CLYBOURNE PARK: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play, this title almost seems like it comes to Fresno straight from Broadway. (I got to see it in New York in 2012, and Bruce Norris’ script is sensational.) The new Fresno State production, which opens tonight at the John Wright Theatre, is the cover story in today’s 7 section. Don’t miss Bee photographer John Walker’s photo gallery of the production.
And unlike Scrooge, I didn’t change my tune by the end of the Good Company Players production of “A Christmas Carol” at the 2nd Space Theatre. The show isn’t up to GCP standards.
The bright spot is Mark Norwood in the title role of Scrooge. It takes true theatrical finesse to breathe originality and presence into a cliche-prone word like “humbug,” and Norwood is more than up for the task. (You, the reader, might not feel as benevolently about my success in tossing the famed utterance into the lead sentence of this review.) His Scrooge is grumpy and sour, of course, and occasionally a bit whimsical, but he’s also a little scary, which is what this show needs if it isn’t going to descend into cloying sentimentality. Norwood gives us a dark place from which Scrooge can journey into the light, which makes his redemption worth the trip.
Or should have, if directors Max and Nicholle Debbas had given him more of a convincing world for him to inhabit.
Mel Brooks is the first name you’re going to associate with the musical version of “Young Frankenstein,” of course. It’s his wacky world from the 1974 classic film created up there on stage — the memorable characters, silly sight gags, dancing monsters and, as expected, quotable one-liners. (You know you’re in good hands when the title of one song is “He Vas My Boyfriend,” sung by the severe — and severely randy — Frau Blucher, the very mention of whose name makes off-stage horses whinny.)
But besides Brooks, there’s another name that makes the new Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater so successful: Fred Bologna.
As director, Bologna is in top form in this silly, bawdy, wonderfully staged show. Once again, I find myself liking the local premiere of a (relatively) new Broadway show at Roger Rocka’s more than the national tour that came through the Saroyan. (The same thing happened recently with GCP’s “Shrek.) Bologna’s innovative use of the small Roger Rocka’s stage, clever effects, choreography and wonderfully dressed sets (he, along with Sam Ortega, doubles as prop master, and what an array of beakers, skulls, skeletons, scientific diagrams and frightening lab equipment the two of them have assembled) all contribute to a slick, happy production.
One of the great things about theater is the way it can open up new slivers of the human experience.
I have a basic knowledge of the atrocities suffered in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime — the era of the “Killing Fields.” And I know that large numbers of Cambodian refugees settled in California, with Long Beach a top destination.
But Fresno City College’s production of “Year Zero,” directed by Chuck Erven, added another dimension to the Cambodian immigrant story for me by making it personal. And it does it in a thoughtful, funny way. Though the production isn’t quite as smooth and sure of itself as it could be, it’s heartfelt. (Only two performances remain: 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 23.)
Michael Golamco’s play uses two young Cambodian-Americans to frame the American immigrant experience: Ra (Thuy Duong), a UC Berkeley student; and her brother, Vuthy (Jared Flores), a 16-year-old social misfit who is finding it hard to navigate the treacherous waters of high school in Long Beach.
Ra and Vuthy’s father died years ago, but they’ve just recently lost their mother — who while unseen remains a major character. Ra has returned from college for the funeral and to look after her brother. The plan is for her to return to college and for brother to live with a family friend.
Scott Moreau, who plays a superb Johnny Cash in the national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” has it all in relation to the icon he’s portraying: the physical size, the carriage, the way he holds his guitar. But it’s his voice — a resplendent bass that digs down to the very bottom of what I imagine to be a very big gravel pit — that had Cash fans walking the line Tuesday at the Saroyan Theatre.
His performance easily stood out for me, though I mostly remained lukewarm about the rest of the production throughout.
This jukebox musical imagines the famous afternoon of Dec. 4, 1956, when an impressive quartet — Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis — gathered in a sort of impromptu recording session at Sun Records in Memphis. As imagined in Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s version of the event, we get a little back story on each artist, mostly in terms of the relationship of each with legendary producer Sam Phillips, who served as kind of a father figure to all — and acts as narrator.
Mostly it’s the music that gets the spotlight: such well-known numbers as “Who Do You Love?” (performed by James Barry as Perkins), “Memories Are Made of This” (performed by Cody Slaughter as Presley), ”Real Wild Child” (performed by John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis) and Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
It must have been quite the moment: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all in the same recording studio. The day was Dec. 4, 1956 in the Sun Records Studios in Memphis. The result: an album titled “Million Dollar Quartet.”
For Friday’s 7 section, I chatted in an interview with John Countryman, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis in the production. He tells me that if you want to say hi after the show, he usually hangs out with his wife in the theater lobby, where she sells tour merchandise.
OK, so after taking off a couple weeks, I’m back with a new round of 7 picks for 7 days – a list of fun thing to do each day Friday, Nov. 15 through Thursday, Nov. 21. This week’s picks include a hot country band live at the Save Mart Center, a touring Broadway musical at Saroyan Theatre and this month’s silent movie at the Warnors Theatre.
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.
As the Good Company Players production of “Shrek” enters its closing weekend, a story comes to light I want to share. It’s an example of how local theater can be, well, more than theater. Anyone’s who been in a show knows that a cast can become a family. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to George Akina, who plays Shrek’s father and a palace guard in the show.
Akina is a community theater veteran well-known for bringing a warmth and gentleness to his roles at Children’s Musical Theaterworks and CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre. It was long one of his dreams to audition for a Good Company musical, and at the beginning of this year, now that his kids were grown and work schedules allowed, there was more time to do this. He auditioned in January and was cast as the Rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In March, a year after a normal PSA test, George was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that had already spread to his spine.
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” always moves me. An example: I’m tugged by melancholy early in the first act when the Stage Manager — the semi-omnipotent narrator who in a very non-ordinary way guides the audience through the machinations of a very ordinary town –casually mentions that Doc Gibbs will die in 1930. The hospital will be named for him.
That’s years in the future, at least the future according to 1901, the year in which the first act is set, and it has nothing to do with the story at hand, or even the story to come, really. (Doc Gibbs actually lives a lot longer than many of the other characters in the play.) But the mention of the doctor’s impending death, a tossed-off line related so dispassionately, speaks to how the playwright makes “Our Town” into a rumination on time — and how little of it humans really have. Doc Gibbs was there. Now he isn’t.
In Fresno State’s handsome, vibrant production of the classic play, we get thoroughly wrapped up in this timeless exploration of time, if you will. Director J. Daniel Herring’s well-crafted staging has a burnished, heartfelt feel that never tries to hide the show’s historic underpinnings. (This is “Our Town’s” 75th anniversary.) But it does it in a way that feels fresh, almost modern. If this production were a furniture store, it’d be a Room and Board, not a Thomasville.
Ah, “Rocky.” You’ve become an annual affair, and perhaps it’s inevitable there are years when you slump a little compared to previous outings.
While the Artists’ Repertory Theatre production at the Severance Theatre offers plenty of the wild “Rocky” fun for which it’s come to be known, it had some problems at Thursday’s opening night performance. The choreography and ensemble work was not as crisp as I’ve seen in the past, with even “Time Warp” coming out a little messy. A few of the leading performances were weak. And the sound, credited to designer Jerry Phanthamany, was simply awful.
I’ve harped on the sound at “Rocky” before, but I’ve never heard it this bad. The small live band, conducted by Katie Steinhauer, pounded merrily away at top volume throughout, managing to drown out not only many of the solo vocals but even vast sections of the ensemble singing as well. Yes, many of those gorgeous harmonies in Richard O’Brien’s surprisingly lush score were swept away on an aural tsunami of drums and keyboard. Forget about trying to understand the lyrics in a show that already has an almost unintelligible plot (which is, of course, part of its campy charm). There were times I couldn’t even hear the voices, much less try to consider the articulation.
It even reached the point when I started to contemplate: Could recorded music work at a live “Rocky Horror”? Generally I’d be appalled at such a suggestion, but if ART can’t get the sound balanced in the small Severance Theatre space, perhaps it should be a matter worth pursuing.
I got the opportunity to see the theatrically inventive and wonderfully staged “Peter and the Starcatcher” earlier this year Off-Broadway in New York. Now the show travels to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre on its national tour. I devoted part of my Sunday Spotlight column to a phone interview I did with Joey deBettencourt, who plays the leading role of Boy in this “Peter Pan” prequel. From my column:
When “Peter and the Starcatcher” opened in New York on Broadway in 2012, it created a lot of buzz because of its innovative staging. Using minimal sets, this brisk prequel to “Peter Pan” — which follows a beleaguered orphan as he winds up in Neverland as the most famous flying boy in literature — relied on its troupe of actors in many cases to stand in as walls, props, even furniture.
If you have a chance to see this production in San Francisco during its run Nov. 5-Dec. 1, let me know what you think.
While in San Francisco a couple of weekends ago, I also got the chance to see “Carrie the Musical” at the Victoria Theatre in the Mission District — the first time I’ve seen a show at that venue. While I’m sure some theatergoers were expecting a campy, over-the-top musicalization of Stephen King’s classic horror story about a prom gone horribly awry, the material turns out to be a lot more dramatic, with a lush, ballad-heavy score. The Ray of Light Theatre Company production delivered a fairly impressive climax to the play — it isn’t easy to have to depict supernatural mayhem ending with a school being burned to the ground — that actually made me jump. Will “Carrie” ever play in Fresno? With such a recognizable title, it’d be fun to see someone try to pull it off locally.
Scrooge in November? You bet. The new Good Company Players production of “A Christmas Carol” opens tonight at the 2nd Space Theatre. It has some great casting, including Mark Norwood — a GCP alum and artistic director of Reedley’s River City Theatre Company — in the plum role of Ebenezer Scrooge. (Something tells me this’ll be a Scrooge I won’t soon forget.) The show continues through Dec. 22. If you see it early in the run, just look at it this way: It’ll give you that much more time for Christmas shopping.
Also opening tonight: the new Fresno State production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” celebrating the play’s 75th anniversary. You can read my story on the show in Friday’s 7 section.
Pictured: Norwood, left, and Brian Freet as Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.”
Artists’ Repertory Theatre is reviving its much-loved production of “The Rocky Horror Show, Live!” tonight at Severance Theatre. I’m sure it will be a wild way to kick off Halloween. But even if you can’t make it out to the festivities tonight, there are lots more chances to catch the show, which runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 16 (no performance this coming Sunday, Nov. 3), then reopens for New Year’s Eve week festivities Dec. 27-31.
Daniel Chavez Jr., pictured, returns in his iconic Fresno role as Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter. But there are many new faces in the cast — enough that in some ways, it will be like watching a whole new show. I thought I’d highlight these beautiful cast portraits, photographed by Lina Ryann, in a gallery.
“Wicked” defied a lukewarm New York Times review on its opening night of Oct. 30, 2003 and went on to become a Broadway powerhouse. Now it’s reached a significant milestone on Broadway: its 10th birthday. Playbill is getting in on the celebration:
To mark the occasion, the trademark yellow masthead of the musical’s Playbill cover has been printed green for the 7 PM performance; this marks the second time the Playbill banner has been changed to green (green Playbills were given out on Wicked‘s fifth anniversary) and the third time the yellow banner has been altered to honor a Broadway show.
There’s no denying the staying power of the show. The fact that it’s returning for another big Fresno run next year is proof that it’s penetrated the national cultural consciousness. The show’s strong women characters and themes of empowerment and sisterhood connect with audiences. I enjoy the music and love the staging, and though it isn’t a musical I’d willingly return to again and again, plenty of people do just that.
I’m curious: In these 10 years, what’s the most number of times someone from the Fresno/Central Valley area has seen the show? Have you or someone you know set what you think is a record? If so, let me know with a comment. I’ve seen the show twice: once in San Francisco, and once in Fresno. How about you?
Put this in producer Chuck Carson’s “I Can’t Believe This is Happening Tonight” file. I wrote a 7 story ran last Friday about the latest incarnation of the “Bob & Bing” series, which includes an actress portraying legendary movie star Dorothy Lamour. Her son read about the show, titled “Road to Fresno,” and he came to the production, where he watched Cassie Miller, a Los Angeles-based singer, as Lamour. Carson writes:
John R. Howard, who resides in Clovis, came to see our show and introduced himself and his wife following the performance. I am pleased to say, they gave their utmost approval of Cassie and of the production. We were all surprised when we found out that he and his wife have been living in Clovis since 1995. It’s a small world after all!
What a great story — and what a moment for Miller.
Pictured from left: Lynn Roberts as Bob Hope, Cassie Miller as Dorothy Lamour, John R. Howard, Chuck Carson, and Bob Pasch as Bing Crosby, after Friday’s performance of “Bob & Bing: The Road to Fresno” at the Tower Theatre.
Yes, I have reached the point where I don’t need to double-check the spelling of Sara Gettelfinger’s last name — a sure sign that she has made a big impact on the Fresno theater scene. Many of you got to see her this past summer in StageWorks Fresno’s superb “Grey Gardens,” in which she delivered one of those superbly crafted performances that remain etched somehow on your brain long when the details have faded. Now the Broadway actress, who recently finished up a long run as Morticia in the national tour of “The Addams Family,” returns to offer two sets of master classes through StageWorks:
Dance Master Classes will both take place on Saturday, Oct. 26 at DanceWorks Unlimited. There are two opportunities to attend this three hour dance workshop: 9 a.m.-noon or 1-4 p.m. Performers are invited to participate in this dance workshop (limited to 20 students) that will feature choreography from the Broadway smash hits CHICAGO (9 a.m.) and THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1 p.m.). Fee is $50.
Musical Theatre Song Coaching Workshop. During this 5 day song-coaching workshop, Gettelfinger will work with students to craft a style that is all their own celebrating them not only as a performer but as an individual. Throughout the five days (3 hour sessions each) this limited class (20 students) includes coaching by Gettelfinger as well as auditions book consultation. This workshop will take place on Nov. 4, 5, 11, 12 & 13 from 6-9 p.m. Fee is $200.
In March, New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley swooned over a spanking new London production of the 1980 Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” calling it a “heart-clutching revival.”
Heck, forget about Brantley. Let’s go straight to the source: Sondheim himself (cue heavenly choirs and godlike descent from on high as the master addresses we mere musical-theater mortals) announced after taking in the show that it was the best “Merrily” he had ever seen.
With raves like that, you’d figure it’d be a no-brainer to move the show to New York, right? But the Times reports that while various Broadway producers saw the show in London and admired it, there are no plans for a transfer.
But New Yorkers — and even those of us in the theater hinterlands — will still get a chance to experience the show. It’s being screened nationwide at 460 theaters — including at Edwards in Fresno — 7 p.m. Wednesday. The one-night cinema event will also feature 20 minutes of exclusive backstage content including interviews with cast, crew and special guests.
It’s an example of technology expanding the audience for an acclaimed theater event that probably will never be seen otherwise outside London. (And plane tickets to London are expensive.)
In his rave of the show, Sondheim called it “one of those rare instances where casting, direction and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts.” Sounds like a great reason to make a trip to Edwards on a Wednesday night.
For a couple of weeks last spring, it seemed like you couldn’t go more than a day without reading on the Beehive about Ryan Woods. The Fresno State theater major was one of two students from the university to go all the way to the acting finals at the American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C., an event I was lucky enough to be able to cover. As two of the nation’s 16 finalists, Woods and fellow Fresno State student Myles Bullock spent almost a week at the Kennedy Center as part of the festival.
Woods and Bullock didn’t win the top prizes. But Woods did walk away with two plum honors: the National Partners of the American Theatre Classical Acting Award, which got him a three-week stint at the renowned Shaw Festival in Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario; and the Williamstown Theatre Festival Apprenticeship, an eight-week program in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.
Both Woods and Bullock, coincidentally, are standouts in Fresno State’s production of “The First Breeze of Summer,” which is in its final weekend. I connected with Woods several weeks ago to ask how his summer internships went.
Question: What was it like to come back to campus after doing so well in D.C.? Did you get your 15 minutes of Fresno State fame?
Answer: Haha, everyone was very supportive and congratulatory. The professors were extremely proud, and thanks to your amazing coverage of the competition, I had people calling me and facebook messaging me congratulating me on my success who weren’t even aware that I was competing. It was a very cool experience.
She still is, actually, as an elderly grandmother in Leslie Lee’s “The First Breeze of Summer.” As the matriarch of an extended family and a pillar in her church, she exudes a sense of stability and morality, particularly to her grandsons.
But grandmothers were young once. One of the intriguing aspects of this play, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre, is that the past and present march next to each other, giving us a view of Lucretia that acknowledges her resolve, independence and sexuality. As the complex narrative dips into the lives of her family — all taking place within a few days of her birthday — we get specific views of the African-American experience from economic, religious and sociological standpoints.
This production, directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, is a hybrid of sorts. It’s part staged reading, with actors sitting in chairs with scripts in front of them. It’s also partly staged, with various scenes performed by off-script actors in fully blocked, or acted out, moments. There are no sets. Costumes are minimal, with actors wearing variations of contemporary basic black.
The result is awkward — and somewhat disappointing.
Most parents would ache to think their kids don’t fit in at school. Kenny, the central figure in the timely and nuanced — if not completely satisfying — Fresno City College production of “From Up Here” certainly seems a candidate for parental concern. Ostracized by his peers, with only his deeply sardonic sister to support him, he is one of those troubled kids for whom high school is something to endure.
Kenny, played by a standout Gabe Griffith, is starting his senior year after a long suspension. Through oblique references, we learn that this troubled character was involved on school grounds in an act of violence — or at least threatened violence. (I feel that when I wrote my advance story about the play, without having yet seen it, that I perhaps unknowingly revealed too much about the plot, or was at least too explicit about Kenny’s transgression, in light of the nuance of the script.) He’s being allowed to return to school, but one of the requirements for his return is to make an apology speech in front of the student body.
Thus, a boy who was on the periphery before — treated as invisible by some, scornfully by others — has become a school celebrity, but known for all the wrong reasons.
In Friday’s 7 section, I talk with Thomas-Whit Ellis, director of the new Fresno State production of “The First Breeze of Summer.” Here’s the extended version of that interview.
What is the play about?
The play focuses on two stories. Story A takes place in the early 20′s and deals with the life of Lucretia, a young, attractive, black domestic struggling to find her place in the world and a fitful love life. She falls in love with and trusts 3 different guys who clearly take advantage of her, each leaving her with a child. One of which, a rich, white guy who presents the kind of schizophrenic, love/hate view of blacks as the late Strom Thurmond, who fought against civil rights but fathered a child with a black mistress. Ironically, her young life takes place in the same region as Thurmond’s constituency.
Story B takes place some decades later where we see a senior Lucretia (Gremmar) living with one of her grown children, and forming a strong bond with her grandson, a sensitive and frustrated adolescent who thinks the world of her and her commitment to her faith. Things go awry when he stumbles upon her past, these lovers and what he views as sordid, sinful liaisons.
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.
I lived in Alaska, and everyone there knows you don’t get between a mother moose and her baby.
As humans, we tend to think kindly of maternal fierceness, whether of the four-legged or two-legged variety. There’s something inherently touching about the instinctual urge to defend one’s offspring. We understand — and celebrate — it. We might not want to be at the receiving end of a 2,000 pound behemoth shaking her antlers at us, but even as we’re running away, a part of us is likely thinking, “Good for her.”
The biggest appeal of Yasmina Reza’s clever and subversive “God of Carnage,” which receives an accomplished new production by StageWorks Fresno, is how the playwright lulls the audience into thinking it’s simply in for an entertaining protective-parents-duke-it-out scenario.
In this modern version of a drawing room comedy, we’re introduced to two sets of parents who gather to deal with the aftermath of a dispute between their two sons. One 11-year-old hit another with a stick on a local playground, taking out a couple of teeth in the process. The two couples get together at the home of the tooth-deprived boy because it’s the “civilized” thing to do.
But it’s clear from the awkward opening moments of the play as the two couples chat — minutes filled with forced courtesy larded with distant disdain — that things aren’t going to turn out well. ”How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?” asks Annette (the wonderful Shannon Eizenga), mother of the offender, telegraphing the mayhem to come.