We first see him stomping along in the dark, making his entrance past the tables at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater as if he’s an audience member who imbibed too much iced tea and can’t wait for intermission to use the bathroom. He’s a big guy: dressed in a blocky brown pinstriped suit, his hair cropped short and slicked back, his footsteps clunky. He talks big, too: a Boston accent as thick as chowder, loud and nasally, a voice that could startle a cat. Though he’s a police detective, he doesn’t seem to have a nimble bone in his body; he’s like a bulldozer with a gun.
And then Tyler Branco, playing Lt. Frank Cioffi in the sparkling Good Company Players production of “Curtains” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater (continuing through Sept. 8), reveals his character’s love of musical theater. He turns to strike a dance pose in the song “Show People.” And suddenly he’s as light on his feet as a wispy ballerina. (Well, almost.) It’s one of those wide-smiled, goofy moments so endearing it sets the tone for the entire show.
One of the advantages of being a long-time theater critic and watching community actors grow and mature is getting to be present at the moment they offer a truly breakthrough performance. That’s the case with Branco in “Curtains,” who puts a big, comic stamp in the role of the detective tasked to solve the murder of a Broadway-bound musical’s much-loathed leading lady. Branco has offered fine supporting moments in previous GCP shows, from the blustery ex-husband in “The Wedding Singer” and the sweet-voiced crooner in “Paint Your Wagon” to the hilarious French taunter in “Spamalot.” Now, in a delightful turn in “Curtains,” he demonstrates he can carry a show.
Some fine solo voices — not to mention a bounteous amount of holiday cheer — are the best part of the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “White Christmas,” which is finishing up a three-weekend run at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. This good-hearted adaptation of the classic 1954 film, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a song-and-dance duo 10 years after World War II, is highlighted by a booming-voiced Nick Netzley in the Crosby role crooning out a series of Irving Berlin’s happy tunes, including the famed title number.
There are other aspects of this production, diligently directed by Elizabeth Fiester, that are clunky, however, including the dancing — which is a major drawback for such a dance-heavy show — and some uneven acting. The production’s scenic design (by Devin Gregory) also seems a little spare and uninspired compared to past CMT productions, though the large number of locations that has to be depicted makes this show a challenge for any design team.
“White Christmas” is CMT’s annual community theater production, meaning that the cast is all ages instead of 20 years and younger, which is the case for the company’s other shows throughout the year. As such, it’s a chance to be treated to the voices of Netzley, starring as Bob Wallace, and his on-stage partner, Dan Aldape, who plays Phil Davis, the other half of the song-and-dance team.
Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” is best described as Gothic comedy, a genre with such distinct pleasures that sometimes it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to pull off well. A production has to balance the chirpy with the macabre, linger on its characters’ eccentricities without veering into sitcom territory, and embrace the texture and complexity of its Southern setting — because what would a Gothic comedy be without a big ol’ drawl? — without straying into caricature.
The most recent Good Company Players production of this oft-produced title happily passes the test. It’s everything a “Crimes” should be: agreeable, funny, touching. While this production doesn’t always approach the level of theater magic, it’s a solid outing that reminds you just how well written Henley’s script is. And a superb performance from GCP veteran Elizabeth Fiester elevates the whole show.
It’s 1974 in smalltown Hazlehurst, Miss., and for the three MaGrath sisters, the world is in an uproar. The three have reunited to gather at their grandfather’s deathbed, but the old man’s offstage medical woes trails a distant second to the real crisis of the moment: The youngest sister, Babe (an endearing Brandi Martin), is in jail for shooting her husband. It’s up to her awkward young lawyer, Barnett (Raul Reyes), to keep her out of prison.
Pictured: Britt Downs, left, and Elizabeth Fiester in “Crimes of the Heart.”