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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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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: ‘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: ‘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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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.

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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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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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.

PLAID

 

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.

Junior Company gala: a recap

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

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

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

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Curtains’

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We first see him stomping along in the dark, making his entrance past the tables at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater as if he’s an audience member who imbibed too much iced tea and can’t wait for intermission to use the bathroom. He’s a big guy: dressed in a blocky brown pinstriped suit, his hair cropped short and slicked back, his footsteps clunky. He talks big, too: a Boston accent as thick as chowder, loud and nasally, a voice that could startle a cat. Though he’s a police detective, he doesn’t seem to have a nimble bone in his body; he’s like a bulldozer with a gun.

And then Tyler Branco, playing Lt. Frank Cioffi in the sparkling Good Company Players production of “Curtains” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater (continuing through Sept. 8), reveals his character’s love of musical theater. He turns to strike a dance pose in the song “Show People.” And suddenly he’s as light on his feet as a wispy ballerina. (Well, almost.) It’s one of those wide-smiled, goofy moments so endearing it sets the tone for the entire show.

One of the advantages of being a long-time theater critic and watching community actors grow and mature is getting to be present at the moment they offer a truly breakthrough performance. That’s the case with Branco in “Curtains,” who puts a big, comic stamp in the role of the detective tasked to solve the murder of a Broadway-bound musical’s much-loathed leading lady. Branco has offered fine supporting moments in previous GCP shows, from the blustery ex-husband in “The Wedding Singer” and the sweet-voiced crooner in “Paint Your Wagon” to the hilarious French taunter in “Spamalot.” Now, in a delightful turn in “Curtains,” he demonstrates he can carry a show.

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Christopher Gorham losing his shirt because of his job

Covert Affairs - Season 3I had a chance to catch up with Fresno’s Christopher Gorham to talk about the new season of “Covert Affairs” that begins July 16. It was time to chat again as the third season ended with a big event for Gorham’s character.

If you haven’t been watching the show, you have been missing an Emmy-worthy performance by Gorham. He plays CIA agent Auggie Anderson, who’s always been there when fellow agent, Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) needs help. Auggie just happens to be blind.

Gorham doesn’t play the character as if the blindness is a handicap. It’s just one of the things Auggie deals with in doing his job. An actor of lesser skill would have played the character more as a stereotype but Gorham never falls into any of those bad acting mistakes.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

noname (2)“Fiddler on the Roof” is working on some heavy themes.
You forget that some, because “Fiddler” is such a staple of musical theater and because it’s about love and marriage, and those things come with a certain amount of revelry. Add on the singing and dancing and a few well-placed one liners, and the play could easily be reduced to a kind of second-rate romantic comedy.

Good Company Players’ presentation of “Fiddler,” (which runs through July 14 at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater), doesn’t run that risk. It doesn’t dwell on the heaviness, by any means, but it doesn’t shy away from it either.

That makes it a powerful piece of theater.

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Donald’s mailbag

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Francine and Murray Farber ask why I skipped reviewing the latest Good Company Players musical. They write:

Ever since opening night of “Fiddler on the Roof” we have been scouring the Bee and blog for your review.  We are always interested in your viewpoints.  We are mystified — we did see the “beard story” but we don’t count that!  Is there a reason this great Roger Rocka show is being overlooked?

I did skip reviewing “Fiddler,” but it’s for a good reason: I’m in the process of putting together a big story about Good Company’s upcoming 40th anniversary. As part of that story, I’ve followed “Fiddler” from a backstage perspective — which meant I was there for load-in of the set, first tech rehearsal, opening night, etc. I felt  I was too close to the production to be able to step back far enough for a critical distance.

But … the good news is that “Fiddler” will get a review, just a little later than usual. My colleague Joshua Tehee got the chance to see the show Sunday afternoon, and he will be posting a review soon.

In the meantime, I forgot to post my own contribution to this “Fiddler” production on opening weekend — The Bee’s first ever Russian Jew Beard Poll. The margin of error is three-eights of a can of shaving cream. The photo above is of Henry Montelongo, left, who plays Lazar Wolf, and Chris Hoffman, who plays Mendel, the rabbi’s son. After the jump you’ll find a photo of the Anatevka gang getting zany.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Paint Your Wagon’

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The famous Broadway classic “They Call the Wind Maria” —  which is pronounced “Mar-eye-ah,” for all you “Paint Your Wagon” neophytes out there — is a beautiful song. Tyler Branco, who starts off the song in the nicely staged Good Company Players revival at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, offers a sweet and moving interpretation.

But I surprised myself by falling for a different tune entirely, one that hasn’t quite stood the test of time as well as a song about the wind. It’s a throwaway comic ditty titled “In Between.” The song is performed by the amiable Greg Ruud, portraying the show’s central character, Ben, a hardscrabble gold prospector always hoping for the next big strike. He’s wooing a woman named Elizabeth (a sharply played Paige Parker), an unlikely candidate for betrothal considering she’s already married to someone else.  But that isn’t as big a complication as you’d think. Elizabeth is, you see, the second wife of a Mormon gentleman who moves to a Gold Rush town in which men outnumber women 400 to one. So it makes perfect sense for her practical-minded husband to auction her off — yes, sell her, as in some other lucky chap buying a wife — to the highest bidder.

And thus we’re treated to “In Between,” an ode to mediocrity sung with a twinkle by Ben, who assures Elizabeth that he might not be the bravest or richest guy in the world, but neither is he the poorest or biggest coward. The song is one of the highlights of the show, an easygoing and sparkling nod to our hard-working, frontier-savvy forebears who flocked to California for gold. “Paint Your Wagon” isn’t about big, mythic heroes. Instead it’s about the colorful “average folks” who settled these parts in a time when sleeping inside was a luxury.

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Tonight: ‘Paint Your Wagon’ opens

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What do they call the wind?

It’s Maria, of course. (Pronounced Mar-eye-ah.) The Good Company Players production of the Gold Rush-era musical “Paint Your Wagon,” with music and lyrics by the beloved Lerner and Loewe, opens tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The show’s best known tune is the beautiful “They Call the Wind Maria.” (Which kicks off with a solo by my favorite French taunter, Tyler Branco.)

We made the show our 7 cover story, so you can look for that tomorrow. Bee photographer Craig Kohlruss took some wonderful photos at the dress rehearsal. I particularly like the one above of Greg Ruud (who plays the gold prospector Ben) and Alyssa Gaynor (his daughter, Jennifer). I’ll be there tonight for a trip back to the Gold Rush.

Beehive video: In cow-raising investigation, Donald interviews ‘Spamalot’s’ French Taunter

UPDATE: Welcome to readers finding my “video column” through Sunday’s Spotlight section.

ORIGINAL POST: For my upcoming Sunday column, I figured it was time to get to the bottom — heh heh, I said “bottom” — of this whole French Taunter business. If you start giggling hysterically when someone says, “Your mother is a hamster,” you’ll be right at home with my very first Beehive video interview. If not, well, you’ll likely be bewildered. But at least you get to see me look very silly as I go mano a mano with the Taunter himself, played by Tyler Branco in the Good Company Players production.

Here’s the link on the Fresno Bee’s video page.

The Super Bowl and the 7 section

What do you do when you’re a theater company with a scheduled performance on Super Bowl Sunday?

Figure out a good marketing pitch. Here’s the Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater pitch for this Sunday’s Good Company Players matinee performance of “Spamalot:”

Very funny. But I’ll tell you this much for sure: The photo above will be the closest this 7 writer gets to the Super Bowl. It’s my Sunday without crowds! Sorry, football fans.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Monty Python’s Spamalot’

Hey. You there, audience member. I want you to listen very closely to what I’m going to say.

Your mother was a hamster.

Now let’s gauge your reaction. Did you:

1) Immediately turn to the person nearest you — whether good friend or total stranger — and without hesitation, as if by Pavlovian response, blurt out “and your father smelt of elderberries”?

2) Offer a quizzical but hearty laugh, a little lost as to the context of the line but willing to extend your comic goodwill to such an offbeat non sequitur?

3) Listen with stone-faced bewilderment, trying to grasp at anything — anything! — remotely funny about someone declaring that the woman who bore you was a Eurasian rodent with large cheek pouches and a short tail — but finding yourself unable to cough up anything but a desultory chuckle?

If you’re in the first camp, you’ll likely react to the zany and well-done new Good Company Players production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot”  like a starving dieter granted permission to tear into a lemon meringue pie. If you fall into the second category, I’m guessing you’ll be happy to hop aboard and raft the comic whitewaters of this very silly and engaging musical.

And if you just don’t get the whole Monty Python phenomenon — and you don’t want to get it — you might, like the famed Black Knight, rather have your limbs chopped off one by one than subject yourself to an evening featuring some of the most famous bits of the Python legacy.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. WATCH OUT FOR FLYING COWS
On Thursday on the Beehive I told you about opening night of “Spamalot.” Well, I attended the show last night — and while my review will come early next week, let’s just say I laughed so hard during the French Taunter scene that I almost choked on my Good Company water. (And there was even a gag directed at me, which I’m not going to share so as to ruin the moment, but let’s just say I’ve never been quite so personally surprised during a performance.) Check out my cover story in Friday’s 7. Also, Bee photographer Gary Kazanjian took a bunch of great photos, which he posted in an online gallery. “Spamalot” continues at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater through March 17. [Details]

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Win tickets to Good Company’s ‘Spamalot’

It’s amazing what one line of dialogue can do to a Monty Python fan.

Try it by asking: “Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?”

If the person you ask this odd question of degenerates into hysterical giggles, and then starts to tell you all about King Arthur and his much-put-upon personal assistant, Patsy, then you know you’ve got an M.P. fan on your hands.

As Good Company Players prepares to open the local premiere Thursday of the musical “Spamalot,” we’re looking for some of those fans to share their favorite Monty Python scenarios from the movies. Is it the Killer Rabbit? The “Bring out your dead” scene? Or how about the Black Knight who shrugs away his chopped off appendages one by one?

“Spamalot” is mostly based on the classic movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” but the musical also includes bits and pieces from the entire Python oeuvre, so we’re happy to hear about any of your favorite moments. While you’re at it, tell us (if you’d like) your age, how big a fan you are and why you think the comic magic still works today. Have a funny “Monty Python” memory? Share it with us.

We’ll pick one of the submissions at random as a winner and give that person two tickets (dinner and show) to any performance of “Spamalot,” which runs through March 17 at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. I’ll be contacting the winner by email, and I’ll also pick some comments to run in my story in next Friday’s issue of 7 about the opening of the show.

Only one entry per person, please. Deadline is 2 p.m. Tuesday. For rules, see the jump.

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Donald’s weekend picks

You might have to dig a little harder for cultural events this pre-Christmas weekend — but you can still find some great possibilities.

1. ENJOY A ‘MIRACLE’
The Good Company Players production of “Dad’s Christmas Miracle” at the 2nd Space Theatre has just four performances left: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. This nostalgic comedy is about a boy who has to convince his family and teacher he’s worthy of a visit from Santa. Another theater option for the weekend is the first-rate “Beehive,” which continues at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. [Details]

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Donald’s weekend picks

Besides doing “The Time Warp” with the outstanding local production of “Rocky Horror” at the Severance Theatre …

1. LISTEN TO A GREAT PIANIST
Israeli-born pianist Alon Goldstein has performed with many of the great orchestras of the world — San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony, you name it — but he’s just as well known for his solo work. He’ll perform tonight at Fresno State as part of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. I had a terrific and fascinating phone conversation with Goldstein that I wrote up for Friday’s 7 section. If you’re interested in the mind of a classical pianist, check out his intriguing blog, which I reference in the story. [Details]

 

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