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.
My word for “Grease” is OK.
On one hand, the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production — the company’s annual all-ages community theater offering — includes some of the best choreographed numbers I’ve seen in a CMT show. (When the company performs the ecstatic first-act finale, “We Go Together,” which involves a flurry of hand-and-foot choreography, the precision and energy are remarkable.) There is fine singing throughout the production, including a few show-stopping moments. Vye Robinson’s scenic design and Trina Short’s costumes are strong. The live band is first-rate, with only a few balance problems. And when “Greased Lightning” makes an appearance, the car is a star. It should get its own dressing room.
On the other hand, I have some serious issues with how this production was cast, particularly the two leading roles. The lighting design doesn’t always work. While some ensemble numbers are excellent, a few — such as the iconic “Beauty School Dropout” — don’t have the impact they should. And the big climax of the show seems to just clunk into place, at least at the Saturday matinee I attended opening weekend.
The production continues through Sunday at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium.
Hey. You there, audience member. I want you to listen very closely to what I’m going to say.
Your mother was a hamster.
Now let’s gauge your reaction. Did you:
1) Immediately turn to the person nearest you — whether good friend or total stranger — and without hesitation, as if by Pavlovian response, blurt out “and your father smelt of elderberries”?
2) Offer a quizzical but hearty laugh, a little lost as to the context of the line but willing to extend your comic goodwill to such an offbeat non sequitur?
3) Listen with stone-faced bewilderment, trying to grasp at anything — anything! — remotely funny about someone declaring that the woman who bore you was a Eurasian rodent with large cheek pouches and a short tail — but finding yourself unable to cough up anything but a desultory chuckle?
If you’re in the first camp, you’ll likely react to the zany and well-done new Good Company Players production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” like a starving dieter granted permission to tear into a lemon meringue pie. If you fall into the second category, I’m guessing you’ll be happy to hop aboard and raft the comic whitewaters of this very silly and engaging musical.
And if you just don’t get the whole Monty Python phenomenon — and you don’t want to get it — you might, like the famed Black Knight, rather have your limbs chopped off one by one than subject yourself to an evening featuring some of the most famous bits of the Python legacy.
To this day, I still don’t understand how a play can be written by three people. Does one focus on the plot, another flesh out the characters and the third concentrate on the one-liners? Or does one do all the writing and the other two decide what to order for take-out?
After watching three Good Company Players productions now over a period of four years from the team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, it’s obvious that whatever the process, this trio has quite the machine going. After giving us “Dearly Beloved” in 2010 and “The Dixie Swim Club” in 2011, the latest title featured from the trio at the 2nd Space Theatre is the cheery but mostly unremarkable comedy “The Red Velvet Cake War.” (It continues Thursdays-Sundays through Feb. 24.)
With its goofy cracks about backwards Texans and inoffensive sex humor, this tale of a dysfunctional family reunion gone awry is aimed solidly at an older demographic. Hemorrhoid joke? Check. Gag about eating too many beans? Double check. A witticism about crafting? Triple check. Randy senior gentleman chasing even randier senior lady? Don’t bother with the scorecard; you’ve hit the jackpot.
The result is silly and innocuous fun that tickles a certain kind of funny bone. (As a dignified older woman sitting near me opening night said at intermission, “This is so crazy!”)
There’s only one (more) night only to catch the impressive production of “Dreamgirls” at the Saroyan Theatre. Solid, soulful vocals and an upbeat energy (especially in the dynamic second act) pump up this non-Equity national tour. But the top draw for me was the fascinating and effective scenic design, which added another theatrical texture to this oft-told tale. (It plays again 7:30 tonight at the Saroyan Theatre.)
This “Dreamgirls” keeps the same time period of 1962-1975 as it tells the story of the rise to the top of the fictional Dreams, a group loosely modeled on such 1960s R&B successes as The Supremes and The Shirelles, but it updates the look and feel of the original 1981 Broadway production. Instead of using traditional backdrops and set pieces, Robin Wagner’s scenic design consists solely of a series of LED panels that rotate, glide and move up and down. Five of these screens come together to provide a top-to-bottom backdrop, while additional panels downstage closer to the audience shift from side to side, carving out the stage into smaller spaces for more intimate scenes.
The result is a bare but charged visual aesthetic that might not satisfy theater traditionalists who like to see more literal scenery. (Except for one piece of industrial-looking metal furniture, the LED panels, credited to Howard Werner, provide all the visual information other than the costumed actors.) But I think the concept works really well.
California Public Theater is presenting the rock musical “RENT” — the much-loved Jonathan Larson tale of Mark, Roger, Mimi and other New York bohemians struggling with poverty and AIDS at the turn of the 21st Century — at the Tower Theatre for a short two-performance run. (The closing show is 8 p.m. Saturday.) A hard-working cast gets through the material, but apart from a few strong vocal and acting performances, much of the production is substandard. With the best seats selling for $38.50 and the cheapest at $23.50, I cannot recommend it, particularly at that price point.
Terrible sound (designed by Steve Allen) marred the opening night production, with the wireless microphones of the leading characters repeatedly going in and out. Buzzing sounds and feedback plagued the evening, and a couple of times the audience heard what sounded like interjections from the backstage crew, or perhaps they were just random voices picked up on an unintended frequency. Songs delivered as phone messages from Mark’s mother and others were rushed and hard to understand, blotting out key plot points. The worst part was the balance between the amplified major roles and the unamplified members of the ensemble. Such powerful numbers as “Christmas Bells” and “Another Day” lost their impact. (On the positive side, the nice live band, directed by Matthew D. Wheeler, never overpowered the singers.)
Some fine solo voices — not to mention a bounteous amount of holiday cheer — are the best part of the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “White Christmas,” which is finishing up a three-weekend run at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. This good-hearted adaptation of the classic 1954 film, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a song-and-dance duo 10 years after World War II, is highlighted by a booming-voiced Nick Netzley in the Crosby role crooning out a series of Irving Berlin’s happy tunes, including the famed title number.
There are other aspects of this production, diligently directed by Elizabeth Fiester, that are clunky, however, including the dancing — which is a major drawback for such a dance-heavy show — and some uneven acting. The production’s scenic design (by Devin Gregory) also seems a little spare and uninspired compared to past CMT productions, though the large number of locations that has to be depicted makes this show a challenge for any design team.
“White Christmas” is CMT’s annual community theater production, meaning that the cast is all ages instead of 20 years and younger, which is the case for the company’s other shows throughout the year. As such, it’s a chance to be treated to the voices of Netzley, starring as Bob Wallace, and his on-stage partner, Dan Aldape, who plays Phil Davis, the other half of the song-and-dance team.
The doctor warns the nurse before she enters the hospital room. You’ve never seen a patient this disfigured and horrific before, he tells her. Prepare yourself. Nonsense, she insists. She’s seen it all, including the worst diseases in Africa. There’s no way she will respond with anything but compassion.
The nurse strides confidently into the room, takes one look at John Merrick — the “Elephant Man” — and promptly flees.
One of the fascinating things about Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 Victorian-era-set play, which Fresno State is staging in a solid if slightly musty (and occasionally tedious) production through Saturday, is the way it identifies with that nurse. We’d all like to think we’re strong enough, both in sensibility and spirit, to look past the “surface” and see the inner beauty within a sturdy soul like Merrick. Or at least maintain our composure when meeting someone like him for the first time. But even if we prepared ourselves, we don’t really know how we’d respond to such a situation until we were in it.
How to pinpoint the most exquisite moment in the excellent and moving “Ordinary Days” from the Organic Theater Factory at The Voice Shop? There’s so much in this spare, nimble and intimate musical about four New Yorkers grappling with life in the city to contend for that honor.
It could be the part when Dominic Grijalva, playing a relentlessly sunny artist named Warren, lets his optimism brim over the day he meets a new friend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Grijalva sports an expression on his face somewhere between cloyingly naive and wisely philosophical.) Or it could be when Terry Lewis, playing a lovestruck suitor named Jason who can’t quite bring himself to declare his love for his live-in girlfriend, sings of his “Favorite Places” in the city. (Lewis’ tender high tenor lines ache with frustration.)
Another candidate for triumphant moment: when the wonderful Taylor Abels, portraying an acerbic and self-involved graduate student named Deb, has a mini-breakdown and longs for an antidote to Manhattan’s chaos in the song “Calm.” (Abels hits musical-theater heights in the solo, immersing us in her character’s woes and wishes as she conveys the narrative as a master storyteller, all while belting it out in gorgeous voice.)
Where can I sign up? Life is pretty sweet as a frog. And as a toad. That’s the case, at least, for the title characters in StageWorks Fresno’s “A Year with Frog and Toad,” a production at the Cal Arts Severance Theatre through Dec. 16 that unfolds with uncommon sweetness and charm.
In the world of this gentle musical, based on the children’s books by Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad live in tidy cottages in an idyllic setting, leisurely drink iced tea on picnics in the summer and slurp down hot bowls of soup in front of cozy fireplaces in the winter. They swim when it’s hot and sled when it’s cold. Even raking leaves seems fun. The neighbors — a motley crew of snails, mice, birds, turtles and lizards — are unfailingly polite. (Happily, there don’t seem to be any predators.) Most important, Frog and Toad have each other as best friends.
“Frog and Toad,” directed with a knowing hand by J. Daniel Herring, is an important title in the evolution of the genre known as Theatre for Young Audiences. Originally staged by the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, it ended up on Broadway in 2003, where it snagged a Tony nomination for Best Musical. With a cast of five adults, this family-friendly show works on several levels. It’s sure to tickle the fancy of young children, but there’s also a crisp adult appeal as it works through such themes as taking risks, trust, friendship and patience. Unlike many kid-friendly entertainments today that seem shrewdly calculated to appeal to both adults and children — all those DreamWorks and Disney movies that toss in an arch level of subtext to keep the parents from fidgeting — “Frog and Toad’s” appeal to all ages feels more organic.
I’ll gladly drive the 45 minutes to Visalia for the privilege to pee.
The College of the Sequoias theater department tackles “Urinetown,” the musical with perhaps the most unappealing title in the world, in a smoothly directed, mostly solid performance that continues through Saturday.
Boasting a couple of top-notch performances from its female leads and often creatively staged by Chris Mangels, the show — a dystopian political allegory in which water is so rare that residents of a beleaguered city have to pay for the privilege of relieving themselves — hits many of the high points for which it’s been known ever since a 2001 Broadway debut. Among them: a snide, silly cynicism laced with more darkness than you’d expect; clever send-ups of the Broadway genre; and, especially, some great songs delivered well. (“But the music’s so happy,” the character of Little Sally exclaims when she’s reminded this is not a happy musical.)
That said, this production doesn’t flush with quite the ferocity it could have. There are some weaknesses.
But also a lot of strengths.
Immersive and challenging are two words I’d use to describe Fresno State’s production of “The Sty of the Blind Pig.” Leisurely is another that might be charitably used when discussing Phillip Hayes Dean’s early 1970s play, which digs deeply into the lives of a poor black family in 1950s Chicago unaware that history is on the cusp of the civil rights movement. A less charitable way to put it would be slow-paced.
Whatever your affinity is for prose-intense three-act dramas — this one clocks in at more than two and a half hours including one intermission — it’s clear that director Thomas-Whit Ellis was intent on making audiences feel and think. I admire his commitment to the material, along with his cast’s. Though I found parts of the experience something of a slog, I was moved at times by the tenacity with which these characters came to life. (The show continues 8 p.m. nightly through Saturday at the Woods Theatre.)
“Sty of the Blind Pig” — yes, it’s an odd title, of which we learn the meaning in a climactic third-act revelation — is primarily the story of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its attendant complications and dysfunctions. Weedy Warren (Francine Oputa), the elderly mother, is pious, cranky and desperate to keep her adult unmarried daughter, Alberta (Breayre S. Tender), under her thumb. Together they share a dilapidated apartment in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods.
From top, Mohammed Shehata, Kerry Cavin and Olivia Stemler in “Mauritius” at Fresno City College.
Two collegiate-level plays opened last Friday in Fresno, and both show how invigorating it is to be exposed to recent acclaimed work from American playwrights at the top of their games. While Fresno State’s “Wonder of the World,” by David Lindsay-Abaire, takes us on a zany journey of self-discovery, Fresno City College’s snappy “Mauritius,” from the powerhouse playwright Theresa Rebeck, maneuvers us in an opposite direction. It’s a brisk and subtle thriller laced with an undercurrent of menace — as well as offering a chortle or two about the craziness of family dynamics.
It continues through Saturday at the Fresno City College Theatre.
For those not up on their philately, the title of the play refers to the island nation of Mauritius, which early in the history of postage produced two of the rarest stamps in the world, known as the “Post Office” series. It turns out those two stamps ended up in a collection in the hands of two adult half-sisters: the younger Jackie (Olivia Stemler); and the middle-aged Mary (Bridget Manders-Martin).
Both sisters have reasonable claims to the collection. Jackie just finished a traumatic run nursing her dying mother without any help from her long-absent sister, and she considers the collection a payoff for her troubles. Mary, on the other hand, has a strong personal connection to the stamps, having helped her grandfather collect them.
Elisa Alpizar and Aubrianne Scott in Fresno State’s “Wonder of the World.”
Pound for pound, scene for scene, massive jar of peanut butter for massive jar of peanut butter, I can’t think of a recent local play that packs in more laughs than the very funny (and very weird) “Wonder of the World” at Fresno State. (It continues 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at the John Wright Theatre.)
Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire plumbed the depths of human grief so deeply in his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Rabbit Hole” that it left me emotionally shaken. (Artists’ Repertory Theater performed the play in 2009.) So it was quite a change for me to enter the absurd comic world that Lindsay-Abaire creates in “World.” It’s like going down a completely different kind of rabbit hole.
When we meet Cass (a hard-working Elisa Alpizar), she’s on the verge of walking out on her dweebish husband, Kip (Jacob Rico, who has fun carving out a role of wondrous nerdiness). The night before, Cass discovered a dark secret in her husband’s sweater drawer — something so shocking that she opts to chuck her marriage and flee to Niagara Falls in search of a new beginning.
There’s something about good tap dancing that feeds on itself. You can feel the energy start to build, almost sense the heat from the dancers. It doesn’t take much to imagine you can actually see sparks generating from those furiously tapping toes.
Such a moment occurs not once but several times in the thoroughly happy “Singing’ in the Rain” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Dancing is king in this production, and veteran choreographer Kaye Migaki delivers some inspired moves. One of my favorites comes in the standout number “Moses Supposes” in which our two young leading men — Dominic Grijalva and Daniel Hernandez — embark on a ferocious tap series. You could actually see Grijalva’s smile widen as he gets faster — it’s like watching the supremely confident, cocky enthusiasm of a race car driver pushing the accelerator pedal to its limit. “Oh yeah,” his expression said. “This is fun.”
The stage version of “Singing’ in the Rain” came along decades after the beloved movie, and I’m guessing there are plenty of people who would have been fine just sticking with the cinematic version. The movie reigns, no question about it, and the stage version has to content itself more with paying homage to a classic than standing on its own as a sparkling standalone piece of musical theater. But the material is still great, and co-directors Joshua Montgomery and Elizabeth Fiester give us a mostly spiffy, happy experience.
The summer night smiles on Sondheim fans — and the Fresno theater scene — in the new StageWorks Fresno production of “A Little Night Music” at the Cal Arts Severance Theatre.
A smart ensemble cast brings to life this gentle, funny and thoughtful show, which is best known for Stephen Sondheim’s most famous breakout song, “Send in the Clowns.” The happy news is that there’s a lot more to the experience beyond a tune recorded by Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand (and piped, via excruciating Muzak-version, into countless dentist waiting rooms over the decades.) The show is a whimsical outing that has a lot of life, love and heart. And it’s a chance for some of the Fresno area’s best community-theater actors to shine in the spotlight.
As for the big song, it’s tenderly delivered by an astute Amelia Ryan as Desiree Armfeldt, the headstrong Swedish actress whose middle-aged trials and tribulations form the emotional core of the play. (Set in Sweden at the turn of the century, the musical is based on the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night.”) It’s an easy song to turn into a morose dirge — or into an extended rant, as Catherine Zeta Jones did so awkwardly in the Tony Award broadcast of the recent Broadway revival.
Ryan, however, reveals both steel and tenderness when she sings “Send in the Clowns,” finding within the song’s lilting melody and astute lyrics a sense of loss, frustration and, yes, a little bit of rage. Desiree laments losing her “timing” this late in her career, a common enough human occurrence, and Ryan’s understated loss of dignity as she grapples with her feelings for her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (a strongly played Terry Lewis), is compelling.
It’s one of the riveting moments in American literature and cinema. When small-town lawyer Atticus Finch gives the famed speech to the jury in Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the reader or viewer should be stirred to emotional heights — and outrage.
Happily, the scene remains a moment of high drama in the earnest but uneven Good Company Players stage adaptation, which continues through Oct. 14 at the 2nd Space Theatre.
Chris Carsten, in the role made so indelible in the beloved 1962 movie by Gregory Peck, puts his own spin on the character in this “memory play” about a black man in the 1935 Deep South falsely accused of raping a white woman. He plays his Atticus with a gentle, almost beleaguered, intensity. His closing argument doesn’t soar or thunder. He’s no outsider railing against the standards of the day. Rather, his words are those of a man who is much a part of Maycomb, Ala., as his neighbors, and who realizes that the path to change will be long and arduous.
That pesky Mr. Hyde has a tendency to pop up at the most inopportune times — much to Dr. Jekyll’s chagrin.
And that’s what we’re waiting for, of course, in “Jekyll & Hyde.” It’s the battle between these two halves, the wild sloshing of yin and yang, that has attracted audiences ever since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his 1886 novella.
It’s fun to see Bryce Moser handle the transitions in the solidly staged Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of the Frank Wildhorn musical version of “Jekyll & Hyde,” which continues through Saturday at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. As the title character(s), Moser — who alternates the role with Isaac Ellis — slips from the snooty and cerebral Henry Jekyll to the lustful and dangerous Edward Hyde with considerable dexterity. Moser’s stellar vocals and earnest acting on opening night helped anchor this show with assurance and style.
There were times watching the production, directed with finesse by Brent Moser, that I simply forgot I was watching performers aged 16-20 up there on stage. The commitment to the violent material and the overall murky, menacing tone of the show is impressive.
I’ve run hot and cold on productions from CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre in recent years. (I’ve seen every big summer production since 2007′s “The Sound of Music,” and a number of shows off and on before that for a decade.) For me, this year’s “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which I saw Friday night, falls somewhere in the middle — in the “warm” category, you could say.
There’s a lot I liked about this show in terms of individual performances, and director Josh Montgomery has crafted a nice sense of ensemble among the cast, which is smaller, tighter and more cohesive than some of the company’s more sprawling past productions. But keeping in mind the limitations of community theater, I think there’s something awkward about the way the production tries to position itself somewhere between intimate musical and big spectacle. The production design is a little thin for the material, and while there are many fine musical and dramatic moments, the show didn’t deliver the overall emotional resonance I expect from “Big River.”
It doesn’t matter what stage it is. Louise Mandrell owns it.
With her decades of country-music experience behind her, the singer has a knack for making a moment in the spotlight seem the most important thing in the world to her. It’s all about charisma. She’s up there on stage rooting for the audience to have a good time — and you, in turn, root for her to put on a great show.
It’s long been a dream for Mandrell to try her hand at musical theater, and she gets her chance with a rollicking, boisterous and warm-hearted career debut in the Good Company Players production of “Calamity Jane” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Mandrell is no theater veteran, and there were several reminders of that fact (some mumbled lyrics, a few moments of hesitation, a missed cue) during the opening night performance. But even her missteps were endearing. Supported by a strong cast and drawing upon Laurie Pessano’s strong direction, Mandrell’s enthusiasm is infectious.
When you’re a local theater company, taking a trip to “Avenue Q” is a lot harder than just hopping on the subway. This wacky, profane and gregarious musical-theater send-up of “Sesame Street” is a big production challenge — especially if you build the puppets yourselves, as director Chris Mangels and his talented brood at Visalia’s Fourth Wall Theatre did for the local premiere of the show.
“Avenue Q,” which first cracked up audiences on Broadway in 2003 with such cheery tunes as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay,” and then traveled to Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre in 2010 on a national tour, gets a strong local production from the Fourth Wall. (The limited run opened Friday and continues through July 22.) I was impressed with both the performances and the production design. Plus, it was fun at the Saturday performance to experience the show with a Visalia audience, many of whom I suspect did not realize the true extent of what they were in for. When Trekkie Monster (played by a rousing Sean McMichael) in the song “The Internet is for Porn” advises the audience to “double click” a certain part of one’s anatomy, I swear the laughter could be heard all the way to Mooney Boulevard.
“Normal” it’s anything but.
The StageWorks Fresno premiere of “Next to Normal” raises the bar for well-crafted local musical productions. There are so many strong points to this beautifully staged rock opera: Stellar singing and acting in the leading roles. Superior stagecraft. Brisk direction. A killer live band.
Most important, this powerful production, which opened Friday at the Dan Pessano Theatre, does justice to the emotional intensity of the Pulitzer Prize-winning material. For those more attuned to cheery subject matter and light-hearted frivolity in their musicals, experiencing a show about a woman with bipolar depressive disorder who winds up treated with electroconvulsive (shock) therapy might be a stretch — and even a little scary. But “Next to Normal” is more than just a show about mental illness. It’s about family. It’s a towering tale of love, grief and resilience in a world in which we all, at one time or another, feel a little bit crazy.