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Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Avenue Q’

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Race’

“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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Addams Family’

Sometimes a show just has Itt.

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Normal Heart’

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Tempest’

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The Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” had a rough opening Thursday night at Woodward Park.

Very rough.

This production wasn’t ready for an audience. Awkward pauses, lethargic pacing, forgotten lines and a turgid advance through what should be an airy, magical narrative marred the evening. The production had some strong points in terms of choreography and costume and sound design, but the most important aspect of any Shakespeare play — the text — was often problematic among an array of cast members. I fear that director Julie Ann Keller got too absorbed in the movement and design of the show and didn’t make sure her actors were well versed in the fundamentals.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Mountaintop’

The view is grand from “The Mountaintop.”

The StageWorks Fresno production of Katori Hall’s provocative play about the imagined last night of Martin Luther King, Jr. is deftly staged and strongly acted. Director Joel C. Abels crafts a powerhouse production that manages to seem both taut and dreamy — a charismatic and combustible combination. 

It’s tricky to write about “The Mountaintop” because it’s one of those plays that, frankly, works better the less you know about it. (When New York Times critic Ben Brantley reviewed the show in 2011, he noted that the production’s press representatives requested that he not divulge certain key plot details.) But there are some essentials to know going in: The action takes place on the evening of April 3, 1968 in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. On the next day, King was assassinated on the motel’s balcony.

Hall’s take on what happened on that last night of his life comes purely from her literary imagination. In this two-person drama, she invents the character of Camae, a maid at the motel. Camae knocks on King’s door with room service after a long day for him in which he gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. What follows — their conversation and the events that unfold on a strange and stormy night — is pure conjecture.

But enough is grounded in what we know about King — his formidable strengths and all-too-human weaknesses — to give the experience a fly-on-the-wall authenticity.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Underpants’

There are several problems with the well-intentioned but uneven production of “The Underpants” playing at the Fresno Soap Co., but the biggest is this: a sense of scale.

Director R.S. Scott needs to dial back on the broadness of his cast member’s performances and the vigorous tone of his direction in this gentle farce about a woman in 1910 Germany who creates a scandal when she drops her underpants at a parade for the king. In a word, most of the performances are too big, especially in the intimate space of the Fresno Soap Co., formerly known as the Broken Leg Stage. Gestures, vocals and in general an overall sense of “staginess” need to be more restrained.

“The Underpants” is a production of the Curtain 5 Theatre Group and Jump Right in Productions. I’m grateful that it decided to stage this comedy, adapted by the actor Steve Martin from Carl Sterheim’s German clever farce, because it was my first time seeing it.

In the play, we meet Louise (Rhesma Meister),the young wife of a blustery Dusseldorf clerk. Her husband, Theo (Christopher Cook), is irate because she is the talk of the town for dropping her underpants at the parade. Her slightly salacious act seems to correspond with her own sexual frustrations. (Her husband says they can’t afford a baby.) Things get complicated when two men — a hypochondriac barber (Clinton Couron) and a suave and unctuous poet (Jason Andrew) show up wanting to rent a room in Louise and Theo’s flat. They aren’t so much interested in the lodgings as they are in the landlady.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

The first real dagger of the evening comes early.

“Lay off my father,” snaps Martha, aka theater’s most famous frustrated 1960s faculty wife. Leslie Martin, who brings the character in Edward Albee’s classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to life in an outstanding Artists’ Repertory Theatre production at the Severance Theatre, imbues her words to her husband with a steely, razor-sharp menace that could be the precursor to a “Game of Thrones”-style killing spree.

Up till this point the slings and arrows in this whimsically ferocious outing have been of the play-fighting variety, as we watch one of the famous sparring couples in American theater history — Martha and her professor husband, George, played with towering skill and feeling by Brad Myers — spar with each other in an evening of “fun and games.” Martha’s father is president of the small New England college at which her husband works, and even though both enjoy mocking the old man, there are lines that can be crossed.

One of the great strengths of “Virginia Woolf” is in the way it can turn dangerous on you in a split-second. I love how this production, directed by Myers, makes you feel that danger. But this is more than the story of an alcohol-fueled raging couple. The play is built on a toxic relationship, and yet Albee keeps us guessing throughout as to where these characters truly stand.

There are far wider more perilous lines than sniping about Martha’s father that are crossed later in the play, but even when things get uglier — and, oh, how ugly they get — there’s always a sense of ambiguity.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘[title of show]‘

My Capture

I’ve seen “[title of show]“ three times now. The first time, back in 2006,  was the original Off-Broadway version at the Vineyard Theatre. The next two times have been thanks to StageWorks Fresno, which produced this trippy, self-referential musical about two friends writing a musical first in 2010 at the Severance Theatre, and now, a new version at the Dan Pessano Theatre.

What strikes me after three viewings is this: I’m amazed how much I end up rooting for the “show within a show” to succeed.

Even though we all know the outcome even before “[title of show]” begins — this tiny production with four characters and a keyboard did make it all the way to Broadway, back in 2008 — I’ve gotten wrapped up each time in the excitement and tension of cheering the show on despite almost impossibly long odds. The show’s creators, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, make the leap from what could be a smarmy, cloying exercise in self-indulgence (“look at us as we impishly chronicle our artistic journey!”) into something that feels bigger than two guys plus their two gal friends riding an express train to Musical Theater Geekdom. There’s a freshness of spirit, a warmth and appeal to the artist in us all, that transcends the fluff.

Director Joel Abels finds the upbeat crispness in the show while still milking it for all its warmth.

The new StageWorks Fresno production is deftly staged and beautifully sung. Still, if I were to square it off against the 2010 version in a cage match, I’d give the nod by a nose to the earlier version.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Macbeth’

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It isn’t particularly graceful. There’s no upper-crust, commune-with-the-classics feel. This isn’t the kind of show where you feel like throwing roses on the stage afterward.

But Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s brutish and drastically truncated adaptation of “Macbeth” — which dumps much of the politics and history of the famed play, along with the spectacle of “double, double, toil and trouble” — packs quite a visceral punch. It makes me think of a short, ugly fireplug of a boxer: the kind of scrappy underdog who isn’t elegant in the ring but manages to deliver some powerful and unexpected blows.

The production plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 12 (no show on July 4) at the Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage in Woodward Park.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’

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This one’s for Grandma and Grandpa.

In lesser hands, the sweetly written  “Over the River and Through the Woods” could have hardened by the end of two acts into a sticky, sentimental clump. But not with Dan Pessano at the helm. As director of this little summer gem from Good Company Players — which I highly recommend — Pessano has assembled a terrific quartet of veteran company actors playing two sets of grandparents who dote upon their smothered grandson. Then he elicited from them wonderfully warm and textured performances that never sputter into the saccharine.

That’s a pretty big accomplishment. The set-up of “Over the River,” written by Joe DiPietro, already strays big-time into aw-shucks, idealized territory. Nick (a sharp Alex Vaux) is a 27-year-old marketing executive in New York who still treks back to his hometown of Hoboken, N.J., every Sunday to have dinner with all four of his tight-knit Italian-immigrant grandparents. For someone his age to be able to claim four living grandparents is fairly remarkable. To have them live them so close together — and get along so well — is even more so.

When Nick gets a promotion that will take him to Seattle, his grandparents are devastated. They band together and gamely try to keep him in town by setting him up with a blind date (played by an assured Erica Riggs) at their weekly Sunday dinner. Their attempt at match-making provides much of the comedy. But there’s more to the play than the amusing meddling-grandparents theme. On a deeper level, this is a story about the ease with which family ties can fray in our culture.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘New Wrinkles’

New Wrinkles 2014

The 26th edition of “New Wrinkles” is one of the best I’ve seen.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the annual musical revue at Fresno City College, which features performers ages 55 and older. In a culture that relentlessly (and almost psychotically) worships youth, particularly in entertainment, it’s refreshing to watch more mature performers strut their stuff with the same dedication, enthusiasm and relentless pursuit of show-biz polish as their less senior counterparts. (And why not? Younger theater people become older theater people, and the talent remains.)

This year’s production, “Rockin’ Through the Ages,” which continues through June 15, is directed with finesse and flair by David Bonetto. He steers the format in a slightly different course than the very fine productions of years past. With an emphasis on rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a tighter feel in terms of style and subject matter. The traditional “one-liner” jokes are gone, and with them some (but not all) of the show’s vaudeville feel. Gone, too, is the variety of dance styles and vocals — there’s less tap dancing, one token waltz, and no Broadway-style production numbers.

Instead we’re taken on a musical journey by a DJ (a personable and very effective Darrell Yates, who wrote the script) who “spins” the history of rock, from early days (Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens) to the almost contemporary (Katy Perry). In an impressive bit of product placement, the idea is that Yates is on the air for local radio station KYNO, which gets plugs throughout the show.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

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It’s funny how songs bounce around in your head the first day or so after watching a tuneful musical. Before experiencing the perky but flawed new Good Company Players production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, I would have guessed that one of the songs that always sticks with me from the show — the famously tongue-twisting Major-General’s song, say, or the addictive patter of the “Paradox” number — would have been rattling on repeat in my interior world the next day.

But no. The morning after I saw the show, the tune was clear and insistent: “For I am a pirate king!” I hummed to myself as I brushed my teeth. “And it is, it is, a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!”

Why? Heck if I know. Maybe I always wanted to be a pirate. (Or, at least, a nice pirate like the ones in “Penzance.”) I suspect a good part of it has to do with GCP veteran Peter Allwine, who plays the King with such booming appeal. (It’s one of my favorite recent performances from him.) Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s natty costumes and David Pierce’s cheery set helped put me in the pirate mood, too. (All pirates should have regular access to washing machines.) And, of course, there’s Sullivan’s music, which with an irresistible song such as “Pirate King” can scurry up into your ear canal, much like something scary you’d find in the jungle, and burrow its way into your brain — there to slosh around for a while.

While this production is handsomely staged and filled with energy, there are other songs and parts of the show that didn’t grab me with such gusto, however.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’

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He sweeps into the room with an air that can only be described as rakish: There’s a swagger to his step, a foppish extravagance to his nod, the slightest of leers flashing across his otherwise impeccably polite face. Le Vicomte de Valmont, deftly played by Terry Lewis in the amiable new Good Company Players production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” struts into this production’s famed romper room of sexual warfare with the grace and confidence of a show dog with tail held high.

It’s as if he’s announcing: You want to turn sex into a game of chess? I’m the grand master.

Best known to audiences through the 1988 movie version, “Dangerous Liaisons,” Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 18th Century novel by Choderlos de Laclos plays out as a sort of “Hunger Games ” with knee breeches. Valmont plays a high-stakes game with his former lover, La Marquise de Merteuil (an adept Haley White), the rules of which basically involve toying with other people’s affections and ruining lives. It’s all done against a backdrop of upper-crust French aristocratic excess that makes the amorality of the tale that much more striking. If these people actually had to work for a living, they wouldn’t have the time to be so cruel.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Wicked’

Wicked NY

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Hello Out There’ and ‘Stirring Stu’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Reasons to be Pretty’

pretty

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The King and I’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’

Fantastic Fox 2

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The 39 Steps’

My Capture

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.)

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Hello, Dolly!’

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’

FORUM

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Year with Frog and Toad’

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Welcome back, Frog. Welcome back, Toad.

StageWorks Fresno’s “A Year With Frog and Toad” was a superlative show when it opened last December at Severance Theatre. After a viewing of this year’s inspired  incarnation, I’m happy to report that my opinion hasn’t changed. If anything, I’m even more insistent that the show’s intimacy and impact make it a must-see for those who want to expose their children to quality theater.

Brent Moser and Joel C. Abels return as Frog and Toad, respectively, and in the careful hands of these veteran performers, the gentle warmth and clever, heartfelt insights of Arnold Lobel’s popular series of popular children’s books remain ever as delightful.

There are two cast changes from last year, but any Fresno theatergoer knows that you’re in safe hands when those names are Taylor Abels and Danielle Jorn. They play two of the three ensemble members who play the birds and other assorted animals who pop in and out of Frog and Toad’s idyllic existence. Each gets a chance to shine. (This year, for some reason, the Moles — who in their stiff fur coats have a sort of crusty, Baltic swagger — particularly tickled my funny bone.)

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