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.
Fresno’s Emily Estep became a big fan of Lindsay after seeing “Newsies” in New York, where she waited outside the stage door to meet Lindsay. Emily got to repeat the experience in Fresno after the Sunday evening performance of “Wicked” at the Saroyan, above. Her mother, well-known Fresno community theater actress Shannah Estep, writes on Facebook:
Ever since we saw Newsies in New York Emily has been fixated on Kara and her alter ego Katherine. She couldn’t wait until the end of the show just so she could go to the stage door! Let’s just say that whole thing is a lot easier to do here in Fresno!
Could any first-act finale have more visual and emotional punch than the extravagantly beautiful final two minutes of “Wicked”? At intermission of Thursday’s press-night performance at the Saroyan Theatre, I Tweeted that I wanted to hug the lighting designer.
Not to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet experienced this gorgeously produced and emotionally soaring Broadway show, but the song “Defying Gravity” turns light into something that seems tangible and material, with volume and substance — illumination with weight and heft, as substantial and big as a mountain. Plus: that last, gorgeous blackout, punctuated by a final split-second fadeout on the face of the defiantly green Wicked Witch of the West — the timing is exquisite, the rush of light and dark all encompassing.
I’ve seen “Wicked” three times now, and I swoon at this moment each time. The only other comparison I can draw in terms of the power of theater is the first-act finale of the (old) version of “Les Miserables,” with that last rippling fadeout to black on the big red waving flag. It is supremely satisfying to be in the presence of such confident visual precision. (In movies today, special effects are lavished upon our eyeballs so unrelentingly and with such visual digital sophistication that it can all seem rather ho-hum. But to witness live the stagecraft of a show like “Wicked” remains awe-inducing.)
When the national tour of “Wicked” first played in Fresno in 2011, I noted how it simply upped the ante for all other touring shows that come through the Saroyan. It’s Broadway quality. (With near New York prices to match, of course.) The second visit of the tour, which opened Wednesday, has maintained that high standard in every regard. “Wicked” is still wicked good.
By Monday evening, the “Wicked” dragon was comfortably peering down from high above the “Wicked” stage at the Saroyan Theatre — almost as if he’d never been gone.
Three years after its first blockbuster run in Fresno, the national tour of “Wicked” is back for a second round of Broadway bravado. The show opens Wednesday for 15 performances through April 13, bringing as many as 34,000 fans of the musical to downtown Fresno. “Wicked” recently passed its 10th anniversary on Broadway, and nearly 14 million people have seen the two national tours that criss-cross the country.
The current production closed Sunday in San Antonio, and on Monday an advance crew of eight moved what’s officially known as the Clock of the Time Dragon, into the Saroyan. (There’s a reason the mechanical beast looked so peaceful amid the Tuesday frenzy: There are actually two used by the tour. In order to give the dragon a Monday headstart, each dragon only plays in every other city.) By Tuesday morning that crew had been joined by almost 100 local workers, who helped unload lights, sets, speakers, costumes and equipment needed to stage the elaborate musical. It all had to be unpacked from 13 tractor trailers — everything from Glinda’s 40-pound bubble dress to the shiny walls of the Emerald City.
I didn’t want this week to get away from me without checking in with the fun folks at the College of the Sequoias who staged such an ambitious production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” That show, if you’ll recall, has literally hundreds of different possible endings because the audience gets to vote on three different questions:
Who is the mysterious “Dick Datchery,” the disguised detective who shows up in the second act?
Who is the murderer?
Who should end up as the two lovers at the end of the play?
I checked in with COS’ Chris Mangels, curious how many different permutations were played out over the show’s seven-performance run:
Crisparkle and Bazzard were the most popular Datcherys and were the only ones ever selected.
We wound up getting to see every murderer except Durdles. Reverend Crisparkle was chosen twice.
The lovers had a lot of variety. Durdles and Puffer were chosen three times but we also got to see Puffer and Crisparkle, Rosa Bud and Durdles, and even the shocking pairing of the Landless twins (who deliver a hilarious indictment to the audience for being so perverted as to insist that they become lovers).
We usually rehearsed two Datcheries and two murderers per night at the Dress Rehearsals to accommodate their practice but we didn’t rehearse all 39 lover combinations. We DID make sure that we rehearsed in way that each possible lover got to go through a possible scene however, so no one was completely unprepared when chosen. Still, a few of the selections were surprising and caught our actors off guard (like Durdles and Rosa) but they all did a great job!
Artists’ Repertory Theatre combines the classic and the brand new in a program of two one-act plays at Cal Arts Severance Theatre. You get a rare opportunity to see a William Saroyan play in his hometown, combined with a new work by local playwright Thornton Davidson of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival.
Saroyan’s ”Hello Out There,” which opens the double bill, is a searing and brutally economical piece of theater. It packs into little more than half an hour not only two “ordinary” lives but a steely glimpse at the loneliness and despair abundant in a hard-scrabbled country that handsomely rewards those individuals hard-working or lucky enough to rise to the top — but often shrugs over those not destined for wonderful things.
The Young Man (an accomplished Aaron McGee), who calls himself Photo-Finish, is a drifter in jail in a tiny Texas town so small that a prisoner is left overnight locked in alone. The only person around this evening is The Girl (Katharine Dorian), named Emily, the jail’s part-time hesitant cook. She has lingered, she admits, so she can talk with this interesting stranger.
In the pantheon of Bad Things That Boyfriends Do, there are some real doozies: Lying. Cheating. Stealing. Abusing.
In “Reasons to be Pretty,” the feisty and well-staged new production of the Neil LaBute play from Open Book Productions at the Voice Shop, the transgression that sets the dramatic wheels turning is this: A boyfriend is overheard describing his girlfriend’s face as “regular.”
No big deal? Not to the girlfriend, the distraught Steph (Kelsey Deroian), who is devastated. In a humdinger of a first-scene fight so toxic the audience practically needs protective gear, she has it out with Greg (Patrick Nalty). Let’s put it this way: a pet goldfish nearly loses its life.
And yet, despite the opening histrionics — LaBute is known for his scathing dialogue in such plays as “The Mercy Seat” and films as “In the Company of Men” — this provocative play about four young working-class friends and lovers is less a male-vs.-female demolition derby and more a thoughtful analysis of the ways the concept of beauty is batted about in our culture.
Greg makes the “normal” comment to his best friend, Kent (Steven Olson). His friend’s wife, Carly (Aubrianne Scott), who overhears it, reports back to Steph. Greg realizes he made a big fumble — that the words came out wrong. But he resolutely declares that his intentions were noble — that he actually offered the remark as a compliment, insisting there are different kinds of beauty.
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.
Lots of new theater in Fresno this weekend — and one big show is “Tarzan” from Children’s Musical Theaterworks. We featured the show on the cover of today’s 7 section. For my story I talked to the show’s makeup/hair designer, Adamme Sosa, who is offering his Hollywood expertise in the service of children’s theater. Here’s his pitch for the show.
The newly formed Open Book Productions opens its first official show on Friday at the Voice Shop: Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to be Pretty.” This Fresno premiere reached Broadway just a few years ago, and it promises a thoughtful and provcative examination of society’s attitudes toward beauty.
You can read about the show — one of four opening this weekend in Fresno — in the cover story in Friday’s 7 section. Here’s an extended interview with director Miguel Gastelum.
Question: Tell us the premise.
When Greg is overheard admitting that his girlfriend Steph is no beauty, but that he wouldn’t change her for the world, a chain of events begins that sees his world and his relationships completely reshaped. He is confused and can’t see what he’s done wrong, but Steph is devastated: she doesn’t want to be with a man who doesn’t think she’s beautiful, whatever she may think of herself. Meanwhile, Greg’s best friend Kent alternates between boasting about how gorgeous his wife, Carly, is and chasing after a hot new colleague.
Reasons To Be Pretty examines our perception of beauty and asks whether it is as much of a curse to be conventionally attractive as it is to be considered ugly. It asks whether beauty itself is important, or if its import is in the judgment itself. In a world where appearances are used as benchmarks of achievement or at the very least the foundation of a judgment about who or what another person is, “Reasons To Be Pretty” questions the very judgments we make. It is a play as much about hearsay and misunderstanding as it is about trust and love – the elements that go into achieving that trust and love, the foundations of human relationships.
A big musical at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia is always cause for celebration, and I’m particularly looking forward to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which opens Friday. I saw the original Broadway production many years ago and have always loved the music and plot, which cleverly retells Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel. Because Dickens died before solving the mystery for his readers, audiences at the musical get a chance at the end to vote for from among “five candidates for the undercover detective, seven candidates for the murderer, and a varying number of candidates who can be chosen as lovers,” Chris Mangels of COS tells me. He describes the production:
We always aim high when it comes to our production design, and this show is no different. The challenge of creating the world of an 1880 English Music Hall has been tackled by our four designers with an eye to honor the costumes and set pieces that a Victorian theatre company would utilize while maintaining some of the modern sensibilities that contemporary audiences have come to expect. We have created a brand new proscenium onstage to mimic the architectural styles that were popular in 1880′s London, and we utilize some very old-style drops and set pieces that hopefully feel like they have come out of storage in the Music Hall Royale. The dozens of costumes and wigs are also very period-specific and the actors are learning to perform the raucous musical numbers in the show while buried under corsets and layers of clothing. It has been a really wonderful challenge for all of us to tackle.
To kick off the play’s run, which goes for seven performances through March 23, I’m giving away two tickets to opening night (7:30 p.m. Friday).
To enter the contest, leave a comment on this post telling us if you think “Murder, She Wrote” will ever be turned into a Broadway musical.
Deadline is 5 p.m. Thursday. Please don’t enter more than once. I’ll be informing our winner by email on Thursday evening, so keep a watch on your inbox. If I haven’t heard from a winner by Thursday morning, I reserve the right to pick another. You’ll be able to pick these tickets up at the box office. Rules are on the jump.
I don’t know about average foxes living in average woods, but I can tell you the title character in Fresno City College’s perky new production of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” occupies some pretty swell underground digs.
And that’s no surprise, considering the college’s reputation for innovative design. With veteran costume designer Debra Erven directing the show and Christopher R. Boltz excelling with his scenic and lighting design, this charming stage adaptation of the Roald Dahl’s children’s book about a feisty fox is filled with visual wonders. The bright and gregarious show is perfect for smaller children, with lots of cute costumed animals and a sweet message of sharing. (Well, that, and also a message about absconding with resources hoarded by an oppressive oligarchy, all in the name of the collective, but those are political questions to be raised once your child gets a little older.)
The show continues through Saturday at the Fresno City College Theatre.
It would be easy to come up with 39 reasons why the new Good Company Players production of “The 39 Steps” is such a successful show. Six of them would be the cast members.
As an ensemble, James Sherrill, Emily Pessano, Tyler Branco, Billy Anderson, Kaichen McRae and Teddy Maldonado are a well-honed comedy machine, sprinting through this clever show’s gags with finesse. Director Denise Graziani whips them through a torrent of locations at race-car speed, and on opening night I always got the sense that each cast member knew exactly how much to floor the accelerator. (The show continues at the 2nd Space Theatre through April 19.)
Gemma Wilcox has been a Rogue Festival regular since 2009, when she first brought her one-woman show “The Honeymoon Period is Officially Over” to Fresno audiences. It sold-out shows that first year, and she’s been a hit at the Rogue with subsequent shows since then.
The praise is well-deserved.
I’ve somehow missed Wilcox’s shows in my past Rogue journeys, so I made it a point to see her first show Saturday night at Cal Arts-Severance, where the London performer staged the 10th anniversary run of her “Honeymoon” show. I’m so glad I did. This show exceeded all my expectations, and they were high after reading the reviews of her past shows.
You probably know Sally Struthers from the TV series “All in the Family” and “The Gilmore Girls,” but she’s spent a substantial chunk of her career in recent years doing regional musical theater. That experience includes multiple times performing the much-beloved role of Dolly Levi in the Jerry Herman musical classic “Hello, Dolly!” Now she’s in her biggest Dolly role to date: a national tour — sticking mostly to smaller cities — celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary on Broadway. (The show opened Tuesday at the Saroyan Theatre and continues for one more performance on Wednesday.)
Her performance is a mixed bag. It teeters between near disaster and downright charming, sometimes in the same scene. Her Dolly manages to be both bigger than life and yet distressingly bland, an awkward combination. Struthers has a deft sense of comic timing and knows how to wring out a laugh — but just as often her delivery seems stilted and wooden.
Revived by Good Company Players for the sixth time, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is one of the company’s signature shows. The title was the first one produced by GCP, opening at the Hilton Ballroom on June 26, 1973, and I’m guessing that few who were involved in that initial good-natured venture had any idea the company would become a Fresno theatrical institution and still be rolling along 40-plus years later.
If you know the back story, then, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia at work in the current “Forum,” and, taken in that context, the production is a treat. To watch Dan Pessano reenact the role of Pseudolus for go-around No. 6, relishing every sight gag and frantic burst of wordplay, is to experience a comic master at work. And to know that director Fred Bologna played one of the Proteans in the original cast is to bask in a bit of history — and, perhaps, have a deep reservoir of goodwill for the antics onstage, even those that don’t quite work.
If you don’t walk through the doors warmly wrapped up in nostalgia, however, you might not be as impressed. This production could feel a little musty to an outsider. With its 1960s sensibility, “Forum” is starting to feel more like a dated historical comedy than a contemporary piece. And while I’m sure it will tighten up during the run, I was disappointed on opening night that the show wasn’t as crisp or inspired as it could be.
Fresno Grand Opera reaches for the stars with its ambitious new production of “Les Miserables.” And those stars can be magnificent, from the dramatic night sky accompanying Javert’s famed existential crisis to the impressive cast of Broadway and national tour veterans brought together for the leading roles.
Strong visuals, achieved by scenery originally built for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and a series of projections designed by Zachary Borovay that recreate the streets and moods of early 19th Century France with an inky, muted, watercolor-style impressionism, are wonderful. And strong vocals — from both the principals and the big stage ensemble, many of whom are locals — add to the material’s operatic scope. (The show runs through Sunday.)
Still, opening night at the Saroyan Theatre was a little wobbly. Most of the glitches were tiny, including missed lighting cues (particularly from the follow spot) and occasional microphone problems. (At one point, in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” I thought I heard backstage chatter coming through the sound system for a brief moment.) Those wobbles made a difference, however, chipping away at the confidence of the production.
There were other issues: At times the orchestra overpowered the ensemble singers. (At intermission, the usual Saroyan sound complaints were floating through the crowd, including that people couldn’t understand the lyrics. I think it’s at least partly a “Les Miz” thing — it’s one of those shows you have to know pretty well beforehand if you want a reasonable level of comprehension.) And even with the fancy projections, which included occasional animation, some of the big production numbers just didn’t measure up to versions I’ve seen before, most notably “One Day More,” which seemed less rabble-rousing and more sloppy.
Here’s this week’s 7 picks for 7 days, a list of things to do Today (Jan. 17) through Thursday (Jan. 23). This week’s choices includes celebrated musical theater, high-flying actions sports, beer tasting and live music.
In today’s 7 section, I recap Fresno Grand Opera’s big “Les Miserables” production, which opens tonight at the Saroyan Theatre. Can the company come through with a production of this scale? I’ll be there to find out, and I plan to post my review on the Beehive by noon Saturday.
Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora attended Tuesday’s dress rehearsal, and he got some beautiful shots, including the one above. Here’s his photo gallery of 16 “Les Miz” images.
This isn’t just any old Good Company Players opening. Forty and a half years ago, Fresno’s most stalwart theater company was born with a production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Now it returns for a sixth time tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. In a story in Thursday’s Life section, I focus on three people involved with this “Forum” who were in that first production — although one was attached by umbilical cord.
Lighting designer Steven Allen was actually inside his mother, Joanne, in the first part of the run of the show, which opened June 26, 1973, at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom in downtown Fresno. She played the small but memorable role of Fertilia, the pregnant courtesan.
That Good Company opted to have a real pregnant woman (nearing her ninth month!) play a role that is usually accomplished with strategically placed pillows is a testament to the full-ahead enthusiasm — or perhaps blissful naivete — of founding members eager for a good sight gag.
Check out Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora’s gallery of “Forum” photos here.
Each time I’ve seen Frank Galati’s 1988 stage adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which came half a century after Steinbeck’s celebrated novel and the famed film version, I’ve given thanks. What could have been a so-so adaptation decades after the fact instead became a beautifully crafted piece of art in its own right. I’ve been entranced each time with Galati’s ability to pare Steinbeck’s words and visuals into a tight, moving piece of work that does justice to the story’s sorrowful swagger.
That goes for my latest viewing, the Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre. While there are some uneven aspects to this production, including acting and staging, the overall impact is strong.
What I like best about the show is director Patrick Tromborg’s deep empathy with the material. He also designed the scenery, and his artistic vision involves using both the scenic components and his large cast in a swirl of movement and mood-setting in what you might call Dust Bowl living theater. (Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s period costumes help with the gritty effect.) An ensemble member might be a scarecrow at one moment and holding a piece of wall the next. There’s a beautifully theatrical sensibility at work here, and even though I would have liked to have more economy of movement and brisker transitions while one scene dissolves into another, I find the fluid staging a strong point of the production.
‘JANKA’ TO AUSTRALIA: Over the years, Fresno actress Janice Noga has toured her play “Janka” around the world. Her next international gig is the Sydney Jewish Museum in February. Background on the show:
Janka Festinger grew up in Sighet and was deported to Auschwitz in May 1944. Following liberation from slave labor in Germany, she married an American soldier and immigrated to the U.S. in 1946. Shortly after her liberation, Janka wrote to an uncle, detailing a gripping eyewitness account of Auschwitz. This letter was discovered many years later and inspired Janka’s son Oscar Speace to write a play about his mother’s experiences. The family connection continues with American actress and Janka’s daughter-in-law Janice Noga performing the one-woman play. There is also a strong Australian tie to Janka’s story, as her cousins immigrated to join family members who had been imprisoned in Japanese internment camps and following their liberation had moved to Australia.
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.