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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The King and I’

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I’m always excited when Good Company Players stages a new musical — because new is fun. But there’s a lot to be said for rejuvenating a classic, too. The company’s vibrant and heartfelt new production of “The King and I” is a fitting tribute to a beloved title.

It helps that director Elizabeth Fiester’s production is such a lush and colorful visual experience. The sets, designed by David Pierce, feel rich and majestic — and very red, as befitting the halls of the palace of the king of Siam. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes — a whirl of beautiful gowns,  luxurious robes, layered silks — feature a color palette that bursts with bright swaths of color, but never in a brash way. Andrea Henrickson’s lights create a sense of sun and vitality, but also the hushed grandeur of great wealth.

Still, it’s the story and the music that make “The King and I” such a memorable title. Tess Mize makes a compelling Anna Lenowens, the determined Englishwoman who in the mid-19th Century makes the long journey to Siam to teach Western culture to the king’s children. Mize’s gentle, stirring soprano animates with sweetness the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic tunes “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Hello, Young Lovers,” but there’s also strength to her Anna, setting up a believable tug-of-war-of-wills with the king.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The 39 Steps’

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It would be easy to come up with 39 reasons why the new Good Company Players production of “The 39 Steps” is such a successful show. Six of them would be the cast members.

As an ensemble, James Sherrill, Emily Pessano, Tyler Branco, Billy Anderson, Kaichen McRae and Teddy Maldonado are a well-honed comedy machine, sprinting through this clever show’s gags with finesse. Director Denise Graziani whips them through a torrent of locations at race-car speed, and on opening night I always got the sense that each cast member knew exactly how much to floor the accelerator. (The show continues at the 2nd Space Theatre through April 19.)

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Opening tonight: ‘Forum’

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This isn’t just any old Good Company Players opening. Forty and a half years ago, Fresno’s most stalwart theater company was born with a production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Now it returns for a sixth time tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. In a story in Thursday’s Life section, I focus on three people involved with this “Forum” who were in that first production — although one was attached by umbilical cord.

Lighting designer Steven Allen was actually inside his mother, Joanne, in the first part of the run of the show, which opened June 26, 1973, at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom in downtown Fresno. She played the small but memorable role of Fertilia, the pregnant courtesan.

That Good Company opted to have a real pregnant woman (nearing her ninth month!) play a role that is usually accomplished with strategically placed pillows is a testament to the full-ahead enthusiasm — or perhaps blissful naivete — of founding members eager for a good sight gag.

Check out Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora’s gallery of “Forum” photos here.

7 picks for 7 days: Jan. 10-16

I’m getting back on track with the 7 picks for 7 days feature, a list of fun things to do over the next week. This week’s version — picks for today through next Thursday — offer a variety of entertainment, from acclaimed movies to new TV shows, theater and music.

Shameless plug: a ‘Company’ stocking stuffer

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Remember my e-book “The Company We Keep,” published in June to mark the 40th anniversary of Good Company Players? In a moment of sheer hucksterism, I’m here to say that at just $2.99, it’d make a perfect last-minute stocking stuffer. And because it’s digital, it won’t put Santa’s sleigh over that pesky FAA 56.5 million ton limit.

If you’re looking for the easiest way to download “The Company We Keep,” you can buy it for $2.99 on Kindle, Apple’s iBookstore, and at Vook.com. (Vook offers a desktop version if you don’t have a mobile reading device, along with ePub versions that can be transferred to devices.) In lieu of an autographed copy, I’ll even send you a personal email that you can print out — welcoming your gift recipient to the book — that you can put in the intended’s stocking. (Just send me an email by 3 p.m. Monday to dmunro@fresnobee.com with the request.)

THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Christmas Carol’

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I’m sorry to say it, but: Humbug.

And unlike Scrooge, I didn’t change my tune by the end of the Good Company Players production of “A Christmas Carol” at the 2nd Space Theatre. The show isn’t up to GCP standards.

The bright spot is Mark Norwood in the title role of Scrooge. It takes true theatrical finesse to breathe originality and presence into a cliche-prone word like “humbug,” and Norwood is more than up for the task. (You, the reader, might not feel as benevolently about my success in tossing the famed utterance into the lead sentence of this review.) His Scrooge is grumpy and sour, of course, and occasionally a bit whimsical, but he’s also a little scary, which is what this show needs if it isn’t going to descend into cloying sentimentality. Norwood gives us a dark place from which Scrooge can journey into the light, which makes his redemption worth the trip.

Or should have, if directors Max and Nicholle Debbas had given him more of a convincing world for him to inhabit.

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7 picks for 7 days

OK, so after taking off a couple weeks, I’m back with a new round of 7 picks for 7 days – a list of fun thing to do each day Friday, Nov. 15 through Thursday, Nov. 21. This week’s picks include a hot country band live at the Save Mart Center, a touring Broadway musical at Saroyan Theatre and this month’s silent movie at the Warnors Theatre.

The Beehive Interview: Teddy Maldonado’s Knees

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I’m marking the closing of “Shrek” with not one post but two. It’s “Shrek” day!

Anyone who’s seen the production knows that Teddy Maldonado, who plays the height-challenged Lord Farquaad, isn’t going to forget this role for a long time. He spends his time on stage in a special contraption that, well, cuts him down to size. I thought it would be interesting to conduct an exit interview with his beleaguered knees. They didn’t kneed much encouragement to spill all.

Question: Well, hello there, Teddy’s knees. I understand you’ve had a rough job these past couple of months. What has it been like helping play Lord Farquaad? Have you gotten any hazard pay?

Answer: It’s been wonderful, certainly the most action we have gotten since Teddy played catcher in little league. We have a contractual agreement with our owner, Teddy, that we receive half of the reimbursement check. We plan to use the money on matching “I survived Duloc” tattoos.

Was any chiropractic intervention required during the run? Pain killers? Bottles of tequila?

No pain killers, no cortisone shots, not even a thank you from “Lord Teddy”. So far, no extra measures have been taken regarding our comfort. We have a pending lawsuit.

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‘Shrek’s’ last weekend: a touching story

akinaAs the Good Company Players production of “Shrek” enters its closing weekend, a story comes to light  I want to share. It’s an example of how local theater can be, well, more than theater. Anyone’s who been in a show knows that a cast can become a family. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to George Akina, who plays Shrek’s father and a palace guard in the show.

Akina is a community theater veteran well-known for bringing a warmth and gentleness to his roles at Children’s Musical Theaterworks and CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre. It was long one of his dreams to audition for a Good Company musical, and at the beginning of this year, now that his kids were grown and work schedules allowed, there was more time to do this. He auditioned in January and was cast as the Rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

In March, a year after a normal PSA test, George was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that had already spread to his spine.

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Opening tonight: ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘Our Town’

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Scrooge in November? You bet. The new Good Company Players production of “A Christmas Carol” opens tonight at the 2nd Space Theatre. It has some great casting, including Mark Norwood — a GCP alum and artistic director of Reedley’s River City Theatre Company — in the plum role of Ebenezer Scrooge. (Something tells me this’ll be a Scrooge I won’t soon forget.) The show continues through Dec. 22. If you see it early in the run, just look at it this way: It’ll give you that much more time for Christmas shopping.

Also opening tonight: the new Fresno State production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” celebrating the play’s 75th anniversary. You can read my story on the show in Friday’s 7 section.

Pictured: Norwood, left, and Brian Freet as Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.”

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Shrek the Musical’

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Somehow, some way, with a budget a fraction of a national tour, a stage smaller than a Broadway star’s dressing room, a prerecorded musical track instead of a live orchestra and a cast that works day jobs, Good Company Players manages once again to produce a show that has more dazzle and heart — not to mention more laughs — than the professional tour that came through town just months before.

With “Shrek the Musical,” GCP capitalizes on the intimate setting at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. It gives us a show that connects with the audience in a way that just didn’t work for me when I saw the non-Equity national tour of the same show in April at the Saroyan Theatre.

I don’t count this 2008 musical, with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, among my favorites in terms of score. Aside from a few jolly ensemble tunes and a couple of nice ballads, the music in the show doesn’t have much impact for me. (I have no interest in buying the cast recording — and this from someone who has hundreds.) The easy-going and meandering charm of the original movie seems to be replaced by a mad-dash comic sensibility that often tries too hard.

But snappy and creative direction by Denise Graziani, an inspired production design and an excellent cast all elevate the material to another level.

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And you think your family is busy?

IMG_104741755056452Just think of the Esteps. Three of them — including Mom and Dad — are in three different plays, all performing tonight. Consider the rehearsal schedules, transportation issues, line memorization marathons … let’s just say it’s going to be a busy weekend.

Shannah Estep writes:

Crazy is the operative word. We have been involved in a single show all at once but never 3 different shows, with 3 different companies, at the same time! Talk about a time-balancing act. We also have 2 children not involved in any show, so we have to think about them as we’ll. Thank God for my inlaws!!

Shannah plays a concerned mother in the first-rate “God of Carnage” at the Fresno Art Museum. Eric is one of the members of the quartet in “Forever Plaid” at the Clovis Veterans Memorial Auditorium. And daughter Emily plays Teen Fiona, Peter Pan and other ensemble roles in “Shrek” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.

On Monday, do you think they’ll all collapse?

The photo above: Eric and Shannah with daughter Lauren, left, and Emily in the 2011 Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Annie.”

Opening tonight: ‘Shrek’ and ‘Forever Plaid’

Shrek (TYLER BRANCO) practices how to talk to the princess

Two local shows open tonight, making it a big weekend for theater fans:

BEING GREEN: The Fresno premiere of “Shrek the Musical,” complete with its own 16-foot dragon, opens tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The Good Company Players production features Tyler Branco in the title role, Emily Pessano as Fiona, Christian David and Tony Sanders sharing the role of Donkey and Teddy Maldonado as Lord Farquaad. I wrote about the dragon in my Sunday Spotlight column.

GLAD TO BE PLAID: CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre opens the musical “Forever Plaid” at the Clovis Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The quartet is played by Peter Allwine, Darren Tharp, Eric Estep and Kyle Dodson. I have an interview with Dodson in today’s Life section. Note: This is a one-weekend run with only four performances, so it’ll be gone in a flash.

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Reel Pride kicks off tonight

Tonight’s opening festivities for the 24th Fresno Reel Pride Festivities include an appearance by the area’s own Michael Willett, star of opening night film “GBF.” Willett is a veteran of productions with Good Company Players and Clovis West High School. The Bee’s Rick Bentley talked to Willett for a story in today’s Life section.

I love this photo of Willett with Emily Pessano in the 2007 GCP production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

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Here’s a shot of Willett in “GBF”:

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How to move a dragon

“Shrek” fans, take note: The big green guy is tromping into Fresno Thursday in a Good Company Players production. For my Sunday column, I put the spotlight on the cast moving the 16-foot Dragon — designed by Chris Mangels – from GCP’s rehearsal hall to the theater. The result: a little parade for the Tower District. Bonus: I caught it on video.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

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We all need a little “Earnest” in our lives. I’m guessing that the strong new production of the Oscar Wilde classic “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the 2nd Space Theatre is easily the tenth time I’ve seen the show, including several professional outings, and I’m always happy to see another fine version.

“Fine” is certainly a word to use for this Good Company Players production, which delivers the silly drawing-room comedy — boasting Wilde’s famed wordplay and prickly parries at Britain’s stuffy upper classes — in a well-directed, nicely cast package. I’ve seen productions in the past of “Earnest” that felt overstuffed and somehow rounded, like plump little Victorian pillows, content to be museum pieces. Director J. Daniel Herring achieves another sensibility here: this “Earnest” feels a little sharper, more angled, brisk and athletic. And very funny.

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Opening tonight: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

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Along with “Julius Caesar” at Woodward Park tonight (Thursday), there’s another much anticipated theater opening: Director J. Daniel Herring’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the 2nd Space Theatre. Here’s the spiel from Good Company Players:

Oscar Wilde’s wonderfully witty romantic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, tells the tale of two wealthy young gentlemen, Algernon and Jack, who create false identities to escape their social obligations but quickly find that they must exhaust their creative resources to keep up the facade.

To add to the hilarious complications, each one falls in love with the other’s ward and each refuses to give permission to other because of their deceptive characters. Discovering that their charming true loves, Gwendolyn (TESS MIZE) and Cecily (KAYLA WEBER), seem to adore the name ‘Earnest’, Algernon (JACOB RICO) and Jack (RYAN TORRES) both lay claim to the name.  Their ingenuity is stretched to the limit when Gwendolyn’s formidable mother, Lady Bracknell (PATRICIA HOFFMAN), arrives and confusion becomes the order of the day. With such stellar writing and amusing characters, it is little wonder that this play is considered by many to be the wittiest play in the English language. Directed by J. DANIEL HERRING and including performances by GORDON MOORE, HEATHER PARISH, BENJAMIN GEDDERT, and MITCHELL LAM HAU, The Importance of Being Earnest opens on Aug. 22, 2013 and runs through Oct. 13, 2013.

Great play and a very promising cast. We’ll have a story in Friday’s 7 section highlighting Hoffman’s take on the iconic Lady Bracknell.

Junior Company gala: a recap

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In yesterday’s  Sunday Spotlight column, I got excited about last week’s Junior Company Foundation fund-raising gala. I chose to highlight Elena Aguirre, a current member of the company, who served as artistic director of the show. I’m impressed that the entire show was conceived, directed and choreographed by current company members, the oldest of whom are 16. (Aguirre did tell me that one of the hardest things she and the members of her creative team had to do was cut numbers out of the show that just weren’t working as well as they should. that’s always one of the most difficult things an artistic director has to do.)

The photo above, taken by Max Debbas, is the group shot taken after the performance. Those in the JCF T-shirts are current company members and alumni who performed in the show, while those in street clothes are alumni members from the audience.

Here’s the link to donate to the Junior Company Foundation, a registered non-profit.

Win a ticket to the Junior Company’s gala fundraiser

Tribeca Film Festival 2013 Portrait Studio - Day 1

UPDATE: Congrats to reader Julian Perez.

ORIGINAL POST: What better perk for Beehive readers than to offer a ticket to a sold-out event? That’s the situation with Wednesday night’s big Good Company Players’ Junior Company Foundation gala fundraiser at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The event sold out long ago, but I have ONE ticket to give away to a lucky reader. It’s good both for the dinner and silent auction — which starts at 5 p.m. — and the performance, which begins at 7.

The evening of music and dance is  entirely directed and produced by current Junior Company members. There are special alumni guests as well, including Michael Willett (pictured in a publicity photo for his film “GBF”), Annie (Lundberg) Weldon, Joe Tomasini, Joel Abels, Jenny Myers, and Teresa Hasty Hoopes.

To enter the contest, leave a comment on this post telling us what you like most about the Junior Company. Deadline is 6 p.m. Tuesday (today). One entry per person. I’ll be informing winners by email Tuesday night, so please check yours.

Rules are on the jump.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Curtains’

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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.

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Back from vacation: catching up

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Picture this: I’m on the 15th deck of the Grand Princess cruise ship, and we’ve just sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge on the start of a 10-day Alaska cruise to celebrate my dear parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Suddenly, amidst the crisp ocean breezes and celebratory champagne, a stray work-related thought hits me. I forgot to put something in that week’s upcoming 7 section about the Reedley River City Theatre Company’s production of “Les Miserables,” opening that coming Friday. I look down at my cell phone. I still have three bars of coverage, but I know that once we’re out of range of San Francisco, I won’t be able to send an email for two days at sea unless I want to sell my car to pay the cruise line’s exorbitant wireless fees. So I tap out a message with numb fingers (it’s San Francisco Bay, after all) to my colleague Joshua Tehee, asking him to get a Reedley mention into the paper. Fingers keep slipping. Down to two bars. Almost done. One bar. I look up at the bridge. It’s receding in the distance. I hit “send.” Message delivered on the last wisps of 3G coverage. From then on, I’m enveloped in blissful days of basically being cut off from the world. I don’t think about work again.

While I was gone: I missed several theater openings.  (And completely missed the StageWorks Fresno production of “Les Miserables,” which was one weekend only.) Now I’m figuring out my schedule this week to try to fit anything in. My plan is to see Good Company’s “Curtains” on Wednesday, CenterStage Clovis Community Theater’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” on Thursday (it closes Saturday), StageWorks Fresno’s “Grey Gardens” on opening night Friday, and Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Inherit the Wind” on Saturday. Will I have enough stamina to make it to Reedley’s “Les Miz” on Sunday? Oh so busy!

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

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What it comes down to with any living organism, really, is this: a fight to stay alive. There’s a reason military metaphors are used so often in conjunction with illness and disease. Antibiotics “combat” infections. Chemotherapy “battles” the bad cells. A valiant patient “fights” till the dying breath.

Perhaps one reason Dale Wasserman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel by Ken Kesey, retains its impact today — despite its 1960s vibe and feel — is that it so deftly captures this spirit of conflict. And it does so on several different levels. When I’ve seen other productions of the play, I focused mostly on its anti-establishment thrust, as so famously captured in the epic battle between the caustically evil Nurse Ratched, who rules over her ward at a mental institution with an iron hand, and the fight-the-power swagger of Randle P. McMurphy, the petty criminal with a temper who sees a stint in an asylum as a way to get out of hard labor. When Milos Foreman made the film version in the 1970s, he used it as a vivid commentary on the social unrest of the time.

At this new and overall nicely crafted Good Company Players production, which runs at the 2nd Space Theatre through Aug. 18, the rebel-in-society motif still comes through. But for me, an interesting — almost organic/biological — view comes into focus as well. Perhaps it’s because we live in an age in which a substantial chunk of the U.S. population downs anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs on a daily basis. Mental illness isn’t just something that happens to a select group of institutionalized unfortunates.The patients in “Cuckoo” aren’t so much zoo animals at which we gape (as we were more likely to do back in the 1960s) as regular folks unlucky enough to get sick. Yes, the treatment techniques depicted from the 1960s seem barbaric today — from indiscriminate electro-shock treatments to full-fledged frontal lobotomies. Weapons change. But the fight to survive continues.

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An unforgettable GCP 40th anniversary celebration

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Note: I’d hoped to post this yesterday, but it’s been a busy week.

The setting: a nearly packed Tower Theatre on Wednesday night pumped up with an audience of adoring theater fans.  If you survey the population distribution of the entire planet, there are quite possibly at this point in time more people per square meter who can identify a lyric from Sondheim’s “Company” than anywhere else (unless there’s a revival of “Passion” going on somewhere).

The event: a joyous celebration of the 40th birthday of Good Company Players. Think anniversary party for your still vibrant, congo-line dancing parents crossed with a high school reunion, with a little bit of surprise party thrown in.

The emcee: None other than Dan Pessano himself. If GCP were a religion he’d be the pope, only with a less expensive wardrobe.

The program: An all-star-lineup of GCP stars from both past and present entertains the receptive audience. From Ed Burke, Fred Bologna and Clytee Ramsey to Elena Aguirre and Chelsea Newton, there’s a sense of the generations up on stage.

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‘The Company We Keep’ now available on Kindle, iBookstore, Vook

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UPDATED: Available on Kindle!

ORIGINAL POST: We’re pretty excited at Beehive Headquarters today. The Bee’s first ever e-book, published in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Good Company Players, is now available for $2.99 on two platforms: iBook and Vook.

And what does this mean, exactly, especially if you aren’t an expert at the whole e-book thing? No worries: We’re going to try to walk people through the e-book process these next couple of days. Here’s a mini-FAQ:

What if I have an iPhone or iPad? It’s very easy.  Download the iBook app on your phone or iPad, go to the store and search by title (“The Company We Keep”), author (Donald Munro) or The Fresno Bee. You can read a sample of the book before purchasing.

What if I want to read the book on my computer? Your best bet is Vook. You can read “The Company We Keep” on your computer using a web browser. You can also download a version of the book at Vook in different formats to transfer to an e-reader such as the Kindle app.

What if I have a Kindle? It’s available! On your device, search in the Kindle store. Here’s a direct link to the Amazon.com page. 

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