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THEATER REVIEW: ‘RENT’

California Public Theater is presenting the rock musical “RENT” — the much-loved Jonathan Larson tale of Mark, Roger, Mimi and other New York bohemians struggling with poverty and AIDS at the turn of the 21st Century — at the Tower Theatre for a short two-performance run. (The closing show is 8 p.m. Saturday.) A hard-working cast gets through the material, but apart from a few strong vocal and acting performances, much of the production is substandard. With the best seats selling for $38.50 and the cheapest at $23.50, I cannot recommend it, particularly at that price point.

Terrible sound (designed by Steve Allen) marred the opening night production, with the wireless microphones of the leading characters repeatedly going in and out. Buzzing sounds and feedback plagued the evening, and a couple of times the audience heard what sounded like interjections from the backstage crew, or perhaps they were just random voices picked up on an unintended frequency. Songs delivered as phone messages from Mark’s mother and others were rushed and hard to understand, blotting out key plot points. The worst part was the balance between the amplified major roles and the unamplified members of the ensemble. Such powerful numbers as “Christmas Bells” and “Another Day” lost their impact. (On the positive side, the nice live band, directed by Matthew D. Wheeler, never overpowered the singers.)

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Win tickets to ‘RENT’

UPDATE: Congratulations to winner Anthony Taylor.

ORIGINAL POST: There’s only one real way to experience the musical “RENT,” and that’s live. (The movie had its own charms, but it couldn’t capture the raucous energy of this much-beloved show.)

Here’s your chance with California Public Theater’s new local production, which has a short two-performance run. It opens Friday at the Tower Theatre and continues Saturday. As a Beehive reader, you can win two tickets to opening night. These are premium tickets (prices range from $23.50-$38.50), so you’ll get a great seat.

To enter, leave a comment on this post telling us your favorite song from “RENT.” (If you don’t know any, that’s OK — just tell us why you’d like to see this show.)

Deadline to enter is noon Thursday. The winner will be chosen at random and notified via e-mail, so please leave a valid address. I’ll be picking the winner at 12:15, so be sure to check your e-mail around that time. If you can’t do that and would rather be contacted by phone, send me an e-mail (separate from your comment) at dmunro@fresnobee.com with your number, and I’ll contact you that way.

Rules are on the jump.

Pictured: Brian Pucheu as Roger. Photo by Jared Jurcak.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘ART’

California Public Theater misses the mark with its new production at The Voice Shop of “ART,” the 1995 French play by Yasmina Reza that tweaked the contemporary art world and delighted Broadway. Instead of a nimble journey pursuing lofty issues of aesthetics and human nature, we get a slog.

There are four characters in the show — three men and a painting. When Serge (Anthony Taylor), a dermatologist, shells out a huge wad of cash for an all-white painting by a famous artist, he can’t wait to show it to his two best friends, Marc (Eric Estep) and Yvan (Steve Olsen). The pair is less than impressed, however, particularly Marc, who seems to take Serge’s purchase as a personal affront.

As the friends pair up to discuss each other’s reactions, a debate flares about art and consumerism. And when the three of them get together for a night on the town, things get explosive.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. MORE ‘HAIRSPRAY,’ PLEASE
I haven’t yet seen this return engagement from Good Company Players — I’ll be there in the audience tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater — but the original GCP production was a blast. Most of the principal cast members and director Fred Bologna return. The show is in its opening weekend. Here’s my Beehive interview with Ashley Wilkinson, who plays Tracy Turnblad. Pictured: Peter Allwine as Corny Collins.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. GO OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD AND HEAR THE MUSIC LIVE
Sometimes things just fall into place. Our esteemed artist for the 7 section, John Alvin, had already prepared our cover for the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Oz with Orchestra” performance when I interviewed conductor Theodore Kuchar for my cover story. When I asked Kuchar which parts of the film had particularly affected him over the years, the first thing he mentioned was the flying monkeys. I had to smile knowing this was our cover:

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The Philharmonic performs two shows: 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘I Love You Because’

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There’s a front-row, edge-of-the-stage feel to California Public Theatre’s cute — if a little too predictable and precious – “I Love You Because.” It’s like being at a rock concert where the performers can reach down and touch the peppy youngsters who have clawed their way to the front. My advice: If you like a little bit more space than an arm’s length between you and the happy folks belting out your musical theater, I’d sit in the third row. Which is the back row.

Director Eric Day took an interesting approach to using the Voice Shop’s small, boxy, storefront theater space: He divided it lengthwise, constructing a very shallow, long stage, which gave room for only three long rows of seats in the audience. At first I disliked the configuration, but it sort of grew on me. And it did allow Day to construct a more elaborate set depicting a contemporary Manhattan scene, including a quintessential old-fashioned street light.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. SEE A LOCAL PLAY
I have capsule reviews of The New Ensemble’s “A Picasso” and California Public Theater’s “Lonely Planet” in today’s 7 section. Here’s my extended review of “Picasso” and extended review of “Planet.” And don’t forget: Good Company’s “Skin Deep” is in its opening weekend.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Lonely Planet’

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Many plays were written in the first decades of the AIDS crisis. I’d suggest that Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet” isn’t destined to be one that will be remembered. In contrast to Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” say, which I just saw revived on Broadway — and which seems as vibrant and compelling as the day it was written — “Lonely Planet” has a slightly strained, musty feel.

But the new California Public Theater production, which plays at The Voice Shop through June 26, is still a worthwhile experience, particularly for its dynamic and heartfelt staging accomplished with few resources.

Set in a map store in “any American city” (but obviously one that has suffered a large number of AIDS-related deaths in the gay community), the two-character drama introduces us to Jody (S. Eric Day), the proprietor of the store, and Carl (C. Brandon Weis), a fanatic customer. As the play progresses, the store becomes a fortress of sorts, a place where they hunker down and react to the disease that is carrying away so many of their friends.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. NOCO AT FRESNO ART MUSEUM

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The Fresno Dance Collective, which organizers call NOCO, will offer the second in its series of Saturday morning performances at the Fresno Art Museum. “Games You Can Dance To” is a lecture/demonstration presentation that explores dance partnering, flying and game playing. The NOCO company will be joined by members of Fresno’s Blimprov, an improv theater group. Special gift bags will be handed out to all.

11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday / Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First Street / (559) 441-4221 / $6

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Interviewing Edgar Allan Poe

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Well, not the real one. But Christopher Harrelson is pretty excited about the chance to portray an author he’s been interested in since age 8. He stars in a theatrical production titled “Tales of Terror,” which helps mark the Fresno County Public Library’s “Big Read” event celebrating Edgar Allan Poe. The show opens Friday at the Sanctuary Theater, 2336 Calaveras St. Tickets are free and can be picked up at your local library branch.

I recap the production in Friday’s issue of 7. Here’s my extended interview with Harrelson:

Question: Tell us a little about “Tales of Terror.”

Well, as opposed to the book ‘Tales of Terror’, which is three stories, we’re doing dramatic interpretations of a selection of 10 of Poe’s short stories and/or poems as short, one act vignettes, with Poe introducing each piece with some history, but in a sort of Rod Serling manner, a la Night Gallery.

Photo credit: J Bedford

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Fahrenheit 451′

The Fresno County Library has a good thing going with its annual Big Read program. This year’s featured book is Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and the library arranged to mount the theatrical version of the novel. (It continues 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 28 at the Severance Theatre, 1401 N. Wishon Ave. Tickets are free and are available at area libraries.)

Though the theater project might sound like it could be a rather dry academic exercise, I was pleasantly pleased with the outcome. The play, a joint production by California Public Theater and Woodward Shakespeare Festival, is pretty good. Bradbury himself adapted the script in the 1970s, and while it’s obvious that the theatrical version was never destined to be a standalone classic, it does retain at least some of the thoughtful zing of the novel.

Director S. Eric Day, working on a modest scale, finds some compelling theatrical moments in the material. Using little more than four movable screens and a few pieces of furniture, he creates a menacing, totalitarian near-future world in which books are banned. “Firemen” no longer put out fires; instead they respond to reports of illicit books, which they then burn.

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Did you go to ‘Rocky Horror’?

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I went on Saturday night and enjoyed the boisterous scene for the return of Daniel Chavez Jr. and his live version of “The Rocky Horror Show” at the Tower Theatre. One advantage of seeing the show with a bigger crowd at a place like the Tower, compared to last year’s smaller edition of the show at the Severance Theatre, is that you have a better chance of having enough people in the audience who know the “call out” lines from the movie to provide what you’d call a critical mass of silly snark. The guy sitting in front of me was particularly adept. At one point, when Janet was whining that she’d always thought of saying herself till marriage, the guy shouted out with perfecting timing: “So was I — it’s not worth it!” He got a big laugh.

Did you see the show? What did you think?

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Beyond Therapy’

Now here’s a true delight: It’s Saturday night in the Tower District. I’m walking down the street and come across a little table set up outside a storefront theater. Sitting at the table is the director himself selling tickets.

The occasion is the inaugural performance of a new Fresno theater company, California Public Theater. The play: Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy.”

This scene makes me happy. Maybe it’s a sense of adventure — even mystery. Who knows what awaits when I walk through that door? It reminds me of times in San Francisco and New York that I’ve sought out little theaters (usually on side streets and far from the lights of Union and Times squares). Some of the best theater experiences I’ve had are in these offbeat spaces.

In this case, I’d say that the idea of experiencing a new theater company outweighed the impact of the performance itself. But there’s some good acting to be found — and a lot of promise here.

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Fresno gets a new theater company

From Eric Day:

California Public Theater is a theater company built on the foundation of bringing to life new and classical literature for the enjoyment of the public. Its goals are to reach and educate through theatrical performances generating a social environment that inspires and strengthens our community.

Our inaugural production, “Beyond Therapy,” is one of Christopher Durang’s most popular comedies … It is a bizarre and ridiculous comedy about dating through personal ads and surviving therapy. The cast is comprised of Landon Weiszbrod, Kristen Henson, Jessica Knotts, David Manning, Tony Thammavongsa and Gary Buffkin, direction by Eric Day.

Details: 7:30pm Sept. 18, 19, 25, Oct. 2, 3. There’s one matinee 1:30 p.m. Sept. 26. Performances are at the Million Club, next door to Million Elephant Restaurant & Bar in the Tower District on the corner of Fulton & Olive. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Reservations: Call (559) 907-2676.

I’m excited. A new company is always great news. Welcome, California Public Theater!