Lay all your love on those backup vocals, because they’re one of the stars of ‘Mamma Mia’

Jacquie Broach and other members of the ensemble in the Good Company Players production play a crucial part in the show

THEATER PREVIEW

Take a chance on me, please, as I try to paint this “Mamma Mia” mental image for you in vivid detail:

It’s backstage at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater during the show (now in its opening weekend). Jacquie Broach, a Good Company Players veteran and an ensemble member, is dressed like a “Greek grandma.” Think layered peasant garb meets Ninja warrior: black stockings, black shoes, black skirt, black babushka. She and her fellow ensemble members have just come offstage after singing the ABBA song “Under Attack,” which involves lots of energetic dancing around the daughter character, Sophie (Caitlyn Lopez), while she has a nightmare about her upcoming wedding. Now that they’re backstage, everyone is shucking off clothes to change for upcoming numbers, in Broach’s case the wedding scene. As she puts it, “We strip right there down to our undies.”

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Alex Figueroa and Paige Parker, center, get frisky in “Does Your Mother Know” in the new production of “Mamma Mia.” Photo / Good Company Players

Off comes her sweaty Greek garb. On goes her wedding wear: dress, jewelry, high heels.

But as all this controlled mayhem unfolds, the ensemble comes to one of its most important duties. The actors rush to one of two microphones. There, with garments dangling, they start singing the layered backup vocals for “One of Us,” performed by the mom character, Donna (Emily Pessano). To make sure they’re in sync with the recorded instrumental track and the live singing on stage, Broach gets down close to the monitor on the floor, so she can be sure to hear, and becomes a de facto conductor, pounding out the beat.

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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (March 23)

At the top of my list for promising events this weekend are two prominent arts offerings — and one so-cute-it-barks dog event, just for the heck of it: The Orpheus chamber ensemble offers “Four Centuries of Beautiful Music” in a Friday night concert at Fresno State. The annual Danzantes Unidos Festival’s Showcase Concert Series features more than 40 Mexican folk dance groups from across the U.S. with a variety of weekend events.

And don’t forget a celebration of puppies on Friday at Bitwise.

Here’s a roundup:

Orpheus

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In just 90 minutes, you’ll be able to travel through the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. “Four Centuries of Beautiful Music” features the talents of pianist Christoper Guerrerio, flutist Teresa Beaman, violinists John Morrice and Cynthia Stuart, cellist Nancy Skei and accordionist Daniel Cantrell.

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In ‘Star-Spangled Girl,’ these guys flunk the #MeToo test

Good Company Players offers vintage Neil Simon at the 2nd Space Theatre

THEATER REVIEW

Some of Neil Simon’s plays still sparkle — and they will for generations to come.

“The Star-Spangled Girl” is not one of those plays.

At its best, this Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre offers a few amiable moments and amusing one-liners. At worst, it’s lackluster in terms of laughs, dated in terms of its humor and — to be blunt — eye-rollingly sexist, at least by today’s standards.

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Norman (Joseph Ham), left, and Andy (Anthony teNyenhuis), duke it out in “The Star-Spangled Girl.” Photo / Good Company Players

Here’s the setup: Andy (Anthony teNyenhuis) publishes a protest magazine in San Francisco. He runs the business side of things while his roommate, Norman (Joseph Ham, who alternates the role with Aaron Gomes), is the writing talent. When Sophie (Paige Tucker), a Midwest “girl” (this is, alas, a world in which all women are “girls”), moves next door, Norman instantly falls for her.

That’s when things get weird.

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Soli Deo Gloria celebrates with ‘Vibrant Colors’

Soli Deo Gloria, the greater Fresno area’s preeminent women’s chorale, is celebrating a very special anniversary this year: No. 10.

Doesn’t time fly?

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To mark the occasion, music director Julie Carter commissioned a piece titled “Immortal Harps” from local composer Kevin Memley. Here’s a description:

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With ‘Lydia,’ Fresno State straddles more than one kind of border

Gina Sandí-Díaz makes her Fresno State directorial debut with Octavio Solis’ searing drama

THEATER REVIEW

So just who is Lydia?

In Octavio Solis’ fascinating and exasperating play “Lydia,” set in the 1970s, the title character is a Mexican maid who has slipped across the border into El Paso, Texas. There she finds a job in a dysfunctional household. (Which is putting it mildly. The Flores family is better described as cataclysmically broken.) Most apparent of their woes is the teenage daughter of the family, Ceci, who is brain-damaged after an accident and unable to care for herself. From early on, through the play’s moody shifts in tone and Ceci’s periodic transformations from vegetative state to cogent narrator, the play appears to be more than straightforward realism. Things happen that can’t quite be explained rationally.

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Ruby Arreguin, left, plays the title role in “Lydia.” Her character becomes a caretaker for Ceci, played by Kenia Morales. Photo / Fresno State

And thus, in a work of magical realism, there are fair questions here to ask: Is Lydia simply a maid imbued with a dramatic gift of empathy? Or is she more than a mere mortal, some magical or extraordinary being — a Latinx Mary Poppins, if you will — whose role in the universe is to hone in on each family member’s deepest psychological wounds, gain their confidence and set things right?

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As the Smith sisters sing farewell to ‘Annie,’ they’re happy for the good knocks in life

Joy, Anna and Charity Smith have relished the chance to play orphans together on stage

The Smith household in northwest Fresno is about as far away from Austria as you can get, but as I take a seat in the comfy living room, I can’t help but think of “The Sound of Music.” There are five children in the Smith family — from eldest to youngest, Michael, Tim, Anna, Joy and Charity — and they’ve all been stellar performers in Good Company Players productions over the years. If we could get Wendy (Mom) and Patrick (Dad) in the act, we’d have the Fresno version of the Von Trapp Family Singers.

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Three sisters: Charity, left, Joy and Anna Smith with dog Harry in the Good Company Players production of “Annie.” Photo / Wendy Smith

But today we’re here to talk about “Annie,” which ends its successful run on Sunday, March 18, at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The three younger sisters all have significant roles in the show. Joy plays Annie herself. (In my review, I write that she “has that certain spark on stage that suggests big things to come.”) Anna, 15, is July, the streetwise older orphan, while the youngest, Charity, 8, plays Molly, the spunky scene-stealer. Even the Smith family dog, Harry, gets in on the act in the role of Sandy.

It’s been quite a hectic and fulfilling few months for all of the Smiths, but particularly for 12-year-old Joy, who has relished every red-headed moment of the run. I sat down with the three girls and their mother for a closing-weekend debriefing.

Donald: First off, I just have to ask: Why do you think there’s so musical talent in your family? Is it something in the genes?

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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (March 16)

You can win tickets to Sunday’s Fresno Philharmonic concert. Plus: “Bullets Over Broadway” opens in Visalia, and Ethan Bortnick performs live at the Tower Theatre

I have three promising weekend picks for you. They are the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Virtuoso Orchestra” concert (to which you can win a pair of tickets; for details, see below); the Central Valley premiere of the musical “Bullets Over Broadway” at Visalia’s College of the Sequoias; and a special performance by PBS star Ethan Bortnick with a select group of singers from the Bach Children’s Chorale. Read on:

Fresno Philharmonic

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Fresno Philharmonic concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio

Most of the time, a different stellar guest artist joins the Fresno Philharmonic at each concert for a solo performance. But for its next concert (3 p.m. Sunday, March 18), the orchestra is turning to one of its great talents within: concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio.

“The Virtuoso Orchestra” will showcase Sant’Ambrogio performing Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and Foss’ “Three American Pieces.” The program also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (“The Hen”) and Ginastera’s “Variaciones concertantes.”

In 2016 I did an interview with Sant’Ambrogio (here’s a link to the Fresno Bee story), who has been concertmaster in Fresno since 2010, and after talking with her, I came away even more impressed. After graduating from Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music, she landed a spot in the famed Cleveland Orchestra at age 24, then went on to become reigning concertmaster at the San Antonio Symphony for 13 years.

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Capt. Von Trapp and Maria spice things up in frisky and fresh ‘Sound of Music’

The Broadway in Fresno touring production continues for another performance on Thursday, March 15

THEATER REVIEW

“The Sound of Music” might be 58 going on 59, but it’s still got a lot of edel in its weiss. The national tour that opened at the Saroyan Theatre on Wednesday night (and continues for one more performance on Thursday) is a solid and amiable production of the beloved classic, complete with often charming renditions of the songs you know and love. A few thoughts:

Mike McLean as Captain von Trapp and Jill-Christine Wiley as Maria. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Mike McLean as Capt. Von Trapp and Jill-Christine Wiley as Maria in the national tour of “The Sound of Music.” Photo / Matthew Murphy

The production is traditional without being stodgy. I’ve seen versions of “Sound of Music” that clunked along like a doddering church service, but this tour (directed by Matt Lenz based on original direction by Jack O’Brien) has a lively — even frisky — sensibility to it. Part of that has to do with the youngish cast. Capt. Von Trapp (played by a dashing Mike McLean) has an air of the handsome, misunderstood hunk about him, and there are nice affectionate sparks between him and Maria (an appealing and charismatic Jill-Christine Wiley), who seems genuinely rattled when her heart starts pitter-pattering faster than normal. (No worries in terms of the family-friendly front, however; this is no “Fifty Shades of My Favorite Things.”) With this youthful dynamic, there’s no danger of the love story straying into icky March-November romance territory, which sometimes occurs in the show with a much older Captain.

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