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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Rocky Horror Show’

“Rocky” still rocks.

Daniel Chavez Jr. does it again — and then some — with his smart, tart revival of Artists’ Repertory Theater’s “The Rocky Horror Show” at the Severance Theatre. With a production design a couple of notches higher up on the sophistication ladder from Chavez’s last go-around in 2009 with “Rocky,” an improved quality of overall vocals, and an energy level so elevated that if it were a pulse it’d be in heart-attack territory, this vibrant new production is a stellar experience.

Even before the official downbeat, the enthusiasm in the theater is palpable. Various “Phantoms” — the show’s hard-working ensemble — cavort in the Severance Theatre space, dancing and singing, enticing audience members into the mix. By the time the spiffy band (a ragin’ Nate Butler, Tim Pugsley, John Shafer, Rick Wood and Tweed Jefferson) kick things off with “Science Fiction Double Feature,” the stage is set for a vigorously fun “Rocky” experience.

My only big reservation after Friday’s opening-night performance, was alas, something I often am concerned about in the Severance space: the sound. There has to be some way to tone the volume of the percussion down. This may be a rock ‘n’ roll show, yes, but it’s also a musical, and you can’t drown out the lyrics of some songs (and even some of the other instruments) without things sounding like mush.

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The Beehive Interview: Marc Gonzalez

When most people go to a play, they either leave the Playbill they receive on their seat at the theater or dump it in a drawer somewhere at home, to be carted off eventually with spring cleaning. Not local blogger and actor Marc Gonzalez. The theater fan not only has kept all his Playbills since 2005, he’s counted and cataloged them in an effort to reach 1,000 before he dies. (Since he’s only in his mid-20s, I’d say the actuarial odds of that happening are pretty darn good.) In December 2011, Gonzalez decided to start a blog detailing his quest, which he titled “The Road to 1,000.” He also decided at that time  to start writing reviews of each play — which includes both Fresno and out-of-town productions. In the process, he adds another critical voice to the local theater scene, which is always a good thing.

Gonzalez just logged his 300th show with a review of the River City Theatre Company’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ in Reedley. I decided to mark the occasion with a Beehive Interview.

Question: What’s your favorite show out of the 300 you’ve seen?

Answer:  It has to be show #264, which was “Hands on a Hardbody” at the La Jolla Playhouse a few months ago. I have never felt so emotionally attached to a musical. I hope I get to see it when it opens on Broadway next spring.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Illusion’

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I was out of town for the opening weekend of “The Illusion” at Fresno City College, but I made it back to catch last night’s performance. This beautiful, boisterous and sometimes baffling production — a smooth blend of the contemporary with the 17th Century — is well worth a look during the last two days of its run. (There are only three performances left: 7:30 p.m. today, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.) [tickets]

Drawing on the powerhouse design strengths of Fresno City College, the play offers a visually sumptuous rendition of playwright Tony Kushner’s adaptation of classic playwright’s Pierre Corneille’s “L’Illusion Comique.” We’re transported to the mysterious cave of a sorcerer (a standout Keshawn Keene), attended by a strange assistant (the multifaceted Ben McNamara), who agrees to give an uptight, bourgeoise lawyer named Pridamant (a strong Luis Ramentas) a magical glimpse of what his long-lost, estranged son has been up to the past 15 years.

What unfolds is a series of three separate vignettes in which we catch a glimpse of the son (an appealing Jono Cota) flitting through all sorts of romantic intrigue with what seems a stock set of archetypal characters: a reticent maiden (Bridget Manders), her sassy maid (Lena Auglian) and two blustery rivals (an amusing Josh Hansen and David Manning). As the vignettes shift, the names of the characters change, but a common storyline emerges. The lawyer father protests at first at the haziness of the narrative — he could be a stand-in for the audience — but it soon becomes clear that the whole point of the exercise is to provide an ambivalent dose of reality.

Bee photo / Craig Kohlruss

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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The Woodward Shakespeare production of “Romeo and Juliet” is so brisk you might feel slapped. On opening night it clocked in at just over 90 minutes including intermission, which is 45 minutes to an hour shorter than most other abridged contemporary versions of the show.

Director Daniel Moore ramps up the pace to a point almost approaching parody, with characters spitting through dialogue at tongue-twister speed. Because of the extreme minimalist setting, there are no pesky scene changes to worry about, which speeds the transitions even more. The result is a production that feels quick, furious and breathless. At a few crucial moments — Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech, say — I felt like I was watching a TIVO recap with the button held down on the one-triangle fast-forward setting.

This is all well and good if you’re looking for a short evening. And I’ll be the first to admit that there are aspects of a brisk production that I love: no long and awkward pauses between scenes, no meaningless tromping about the stage, no labored monologues, no feeling that we’re trudging toward a predestined ending.

But even though I admire the fact that Moore has a strong directorial viewpoint — which in this case involves ruthlessly paring the play to a bare-bones emphasis on the first-love frenzy of the two title characters — I question how much he gives up in terms of emotional connection. Time and again I found my brain more engaged not by the language itself but in how quickly the words were whipping by.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Stalag 17′

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Good Company Players is having a really good summer. At Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, a polished production of the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” is connecting with audiences on a tender emotional level. And across the street at the 2nd Space, a taut and accomplished version of “Stalag 17″ is connecting emotionally as well — but this time with heart-pounding suspense.

Duane Boutte, a GCP veteran who has spent 20 years in New York as a professional actor, is obviously a natural director as well. That’s clear from the opening minutes of this classic play, which most people know from the 1953 movie starring William Holden about a group of American airmen held in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.

Though his cast consists of a whopping 19 members on a very small stage — many of them there for most of the show — Boutte’s fluid staging and keen sense of story make the whole thing seem almost effortless. At times in the show, it’s fun to glance from the foreground action at the “background” characters and how they’re positioned on Brian Pucheu’s cleverly crammed set, just to see how Boutte is using them to advance the scene. Whether crammed into bunk beds or ensconced in the minutiae of daily barracks living, the prisoners become almost like living scenery.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

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People are gushing about Children’s Musical Theaterworks’ new production of “Les Miserables,” and rightly so. It’s an accomplished, smart looking, well sung and hard-working show. Director Skyler Gray delivers a gritty interpretation of the classic musical that tries some sparkling things visually while retaining many of the iconic moments that fans have come to know and love.

But during intermission on opening night, I heard a man being just a little critical of the show. The voices were really nice, he said, but they were just a little too young.

It’s an interesting observation, and I thought I’d address it right off.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Crucible’

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On Saturday I saw Good Company’s “The Crucible,” and that night I dreamed about the classic Arthur Miller play. My dream managed to incorporate the trappings of the historic Salem witch hunts into my present-day routine, which meant the staff of the Fresno Trader Joe’s somehow popped up wearing black high-necked smocks and bonnets.

According to my subconscious, at least, “The Crucible” still manages to be eminently relevant.

Every time I see this play it ends up gripping me, and this time was no exception. The GCP production at the 2nd Space left me contemplating some of the meaty “Crucible” issues that make this show timeless. We might not going around burning witches anymore, but the permutations of human hysteria seem almost endless.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Pillowman’

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There’s no gentle place here to rest your weary head for an hour or two of unthinking repose.

Watching “The Pillowman,” Martin McDonagh’s brilliant and trippy play at the Broken Leg Stage — and given a rousing if slightly uneven production by Fresno’s New Ensemble theater company — is more like washing down a couple of No-Doz with a cup of coffee and buzzing through the evening as you toy with big ideas and chuckle at the darkest humor you can imagine.

Director Heather Parish has crafted a keen, insightful production pumped up by stellar performances from James Sherrill and Landon Weiszbrod, two brothers living in an unnamed totalitarian state interrogated about a series of bizarre child murders. Sherrill plays Katurian, a struggling writer whose odd, and frequently violent, short stories mean the world to him. Weiszbrod is Michal, his “slow” sibling, who lives with him.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Legally Blonde’

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“Legally Blonde” at the Saroyan? Meh. I give it half a snap.

The slighter the show, the more essential it is to beef it up with powerhouse performances and sheer stage appeal. (A slick and substantial production design doesn’t hurt, either.) I don’t think anyone would deny that the romp-silly “Legally Blonde” is thin when it comes to the story department (Heather Hach’s frantic book has to cram an expansive, airy Hollywood movie script into its confines) and that the songs (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin) are for the most part unmemorable (except for the robust and hummable “Omigodyouguys” opening number and the terrific first-act closer, “So Much Better”).

What has to drive this show, then, is a Laura Bell Bundy — the Broadway actress who grabbed hold of the role of Elle Woods and through a workout-caliber portrayal of sparkle and grit transcended the so-so material. That doesn’t happen in this non-Equity national tour, which continues tonight at the Saroyan Theatre. Nikki Bohne, in the role of Elle, certainly wins points for burning off a lot of calories. She hits (most of) the right notes, is vivacious and personable. But despite a standing ovation by the audience for her efforts at Tuesday’s opening-night show, hers wasn’t a performance that made this show magical.

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OPERA REVIEW: ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

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NOTE: This review is running a little late because of the Beehive’s weekend grumpiness.

Number of teddy bears skewered with a sword in the new Fresno Grand Opera production of “The Pirates of Penzance”: One.

Number of humans skewered: None.

You can’t get much cheerier than that.

Thanks to nimble comic direction, robust singing and a slick, energetic cast, this version of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta romps its way to crowd-pleasing status. (It repeats 2 p.m. Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre.)

Stage director Bill Fabris, who has overseen so many productions of “Pirates” across the country (he isn’t sure, but he thinks it’s 14) that he probably dreams in “Major General” rhymes, is the key to the success of this one. Every carefully choreographed moment on stage is crisp and self-assured. (When the Pirate King, played with appealing swagger and a rousing voice by an impressive Daniel Klein, ends his big number, he fends off all his fellow pirates with a clever blade placed behind his back.) Time and again, Fabris’ staging invigorates the operetta’s wacky but dated silliness.

Bee photo / Craig Kohlruss

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Wedding Singer’

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I think the appeal of Good Company’s “The Wedding Singer” rests on how closely you identify with the 1980s.

From a big-picture perspective, this 2006 Broadway show certainly isn’t going to be known as a classic. Even when comparing it to other musicals inspired by appealing-but-slight movies, it doesn’t come close to the top of the list.

However, if you’re willing to let the silliness of the decade seep into your consciousness — and can delight in costume designer Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s wacky period clothes — this production has some good things going for it.

For me, the ’80s moment in the show that hit home came in a scene when various male ensemble cast members trickled onto stage wearing various articles of clothing that I swear used to grace my closet. First was a yellow and blue rugby shirt, the kind with the wide stripes. Then came a vivid red-and-black flannel shirt, whose pattern once adorned a black-armed jacket I used to own that looked as if were made for an Armani-clad hunter. And, finally, an oversized, cable-knit V-neck sweater with a thick border made an appearance, and I sort of laughed-gagged.

Talk about a trip down memory lane.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Magic at the Memorial’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh’

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It’s hard to imagine a style of musical revue requiring more performer wattage than one devoted to Disney songs. Talk about having to put on the sparkle. The adept cast of “Magic at the Memorial,” a revue celebrating the 10th anniversary of Children’s Musical Theaterworks at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, does a solid job delivering the perky, upbeat colors that saturate the Disney universe.

The one-act show is half of a program that also includes a new musical production of “Disney’s Winnie the Pooh.”

The “Magic” show bears the Musical Theaterworks Fresno imprint, which means it features adult performers. (Happily, directors Josh Montgomery and Shannah Estep were able to sign up a slate of solid local theater veterans.) Songs pay tribute to past CMT productions along with a couple of upcoming titles, including “The Little Mermaid” and “Cinderella.”

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Mr. Marmalade’

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I walked away from Fresno City College’s “Mr. Marmalade” lukewarm about the show. I kept thinking I should have liked it a lot more than I did.

After all, it’s the kind of production that usually pushes my buttons: Noah Haidle’s spanking new comedy (it hit Off-Broadway in 2005) about a 4-year-old girl and her twisted imaginary friend blends elements of absurdism and pointed cultural commentary into an upbeat, slightly non-traditional form; the scenic design is decidedly non-realistic; the humor is savagely dark. (Looking for an example of a twisted childhood? This girl conjures an emotionally distant companion addicted to cocaine and booze who works too hard and beats his personal assistant.) Yet the production fell short for me. Despite a couple of standout acting performances, “Mr. Marmalade” by the end felt inflated and smug, as if the playwright tried just a little too hard.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Color Purple’

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A strong audience turnout and a solid production with stellar vocals combined to make Tuesday’s opening night of “The Color Purple” an impressive theater experience. I walked away with the requisite lump in my throat as the often aching themes in Alice Walker’s acclaimed storyline came together in a surge of emotional redemption.

Touring shows can vary in terms of the quality of performers and production values, as subscribers to the Broadway in Fresno series know all too well. This “Color Purple” is stronger than last month’s “Beauty and the Beast.” I saw the original “Color Purple” on Broadway, and while the sets are smaller, the orchestra much thinner and the lighting execution a little less accomplished, especially the Saroyan follow-spot operator at last night’s show, I was impressed with the fidelity to the New York production. (The show repeats 7:30 p.m. today.)

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Sugar Babies’

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If innuendo were frosting, think of the rollicking “Sugar Babies” as the world’s thickest (and sweetest) piece of cake.

The bawdy allusions in this musical revue, now on stage at Roger Rocka’s through Jan. 16, come as no surprise considering the show’s homage to burlesque/vaudeville traditions. Stephen Sondheim might have phrased it a little more delicately in his lyrics for the show “A Little Night Music,” when one of his characters tartly sings of a lusty weekend in the country “watching little things grow,” but when it comes to punch lines about the excitement of the male of the species, “Sugar Babies” makes no, um, bones about it.

Against such a backdrop of sexual coyness, it’s a pleasure to watch such theater veterans as Richard Ruth and Ann Whitehurst strut their stuff and draw out the laughs. Even though the Sunday night audience I watched the show with was a little smaller and more reserved than the ideal — I kept waiting for some aghast patron to rise and throw holy water on the proceedings — Ruth and Whitehurst mined every possible giggle. Along with Chris Carsten, a GCP newcomer with an extensive theater background, and such stalwarts as actor/choreographer Steve Pepper, the show emerges with a sturdy, nostalgic tone overall rather than a crass “Saturday Night Live” shock-raunch feel.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Goodnight Desdemona’

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Constance Ledbelly, who uses a quill pen instead of a computer keyboard, isn’t exactly what you’d call the hippest academic on campus. In fact, most would call her a crackpot. Stuck slaving away for a conceited professor, she’s obsessed with a theory about the origins of Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Suddenly she finds herself in a dreamlike world — did a student spike her beer, or maybe she’s “on an acid trip”? — in which she comes face to face first with the famous Desdemona and then the even more iconic Juliet, the characters over whom she’s obsessed for so long.

Such is the storyline of Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet),” a production of the Madwoman’s Attic Ensemble at the Broken Leg Stage. It’s an interesting premise, but I’m not all that impressed with the work as a whole. And this production, directed by Heather Parish, suffers from some weaknesses.

The play took a long time to warm up at the Saturday matinee I attended. Kristin Lyn Crase’s Constance — who took a while to find her footing in terms of an introductory monologue — finally started to click after a couple of scenes, but it was tough for her (and the audience) to connect with the playwright’s oblique, fussy, fantastical set-up. (Parish’s bare-bones staging doesn’t do much to illuminate the quirky text.)

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Beauty and the Beast’

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The latest national touring company of “Beauty and the Beast” drew a big crowd at the Saroyan Theatre last night — suggesting that this title hasn’t lost its “put the butts in the seats” appeal for producers. The audience was met with a significantly revamped production that, for better or worse, at least made the experience a lot different for repeat visitors. (You can’t discount all the younger patrons who recently reached the age to be able to see it the first time, of course.)

The show continues 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Saroyan Theatre.

I had mixed feelings about the show. I liked some aspects of the sleeker and more streamlined (um, cheaper) design aesthetic (lots of layered scrims, painted backdrops and thick drapery punctuated by movable set pieces — it gave the production more of a old-fashioned storybook feel), and I thought Nathaniel Hackmann’s booming Gaston was first-rate, along with the performances of some of the enchanted objects (especially David Merritt Janes’ Lumiere). I also really like some of the cuts and tightening of the storyline in the second act (no love lost here for the confusing song “Maison Des Lunes”), although the precious saved minutes from the overall running time were squandered by a more loosey-goosey direction throughout — including some overly hammy draw-out-the-laugh moments between Belle and the Beast — that gave us some dawdling moments of near-satire.

I didn’t like Belle’s exaggerated pluckiness (Liz Shivener made me think more of a brisk local TV reporter than grand Disney heroine) and wasn’t overly impressed with her vocals (frankly, local community Belle veteran Lorraine Christensen has a purer and sweeter tone), and the costumes were a pretty big disappointment. (Cogsworth looked like he was wearing clock pajamas.)

Did you attend the show last night? What did you think?

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Eastern Standard’

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“Eastern Standard,” which continues at Fresno State through Saturday, aptly captures a particular time, place and demographic. It’s the late ’80s in New York City, and we meet a group of (mostly) wealthy young professionals grappling with the issues of the times. Those issues include HIV/AIDS, rampant materialism, the gap between the rich and poor — and even the contemporary art scene. (You know you’ve entered a Manhattan-centric world when there’s a joke about Julian Schnabel.)

Richard Greenberg’s 1988 play is well written, and there are some solid performances. But the whole experience made me think about the question of relevance.

“Eastern Standard” just doesn’t seem like a very strong selection for a university theater department that last month staged a 1944 period piece written in 1981 (“A Soldier’s Play”), is following this one with an adaptation of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” continues with a 1743 comedy by a Venetian playwright titled “Servant of Two Masters” and will then finish up with the not-exactly-hot-off-the-presses “The Glass Menagerie.” If “Eastern Standard” is meant to put a contemporary twist on the season, then ouch.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Godling’

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You’ve got to hand it to Mr. Paduski, one of the extremely twisted characters in Mark Borkowski’s “The Godling,” which is gearing up for its second weekend at the Broken Leg Stage. As portrayed by an impeccably cast Ron Blackwell, who plays the role with the refined politeness of a British butler, the mysterious Paduski has the courtesy to ask the pregnant woman he’s just met if she minds if he smokes.

That’s pretty considerate considering that Paduski gets a kick out of pulling the fingernails off clowns. His refinement is further illustrated by the fact that the pregnant woman, known as Lilly (and played with surly vigor by See Lee), is being forcibly detained behind bars while a hideous fetus grows inside her. But, hey, it never hurts to worry about second-hand smoke, eh?

“The Godling” accomplishes exactly what it wants: It’s a brisk, brief, jolly-good exercise in in-your-face weirdness. It reminds me of a really good (and over-the-top) Rogue Festival show — one of those word-of-mouth darlings that achieves a reputation at a fringe festival by daring to go against the grain.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’

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Chris Mangels’ ambitious and visually charged new production of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” — which continues through Saturday at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia — is dark stuff, indeed.

So dark, in fact, that I somewhat regret that in my advance piece on the show in last week’s issue of 7 I so heavily emphasized the family-friendly nature of the show. True, this show lacks the specific red flags for objectionable material that might put parents on edge (explicit violence, excessive profanity, sexual situations). But I think Mangels has missed the mark if he thinks he’s made a show “that local families could see together but still maintain the type of theatricality and visceral thrill that attracts me as an artist,” as he told me.

Again, I feel this way not so much due to objectionable content but because of the production’s overall tone and demeanor: It gets bogged down in its overwhelmingly bleak world. Bradbury’s philosophical musings about mortality, childhood fears and middle-aged angst become a morass, not a platform for crisp storytelling.

Photo: Danielle Behrens, left, James Sherrill and Jenny Bettencourt in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

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