Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Always a Bridesmaid’

The quips keep coming in “Always a Bridesmaid,” the latest Good Company offering from the playwriting machine of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten.

Typical gag: One woman character jokes that she “had” two men at once. The punchline: One was cooking, the other cleaning.

After hearing that joke, a woman in the audience sitting in front of me leaned over and told her party: “I just sent that in a birthday card.”

Which pretty much sums up “Bridesmaid,” continuing at the 2nd Space Theatre through April 19. The humor is the kind you’d expect from a well-meaning but anemic TV sitcom. Aimed squarely at 50-year-old-plus women, the play boasts a few good laugh lines, but mostly it’s a recycle of warmed-up Southern witticisms, inoffensive one-liners and gags about clueless husbands and retaining water.

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Opening tonight:’Always a Bridesmaid’

Good Company Players offers another in a series of titles at the 2nd Space Theatre from the playwriting trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Their “Always a Bridesmaid” is described thusly:

On prom night, four young friends swear to be in each others’ weddings, no matter what. 30 years — and numerous weddings later — the well-beaten path to true love could not get any crazier. Faithful to their promise, the four friends repeatedly ride the ‘marry-go-round’, in spite of fistfights at the altar, runaway brides and, of course, horrendous bridesmaid dresses. For richer-for-poorer, in-sickness-and-in-health, these aging debutantes are determined to help each other find happiness-ever-after.

Jones, Hope and Wooten authored such past 2nd Space productions as “The Red Velvet Cake War” and “The Dixie Swim Club.”

It runs through April 19.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Crazy for You’

“Crazy for You” revels in the silly, that’s for sure. With its madcap plot about a gaggle of showgirls from New York traipsing off to a Nevada ghost town so they can help “put on a show,” things turn goofy fast. Add a super-value-size meal’s worth of  mistaken-identity gags and you get a lot of slapstick for your buck.

But just as the whole thing seems destined to be no more than an insubstantial giggle fest, one of the show’s classic songs by George and Ira Gershwin comes along to add some heft to the outing. When the sturdy and no-nonsense heroine, Polly (Emily Pessano), who seems like the last gal in the world to fall for a splashy theater type named Bobby Child (Greg Grannis), stops to sing a pensive ballad, it’s none other than the famed “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin. With credentials like that, you’re starting on solid ground.

And when the energetic cast in the new Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater digs into the real meat of the show — the tap dancing — they do a sparkling job. The first-act finale, “I Got Rhythm,” choreographed by Kaye Migaki, is an explosion of sound, spectacle, flying feet and enough props to stock a Western supply store. Talk about a take-away tune for the audience to hum during intermission.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

With age can come money, knowledge, wisdom and a newfound grace when performing the dance we call life.

But as you get older, you lose something special: the ability to think of your future as endless. The path to come no longer stretches out as far as you can see, as it does for the young, with tantalizing (and, yes, often scary) possibilities. With age comes the knowledge that you’ve already made many of the important choices in life.

Christopher Durang’s spiffy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” given a rousing performance by Good Company Players at the 2nd Space Theatre, is quite funny, no question about it. In this good-natured homage to Anton Chekhov, Durang mashes together characters and storylines from that towering playwright’s best known works into a happy, silly melange.

You thought Chekhov was gloomy? In many ways, this present-day outing, set in a “lovely farmhouse” in Bucks County, Penn., is more like a sugar high.

There’s something more, though. Durang doesn’t push it hard, but a finely honed bittersweet sensibility gives an edge to the play that makes it all the more excellent. Vanya (played by Michael Peterson), Sonia (Joyce Anabo) and Masha (Jennifer Hurd-Peterson), three unhappy siblings, are all grappling with being at least halfway, if not more, through their life journey. And they’re all wondering if they could have done things differently.

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Jumping for ‘Vanya’

Many thanks to Benjamin Rawls, aka The Man Without a Shirt, who appears in the new Good Company Players production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” opening tonight (Jan. 2) at the 2nd Space Theatre. We asked the four leading actors to come down to the Bee photo studio as we attempted to replicate the iconic “Vanya” branding from the play’s recent Tony Award-winning run on Broadway. Rawls had to jump up and down many, many times to get the shot. Here’s the resulting photo of Joyce Anabo, left, Michael Peterson, Jennier Hurd-Peterson and Rawls, by Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora:

And here’s the Broadway image:

Here’s your preschool-level First Quiz of the New Year, because it’s always good to ease slowly into new things: What is the significant change we made between the Good Company photo and the Broadway photo?

You can also read a rollicking interview with Jennnifer Hurd-Peterson and Michael Peterson, a real-life married couple who play siblings in the play, here.

Five Things You Should Do This Weekend


Now that the New Year’s Eve celebrations are over …

1. The Art of the Forty, Part 2
“I ain’t drank a forty since I became old enough to drink.”

2. The Pretty Flowers
The new indie-rock project from drummer (and Fresno expat) Eli Reyes.

3. Bethel Jazz Mass
For those who find listening to jazz a spiritual experience.

4. Fresno Hip-Hop Showcase
Will 2015 be a big year for hip-hop in Fresno? Show up and see.

5. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Good Company Players takes on this Tony-award winning Broadway play. It’s a comedy.

Audra update: Remembering her childhood with the Wall Street Journal

Fresno’s Audra McDonald — the history-making Tony Award champ — offers some childhood memories in a first-person account told to the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers. Here’s a great anecdote:

On the driveway, I used to hit a tennis ball against the garage door pretending to be Donna Summer ’s daughter no one knew about. On my bedroom walls, I had pictures of Broadway shows, like “Dreamgirls,” and photos of Patti LuPone. I loved her. But the best part of my room was the tiny walk-in closet. When my cousins came over, my sister would join us and we’d all put on shows. The closet was backstage, where you got ready. When the show began, you’d bust out through the doors to perform.

McDonald talks about her introduction to Good Company Players, and the article is accompanied by several early photos of her in GCP.

Pictured: Audra at 16 in a production of “Evita.” Can anyone tell me who any of the other actors in the photo are?

Opening tonight: ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe,’ ‘Truth and Reconciliation’

Two theater productions open Nov. 13 in Fresno. At Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, Good Company Players is reviving the sultry musical revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” From the company:

This smokin’ hot revue, spanning the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s, features the toe- tapping, hip-swiveling, soul searing music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The duo burst into the music industry as teenagers and launched a body of work that runs the gamut from rhythm and blues to novelty with romantic ballads, doo-wop, and rock-and-roll liberally sprinkled throughout. The score of Smokey Joe’s Cafe includes songs like “Stand By Me,”  “Yakety Yak,”  “Spanish Harlem,”  “Kansas City,”  “Trouble,” Jailhouse Rock,”  “On Broadway,”  “Fools Fall In Love,” “On Broadway” and a myriad of other hits.

At Severance Theatre just up the street, the Fresno Pacific University Theatre Department opens Etan Frankel’s “Truth and Reconciliation.” Director Kate McKnight explains the plot:

The play is set Cartuga, a fictitious Central American country. A young American doctor goes to the country to provide medical care for local peasants, is mistakenly associated with the CIA and is murdered. His parents are asked to return to the country three years later for a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission based on those that Bishop Tutu organized in South Africa. Instead of revenge for their son’s death they get answers and some healing.

“Smokey Joe’s” runs through Jan. 11. Details here. “Truth and Reconciliation” runs through Nov. 22. Details: (559) 453-5586.

On the jump: a photo from “Truth and Reconciliation.”

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Farewell to the ‘King’

UPDATE 10/13: Services will be 6 p.m. Oct. 20 at North Fresno Church, 5724 N.  Fresno St.

ORIGINAL POST: George Akina’s last role in theater was one he’d always wanted to play: the King of Siam in “The King and I.” Even though he’d been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, he spent much of the last year of his life on stage, appearing with Good Company Players in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Shrek” and — in a witty, heartfelt and beautifully crafted performance —  the King in “The King and I,” which closed May 16.

Mr. Akina died Friday. He was 63.

I had the privilege of sitting down in April with Mr. Akina midway through his “King and I” run and talking about him for my Sunday column about the challenges and joys of performing the role. (Sometimes it was hard. Very hard.) His gentleness of spirit, love of family and towering Christian faith shined through on that late Friday afternoon. I suggested to him that his love of theater was remarkable, and he told me: “The theater has been life-giving to me. When I think ‘What would I be doing if it weren’t for ‘The King and I’ right now?,’ I think I’d be much sicker.”

A few days later, he sent me a follow-up email, and that’s how I ended my column:

Yes, I do love theater, but not perhaps in the same way you meant. The truth is I love God first above all else. He has given me gifts which I can express on stage. It’s when I’m on stage using those gifts that I feel the most fulfilled, most alive, and most in His will. Add to that that my work entertains, engages and touches others and there is nothing else that can surpass it, save the love and support of my wife and children.

He will be missed.

Updated 10/14: Revised information about remembrances to come.


THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Addams Family’

Sometimes a show just has Itt.

The new Good Company Players production of “The Addams Family” is a slick and happy affair. All the cylinders in this goofy engine of pop-culture genuflection run smoothly: sharp and witty direction, accomplished acting, spot-on costumes, strong sets, sturdy choreography and innovative lighting and projection design. Are Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics or Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book the stuff of musical theater that will endure for the ages? Probably not. But as this GCP production shows, you can have a heck of a lot of fun goofing off for an evening about a beloved TV show.

The key to the success of a show like “The Addams Family” is fidelity to the source material — something that director Dan Pessano takes to heart. This isn’t a time for a revisionist view of Morticia Addams, say, by putting her in a button-up blouse, or turning Uncle Fester into a hard-charging investment banker instead of a moon gazer. Pessano’s casting is superb, with each of the actors in the major roles matching their characters both physically and in terms of temperament.

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Opening tonight: ‘The Comedy of Errors’

Tonight’s opening at the 2nd Space Theatre is a first for Good Company Players: The new production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” is being done in a Commedia dell’arte style. Director J. Daniel Herring is setting the play in a town square, performed by a traveling band of actors that include many of the stock characters associated with Commedia dell’arte. From GCP:

In this merry mix-up by the Bard, two sets of identical twins are separated as children in a shipwreck – they land on far distant shores, not knowing what happened to the others. Once grown, Antipholus of Syracuse (MATTHEW RUDOLF SCHILTZ) and his servant Dromio (DANIELLE VALDIVIA) travel to Ephesus and are mistaken for their long-lost twin brothers, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus (KEN STOCKS and BRIANNE JANAE VOGT). When they meet by accident as adults, the possibilities are endless: mistaken identities, near-seductions, false arrests, and wild accusations of adultery, larceny, and insanity are flung about with wild abandon.

This is the first Shakespeare production done by Good Company since 1993′s “Twelfth Night.”

“The Comedy of Errors” continues Thursdays-Sundays through Oct. 12. Look for my interview with Herring about the show in Friday’s 7 section.

Opening tonight: ‘West Side Story’ and ‘The Music Man’

Talk about a pair of American musical theater classics: Good Company Players opens “West Side Story” tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater; and CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre opens “The Music Man” at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre in Clovis. They’re two slices of Americana.

Watch for our cover story in Friday’s 7 section about how you can go on a local theater binge this weekend and next.

Pictured: Above, the Jets in “West Side Story.” (Bee photo by Craig Kohlruss.) Below, Eric Estep, center, is Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” (Bee photo by Eric Paul Zamora.)

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’


This one’s for Grandma and Grandpa.

In lesser hands, the sweetly written  “Over the River and Through the Woods” could have hardened by the end of two acts into a sticky, sentimental clump. But not with Dan Pessano at the helm. As director of this little summer gem from Good Company Players — which I highly recommend — Pessano has assembled a terrific quartet of veteran company actors playing two sets of grandparents who dote upon their smothered grandson. Then he elicited from them wonderfully warm and textured performances that never sputter into the saccharine.

That’s a pretty big accomplishment. The set-up of “Over the River,” written by Joe DiPietro, already strays big-time into aw-shucks, idealized territory. Nick (a sharp Alex Vaux) is a 27-year-old marketing executive in New York who still treks back to his hometown of Hoboken, N.J., every Sunday to have dinner with all four of his tight-knit Italian-immigrant grandparents. For someone his age to be able to claim four living grandparents is fairly remarkable. To have them live them so close together — and get along so well — is even more so.

When Nick gets a promotion that will take him to Seattle, his grandparents are devastated. They band together and gamely try to keep him in town by setting him up with a blind date (played by an assured Erica Riggs) at their weekly Sunday dinner. Their attempt at match-making provides much of the comedy. But there’s more to the play than the amusing meddling-grandparents theme. On a deeper level, this is a story about the ease with which family ties can fray in our culture.

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Audra responds to criticism of Tony speech

American Theatre Wing's 68th Annual Tony Awards - Press Room

In her Tony Awards acceptance speech Sunday night, Audra McDonald thanked her parents for going against the advice of doctors and not putting her on ADHD medication, steering her toward the Good Company Players Junior Company instead. She took some flak for that statement yesterday in TIME magazine from a parent of a hyperactive son. McDonald offered a response today. She apologizes if she offended the mother, and she explains her parents’ decision:

After months of increasingly frustrating, painful moments watching their child struggle, and after talking with psychologists and my teachers — but not yet having the benefit of decades of research, media and social discourse on what was still a relatively new medication — my parents happened to attend a performance at a local dinner theater. Although my family was a very musical one — my dad was a high school music teacher, my grandmothers both taught piano, and, as you yourself were kind enough to bring up in your letter, my aunts used to sing at various black churches in California in the ’50s and ’60s — we were not theatergoers.

That night, at that theater in Fresno, California, my mother and father saw a troupe of young children performing in a pre-show cabaret. A lightbulb went off in their heads and they decided to encourage me to audition to be a member of this troupe, in hopes that it might be a good outlet for my energy, an oasis for my emotions and possibly a place for me to build some desperately needed confidence.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’


It’s funny how songs bounce around in your head the first day or so after watching a tuneful musical. Before experiencing the perky but flawed new Good Company Players production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, I would have guessed that one of the songs that always sticks with me from the show — the famously tongue-twisting Major-General’s song, say, or the addictive patter of the “Paradox” number — would have been rattling on repeat in my interior world the next day.

But no. The morning after I saw the show, the tune was clear and insistent: “For I am a pirate king!” I hummed to myself as I brushed my teeth. “And it is, it is, a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!”

Why? Heck if I know. Maybe I always wanted to be a pirate. (Or, at least, a nice pirate like the ones in “Penzance.”) I suspect a good part of it has to do with GCP veteran Peter Allwine, who plays the King with such booming appeal. (It’s one of my favorite recent performances from him.) Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s natty costumes and David Pierce’s cheery set helped put me in the pirate mood, too. (All pirates should have regular access to washing machines.) And, of course, there’s Sullivan’s music, which with an irresistible song such as “Pirate King” can scurry up into your ear canal, much like something scary you’d find in the jungle, and burrow its way into your brain — there to slosh around for a while.

While this production is handsomely staged and filled with energy, there are other songs and parts of the show that didn’t grab me with such gusto, however.

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Opening tonight: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’


For only the second time in its history, Good Company Players presents the classic Gilbert and Sullivan show “The Pirates of Penzance.” It opens tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater and runs through July 13. Laurie Pessano directs a cast that includes Peter Allwine as the Pirate King, Teddy Maldonado as Frederic, Tracy Jones and Rebecca Sarkisian as Ruth, Emily Pessano as Mabel and Richard Adamson as the Major-General.

(UPDATED): Here’s my interview with Adamson in Friday’s 7 section.

George Akina: notable King, remarkable man


In my Sunday Spotlight column I had the privilege of talking at length with George Akina, who plays the King in the Good Company Players production of “The King and I” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. He performs three times a week in the role despite having advanced prostate cancer. His story is one of fierce conviction, quiet determination, gentle humor and amazing courage.

I walked away from our interview deeply moved. I hope I was able to capture at least a small sense of Akina as an actor, father and man of faith.

(Pictured: George Akina and Tess Mize as Anna in Good Company’s production of “The King and I.”)


THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’


He sweeps into the room with an air that can only be described as rakish: There’s a swagger to his step, a foppish extravagance to his nod, the slightest of leers flashing across his otherwise impeccably polite face. Le Vicomte de Valmont, deftly played by Terry Lewis in the amiable new Good Company Players production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” struts into this production’s famed romper room of sexual warfare with the grace and confidence of a show dog with tail held high.

It’s as if he’s announcing: You want to turn sex into a game of chess? I’m the grand master.

Best known to audiences through the 1988 movie version, “Dangerous Liaisons,” Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 18th Century novel by Choderlos de Laclos plays out as a sort of “Hunger Games ” with knee breeches. Valmont plays a high-stakes game with his former lover, La Marquise de Merteuil (an adept Haley White), the rules of which basically involve toying with other people’s affections and ruining lives. It’s all done against a backdrop of upper-crust French aristocratic excess that makes the amorality of the tale that much more striking. If these people actually had to work for a living, they wouldn’t have the time to be so cruel.

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Karan Johnson talks about ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’


In Friday’s 7 section I check in with director Karan Johnson about the new Good Company Players production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” now in its opening weekend at the 2nd Space Theatre. Here’s an extended version of the interview.

Question: For those who aren’t familiar at all with the show, can you offer a brief summary?

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is about game-playing where the stakes could not be higher: the lives and loves of other people. It is the story of two devious people who engage in a game of revenge, manipulation, and degradation, with sex as the main weapon. Set in France just before the revolution, amid the decadence of the aristocracy, it tells of Madame de Merteuil, who wants her ex-lover, The Comte de Valmont, to seduce a young girl to get revenge on another former lover who dumped her. Valmont, on the other hand, is intent on seducing the virtuous, and married, Madame de Tourvel, just to prove he can. They are like chess players on a grand stage, but the chess pieces are real people.

Has GCP produced the play before?

It was done back in 1990; that production was directed by Elizabeth Fiester.

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Opening tonight: ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’


There’s nothing quite like 18th Century French folks to give us revenge, manipulation, degradation and sex in style. Good Company Players on Thursday opens a new production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” at the 2nd Space Theatre, so prepare yourself for all the delicious intrigue.

In Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the famed French novel, two wealthy, powerful and brilliantly manipulative ex-lovers engage in amorous rivalries to exact revenge on their enemies, relieve their boredom — and perhaps win each other back. From the company:

Directed by Karan Johnson, the show features a cast of GCP veterans such as Tessa Cavalletto, Terry Lewis, Kaichen McRae and Brian Rhea, as well as some relatively new faces to the company like Neil Cusick, Ariana Marmolejo, Heather Parish and Haley White.

The production continues through June 15.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘The King and I’


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’

My Capture

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’


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.