of grief and loss. Engaging from start to finish, the measured, disquieting dance, set to ticking metronomes, had the audience briefly individually interacting with the performers — and pondering the meaning of life.
San Francisco Trolley Dances on the N Judah Line (October)
Committed dancers in varied groups performed in seven different spots along the N Judah line in the 15th anniversary site-specific production created by Epiphany Dance Theater choreographer Kim Epifano — with excellent results. The show started with the best, though: ODC/Dance choreographer Kimi Okada’s premiere “Gifts of Solace,” for humans and eight dogs in Mission Creek Park was undeniably irresistible.
“Waitress” at SHN Golden Gate Theatre (October)
The charming and tasty musical (book by Jessie Nelson) appealingly includes the quirks and everyday life quality of late screenwriter Adrienne Shelly’s amusing and touching 2007 film dramedy of the same name, and cute yet pithy jazzy, folk and rock-tinged pop tunes by Sara Bareilles (similar in tone to her breakout anti love-song hit “Love Song”) make the sassy and sentimental show a recipe for success.
Elvis Costello at the Masonic (December)
Following health issues that caused him to cancel a few dates on his “Look Now and Then” tour, the English rocker, his band The Imposters (pianist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, bassist-vocalist Davey Faragher) and soulful backup vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, played a dynamic, nearly three-hour show covering four decades of his music, including his excellent new “uptown pop” album “Look Now.” The veteran musician seemed nothing like a man who once said he’d never make another record.
“A Noh Christmas Carol” at Theatre of Yugen (December)
The entrancing and enchanting take on Charles Dickens’ classic, adapted into a production with Japanese theater and dance forms noh, kyogen, kabuki and butoh and protagonist Sukurooji rather than Scrooge, is a calming, beautiful show cleverly directed by Nick Ishimaru, who fulfills the promise of the company’s name: “Yugen” roughly translates as profound, tranquil and mysterious. A Noh Christmas CarolAnthony Ray Hintonbook clubBroken Bone BathtubCharles Slender-WhiteElvis CostelloFACT/SFJeff Lynne's ELOJohn OatesKenny WashingtonMary SteenburgenRoberto DevereuxSan Francisco Gay Men’s ChorusSan Francisco Trolley DancesSoft PowerThe Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death RowTheatre of YugenVietgoneWaitress