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Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

10 things we want Ron Orozco to do on his Day

In case you missed his farewell column in last Saturday’s paper, our beloved colleague Ron Orozco is abandoning us retiring after 41 years of service to The Fresno Bee. In recognition of Ron’s myriad contributions to the central San Joaquin Valley, Mayor Ashley Swearingen declared today — which is Ron’s last in the Bee office — as “Ron Orozco Day.” We figure since he’s got this amazing amount of power for 24 hours, here’s what we’d like him to do:  

1. Charge lunch for The Bee’s features staff on Swearengin’s tab at the Downtown Club.

2. Check out 35 books from the library and never turn them in.

3.  Drive a firetruck.

4. Make high-speed rail stop at his house.

5. Declare war on Clovis.

6. Fresno State fans will now be known as “Ron’s Red Wave.” 

7. Bring back the Giants to Grizzlies stadium, with Ron watching from his in-perpetuity luxury suite always stocked with cupcakes.

8. Change city motto from “We’re Three Hours from Everything” to “We Love Piemonte’s.”  

9. Demand a role in Cirque show “Varekai” as guest trapeze performer.

10.  Find a way to rub some of his kindness, generosity, humor and compassion on every resident of Fresno. If we could do that, we’d definitely be the friendliest city in the world.

Swingin’ through Cirque opening-day rehearsal

The setting: The newly set up “Varekai” stage at Save Mart Center on Wednesday afternoon. It’s a Cirque du Soleil tradition to open the rehearsal on opening day briefly to the media, who tend to ooh and aah at the sight of sculpted bodies flying through the air and ask things like, “Is that dangerous?” (Seriously, I heard that question.)

The showcase act: The Russian Swings, which is not 1) evidence that Vladimir Putin has fallen in love with American swing dancing and made “Chattanooga Choo Choo” his hotline ring tone; nor 2) the Moscow TV version of “Celebrity Wife Swap.” Instead, various young men take turns being pushed on giant swings that are basically the burliest version of playground equipment you’ll ever see. Sometimes the men fling themselves at one of two large pieces of canvaslike material acting as nets that hang from the roof of the Save Mart. Other times the men actually are launched off one swing to land on the other, otherwise known as every school yard duty’s worst nightmare. The men are divided into fliers (slim-bodied and aerodynamic) and pushers (with legs as thick as TOPOL-M intercontinental ballistic missiles). Talk about typecasting.

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An emotional ‘Alzheimer’s Stories’

I kept the tears from coming as long as I could, but I couldn’t hold out on Sunday when the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale neared the end of the second movement of Robert Cohen’s “Alzheimer’s Stories.” Here’s the moment in the libretto that did it:

This is my story. This is how pieces of a life were lost.
These are the pieces of a life recalled. This is my story.
Love and compassion repair every loss, one by one, time and again.

Cohen wrote the music and Herschel Garfein wrote the libretto for the 2009 oratorio to raise public awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease and celebrate the caregivers who devote so much time to tending those afflicted with it. The piece is filled with piercing personal details (“As she lay unconscious I would whisper that I loved her”) and uplifting exhortations (“Find those you love in the dark and light. Help them through the days and nights”). At turns somber, jaunty and inspirational, “Alzheimer’s Stories” connects on both a cerebral and emotional level.

As I listened to some of the statistics recounted in the piece – by 2050, one in 85 people worldwide will have the disease — I couldn’t help but think that a percentage of people in that hall, both on stage and in the audience, will one day experience its effects. A sobering moment, indeed.

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Win tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Varekai’

I know there are a lot of Cirque du Soleil fans out there who would love to get their hands on a pair of tickets to “Varekai,” which opens Wednesday, March 25 and continues through Sunday, March 29 at Save Mart Center. I can make that happen. In fact, I can make that happen for two lucky winners. We have two pairs of tickets to give away for the 1:30 p.m. show on Sunday, March 29. I wrote a package of stories in Friday’s 7 section about the show, which picks up the story of the Greek myth of Icarus after that chap’s, um, aviation calamity. (He’s the guy who used feathers and wax to make wings, but he flew too close to the sun and made an emergency water landing.) 

To enter, leave a comment on this post answering the following question: Tell us where you’d fly if you had Icarus’ wings for an afternoon. (We’re assuming you won’t pick the sun.) One entry per person, please. Entries must be received by 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 25. When you enter, please include a valid email address so we can contact you if you’re a winner. I’ll be informing our winners by email on Thursday, so keep a watch on your inbox.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Water by the Spoonful’

Sometimes a spoonful of water can turn into a cascade.

The title of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” might suggest a tranquil and contemplative outing. But this beautifully written play, which collides the stories of an Iraq War veteran and an online community of recovering drug addicts, is anything but a placid experience. It swirls together the fierce (an unblinking look at contemporary Latino issues) with the bemused (an extended nod to the way the online experience has changed the way we communicate), then adds nuanced insights into war, class, poverty, cyber etiquette, guilt and the way that family cultural dynamics can shape lives.

Most of all, Hudes gives us gripping characters whose skins feel lived in, whose daily existences have the shopworn ambiance of everyday life.

Director Kathleen McKinley crafts a Fresno State production that is thoughtful, sturdy and occasionally brilliant. Most important, I’m happy to see a work by a Latino playwright (Hudes prefers “Latino” in the same way that many women prefer to be known as “actors”) writing about Latino lives in a mainstage production on the Fresno State campus. In terms of issues of race: While the recent production of David Mamet’s “Race” was provocative and insightful, it also felt as if the playwright was pontificating from on high. “Spoonful” feels much more whole and organic. It aches — and celebrates — when it comes to issues of race instead of shouting at us.

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CONCERT REVIEW: Fresno Philharmonic gives Beethoven his due

While listening to the Fresno Philharmonic’s memorable concert on Saturday night — the second installment of a three-part weekend series presenting the noted soloist Antonio Pompa-Baldi performing all five Beethoven piano concertos — I imagined the following conversation:

Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s Brain: “Hey there, Fingers, you’re doing just fine. No whining, OK? Just two concertos to plow through tonight, and then one tomorrow, and then you can all clench into a fist and pump a victory salute.”

Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s Fingers: “Easier said than done, Brain. Sure, everyone coos about all those thousands of notes rattling around your synapses and what an accomplishment it is to perform three-hours-plus worth of music from memory, but the real work comes from us. We’re tired! When we’re done, you owe us a massage!”

Seriously, though: It was mesmerizing to watch and listen to Pompa-Baldi play. He’s not a showy performer: no grand flourishes, thunderous motions or theatrical grimaces meant to put on a visual show. Just amazing artistry and concentration. During moments of repose during Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 4, Pompa-Baldi slumped his shoulders and head, resting his arms by letting them dangle almost to the floor. You could sense how taxing, both mentally and physically, this endeavor was. The effect was that of a musician completely dedicated to the performance.

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Opening tonight: ‘Water by the Spoonful’

As a culture, we are so immersed in the online experience that we forget its influence. It’s hard to see the impact that cyberspace has on the way we communicate. The Fresno State theater department opens a play tonight (Friday, April 13) that incorporates the issue. In my 7 section preview story, director Kathleen McKinley describes Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize:

In 2009, four diverse strangers have found laughter, safety and tough-love in an online addiction recovery chat room. The administrator of the chat-room is the estranged birth mother of an Iraq War veteran named Elliot Ortiz. A death occurs in the Ortiz family that sets into motion unexpected reunions, confrontations, confessions and discoveries.

“Water by the Spoonful” runs through March 21(note corrected date) at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre.

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Pictured: Amanda Valdez, left, and Reshma Meister in Fresno State’s “Water by the Spoonful.”

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Always a Bridesmaid’

The quips keep coming in “Always a Bridesmaid,” the latest Good Company offering from the playwriting machine of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten.

Typical gag: One woman character jokes that she “had” two men at once. The punchline: One was cooking, the other cleaning.

After hearing that joke, a woman in the audience sitting in front of me leaned over and told her party: “I just sent that in a birthday card.”

Which pretty much sums up “Bridesmaid,” continuing at the 2nd Space Theatre through April 19. The humor is the kind you’d expect from a well-meaning but anemic TV sitcom. Aimed squarely at 50-year-old-plus women, the play boasts a few good laugh lines, but mostly it’s a recycle of warmed-up Southern witticisms, inoffensive one-liners and gags about clueless husbands and retaining water.

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The Atlantic makes a stop in Fresno

James Fallows, a high-pedigree writer for The Atlantic, the high-pedigree magazine, has been having a grand time with a couple of other writers traveling to medium-sized and smaller cities in the U.S. for an online project titled “American Futures.” The series examines “the people, organizations, and ideas reshaping the country.”

The focus this week is Fresno.

Fallows, a longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic and a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, in his first post rounds up many of the usual suspects that national media emphasize when they visit Fresno: the bounty of our agriculture, the gap between wealthy and poor folks, the relentless sprawl. But this series is supposed to be different. Fallows posted a photo of a noticeably people-free Fulton Mall and had this to say: 

This looks, and seems, pretty bleak. And that is why the people and groups we’ll be chronicling in coming days were both surprising and impressive in their determination that downtown Fresno would be the place where they would start their companies, realize their ambitions, and help rebuild a community. This is the hardest-hit area in a hard-pressed town in a region the rest of the state relies on but generally ignores.

I’m told by Rogue Festival sources that The Atlantic folks spent time at the festival and were impressed by what they saw. We’re looking forward to that post — as well as others in the series. 

OPERA REVIEW: ‘Carmen’

I had performances and obligations for seven out of the last eight nights, and I was so swamped I allowed one review to slip through the cracks. But I still want to post it. I saw the opening night of Fresno State’s “Carmen” on Friday, Feb. 27 and was impressed on several fronts.

This co-production from the Fresno State Opera Theatre and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra was an indication that the opera program at the university is stretching and finding its wings. Voice professor Anthony Radford, who produced “Carmen,” brought together two figures at Fresno State known for their innovative and passionate work: the ever-busy Thomas Loeweneheim, who conducted the orchestra with the razor-sharp determination that we’ve come to expect from him; and Ruth Griffin, a crossover from the theater department, who gave the production an innovative flair with her stage direction.

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Five weekend picks

I’m going to chime in with five weekend picks — besides, of course, the last weekend of the Rogue Festival:

KEYBOARD CONCERTS
The Fresno State Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series welcomes another young, world-class pianist. Kuok-Wai Lio was born in Macau in 1989 and received the 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant. The program includes works by Schubert and Schumann. 8 p.m. Friday, March 6 in the Fresno State Concert Hall.

ARMENIAN GENOCIDE CENTENNIAL CONCERT
Traditional Armenian music by the Chookasian Armenian Concert Ensemble and dance by the Hamazkayin Niari Dance Ensemble highlight this somber yet celebratory music event. 2 p.m. Sunday, March 8 at the Fresno State Satellite Student Union.

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Rogue Roundup for Friday, March 6

Welcome to the last installment of our Rogue Roundup series following the daily progress of Fresno’s 14th annual Rogue Festival. We kick things off with a very special treat — an original song by none other than the Famous Haydell Sisters, one of the big hits at the festival. Donna Kay Yarborough and Sadie Bowman sing about the Fresno hospitality they experience with their billet host, Pam Weldon:

Joshua Tehee in his Friday 7 column conducts a fun interview with the “Sisters” in character:

In their heyday, the Haydells sang chart-topping tunes and ran with country music’s biggest stars. Garth Brooks was a close friend, Mattie Haydell says. It was Mattie, in fact, who encouraged Brooks to explore his Chris Gaines alter ego in the late ’90s. So, no, they don’t talk much anymore, though she’s happy he’s back on tour and in the spotlight.

BEE PICKS

Also in today’s 7 section: the Bee staff makes five other recommendations among the shows they saw:

“And Now, No Flip Flops?” (The Voice Shop): Eliza Gibson gives a tight, heartfelt mid-life-crisis performance about lesbian divorce and shared dog custody.

“Best Picture” (Fresno Soap Co.): This zany recreation of all 87 Best Picture Oscar winners is a fine comic outing.

“Dancing in the Mist” (Fresno Soap Co.): Dementia is a heavy topic, but the audience isn’t crushed by its weight in this play by Marcel Nunis.

• “The Devil You Know” (Dianna’s Studio of Dance): Allison Daniel excels in a collision of puppetry and gymnastics starring a purple creature 100 times cuter than Barney.

“Still Shopping for God” (The Voice Shop): Erica Lann-Clark’s funny, shouty persona takes a darker turn into a Holocaust-themed exploration of reconciliation, retribution and forgiveness.

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Rogue Roundup for Thursday, March 5

The Rogue’s Heather Parish unveils her Rogue Festival SECOND WEEKEND STRATEGY:

During the second weekend of Rogue, the pressure is on to SEE ALL THE SHOWS!

With over 60 acts performing in the Tower District the next three days, getting in everything that interests you is going to be impossible. There’s so much to choose from and a lot of it is selling out fast!

So how can you attack your Rogue experience the second weekend without totally stressing out? Part of Rogue Festival’s objective is to offer something different in the way of performance to local audiences, so here is a mini-checklist you can use to diversify your show-going at Rogue this weekend. Block out time to see that ONE show you absolutely cannot miss. Make that a priority. Buy tix online for this one!

Then. . .

Choose a show you know very little or nothing about. Go through the Rogue Program and notice the titles you haven’t heard about yet. There are some real gems there.

Change up the origins. If you’ve seen only local acts, choose an out-of-towner. If you’ve seen mostly out-of-town acts, choose a local act. Choose a show in a style you don’t normally see. If you’re a music person, choose a theatre or spoken-word act. If you’re a theatre-type, hit up a music show. Never seen a dance show, hit one up now. If clowning, puppetry or circus-themed shows are not on your radar, buy a ticket and see if you like it.

And finally, try a show you think you might not like at all. Challenge yourself to be open to something out of your comfort-zone. THEN decide what you think of it!
This strategy will get you a good five shows this weekend and you’ll also get a full fringe experience, right here in your own backyard!

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Guys & Dolls’

You don’t want to sit down when the national tour of “Guys & Dolls” is rockin’ the boat. And that’s a strong sign for the production that rolled into the Saroyan Theatre Wednesday for a two-night run. One of my barometers for this classic show is how well a production carries off the famed number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” The ensemble — led by an inspired Todd Berkich as Nicely-Nicely Johnson — delivers a boisterous, heartfelt, sing-to-the-rafters experience that pays homage to the roots of the number while still giving it a more contemporary vibe.

This tour falls about in the middle in terms of overall quality of the smaller road shows that come through the Saroyan. The production design is solid for a budget-conscious show in terms of sets, costumes and lighting — and it never feels cheap or rinky-dink. (Well, except for the front title scrim that came awkwardly down after the first act and at the end of the show, jiggling like a snagged window blind.) The thing that seems smallest about the show is the orchestra, which could use a beefed-up string section.

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ArtHop focus: Neil Chowdhury’s ‘Burdens and Dreams’ at Corridor 2122

In Thursday’s Life section I highlight the work of Neil Chowdhury, who joined the Fresno State art department this academic year to teach photography. His new show at Corridor 2122, “Burdens and Desires,” is a vibrant and thoughtful exercise in which Chowdhury unpacks his relationship to India, land of his father’s birth. Here’s an extended interview.

You’re new this academic year at Fresno State.  Introduce yourself to the Fresno arts community.

I’m new to Fresno, but not to teaching and making art, or to being new. My parents moved with me frequently when I was a child. I was born in England, but immigrated to Canada and then the US while still an infant. Since then I’ve lived all over the country. I think that having to adapt constantly to new environments and cultures really helped me to become more observant of my surroundings, and inspired my use of photography as a tool to understand the new worlds in which I found myself. I moved here this August with my wife Sacha to teach photography at Fresno State University. We are both thrilled to live in a place where we can enjoy sunshine all year round. Our timing was fortunate, as we just managed to escape the worst winter on record in Syracuse, our previous home. I’m excited to discover that in addition to warm weather, Fresno also offers a vibrant cultural and art scene that’s much more lively than I expected for a city of this size. We’ve both felt very welcomed by the creative community here so far!

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Opening tonight: ‘Guys & Dolls’

The national tour of the classic musical “Guys & Dolls” is making a two-night stop at the Saroyan Theatre. I got the chance to interview Todd Berkich, who plays Nicely-Nicely Johnson. From my story in Tuesday’s Life section

Todd Berkich isn’t rockin’ the boat. When you play Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the national tour of “Guys & Dolls,” which shimmies into the Saroyan Theatre on Wednesday, March 4, for a two-night run, you get the chance to sing one of the show’s great songs: “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Because that song is so well-known for exploding into a trademark gospel-style frenzy of vocals, you don’t want to mess with it too much.

The show plays 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 4 and Thursday, March 5.

Rogue Roundup for Wednesday, March 4

We’ll kick off our daily Rogue Roundup with a rave. Beehiver Rick Bentley writes:

The awards are in, and in the category of best performance by two Canadians and a New Yorker managing to mash together 87 winners of Oscars for Best Picture into one hilarious performance, the top honor goes to “Best Picture.”

The theory of everything behind the show is that Jon Paterson, Tara Travis and Kurt Fitzpatrick salute all 87 films that have won Best Picture, from “Wings” to “Birdman” (including a moment you won’t ever be able to unsee). The imitation game they play to portray stars of the movies would work from “Selma” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

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Rogue Roundup for Monday, March 2

Pictured: Members of Megill & Company perform “Sleep Cycles Dream State” at Cal Arts Academy/Severance. Photo credit: Victor DesRoches.

Funny thing about the first weekend of the Rogue Festival: You can wander into shows so sparsely attended that there are less than 100 toes in the audience. And you can land in a sold-out venue.

That’s what happened to me on Saturday: When I saw “Still Shopping for God” in a 12:30 p.m. show at The Voice Shop, it was packed with a boisterous, giving audience. I went to Eliza’s Gibson’s “And Now, No Flip Flops,” the show immediately following at 2 p.m. at the same venue, and there was just a handful of folks in the audience. (It’s a very well-done show that deserves a much bigger crowd, by the way.)

The Rogue’s Heather Parish reports that the number of sold-out performances during the first weekend was higher this year than usual. She expects the numbers to grow next weekend, so get to shows 30 minutes prior to showtime or purchase online to guarantee seats.

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Matt Black: an intense and highly talented photographer

If you missed Sunday’s paper, you missed my long profile starting on the front page about Exeter photographer Matt Black, whose latest national honor was Time magazine’s designation as the 2014 Instagram Photographer of the Year. 

Photographer Craig Kohlruss and I got the chance to spend some quality time with Matt. It’s not just a story about a talented photographer, but one about a part of this Valley that many of us never see: the vastness of our agricultural infrastructure, the endemic poverty, the lives of farmworkers, the startling real-world effects of drought. It’s rare for an arts profile to make the Sunday front page, and I hope you can carve out some time to read it.

‘House of Cards’ Season 3: Oh, what a twisted season opener

I couldn’t wait for Season 3 of “House of Cards” to start streaming on Netflix. Neither could my Beehive colleague Traci Arbios. We aren’t binge watchers — not enough hours in the day, and, besides, I like to deal out my “Cards” slowly so I can stretch the experience. Both of us only caught the first episode over the past weekend. (Spoiler alert: Don’t read this if you’re still catching up with the first and second seasons, or, obviously, the first episode of Season 3.)

DONALD: Any thought that the new President Underwood would turn “House of Cards” into a “West Wing”-style White House drama filled with the buoyant minutiae of daily governing went out the window with the first episode of the third season. If anything, the show turned even darker than ever. I actually shuddered a couple of times. Were you surprised, Traci, at how much time we spent in the first episode with the struggling-for-life Doug Stamper (played by the amazing Michael Kelly), who at the end of last season had his head bashed in with a brick by Rachel?

TRACI: I think it’s safe to say that not a single item on my expected list showed up in the first episode; instead, several completely unanticipated moments punched me in the face. First off, yes; I was stunned to see Stamper alive. There’s no spoiler here– Stamper appears in the opening shots. Another surprise? Actually, a twofer: 1) Stephen Colbert interviewing a clearly 2) uncomfortable Underwood. When do we ever see Underwood uncomfortable? Question for you: What do you think of Claire Underwood’s foray into politics?

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Rogue Roundup for Sunday, March 1

Welcome to Day 3 of the 2015 Rogue Festival. And thanks for finding these festival roundups back here on the Beehive, which has stopped its two-day technological tantrum. (Fingers crossed.) Here is where you can read recaps of Day 1 and Day 2.

We’ve got just two words for you: Haydell Sisters.

Get your tickets now. Thanks to advance online Rogue ticketing, you can do just that.

My Beehive colleague Kathy Mahan and I both saw “The Famous Haydell Sisters Comeback Tour” Saturday night at the Voice Shop, and we agree that it is 1) hilarious; 2) imaginative; 3) extremely well sung; and 4) bawdier than a drunken “South Park” writers brainstorming session. (Ah, so many words rhyme with “rube.”) The Rogue buzz for the show is already red-hot, and it’s easy to see why: With its “Spinal Tap”-style mockumentary format diving into the psyche of a former hit musical group, sisters Maybelle (Sadie Bowman) and Mattie (Donna Kay Yarborough) entertain with wildly entertaining satirical country music songs when they aren’t working through sibling rivalry. Prepare to laugh a lot.

More Rogue buzz

Kathy writes:

– After seeing Les Kurkendaal’s “A One Way Ticket To Crazy Town” I wanted to give his mom three cheers. She sounds like a great lady. Crazy Town is a sweet, funny and poignant show. Kurkendaal is charming and an engaging storyteller.  

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A chat with ‘Iris’

Here’s a great theater option for families: Fresno City College is opening what sounds like a charming play suitable for third graders and older.  “Still Life with Iris” is set in a fantasy world named Nocturno, where if you lose your coat you don’t know who you are because you’ve lost your memories.

I caught up with Olivia Stemler, who plays the title role, via email.

Question: What is the play about?

Answer: “Still Life with Iris” follows the story of a little girl on her quest to find home. She is joined by two friends, a pirate named Annabel Lee and young Mozart, as they search to reclaim her stolen memories.

How old is your character? Was playing someone this young a challenge? Did you do anything special to prepare?

This was such a fun process! But also a challenge. Iris is 11 years old, so it was definitely a stretch. I did a lot of heavy observing and pulled a lot of inspiration from children I interact with on a daily basis. Kids are so free and uninhibited in the way they think and interact with the world, I tried to incorporate that into my performance as much as possible.

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