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This interview subject crawled into my lap

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It wasn’t your usual celebrity interview. Nick crawled into my lap. Then I rubbed her belly.

How could I resist?

In honor of the River City Theatre Company production of “Annie” at the Reedley Opera House, I decided to devote the full glory of the 7 arts section to Nick Johnson, the amiable Goldendoodle who plays Sandy. She — yes, Nick is a she, so get used to it, “Duck Dynasty” fans — graciously sat down (at my feet) for an interview at the home of her besotted human companion, Karan Johnson, who is known for her acting and directing for Good Company Players. I learned all sorts of fun things about Nick, including her favorite kind of liver treats, and what her secret “go potty” phrase is. (It is very funny, but out of respect for the American political process I decided to leave it out of my story. If you really want to know, send me an email and I’ll tell you.)

In honor of my interview with Nick, I decided to post a bunch of cute photos of her. Consider it my early Christmas present to you.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

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“Les Miserables” is all the rage at the community theater level this summer. When I heard that Reedley’s River City Theatre Company was tackling the ambitious musical, my first thought was: But the stage is so small!

Don’t fret. I’m still not quite sure how they do it, but director Mark Norwood and set designers Sarah Wiebe and Steve Jones manage to fit a tidy but effective version of the musical’s famed barricade into the tiny space at the Reedley Opera House. What makes this particular set piece — and this production in general — work so well is the intimacy of the space. Sure, you might have seen a professional touring production of “Les Miz” with massive stage and herculean spinning turntable offering a widescale view of rebellion. But in Reedley, it’s as if you’re right up there with the actors, holed up with them behind a bunch of junk on a narrow Paris street, feeling their anger and angst, absorbing their stirring words and the show’s famed melodies, as if you’re part of the fight.

It’s that way throughout this fully staged, full-length, small but scrappy rendition of “Les Miz.” You get it all: Jean Valjean’s chain gang, Fantine’s tearful death, Madame Thenardier’s over-the-top meanness, Enjolras’ studly student bravado, Javert’s tormented psyche. Some scenes, such as the barricades and the gate outside Valjean’s Paris house, work extremely well on the small stage. (I did miss the traditional onstage demise of Gavroche, but that’s the director’s prerogative.) Others, such as the sewer scene, take a little more imagination on the part of the audience. But it all somehow works.

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Fresno Grand Opera announces 13-14 season. Where’s the opera?

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Fresno Grand Opera announced its 2013-14 lineup to season ticket holders this week. It doesn’t feature any traditional opera. But it does promise a big local production of “Les Miserables.”

“Les Miserables” opens Jan. 17 and will play four performances at the Saroyan Theatre. This will be a local production, not the revamped national tour that has been traveling the country for a few years and is currently in Sacramento. The revamped version, which tightens the storyline and eliminates the trademark turntable, is slated to open on Broadway in March, marking a return to New York after an absence of many years.

National tours of “Les Miserables” played at the Saroyan Theatre in 1993, 1996 and 2000, but this is the first time an original production of the musical will take the stage there.

The opera’s general director, Ronald D. Eichman, said the principal members in the Fresno production have all either performed in the national tour or on Broadway, adding:

Additionally, some ensemble roles are cast with artists who have national experience, and we fully anticipate that the balance of the locally and regionally cast ensemble will deliver on a national caliber level.

Eichman calls the upcoming “Les Miserables” the largest scale production in the company’s history, financially and otherwise. “We have been anticipating this production for three years, when we were notified of the release date for the licensing to produce it,” he said.

Single-ticket prices for “Les Miserables” range from $55-$130.

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Donald’s weekend picks

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1. THE TEXAS TENORS
The Fresno Philharmonic ends its season with a twang. The Texas Tenors, who shot to fame on “America’s Got Talent,” have been touring the country for four years now, and they’ve developed quite a specialty performing in pops concerts with local orchestras. I talked to JC Fisher — the “country boy” of the act — for Friday’s 7 section. The 8 p.m. Saturday concert, which will feature a mix of country, classical and Broadway/pop tunes, should be a whoop and a holler. [Details]

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Donald’s weekend picks

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GARBAGE INTO GOLD AT ARTE AMERICAS
My favorite of the three new shows at Arte Americas — all under the umbrella theme of environmental sustainability — is the wonderful “Nothing Wasted,” a group show from local artists who recycled used materials into artistic gems. Francisco Vargas’ “Red Baby Grand,” which he repurposed from a piano burned in a house fire, is worth the trip alone. A statewide touring show titled “Ignite” offers a serious look at the environmental problems facing California. Read my cover story in Friday’s 7 about the Arte exhibitions. Plus: Here’s a video I made featuring artist Ann Savageau, a UC Davis professor who made a piece for “Ignite” about the Central Valley. A reception for “Nothing Wasted” will be held Sunday.  [Details]

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Upcoming theater

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

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

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

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

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. ENJOY A LITTLE NIGHT (OR MATINEE) MUSIC
It’s the last weekend for StageWorks Fresno’s handsome production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Here’s my review. [Details]

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Donald’s weekend picks

Besides getting outside and taking in a festival

1. SING ALONG TO ‘HAPPINESS IS’
It’s the final weekend for the beloved musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” This Children’s Musical Theaterworks production is directed by Kyle Dodson and features CMT’s 11-to-15-year-old performers. [Details]

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Erik Valencia as Dean Martin in ‘Legends’

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In the mood for some sorta celebrity sightings? Reedley’s River City Theatre Company satisfies the urge with “Legends,” which pays tribute to a lineup that includes the Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Sonny & Cher and Kate Smith. The original show opens Friday and continues through June 9.

We caught up with Erik Valencia, who plays Dean Martin in the show, for a story featured in Friday’s 7 section. Here’s the extended version of that interview.

Question: What is “Legends” about? Who created it?

“Legends” is a musical and comedy review that pays tribute to celebrities such as The Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Sonny & Cher and Kate Smith. This show has been a collaborative effort of the cast members under the direction of Mark Norwood.

Is this a series of vignettes, or is there a storyline?

We have been referring to this production as “The Dream Ed Sullivan Show” – a lineup of some of the greatest performers of all time, all on one stage. There really is no storyline for this show. It is more of a compilation of some of the greatest songs and performance moments of the last century brought together by our show host, Ed Sullivan.

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Pictured: Jeff Lusk (Frank Sinatra), Michael Angel (Sammy Davis Jr.), Joseph Ham (Peter Lawford) and Erik Valencia (Dean Martin).
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A local tradition: Reedley’s Fanny

I’ve always had a soft spot for Reedley’s River City Theatre Company, which under the hard-working direction of Mark Norwood has become a staple of theater life in the South Valley. Norwood and his creative partner Darrell Devaurs have penned almost two dozen original musicals together, and since 2005 they’ve included a signature character common to them all: the larger than life Fanny Feastyoureyes.

The newest incarnation of Fanny — played from the start by town pharmacist Matt Wiebe — appears in “A Royal Fanny,” a musical comedy set in Elizabethan England that Norwood describes as “Queen meets Dr. Seuss meets Elton John meets ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ ” It opens today and continues through March 11 at the historic Reedley Opera House. I write about the show and the past lives of Fanny in Friday’s 7 cover story.

Norwood hopes he can draw theater fans from outside Reedley to this show, and in doing so he’s courting more the “Avenue Q”/”RENT” crowd than “Oklahoma” fans. A tip of the hat to him for that.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. LOSE YOUR HEART AT ‘RANCHO TESORO’
This tender, ambitious original musical has made the transfer from the indoor space of the L.J. Williams Theatre in Visalia to the wide-open skies of the 13 Acres Stage at Woodward Park. I saw it opening night and heartily recommend it. If you missed my feature on the show from Thursday’s Life section, click here. [Info] [Online tickets]

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. BATTLE OF THE CHAMBER MUSIC GROUPS
Is it a scheduling coincidence? Or a stringed-instrument blood match? Whatever the reason, the result is a Sunday afternoon chock full of chamber-music possibilities. At 3 p.m. at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Moment Musical offers a “Sunday Serenade” featuring a 100th birthday tribute to Alan Hovhaness with a performance of his “The Garden of Adonis” Suite for Flute and Harp, featuring Laura Porter, left, and Janette Erickson. And at 5 p.m. at Fresno State’s Wahlberg Recital Hall, the Orpheus chamber series welcomes two distinguished musical guests from Austria: the Duo Schorn/Mancinelli ensemble consisting of guitarist Christina Schorn and percussionist Ivan Mancinelli.

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Donald’s weekend picks

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GET UP-CLOSE AND BLOODY WITH ‘MACBETH’: Fresno Grand Opera debuts DEVA Vision tonight, which involves two giant video screens inside the hall. I write about the concept in today’s 7 cover story. Because there’s only one performance instead of the standard two, the house will be very full of season subscribers, so you might have to scrape for a ticket. (Bee photo by Darrell Wong)

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GILLES VONSATTEL AT KEYBOARD CONCERTS: Andreas Werz, artistic director of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series, must have nerves of steel. In March, the scheduled pianist, Horacio Gutierrez, had to cancel because of illness. (Werz lined up Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev to substitute.) And for tonight’s concert, the last of the season, things got prickly as well. The scheduled pianist, British sensation Stephen Hough, flew home to London for a family emergency. With less than 48 hours notice, Werz lined up New York-based Gilles Vonsattel, who began touring after capturing the top prize at the prestigious 2002 Naumburg International Piano Competition. He performs at 8 p.m. at the Fresno State Concert Hall.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Fanny Buys the Farm’

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It must be something in the blossoms.

Those folks in Reedley get downright wacky this time of year. Within the first few minutes of the thoroughly silly “Fanny Buys the Farm,” we’re treated to a local chorus line of community folks grabbing both butt cheeks and thrusting forth with a wiggle as they sing, “We’ve lost our Fanny!”

With all the bad puns, beefy men in appalling drag, jokes about Tiger Woods and other assorted shenanigans, it’s all sort of small-town hammy — and, to me, quite charming. Writer/director Mark Norwood’s goofy sense of humor can really start to grow on you.

“Fanny Buys the Farm,” an original musical continuing through March 14, is the fifth episode in the “Blossoms Up” series at Reedley’s River City Theatre Company. Timed to coincide with the annual Blossom Trail celebration — which my colleague Ron Orozco writes about in Thursday’s Bee — the play finds a certain zippy, civic pride in all those beautiful flowers.

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Donald’s weekend picks

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Mike has already filled you in on five excellent weekend options. Here’s my take from the arts side of the cubicle:

CELEBRATE THE BLOSSOMS

It’s that time of the year for the charming city of Reedley to bask in the glory of the Fresno County Blossom Trail. To mark the occasion, Reedley’s River City Theatre Company introduces the latest in its series of “Blossoms Up” original musicals. This year’s entry is titled “Fanny Buys the Farm,” and I write about it in today’s 7 section. The show opens 8 p.m. today and continues through March 14. Above: a photo from the 2007 production of “Fiona’s Revenge.”

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Notes from the theater beat

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GOOD TENTATCLE DAY: Devoted Fresno followers of Heidi Blickenstaff – the Good Company Players alum whose Broadway career is really revving up these days — have a lot to keep track of. After her starring performance in “[title of show,]“ the spunky little musical that made it all the way to Broadway, she returned to the powerhouse show “The Little Mermaid” for a limited run. In her first engagement with “Mermaid,” she understudied the major role of Ursula the Sea Witch. Now she’s back nightly as a replacement for Ursula through April 5. She dropped me an email recently from New York and wrote about the character:

She’s a pastiche of Madeline Kahn, Patti Lupone, Shirley Temple, Hannibal Lecter, Mae West, Bette, Judy, Cher… I could go on and on. She’s so schizo… I love her. She is delicious… I’m learning so much. I feel so lucky to have had [title of show] and Mermaid back to back like this. They are opposites in almost every way, and yet both are so exciting and fulfilling.

Broadway.com did a very fun slideshow feature documenting the grueling process that Heidi undergoes each night to transform into Ursula. And she talked last week in Playbill.com’s well-known “Diva Talk” column about what it’s like to shift from understudy to starring role — and what the future holds for her. It’s a delightful interview, so check it out.

On the jump: “Little Women” all set for a Thursday opening at Roger Rocka’s, a fond farewell to “Footloose,” the Reedley River City Players gear up for “Show Offs,” and an 85-year-old actor threatens to steal the show in the upcoming Lindsay Community Theater production of “Damn Yankees.”

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