Sometimes a spoonful of water can turn into a cascade.
The title of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” might suggest a tranquil and contemplative outing. But this beautifully written play, which collides the stories of an Iraq War veteran and an online community of recovering drug addicts, is anything but a placid experience. It swirls together the fierce (an unblinking look at contemporary Latino issues) with the bemused (an extended nod to the way the online experience has changed the way we communicate), then adds nuanced insights into war, class, poverty, cyber etiquette, guilt and the way that family cultural dynamics can shape lives.
Most of all, Hudes gives us gripping characters whose skins feel lived in, whose daily existences have the shopworn ambiance of everyday life.
Director Kathleen McKinley crafts a Fresno State production that is thoughtful, sturdy and occasionally brilliant. Most important, I’m happy to see a work by a Latino playwright (Hudes prefers “Latino” in the same way that many women prefer to be known as “actors”) writing about Latino lives in a mainstage production on the Fresno State campus. In terms of issues of race: While the recent production of David Mamet’s “Race” was provocative and insightful, it also felt as if the playwright was pontificating from on high. “Spoonful” feels much more whole and organic. It aches — and celebrates — when it comes to issues of race instead of shouting at us.
The quips keep coming in “Always a Bridesmaid,” the latest Good Company offering from the playwriting machine of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten.
Typical gag: One woman character jokes that she “had” two men at once. The punchline: One was cooking, the other cleaning.
After hearing that joke, a woman in the audience sitting in front of me leaned over and told her party: “I just sent that in a birthday card.”
Which pretty much sums up “Bridesmaid,” continuing at the 2nd Space Theatre through April 19. The humor is the kind you’d expect from a well-meaning but anemic TV sitcom. Aimed squarely at 50-year-old-plus women, the play boasts a few good laugh lines, but mostly it’s a recycle of warmed-up Southern witticisms, inoffensive one-liners and gags about clueless husbands and retaining water.
I’m going to chime in with five weekend picks — besides, of course, the last weekend of the Rogue Festival:
KEYBOARD CONCERTS The Fresno State Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series welcomes another young, world-class pianist. Kuok-Wai Lio was born in Macau in 1989 and received the 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant. The program includes works by Schubert and Schumann. 8 p.m. Friday, March 6 in the Fresno State Concert Hall.
ARMENIAN GENOCIDE CENTENNIAL CONCERT Traditional Armenian music by the Chookasian Armenian Concert Ensemble and dance by the Hamazkayin Niari Dance Ensemble highlight this somber yet celebratory music event. 2 p.m. Sunday, March 8 at the Fresno State Satellite Student Union.
You don’t want to sit down when the national tour of “Guys & Dolls” is rockin’ the boat. And that’s a strong sign for the production that rolled into the Saroyan Theatre Wednesday for a two-night run. One of my barometers for this classic show is how well a production carries off the famed number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” The ensemble — led by an inspired Todd Berkich as Nicely-Nicely Johnson — delivers a boisterous, heartfelt, sing-to-the-rafters experience that pays homage to the roots of the number while still giving it a more contemporary vibe.
This tour falls about in the middle in terms of overall quality of the smaller road shows that come through the Saroyan. The production design is solid for a budget-conscious show in terms of sets, costumes and lighting — and it never feels cheap or rinky-dink. (Well, except for the front title scrim that came awkwardly down after the first act and at the end of the show, jiggling like a snagged window blind.) The thing that seems smallest about the show is the orchestra, which could use a beefed-up string section.
Pictured: Rogue Street signs popped up on Olive Avenue this year. Photo credit: Bethany Clough.
One thing that’s caught some attention this year are the street signs that have popped up around the Tower. The signs point the direction to the various Rogue venues. They’re cool frankly, and people are talking about them. Bethany Clough snapped this photo and says “I’ve heard Fresno Ideaworks gets the credit for the signs, but haven’t been able to identify who specifically made them. One Instagram user, @chaubui7, had this to say about them: ‘We should keep such signs permanently around town — They pique your interest and would be great for tourism.’ ”
In Thursday’s Life section I offer a special “mid-week” column: a conversation with former Visalian Betsy Wolfe, who in recent years has been building strong name recognition as a musical-theater actress on Broadway. (She headlines a benefit performance on Friday, Feb. 13, at the Visalia Fox Theatre.) I first saw Wolfe perform many, many years ago (in 2004) in a semi-professional staging in Visalia of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I was lukewarm about the production but raved about Wolfe, who I described as having “the potential to be a professional musical-comedy star”:
Wolfe, cast as the Narrator in the oft-performed Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, charged through opening night with confidence and charisma. Tall and self-assured, with a powerful voice and adept comic timing, Wolfe managed to dole out even the silliest and campiest moments in this cheery bit of musical-theater fluff with genuine warmth. She’s a natural.
In 2006, I interviewed Wolfe in San Francisco when she was starring in the West Coast premiere of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” I kick off my Thursday column with that meeting, and then fill you in on her Broadway career, which has taken a stellar turn in recent years.
Here are some tidbits that I didn’t have room for in my column:
It’s something that every theater person hopes and longs for: the out-of-the-blue phone call (or in this case a social-media message) with a juicy job offer.
That happened to Fresno’s Julian Perez, well known to audiences as an actor from shows at Roosevelt School of the Arts, Good Company Players and Fresno State. He was surprised to be contacted by big-band singer and crooner Brian Evans, who asked if Perez could choreograph his new music video starring none other than the orange-haired comedian Carrot Top.
Perez has extensive acting and dance experience, but his choreography experience up to this new job had been limited. He choreographed “Sweet Dreams” in 2012 at Roosevelt, and “The Music Man” in 2014 for CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre.
We caught up with Perez via Facebook to talk about the video shoot, which took place at Universal Studios Hollywood. The music video, featuring Evans’ new original song “Creature,” used the set of The Bates Motel from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho.”
Question: It sounds like this job just seemed to fall out of the sky for you. Walk us through what that was like.
Answer: It was very surreal. Brian Evans saw a video of some choreo I did and sought me out social media. When he messaged me on Twitter I didn’t know who he was, but after we talked and Skyped I knew it was the real deal.
I think most people have heard of Carrot Top, but I don’t know much about Brian Evans. Of course, I’m old. What can you tell us about him and the song “Creature”?
Brian is an extremely talented individual. He has a hit song called “At Fenway” which was inducted into the major league baseball hall of fame. He is extremely kind and humble. He has some major projects lined up ahead for this upcoming year.
“Crazy for You” revels in the silly, that’s for sure. With its madcap plot about a gaggle of showgirls from New York traipsing off to a Nevada ghost town so they can help “put on a show,” things turn goofy fast. Add a super-value-size meal’s worth of mistaken-identity gags and you get a lot of slapstick for your buck.
But just as the whole thing seems destined to be no more than an insubstantial giggle fest, one of the show’s classic songs by George and Ira Gershwin comes along to add some heft to the outing. When the sturdy and no-nonsense heroine, Polly (Emily Pessano), who seems like the last gal in the world to fall for a splashy theater type named Bobby Child (Greg Grannis), stops to sing a pensive ballad, it’s none other than the famed “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin. With credentials like that, you’re starting on solid ground.
And when the energetic cast in the new Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater digs into the real meat of the show — the tap dancing — they do a sparkling job. The first-act finale, “I Got Rhythm,” choreographed by Kaye Migaki, is an explosion of sound, spectacle, flying feet and enough props to stock a Western supply store. Talk about a take-away tune for the audience to hum during intermission.
While I am trying figure out whether to care about this whole deflate-gate thing (I also heard it referred to as the much funnier ball-gate), you’ll all be checking out one of the awesome concerts happening in town this week. Right? We’ve collated them again in out weekly BANDGEEEEEEK! roundup.
With age can come money, knowledge, wisdom and a newfound grace when performing the dance we call life.
But as you get older, you lose something special: the ability to think of your future as endless. The path to come no longer stretches out as far as you can see, as it does for the young, with tantalizing (and, yes, often scary) possibilities. With age comes the knowledge that you’ve already made many of the important choices in life.
Christopher Durang’s spiffy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” given a rousing performance by Good Company Players at the 2nd Space Theatre, is quite funny, no question about it. In this good-natured homage to Anton Chekhov, Durang mashes together characters and storylines from that towering playwright’s best known works into a happy, silly melange.
You thought Chekhov was gloomy? In many ways, this present-day outing, set in a “lovely farmhouse” in Bucks County, Penn., is more like a sugar high.
There’s something more, though. Durang doesn’t push it hard, but a finely honed bittersweet sensibility gives an edge to the play that makes it all the more excellent. Vanya (played by Michael Peterson), Sonia (Joyce Anabo) and Masha (Jennifer Hurd-Peterson), three unhappy siblings, are all grappling with being at least halfway, if not more, through their life journey. And they’re all wondering if they could have done things differently.
Many thanks to Benjamin Rawls, aka The Man Without a Shirt, who appears in the new Good Company Players production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” opening tonight (Jan. 2) at the 2nd Space Theatre. We asked the four leading actors to come down to the Bee photo studio as we attempted to replicate the iconic “Vanya” branding from the play’s recent Tony Award-winning run on Broadway. Rawls had to jump up and down many, many times to get the shot. Here’s the resulting photo of Joyce Anabo, left, Michael Peterson, Jennier Hurd-Peterson and Rawls, by Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora:
And here’s the Broadway image:
Here’s your preschool-level First Quiz of the New Year, because it’s always good to ease slowly into new things: What is the significant change we made between the Good Company photo and the Broadway photo?
You can also read a rollicking interview with Jennnifer Hurd-Peterson and Michael Peterson, a real-life married couple who play siblings in the play, here.
As part of my coverage of the first new play of the 2015 theater season, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the 2nd Space Theatre, I included (what I hope) is a comprehensive roundup of the Valley theater scene. (Remember that some companies organize their seasons using the academic calendar and haven’t yet picked their fall shows.) “Into the Woods” and “Mary Poppins” are very popular this year.
If the musical “Cabaret” today could meet the one from 25 years ago, I’m sure the younger would roll its eyes and (sort of) politely say, “Thanks for being such a legend. But things are different now.”
If your only exposure to the John Kander/Fred Ebb classic 1966 musical theater piece is from a community theater production from several decades ago — or, perhaps, the 1972 movie adaptation that stripped away characters and offered the title song, belted out by Liza Minnelli, as a jaunty anthem — you’re in for a few surprises. In the new Fresno State production, director J. Daniel Herring hews closely to the 1993 London and 1998 New York revivals starring Alan Cumming, who transformed the character of the Emcee (played by Joel Grey in the movie version) into a highly sexual, provocative and sometimes downright raunchy ambassador to the audience. That characterization fits the tumultuous times: With the crumbling of Germany’s Weimar Republic following World War I, as the Nazi Party assumes power, “Cabaret” captures the anything-goes atmosphere of an on-edge 1931 Berlin.
Thus, there are some moments in this production I’m fairly certain have never taken place on a Fresno State stage before. If you’re the kind who got upset at the stage version of “Jersey Boys” because of profanity (and I heard from some of you), chances are that the song “Two Ladies” — in which the Emcee gets pretty wild with both a guy and a gal (OK, let me spell it out for you: simulated sexual acts) — will make your head explode.
I like many of the choices that Herring makes in this challenging title, and the live orchestra, under the able direction of Matthew Wheeler, is first-rate. But there are also some weaknesses in terms of direction, production design and the overall impact of the ensemble. For a college production, this “Cabaret” has moments that soar, though I don’t think it reaches the same overall level of excellence as some previous Fresno State musical offerings I’ve seen.
The scene: In the musical “In and Out of Shadows,” a Filipino mother (played by Deanne Palaganas) takes a break from her job driving a car-rental shuttle bus at San Francisco International Airport. She is an undocumented immigrant with two teen-age children, who also are undocumented. For a moment, as the mother sings a sweet ballad about how the clouds in the sky have the freedom to go wherever they want, she’s taken away from the reality of a life without “papers” and the constant fear that she and her children (Alexandra Lee and Louel Senores) will be harassed by immigration authorities. The trio’s rendition of “Clouds” is filled with longing and tenacity.
The production: Gary Soto, the nationally known poet and author from Fresno, wrote the book and lyrics for “In and Out of Shadows” for a youth theater in San Francisco. He focuses in the musical on “Dreamers,” a term for young people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents (or came by themselves) from such places as Mexico, the Philippines and China at an early age and remain undocumented, stuck in a kind of limbo between two countries.
The venue: Soto brought this San Francisco Youth Theatre production to the Fresno City College Theatre, where it played three performances over the weekend.
A Fresno State musical is cause for celebration. (The theater department normally only produces one every two years.) J. Daniel Herring’s interpretation of “Cabaret” opens tonight (Friday, Dec. 5) for a run that extends through Dec. 13, and knowing who the director is, I’m confident it will more risque than many other versions you’ve seen.
I caught up with Matthew Rudolf Schiltz, who plays the M.C., and Aubrianne Scott, who plays Sally Bowles, for a joint interview in today’s 7 section. Referring to the Broadway revival starring Alan Cumming, Scott describes the Fresno State production:
It’s just as gritty and provocative. The story that J. Daniel is telling is not a regular song-and-dance kind of a show. This show is not meant to be fluffed; (it’s) blunt. It is meant to be seen as art imitating life, and life is not always beautiful.
I hear that ticket sales are going really well for this one, so you might want to plan ahead.
Pictured: From left, Matthew Rudolf Schiltz, Breayre Tender, Mitchell Ham Lau, Aubrianne Scott and Kindle Cowger in “Cabaret.”
We need more rain, so you might not actually want the sun to come out tomorrow, but on stage it’s a different picture. Children’s Musical Theaterworks is opening “Annie Jr.” tonight (Friday, Dec. 5) at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium, kicking off a run that continues through Dec. 14. With the song “New Deal for Christmas,” the musical has become a holiday favorite. You can find tickets and details here.
The show is double cast, so it’s possible if you time it correctly to get two different versions of “Tomorrow.”
Josh and I compiled a big list of holiday events for the rest of the month as the cover story in today’s 7 section. From music and theater to classical concerts and festive holiday events, there’s something for everyone.
Pictured: Allie Jeschien as Annie and Markus Johnson as Daddy Warbucks in CMT’s “Annie.”
It would be easy to put on a big-city critic hunting hat, grab a high-powered rifle and slay this “Beast.”
For lovers of the classic musical “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary of opening on Broadway, the national tour production that opened Tuesday night at the Saroyan Theatre is drastically scaled down from the original version. This current tour has gotten beaten up by some critics for its lackluster production design. And, yes, I somewhat agree: the sets are a little skimpy. The orchestra sounds a little thin. And, in the production’s weakest link, the costumes of the enchanted objects are a major disappointment.
But we have to face realities: This is no “Wicked,” with a big budget and Actors Equity union cast, that could settle into the Saroyan for a two-week run, making elaborate sets and technical tricks financially feasible. This “Beauty and the Beast” is making a two-night stand in Fresno, in and out in a flash, and by that metric, I think it’s a fairly solid outing when compared to other quick-stop professional shows.