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A big (and expensive) honor for COS theater

Oberon and Fairies - Photo by Ken Weisenberger

The College of the Sequoias October production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is going places.

The production is one of eight out of 60 nominated shows from colleges and universities in the southwest region of the U.S. to be selected for presentation at the regional finals of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The event will be held February in Los Angeles.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the show in October, there will be two fund-raising January performances at COS to kick off the road to L.A.

I caught up with director Chris Mangels, who penned the adaptation, to ask him how complicated it will be to take such a big and elaborate production on the road.

When was the selection made?

I was contacted by Matt Neves, the new head of Region 8, on Saturday, December 7. I told my colleagues first, my cast second, and then we announced it to the school and on our Facebook page on Monday, December 9. Things have been hopping all over COS ever since.

Has COS ever received this honor before?

No. This is only our second year being involved with KC / ACTF. We were contacted about last year’s production of “Boeing-Boeing” potentially going to the Festival, but I had not designed the set to travel so we withdrew ourselves from consideration for the honor. It taught me that we might have a fighting chance of taking a production on the road, however, so this year we threw all our eggs in the “Midsummer” basket and designed the whole show with the potential to be loaded up and taken to LA. Luckily for us, it paid off. We are really excited!

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THEATER REVIEW:’Urinetown’

I’ll gladly drive the 45 minutes to Visalia for the privilege to pee.

The College of the Sequoias theater department tackles “Urinetown,” the musical with perhaps the most unappealing title in the world, in a smoothly directed, mostly solid performance that continues through Saturday.

Boasting a couple of top-notch performances from its female leads and often creatively staged by Chris Mangels, the show —  a dystopian political allegory in which water is so rare that residents of a beleaguered city have to pay for the privilege of relieving themselves —  hits many of the high points for which it’s been known ever since a 2001 Broadway debut.  Among them: a snide, silly cynicism laced with more darkness than you’d expect; clever send-ups of the Broadway genre; and, especially, some great songs delivered well. (“But the music’s so happy,” the character of Little Sally exclaims when she’s reminded this is not a happy musical.)

That said, this production doesn’t flush with quite the ferocity it could have. There are some weaknesses.

But also a lot of strengths.

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Donald’s weekend picks

Besides tonight’s must-see concert starring that little lady with the giant voice, Kristin Chenoweth

1. A REBORN DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM
Fresno will only be the fourth city so far to get to see the newly reborn main company of the Dance Theatre Harlem, which had to shut down in 2004 for economic reasons. The performance is 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre. I give you the whole story in Friday’s 7 cover story. [Details]

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Ragtime’

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After watching the new StageWorks Fresno production of “Ragtime,” you might be surprised that one of my strongest reactions was to a supporting character: the radical anarchist Emma Goldman.

I wanted to call out to her: You go, Emma!

The themes in this sprawling musical tapestry — a swirl of ideas about race relations, immigrant dreams, women’s rights and the promise of a grand, forward-looking country on the precipice of a calamitous new century — might be keyed toward events that took place more than a hundred years ago. But they still seem achingly relevant today, especially in this earnest production. When Goldman, portrayed with gusto by a fierce Julie Lucido with a bun in her hair and fire in her voice, laments the immigrant children in New York’s fetid Lower East Side dying of malnutrition, you feel her outrage. And when the ensemble breaks into the song “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” spinning in circles around her with a crisp and angry energy, the moment sizzles.

With its huge cast, multiple storylines and locations, challenging vocals and generally somber sense of self-importance, “Ragtime” is a tremendous challenge to produce. Director Joel Abels, as always, often conjures great moments out of the barest minimum of theater resources. I think it’s an inspiring and solid production with strong individual performances. For several reasons, however, I don’t think the opening-night performance measured up to the brilliance of the two preceding StageWorks productions, “The Light in the Piazza” and “[title of show.]“

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

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Chris Mangels’ ambitious and visually charged new production of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” — which continues through Saturday at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia — is dark stuff, indeed.

So dark, in fact, that I somewhat regret that in my advance piece on the show in last week’s issue of 7 I so heavily emphasized the family-friendly nature of the show. True, this show lacks the specific red flags for objectionable material that might put parents on edge (explicit violence, excessive profanity, sexual situations). But I think Mangels has missed the mark if he thinks he’s made a show “that local families could see together but still maintain the type of theatricality and visceral thrill that attracts me as an artist,” as he told me.

Again, I feel this way not so much due to objectionable content but because of the production’s overall tone and demeanor: It gets bogged down in its overwhelmingly bleak world. Bradbury’s philosophical musings about mortality, childhood fears and middle-aged angst become a morass, not a platform for crisp storytelling.

Photo: Danielle Behrens, left, James Sherrill and Jenny Bettencourt in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

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More on ‘Something Wicked’

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Director Chris Mangels aims to creep us out just a little with an atmospheric production of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia. I write about the show and include excerpts of my interview with Mangels in Friday’s issue of 7. Here’s the complete interview:

Question: Most people are familiar with the book. Tell me about the stage adaptation.

Answer: Bradbury is a fairly prolific dramatist and one of the best things about his playwrighting is how loyal he stays to his short-stories and novels when adapting them for the stage. I saw him speak about two years ago at a Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica and he said that he loves to write what is in his mind’s eye and then trust the theatrical artists to interpret it. He is surprisingly non-possessive of his own work and really has confidence in the artistic instinct. So our production is VERY loyal to the book while streamlining some of the sequences to maintain momentum. Overall, I think it is beautifully loyal to the source material, and people who love the book will hopefully really embrace the play. Best of all, Bradbury’s unique and florid prose is maintained throughout.

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