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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Wicked’

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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’

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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’

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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’

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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’

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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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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Clybourne Park’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘A Christmas Carol’

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I’m sorry to say it, but: Humbug.

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Young Frankenstein’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Year Zero’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

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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.”

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Our Town’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Rocky Horror Show Live!’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The First Breeze of Summer’

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Lucretia Edwards was quite a woman.

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘From Up Here’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Shrek the Musical’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

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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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Julius Caesar’

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Brutus and gang don’t kill this “Julius Caesar.” Weak direction does.

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Night, Mother

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What really got me was the coffee creamer.

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.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

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“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.

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