I received a polite but semi-irate phone call a few weeks back from a reader very disappointed in the recent national tour of “Jersey Boys.” She was not aware going into the production that it would include the amount of profanity it did. Nowhere in the print advertisements for the play, she pointed out, was a movie-style content rating (such as PG, PG-13, R, etc.) provided. Nor did my advance piece about the production or my subsequent review. Wasn’t it my responsibility, she asked, to provide readers with this kind of information?
I hemmed and hawed a bit, because, frankly, the thought never crossed my mind that a Broadway musical about a bunch of New Jersey minor criminals wouldn’t include rough language. Thinking about it later, I guess I figured that anyone with a passing familiarity with popular culture would know what to expect walking into “Jersey Boys.”
Then again, sometimes I make too many assumptions because I’m so familiar with the material I cover. And the songs in the show are squeaky clean, after all.
Kate McKnight is guest directing Fresno Pacific University’s fall theater production of “Truth and Reconciliation,” a play by Etan Frankel. It’s playing off-campus at the Severance Theatre in the Tower District. I excerpted parts of our discussion in my big theater roundup in Friday’s 7 section. Here’s the extended interview:
Question: What is the plot?
Answer: The play is set Cartuga, a fictitious Central American country. A young American doctor goes to the country to provide medical care for local peasants, is mistakenly associated with the CIA and is murdered. His parents are asked to return to the country three years later for a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission based on those that Bishop Tutu organized in South Africa. Instead of revenge for their son’s death they get answers and some healing.
What is the play’s production history? Do you know if this is a local premiere?
Yes, it’s a Fresno premiere. It won the Willamstown Theatre Festival 2006 L. Arnold Weissberger Award, selected out of 300 nominated plays. I couldn’t find any theatre company that had done a full production except for the staged reading when it won the award. A company in British Columbia is mounting a production this winter. Starting in 2008, the playwright started writing mainly for television: “Gossip Girl,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Shameless” … Hollywood got him!
Two theater productions open Nov. 13 in Fresno. At Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, Good Company Players is reviving the sultry musical revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” From the company:
This smokin’ hot revue, spanning the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s, features the toe- tapping, hip-swiveling, soul searing music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The duo burst into the music industry as teenagers and launched a body of work that runs the gamut from rhythm and blues to novelty with romantic ballads, doo-wop, and rock-and-roll liberally sprinkled throughout. The score of Smokey Joe’s Cafe includes songs like “Stand By Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Kansas City,” “Trouble,” Jailhouse Rock,” “On Broadway,” “Fools Fall In Love,” “On Broadway” and a myriad of other hits.
At Severance Theatre just up the street, the Fresno Pacific University Theatre Department opens Etan Frankel’s “Truth and Reconciliation.” Director Kate McKnight explains the plot:
The play is set Cartuga, a fictitious Central American country. A young American doctor goes to the country to provide medical care for local peasants, is mistakenly associated with the CIA and is murdered. His parents are asked to return to the country three years later for a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission based on those that Bishop Tutu organized in South Africa. Instead of revenge for their son’s death they get answers and some healing.
“Smokey Joe’s” runs through Jan. 11. Details here. “Truth and Reconciliation” runs through Nov. 22. Details: (559) 453-5586.
On the jump: a photo from “Truth and Reconciliation.”
The final production of the first season of Curtain 5 Theatre Group opens tonight at the Fresno Soap Co. (formerly the Broken Leg Stage) in the Tower District.
A description from the company:
“Ashes” features two “Behavioral A” sisters who meet a few weeks following their father’s funeral with the intention of determining who will be keeping his ashes. Rebecca and her obedient husband, Tom, live in a high rise Manhattan apartment, while Bridget, a unpolished free spirit, and husband, Danny, are unemployed school teachers living in New Jersey. Danny is recovering from laser eye surgery and unable to temporarily see.
Cordiality turns into a bitter round of name-calling, then a hair-pulling knock down drag out between the two sisters. Rebecca is played by Lori Gambero, director of the Roosevelt High School of Performing Arts, Bridget is played by Tania Tran, who has been featured in every production this season except “The Underpants.” Tom is played by Mathew Vargas, who was Ben in “Ben Minus Jake,” and Danny is played by Daniel Pena, who was in “Sunrise! Sunet!” and “TMI.”
Jerry Palladino directs. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday (Nov. 7) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 8), with the same schedule Nov. 21 and 22. Tickets are $10 in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com and $15 at the door.
Pictured: Lori Gambero, left, and Tania Tran in “Ashes.”
Sorry for the lateness of this post, but I was tied up all day on deadline.
The play “PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo,” which was first produced at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, makes its Fresno debut Thursday in a production partly sponsored by Fresno Building Healthy Communities. The play stars Ricardo Salinas of the performance troupe Culture Clash.
Playwright Paul S. Flores developed the title, which has traveled to New York and Los Angeles, as “a pro-active community response” to the issue of gang violence while presenting positive elements of Latino and Central American culture. It tells the story of one man’s determination, transformation and redemption as he leaves gang life and tries to reunite his family after surviving civil war, deportation, prison and street violence.
“PLACAS” continues 7:30 p.m. nightly through Saturday at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. You can order advance tickets here.
Steeped as we are in a culture of all-consuming capitalism, I think it’s challenging for Americans to fully get where French shock-till-you-drop playwright Jean Genet was coming from. The playwright got pretty wound up — to put it mildly — about the class struggle between the overlords of society and the peons who attend their every whim. In his 1947 play “The Maids,” Genet practically froths about the indignities of human power structures. To the playwright, who spent his early years as a vagabond and petty criminal, it doesn’t matter if the mistress of the house treats her hired help with a benign-fakey warmth instead of a whip to the back — at the end of the day, she retires in comfort to her flower-strewn bedroom with couture-filled closet, and they retreat to the plain attic servants’ quarters with rough pine dresser drawers. For Genet, it only makes sense for the maids to spend their free time fantasizing about plotting the gruesome death of their employer.
Considering that most of us work for someone else, I’d imagine that if Genet were around today, he’d envision an abundance of violent role playing going on behind closed American doors.
There’s a sass and a grace to the Fresno State production of “The Maids,” which certainly falls into the category of one of the weirdest recent shows at the university in a while. (And more power to the theater department for taking it on.) Director Ruth Griffin has said she wanted to stage the show as sort of a melodrama. That choice, paired with Griffin’s natural choreographic affinity for putting movement front and center in her shows, works well in this production — up till the final third of the show. As Genet’s play spins into a semi-absurdist whirl of anger and genuine suspense, however, Griffin’s stylized direction detracts from the bewildering climax instead of enhancing it.
In 1933 France, two maids who were sisters brutally murdered their employer and her daughter.
From that real-life event, Jean Genet in 1947 crafted his provocative play “The Maids,” a feisty and (at the time) scandalous show that emerged as a scathing comment on relations between the social classes. The maids regularly indulge in a ritualized game in which they act out a revenge fantasy involving the death of their mistress. Will this be the time they play the game to its conclusion?
Fresno State theater professor Ruth Griffin is directing the Genet classic. Known for her interest in physical and avant-garde theater, Griffin is describing her production, which opens Friday, Oct. 31, as a melodrama. We caught up with her via email to talk about the show. There’s an excerpt of the interview in Friday’s section; here’s the extended version.
Question: What is “The Maids” about?
Answer: “The Maids” constellates a situation between the haves and the have-nots, the entitled and the outcasts. They are a duality that exists together. Genet was inspired by a case in the news of 1933. The Papain sisters were maids who committed two brutal and ritualistic murders, slaying their mistress and her daughter. The French intellectuals of the time interpreted the murders as a compelling symbol of class relations.
What happened in Jersey didn’t stay in Jersey. It finally made it to Fresno.
Which makes fans of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons very happy.
The central San Joaquin Valley waited a very long time indeed for the national tour of “Jersey Boys” — which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary — to get to the Saroyan Theatre. And judging from the enthusiastic reception at Tuesday’s opening night performance, I’d say there’s a lot of pent-up demand for the smooth harmonies and Garden-State-sized angst that this jukebox musical provides. Valli and his bandmates over the years churned out an amazing number of No. 1 hits, and the evening at the Saroyan floated along in a sort of nostalgic cloud of goodwill, with songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” eliciting appreciative murmurs from the audience.
This national tour features an Equity cast — the same union to which Broadway performers belong — and the depth of talent is clear from the beginning. Compared to some of the other smaller, non-Equity tours that come through Fresno, this production is clearly a rung above. (It plays through Sunday Nov. 2.)
I have an in-depth Sunday Spotlight column for Oct. 19: a look at a push by people in the Fresno community to send the Holocaust one-woman play “Janka” to New York for an off-off Broadway run. From my column:
That dream is coming together thanks to a core of Fresno-area supporters. In a move that’s quite novel in the theater world, Noga and Speace are raising the $40,000 needed to finance a run at an Off-Off-Broadway theater. To kick off the campaign, benefit performances of the show will be held Oct. 25 and 26 at the 2nd Space Theatre.
“Janka” is a remarkable story featuring remarkable people, including the title character herself — who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp while most of her family died — to Janice Noga, Janka’s daughter-in-law, who has played the role for 12 years. I’m excited to think that “Janka” could be playing at the June Havoc Theatre on West 36th Street in Manhattan next May.
Selma Underground Productions opens a new version of “The Crucible” tonight at the Selma Arts Center. Expect some interesting staging. From the company:
“We are looking to produce a fresh take on this classic show,” says director Juan L. Guzmán. “My vision is to stay true to Miller’s intentions, to honor the script, and to let Miller’s words take center stage.
Set in the 1600s, amidst the infamous Salem witch trials, a community must grapple with their morals and faith as they set out to vanquish an evil that has permeated the wilderness they inhabit. “The Crucible” tells the story of one man’s fight to clear More his conscious and save his name, no matter the cost. The Selma Underground production will take liberties with staging and costuming, and will be set outside of the time period in which it is written. Even the stage itself will be altered, so as to provide a different viewing perspective for the audience.
The show runs through Oct. 26. Ticket information here. Here’s Guzmán talking about the show:
UPDATE 10/13: Services will be 6 p.m. Oct. 20 at North Fresno Church, 5724 N. Fresno St.
ORIGINAL POST: George Akina’s last role in theater was one he’d always wanted to play: the King of Siam in “The King and I.” Even though he’d been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, he spent much of the last year of his life on stage, appearing with Good Company Players in “Fiddler on the Roof,”“Shrek” and — in a witty, heartfelt and beautifully crafted performance — the King in “The King and I,” which closed May 16.
Mr. Akina died Friday. He was 63.
I had the privilege of sitting down in April with Mr. Akina midway through his “King and I” run and talking about him for my Sunday column about the challenges and joys of performing the role. (Sometimes it was hard. Very hard.) His gentleness of spirit, love of family and towering Christian faith shined through on that late Friday afternoon. I suggested to him that his love of theater was remarkable, and he told me: “The theater has been life-giving to me. When I think ‘What would I be doing if it weren’t for ‘The King and I’ right now?,’ I think I’d be much sicker.”
A few days later, he sent me a follow-up email, and that’s how I ended my column:
Yes, I do love theater, but not perhaps in the same way you meant. The truth is I love God first above all else. He has given me gifts which I can express on stage. It’s when I’m on stage using those gifts that I feel the most fulfilled, most alive, and most in His will. Add to that that my work entertains, engages and touches others and there is nothing else that can surpass it, save the love and support of my wife and children.
He will be missed.
Updated 10/14: Revised information about remembrances to come.
UPDATE 10/16: We had a robust turnout for our “Jersey Boys” giveaway with 293 total entries (including Beehive comments and mailed-in comments). Our winners are Jennifer Heintz and Susan Gilbert.
ORIGINAL POST: “Oh what a night” it will be on Oct. 28 when the national tour of “Jersey Boys” swaggers into the Saroyan Theatre for a six-day run. Broadway fans have waited for years for this big-deal jukebox musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to reach Fresno. The title is one of the highlights of the season, along with the upcoming “Book of Mormon” in July.
Here’s the exciting news for Beehive readers: Two lucky winners will each receive a pair of opening-night tickets PLUS the original Broadway cast recording CD. I’ll pick the winners randomly. To enter, leave a comment on this post answering this question: What’s your favorite Four Seasons song? (If you’re not sure, just say “My Eyes Adored You” — it’s my favorite.)
Deadline to enter is 10 a.m. Thursday. Please don’t enter more than once. I’ll be informing our winners by email on Thursday, so keep a watch on your inbox. If I haven’t heard back from a winner by 10 a.m. next Friday (Oct. 17), I reserve the right to pick another. You’ll need to be able to pick up your tickets and CD at The Bee. Rules are on the jump.
You never forget your first visit to “Avenue Q.” Eleven years after the irreverent musical opened in New York, I’m long past the days when puppet sex can shock me. But there’s still great joy in repeated viewings of this show. The best part about Fresno City College’s accomplished production is watching it with an audience that obviously includes lots of first-timers. As they discover the silly joys of this clever, tuneful musical — a decidedly adult-oriented take on “Sesame Street” — it’s like reliving the experience for the first time.
No question about it: There are a lot of moving parts required to deliver a satisfactory version of “Avenue Q,” and for the most part director Charles Erven and his creative team bring it together with flair. The biggest weakness is the sound. (I’ll get to that in a moment, alas.) But in terms of acting, direction, vocals, choreography and general stagecraft — and the very fine live band — I found a lot to applaud at the Saturday evening performance I saw.
“Race” checks the platitudes and niceties at the door. Walk into the inner sanctum of the law firm depicted in David Mamet’s brusque and provocative drama, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State, and you’ll get the “fly on the wall” treatment – people speaking in brutally frank terms about what the play refers to as this nation’s most incendiary topic.
“I know there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” the grizzled white attorney tells his young black associate. Within these walls, however, the politically correct rules of the game are suspended. Those things do get said. In very frank terms.
In several ways I like the Fresno State production of “Race” more than the actual play itself. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis has crafted a hard-hitting, thoughtfully staged outing that effectively captures what is at the essence of any Mamet play: a slugfest.
The Fresno City College and Fresno State theater seasons kick off tonight with two very different shows: the irreverent musical “Avenue Q” and the searing drama “Race.” You can’t dawdle when it comes to seeing either show, because both only run through Oct. 11.
I had a fun time conducting video “tell-all” interviews, above, with Kate and Rod, two of the puppet stars of “Avenue Q” at Fresno City College. It’s celebrity journalism at its finest. You can also read my 7 section interview with director Charles Erven.
And with David Mamet’s “Race,” pictured below, at Fresno State, we made the play the cover story in Friday’s 7 section. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis talks about his decision to stage this provocative play.
Pictured: Mitchell Lam Hau, Ryan Woods, Joel Young and Breayre Tender in “Race.”
I know. Everyone’s busy. You have every intention to get out to see a limited-run play, but things get in the way. Before you know it, it’s gone.
I’m talking about StageWorks Fresno’s “The Normal Heart,” which is in its third and final weekend. I recommend catching it at the Fresno Art Museum before it closes.
Tonight’s performance has a bonus: Curtain has been pushed back to 8:30 p.m. so playgoers can attend the opening reception of the Fresno Art Museum’s series of fall exhibitions, which include “Mildred Howard: Collective Memories.” Howard is the museum’s distinguished artist for 2014. (Here’s my rundown of today’s museum activities, which begin at 4:30 p.m., from today’s 7 section.) It also plays 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Another special museum/”Normal Heart” event: On Saturday, a forum titled “Let’s Talk … HIV/AIDS in the Central Valley” will be held 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
“The Normal Heart” is about the beginning days of AIDS, and playgoers might walk away 30 years later with a false sense of complacency that the disease isn’t something about to worry about anymore. Far from it. There are new cases of HIV/AIDS every day, and education is more important than ever. Kudos to StageWorks and the museum for reminding us of that.
The Fresno premiere of local playwright Andrew Champagne’s “Ben Minus Jake” opens tonight at the Fresno Soap Co. (formerly the Broken Leg Stage) and continues through Oct. 4. It’s a Curtain 5 Theatre Group production. From the company:
BEN MINUS JAKE tells the story of two friends. Haunted by his past, Ben, (Matthew Vargas) struggles to find a sense of identity, as Jake (Jason Andrew) desperately desires to move forward; even at the cost of his friendship. Director Jacob Williams’ debut show examines human identity and how those around ultimately help us come to terms with it.
Performances this weekend are 8 p.m. today (Sept. 26) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 27).
The new Good Company Players production of “The Addams Family” is a slick and happy affair. All the cylinders in this goofy engine of pop-culture genuflection run smoothly: sharp and witty direction, accomplished acting, spot-on costumes, strong sets, sturdy choreography and innovative lighting and projection design. Are Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics or Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book the stuff of musical theater that will endure for the ages? Probably not. But as this GCP production shows, you can have a heck of a lot of fun goofing off for an evening about a beloved TV show.
The key to the success of a show like “The Addams Family” is fidelity to the source material — something that director Dan Pessano takes to heart. This isn’t a time for a revisionist view of Morticia Addams, say, by putting her in a button-up blouse, or turning Uncle Fester into a hard-charging investment banker instead of a moon gazer. Pessano’s casting is superb, with each of the actors in the major roles matching their characters both physically and in terms of temperament.
The injustice at the core of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” isn’t as raw today as when the play came out in 1985. Some events depicted in Larry Kramer’s drama, set early in the AIDS crisis, had occurred just a year before. The fear, anger and throat-clutching sadness among the audience members at the New York Public Theater’s original production must have been suffocating.
But decades later, the injustice in this play — which is receiving a local premiere in a sturdy production from StageWorks Fresno — still seethes and provokes. Even with the distance of time, the choices made by media and government gatekeepers — and some in the gay community — to sweep early news about the epidemic under the rug seem perplexing and bizarre. It’s unfathomable today to think that a scare about Tylenol tampering earned a tsunami of coverage in the New York Times but that a new illness killing hundreds of New Yorkers had to fight to get to the front page. But that’s what happened.
The StageWorks production, directed with heartfelt commitment by J. Daniel Herring, immerses us in the autobiographical world of Kramer. His alter ego is Ned Weeks (played with verve and feeling by Terry Lewis), who vows to stir up a fuss when he realizes that many in the gay community are falling to a disease so new and mysterious it doesn’t have a name. Yet the organization he founds, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, is far from unified on the best approach. He continually clashes with Bruce Niles (Bob Creasy), the group’s president, who favors a less confrontational, more “establishment” approach. At the root of this conflict, Bruce — and many other gay men — object to any attempt to discourage sex in an age of newfound sexual permissiveness.
Lots of people have already snagged tickets to the national tour of “Jersey Boys” — which plays Oct. 28-Nov. 2 at the Saroyan Theatre — by buying season tickets or the package deal with the Fresno Grand Opera. But if you’ve been waiting for single tickets, they go on sale 10 a.m. Friday. Good luck!
The performance schedule is Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 1:00 and 6:30 pm.
Instead of sitting at home wondering whether it’s OK to continue watching football (American, that is), head out on the town and catch one of the dozens of live concerts happening in the next week. We’ve listed them here in our weekly BANDGEEK roundup.