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Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

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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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.”

THEATER REVIEW: ‘New Wrinkles’

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The 26th edition of “New Wrinkles” is one of the best I’ve seen.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the annual musical revue at Fresno City College, which features performers ages 55 and older. In a culture that relentlessly (and almost psychotically) worships youth, particularly in entertainment, it’s refreshing to watch more mature performers strut their stuff with the same dedication, enthusiasm and relentless pursuit of show-biz polish as their less senior counterparts. (And why not? Younger theater people become older theater people, and the talent remains.)

This year’s production, “Rockin’ Through the Ages,” which continues through June 15, is directed with finesse and flair by David Bonetto. He steers the format in a slightly different course than the very fine productions of years past. With an emphasis on rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a tighter feel in terms of style and subject matter. The traditional “one-liner” jokes are gone, and with them some (but not all) of the show’s vaudeville feel. Gone, too, is the variety of dance styles and vocals — there’s less tap dancing, one token waltz, and no Broadway-style production numbers.

Instead we’re taken on a musical journey by a DJ (a personable and very effective Darrell Yates, who wrote the script) who “spins” the history of rock, from early days (Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens) to the almost contemporary (Katy Perry). In an impressive bit of product placement, the idea is that Yates is on the air for local radio station KYNO, which gets plugs throughout the show.

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Opening tonight: ‘New Wrinkles’

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“New Wrinkles,” the musical revue featuring performers ages 55 and above, returns for its 26th season tonight with a new director. David Bonetto, a longtime choreographer for the Fresno City College production, helms this year’s offering, “Rockin’ Through the Ages.” I have an interview with Bonetto in Friday’s 7 section, and I’ll be posting an extended version of that interview soon on the Beehive.

From what Bonetto tells me, “New Wrinkles” fans will notice some significant changes in the show. Among the biggest: There are no more “one-liners” — the corny, often groan-worthy jokes traditionally offered between musical numbers — in this version. I wonder if audiences will miss them.

“New Wrinkles” has an impressive run of 15 performances, kicking off at 7:30 tonight at the Fresno City College Theatre. It runs through June 15.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’

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I don’t know about average foxes living in average woods, but I can tell you the title character in Fresno City College’s perky new production of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” occupies some pretty swell underground digs.

And that’s no surprise, considering the college’s reputation for innovative design. With veteran costume designer Debra Erven directing the show and Christopher R. Boltz excelling with his scenic and lighting design, this charming stage adaptation of the Roald Dahl’s children’s book about a feisty fox is filled with visual wonders. The bright and gregarious show is perfect for smaller children, with lots of cute costumed animals and a sweet message of sharing. (Well, that, and also a message about absconding with resources hoarded by an oppressive oligarchy, all in the name of the collective, but those are political questions to be raised once your child gets a little older.)

The show continues through Saturday at the Fresno City College Theatre.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘From Up Here’

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Most parents would ache to think their kids don’t fit in at school. Kenny, the central figure in the timely and nuanced — if not completely satisfying —  Fresno City College production of “From Up Here” certainly seems a candidate for parental concern. Ostracized by his peers, with only his deeply sardonic sister to support him, he is one of those troubled kids for whom high school is something to endure.

Kenny, played by a standout Gabe Griffith, is starting his senior year after a long suspension. Through oblique references, we learn that this troubled character was involved on school grounds in an act of violence — or at least threatened violence. (I feel that when I wrote my advance story about the play, without having yet seen it, that I perhaps unknowingly revealed too much about the plot, or was at least too explicit about Kenny’s transgression, in light of the nuance of the script.) He’s being allowed to return to school, but one of the requirements for his return is to make an apology speech in front of the student body.

Thus, a boy who was on the periphery before — treated as invisible by some, scornfully by others — has become a school celebrity, but known for all the wrong reasons.

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Notes from the theater beat

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‘GREY GARDENS’ CASTING NEWS:  Joel Abels, artistic director of StageWorks Fresno, had hoped to feature Fresno native and Broadway professional Jacqueline Antaramian, who charmed audiences in last year’s “Master Class,” in the leading role in the upcoming “Grey Gardens.” Antaramian would have made a lot of hometown fans happy, but she ended up having a scheduling conflict.

Abels found a big name to fill Antaramian’s shoes, however. Sara Gettelfinger originated the role of Young Little Edie in the original production of “Grey Gardens” Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. (Which I saw!) She’s also featured in the cast recording. Now she’ll be tackling the demanding dual roles of Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second act — the roles played by Christine Ebersole in her 2006 Tony Award-winning performance.

That’s a real coup for StageWorks. Here’s Gettelfinger’s bio:

Most recently appeared as “Morticia” in the first national tour of The Addams Family. BROADWAY: “Dona Athene” in John Guare’s A FREE MAN OF COLOR at Lincoln Center. Suessical the Musical,The Boys from Syracuse, “Carla” in NINE with Antonio Banderas, “Jolene Oakes” in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opposite John Lithgow, as well as the first national tours of FOSSE and 101 Dalmatians “Cruella De Vil”. Other NYC area credits include: “April” in Company (Helen Hayes), “Fastrada” in Pippin (Papermill Playhouse), Tenderloin and Carnival at City Center ENCORES!, Anything Goes at Lincoln Center, and “Little Edie Beale” in the world premier of Grey Gardens at Playwrights Horizons. In 2009, Sara starred as “Fastrada” in the Deaf West production of Pippin at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum. Television:The Big C, Georgetown, Guiding Light, Ed, and Without a Trace, Film: 10 to Midnight, Sex In the City, Forbidden Love. In 2006 Sara was signed to DECCA/Universal Records with the classical-crossover trio Three Graces. Their self-titled,debut album was released in stores/online in March 2008,reaching the top 10 on the BILLBOARD/CROSSOVER Charts, followed by a world wide, critically acclaimed concert tour.

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Tonight: ‘Teasers’ at Fresno City College

1hztgs.St.8Over the years, Fresno City College’s annual “Teasers” production has gained a loyal following. The program features 10-minute plays written and directed by students. Here’s this year’s lineup with the playwrights:

Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree, Mohammad Shehata 

The Plan, Shane Gelegan

Spirit of the Legend, Anthony James Mele

Otaku, Ethan Hardcastle

On the night in Question, Donald Pomnitz

The Weight of Friendship, Carlos Amarillas

Beyond the tracks, Tou Moua

Performances are 7:30 p.m. today, Tuesday and Wednesday at the college’s Studio Theatre. Tickets are $5. I’m told that shows sell out, so it’s best to get there early. I wrote an advance story about “Teasers” in Monday’s Life section. You might recognize Shehata’s name, pictured, from his recent participation in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Why Marry?’

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The title of the 1917 play “Why Marry?” is, of course, a question. Another that might come to mind is this: How could characters from nearly 100 years ago possibly have anything relevant to say about marriage as an institution?

It turns out the answer is quite a lot, as we learn in Fresno City College’s studious and insightful production, which continues through Saturday.

Jesse Lynch Williams’ play, which won the very first Pulitzer Prize for drama, isn’t often revived these days. It doesn’t have the poetic richness or thundering humanity of a Eugene O’Neill, say, who won the Pulitzer in 1920 and 1922. There’s a formality to the language and a professorial approach to the theme — as if we’re in a classroom and we’ve  just been told, “The subject is marriage, now discuss” — that makes it hard to bond emotionally with the material.

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Donald’s mailbag: Why no love for Fresno State jazz?

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I received a thoughtful note from Brigid de Jong, a Fresno State music professor:

Thank you for the fine article about our local players participating in the Fresno Phil’s pops concert on Saturday. Jazz is alive and well in Fresno.

I was disappointed, however, that you didn’t mention the connection that exists between Fresno City College and Fresno State. The fine teaching that the students receive at FCC can segue into a degree with a jazz emphasis at Fresno State, headed by Alan Durst (whose name you did mention, but perhaps you didn’t know he developed and runs our instrumental jazz major.)

Since you made a point of acknowledging the strong jazz program at FCC, I think it would have been good to point out that our local students can continue that fine beginning by earning a BA in music with an emphasis in instrumental jazz. As it is a relatively new option, this would have been a great opportunity to inform the community about it.

Thank you for your extremely thorough and thoughtful coverage of the arts in our area. You do the community a great service by constantly showing the people here that the arts are alive and well in the Fresno community.

My response is after the jump.

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Thursday: North Fresno ArtHop

ArtHop for the northern part of the Fresno area — held the third Thursday of the month — doesn’t get as much ink (or pixels) as its downtown/Tower District sibling. Which is why I want to highlight a couple of interesting events:

BOLING FINE ARTS
The Down Syndrome Association of Central California is presenting a special exhibition of artwork created by children and adults with Down Syndrome. The show, “The Colors of Down Syndrome,” highlights the artistic abilities of various individuals expressing their vision through painting. Proceeds from the purchase of the art will benefit Down Syndrome Association programs. ArtHop North Reception is 5-8 p.m. Thursday at Boling Fine Arts Gallery, 5100 N Sixth, Suite 120.

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Donald’s weekend picks

If you thought last weekend was busy, wait till you see this one. Be sure to see our full coverage in Friday’s 7, including a roundup of classical music concerts.

1. SEE ‘ORDINARY DAYS’
It’s beautiful. There are only three performances left: 8 p.m. Friday; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Director Anthony Taylor’s Q&A interview is here, and my review is here. [Details]

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Interview: Janine Christl on Fresno City College’s ‘Tape’

Fresno City College’s theater department tackles the provocative play “Tape,” which opens Friday and continues through Dec. 8. I talked with director Janine Christl about the play for a piece in the 7 section. Here’s the extended version of that interview:

What is “TAPE” about, briefly?

Two high school friends, Jon and Vince, meet up at a motel room in Lansing, Michigan ten years after graduation. The night turns into a high stakes ride when the conversation turns towards an incident years earlier with a girl they both dated, Amy. Vince eventually pressures Jon into admitting that he had possibly date raped Amy and then reveals that he has taped his confession. To top it off, Amy is on her way over to meet them for dinner. Full of suspense and questions of motive, truth and perception, “Tape” delivers a dynamic roller coaster ride of lifelike drama.

Pictured: Will Jorge, Rebecca Hustedde and Javier Padilla.

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Upcoming theater

As we look ahead to the end of November and early December — always one of the busiest cultural times of the year — here’s a quick glance at local theater you don’t want to miss.

‘ORDINARY DAYS’
This new musical from composer Adam Gwon is a last-minute addition to the schedule. I just received word today it will be staged Nov. 30-Dec. 8 by Fresno’s Organic Theater Factory at The Voice Shop. From the company’s website:

Ordinary Days tells the story of four young New Yorkers whose lives intersect as they search for fulfillment, happiness, love and cabs. Directed by Anthony Taylor and performed by Terry Lewis, Taylor Abels, Ashley Taylor and Dominic Grijalva; Adam Gwon’s vibrant score rings startlingly true to life.

The cast recording has received prominent priority on my iPod ever since I bought it. The show includes the beautiful song “I’ll Be Here,” which Audra McDonald sang at her most recent Fresno concert.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. DRUM NIRVANA:  The Los Angeles-based TAIKOPROJECT is a big deal in the world of Japanese drumming groups. The ensemble has performed at the Academy Awards, the Grammys and the TV show “The Voice.” I was impressed when it performed at Fresno’s Shaghoian Hall in 2010. Now the group is back Saturday as the  highlight of the 25th anniversary concert of Fresno Gumyo Taiko in Fresno High School’s Royce Hall. This will be a great chance to sample TAIKOPROJECT’s theatrical approach that includes storytelling, music, hip-hop choreography, multi-media and dance. [Details]

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Mauritius’

From top, Mohammed Shehata, Kerry Cavin and Olivia Stemler in “Mauritius” at Fresno City College.

Two collegiate-level plays opened last Friday in Fresno, and both show how invigorating it is to be exposed to recent acclaimed work from American playwrights at the top of their games. While Fresno State’s “Wonder of the World,” by David Lindsay-Abaire, takes us on a zany journey of self-discovery, Fresno City College’s snappy “Mauritius,” from the powerhouse playwright Theresa Rebeck, maneuvers us in an opposite direction. It’s a brisk and subtle thriller laced with an undercurrent of menace — as well as offering a chortle or two about the craziness of family dynamics.

It continues through Saturday at the Fresno City College Theatre.

For those not up on their philately, the title of the play refers to the island nation of Mauritius, which early in the history of postage produced two of the rarest stamps in the world, known as the “Post Office” series. It turns out those two stamps ended up in a collection in the hands of two adult half-sisters: the younger Jackie (Olivia Stemler); and the middle-aged Mary (Bridget Manders-Martin).

Both sisters have reasonable claims to the collection. Jackie just finished a traumatic run nursing her dying mother without any help from her long-absent sister, and she considers the collection a payoff for her troubles. Mary, on the other hand, has a strong personal connection to the stamps, having helped her grandfather collect them.

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‘Mauritius’ at Fresno City College: the interview

Olivia Stemler, Mohammed Shehata and Kerry Cavin in Fresno City College’s “Mauritius.”

In last Friday’s 7 section, I promised you an extended interview on the Beehive with director Charles Erven about the Fresno City College production of “Mauritius.” Consider this Part 1 of 2 of Better Late Than Never. (I’m also posting a full interview with director Brad Myers talking about “Wonder of the World,” which I also promised in the 7 section.) Here’s the post:

You might not think of stamp collecting as a way to anchor a compelling play about human nature, but that’s what Theresa Rebeck does in her acclaimed “Mauritius.” In Friday’s 7 section, I talk with director Charles Erven about the new production opening Friday at Fresno City College. Here’s the extended version of the interview:

Question: What’s the play about?

Answer: Two estranged sisters fight for possession of a valuable stamp collection left by their deceased mother. When one of the sisters takes the stamp collection  to have them appraised the sisters find themselves thrust into a world of high stakes collecting and dangerous characters. The play is called “Mauritius” because the two most valuable stamps in the world come from the Island of Mauritius and are worth  millions of dollars.

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Donald’s weekend picks

Besides attending our rescheduled Beehive Birthday Party, of course …

1. MEET MALAQUIAS MONTOYA
The artist is considered one of the founders of the social serigraphy movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1960s. Arte Américas honors him in a new exhibition titled “Voice for the Voiceless” featuring silkscreen, charcoal and pastel works addressing the themes of injustice, empowerment and international struggle. Montaya, who grew up in the Valley, will be at Arte 2-5 p.m. Saturday for an artist’s reception and “homecoming celebration.”

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7Qs #11: Kopi

For the newest installment of 7Qs, I’ve managed to nab our biggest celebrity yet: the one, the only — Kopi.

I was a judge at the Fresno City College talent show recently with Kopi and I must say, I admire the patience and friendliness he shows every single person that approaches him. And they were many. He took pictures, signed autographs, chatted with people, hugged them. He even answered some stupid questions from a dumb blogger who stuck a camera in his face.

PREVIOUSLY IN 7Qs:
Gotta Love Fresno | Rogue Festival | Keith’s BoxCar Cafe | Johnny Q | Parker | Fresno Brewing Co. | Fulton 55 | Dead in 60 Years | Travis Sheridan

The Week Ahead: Black Milk, Xzibit, Xotica, Wild Blue and more

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BLACK MILK: If you like hip-hop like I like hip-hop — which is to say, not the stuff on the radio — then see Black Milk at Fulton 55 on Wednesday night. Dude is doooooope.

XZIBIT: If you like hip-hop that I liked in 1996, then go see Xzibit at Rome Nightclub on Thursday night. I honestly can’t tell ya what Xzibit has done in the last five years, but his first two albums were also doooooope.

WILD BLUE: Iconic Fresno band The Wild Blue gets together again for a reunion show on Saturday night at Fulton 55. Last time it did one of these, the show was paaaaaaacked.

CELEBRATE THE EXPRESS + XOTICA: It’s anniversary time at The Express, Fresno’s popular gay nightclub. On Thursday night, the Xotica drag show celebrates its eight-year anniversary then The Express itself celebrates nine years on Saturday night.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. MUSIC YOU CAN SEE
The Fresno Philharmonic is offering a pops program of “photochoreography” — matching beautiful photographic images with such stalwart composers as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. I did an interview with the creator of photochoreography in Thursday’s Life section. [8 p.m. Friday at the Saroyan; details here.]

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Almost, Maine’

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There’s a lot of theater going on right now in the Fresno area, and it’d be a shame if the offbeat and atmospheric “Almost, Maine,” which continues through Saturday at Fresno City College, was overlooked because of the rush. This whimsical and light-hearted play is directed with a sure hand by Janine Christl and imbued with a handsome sense of place by a team of talented designers.

The play is a series of nine self-contained vignettes all set on the same winter night in a far northern town in Maine. Ranging in setting from the laundry room of a rooming house to the wide-open expanse of a frozen lake, we’re presented with tales that run the gamut of love, from the first blush of infatuation to the gritty residue of long-term relationships gone awry. All take place under a big Maine sky that offers as its reward the shimmering beauty of the Northern Lights.

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More on Fresno City College’s ‘Almost, Maine’

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In Friday’s 7 section I talk to Janine Christl, director of Fresno City College’s new production of “Almost, Maine,” about the play, which opens tonight. Here’s the extended version of the interview.

Question: What is the show about?

“Almost, Maine” is a mythical town in northern Maine where the Northern Lights will be at their peak. On this particular Friday night, the town’s residents are falling in and out of love all at the same time! Nine stories emerge as the sky lights up and we learn a little about the complications and beauty of loving in many ways.

Talk a little about the play’s performance history.

“Almost, Maine” was originally developed at the Cape Cod Theatre Project in 2002 and later by the Portland Stage Company where it received its world premiere in 2004. The run was sold out, making Almost, Maine the most successful play in the company’s 32 year history. In the winter of 2005, it opened off-broadway to critical acclaim. The Wall Street Journal named Almost, Maine as one of the best theatrical productions of the 2004-2005 season.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. LOVE AND OPERA
Tenor Scott Piper headlines “Love Conquers All,” the fundraising concert by Youth Orchestras of Fresno. He’ll be joined by soprano Layna Chianakas and the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra for a program of arias and duets from favorite operas. 7 p.m. Sunday, Shaghoian Concert Hall. [Details]

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Thursday: ArtHop

A few recommendations for what promises to be a bustling ArtHop, the monthly open house of galleries and studios in the downtown and Tower District neighborhoods:

CHRIS SORENSEN STUDIO
As you’d expect, several venues are running with the Valentine’s theme. (Hearts get their own month, it seems.) The Chris Sorensen Studio features the juried show “Art from the Heart,” with winners announced during ArtHop. The work pictured below is from Debra Cooper Havens, a resident artist at the studio. Proceeds from the sale of Havens’ work will go toward funding Fresno Fire and Metal, an industrial art school founded by the artist. The school is “a non-profit educational facility that seeks to offer both fine and industrial arts instruction to youth and adults with an emphasis on eco-friendly practices and providing scholarships to under-privileged youth,” according to its website.

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