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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’

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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

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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’

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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’

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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

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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’

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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’

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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’

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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’

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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.