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Last chance: ‘The Normal Heart’

I know. Everyone’s busy. You have every intention to get out to see a limited-run play, but things get in the way. Before you know it, it’s gone.

I’m talking about StageWorks Fresno’s “The Normal Heart,” which is in its third and final weekend. I recommend catching it at the Fresno Art Museum before it closes.

Tonight’s performance has a bonus: Curtain has been pushed back to 8:30 p.m. so playgoers can attend the opening reception of the Fresno Art Museum’s series of fall exhibitions, which include “Mildred Howard: Collective Memories.” Howard is the museum’s distinguished artist for 2014. (Here’s my rundown of today’s museum activities, which begin at 4:30 p.m., from today’s 7 section.) It also plays 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Another special museum/”Normal Heart” event: On Saturday, a forum titled “Let’s Talk … HIV/AIDS in the Central Valley” will be held 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

“The Normal Heart” is about the beginning days of AIDS, and playgoers might walk away 30 years later with a false sense of complacency that the disease isn’t something about to worry about anymore. Far from it. There are new cases of HIV/AIDS every day, and education is more important than ever. Kudos to StageWorks and the museum for reminding us of that.

Opening tonight: ‘Ben Minus Jake’

The Fresno premiere of local playwright Andrew Champagne’s “Ben Minus Jake” opens tonight at the Fresno Soap Co. (formerly the Broken Leg Stage) and continues through Oct. 4. It’s a Curtain 5 Theatre Group production. From the company:

BEN MINUS JAKE tells the story of two friends. Haunted by his past, Ben, (Matthew Vargas) struggles to find a sense of identity, as Jake (Jason Andrew) desperately desires to move forward; even at the cost of his friendship. Director Jacob Williams’ debut show examines human identity and how those around ultimately help us come to terms with it.

Performances this weekend are 8 p.m. today (Sept. 26) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 27).

THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Addams Family’

Sometimes a show just has Itt.

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

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

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Normal Heart’

The injustice at the core of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” isn’t as raw today as when the play came out in 1985. Some events depicted in Larry Kramer’s drama, set early in the AIDS crisis, had occurred just a year before. The fear, anger and throat-clutching sadness among the audience members at the New York Public Theater’s original production must have been suffocating.

But decades later, the injustice in this play — which is receiving a local premiere in a sturdy production from StageWorks Fresno — still seethes and provokes. Even with the distance of time, the choices made by media and government gatekeepers — and some in the gay community — to sweep early news about the epidemic under the rug seem perplexing and bizarre. It’s unfathomable today to think that a scare about Tylenol tampering earned a tsunami of coverage in the New York Times but that a new illness killing hundreds of New Yorkers had to fight to get to the front page. But that’s what happened.

The StageWorks production, directed with heartfelt commitment by J. Daniel Herring, immerses us in the autobiographical world of Kramer. His alter ego is Ned Weeks (played with verve and feeling by Terry Lewis), who vows to stir up a fuss when he realizes that many in the gay community are falling to a disease so new and mysterious it doesn’t have a name. Yet the organization he founds, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, is far from unified on the best approach. He continually clashes with Bruce Niles (Bob Creasy), the group’s president, who favors a less confrontational, more “establishment” approach. At the root of this conflict, Bruce — and many other gay men — object to any attempt to discourage sex in an age of newfound sexual permissiveness.

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‘Jersey Boys’ tickets go on sale 10 a.m. Friday

Lots of people have already snagged tickets to the national tour of “Jersey Boys” — which plays Oct. 28-Nov. 2 at the Saroyan Theatre — by buying season tickets or the package deal with the Fresno Grand Opera. But if you’ve been waiting for single tickets, they go on sale 10 a.m. Friday. Good luck!

The performance schedule is Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 1:00 and 6:30 pm.

The Ticketmaster number is (800) 745-3000.

Prices range from $33-$103.

Bandgeek: Blake, The Beetles and Blockhead

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Instead of sitting at home wondering whether it’s OK to continue watching football (American, that is), head out on the town and catch one of the dozens of live concerts happening in the next week. We’ve listed them here in our weekly BANDGEEK roundup.

TONIGHT:

  • Zeahorse. W/Midwest Moms and Space Apes.
    At Peeve’s Public House. 10 p.m. Free. All ages.

  • BJ Sings.
    At Full Circle Brewing. 8 p.m. Flat rate (whatever that means).

  • Blake Shelton.
    Ten Times Crazier Tour. W/The Band Perry, Neal McCoy and Dan + Shay. At the Save Mart Center. 7 p.m. $29.75 and $54.75. (Flier link)

  • Morris Day and the Time.
    At the Tulare Country Fair. 8 p.m. Free with fair admission.

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    Five Things You Should Do This Weekend

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    UPDATE: This story has been updated to remove the Mike Tyson show, which is not this weekend at all. Calendars are confusing.

    Slather on some DEET and …

    1. Metalachi at Arte Americas Nights in the Plaza
    Who doesn’t want to hear a mariachi version of “Run to the Hills?

    2. “Preacherman at Burning Man
    Fresno is the Detroit of California, might explain this show’s inclusion as the best of West Coast fringe.

    3. Taste of River Park
    Remember when River Park put a curfew on kids? This is like that, but with Let’s Go Bowling.

    4. Keyboard Concert Series
    Garrick Ohlsson opens the 43rd season of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. This should be on your list of “Things every Fresnan should do once.”

    5. Madera Fair
    It is officially fair season in the Valley. Enjoy!

    For music-specific events, check out this week’s BANDGEEK roundup.

    THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Tempest’

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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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    Follow-up: At 90, ‘Papa Glenn’ wins best actor

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    In February, I brought you the sweet story of Glenn Edwards of Porterville, who at age 90 undertook his first starring role on stage, as the cantankerous Willie in “The Sunshine Boys.” It played at Porterville’s Barn Theater.

    At the theater’s recent “Hosscar” Awards — I’ll have to get the story on that name someday — Edwards took home a big prize: best lead actor. His daughter Nicki, who directed the show, writes:

    In fact “The Sunshine Boys” swept the awards, I’m happy to say. The Porterville Recorder headline was “90-year-old steals Hosscar Show” & he did. Papa Glenn is very loved in our theater community, not only for his amazing stamina but his quick wit & happy nature.

    Nicki reports that one of her dad’s co-stars, Denise Everhart, pictured above, won for her portrayal of the Sexy Nurse in “The Sunshine Boys.” Everhart started teasing Edwards about when he was going to marry her.

    He replied: I’ll gladly marry you Tuesday for a honeymoon tonight!” (“He’s a rascal!! his daughter writes.)

    Opening tonight: ‘The Tempest’

    One of Shakespeare’s most magical plays, “The Tempest,” opens tonight at Woodward Park. It’s the final production in the 2014 Woodward Shakespeare Festival season. From the company:

    The 10th season closes with Julie Ann Keller’s The Tempest, a magical tale of romance, vengeance and redemption. Rick Adamson plays the powerful sorcerer Prospero. Bridget Martin and Broderic Beard play the two lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. Joshua Taber and Abbygail Williams portray the fantastical spirit Ariel and the villainous creature Caliban. The production features original music composed by Emma Ferdinandi, winner of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s Young Composer’s Competition.

    The show plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Sept. 20 at the Festival Stage. Look for my interview with Keller in Friday’s issue of 7.

    Pictured: Miranda (Bridget Martin), Ferdinand (Broderic Beard), and Prospero (Richard Adamson).

    Opening tonight: ‘The Comedy of Errors’

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

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

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

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

    THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Mountaintop’

    The view is grand from “The Mountaintop.”

    The StageWorks Fresno production of Katori Hall’s provocative play about the imagined last night of Martin Luther King, Jr. is deftly staged and strongly acted. Director Joel C. Abels crafts a powerhouse production that manages to seem both taut and dreamy — a charismatic and combustible combination. 

    It’s tricky to write about “The Mountaintop” because it’s one of those plays that, frankly, works better the less you know about it. (When New York Times critic Ben Brantley reviewed the show in 2011, he noted that the production’s press representatives requested that he not divulge certain key plot details.) But there are some essentials to know going in: The action takes place on the evening of April 3, 1968 in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. On the next day, King was assassinated on the motel’s balcony.

    Hall’s take on what happened on that last night of his life comes purely from her literary imagination. In this two-person drama, she invents the character of Camae, a maid at the motel. Camae knocks on King’s door with room service after a long day for him in which he gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. What follows — their conversation and the events that unfold on a strange and stormy night — is pure conjecture.

    But enough is grounded in what we know about King — his formidable strengths and all-too-human weaknesses — to give the experience a fly-on-the-wall authenticity.

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    And now a word from Winthrop

    “The Music Man” is in its closing weekend in Clovis, and I couldn’t let the occasion slip by without giving 6-year-old Jackson Estep, who plays Winthrop in the show, a moment of Beehive fame. Here’s my video:

    P.S. — I wrote about Jackson and the Estep family — there are five of them all appearing in the show together — in Thursday’s Life section. It turns out they have company. Cheryl Martin writes:

    You may not be aware that there is another family with 5 members in the production.  They are the Smiths.  Father Patrick, sons Michael Patrick and Tim, daughters Anna and Joy (who played Amaryllis).  What are the odds of that happening?

    Think about it: Even with a cast of more than 60, the Esteps and Smiths together make up a significant percentage of “The Music Man” cast.

    Weekend pick: ‘Virginia Woolf’

    There are lots of theater options this weekend, but I want to give a last shout-out for Artists’ Repertory Theatre’s impressive “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” now in its final weekend at California Arts Academy’s Severance Theatre. It plays 8 p.m Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. From my review:

    This is an exemplary production — one of the best of the year locally. Long before there were games involving hunger, George and Martha set the standard for weird, memorable and dangerous antics.

    And if you’ve never seen the stage version of this acclaimed show, you owe it to yourself to see a great piece of American theater.

    THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Music Man’

    In terms of aw-shucks family wholesomeness — the kind that seems tailor-made for good-hearted, sprawling summer community-theater productions — it’s hard to beat Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man.”

    Consider a wonderful moment in the uneven new CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre production, now in its final weekend at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre. Watch 6-year-old Jackson Estep, a few years younger than called for in the script but already possessing an impressive confidence on stage, step out as Winthrop in the “The Wells Fargo Wagon” to belt out a lisp-dominated solo. It’s just so cute you want to box up the moment in a pretty package and take it home with you, there to enjoy at your leisure when the world gets surly.

    There are some good reasons, then, that CenterStage loves this time-honored show. The company last produced “The Music Man” just six years ago.

    It’s only natural for me to compare the latest version with the 2008 incarnation. While the new production, directed by Scott Hancock, has some exuberant moments and performances, including Winthrop in “Wells Fargo,” and a great “Shipoopi” dance number, it’s not as accomplished as the earlier version. Sometimes it seems downright creaky.

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    Opening tonight: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

    Now here’s a twist on the traditional “Taming of the Shrew” for you: The entire cast of the new Woodward Shakespeare Festival production, opening Thursday at Woodward Park, is made up of women actors. Aaron Spjute directs. From the company:

    ‘Shrew” is a comical battle of the sexes, an exploration of how men and women interact and a commentary on the roles society expects them to fill. Spjute has chosen an all-female cast in order to present an exaggerated theatrical experience. “…servants become masters, masters become servants and even the sun becomes the moon simply by being proclaimed as such,” Spjute explains. At its heart, the production challenges us to embrace the idea that we are so often much more than the labels others assign to us.

    Coming Friday: excerpts from a Q&A interview with Spjute in Friday’s 7 section; and an extended interview with him on the Beehive.

    Win tickets to ‘The Mountaintop’

    StageWorks Fresno on Friday opens a play that recently attracted a lot of attention when it appeared on Broadway in 2011: “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall. It’s a fictional account of the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, set in a Memphis motel room. It can be controversial to some because it presents King as a real person, not a saint. “It pushes some buttons, because people don’t want to recognize their heroes were not perfect, ” says director Joel C. Abels. (Coming Friday: excerpts from a Q&A session with Abels in the 7 section, and an extended interview on the Beehive.)

    “The Mountaintop” plays at the Dan Pessano Theatre (on the campus of Clovis North High School) for just two weekends, through Aug. 3. And thanks to the Beehive, you have a chance to win a “four pack” of tickets to any of the opening weekend shows (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday). 

    I’m giving away two of these four-packs, and I’ll pick the winners randomly. To enter, leave a comment on this post answering this question: If you’d had the chance to meet Martin Luther King, Jr., what would you have asked him? (If you’d prefer not to get philosophical, you can just tell us why you’d like to see the show.) 

    Deadline to enter is 10 a.m. Friday. Please don’t enter more than once. I’ll be informing our winners by email on Friday at 10, so keep a watch on your inbox. If I haven’t heard from a winner by 2 p.m. Friday, I reserve the right to pick another. You’ll be able to pick up your tickets at the theater box office. Rules are on the jump.

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    Word sleuth: the local theater edition

    How much theater is going on in Fresno this weekend and next? So much that we decided to take the titles of a bunch of local shows and turn them into their very own “Theater Sleuth” word search. It makes for a wonderful 7 cover:

    Hat tip to Bee artist John Alvin, who dreamed up this cheery exercise. Here’s my 7 section theater roundup cover story.

    Last night I got to see “West Side Story.” Tonight I’m dropping in on River City and “The Music Man.”

    Two big plugs for continuing shows this weekend: “[title of show]“ at StageWorks Fresno (in its last weekend), and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at Artists’ Repertory Theatre (only two weekends left).

    And be sure to check out Bee photographer Craig Kohlruss’ “West Side Story” photo gallery. He has some really nice images. 

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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 Underpants’

    There are several problems with the well-intentioned but uneven production of “The Underpants” playing at the Fresno Soap Co., but the biggest is this: a sense of scale.

    Director R.S. Scott needs to dial back on the broadness of his cast member’s performances and the vigorous tone of his direction in this gentle farce about a woman in 1910 Germany who creates a scandal when she drops her underpants at a parade for the king. In a word, most of the performances are too big, especially in the intimate space of the Fresno Soap Co., formerly known as the Broken Leg Stage. Gestures, vocals and in general an overall sense of “staginess” need to be more restrained.

    “The Underpants” is a production of the Curtain 5 Theatre Group and Jump Right in Productions. I’m grateful that it decided to stage this comedy, adapted by the actor Steve Martin from Carl Sterheim’s German clever farce, because it was my first time seeing it.

    In the play, we meet Louise (Rhesma Meister),the young wife of a blustery Dusseldorf clerk. Her husband, Theo (Christopher Cook), is irate because she is the talk of the town for dropping her underpants at the parade. Her slightly salacious act seems to correspond with her own sexual frustrations. (Her husband says they can’t afford a baby.) Things get complicated when two men — a hypochondriac barber (Clinton Couron) and a suave and unctuous poet (Jason Andrew) show up wanting to rent a room in Louise and Theo’s flat. They aren’t so much interested in the lodgings as they are in the landlady.

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    THEATER REVIEW: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

    The first real dagger of the evening comes early.

    “Lay off my father,” snaps Martha, aka theater’s most famous frustrated 1960s faculty wife. Leslie Martin, who brings the character in Edward Albee’s classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to life in an outstanding Artists’ Repertory Theatre production at the Severance Theatre, imbues her words to her husband with a steely, razor-sharp menace that could be the precursor to a “Game of Thrones”-style killing spree.

    Up till this point the slings and arrows in this whimsically ferocious outing have been of the play-fighting variety, as we watch one of the famous sparring couples in American theater history — Martha and her professor husband, George, played with towering skill and feeling by Brad Myers — spar with each other in an evening of “fun and games.” Martha’s father is president of the small New England college at which her husband works, and even though both enjoy mocking the old man, there are lines that can be crossed.

    One of the great strengths of “Virginia Woolf” is in the way it can turn dangerous on you in a split-second. I love how this production, directed by Myers, makes you feel that danger. But this is more than the story of an alcohol-fueled raging couple. The play is built on a toxic relationship, and yet Albee keeps us guessing throughout as to where these characters truly stand.

    There are far wider more perilous lines than sniping about Martha’s father that are crossed later in the play, but even when things get uglier — and, oh, how ugly they get — there’s always a sense of ambiguity.

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    Tonight: StageWorks Fresno cabaret

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    The StageWorks Fresno cabaret performance is always one of the highlights of the summer theater season. It’s your chance to see performers in the current StageWorks production, “[title of show],” strut their stuff out of character. Plus there are other musical theater guests as well, and artistic director Joel Abels promises a surprise or two at tonight’s lineup.

    The cabaret is at 10 p.m. at the Dan Pessano Theatre, following tonight’s “[title of show]” performance, and it costs $10. I’m sure it will be a treat.

    The Beehive Interview: Brad Myers talks about ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’

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    In Friday’s 7 section I have an interview with Brad Myers about Friday’s opening of Artists’ Repertory Theatre’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It’s been 30 years since this classic play was seen in Fresno. Myers directs the show, which runs through July 27 at the Severance Theatre, and also stars as George, one-half of the play’s famed George-and-Martha-married-couple sparring duo.

    Here’s an extended version of Myers’ interview.

    Question: For those who aren’t familiar with the play, give us a brief synopsis.

    Answer: George, a professor at a small university, and his wife, Martha, the daughter of the university’s president, return home after attending a faculty party at the home of Martha’s father. It is after 2 in the morning. However, Martha informs George that she has invited over a new young faculty member (Nick) and his wife (Honey). The unsuspecting couple arrives, and is introduced to the remarkable wit and sparring of the older couple. The banter between George and Martha is initially playful. However, their well-exercised games begin to cross dangerous new boundaries. Through the course of the evening, the party antics whirl out of control, careening from eruptive humor to dramatic intensity. Ultimately, George is forced to conduct a drastic and final game.

    You played George when you were in graduate school at the University of Arizona. Tell us about that experience.

    I remember two things most vividly about the experience. The first was working with Glenda Young, who played Martha. We spent many hours outside of rehearsal working to incorporate a rich biographical history into our portrayals. Immediately after we closed in “Virginia Woolf,” Glenda and I went into rehearsals for a local dinner theatre production of “I Do! I Do!.” I suspect there was an unintended transfer of the “Virginia Woolf” dynamic that gave that frothy musical an eerily dark undertone. Secondly, I recall Edward Albee attending one of our “Virginia Woolf” performances, followed by a talk back with the playwright. Of course, I was terrified given Mr. Albee had a reputation for being painfully blunt. However, he was very kind. Or, at least, forgiving.

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    Win tickets to ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

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    Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a great American play — and, for the first time in more than 30 years, you’ll get a chance to see it in the Fresno area. The Artists’ Repertory Theatre production, directed by Brad Myers, opens Friday at the California Arts Academy’s Severance Theatre. I’m giving away two pairs of tickets to the opening weekend performances. If you win, you can choose between the 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday or 2 p.m. Sunday shows.

    To enter, leave a comment on this post answering this question: What is your favorite Brad Myers-directed production from his long and illustrious tenure on the Fresno theater scene? (If you aren’t familiar enough with his body of work to answer, no worries: just say his “Assassins” at Fresno State, one of my favorites.)

    Deadline to enter is 10 a.m. Friday. Please don’t enter more than once. I’ll be informing our winners by email on Friday at 10, so keep a watch on your inbox. If I haven’t heard from a winner by noon Friday, I reserve the right to pick another. You’ll be able to pick up your tickets at the theater box office. Rules are on the jump.

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