The 26th edition of “New Wrinkles” is one of the best I’ve seen.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the annual musical revue at Fresno City College, which features performers ages 55 and older. In a culture that relentlessly (and almost psychotically) worships youth, particularly in entertainment, it’s refreshing to watch more mature performers strut their stuff with the same dedication, enthusiasm and relentless pursuit of show-biz polish as their less senior counterparts. (And why not? Younger theater people become older theater people, and the talent remains.)
This year’s production, “Rockin’ Through the Ages,” which continues through June 15, is directed with finesse and flair by David Bonetto. He steers the format in a slightly different course than the very fine productions of years past. With an emphasis on rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a tighter feel in terms of style and subject matter. The traditional “one-liner” jokes are gone, and with them some (but not all) of the show’s vaudeville feel. Gone, too, is the variety of dance styles and vocals — there’s less tap dancing, one token waltz, and no Broadway-style production numbers.
Instead we’re taken on a musical journey by a DJ (a personable and very effective Darrell Yates, who wrote the script) who “spins” the history of rock, from early days (Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens) to the almost contemporary (Katy Perry). In an impressive bit of product placement, the idea is that Yates is on the air for local radio station KYNO, which gets plugs throughout the show.
I like the DJ premise, though I wish the concept had been tighter in terms of a cohesive narrative, either with a stronger chronological through-line or a more thematic approach. Though the musical numbers come briskly, it’s hard to get a feel for the shape of the show as it’s unfolding.
Thankfully, we have an amazing array of “New Wrinkles” costumes to enjoy throughout. The intrepid performers, helped by costume coordinators Debbi Erven, Gao Moua, Melody Moua and Nancy Wayne, offer a psychedelic potpourri of period wardrobe excess — a flurry of tie-dye tops, hippie headbands, leather jackets, go-go-boots, sparkly Spandex, suede fringe vests, and the list goes on.
Christopher R. Boltz’s lighting design adds a slick, punchy “wow” factor to the production. And Darryl Dote’s musical direction at the helm of a fine live pit band gives an extra zing.
Every year with “New Wrinkles” I pick out some of my favorite performances and then offer some general critiques on what I think could be improved. This year’s highlights for me:
- Georgie Dayton, wearing enough bling to make a Kardashian blanch, belting out a booming “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”
- Gabe Agao offering a tender version of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”
- An unforgettable rendition of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” by a platoon of walker-wielding women — a comic highlight.
- A rousing dance number to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
- The strutting men of Maroon 5′s “Moves Like Jagger,” wearing skinny colored jeans and matching scarves — and all festooned with big red Jagger lips.
- Jim Irvine delivering a plaintive version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
- Clora Ann Crum in absolutely delicious voice offering a coy and amusing rendition of the DeCastro Sisters’ “Teach Me Tonight.”
- Richard Nielsen wringing every last audience-pleasing drop out of the classic “American Pie.”
Bonetto, who choreographs and directs, keeps the show moving along at a brisk, confident pace, and I’m impressed by how deftly he manages to move large clumps of people around on stage in the larger ensemble numbers. What’s more, Bonetto is able to find a narrative in nearly all the numbers he stages. In “The Beat Goes On,” for example, you get a clear sense of a beginning, middle and end — a sense of story.
That said, there are ways to make the show better:
- It’s too long, in my opinion. I really believe that a show like this shouldn’t be longer than two hours, including intermission. Two and a half hours is just too long. At least six numbers should have been cut.
- The vocals need more power. Rock ‘n’ roll needs to be loud, and many of the large ensemble numbers lose impact because the sound is so tentative. (The production was able to purchase some new wireless microphones for this year’s show, so I know that the sound design is a work in progress.) I think it’s great that the live band — particularly the percussion — doesn’t drown out the vocals, which often happens in community theater productions. But the band at times is so subdued that it sounds more like a genteel recital than hard-driving rock. In terms of singers, many of the individual solo numbers come across well, but ensemble choral numbers need to be amplified as well. The contrast is obvious in several of the dance numbers, which use prerecorded music. Those numbers fill the theater with sound and energy. The live group numbers — and in particular the a cappella ones — need to do the same.
- The finale is a bit of a let-down. It needs more of a wow factor. Some of the big guns should have been saved for last. This is the danger of letting a show like this run too long — you lose your momentum toward the end, and what should be a show-stopping conclusion becomes merely a farewell.
All that said, this “New Wrinkles” is still a big, shiny success. I’ve saved two of my most favorite moments for last.
First is vocal/music director Dede Nibler — a favorite “Wrinkles” powerhouse over the years — leading the Female Barbershop Singers in the Abba song “Take a Chance on Me.” At the opening night performance, a number of women in the audience stood up and sang along. (Bonetto encourages audience participation in the show, and I enjoyed hearing people hum, sing, clap and whoop around me.) The “stereo sound” effect in the Abba song was magical.
And the second is Mary Jane Cavanaugh-Fisch, who at 89 is the oldest performer in the company. This is her 25th “Wrinkles.” When she sings “Rock ‘n’ Roll Waltz,” a comic moment about discovering one’s parents trying to waltz to rock records, it’s funny — but in her graceful hands, it’s also sweet and touching. Cavanaugh-Fisch has “it” on stage — a style, fluidity and presence on stage that resonates. (And just watch her tap dance!) She is a “Wrinkles” treasure.