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.)
Lindsey, who wants to build a big new house in an old neighborhood, is meeting with some concerned future neighbors. She’s pregnant, worked up, adamant. The minefield-riddled battlefield onto which she has stumbled is not a place she wants, or is prepared, to be.
Then again, how many among us, beyond professional political pundits or shock jocks, really want to get into honest discussions about race?
But here Lindsey is — an assertive and upscale white woman trying to weigh in on the issue without triggering any explosions — in the wonderfully compelling Fresno State production of the barbed and funny play “Clybourne Park,” flailing away with the rest of the “combatants” as she discusses the gentrification of a certain Chicago neighborhood.
And unlike Scrooge, I didn’t change my tune by the end of the Good Company Players production of “A Christmas Carol” at the 2nd Space Theatre. The show isn’t up to GCP standards.
The bright spot is Mark Norwood in the title role of Scrooge. It takes true theatrical finesse to breathe originality and presence into a cliche-prone word like “humbug,” and Norwood is more than up for the task. (You, the reader, might not feel as benevolently about my success in tossing the famed utterance into the lead sentence of this review.) His Scrooge is grumpy and sour, of course, and occasionally a bit whimsical, but he’s also a little scary, which is what this show needs if it isn’t going to descend into cloying sentimentality. Norwood gives us a dark place from which Scrooge can journey into the light, which makes his redemption worth the trip.
Or should have, if directors Max and Nicholle Debbas had given him more of a convincing world for him to inhabit.
Mel Brooks is the first name you’re going to associate with the musical version of “Young Frankenstein,” of course. It’s his wacky world from the 1974 classic film created up there on stage — the memorable characters, silly sight gags, dancing monsters and, as expected, quotable one-liners. (You know you’re in good hands when the title of one song is “He Vas My Boyfriend,” sung by the severe — and severely randy — Frau Blucher, the very mention of whose name makes off-stage horses whinny.)
But besides Brooks, there’s another name that makes the new Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater so successful: Fred Bologna.
As director, Bologna is in top form in this silly, bawdy, wonderfully staged show. Once again, I find myself liking the local premiere of a (relatively) new Broadway show at Roger Rocka’s more than the national tour that came through the Saroyan. (The same thing happened recently with GCP’s “Shrek.) Bologna’s innovative use of the small Roger Rocka’s stage, clever effects, choreography and wonderfully dressed sets (he, along with Sam Ortega, doubles as prop master, and what an array of beakers, skulls, skeletons, scientific diagrams and frightening lab equipment the two of them have assembled) all contribute to a slick, happy production.
One of the great things about theater is the way it can open up new slivers of the human experience.
I have a basic knowledge of the atrocities suffered in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime — the era of the “Killing Fields.” And I know that large numbers of Cambodian refugees settled in California, with Long Beach a top destination.
But Fresno City College’s production of “Year Zero,” directed by Chuck Erven, added another dimension to the Cambodian immigrant story for me by making it personal. And it does it in a thoughtful, funny way. Though the production isn’t quite as smooth and sure of itself as it could be, it’s heartfelt. (Only two performances remain: 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 23.)
Michael Golamco’s play uses two young Cambodian-Americans to frame the American immigrant experience: Ra (Thuy Duong), a UC Berkeley student; and her brother, Vuthy (Jared Flores), a 16-year-old social misfit who is finding it hard to navigate the treacherous waters of high school in Long Beach.
Ra and Vuthy’s father died years ago, but they’ve just recently lost their mother — who while unseen remains a major character. Ra has returned from college for the funeral and to look after her brother. The plan is for her to return to college and for brother to live with a family friend.
Scott Moreau, who plays a superb Johnny Cash in the national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” has it all in relation to the icon he’s portraying: the physical size, the carriage, the way he holds his guitar. But it’s his voice — a resplendent bass that digs down to the very bottom of what I imagine to be a very big gravel pit — that had Cash fans walking the line Tuesday at the Saroyan Theatre.
His performance easily stood out for me, though I mostly remained lukewarm about the rest of the production throughout.
This jukebox musical imagines the famous afternoon of Dec. 4, 1956, when an impressive quartet — Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis — gathered in a sort of impromptu recording session at Sun Records in Memphis. As imagined in Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s version of the event, we get a little back story on each artist, mostly in terms of the relationship of each with legendary producer Sam Phillips, who served as kind of a father figure to all — and acts as narrator.
Mostly it’s the music that gets the spotlight: such well-known numbers as “Who Do You Love?” (performed by James Barry as Perkins), “Memories Are Made of This” (performed by Cody Slaughter as Presley), ”Real Wild Child” (performed by John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis) and Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” always moves me. An example: I’m tugged by melancholy early in the first act when the Stage Manager — the semi-omnipotent narrator who in a very non-ordinary way guides the audience through the machinations of a very ordinary town –casually mentions that Doc Gibbs will die in 1930. The hospital will be named for him.
That’s years in the future, at least the future according to 1901, the year in which the first act is set, and it has nothing to do with the story at hand, or even the story to come, really. (Doc Gibbs actually lives a lot longer than many of the other characters in the play.) But the mention of the doctor’s impending death, a tossed-off line related so dispassionately, speaks to how the playwright makes “Our Town” into a rumination on time — and how little of it humans really have. Doc Gibbs was there. Now he isn’t.
In Fresno State’s handsome, vibrant production of the classic play, we get thoroughly wrapped up in this timeless exploration of time, if you will. Director J. Daniel Herring’s well-crafted staging has a burnished, heartfelt feel that never tries to hide the show’s historic underpinnings. (This is “Our Town’s” 75th anniversary.) But it does it in a way that feels fresh, almost modern. If this production were a furniture store, it’d be a Room and Board, not a Thomasville.
Ah, “Rocky.” You’ve become an annual affair, and perhaps it’s inevitable there are years when you slump a little compared to previous outings.
While the Artists’ Repertory Theatre production at the Severance Theatre offers plenty of the wild “Rocky” fun for which it’s come to be known, it had some problems at Thursday’s opening night performance. The choreography and ensemble work was not as crisp as I’ve seen in the past, with even “Time Warp” coming out a little messy. A few of the leading performances were weak. And the sound, credited to designer Jerry Phanthamany, was simply awful.
I’ve harped on the sound at “Rocky” before, but I’ve never heard it this bad. The small live band, conducted by Katie Steinhauer, pounded merrily away at top volume throughout, managing to drown out not only many of the solo vocals but even vast sections of the ensemble singing as well. Yes, many of those gorgeous harmonies in Richard O’Brien’s surprisingly lush score were swept away on an aural tsunami of drums and keyboard. Forget about trying to understand the lyrics in a show that already has an almost unintelligible plot (which is, of course, part of its campy charm). There were times I couldn’t even hear the voices, much less try to consider the articulation.
It even reached the point when I started to contemplate: Could recorded music work at a live “Rocky Horror”? Generally I’d be appalled at such a suggestion, but if ART can’t get the sound balanced in the small Severance Theatre space, perhaps it should be a matter worth pursuing.
She still is, actually, as an elderly grandmother in Leslie Lee’s “The First Breeze of Summer.” As the matriarch of an extended family and a pillar in her church, she exudes a sense of stability and morality, particularly to her grandsons.
But grandmothers were young once. One of the intriguing aspects of this play, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre, is that the past and present march next to each other, giving us a view of Lucretia that acknowledges her resolve, independence and sexuality. As the complex narrative dips into the lives of her family — all taking place within a few days of her birthday — we get specific views of the African-American experience from economic, religious and sociological standpoints.
This production, directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, is a hybrid of sorts. It’s part staged reading, with actors sitting in chairs with scripts in front of them. It’s also partly staged, with various scenes performed by off-script actors in fully blocked, or acted out, moments. There are no sets. Costumes are minimal, with actors wearing variations of contemporary basic black.
The result is awkward — and somewhat disappointing.
Most parents would ache to think their kids don’t fit in at school. Kenny, the central figure in the timely and nuanced — if not completely satisfying — Fresno City College production of “From Up Here” certainly seems a candidate for parental concern. Ostracized by his peers, with only his deeply sardonic sister to support him, he is one of those troubled kids for whom high school is something to endure.
Kenny, played by a standout Gabe Griffith, is starting his senior year after a long suspension. Through oblique references, we learn that this troubled character was involved on school grounds in an act of violence — or at least threatened violence. (I feel that when I wrote my advance story about the play, without having yet seen it, that I perhaps unknowingly revealed too much about the plot, or was at least too explicit about Kenny’s transgression, in light of the nuance of the script.) He’s being allowed to return to school, but one of the requirements for his return is to make an apology speech in front of the student body.
Thus, a boy who was on the periphery before — treated as invisible by some, scornfully by others — has become a school celebrity, but known for all the wrong reasons.
Somehow, some way, with a budget a fraction of a national tour, a stage smaller than a Broadway star’s dressing room, a prerecorded musical track instead of a live orchestra and a cast that works day jobs, Good Company Players manages once again to produce a show that has more dazzle and heart — not to mention more laughs — than the professional tour that came through town just months before.
With “Shrek the Musical,” GCP capitalizes on the intimate setting at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. It gives us a show that connects with the audience in a way that just didn’t work for me when I saw the non-Equity national tour of the same show in April at the Saroyan Theatre.
I don’t count this 2008 musical, with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, among my favorites in terms of score. Aside from a few jolly ensemble tunes and a couple of nice ballads, the music in the show doesn’t have much impact for me. (I have no interest in buying the cast recording — and this from someone who has hundreds.) The easy-going and meandering charm of the original movie seems to be replaced by a mad-dash comic sensibility that often tries too hard.
But snappy and creative direction by Denise Graziani, an inspired production design and an excellent cast all elevate the material to another level.
We all need a little “Earnest” in our lives. I’m guessing that the strong new production of the Oscar Wilde classic “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the 2nd Space Theatre is easily the tenth time I’ve seen the show, including several professional outings, and I’m always happy to see another fine version.
“Fine” is certainly a word to use for this Good Company Players production, which delivers the silly drawing-room comedy — boasting Wilde’s famed wordplay and prickly parries at Britain’s stuffy upper classes — in a well-directed, nicely cast package. I’ve seen productions in the past of “Earnest” that felt overstuffed and somehow rounded, like plump little Victorian pillows, content to be museum pieces. Director J. Daniel Herring achieves another sensibility here: this “Earnest” feels a little sharper, more angled, brisk and athletic. And very funny.
Let’s start with the screeching. In early scenes of this political/historical thriller — a riveting narrative in which a group of Caesar’s allies turn on him because they’re afraid of him toppling the Roman Republic and becoming king — we watch tense negotiations between Cassius (Gabriela Lawson) and Brutus (Jay Parks). Will Brutus agree to join Cassius in the plot against Caesar?
Cassius was a man, of course. The whole idea of playing the character as a woman? I’m fine with that. I think it adds another level of complexity. But from the beginning in this production, Lawson affects a screechy, grandiose acting style. Even in her delicate, intrigue-laden interactions with Brutus, she bellows at him as if he’s lost 80% of his hearing. The problem isn’t just the volume. It’s the stagey, overwrought line readings that director Erica Riggs has tolerated — or drawn out — from some of her leading actors.
The scene is in the kitchen of the Cates household in the Organic Theater Factory’s unforgettable site-specific production of “ ‘Night, Mother.” Jessie, the daughter, is refilling the creamer while having an intense discussion with her mother.
It took only a few seconds for the sharp odor to float over to where I was sitting, about 15 feet away.
Up until that point in the production, I was perfectly well aware on an intellectual level that I was experiencing Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a private home. But it wasn’t until the creamer that the full emotional impact hit me: that I was there with them, these two troubled women, as if I’d somehow been rendered invisible and was being allowed to peek in at a very private moment in their lives.
This ” ‘Night, Mother” (continuing through Sept. 8) is a grand experiment, and you should feel privileged if you get to take part in it. Director Adam Schroeder, working with two exceptional actors — Leslie Martin as the mother and Danielle Jorn as the daughter — provide an experience that makes you feel both a voyeur and a confidante.
“Les Miserables” is all the rage at the community theater level this summer. When I heard that Reedley’s River City Theatre Company was tackling the ambitious musical, my first thought was: But the stage is so small!
Don’t fret. I’m still not quite sure how they do it, but director Mark Norwood and set designers Sarah Wiebe and Steve Jones manage to fit a tidy but effective version of the musical’s famed barricade into the tiny space at the Reedley Opera House. What makes this particular set piece — and this production in general — work so well is the intimacy of the space. Sure, you might have seen a professional touring production of “Les Miz” with massive stage and herculean spinning turntable offering a widescale view of rebellion. But in Reedley, it’s as if you’re right up there with the actors, holed up with them behind a bunch of junk on a narrow Paris street, feeling their anger and angst, absorbing their stirring words and the show’s famed melodies, as if you’re part of the fight.
It’s that way throughout this fully staged, full-length, small but scrappy rendition of “Les Miz.” You get it all: Jean Valjean’s chain gang, Fantine’s tearful death, Madame Thenardier’s over-the-top meanness, Enjolras’ studly student bravado, Javert’s tormented psyche. Some scenes, such as the barricades and the gate outside Valjean’s Paris house, work extremely well on the small stage. (I did miss the traditional onstage demise of Gavroche, but that’s the director’s prerogative.) Others, such as the sewer scene, take a little more imagination on the part of the audience. But it all somehow works.
How do you stage a revival in the Valley — portions of which qualify as California’s Bible Belt — of the nearly 60-year-old classic play “Inherit the Wind,” which bats around the issue of teaching evolution vs. creationism in schools?
If you’re the Woodward Shakespeare Festival, it seems you do it as even-handedly as you can. Director Gabriela Lawson scrupulously avoids taking sides in this tale, a slightly fictionalized account of the famed “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which a small-town Tennessee teacher in 1925 was prosecuted for teaching his students about evolution.
That objectivity lends a strong historical sense to this production. The tone and tenor of a small town whose inhabitants fear the attacks of godless “science” on what they perceive to be ironclad Biblical truth are nicely captured. So is the frustration of people who believe that religion has no place in a public-school classroom.
But theater isn’t a voter-information pamphlet. From a dramatic standpoint, I found this production (which continues through Aug. 10) to be curiously inert. Despite two nice leading performances as the famed opposing attorneys on the case, the production stirred in me neither outrage, exhilaration, nor even much introspection. The best I could conjure was a slight bemusement that the arguments in the creationism-evolution debate haven’t seemed to have budged in 90 years. (Was a Biblical “day” 24 hours before the sun was created? Or a couple of billion years? You can find those arguments raging today.)
As the ensemble cast might sing: “Go, go, go, go.”
Director Scott Hancock offers nice, fresh moments by throwing some contemporary references into this oft-performed Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, based on the “coat of many colors” tale of Joseph and his brothers from the Bible. Who knew, say, that Joseph had an iPad?
The musical, originally written as a school project, is known for its wholesome, campy songs and mixing of musical styles. Some productions I’ve seen have tended to sink into a saccharine mush. It takes strong acting to find heart in the material, and this production doesn’t deliver it consistently. But Hancock’s peppy direction — and some nice staging twists on traditional ways of presenting the material — makes this production hum along quite nicely. I particularly like:
** The high enthusiasm level of the cast, which barrels onto the stage with lots of energy in the opening number and never lets up. (Debby Mennucci and Katie Green are credited with additional choreography.)
We first see him stomping along in the dark, making his entrance past the tables at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater as if he’s an audience member who imbibed too much iced tea and can’t wait for intermission to use the bathroom. He’s a big guy: dressed in a blocky brown pinstriped suit, his hair cropped short and slicked back, his footsteps clunky. He talks big, too: a Boston accent as thick as chowder, loud and nasally, a voice that could startle a cat. Though he’s a police detective, he doesn’t seem to have a nimble bone in his body; he’s like a bulldozer with a gun.
And then Tyler Branco, playing Lt. Frank Cioffi in the sparkling Good Company Players production of “Curtains” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater (continuing through Sept. 8), reveals his character’s love of musical theater. He turns to strike a dance pose in the song “Show People.” And suddenly he’s as light on his feet as a wispy ballerina. (Well, almost.) It’s one of those wide-smiled, goofy moments so endearing it sets the tone for the entire show.
One of the advantages of being a long-time theater critic and watching community actors grow and mature is getting to be present at the moment they offer a truly breakthrough performance. That’s the case with Branco in “Curtains,” who puts a big, comic stamp in the role of the detective tasked to solve the murder of a Broadway-bound musical’s much-loathed leading lady. Branco has offered fine supporting moments in previous GCP shows, from the blustery ex-husband in “The Wedding Singer” and the sweet-voiced crooner in “Paint Your Wagon” to the hilarious French taunter in “Spamalot.” Now, in a delightful turn in “Curtains,” he demonstrates he can carry a show.
What it comes down to with any living organism, really, is this: a fight to stay alive. There’s a reason military metaphors are used so often in conjunction with illness and disease. Antibiotics “combat” infections. Chemotherapy “battles” the bad cells. A valiant patient “fights” till the dying breath.
Perhaps one reason Dale Wasserman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel by Ken Kesey, retains its impact today — despite its 1960s vibe and feel — is that it so deftly captures this spirit of conflict. And it does so on several different levels. When I’ve seen other productions of the play, I focused mostly on its anti-establishment thrust, as so famously captured in the epic battle between the caustically evil Nurse Ratched, who rules over her ward at a mental institution with an iron hand, and the fight-the-power swagger of Randle P. McMurphy, the petty criminal with a temper who sees a stint in an asylum as a way to get out of hard labor. When Milos Foreman made the film version in the 1970s, he used it as a vivid commentary on the social unrest of the time.
At this new and overall nicely crafted Good Company Players production, which runs at the 2nd Space Theatre through Aug. 18, the rebel-in-society motif still comes through. But for me, an interesting — almost organic/biological — view comes into focus as well. Perhaps it’s because we live in an age in which a substantial chunk of the U.S. population downs anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs on a daily basis. Mental illness isn’t just something that happens to a select group of institutionalized unfortunates.The patients in “Cuckoo” aren’t so much zoo animals at which we gape (as we were more likely to do back in the 1960s) as regular folks unlucky enough to get sick. Yes, the treatment techniques depicted from the 1960s seem barbaric today — from indiscriminate electro-shock treatments to full-fledged frontal lobotomies. Weapons change. But the fight to survive continues.
What better time than midsummer (well, technically, early summer) to watch Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Then add the verite of watching it outside, with a gentle evening breeze stirring away the last remnants of a robustly warm Fresno day, and the experience can be magical.
It helps to have a competent version of the classic play complete the scene, and that’s what you get with the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s latest incarnation. (It plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 6, with no performance July 4.) Director Aaron Spjute delivers a thoughtful, often funny production that delineates one of the play’s themes particularly well: the wild, uncivilized forest tempting our baser urges vs. the cooler, more cerebral structure of the city appealing to our higher instincts.
“New Wrinkles” sure knows how to throw a birthday party.
The beloved senior musical revue is 25 years old, and the anniversary installment of the show — which plays through June 9 at the Fresno City College Theatre — is a sweet, smartly staged salute to a quarter century of show-biz-lovin’ older folks.
For “New Wrinkles” fans, the show is a trip down memory lane. Using a greatest-hits format, director Fred Bologna offers a selection of some of the most popular numbers through the years. It’s a sure-fire tactic: Watching 17 ladies dolled up like biker gals dancing with walkers while performing “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” is just as funny the second time around.
If you’re hoping to hear some of the show’s famed comic one-liners, you won’t be disappointed. Some of these groaners are so big they deserve their own zip code. (Sample: One woman tells another she went on a date with a neighbor and had to slap him twice. “You mean that nice old gentleman got fresh with you?” her friend asks. “No,” the first one responds. “I thought he was dead.”)
This year’s show is very well rehearsed. Bologna is a master at moving from one act to the next quickly and efficiently. In any other year, I’d grouse about the show being at least 20 minutes too long — I wasn’t out of there until after 10 p.m. — but I understand the challenges of cramming as many audience favorites as possible into a 25th anniversary show.
The mysterious visitor appears from the desert like a mirage come to life. She is named Sympathy the Learned, the most educated person in the world, and she’s come here to the court of the king to prove it. Ask me any question, she says to the wisest men in the kingdom. One of these skeptical men hopes to trip her up with this: “What are the 17 branches of Islam?”
She knows the answer, of course, answering the question confidently and briskly. Brianne Vogt, as Sympathy, is great in the role. But the best part for me about this moment in Fresno State’s sweet and gracefully staged production of “Arabian Nights,” which continues through Saturday at the John Wright Theatre, is the reaction of the ensemble cast members seated at her feet.
With each of the 17 answers to the question, the other actors, sitting cross-legged at attention, twist their upraised hands back and forth, almost as if they’re belly dancers with clackers counting off each correct response. There’s something nuanced and subtle about these gestures — mere slivers of movement in a show bursting with carefully conceived motion — that adds a precious zing to the scene. It’s wonderful.
Should one feel despair at the end of Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”? The 1895 punishment meted out to the great writer by the British legal system and his subsequent physical decline was a travesty, one of the great sadnesses of literary history (which, considering all the horrible things that have happened to artists over the years, is saying something).
Or should one feel vindication knowing that within mere years after Wilde was tossed into prison with hard labor for his homosexuality that his works were selling like crazy, and that less than a hundred years later many in British society would look back on the whole experience with shame and revulsion?
Interestingly, I felt both despair and vindication after viewing the The New Ensemble Theater Group’s new and uneven production, which continues for one more weekend at the Broken Leg Stage. I’ve become used to having a good “think” after one of TNE’s plays, and this one is no exception. Director Heather Parish’s brisk staging and Kaufman’s crackling script combine for a near whirlwind experience, but if you let the storyline and its implications soak in afterward, that’s when the real impact occurs.
She is polite and soft-spoken. Almost nun-like. With her black boxy dress, orthopedic shoes and head scarf — plus a string of pearls, the only carefree nod to ornamentation — she moves with a determined, contemplative air. When she asks a visitor for a small donation for the museum she’s spent her life building, it is with a demure nod and a slight bow, as if the mere mention of money detracts from the greater glory of preserving history.
But make no mistake. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf is not a pushover. There is steel within.
From our first meeting with the central character in the beautifully staged and acted production of “I Am My Own Wife” from StageWorks Fresno, it’s clear Charlotte is a survivor. In the hands of Terry Lewis, who gives the most riveting performance I’ve seen from him in numerous local theater outings, and director J. Daniel Herring, whose careful and deft touch is evident throughout this well crafted production, a perplexing and entrancing character comes to life in a rich, textured portrayal. The challenge for Lewis doesn’t stop with Charlotte, however. In this one-person show — which calls for a male actor to play a famous 20th Century transvestite — Lewis portrays all the characters, more than 40, in a tale that gently nudges us toward a deeper understanding not only of an interesting historical figure but also the nature of history itself.
The famous Broadway classic “They Call the Wind Maria” — which is pronounced “Mar-eye-ah,” for all you “Paint Your Wagon” neophytes out there — is a beautiful song. Tyler Branco, who starts off the song in the nicely staged Good Company Players revival at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, offers a sweet and moving interpretation.
But I surprised myself by falling for a different tune entirely, one that hasn’t quite stood the test of time as well as a song about the wind. It’s a throwaway comic ditty titled “In Between.” The song is performed by the amiable Greg Ruud, portraying the show’s central character, Ben, a hardscrabble gold prospector always hoping for the next big strike. He’s wooing a woman named Elizabeth (a sharply played Paige Parker), an unlikely candidate for betrothal considering she’s already married to someone else. But that isn’t as big a complication as you’d think. Elizabeth is, you see, the second wife of a Mormon gentleman who moves to a Gold Rush town in which men outnumber women 400 to one. So it makes perfect sense for her practical-minded husband to auction her off — yes, sell her, as in some other lucky chap buying a wife — to the highest bidder.
And thus we’re treated to “In Between,” an ode to mediocrity sung with a twinkle by Ben, who assures Elizabeth that he might not be the bravest or richest guy in the world, but neither is he the poorest or biggest coward. The song is one of the highlights of the show, an easygoing and sparkling nod to our hard-working, frontier-savvy forebears who flocked to California for gold. “Paint Your Wagon” isn’t about big, mythic heroes. Instead it’s about the colorful “average folks” who settled these parts in a time when sleeping inside was a luxury.