GCP’s ‘Annie’ is anchored by a wonderful performer. Hint: She has red hair.

Production continues at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater through March 18


“Annie” is a joy.

Annie is a Joy.

That second sentence is not redundant.

“Annie” — a musical so sweet and sentimental that experiencing a good rendition of it can be like injecting liquid candy corn directly into your veins — gets a crisp and loving new production by Good Company Players. Director Emily Pessano knows when to turn on the charm at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater and when to steer clear of cuteness overload. Heartfelt, amusing and with just the right touch of acerbic crackle, this “Annie” feels accomplished and fresh.

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Joy Smith plays the title role in “Annie.” Photo / Good Company Players

As for Annie the 11-year-old red-haired orphan, that plucky Broadway symbol of indefatigable optimism, let me introduce you to Joy.

Joy Smith, that is. Most Annies alternate the demanding role — on Broadway they had three, and that doesn’t count understudies — but Joy handles the task by herself, thank you very much. From the moment I heard her deliver a pert and satisfying “Maybe,” the plaintive anthem of orphans everywhere, I found myself captivated by this Junior Company veteran.

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Fresno Philharmonic gallops to glory with Hotoda at the reins


Forgive me in advance for the likely overwrought equine metaphor, but here’s what the Fresno Philharmonic made me think of after Sunday’s lively concert:

A tall, powerful, spirited and stately thoroughbred horse, one displaying a graceful rhythm and palpable sense of energy to its gait.

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Jack Perez, 8, enjoys his first visit to the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday. His mother, Caty Perez, won tickets to the concert from The Munro Review.

Holding the reins, of course, was Rei Hotoda, the orchestra’s new music director and conductor, who is infusing her first season with a passion and vitality that feels infectious. The orchestra looks happy. The audience looks happy. Attending a performance is like a day at the races when your bet pays off.

The orchestra overall sounded wonderful. Do I think the concert was perfect? No. (Read on.) But I think I’m in the minority.

Here’s a quick rundown:

The scene: A very good crowd in the Saroyan Theatre, gathered for an intriguing program consisting of a piece by Fresno composer Kenneth Froelich, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with guest artist Awadagin Pratt, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

The Froelich: Titled “Spinning Yarns,” this 8-minute work by the Fresno State composition professor was inspired by the jazz tradition of “trading fours,” referring to a point in which the horns and drummer improvise four-bars of music at a time. The fun thing about this piece — and that’s the operative word I’d use to describe it, fun — is that the “Yarns” of the title refers to obviously boisterous stories being swapped by the musicians. The effect is that of a series of spirited conversations unfolding in a crowded noisy room, perhaps a beer joint. Though the music has a driving, pounding quality to it — it’s quite a workout for the percussion — there’s also something familiar and even relaxing about its impact, the way the din of a dozen conversations can seem warm and friendly. I thought it was grand.

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From fan to star: This Lola’s boots are charmed

Jos N. Banks, who plays the role of Lola in the national tour of “Kinky Boots” (opening Wednesday at the Saroyan Theatre), is following in the footsteps of his idol Billy Porter

UPDATE: Congratulations to Chris Ortiz-Belcher, our “Kinky Boots” prize-package winner.  In his entry, he wrote: ” ‘Kinky Boot’s is one of my favorite shows and I would pass out if I got to see it in person!” (No word on whether Chris lost consciousness this morning when he heard the news.)

ORIGINAL POST: Join with me for a few moments, if you will, to revel in the story of Jos N. Banks and his unlikely “Kinky Boots” journey. He went from “world’s biggest fan” of the actor playing Lola on Broadway to nabbing the role himself in the national tour of the show.

A bit of background is in order:

Lance Bordelon, center left, and Jos N. Banks, center right, along with the cast of the national tour of “Kinky Boots.” Photo / Matthew Murphy

Banks, who studied musical theater in college, had long been an admirer of Billy Porter. The veteran Broadway actor originated the role of Lola, the empowered drag queen who winds up in a crazy scheme to save a failing English shoe factory by making thigh-high “kinky boots” for men. (Porter won a 2013 Tony Award for best actor in a musical for the show.)

Win a pair of tickets to opening night of “Kinky Boots” plus dinner at Cosmopolitan Tavern and free parking. See details at the end of this post.

Banks — gregarious and chatty when he answered my call while on tour with the show in Colorado — was also a fan of “Kinky Boots” the show itself. A resident of Chicago, Banks had seen a rehearsal for the musical, which features a powerhouse book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, in its pre-Broadway tryout in that city.

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‘Spring Awakening,’ meet the #MeToo movement

As the Selma Arts Center production of the provocative musical opens, the current discussion about sexual harassment casts an interesting shadow

Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As a live art form, it instantly becomes part of the time in which it’s performed. Cultural context matters. A play presented five years ago might resonate quite differently in the social environment of the here and now.

Think, then, of the new Selma Arts Center production of the musical “Spring Awakening” with the present in mind. There have been many versions of this show produced since its Broadway debut in 2006, but only those opening in the past few months have been performed against the backdrop we find today: an unprecedented national discussion about sexual harassment. And add to that a broader debate about the dynamics of consent in sexual relationships.

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Hungry for information: The teens in “Spring Awakening” want to know about sex, but their parents won’t tell them. Photo / Selma Arts Center

Those who know the show are aware of a key plot point: an explicit sexual encounter between a young teen girl and a boy a few years older whom she’s known for a long time. (Note: Much of this story focuses on this plot point, so consider this a spoiler alert for what’s ahead.)

Is the encounter consensual?

Ah, that’s a tough one.

“Yes and no,” says Kindle Lynn Cowger, who plays Wendla, a naive girl of about 15 growing up in a 19th Century town in Germany.

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He’s all grown up: Dominic Grijalva muses on a special ‘Spring Awakening’

With “Spring Awakening,” this might be director Dominic Grijalva’s final opening weekend at the Selma Arts Center. Which is a sad thing for Selma, but a great opportunity for wherever his new adventures might take him. Over the last few years, the talented Grijalva has done much to raise the profile and level of productions in Selma. He’s even gotten some big-name help from a friend of his — none other than “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda — to help make “Spring Awakening” happen.

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Director Dominic Grijalva at a recent “Spring Awakening” rehearsal. Photo / Selma Arts Center

In my main preview piece about the show, I talk with Grijalva and actor Kindle Cowger about a specific theme: how the provocative sexual storyline fits in with the current #MeToo movement. But I also want to share with you some of the other interesting topics I covered with Grijalva about “Spring Awakening,” including getting down to the bottom of the story of that very famous sponsor.

Q: Books and knowledge play a fascinating role in your concept for the show. Tell me how they fit in.

A: A lot of the misfortunes that come to each character in the play steam from a lack of exposure, and some from the overwhelming presence and dictatorship-like control the grownups have over the children. In developing a concept for this production, the one image that kept coming to mind was that of a huge library where the kids felt prisoner to the rules and regulations that the adults force upon them.

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5 Things to Know about Kenneth Froelich

With the Fresno State professor’s “Spinning Yarns” featured by the Fresno Philharmonic, get to know the composer. Plus: Win a pair of tickets to Sunday’s concert

You think the job market in your field is tough? Try being a composer. Not only are you competing against other living composers out there to have your works appreciated and performed, you’re also up against an even bigger pool of dead composers whose pieces are revered. It’s quite common for a typical professional symphony orchestra program to feature a lineup of composers who are all long gone. For the flesh-and-blood variety, it can be hard to be heard.

But that’s exactly what Kenneth Froelich, a Fresno State music composition professor, is achieving this weekend. At Sunday’s Masterworks concert, the Fresno Philharmonic will perform Froelich’s “Spinning Yarns.” (The program also includes guest soloist Awadagin Pratt in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.) To mark this notable event in Froelich’s career, here are 5 Things to Know about the piece and the composer — plus a bonus item about the rest of the concert. And go to the end of this post to learn how you can win two tickets to the event.

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Kenneth Froelich’s “Spinning Yarns” is featured in Sunday’s Fresno Philharmonic concert.


“Spinning Yarns” is inspired by a jazz concept. And it’s not the kind of yarn you might think.

In jazz, the term “trading fours” refers to a point in which the horns and drummer each improvise four-bars of music at a time, exchanging back and forth in a rather transparent musical dialog. The title “Spinning Yarns” evolved from this idea.

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New exhibitions take roost at Fresno Art Museum

David Tomb’s “Rockfowl and Other Wonders” and Marcos Dorado’s “Immigrant Me” are part of a powerful winter/spring lineup

With its new round of winter/spring exhibitions, the Fresno Art Museum is taking flight.

I got the chance to preview three of the museum’s five new shows, which open Saturday, Jan. 27. There’s a lot to appreciate. From radiant depictions of birds in their natural habitats to an intimate series of portraits saluting immigrants, these new exhibitions can be startling, evocative, aesthetically impressive and infused with tenderness and meaning.

I’ll be writing about each of the exhibitions at greater length as they continue, but here’s a sneak peek.

Winged wonder: a detail from David Tomb’s mammoth work “Rock and Rockfowl.” Photo / Fresno Art Museum

Bird extravaganza

In David Tomb’s “Rockfowl and Other Wonders,” the San Francisco artist transports the viewer to various locales around the world, all of them the homes of some of the rarest birds in the world. Tomb has had a fascination with nature and science ever since he was a kid, and he has managed in recent years to intertwine his fine-art skills with his love of nature. If “big” in art impresses you, chances are you’ll be amazed at the size alone of some of these works, including the centerpiece “Rockfowl” mixed-media piece, depicting a rainforest in Ghana, which at 27 feet wide and 11 feet tall makes you feel you’re about to enter a jungle.

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In quick and witty ‘Sense,’ Jane Austen meets the 21st Century

Good Company Players production of “Sense and Sensibility” at the 2nd Space Theatre is a breezy adaptation


I’ve had the pleasure of watching Mary Piona and Patricia Hoffman portray many characters in 2nd Space Theatre productions over the years, but on this night they’re playing a type of role I’ve never seen them do before:


You read that correctly. In one of dozens of charming bits of theatricality you’ll encounter in the new Good Company Players production of “Sense and Sensibility,” Piona and Hoffman literally play furniture. They’re human manifestations of a late 18th Century bedroom set.

Tight-knit Dashwood family: Julia Reimer, left, as Mrs. Dashwood; Na’vauge Jackson, as Marianne, Gigi Dickerson, as Margaret; and Jessica Knotts, as Elinor.

In a comic tableau that upends the audience’s point of view, it’s as if we’re looking down from the ceiling upon the marital bed of the noxious John and Fanny Dashwood, who are staying up late figuring out new ways to treat John’s half-sisters badly. (One of the key plot points of Jane Austen’s classic tale of love and money is that after the death of their father, John inherits the whole estate while Elinor and Marianne, his wonderful sisters, get booted out of the family home.) If you’ve seen “Hairspray” on stage, you’ll recognize the visual perspective: It’s just like when a propped-up Tracy Turnblad in the opening scene is depicted lying in bed as she belts out “Good Morning Baltimore.”

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