Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Water by the Spoonful’

Sometimes a spoonful of water can turn into a cascade.

The title of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” might suggest a tranquil and contemplative outing. But this beautifully written play, which collides the stories of an Iraq War veteran and an online community of recovering drug addicts, is anything but a placid experience. It swirls together the fierce (an unblinking look at contemporary Latino issues) with the bemused (an extended nod to the way the online experience has changed the way we communicate), then adds nuanced insights into war, class, poverty, cyber etiquette, guilt and the way that family cultural dynamics can shape lives.

Most of all, Hudes gives us gripping characters whose skins feel lived in, whose daily existences have the shopworn ambiance of everyday life.

Director Kathleen McKinley crafts a Fresno State production that is thoughtful, sturdy and occasionally brilliant. Most important, I’m happy to see a work by a Latino playwright (Hudes prefers “Latino” in the same way that many women prefer to be known as “actors”) writing about Latino lives in a mainstage production on the Fresno State campus. In terms of issues of race: While the recent production of David Mamet’s “Race” was provocative and insightful, it also felt as if the playwright was pontificating from on high. “Spoonful” feels much more whole and organic. It aches — and celebrates — when it comes to issues of race instead of shouting at us.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Always a Bridesmaid’

The quips keep coming in “Always a Bridesmaid,” the latest Good Company offering from the playwriting machine of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten.

Typical gag: One woman character jokes that she “had” two men at once. The punchline: One was cooking, the other cleaning.

After hearing that joke, a woman in the audience sitting in front of me leaned over and told her party: “I just sent that in a birthday card.”

Which pretty much sums up “Bridesmaid,” continuing at the 2nd Space Theatre through April 19. The humor is the kind you’d expect from a well-meaning but anemic TV sitcom. Aimed squarely at 50-year-old-plus women, the play boasts a few good laugh lines, but mostly it’s a recycle of warmed-up Southern witticisms, inoffensive one-liners and gags about clueless husbands and retaining water.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Guys & Dolls’

You don’t want to sit down when the national tour of “Guys & Dolls” is rockin’ the boat. And that’s a strong sign for the production that rolled into the Saroyan Theatre Wednesday for a two-night run. One of my barometers for this classic show is how well a production carries off the famed number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” The ensemble — led by an inspired Todd Berkich as Nicely-Nicely Johnson — delivers a boisterous, heartfelt, sing-to-the-rafters experience that pays homage to the roots of the number while still giving it a more contemporary vibe.

This tour falls about in the middle in terms of overall quality of the smaller road shows that come through the Saroyan. The production design is solid for a budget-conscious show in terms of sets, costumes and lighting — and it never feels cheap or rinky-dink. (Well, except for the front title scrim that came awkwardly down after the first act and at the end of the show, jiggling like a snagged window blind.) The thing that seems smallest about the show is the orchestra, which could use a beefed-up string section.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Crazy for You’

“Crazy for You” revels in the silly, that’s for sure. With its madcap plot about a gaggle of showgirls from New York traipsing off to a Nevada ghost town so they can help “put on a show,” things turn goofy fast. Add a super-value-size meal’s worth of  mistaken-identity gags and you get a lot of slapstick for your buck.

But just as the whole thing seems destined to be no more than an insubstantial giggle fest, one of the show’s classic songs by George and Ira Gershwin comes along to add some heft to the outing. When the sturdy and no-nonsense heroine, Polly (Emily Pessano), who seems like the last gal in the world to fall for a splashy theater type named Bobby Child (Greg Grannis), stops to sing a pensive ballad, it’s none other than the famed “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin. With credentials like that, you’re starting on solid ground.

And when the energetic cast in the new Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater digs into the real meat of the show — the tap dancing — they do a sparkling job. The first-act finale, “I Got Rhythm,” choreographed by Kaye Migaki, is an explosion of sound, spectacle, flying feet and enough props to stock a Western supply store. Talk about a take-away tune for the audience to hum during intermission.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

With age can come money, knowledge, wisdom and a newfound grace when performing the dance we call life.

But as you get older, you lose something special: the ability to think of your future as endless. The path to come no longer stretches out as far as you can see, as it does for the young, with tantalizing (and, yes, often scary) possibilities. With age comes the knowledge that you’ve already made many of the important choices in life.

Christopher Durang’s spiffy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” given a rousing performance by Good Company Players at the 2nd Space Theatre, is quite funny, no question about it. In this good-natured homage to Anton Chekhov, Durang mashes together characters and storylines from that towering playwright’s best known works into a happy, silly melange.

You thought Chekhov was gloomy? In many ways, this present-day outing, set in a “lovely farmhouse” in Bucks County, Penn., is more like a sugar high.

There’s something more, though. Durang doesn’t push it hard, but a finely honed bittersweet sensibility gives an edge to the play that makes it all the more excellent. Vanya (played by Michael Peterson), Sonia (Joyce Anabo) and Masha (Jennifer Hurd-Peterson), three unhappy siblings, are all grappling with being at least halfway, if not more, through their life journey. And they’re all wondering if they could have done things differently.

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If the musical “Cabaret” today could meet the one from 25 years ago, I’m sure the younger would roll its eyes and (sort of) politely say, “Thanks for being such a legend. But things are different now.”

If your only exposure to the John Kander/Fred Ebb classic 1966 musical theater piece is from a community theater production from several decades ago — or, perhaps, the 1972 movie adaptation that stripped away characters and offered the title song, belted out by Liza Minnelli, as a jaunty anthem — you’re in for a few surprises. In the new Fresno State production, director J. Daniel Herring hews closely to the 1993 London and 1998 New York revivals starring Alan Cumming, who transformed the character of the Emcee (played by Joel Grey in the movie version) into a highly sexual, provocative and sometimes downright raunchy ambassador to the audience. That characterization fits the tumultuous times: With the crumbling of Germany’s Weimar Republic following World War I, as the Nazi Party assumes power, “Cabaret” captures the anything-goes atmosphere of an on-edge 1931 Berlin.

Thus, there are some moments in this production I’m fairly certain have never taken place on a Fresno State stage before. If you’re the kind who got upset at the stage version of “Jersey Boys” because of profanity (and I heard from some of you), chances are that the song “Two Ladies” — in which the Emcee gets pretty wild with both a guy and a gal (OK, let me spell it out for you: simulated sexual acts) — will make your head explode.

I like many of the choices that Herring makes in this challenging title, and the live orchestra, under the able direction of Matthew Wheeler, is first-rate. But there are also some weaknesses in terms of direction, production design and the overall impact of the ensemble. For a college production, this “Cabaret” has moments that soar, though I don’t think it reaches the same overall level of excellence as some previous Fresno State musical offerings I’ve seen.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Beauty and the Beast’

It would be easy to put on a big-city critic hunting hat, grab a high-powered rifle and slay this “Beast.”

For lovers of the classic musical “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary of opening on Broadway, the national tour production that opened Tuesday night at the Saroyan Theatre is drastically scaled down from the original version. This current tour has gotten beaten up by some critics for its lackluster production design. And, yes, I somewhat agree: the sets are a little skimpy. The orchestra sounds a little thin. And, in the production’s weakest link, the costumes of the enchanted objects are a major disappointment.

But we have to face realities: This is no “Wicked,” with a big budget and Actors Equity union cast, that could settle into the Saroyan for a two-week run, making elaborate sets and technical tricks financially feasible. This “Beauty and the Beast” is making a two-night stand in Fresno, in and out in a flash, and by that metric, I think it’s a fairly solid outing when compared to other quick-stop professional shows.

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Steeped as we are in a culture of all-consuming capitalism, I think it’s challenging for Americans to fully get where French shock-till-you-drop playwright Jean Genet was coming from. The playwright got pretty wound up — to put it mildly — about the class struggle between the overlords of society and the peons who attend their every whim. In his 1947 play “The Maids,” Genet practically froths about the indignities of human power structures. To the playwright, who spent his early years as a vagabond and petty criminal, it doesn’t matter if the mistress of the house treats her hired help with a benign-fakey warmth instead of a whip to the back — at the end of the day, she retires in comfort to her flower-strewn bedroom with couture-filled closet, and they retreat to the plain attic servants’ quarters with rough pine dresser drawers. For Genet, it only makes sense for the maids to spend their free time fantasizing about plotting the gruesome death of their employer.

Considering that most of us work for someone else, I’d imagine that if Genet were around today, he’d envision an abundance of violent role playing going on behind closed American doors.

There’s a sass and a grace to the Fresno State production of “The Maids,” which certainly falls into the category of one of the weirdest recent shows at the university in a while. (And more power to the theater department for taking it on.) Director Ruth Griffin has said she wanted to stage the show as sort of a melodrama. That choice, paired with Griffin’s natural choreographic affinity for putting movement front and center in her shows, works well in this production — up till the final third of the show. As Genet’s play spins into a semi-absurdist whirl of anger and genuine suspense, however, Griffin’s stylized direction detracts from the bewildering climax instead of enhancing it.

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What happened in Jersey didn’t stay in Jersey. It finally made it to Fresno.

Which makes fans of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons very happy.

The central San Joaquin Valley waited a very long time indeed for the national tour of “Jersey Boys” — which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary — to get to the Saroyan Theatre. And judging from the enthusiastic reception at Tuesday’s opening night performance, I’d say there’s a lot of pent-up demand for the smooth harmonies and Garden-State-sized angst that this jukebox musical provides. Valli and his bandmates over the years churned out an amazing number of No. 1 hits, and the evening at the Saroyan floated along in a sort of nostalgic cloud of goodwill, with songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” eliciting appreciative murmurs from the audience.

This national tour features an Equity cast — the same union to which Broadway performers belong — and the depth of talent is clear from the beginning. Compared to some of the other smaller, non-Equity tours that come through Fresno, this production is clearly a rung above. (It plays through Sunday Nov. 2.)

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You never forget your first visit to “Avenue Q.” Eleven years after the irreverent musical opened in New York, I’m long past the days when puppet sex can shock me. But there’s still great joy in repeated viewings of this show. The best part about Fresno City College’s accomplished production is watching it with an audience that obviously includes lots of first-timers. As they discover the silly joys of this clever, tuneful musical — a decidedly adult-oriented take on “Sesame Street” —  it’s like reliving the experience for the first time. 

No question about it: There are a lot of moving parts required to deliver a satisfactory version of “Avenue Q,” and for the most part director Charles Erven and his creative team bring it together with flair. The biggest weakness is the sound. (I’ll get to that in a moment, alas.) But in terms of acting, direction, vocals, choreography and general stagecraft — and the very fine live band — I found a lot to applaud at the Saturday evening performance I saw.

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“Race” checks the platitudes and niceties at the door. Walk into the inner sanctum of the law firm depicted in David Mamet’s brusque and provocative drama, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State, and you’ll get the “fly on the wall” treatment – people speaking in brutally frank terms about what the play refers to as this nation’s most incendiary topic.

I know there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” the grizzled white attorney tells his young black associate. Within these walls, however, the politically correct rules of the game are suspended. Those things do get said. In very frank terms.

In several ways I like the Fresno State production of “Race” more than the actual play itself. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis has crafted a hard-hitting, thoughtfully staged outing that effectively captures what is at the essence of any Mamet play: a slugfest.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Addams Family’

Sometimes a show just has Itt.

The new Good Company Players production of “The Addams Family” is a slick and happy affair. All the cylinders in this goofy engine of pop-culture genuflection run smoothly: sharp and witty direction, accomplished acting, spot-on costumes, strong sets, sturdy choreography and innovative lighting and projection design. Are Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics or Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book the stuff of musical theater that will endure for the ages? Probably not. But as this GCP production shows, you can have a heck of a lot of fun goofing off for an evening about a beloved TV show.

The key to the success of a show like “The Addams Family” is fidelity to the source material — something that director Dan Pessano takes to heart. This isn’t a time for a revisionist view of Morticia Addams, say, by putting her in a button-up blouse, or turning Uncle Fester into a hard-charging investment banker instead of a moon gazer. Pessano’s casting is superb, with each of the actors in the major roles matching their characters both physically and in terms of temperament.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Normal Heart’

The injustice at the core of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” isn’t as raw today as when the play came out in 1985. Some events depicted in Larry Kramer’s drama, set early in the AIDS crisis, had occurred just a year before. The fear, anger and throat-clutching sadness among the audience members at the New York Public Theater’s original production must have been suffocating.

But decades later, the injustice in this play — which is receiving a local premiere in a sturdy production from StageWorks Fresno — still seethes and provokes. Even with the distance of time, the choices made by media and government gatekeepers — and some in the gay community — to sweep early news about the epidemic under the rug seem perplexing and bizarre. It’s unfathomable today to think that a scare about Tylenol tampering earned a tsunami of coverage in the New York Times but that a new illness killing hundreds of New Yorkers had to fight to get to the front page. But that’s what happened.

The StageWorks production, directed with heartfelt commitment by J. Daniel Herring, immerses us in the autobiographical world of Kramer. His alter ego is Ned Weeks (played with verve and feeling by Terry Lewis), who vows to stir up a fuss when he realizes that many in the gay community are falling to a disease so new and mysterious it doesn’t have a name. Yet the organization he founds, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, is far from unified on the best approach. He continually clashes with Bruce Niles (Bob Creasy), the group’s president, who favors a less confrontational, more “establishment” approach. At the root of this conflict, Bruce — and many other gay men — object to any attempt to discourage sex in an age of newfound sexual permissiveness.

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

Very rough.

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

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Mountaintop’

The view is grand from “The Mountaintop.”

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

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

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

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

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Underpants’

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

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

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

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

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

The first real dagger of the evening comes early.

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

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

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

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

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘[title of show]‘

My Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This one’s for Grandma and Grandpa.

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

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

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

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘New Wrinkles’

New Wrinkles 2014

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

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

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

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

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’


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

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

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

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

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’


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

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

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

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Wicked NY

Could any first-act finale have more visual and emotional punch than the extravagantly beautiful final two minutes of “Wicked”? At intermission of Thursday’s press-night performance at the Saroyan Theatre, I Tweeted that I wanted to hug the lighting designer.

Not to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet experienced this gorgeously produced and emotionally soaring Broadway show, but the song “Defying Gravity” turns light into something that seems tangible and material, with volume and substance — illumination with weight and heft, as substantial and big as a mountain. Plus: that last, gorgeous blackout, punctuated by a final split-second fadeout on the face of the defiantly green Wicked Witch of the West — the timing is exquisite, the rush of light and dark all encompassing.

I’ve seen “Wicked” three times now, and I swoon at this moment each time. The only other comparison I can draw in terms of the power of theater is the first-act finale of the (old) version of “Les Miserables,” with that last rippling fadeout to black on the big red waving flag. It is supremely satisfying to be in the presence of such confident visual precision. (In movies today, special effects are lavished upon our eyeballs so unrelentingly and with such visual digital sophistication that it can all seem rather ho-hum. But to witness live the stagecraft of a show like “Wicked” remains awe-inducing.)

When the national tour of “Wicked” first played in Fresno in 2011, I noted how it simply upped the ante for all other touring shows that come through the Saroyan. It’s Broadway quality. (With near New York prices to match, of course.) The second visit of the tour, which opened Wednesday, has maintained that high standard in every regard. “Wicked” is still wicked good.

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


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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