Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

CONCERT REVIEW: Fresno Philharmonic gives Beethoven his due

While listening to the Fresno Philharmonic’s memorable concert on Saturday night — the second installment of a three-part weekend series presenting the noted soloist Antonio Pompa-Baldi performing all five Beethoven piano concertos — I imagined the following conversation:

Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s Brain: “Hey there, Fingers, you’re doing just fine. No whining, OK? Just two concertos to plow through tonight, and then one tomorrow, and then you can all clench into a fist and pump a victory salute.”

Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s Fingers: “Easier said than done, Brain. Sure, everyone coos about all those thousands of notes rattling around your synapses and what an accomplishment it is to perform three-hours-plus worth of music from memory, but the real work comes from us. We’re tired! When we’re done, you owe us a massage!”

Seriously, though: It was mesmerizing to watch and listen to Pompa-Baldi play. He’s not a showy performer: no grand flourishes, thunderous motions or theatrical grimaces meant to put on a visual show. Just amazing artistry and concentration. During moments of repose during Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 4, Pompa-Baldi slumped his shoulders and head, resting his arms by letting them dangle almost to the floor. You could sense how taxing, both mentally and physically, this endeavor was. The effect was that of a musician completely dedicated to the performance.

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OPERA REVIEW: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Why opera?

Because under the right circumstances, when the theatrical stars align and the ingredients come together to spark the right kind of live-performance magic, opera can soar higher and louder.

The “new” Fresno Grand Opera — a partnership with Modesto’s Townsend Opera — had an auspicious debut Sunday afternoon at the Saroyan Theatre with a searing production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The direction by Brad Dalton, considered the world’s foremost stage director of Andre Previn’s 1995 adaptation of the classic Tennessee Williams play, upped the emotional ante. And a powerhouse performance in the leading role of Blanche DuBois by Carrie Hennessey — whose acting prowess brought to life a character of riveting complexity — made me pause and consider anew this well-known tale and what it has to say about women, loss and the way that life can simply unravel.

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The Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” had a rough opening Thursday night at Woodward Park.

Very rough.

This production wasn’t ready for an audience. Awkward pauses, lethargic pacing, forgotten lines and a turgid advance through what should be an airy, magical narrative marred the evening. The production had some strong points in terms of choreography and costume and sound design, but the most important aspect of any Shakespeare play — the text — was often problematic among an array of cast members. I fear that director Julie Ann Keller got too absorbed in the movement and design of the show and didn’t make sure her actors were well versed in the fundamentals.

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CONCERT REVIEW: Fresno Philharmonic plays Wagner

I like Wagner a lot — but could it be I do better with him in smaller doses? Perhaps I just wasn’t properly channeling my inner Valkyrie, but the Fresno Philharmonic’s lineup of Wagner’s greatest hits at Sunday’s concert didn’t wow me.

The first half of the concert was less satisfactory than the second. In what should have been the pull-out-all-the-stops offering, the overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” the orchestra sounded a little mushy and sometimes listless to me, particularly the strings, even with Theodore Kuchar’s vigorous conducting. There were some fine, punchy moments, but not the fierce, red-hot vehemence I associate with Wagner.

Earlier, a flubbed instrumental opening of the Bridal Chorus of “Lohengrin” was an unfortunate way to introduce the singers of the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale and Fresno State Concert Choir.

The second part of the concert was stronger. The prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin” had a lot of zip. “The Ride of the Valkyries” approached combustibility. And the gorgeous Pilgrim’s Chorus of “Tannhauser,” featuring the men of the choirs, built with a nuanced intensity. By the time the full chorus returned in the “Entrance of the Guests” finale to “Tannhauser,” I felt the orchestra was getting into the Wagner groove. But it took a while to get there.

CONCERT REVIEW: Keyboard Concerts


When it comes to the music of Prokofiev, I now have a transformative experience on which to draw: sitting 8 feet away from piano star Daniil Trifonov as he plays a two-piano arrangement of the “Romeo and Juliet Suite.”

It’s hard to imagine any venue in the country letting you sit closer to a world-class pianist than the Keyboard Concerts series, which presented the Russian pianist Trifonov and his mentor, the acclaimed Armenian-American virtuoso Sergei Babayan, in a rousing recital Friday night at the Fresno State Concert Hall. When a concert sells out, as this one did, chairs get added to the front of the hall, not the back, with the result being that audience members can get even closer to the piano.

During the first half of the concert I sat about six rows back. For the second half I moved as close as I could get, in the front row — I’d never sat that close before at a Keyboard event — and while I can’t say I recommend the experience for everyone (or, for me, every time), it was absolutely thrilling to be in the company of the dynamic Trifonov. It was like sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster.

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ROGUE REVIEW: Kinetic Interludes

Rogue Festival Poster 2014 by Tiffany Hurtado

I cannot recommend JuxtaPosition Dance Theatre’s “Kinetic Interludes.”

The Saturday afternoon show was disappointing. There were several technical issues, and the dancers, who come to the Rogue from Redondo Beach, just seemed off. In most of the dances, they lacked unison and, at many times, seemed to be looking to each other to remember the steps. And the show’s structure, which covers themes that deal with “female strength” through a series of dance numbers, has no flow. In fact, the audience is left sitting in semi-darkness in silence while the dancers change clothes off stage. These long awkward pauses just added to an already uncomfortable atmosphere.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘God of Carnage’

EPZ CARNAGE 07I lived in Alaska, and everyone there knows you don’t get between a mother moose and her baby.

As humans, we tend to think kindly of maternal fierceness, whether of the four-legged or two-legged variety. There’s something inherently touching about the instinctual urge to defend one’s offspring. We understand — and celebrate — it. We might not want to be at the receiving end of a 2,000 pound behemoth shaking her antlers at us, but even as we’re running away, a part of us is likely thinking, “Good for her.”

The biggest appeal of Yasmina Reza’s clever and subversive “God of Carnage,” which receives an accomplished new production by StageWorks Fresno, is how the playwright lulls the audience into thinking it’s simply in for an entertaining protective-parents-duke-it-out scenario.

In this modern version of a drawing room comedy, we’re introduced to two sets of parents who gather to deal with the aftermath of a dispute between their two sons. One 11-year-old hit another with a stick on a local playground, taking out a couple of teeth in the process. The two couples get together at the home of the tooth-deprived boy because it’s the “civilized” thing to do.

But it’s clear from the awkward opening moments of the play as the two couples chat — minutes filled with forced courtesy larded with distant disdain — that things aren’t going to turn out well. “How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?” asks Annette (the wonderful Shannon Eizenga), mother of the offender, telegraphing the mayhem to come.

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OPERA REVIEW: ‘The Barber of Seville’


Figaro, the barber in Rossini’s comic romp of an opera, “The Barber of Seville,” isn’t just a guy with a straight-edge razor blade. As the character so memorably reminds us in his opening aria, he manages to fit a lot more into his workday than trimming hair. He’s basically an “arranger” — someone who has his hand in just about everyone’s business in town, especially when it comes to matters of love. As Figaro reminds us, he makes good money, meets interesting people and is always in the know. No wonder he thinks it’s the perfect job.

From his opening moments as Figaro in the California Opera production Sunday at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre, Constantine Pappas ably captured that happy sense of exuberance. So did the production as a whole. With an excellent cast, great singing and an always upbeat confidence,  it was one of the strongest Cal Opera titles I’ve seen in recent years.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’


What better time than midsummer (well, technically, early summer) to watch Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Then add the verite of watching it outside, with a gentle evening breeze stirring away the last remnants of a robustly warm Fresno day, and the experience can be magical.

It helps to have a competent version of the classic play complete the scene, and that’s what you get with the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s latest incarnation. (It plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 6, with no performance July 4.) Director Aaron Spjute delivers a thoughtful, often funny production that delineates one of the play’s themes particularly well: the wild, uncivilized forest tempting our baser urges vs. the cooler, more cerebral structure of the city appealing to our higher instincts.

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Concert review: Dinosaur Jr., Fulton 55, 4/13/13

DinosaurjrFulton 55 continues to prove what some in the scene had been saying for years. Fresno needed a well-booked, well-staffed mid-sized venue that could consistently attract second- and third-tier touring acts. The Save Mart Center got us The Rolling Stones, but the city needed a place that would attract the likes of … well, Dinosaur Jr.

The Shrine: Three-piece fuzz-toned stoner rock from Long Beach. They’ve been through town a few times. I caught them the first time around and was a fan. But within a month, I got introduced to American Sharks, and mostly forgot about the Shrine.

Glad for the reintroduction. The band was in fine form as the opener, with a quick, but blistering set. This is what it must have been like seeing early Ted Nugent, in terms of the raw furiosity. This is pure-form rock-and-roll. Guitarist Josh Landau is particularly impressive. It’s like the dude doesn’t play rhythm lines. It’s all runs and solos and feedback squeal. And it is awesome.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Wait Until Dark’


We’re conditioned to think there’s power in numbers. Consider the five senses. A person with all five is at a distinct advantage over someone who only has four, right?

Especially if the one with four is blind and sharing a confined space with an avowed killer.

But, as we slowly learn in the suspenseful stage production of “Wait Until Dark,” directed by Denise Graziani, the math doesn’t always add up so neatly.

Key to this crisply designed — and in a few choice moments, jump-in-your-seat scary — Good Company Players production is a rousing performance by Danielle Jorn as Susy, a recently blinded woman who gets caught up in desperate power struggle with a trio of hardened criminals.

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‘The Americans’ heats up Cold War

The FX Network became a major player in the cable world with “Sons of Anarchy,” “American Horror Story” and “Justified.” Its latest offering, “The Americans,” only adds to the quality the cable channel has to offer.

The series debuts at 10 p.m. Jan. 30 on FX.

“The Americans” looks at what appears to be a typical suburban couple — played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys — living the American Dream during the early years of the Ronald Reagan administration. They’re actually two KGB agents who have been living a secret life for almost 15 years.

It’s a dark and thrilling look at the spy game during the peak of the Cold War. It’s not your typical Americans-are-better series because its told from the point of view of the Russians. The natural tendency is to hate them but the series shows that behind the cold determination of the spies are two humans trying to deal with love, parenting and a mortgage.

Russell’s performance is particularly strong because the series doesn’t take the usual tactic when it comes to spies. Her character is the one who has the unwavering loyalty to the Motherland while Rhys plays the role of realist who knows if they continue their ploy, it can only end badly. Russell is anything but the typical casting to play a female Russian spy which makes the deception all the more believable.

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CONCERT REVIEW: Kristin Chenoweth

A moment to add to my list of Things I’ll Never Forget: Kristin Chenoweth’s last note in “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables,” which she sang as part of an extraordinary concert performance Friday night at the Saroyan Theatre. As the spotlight on the Broadway and TV  star slowly faded to black, that intensely held, startlingly high final note seemed to hang somewhere between illumination and darkness, its thrilling resonance — so gentle but yet so sure — infusing the hall with its own warm, golden glow.

Chills? You bet. I’ve heard lots of divas in my time, and this was the most charming live concert I’ve ever experienced. Chenoweth’s voice was brilliant, no surprise, and her acting exquisite as she worked through an eclectic mix of musical-theater, gospel, pop and country songs. But more than that, she built an intense emotional connection with the audience. At times funny, plaintive, spiritual, topical and down-to-earth, she gave Fresno an unforgettable evening.

Taking the stage with her own rhythm and percussion section, along with a handful of talented members of the Fresno Grand Opera orchestra — all led by the first-rate musical director Mary Mitchell Campbell on piano — the Oklahoma native soared on such tunes as Kander and Ebb’s “Maybe This Time,” bringing a subtlety and empathy to the lyrics that made me really listen to them anew. She shared her Christian faith in an exhilarating gospel rendition of “Upon This Rock.” She played tribute to country great Dolly Parton in an amusing ditty titled “What Would Dolly Do”?” (Her three ensemble cast members, all Broadway veterans, assisted in that song by holding up signs that spelled out “W W DD?”)

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Rock of Ages’

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On the agenda: a nostalgia ride back to the late 1980s. Would you like a nunchuck with that?

The second national tour of “Rock of Ages,” which brought its gussied-up, goofy self to the Saroyan Theatre Monday for an evening of inspired glam-metal revelry, appeared to drive the older couple sitting in front of me out of the theater two-thirds of the way through the first act. Ah, the depravity of it all: the crashing guitar solos, the throbbing power-metal ballads, the lingerie-inspired stripper garb for the ladies, the big-hair moments for the gents — all positively shocking, right?

Well, perhaps for those subscribers who bought the season package to see “My Fair Lady.” But for all its bluster and bravado, the biggest “danger” in the amiable and witty “Rock of Ages” is choking with laughter at the gratuitous wine-cooler references scissored into the plot. (There is referential trauma associated with Mr. Bartles and Mr. Jaymes that stings to this day.) The music of the era — lovingly represented in this jukebox musical by nearly two dozen offerings from such icons as Journey, White Snake, Poison and Pat Benatar — might have driven parents crazy at the time. But for all the high-octane brashness of these rockers, there was something even back then that was sweet and silly about their studded belts, extravagantly teased tresses, endless guitar solos and slo-mo hair swishing. What “Rock of Ages” manages to do is poke loving fun at the genre in a slick package made up of equal parts camp, grit and adoration, along with a cheerful dose of mocking the musical-theater genre.

The show continues Tuesday for one more performance at the Saroyan.

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ROGUE REVIEW: ‘Hitler’s Li’l Abomination’


Annette Roman knew exactly what she was doing when she named her solo performance show “Hitler’s Li’l Abomination.” A provocative title can sell a show. In the course of her performance, she even ponders the propriety of her Rogue Festival program photo, which depicts her waving a couple of swastika flags. She seems to suggest that a little sensationalism in the service of greater truths can be forgiven — a sentiment with which I can concur. Get the audiences through the door, then hit them with the good stuff.

In Roman’s case, the core of her show is an intriguing one. Her father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and her mother was in the Hitler Youth. The fact that her parents actually procreated would have been enough to make Hitler crazy — hence the title. Though there are some comic shadings to Roman’s show, as reflected by the swastika flags pic, she hopes to construct a serious philosophical and historical discussion.

So far, so good, then. There’s a lot of potential in this autobiographical tale. But this show just doesn’t work as well as it should. It needs a more cohesive script and better direction.

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ROGUE REVIEW: ‘The Implausible Claus’


A sweet story and two talented actors — one the youngest participant in the Rogue Festival, the other with a few more years and gray hairs on him — come together in “The Implausible Claus,” a short play at the Broken Leg Stage. Ron Blackwell plays an old vaudeville performer moping through his days at a retirement home when a street-smart and precocious 9-year-old girl (played by Nayelli Zechman) pops in for an unscheduled visit.

Nicki Harmon’s play, written more than 20 years ago, introduces us to the Ho Ho Hotline, which has been installed in the Evergreen Retirement Home in Jersey City. As depicted by director Brandey Steiner, the hotline is almost akin to slave labor, with the depressed vaudevillian, named Aaron Lefkowitz, grumping his way through his daily duties as he answers called from children thinking they’re talking to Santa.

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For many in this country today, it’s a hard-knock life. The parallels between the musical “Annie,” set in the depths of the Depression, and our current economic situation are among the more poignant themes articulated in the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of the classic show. Hearing a big-lunged girl belting about the sun coming out “Tomorrow” is always a crowd-pleaser, but in this case, it takes on even more meaning. (The play continues through Dec. 18 at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium.)

I liked this production, but in terms of my expecations for community theater, it has some weaknesses. (I have a higher standard for CMT’s all-ages shows than its usual youth productions, which feature cast members ages 20 and younger.) There are some fine acting and vocal performances, spiffy sets, nice costumes and a very cute dog playing Sandy. A lot of hard work went into this production, and it shows. But the direction, choreography and lighting design is uneven.

Bee photo / John Walker

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REVIEW: ‘The Nutcracker’

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The Central California Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker” is a happy combination of professional ballet dancers and enthusiastic community members. This year’s production — which played three performances over the weekend at the Saroyan Theatre — was a nice blend of the two.

In some ways, it was the little things that tickled me this year: the way the littlest dancer in the Chinese dragon, stuck in the rear, wiggled the tail. Or the big pillars that look like ice-cream sundaes on the Kingdom of the Sweets backdrop. Or the cleverness of Herr Drosselmeyer’s “magic” box in the party scene. And how about those twitching, restless mice, who manage to be both endearing and rodent-like at the same time?

The pros were in fine form as well. Ethan and Nikki White, who catapulted to national fame thanks to Paula Abdul’s “Live to Dance” TV competition, made an exquisite Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. And a happy homecoming feeling was in the air when it came to Courtney Boyd, a Fresno native who trained with Central California Ballet and is now a member of Santa Monica’s Monat Dance group, when she performed as the “Dew Drop” soloist.

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Summer Arts review: Stefan Poetzsch and Bettina Essaka

I remained disconnected both emotionally and intellectually from the Stefan Poetzsch and Bettina Essaka music/choreography performance Sunday at Summer Arts.

Poetzsch, a German violinist, violist and composer, joined with Essaka, a German/Cameroonian dancer and choregrapher, in “Cicadas Whispering,” a concert-length piece featuring spoken poetry, movement and a mix of live and recorded music by Poetzsch. The piece in its various movements is meant to evoke the sounds and energy of Douala, the largest city in Cameroon. From the outset, it became clear that motion on the part of the musician as well as the dancer was integral to the piece. Poetzsch paced the stage with precise movements as he played, often executing slick 90-degree turns, and at other times scooting across stage in a rolling chair. Essaka was on stage with him at times performing her choreography. Both got solo turns in the spotlight as well.

I found the experience overwrought and tedious, especially after the hour mark. Poetzsch’s live virtuoso playing seemed swamped by his recorded tracks, giving the whole experience an unfortunate karaoke feel. Throw in the spoken words, and it started becoming a mush. (A persistent hiss in the John Wright Theatre’s sound system didn’t help.) His incessant choreographed movements seemed less an essential and organic part of the piece and more a gimmick meant to rein in multidisciplinary performance-art followers. (Or marching band fans.)

As for that trip to bustling Cameroon — it got lost in the midst of all the artistic fussiness. The heart of this piece just didn’t beat.

OPERA REVIEW: Juan Diego Florez


He got a standing ovation before he even opened his mouth.

But that was to be expected at Juan Diego Florez’s Fresno concert Monday at the Saroyan Theatre — one of only three appearances for the famed bel canto tenor in North America this year. Florez’s reputation preceded him, which was no surprise. First thrust into the international spotlight about five years ago when he nailed the tremendously difficult Donizetti aria from “La Fille du regiment” demanding NINE perfectly sung high C’s, the accolades have continued to pile up, with many calling Florez the heir to Luciano Pavarotti.

Florez didn’t disappoint on Monday evening, when a packed house — including some very excited fans waving little Peruvian flags — were treated to a impressive display of musicianship.

How to describe the way Florez sings? There were times, clutching his lapels with both hands and leaning ever so slightly forward as he was hitting one of his high, pure tones, that I swear I could see his entire body quiver right down to his toes. A singer’s “instrument” is more than his or her vocal cords, of course — it’s the entire corporeal being supporting those vocals — and it was in these moments that Florez’s complete dedication to the physicality of his effort came across as stirring. That was especially the case with his almost hypnotic aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Merchant of Venice’


Meet Antonio. He’s a little distracted. This hot-shot business guy, dressed in a sharp blazer, spiffy shoes and cool shades, is in the middle of a big deal right now — something about a pound of flesh as collateral for a loan — but that doesn’t stop him from peering at his smartphone every few seconds, as if to say, yeah, I’ve got other projects, and you’re not important enough to focus on exclusively. In an era of incessant multitasking, Antonio’s truncated attention span is a telling signifier of power in a business relationship: He doesn’t even have to give his lender, the gruff Shylock, more than 80% of his consideration.

Such is one of the lively — and very effective — modern-day moments created in the new Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Merchant of Venice.” Filled with power suits, yoga mats, boutique shopping bags and enough cell phones to fill a junior-high-school teacher’s locked contraband desk drawer, the concept makes for a brisk and telling interpretation of this often problematic classic.

It’s a fine opening to a new season.

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ROGUE REVIEW: Fresno Dance Collective


I have to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the Fresno Dance Collective show Saturday afternoon. And, after talking to a few people in line at other shows yesterday, I get the sense that I’m not the only one who left this performance feeling a bit disappointed.

I can’t quite put my finger on what it was. Maybe it’s a combination of things, such as the show being a half hour (not the 45 minutes advertised) and feeling so rushed that I had no time to process what I saw between vignettes. It could be that I felt there was a lack of fluidity between moves, as if the dancers were preparing for the next step instead of seamlessly moving. Or maybe it was that I never really felt like the dancers — who are definitely talented — really connected to the music, choreography or each other. The moves were all there, beautiful bodies, crisp positions, movement, lightness, conviction, but yet, I never really felt anything. Maybe it was that this is the company’s premiere performance locally, and it just needs more time to shake out the bugs. Or, maybe it was just me. I love watching dancers, and I expect to be moved. Saturday, that didn’t really happen for me.

I really am excited to see this local dance company emerge. I applaud their goal of exposing and educating the Valley about modern dance. At one point in Saturday’s show, guest dancer Megan Yankee of San Mateo talks about how the company wants to get rid of the notion of modern dance not being understandable — that there is no right answer and it’s OK for each person to interpret the dance in a different way. I agree, and I hope they succeed.

SHOW INFO: 4 p.m. Saturday at Severance, 1401 N. Wishon. Admission: $10.



First, I have to confess: I have no idea what makes good belly dancing. The only belly dancing I had ever seen, until Saturday, was in the movies. That said, I really enjoyed the “Orgins” show by Fallen Orchid.

The three women who danced were beautiful, tasteful, controlled and sultry. They do this thing with their eyes — kind of looking at you but not — that really oozes sex appeal and draws you in (I know my husband was captivated). If this was an “America’s Next Top Model” critique, Tyra Banks would be gushing at how they smiled with their eyes.

The 60-minute program consists of the trio performing together, as pairs and in solo numbers. Each girl seemed as strong on her own as she did with the group. When the ladies dance together, they really compliment each other. There are some fun surprises, such as one number involving balancing a stick and another with a snake. This PG-13 show is not suggested for children, but I found it very tasteful. The costumes are sexy but not gross or inappropriate (the strategically placed tattoos add a little something interesting). The moves are rhythmic but not too suggestive.

There are several belly dance shows in this year’s Rogue Festival lineup. I have no idea how this compares to those. All I can say is that this show was fun. I left smiling.

SHOW INFO: 7 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Saturday at Million Too, 1153 N. Fulton. Admission: $7.