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:
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.)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve seen “[title of show]“ three times now. The first time, back in 2006, was the original Off-Broadway version at the Vineyard Theatre. The next two times have been thanks to StageWorks Fresno, which produced this trippy, self-referential musical about two friends writing a musical first in 2010 at the Severance Theatre, and now, a new version at the Dan Pessano Theatre.
What strikes me after three viewings is this: I’m amazed how much I end up rooting for the “show within a show” to succeed.
Even though we all know the outcome even before “[title of show]” begins — this tiny production with four characters and a keyboard did make it all the way to Broadway, back in 2008 — I’ve gotten wrapped up each time in the excitement and tension of cheering the show on despite almost impossibly long odds. The show’s creators, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, make the leap from what could be a smarmy, cloying exercise in self-indulgence (“look at us as we impishly chronicle our artistic journey!”) into something that feels bigger than two guys plus their two gal friends riding an express train to Musical Theater Geekdom. There’s a freshness of spirit, a warmth and appeal to the artist in us all, that transcends the fluff.
Director Joel Abels finds the upbeat crispness in the show while still milking it for all its warmth.
The new StageWorks Fresno production is deftly staged and beautifully sung. Still, if I were to square it off against the 2010 version in a cage match, I’d give the nod by a nose to the earlier version.
It’s been four years since StageWorks Fresno kicked off its inaugural season with “[title of show],” the trippy musical about a group of friends creating a musical. Director Joel Abels returns with a faithful recreation of his 2010 hit production, which opens 8 p.m. Saturday at the Dan Pessano Theatre at the Clovis North performing arts complex. It continues through July 20.
If you haven’t noticed, the show’s opening coincides with the 4th of July weekend – a pretty daring time to open a show. But think how great it will be to have an event to treat out-of-town visitors to once the fireworks are behind them. Or an outing for locals to escape to (I can attest to the crispness of the Clovis North air conditioning) instead of getting barbecued outside on a searing weekend.
We’re having our own 4th of July celebration at the Beehive: I’m making it even easier for readers to get to see “[title of show.]” I have two four-packs of tickets to give away to either the 8 p.m. Saturday or 2 p.m. Sunday show this opening weekend. To enter, leave a comment on this post answering this question: Would you rather be nine people’s favorite thing — or a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing? (Or, if you aren’t in a philosophical mood, tell us if you’d go see Paris Hilton in “The Apple Tree.” Or, if you’re sick of insider “[title of show]” references, tell us if you like Rice Krispie treats.)
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.
It isn’t particularly graceful. There’s no upper-crust, commune-with-the-classics feel. This isn’t the kind of show where you feel like throwing roses on the stage afterward.
But Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s brutish and drastically truncated adaptation of “Macbeth” — which dumps much of the politics and history of the famed play, along with the spectacle of “double, double, toil and trouble” — packs quite a visceral punch. It makes me think of a short, ugly fireplug of a boxer: the kind of scrappy underdog who isn’t elegant in the ring but manages to deliver some powerful and unexpected blows.
The production plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 12 (no show on July 4) at the Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage in Woodward Park.
In lesser hands, the sweetly written “Over the River and Through the Woods” could have hardened by the end of two acts into a sticky, sentimental clump. But not with Dan Pessano at the helm. As director of this little summer gem from Good Company Players — which I highly recommend — Pessano has assembled a terrific quartet of veteran company actors playing two sets of grandparents who dote upon their smothered grandson. Then he elicited from them wonderfully warm and textured performances that never sputter into the saccharine.
That’s a pretty big accomplishment. The set-up of “Over the River,” written by Joe DiPietro, already strays big-time into aw-shucks, idealized territory. Nick (a sharp Alex Vaux) is a 27-year-old marketing executive in New York who still treks back to his hometown of Hoboken, N.J., every Sunday to have dinner with all four of his tight-knit Italian-immigrant grandparents. For someone his age to be able to claim four living grandparents is fairly remarkable. To have them live them so close together — and get along so well — is even more so.
When Nick gets a promotion that will take him to Seattle, his grandparents are devastated. They band together and gamely try to keep him in town by setting him up with a blind date (played by an assured Erica Riggs) at their weekly Sunday dinner. Their attempt at match-making provides much of the comedy. But there’s more to the play than the amusing meddling-grandparents theme. On a deeper level, this is a story about the ease with which family ties can fray in our culture.
10 years ago, a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts banded together to form an organization that enhanced the cultural life of this city. The Woodward Shakespeare Festival has had three different homes at Woodward Park, given 276 performances and played to more than 70,000 audience members.
In my story in today’s 7 section, I write about some of the significant milestones of the festival — and give a rundown on “Macbeth,” the opening production in the 10th season. Here’s a video I made about “Macbeth”:
Between watching the World Cup and getting your head around the dude who was mistakenly released from jail (and then killed), your weekend is spent. Unless you’re up for the dozens of live music events happening around the city, which we (once again) cull together and collate in the weekly feature we call BANDGEEEEEK!
I recently spent a week in New York cramming in as much theater as I could. While time constraints meant it was impossible for me to see all the Tony-nominated shows — and I couldn’t get my hands on a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” ticket without having to sell my car — I managed to see a heck of a lot. (Nine shows total, seven on Broadway and two off-Broadway). Just in time for Sunday’s Tony Awards, here’s my recap:
‘LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL’
If, like me, you’re from Fresno and are into Broadway, THIS was the must-see event of the trip. Audra McDonald is nominated for best leading actress in a play in this acclaimed production, and if she wins her sixth award on Sunday, she’ll set a record as the most Tony-winning performer ever. Plus: She’ll be the first performer to win a Tony in all four acting categories (leading actress in a play, featured actress in a play, leading actress in a musical, featured actress in a musical). So you can be sure that people from Fresno will be rooting hard for her.
It’s an incredible, indelible performance.
McDonald, to me, has one of the most instantly recognizable voices I’ve ever heard. Give me two seconds of her with almost any song and I’ll snap: “Audra.” Yet in Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play, which recounts a night of the life of Billie Holiday near the end of her life, McDonald burrows into her character with such intense authenticity (and does crazy-screwy things with her voice that completely tamps down her operatic tendencies into a bluesy twang) that I simply forgot I wasn’t in the presence of Billie Holiday herself. (I never did forget, however, that I sat directly behind Oprah Winfrey, whose own star wattage kept distracting some members of the audience. One woman on the way to the restroom in the middle of the show even leaned in from the aisle, stuck her hand in front of Winfrey’s face and waved.)
“Lady Day” turns out to be one of those experiences in which the performance far outshines the material. In lesser hands, the sad spectacle of Holiday boozing it up and crumbling before our eyes could have been tawdry and cheap, even eye-rolling. But McDonald sails clear of such travails so smoothly that it makes the characterization that much more impressive.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the annual musical revue at Fresno City College, which features performers ages 55 and older. In a culture that relentlessly (and almost psychotically) worships youth, particularly in entertainment, it’s refreshing to watch more mature performers strut their stuff with the same dedication, enthusiasm and relentless pursuit of show-biz polish as their less senior counterparts. (And why not? Younger theater people become older theater people, and the talent remains.)
This year’s production, “Rockin’ Through the Ages,” which continues through June 15, is directed with finesse and flair by David Bonetto. He steers the format in a slightly different course than the very fine productions of years past. With an emphasis on rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a tighter feel in terms of style and subject matter. The traditional “one-liner” jokes are gone, and with them some (but not all) of the show’s vaudeville feel. Gone, too, is the variety of dance styles and vocals — there’s less tap dancing, one token waltz, and no Broadway-style production numbers.
Instead we’re taken on a musical journey by a DJ (a personable and very effective Darrell Yates, who wrote the script) who “spins” the history of rock, from early days (Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens) to the almost contemporary (Katy Perry). In an impressive bit of product placement, the idea is that Yates is on the air for local radio station KYNO, which gets plugs throughout the show.
“New Wrinkles,” the musical revue featuring performers ages 55 and above, returns for its 26th season tonight with a new director. David Bonetto, a longtime choreographer for the Fresno City College production, helms this year’s offering, “Rockin’ Through the Ages.” I have an interview with Bonetto in Friday’s 7 section, and I’ll be posting an extended version of that interview soon on the Beehive.
From what Bonetto tells me, “New Wrinkles” fans will notice some significant changes in the show. Among the biggest: There are no more “one-liners” — the corny, often groan-worthy jokes traditionally offered between musical numbers — in this version. I wonder if audiences will miss them.
“New Wrinkles” has an impressive run of 15 performances, kicking off at 7:30 tonight at the Fresno City College Theatre. It runs through June 15.
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.
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.
Melvin Ricks, a graduate of Edison High School and Fresno State, lived in Atlanta for 25 years practicing law. Then, at age 54, he spent 14 months battling suicidal depression. He wrote a book about the experience, “To Die Before You Die: The True Story Of My Journey Through Life And Mental Illness.” Now back in Fresno, he has written a stage play based on the book. It will be performed 10 a.m. Thursday at the Blue Sky Wellness Center, 1617 E. Saginaw Way.
All the actors in the play have a mental health diagnosis. The play is “the dramatic story of a young man learning to cope with a mental illness that he refuses to believe he has.” It includes acting, song and dance. The Blue Sky Wellness Center, a non-profit organization, provides Fresno residents with an place where they can go to learn about their illness and to also learn coping skills which will help them manage it. Ricks says he hopes to present the play several more times during the year.
Admission is free. You must be 18 to attend. Details: (559) 230-2501.
———————————- Pictured: Cast members Melvin Ricks, left, and Joseph Laura.
Regular readers of this space over the years know that I have a pedal-to-the-metal approach to visiting New York. I fill every minute I can with shows, visits to museums — and more shows. (Food is a low priority — I’m known to wolf down an energy bar and a seltzer between matinee and evening performances.) Even though I’m sure some would call my approach a Cultural Long March, I love every minute.
I just returned from my latest binge, and I set a personal record: Nine performances in six days. (Because it’s Tony Awards season, some shows are scheduling special Thursday matinees, which let me fit in an extra show.) I’ll be writing an extended recap of what I saw in the days to come, but for now I’ll just share my itinerary:
“Bullets Over Broadway,” St. James Theatre
“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” New York Theatre Workshop (Off-Broadway)
Visit to Metropolitan Museum of Art
Visit to Guggenheim Museum
“Heathers: The Musical,” New World Stages (Off-Broadway)
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.”)
He sweeps into the room with an air that can only be described as rakish: There’s a swagger to his step, a foppish extravagance to his nod, the slightest of leers flashing across his otherwise impeccably polite face. Le Vicomte de Valmont, deftly played by Terry Lewis in the amiable new Good Company Players production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” struts into this production’s famed romper room of sexual warfare with the grace and confidence of a show dog with tail held high.
It’s as if he’s announcing: You want to turn sex into a game of chess? I’m the grand master.
Best known to audiences through the 1988 movie version, “Dangerous Liaisons,” Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 18th Century novel by Choderlos de Laclos plays out as a sort of “Hunger Games ” with knee breeches. Valmont plays a high-stakes game with his former lover, La Marquise de Merteuil (an adept Haley White), the rules of which basically involve toying with other people’s affections and ruining lives. It’s all done against a backdrop of upper-crust French aristocratic excess that makes the amorality of the tale that much more striking. If these people actually had to work for a living, they wouldn’t have the time to be so cruel.
Another Audra McDonald opening on Broadway, another round of stellar reviews. McDonald’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” opened Sunday at the Circle in the Square theater for a limited run, and critics showered Fresno’s favorite Broadway star with raves. I liked this one from the Los Angeles Times:
When one recalls Holiday’s sublimely ruined sound at the end of her career, the period in which Lanie Robertson’s concert drama is set, one doesn’t think of McDonald’s soaring, Juilliard-burnished soprano, a gold medal voice still in its athletic prime.
But from the moment McDonald takes the microphone, a metamorphosis more striking than any in Ovid occurs. Gone is the shimmering operatic prowess that powered through “Summertime” in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” the last of McDonald’s Tony-winning performances. In its place are Holiday’s distinctive jazz timing and idiosyncratic phrasing, qualities as singular as fingerprints.
I’ve always thought that McDonald had such a distinctive voice that I could recognize her signature style in a nano-second, but, once again, she rises to the occasion.
In the annals of Broadway greendom, I can now say I’ve hit a double jackpot.
Last year I got to sneak into a private dressing room backstage at the Saroyan Theatre to watch the actor playing Shrek in the national tour of “Shrek the Musical” go through the process of turning green.
I experienced the same kind of opportunity Tuesday when Bee photographer Mark Crosse and I watched perhaps the most famed green transformation on Broadway: that of Laurel Harris, who plays Elphaba, as she transitioned from normal pigmented human into the Wicked Witch of the West.
It might not be easy being Elphaba — have you ever tried belting out “Defying Gravity” in front of 2,300 people? — but thanks to veteran makeup artist Joyce McGilberry, it’s a cinch turning green. Here’s my take:
The first step: With Harris sitting in her chair, McGilberry — who has been with the “Wicked” tour for seven years — starts with the hands. Harris sticks hers out to be slathered with Mac makeup, the hue of which is called Landscape Green. Her neck, shoulders, face, hairline and ears follow. I retain a lingering mental image of McGilberry, who works with the brisk efficiency of a Formula One pit crew member, thoroughly swabbing Harris’ ears with enough green to cover every possible crevice. It’s like watching a toddler getting her ears washed by a stern British nanny, only in reverse.