5 Things I Like About Sanger’s ‘Birdie’

Blossom Trail Players, now in its 3rd season, tackles the classic musical “Bye Bye Birdie” in a production that runs through July 1

Like any flower, a new theater company can be something delicate that needs nurturing. On Thursday I got the opportunity to see the Blossom Trail Players, founded in 2015, stage an energetic and ambitious production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at Sanger High School. (The show runs through Saturday.) I admire the enthusiasm and hard work it takes to put together something as complicated as a fully staged Broadway musical. I’m not going to offer a standard, full-fledged review of the production, which is directed by Brittany Zenz, but I want to share five things I like about it — plus some constructive comments I hope can help the company raise the bar as it looks toward a promising future.

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We love you Conrad: the cast of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Photo / Madlyn Esquer, Blossom Trail Players

Five things I like:


Garrison Bennett’s voice. He plays Albert Peterson, the milquetoast manager of Conrad Birdie, the Elvis-like star about to be drafted into the army, thus disappointing his shrieking teenage fans. Bennett’s warm, smooth vocals on such standards as “Put on a Happy Face” and “Baby, Talk to Me” are first-rate.

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Just call him Dr. Franken-steen

Eric Bailey plays a pivotal role in the Reedley Opera House’s new production of ‘Young Frankenstein’


For Eric Bailey, it’s a great “Mom memory.” He first saw the movie version of “Young Frankenstein” with her at the Visalia Fox Theatre.

“I don’t recall how old I was at the time, but I do remember that it later became a regular rental for any of the birthday parties or sleepovers that my friends and I had,” he says.

Dr. Frankenstein, played by Eric Bailey, standing on stage with top hat and cane.
All dressed up: Eric Bailey plays Dr. Frankenstein in “Young Frankenstein” at the Reedley Opera House. Photo / River City Theatre Company

Little did he know that decades later he’d be playing Dr. Frankenstein in a musical version of the play. The River City Theatre Company production opens Friday, June 30, at the Reedley Opera House.

I caught up via email with Bailey to talk about the show. Oh, and how’s this for a nice touch? His mom (and dad) will be there Saturday night to see him in the show.

Q: First and most important question: Speaking as yourself and not your character, do you pronounce it Dr. Franken-steen or Dr. Franken-stine?

A: I tend to go with Franken-steen. But I do have to admit, I like it when Igor calls him Master.

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2nd Space plays it smart with inane ‘Fools’

Good Company Players cast gives a rousing effort in this weak Neil Simon comedy


In Neil Simon’s “Fools,”a centuries-old curse turns everyone stupid in the small Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov. Not just mildly ignorant, such as someone who sits all day watching reruns of “Arrested Development” on Netflix and can’t name the three branches of the U.S. government. We’re talking more in the realm of seriously mentally impaired, as in not knowing how to open a front door when someone knocks, or thinking the water that falls periodically from the sky (i.e., rain) is thrown upon them in buckets by the dastardly nobleman who lives up the hill.

Woman sitting at table while man across from her raises one finger.
Student and teacher: Bailey Johnson, left, as Sophia, and Alex Vaux as Leon, in the 2nd Space Theatre production of ‘Fools.’ Photo / Good Company Players

For the first few scenes, maybe even half an hour, Simon blankets us with enough crisp one-liners to keep things amusing. But then the extended joke starts to feel as if it’s been left out on the counter too long, and a faint odor of decay starts to waft through the theater. The comic framework of the play starts feeling more and more rickety.

The saving grace of the new Good Company Players production of “Fools” at the 2nd Space Theatre is brisk direction (this summer smoothie glides by quickly) and a cast that wrings every last bit of humor out of a flawed script.

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Shakespearean gender bender

Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night” is a fun romp, even though the play’s fluid themes of sexuality and gender can seem a little muddy


Music might be the “food of love,” as Shakespeare so eloquently puts it in “Twelfth Night,” but cross-dressing seems to rank up there on the list of effective aphrodisiacs, too.

Would Lady Olivia, the noblewoman who falls head over heels for Cesario, the pretty-girl-disguised-as-pretty-boy, be quite so smitten if instead of more masculine footwear “his” heels were high? Does same-sex attraction play a part? Directors and actors have toyed with the play’s fluid themes of gender, sexuality and outward appearance for centuries now.

Work crush: Renee Newlove, left, as Viola disguised as Cesario; and Russell Noland as the Duke in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Twelfth Night.” Photo / Victor Trejo

I’m not sure that Jacob Sherwood, who directs a fun and often accomplished production of “Twelfth Night” for Woodward Shakespeare Festival, has a strong point of view on the mixed-up-sexes approach of the play, other than to just sort of toss everyone into the pool and create a lot of good-natured splashing. Viola (the heroine’s real name) disguising herself as a man is written into the play, of course. (And in Shakespeare’s time, with boys playing women roles, there would already have been a sense of gender-bending for the audience.)

Then Sherwood adds a couple of more jaunty twists: Sebastian, who is Viola’s twin brother, is played by a woman in this production. And so is Antonio, Sebastian’s male friend, though the pronouns in the text referring to the character are switched to “she.” (The homoerotic underpinnings of Sebastian and Antonio’s relationship have been thoroughly examined by scholars.) Is casting two women in these roles supposed to be gender-blind casting that the audience simply absorbs and then ignores, or is it a commentary on the cross-dressing shenanigans Shakespeare wrote into the play? It’s a bit much to keep track of, and I’m not convinced it’s worthwhile trying. My head started to hurt.

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Win tickets to Selma’s ’35MM’

UPDATE: Our winners are John Beynon and Kimberly Hauxhurst. Congrats!

ORIGINAL POST: By now you’ve probably heard about the wonderful “35MM: A Musical Exhibition,” the cutting-edge piece of theater being brought to you by the Selma Arts Center. Now’s your chance to win a pair of tickets to the Friday evening show. This is the final weekend for “35MM,” so there isn’t much time left. (Just four performances remain: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, plus a 2:30 p.m. Saturday matinee.)

Opening number: Shawn Williams in ‘Crazy Town.’ Photo / Kyle Lowe

But wait … there’s more. Not only can you win the tickets, but the producers are throwing in some other goodies as well: a signed poster, backstage tour, a meet-and-greet with the cast, a photo on-set with everyone, AND signed 35mm prints from ace company photographer Kyle Lowe.

You also want a set of steak knives? Sorry. We’re stopping at theater memorabilia.

Here’s how you enter: Leave a comment on this post telling us what your favorite Selma Arts Center production has been so far. (If you’ve never been, tell us why you’d like to go for your first time.) I’ll pick a winner at random and notify via email. You’ll be able to pick up your tickets at Will Call. Deadline to enter is 7 p.m. Wednesday. I’ll get back to the winners that evening.

Related story: Fueling Selma’s creative fire: “35MM: A Musical Exhibition opens at the Selma Arts Center

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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.

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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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