A Disney Hall concert for the ages

Fresno State’s FOOSA Summer Orchestra Academy takes a road trip to Los Angeles and makes beautiful music in the process

Pierce Yamaoka first pledged allegiance to the trumpet when he was 11. That was 18 years ago. Unlike many musicians who gently disengage from a musical instrument when they hit their 20s, his commitment to all-things-trumpet has only intensified. Now a graduate student at Indiana University’s world-renowned music school, Yamaoka is completely caught up in the world of his instrument: the insider references to pedagogical technique, the arcane trivia about professional players and their latest gigs, the devotion to hours of practice in the desire to stand out amongst a crowd of brassy hopefuls.

To him, world-class trumpet teachers are rock stars.

Photo of conductor leading orchestra in Disney Hall.
On stage at Disney Hall: Thomas Loewenheim leads the FOOSA Summer Orchestra Academy in rehearsal. Photo / The Munro Review

On this Friday morning, Yamaoka is a passenger on one of three nondescript white touring buses pulling away from a Fresno State parking lot bound for Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. It’s another trip in what has become an annual tradition for the FOOSA Summer Orchestra Academy, which under the direction of Thomas Loewenheim has been growing in recent years in prestige and reach. Advanced younger students, emerging professionals, and faculty from some of the nation’s best music schools come together for two weeks of intensive instruction. The academy culminates in a concert that not only celebrates Fresno State — the university’s administration is keen on building alumni outreach (and, one would assume, helpful donor rolls) in the Southern California area — but also offers a level of difficulty and musicianship appropriate to the world-class venue the Los Angeles Philharmonic calls home.

On the program for the evening, among other works is the fiendishly tough (and long) Mahler’s 6th Symphony.

“I have people all the time tell me, ‘I can’t believe you’re making kids play this,’ ” Loewenheim says.

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Incubator of artistic creativity

CSU Summer Arts program returns to Fresno with enthusiastic leadership and commitment to firing up the cultural scene

“Is it hot enough for you?” I ask the folks in charge of Summer Arts, and Joanne Sharp, assistant director of the program, surprises me. It’s 106 degrees on this Tuesday, less than a week before the month-long festival is set to open, and I’ve wilted on the short jaunt from the parking lot. Sharp’s response to the Fresno furnace outside?

Keep bringing those triple digits.

Photograph of women dancing with arms upraised.
Dance education: The Urban Bush Women dance company performs July 10 at CSU Summer Arts.

This is a woman who, when she arrived at Fresno State over Memorial Day weekend, brought a space heater with her to use at her desk because the air conditioning runs too chilly. She’s the type of person who enjoys the long way when she walks from one building on campus to another, just so she can soak up a bit more of the sun.

“I can’t wait to get back outside,” says Sharp, sitting at a conference table at the program’s headquarters in the Kremen education building.

“She loves the heat,” marvels her boss, Rachel Nardo, the program’s director, who last year at this time was braving cool temperatures at CSU Monterey Bay, where the festival lived for five years.

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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (June 23)

It’s opening weekend for the Blossom Trail Players. Plus: a new show in Oakhurst, star gazing near North Fork, cabaret night at “35MM” and the kickoff of Summer Arts.

On my list for promising cultural weekend options:

‘Bye Bye Birdie’

Put on a happy face and experience the season opening production of Sanger’s Blossom Trail Players. The Broadway classic “Bye Bye Birdie,” which spins a thinly veiled tale of an Elvis Presley-type character drafted into the military, includes such well-known songs as “Honestly Sincere,” “The Telephone Hour,” “How Lovely to be a Woman” and, of course, the iconic title tune.

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All shook up: Greg Guerra makes the girls swoon as Conrad in the Blossom Trail Players production. Photos / Madlyn Esquer

The show opens Thursday, June 22, and runs through July 1.

There are more than 40 in the cast and an orchestra of 20 — let’s hear a cheer for live musical accompaniment! — in this production directed by Brittany Zenz and choreographed by Shannon Pelletier. (Andrew Esquer is music director.)

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Elephants and martinis: All in a night at Curtain 5

Two original one-act plays get their premiere at the Fresno Soap Co.

UPDATE: Director Jerry Palladino on Facebook Friday night announced the cancellation of all remaining performances of this production because of “unexpected issues with the staging of ‘The Elephant in the Room’ . . . My apologies for and disappointments for our patrons and Samantha Perez, our student writer.”


ORIGINAL POST: The summer theater season is heating up with the CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP’s new production of the one-act plays “The Elephant in the Room” and “Martinis and Malice” at the Fresno Soap Co. (Thank goodness the air conditioning in the theater is working again.) Here are five things to know.

Noel Coward homage: Art and Charlene Cano play Vincent and Cynthia in Curtain 5’s “Martinis and Malice,” directed by R.S. Scott. Photo / CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP


Think original. Both plays are premieres of original new works, which Curtain 5 has been delivering in abundance since its first season in 2015. Artistic director Jerry Palladino is a passionate advocate for emerging playwrights.


There’s a lot of young talent out there. “The Elephant in the Room” was written by Samantha Perez, a senior at Roosevelt High School. She was one of four student playwrights who wrote original works in a 2015 student writing competition sponsored by the company for Kathryn Koch’s student playwriting class.

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‘Fools’ rush in

Chase Stubblefield and Alex Vaux, familiar names to 2nd Space audiences, will duke it out for a change in Neil Simon’s ‘Fools’


Chase Stubblefield and Alex Vaux didn’t just fall off the Russian-novel turnip truck. They know a good theater home when they see it. The pair is often found together in shows at the 2nd Space Theatre, an example of the fiercely loyal troupe of actors often found in Good Company Players productions there.

Their latest joint adventure is Neil Simon’s “Fools,” directed by Karan Johnson, a silly 1981 offering set in 19th century Russia from the famed comic playwright. Last year they played characters who were friendly with each other in three productions at 2nd Space. Now, with “Fools,” they kick off an antagonistic streak that will continue this season with “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Dynamic duo: Chase Stubblefield, left, and Alex Vaux in ‘Fools’ at the 2nd Space Theatre. Photo / Good Company Players

I caught up with them via email to talk about the show and life offstage (what little there is of it).

Q: Let’s start off with a burning question, and please be honest with me: Are you two sure that you aren’t being held hostage by the folks at the 2nd Space Theatre? It seems like nearly every time I go to a show there, one or both of you are in it. They don’t chain you between shows and make you live in one of the dressing rooms, do they?

Alex: Haha, it certainly feels like I never leave there! I did escape briefly to Roger Rocka’s this season.

Chase: Living in the theater wouldn’t be so bad, I would save a lot on gas! It’s almost a full-time job especially when rehearsing and performing two shows at once. I like keeping myself busy though.

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Remembering Ted Esquivel

Actor and storyteller added to the greater Fresno cultural scene over the decades; supporters are raising funds for Storyland in his memory

Autumn Lindberg got used to being interrupted with her dad, Ted Esquivel, at the grocery store when people would come up and say they remembered a story he’d shared years ago.

That’s what happens when you’re a professional storyteller.

Actor and storyteller: Ted Esquivel as the Player in the 1992 Good Company Players production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Photo / GCP

Esquivel, who died June 8 at age 62, knew what he was doing when it came to stories, his daughter remembers. His trick was to get the audience involved. In one classic tale of his, about a fox who gets his tail chopped off and has to jump through a bunch of hoops to get it back, Esquivel would divide the audience into sections and have one play, say, the river. He’d point at them from time to time and ask them to put up their hands to suggest a whooshing sound.

‘He got people so engaged that people would remember those stories years later,” Lindberg says.

Mr. Esquivel plied his trade at the aptly named (for him) Storyland in Roeding Park, as well as various elementary schools, private schools and camps, and youth parties and adult parties as Santa Claus, says longtime friend William Raines.

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Vocals [check], direction [check], worth seeing [check, check, check]

“35MM: A Musical Exhibition” soars in a daring production at the Selma Arts Center


In the weird and wonderful “35MM: A Musical Exhibition,” we meet Luanne, the tragic heroine of an abusive relationship that unfolds with a country western twang and a sickening sense of suspense. There’s the grumbling “Manny,” a modern-day male baby-sitter whose young charge — a fiendish, spaghetti-flinging toddler named Caralee — could claim paternity by Satan himself. At the opposite end of the theological spectrum, we’re introduced to the Seraph, an angel of a man who offers an emotional foundation of support and love for his struggling lover.

All remarkable characters, to be sure.

Man singing on stage in 35MM: A Musical Exhibition with images of doll face behind him.
Child from Hell: Miguel Gastelum, the “Manny,” sings of his young charge in “Caralee” in “35MM: A Musical Exhibition” at the Selma Arts Center. Photo / Kyle Lowe

But even more remarkable in the Selma Arts Center production is the innovative direction and fiercely committed cast. If looking ahead to a community-theater summer of well-known family musicals and familiar songs leaves you wanting a little more, “35MM” is your chance. This production is daring and occasionally brilliant, and if you want to support artists doing new and challenging things, it deserves your patronage.

How much did “35MM” affect me? I left the theater on opening night with a soaring musical-theater high. The vocals in this show are superb, and composer/lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver’s hummable and tantalizing score wouldn’t leave me. Days later, I have such tunes as “Caralee,” “Leave Luanne,” and a gorgeous a cappella number titled “Mama Let Me In” — featuring vocals so crisp and harmonies so ferocious that I still get a chill — camping out in my brain.

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