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The stars of today’s 7 section: the Bulldog Marching Band

In my cover story, the band — which of course in a football-centric world is rarely covered by the media — gets the ink it deserves. I sat down with the Fresno State Bulldog Marching Band’s new director, Steve McKeithen, to talk about his vision for his hard-working musicians, who sometimes only get four rehearsals to perfect a field show performed in front of tens of thousands of people.

If you’re at Saturday’s home game against Wyoming, you’ll see and hear the band perform a routine saluting America’s veterans. Says McKeithen:

We’ll be playing all the service tunes. There will be great designs on the field: You’ll see planes and tanks and submarines and all sorts of fun stuff.

Check out Bee photographer John Walker’s video of pre-game festivities at the Nebraska game:

The Beehive Interview: Ruth Griffin on ‘The Maids’

In 1933 France, two maids who were sisters brutally murdered their employer and her daughter.

From that real-life event, Jean Genet in 1947 crafted his provocative play “The Maids,” a feisty and (at the time) scandalous show that emerged as a scathing comment on relations between the social classes. The maids regularly indulge in a ritualized game in which they act out a revenge fantasy involving the death of their mistress. Will this be the time they play the game to its conclusion?

Fresno State theater professor Ruth Griffin is directing the Genet classic. Known for her interest in physical and avant-garde theater, Griffin is describing her production, which opens Friday, Oct. 31, as a melodrama. We caught up with her via email to talk about the show. There’s an excerpt of the interview in Friday’s section; here’s the extended version.

Question: What is “The Maids” about?

Answer: “The Maids” constellates a situation between the haves and the have-nots, the entitled and the outcasts. They are a duality that exists together. Genet was inspired by a case in the news of 1933. The Papain sisters were maids who committed two brutal and ritualistic murders, slaying their mistress and her daughter. The French intellectuals of the time interpreted the murders as a compelling symbol of class relations.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Jersey Boys’

What happened in Jersey didn’t stay in Jersey. It finally made it to Fresno.

Which makes fans of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons very happy.

The central San Joaquin Valley waited a very long time indeed for the national tour of “Jersey Boys” — which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary — to get to the Saroyan Theatre. And judging from the enthusiastic reception at Tuesday’s opening night performance, I’d say there’s a lot of pent-up demand for the smooth harmonies and Garden-State-sized angst that this jukebox musical provides. Valli and his bandmates over the years churned out an amazing number of No. 1 hits, and the evening at the Saroyan floated along in a sort of nostalgic cloud of goodwill, with songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” eliciting appreciative murmurs from the audience.

This national tour features an Equity cast — the same union to which Broadway performers belong — and the depth of talent is clear from the beginning. Compared to some of the other smaller, non-Equity tours that come through Fresno, this production is clearly a rung above. (It plays through Sunday Nov. 2.)

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Can Fresno send ‘Janka’ to New York?

I have an in-depth Sunday Spotlight column for Oct. 19: a look at a push by people in the Fresno community to send the Holocaust one-woman play “Janka” to New York for an off-off Broadway run. From my column:

That dream is coming together thanks to a core of Fresno-area supporters. In a move that’s quite novel in the theater world, Noga and Speace are raising the $40,000 needed to finance a run at an Off-Off-Broadway theater. To kick off the campaign, benefit performances of the show will be held Oct. 25 and 26 at the 2nd Space Theatre.

“Janka” is a remarkable story featuring remarkable people, including the title character herself — who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp while most of her family died — to Janice Noga, Janka’s daughter-in-law, who has played the role for 12 years. I’m excited to think that “Janka” could be playing at the June Havoc Theatre on West 36th Street in Manhattan next May.

Bee photo: Eric Paul Zamora

Weekend pick: Collecting Rollin Pickford

There’s an intriguing underpinning to the new exhibition of works by famed Fresno watercolorist Rollin Pickford at Fresno State’s Madden Library. From my 7 cover story:

Collectors are an integral part of the artistic process. When they buy, the artist eats. Through the decades, the prolific Pickford always appreciated the people who supported him (and his family) by buying his art. The artist’s son Joel, who curated the show, tracked down 21 watercolors from 21 different collectors for the exhibition, held in the library’s Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery.

I’m making this my weekend pick, but there’s plenty of time to see the show: It runs through Jan. 16.

Above: one of my favorites from the show, a 1948 watercolor of the unfinished Friant-Kern Canal. 

Opening tonight: ‘The Crucible’

Selma Underground Productions opens a new version of “The Crucible” tonight at the Selma Arts Center. Expect some interesting staging. From the company:

“We are looking to produce a fresh take on this classic show,” says director Juan L. Guzmán. “My vision is to stay true to Miller’s intentions, to honor the script, and to let Miller’s words take center stage.

Set in the 1600s, amidst the infamous Salem witch trials, a community must grapple with their morals and faith as they set out to vanquish an evil that has permeated the wilderness they inhabit. “The Crucible” tells the story of one man’s fight to clear More his conscious and save his name, no matter the cost. The Selma Underground production will take liberties with staging and costuming, and will be set outside of the time period in which it is written. Even the stage itself will be altered, so as to provide a different viewing perspective for the audience.

The show runs through Oct. 26. Ticket information here. Here’s Guzmán talking about the show:

B.J. McCoon, 1932-2014

Fresno lost a major figure in its art history last week when painter B.J. McCoon died at age 82 after a long illness. From the Bee obituary I prepared for Thursday’s print edition:

For decades she was an integral part of the local art scene, and her paintings made their way into many local collections — and some around the world. Her friends were a who’s who of Fresno artistic talent, including Rollin Pickford, Darwin Musselman, Stan Bitters, Pat Hopper, Jean Ray Laury and Clement Renzi.

Mrs. McCoon was prolific, and her interests were so varied that she never stuck to just one medium.

Cathy Craycroft-Glenn, a longtime family friend, remembers visiting Mrs. McCoon as a young girl and seeing works in various states of completion scattered about her house: drawings in one room, a huge portrait in oil in another, a just finished watercolor drying on the back porch with the paints still left out on the table.

Services are Saturday.

Art and ghosts at the Hatchery

The scene: Quinn Gomez-Heitzeberg and Astri Swendsrud, curators of the performance-art exhibition “God Will Not Have His Work Made Manifest by Cowards,” stand surrounded by a circle of several dozen art enthusiasts. Dressed in somber black attire, the pair holds between them a small framed chalkboard upon which is written the words “Extinguish the Candle, Unbuild the Fire, Clean the Slate.” A simple wooden holder shaped like a pyramid adorned with thin lighted candles sits at their feet. They ask the audience to recite the chalkboard mantra — it sounds like a ritual response in a church worship service — and they put out the candles. Then they “break” the triangle of the pyramid by separating the pieces of wood.

The setting: We’re in the big, sprawling, dilapidated interior of the Hatchery, former home to the Church of Synanon, the 1970s era drug-rehabilitation program that morphed into a cult. Located about 80 miles or so east of Fresno in the mountain town of Badger, near the entrance to Sequoia National Park, the compound is a weird and restless feeling space. Most of the windows are broken, ceiling insulation dangles precariously over our heads, walls and joints ominously sag, and about a third of the vast, airplane-hanger-sized space is structurally unsound and off-limits. (You have to sign a liability waiver before entering.) With the sun streaming in on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the feeling isn’t so much ominous as unsettling. But I wouldn’t want to be there after dark. Knowing that this was the command center of a famous cult — and reading about some of the activities that took place here – you can’t help but sense the history.

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Farewell to the ‘King’

UPDATE 10/13: Services will be 6 p.m. Oct. 20 at North Fresno Church, 5724 N.  Fresno St.

ORIGINAL POST: George Akina’s last role in theater was one he’d always wanted to play: the King of Siam in “The King and I.” Even though he’d been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, he spent much of the last year of his life on stage, appearing with Good Company Players in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Shrek” and — in a witty, heartfelt and beautifully crafted performance —  the King in “The King and I,” which closed May 16.

Mr. Akina died Friday. He was 63.

I had the privilege of sitting down in April with Mr. Akina midway through his “King and I” run and talking about him for my Sunday column about the challenges and joys of performing the role. (Sometimes it was hard. Very hard.) His gentleness of spirit, love of family and towering Christian faith shined through on that late Friday afternoon. I suggested to him that his love of theater was remarkable, and he told me: “The theater has been life-giving to me. When I think ‘What would I be doing if it weren’t for ‘The King and I’ right now?,’ I think I’d be much sicker.”

A few days later, he sent me a follow-up email, and that’s how I ended my column:

Yes, I do love theater, but not perhaps in the same way you meant. The truth is I love God first above all else. He has given me gifts which I can express on stage. It’s when I’m on stage using those gifts that I feel the most fulfilled, most alive, and most in His will. Add to that that my work entertains, engages and touches others and there is nothing else that can surpass it, save the love and support of my wife and children.

He will be missed.

Updated 10/14: Revised information about remembrances to come.

 

Weekend pick: performance pieces at the Hatchery

Utopian ideas often sound so good … and so easy. But actually implementing them in the real world can be trickier than it seems.

In a collection of performance pieces titled “God Will Not Have His Work Made Manifest by Cowards,” a group of artists — mostly from Los Angeles — on Sunday will gather at a Valley location well known for its history with utopian movements: the Hatchery, located in Badger near the entrance to Sequoia National Park. The program starts at 2 p.m., with arrival suggested by 1:45 p.m. The Hatchery’s address is 50616 Highway 245 in Badger. Check out the details online so you know what you’ll be getting into: No open-toed shoes allowed, watch out for rattlesnakes, watch out for broken glass, and you have to sign a liability waiver before entering the property.  

If you’ve never been able to experience the Hatchery, it’s a really interesting place. I was last there in 2011 for a big and wonderful art exhibition titled “The Hatchery: East of Fresno.” 40 artists from around the world displayed their work in a vast building that used to be an aircraft hanger from the days of the Church of Synanon, the 1970s era drug-rehabilitation program that morphed into a cult. Most of the site-specific works riffed off the Synanon theme.

Later the compound was converted into an Islamic community known as Baladullah.

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Win tickets to ‘Jersey Boys’

UPDATE 10/16: We had a robust turnout for our “Jersey Boys” giveaway with 293 total entries (including Beehive comments and mailed-in comments). Our winners are Jennifer Heintz and Susan Gilbert.

ORIGINAL POST: “Oh what a night” it will be on Oct. 28 when the national tour of “Jersey Boys” swaggers into the Saroyan Theatre for a six-day run. Broadway fans have waited for years for this big-deal jukebox musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to reach Fresno. The title is one of the highlights of the season, along with the upcoming “Book of Mormon” in July.

Here’s the exciting news for Beehive readers: Two lucky winners will each receive a pair of opening-night tickets PLUS the original Broadway cast recording CD. I’ll pick the winners randomly. To enter, leave a comment on this post answering this question: What’s your favorite Four Seasons song? (If you’re not sure, just say “My Eyes Adored You” — it’s my favorite.)

Deadline to enter is 10 a.m. Thursday. Please don’t enter more than once. I’ll be informing our winners by email on Thursday, so keep a watch on your inbox. If I haven’t heard back from a winner by 10 a.m. next Friday (Oct. 17), I reserve the right to pick another. You’ll need to be able to pick up your tickets and CD at The Bee. Rules are on the jump.

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Arts roundup: Arts Council may assume Water Tower lease, Matt Black in the New Yorker

WATER TOWER: Bee reporter George Hostetter has an interesting Fresno City Council preview story in Thursday’s paper about the likelihood of the Fresno Arts Council assuming the lease and management of the iconic downtown Fresno Water Tower. From the story:

The deal is a no-brainer, of course. The nonprofit Arts Council would pay no rent at the city-owned tower, but would foot the bill for things like electricity and the janitor. The lease is for three years, with two one-year options.

The Water Tower already is a magnet for visitors in search of tips on stuff to see and places to visit. The tower’s interior is chock full of work from the area’s finest artists, all sensibly priced.

The Arts Council will retain both missions. City Hall is the big winner — it won’t suffer the shame of having what is perhaps the city’s best-known landmark shuttered by municipal stinginess.

If you haven’t stopped by the Water Tower recently, by the way, put it on your list of downtown things to do. It’s a cheery environment inside, and don’t forget to look up and see the beautiful ceiling.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Avenue Q’

You never forget your first visit to “Avenue Q.” Eleven years after the irreverent musical opened in New York, I’m long past the days when puppet sex can shock me. But there’s still great joy in repeated viewings of this show. The best part about Fresno City College’s accomplished production is watching it with an audience that obviously includes lots of first-timers. As they discover the silly joys of this clever, tuneful musical — a decidedly adult-oriented take on “Sesame Street” —  it’s like reliving the experience for the first time. 

No question about it: There are a lot of moving parts required to deliver a satisfactory version of “Avenue Q,” and for the most part director Charles Erven and his creative team bring it together with flair. The biggest weakness is the sound. (I’ll get to that in a moment, alas.) But in terms of acting, direction, vocals, choreography and general stagecraft — and the very fine live band — I found a lot to applaud at the Saturday evening performance I saw.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Race’

“Race” checks the platitudes and niceties at the door. Walk into the inner sanctum of the law firm depicted in David Mamet’s brusque and provocative drama, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State, and you’ll get the “fly on the wall” treatment – people speaking in brutally frank terms about what the play refers to as this nation’s most incendiary topic.

I know there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” the grizzled white attorney tells his young black associate. Within these walls, however, the politically correct rules of the game are suspended. Those things do get said. In very frank terms.

In several ways I like the Fresno State production of “Race” more than the actual play itself. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis has crafted a hard-hitting, thoughtfully staged outing that effectively captures what is at the essence of any Mamet play: a slugfest.

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Opening tonight: ‘Avenue Q’ and ‘Race’

The Fresno City College and Fresno State theater seasons kick off tonight with two very different shows: the irreverent musical “Avenue Q” and the searing drama “Race.” You can’t dawdle when it comes to seeing either show, because both only run through Oct. 11.

I had a fun time conducting video “tell-all” interviews, above, with Kate and Rod, two of the puppet stars of “Avenue Q” at Fresno City College. It’s celebrity journalism at its finest. You can also read my 7 section interview with director Charles Erven.

And with David Mamet’s “Race,” pictured below, at Fresno State, we made the play the cover story in Friday’s 7 section. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis talks about his decision to stage this provocative play. 


Pictured: Mitchell Lam Hau, Ryan Woods, Joel Young and Breayre Tender in “Race.”

ArtHop pick: Mac Mechem at Fig Tree

In Thursday’s Life section I put the spotlight on Mac Mechem, whose new show at Fig Tree Gallery is a highlight of October ArtHop. (5-8p.m Thursday at most venues.) From my story:

Mechem taught art at McLane High School for 36 years. After playing football for Fresno State, Mechem says he felt “dazed and confused” about his future after coming to the end of his player eligibility.

He sold his car, took the few hundred dollars he had saved loading trucks at night for Pepsi and bought a round-trip ticket to Europe.

After visiting the great museums there, he returned to Fresno determined to be an artist and teacher. While he was at McLane, he taught a painting class at Fresno City College for 28 years, and after retirement he has for 10 years been teaching a drawing class at Reedley College.

Mechem calls himself a figurative painter who comments on the social, political, cultural and religious aspects of human nature. “Satire and humor are important components of my expression as I attempt to lampoon and ridicule the vices, follies and shortcomings of contemporary society,” he says.

More ArtHop picks are attached to the end of the story. For a complete list of venues, go to the Fresno Arts Council’s ArtHop update.

Sierra Art trails spotlight: Kathy Marks

If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing Sierra Art Trails, perhaps this is the year for you. The annual open house of studios and galleries in the mountain communities of eastern Madera and Mariposa counties is a wonderfully relaxed and friendly way to meet some very nice artists — and perhaps pick up an original piece of art.

In advance of this year’s 12th installment of the event, which runs 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, I feature an interview in Thursday’s Life section with Kathy Marks, who will be showing her assemblage works in Ahwahnee. Here’s an extended version of the interview:

Question: Set the scene for us in terms of your participation in Sierra Art Trails. What can people expect at your Ahwahnee venue? What is the ambiance like? Do you find that lots of people engage you in conversation?

Answer: Kris Kessey’s studio is warm and welcoming! Since I showed at Kris’s studio last year, it’s easy to ‘set the scene’. First of all, there is plenty of parking, with easy-to-read signs. There will be five of us this year including Kris, Norma Rogers, Edward Gillum & Adam Longatti. All of us are displaying our work inside. Adam will only be showing Sat. & Sun. The rest of us will be there all 3 days. There are all types of people that visit us. Some are more outgoing & curious, so they will be more engaging. I like to greet our guests with a friendly ‘hello’, inviting them to come in. I introduce myself, and the others who are nearby. When people show an interest in my work, I then let them know my process and any other details they are curious about.

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DANCE REVIEW: Taylor 2 Dance Company

Ruth Andrien, who can trace a direct dance lineage to the master himself, was blunt when she spoke to the audience in a question-and-answer session on Saturday night at the Tower Theatre: “At least in New York,” she said after the show, “people know who Paul Taylor is.”

After Saturday’s exuberant performance of the Paul Taylor 2 Dance Company, I think it’s safe to say a lot more people in Fresno now know Taylor’s name.

Taylor 2 is the smaller of the two companies bearing Taylor’s imprint. The six busy dancers in this hard-working modern-dance company — who take many of the works created on the larger company and double up parts to make them happen — offered a stirring, graceful and emotionally cacophonous performance on the small Tower Theatre stage.

The smallness of that stage gave the performance an intimacy and connection with the performers that you miss when you see the larger Taylor company perform in bigger venues, as I did once in New York. 

Three very different pieces offered a wide range of Taylor’s work. The well-known “Company B,” accompanied by the music of the Andrews sisters, has its share of wide-eyed, giddy moments. But as a nation marches off to World War II, the pain bubbles to the surface. The most tender moment comes when a crazy-in-love couple communes with each other, dancing close and tight, but then he breaks away from her to join his fellow soldiers in a slow, sturdy march to war. I was moved by how Taylor weaves the bittersweet in with the optimism of a nation.

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Fresno Art Museum: ‘I’m still here’

In my Sunday Spotlight column, I put the focus on the Fresno Art Museum, which — like most cultural institutions these days — is competing in a tough economic climate for donors and stability. The museum has faced some challenges this past year, most notably having to take out a $160,000 “bridge loan” for operations. And just a couple of weeks ago, the fire/burglar alarm system broke, and it’s costing $60,000 to replace it. Still, board president Joe Sciarrone says the museum is hanging on. (More than that, he says it HAS to hang on.)

Check out my column for an in-depth report.

Maestro’s car broken into during opening orchestra concert

After a warmly received first concert of the season, Fresno Philharmonic music director Theodore Kuchar was probably in a pretty good mood late Sunday afternoon as he walked to the Fresno Convention Center parking garage afterward. Then he got the bad news. He shares in an email this morning:

For your information, as this indirectly impacts many of your “followers”, I returned to my car in the parking garage immediately after the concert yesterday. Car window was smashed in parking garage during concert and wallet, credit cards, drivers license, etc. kaput! People pay $7.00 for the safety of having their cars in the same condition after any Convention Center event as when they arrived. My car was parked in virtually the first parking spot after paying the attendant. I can also let you know that this was not the first instance of a Philharmonic member’s car being vandalized recently.

It’s sad to think that while Kuchar was in the midst of making memorable music with guest soloist (and last-minute savior) James Buswell, who wowed the audience with a virtuosic performance of the Barber violin concerto, some loser was smashing his windshield. This begs an important question: Doesn’t the fee paid to ACE Parking Management for a space in the garage imply some assurance of security during an event? And if it doesn’t, why not? When your own conductor’s car gets broken into while he’s on the podium, that’s pretty embarrassing for a city.

Pictured: James Buswell signs CDs in the Saroyan Theatre lobby during intermission of the opening Fresno Philharmonic concert of the season.

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Weekend pick: Taylor 2 at the Tower Theatre

I’m excited about Saturday’s performance by the Paul Taylor 2 Dance Company at the Tower Theatre. It will be a little slice of New York in Fresno. My advance piece on the concert is the 7 cover story today:

(Is it any wonder that 7 section artist/designer John Alvin gets excited when he gets to design pages using great dance photography?)

If you’re shy about attending professional modern/contemporary dance because you think it will be too “weird,” know this: The Taylor 2 dancers are exceptional athletes, and I think you’ll be impressed at the level of their virtuosity. (As Amy Querin of NOCO, a co-presenter, says in my 7 cover story, “You’re not going to see people just running around.”) The costumes are bright and colorful, and while the pieces to be performed don’t all have strong narratives, if you let yourself fall into their emotional pull, I think you’ll be impressed.

Last chance: ‘The Normal Heart’

I know. Everyone’s busy. You have every intention to get out to see a limited-run play, but things get in the way. Before you know it, it’s gone.

I’m talking about StageWorks Fresno’s “The Normal Heart,” which is in its third and final weekend. I recommend catching it at the Fresno Art Museum before it closes.

Tonight’s performance has a bonus: Curtain has been pushed back to 8:30 p.m. so playgoers can attend the opening reception of the Fresno Art Museum’s series of fall exhibitions, which include “Mildred Howard: Collective Memories.” Howard is the museum’s distinguished artist for 2014. (Here’s my rundown of today’s museum activities, which begin at 4:30 p.m., from today’s 7 section.) It also plays 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Another special museum/”Normal Heart” event: On Saturday, a forum titled “Let’s Talk … HIV/AIDS in the Central Valley” will be held 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

“The Normal Heart” is about the beginning days of AIDS, and playgoers might walk away 30 years later with a false sense of complacency that the disease isn’t something about to worry about anymore. Far from it. There are new cases of HIV/AIDS every day, and education is more important than ever. Kudos to StageWorks and the museum for reminding us of that.

Opening tonight: ‘Ben Minus Jake’

The Fresno premiere of local playwright Andrew Champagne’s “Ben Minus Jake” opens tonight at the Fresno Soap Co. (formerly the Broken Leg Stage) and continues through Oct. 4. It’s a Curtain 5 Theatre Group production. From the company:

BEN MINUS JAKE tells the story of two friends. Haunted by his past, Ben, (Matthew Vargas) struggles to find a sense of identity, as Jake (Jason Andrew) desperately desires to move forward; even at the cost of his friendship. Director Jacob Williams’ debut show examines human identity and how those around ultimately help us come to terms with it.

Performances this weekend are 8 p.m. today (Sept. 26) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 27).

A benefit for Visalia’s Sydney Lemon

Visalia’s performing arts community is opening its arms to the family of 12-year-old Sydney Lemon, who died Aug. 26 after a six-month battle with aplastic anemia. Lim Forgey writes to let me know about a special benefit performance:

Sydney and her parents were (are) staples in the local musical theater scene and have worked with groups including the enchanted playhouse, College of the Sequoias Theater, Encore Theater of Tulare, Ice House Theater, TECO, Celebrant singers and more.

To help offset some of the massive medical bills left by Sydney’s illness, Christ Lutheran Church is launching a musical theatre showcase benefit concert and silent auction, featuring number from each of the groups above and the greater theatre community. The concert, called LEMONAID, will reflect the unique life of Sydney with the majority of the numbers boasting a high energy zeal and love of life. The concert will be held at LJ Williams theater on Sunday, September 28th at 4 PM. Tickets are by donation and can be picked up at Christ Lutheran Church 559-732-1851, The Ruby Slipper (559) 732-7463 or the Looking Glass Shop 559-732-2787.

It sounds like an unforgettable evening for a good cause.