Welcome home, Audra

Along with other Fresno-area fans of Broadway star Audra McDonald, I let her know how I feel

Audra’s home. This time it’s going to be extra special.

The Broadway star (and winner of more Tony awards than anyone) today (Saturday, May 26) will get a key to the city and a street named after her. How cool is that? To top things off, she will sing for the first time with the Fresno Philharmonic in one of the highlight cultural events of the year.

audra street

(For those who haven’t figured out by now, I’m talking about none other than Good Company Players and Roosevelt High alum Audra McDonald, known with a first-name simplicity as “Audra” to this blog and a large number of fans throughout the area.)

To mark the occasion, I wanted to do something special, too, as a welcome.

The result is “Dear Audra.” I asked my readers to write brief recollections and appreciation letters.

Stage door

Dear Audra,

I’m completely an Audra girl. I’ve seen you live three times (“Lady Day,” “Shuffle Along,” and your Modesto show) and I’ve been lucky enough to meet you when my mom and I stage-doored “Lady Day” in 2014.

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Robert Nielsen is retiring from Fresno Community Concert Band, but not without one last ‘Bash’

After 25 years as conductor (and co-founder) of the Fresno Community Concert Band, Robert Nielsen is stepping down from the podium. He’s going out in style. “Bob’s Big Bash” — in the form of two concerts on Sunday, May 27 — promises to be a vibrant and poignant experience. There’s even a world premiere by Fresno City College’s Mike Dana (who, coincidentally, just retired). And just to give things a family spin, Irene Klug Nielsen, an accomplished flutist, will be featured soloist under her husband’s baton.

Robert Nielsen

Bob Nielsen took time to ruminate on the past 25 years and expound on the virtues of music made for the sheer love of it.

Q: Set the scene for us. It’s your very first rehearsal as conductor of the Fresno Community Concert Band. What year was it? Did they have electricity back then? (Just kidding.) Give us a sense of the time and place.

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As ‘New Wrinkles’ celebrates 30 years, it’s ‘One Day More’ for a talented cast

Fresno’s acclaimed senior performing group opens ‘On the Road to Broadway’ at Fresno City College

Who says youth is just for the young? As “New Wrinkles” celebrates its 30th year, the beloved Fresno institution — a song-and-dance extravaganza featuring performers 55 and older — is trying something new. “On the Road to Broadway” is “unlike any other we have done,” says director David Bonetto.

I caught up with Bonetto to talk about the show, which opens Thursday, May 24, at Fresno City College.

newwrinkles 4

Q: First off, David, can you believe that “New Wrinkles” has been around for 30 years now? You were just a whippersnapper when it started, right? Do you think the founders would be surprised that it’s still going strong?

A: I was young then — in fact, I was doing choreography for numerous acts (for “New Wrinkles”) back then. I opened my studio, Danceworks Unlimited, right out of high school in 1979 when I was 19 years old. Many of the ladies in the show started taking tap from me, so I would choreograph their duets and small group dances over the years. So you can say I’ve been around “New Wrinkles” for a while. I worked with both Tom Wright (the founding director) and of course Fred Bologna (who directed the show for many years). I have known Fred since I was a kid through the ballet and then I taught with him at Roosevelt High School. I think they are all proud that the legacy continues on. I speak often of the vision and dreams of Tom. Each night when we take the stage during showtime, we stop and remember those who graced the stage before us. They are never forgotten.

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Finnish pianist will offer a striking finish to Keyboard’s 2017-18 season

Keyboard Concerts closes its 2017-18 season with Juho Pohjonen, one of Finland’s most prominent musicians. He will perform a program that includes works by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Franck. The concert is 3 p.m. Sunday, May 20, at the Fresno State Concert Hall.

Juho Puhjonen, Pianist
Juho Pohjonen

Andreas Werz, artistic director of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series, is particularly excited to bring Pohjonen to Fresno.

“Last summer I heard Juho’s recital at the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, and I can say that he is truly an outstanding talent,” Werz says. “Prior to his Fresno appearance he will give a recital for the La Jolla Music Society — so once again we are in good company.”

Pohjonen has given acclaimed recitals at the major venues in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Vancouver, Detroit, La Jolla, London, Hamburg, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Warsaw, Hong Kong, and Antwerp.

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With ‘Dear Audra,’ a chance to tell Fresno’s beloved Broadway star how you feel

As Ms. McDonald prepares to make her debut with the Fresno Philharmonic, citizens of the United States of Audra can send their best wishes

Audra McDonald’s May 26 concert with the Fresno Philharmonic is sold out, which is no surprise. This is Audra Country. It’s sort of the same thing as Derek Carr Country, except the object of our nation-state’s affection went to Juilliard. She’s even getting part of a downtown street named after her.

audra 2
Hail to the chief: Audra McDonald returns to Fresno for a May 26 concert. Photo / New York Daily News

In order to mark Audra’s debut performance with the Fresno Philharmonic, I am putting together a little project called “Dear Audra.” In it I’d like to highlight messages of welcome from my readers to the most-winning Broadway star in Tony Award-history. These messages can be in written format (with a limit of 500 words), photography (with a limit of three), or video format (with a time limit of one minute). You can talk about your favorite Audra memory, whether from seeing her in Fresno or in the world beyond. You can tell her what you think of her latest album, “Sing Happy,” which is already available digitally and will be released on CD on May 25). You can give her a big thank-you or just welcome her back to Fresno. You can tell her what it means to have someone of her talent (and commitment to equality) hailing from the central San Joaquin Valley. Share your story! I’m sure she’d love to hear it.

I’ll put together a collection of these contributions and compile them into a nice, pretty blog post in advance of her concert. And I’ll make sure that Audra gets the link.

But you have to hurry: Deadline for submissions is 11 p.m. Monday, May 21. Send all submissions directly to my email (donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com). Questions? Feel free to email them as well.

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Selma Arts Center makes waves with a chipper ‘Little Mermaid’

The musical production can be inconsistent, but it’s well worth a dive.


Come on in — the water’s fine in Selma’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Just what will you find an undetermined number of leagues under the sea? Ariel is charming, and she and her “mer-sisters” offer sweet voices and brisk comedy. Prince Eric has the ruddy, seaworthy charm of a gung-ho master mariner. With her dialed-up-Disney-villain powerhouse vocals, Ursula the Sea Witch relishes the chance to get all twitchy-evil on us. Sebastian, always near the boiling point, frets with the best of them. Even Mr. Fussypants himself, King Triton, the clueless father who’s both too stern and too indulgent in terms of spoiling his teenage daughter — he shouldn’t let her go by herself to the mall, much less the surface! — redeems himself with a memorably regal stage presence.

ursula little mermaid selma
Camille Gaston is a powerhouse Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.” Photo / Selma Arts Center

It’s splashy fun.

Nicolette C. Andersen and Adam Chavez, co-directors of the new Selma Arts Center production, run a (mostly) tight ship in terms of creativity, production design, acting and singing. While the ambitiously staged show does have some wobbles and inconsistent moments, you (and your children) will find much to admire.

Observations from the opening-night performance I attended:

The projections are amazing. They deserve top billing here. Designer Dominic Grijalva breaks new ground locally with effects that feel as if we’re in the water with the performers. From a swirling opening storm to a spectacular dive to the murky depths of Ursula’s zip code, I found myself thoroughly entranced. My favorite part is the way Grijalva gives a stylized, boldly graphic design to the ubiquitous waves; they’re more abstract than literal, and their near constant motion gives the whole production a “be careful or you’ll get seasick” sensibility.

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On Soli Deo Gloria’s 10th birthday, these skies are looking ‘Blue’

Women’s choral ensemble celebrates with a concert titled ‘Blue Skies and Broadway’

In choral music, the idea of “women power” means a very special thing. Ten years ago, Fresno welcomed a new high-level choral group offering audiences a distinctive sound: All the singers were women. Soli Deo Gloria was born.

“I love getting to sing difficult music with this group and polish it to a high level,” says Julie Carter, the group’s artistic director and founder. “I’m very proud of how hard the singers work. After all, they all have day jobs and volunteer their time singing! They’re delightful women to work with.”

Members of Soli Deo Gloria perform Friday, May 18.

To mark its 10th anniversary, the group is offering a season-ending, celebratory concert titled “Blue Skies and Broadway.” It will feature songs from such classic musicals as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Pajama Game,” along with selections from more recent musicals such as “La La Land,” “Frozen,” “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked.”

As the season winds down, I enlisted the help of Carter and members of the chorus to come up with 10 Things to Know about SDG. Here’s their list in Carter’s words:


The group started rehearsing in the fall of 2008.

I was looking to start a group that would sing at a high level of musicianship. There are always more women than men in choirs (in general) so I made it a women’s choir. We began with 16 singers, I believe, five of whom are still singing in the group! Originally we met at my home and sang in the dining/living room after I moved the furniture out. This was while my kids were younger so it was nicer to be at home. Eventually we outgrew it, though, and now rehearse at Clovis West High School’s choir room.

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‘The Lion King’ is coming to Fresno … finally!

The Broadway in Fresno 2018-19 season also includes “Something Rotten!” and the return of “Wicked”

After years of Fresno-area theater fans whining like hyenas about the unfairness of it all, there is justice on the savanna: In six months, “The Lion King” is coming to Fresno.

The extravagant Broadway touring production, known for its fanciful puppets and elaborate, actor-inhabited animal costumes that have provided untold billable hours for the nation’s chiropractors, will open Nov. 28 at the Saroyan Theatre for a 12-day run. The show opened in New York in 1997 and is still going strong. So it took 20 years for Fresno to feel the love tonight. No wonder the wildebeests were getting restless.

“The Lion King” opens Nov. 28 at the Saroyan Theatre. Photo / Dean van Meer, ©Disney

Season tickets go on sale online at 8 a.m. today (Monday, May 14). The announcement was embargoed until that time. You can also purchase by phone at 888-255-9363 and in person at the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center Box Office, 700 M Street. (Hours for the box office are listed as 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, and I’m not sure if it will be opening early for this sale.)

The 2018-19 Fresno Lexus Broadway In Fresno season has some other big titles as well. “Something Rotten!” — the newest title in the season — will play April 16-17, 2019. The 20th anniversary of “RENT” will play Feb. 6-7, 2019. “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I,” based on the the 2015 Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Theater production, will play Jan 15-16.

Continue reading “‘The Lion King’ is coming to Fresno … finally!”