The faces of Alison: These StageWorks actors embrace the roles of 3 lifetimes

StageWorks Fresno opens the much anticipated ‘Fun Home,’ a musical about fathers and daughters, coming out and the ache of memory

THEATER PREVIEW

Ever since StageWorks Fresno announced last August that it had nabbed the rights to the local premiere of the musical “Fun Home,” interest has been intense. It’s certainly been the most anticipated local theater event of the year among readers of The Munro Review, at least if you go by page clicks.

Now the wait is over. “Fun Home,” directed by J. Daniel Herring, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 29, at the Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North performing arts center. It runs through July 15.

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At a recent rehearsal, Novi Alexander plays Young Alison in ‘Fun Home.’ Photo / StageWorks Fresno

When I saw the show on Broadway in 2015, here’s how I described it for The Fresno Bee:

Some shows grab you, hug you, squeeze you. Others play it cool, self-aware and all-knowing, almost daring you to join the club. “Fun Home,” a beguiling and intensely emotional experience, does neither. Instead it treats you as if you’re so much part of a familiar landscape that it forgets you’re there.

It’s like when you were little and spent so much time at a best friend’s house that you become part of the fabric of the family’s backstage life, from dysfunction to joy, almost as if you were an honorary member. Ah, the things you could learn just by keeping quiet.

In “Fun Home,” composer Jeanine Tesori and writer-lyricist Lisa Kron transform the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s popular graphic-novel memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” into a spare and beautiful musical. Bechdel’s adult self is narrator, looking back at herself as a 9-year-old navigating through childhood and as a 19-year-old college freshman embracing the fact she’s gay.

I got the chance to sit down with the three “StageWorks Alisons” a few days ago for a wide-ranging interview about fathers, mothers, childhood, memory, sexuality, music and more. I was struck by the way each already seems to have found a distinctive center of gravity when it comes to their characters. Their thoughtfulness and passion have already permeated how they talk about the musical and the impact it already has had on their lives.

Here are excerpts from my discussion with Novi Alexander, who plays Young Alison; Thani Brant, as Medium Alison; and Haley White, who portrays Adult Alison.

Donald: Some people are surprised that “Fun Home” is actually short for “Funeral Home.” As Alison remembers her childhood, much of it has to do with the funeral home owned by her father, Bruce (played by Terry Lewis). Is this creepy at all?

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Remembering Andrew Massey, former Fresno Philharmonic conductor

In the 65 years of the Fresno Philharmonic’s existence, a small but mighty band of men (and now a woman!) have served as music director. We lost one of them recently. Andrew Massey, who led the orchestra at various times from 1983 to 1991, died earlier this month at his home in Vermont at the age of 72.

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Andrew Massey’s long career in classical music included a stint as music director of the Fresno Philharmonic.

Mr. Massey went on to do some wonderful things after his time in Fresno, including serving as conductor of the Toledo Symphony, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Green Mountain Mahler Festival and the Middlebury College Orchestra. The college reports that his career included stints as associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and New Orleans Symphony, and a conductor or leader of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Oregon Mozart Players, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Racine Symphony, and the Indonesian National Symphony Orchestra in Jakarta.

He was born in England and studied at Oxford University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 2002, he became a U.S. citizen.

Mr. Massey is remembered fondly by musicians who played with him in Fresno.

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Children’s Musical Theaterworks gets extension to use Memorial Auditorium through 2019

Plus: Company announces its first “CMT’s Got Talent” fundraiser. Mark your calendars for Aug. 17

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Good news for Children’s Musical Theaterworks: After nearly getting kicked out of the city-owned Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium late last year because of that aging building’s safety issues, the theater company got a one-year reprieve and was allowed to stage productions there through 2018. Now it’s been granted another one-year extension on that agreement, through 2019.

CMT board president K.C. Rutiaga tells me:

The city has agreed to allow us another season, as we have shown our diligence in seeking a donor for the theater (no news on that yet). So we are working on titles for the 2019 season and will be announcing them July 13 at the opening of “Once on This Island.”

If you recall, the city agreed to let the theater company continue to use the auditorium after a careful assessment of outstanding safety issues. For example, there are restrictions on the use of the fly rails (the equipment used to move backdrops, scenery and scrims up and down) and the electrical equipment. The estimate to fix all the theater’s problems is in the $1 million range. CMT continues to court big-ticket donors for those improvements.

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Mayor proposes alternative ballot measure, setting up potential conflict with Fresno for Parks campaign

UPDATE 06/28: George Hostetter of CVObserver reports that Mayor Brand pulled his proposed ballot measure due to lack of Council support. For a deep dive on the politics of all this, Hostetter also posted this interesting piece.

ORIGINAL POST: For the past couple of months, as organizers of the Fresno Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Initiative worked to gather enough signatures to quality the sales-tax measure for the November ballot, there’s been uncertainty about a public-safety tax-increase proposal floating around. If both measures qualified, would two-thirds of voters look kindly on approving not one but two tax increases? Would it come down to essentially an either/or situation: uniformed officers on the street vs. places for our kids to play?

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With a City Hall announcement today, the situation got even more complicated — or a lot simpler, depending on your perspective. Mayor Lee Brand is proposing a one-half cent increase in sales tax in the City of Fresno that would fund both public safety and parks. If this measure is supported by two-thirds of the voters, it will raise between $44 and $50 million dollars a year, according to the city.

Half the money would go toward police and fire, including hiring between 160 and 200 additional new police officers, firefighters and civilian support personnel. The other half would triple the annual parks budget and go toward implementing most of the recommendations of the Parks Master Plan.

And how would funding for the arts fare? In the Fresno for Parks ballot measure — which would raise taxes by ⅜ of a cent — arts and culture would get a dedicated funding stream to the tune of an estimated $4.5 million a year. The city’s split proposal does not specifically identify arts funding, says city spokesman Mark Standriff.

“But it certainly will be considered as part of the 1/4 cent going to parks if the measure passes,” he told me.

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Opening weekend: ‘Guys and Dolls’ in Sanger, ‘Proof’ at 2nd Space

A reminder about two local theater openings:

♦ Sanger’s Blossom Trail Players presents “Guys and Dolls,” its fourth-ever mainstage production. This is the classic tale of Sky Masterson, a high-rolling gambler who bets that he can make the pious Sarah Brown his girlfriend. The score includes such favorites as “A Bushel and Peck,” “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

The Sanger company offers a couple of special additions to the program nightly: The BTP Jazz Combo (comprised of members of this year’s orchestra) perform Broadway and jazz standards as audiences arrive and take their seats. At 7:15 p.m., the brand new BTP Junior Company (founded through a generous grant from The Wonderful Company) will take the stage in “its debut performance presenting an original show that’s an ode to New York itself, comprised of original music and a medley of some all-time favorite songs about the city that never sleeps.”

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As FOOSA heads back to Disney Hall, composer Mason Lamb is in for a thrill

Fresno Summer Orchestra Academy will perform in Los Angeles, then return on Sunday to Fresno for a finale concert

Exactly a year ago, on this Friday morning, I hopped on a bus bound from Fresno State to the stunning Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. On board were some of the most talented young musicians I’d ever met, along with their equally talented (and renowned) teachers. This was the annual FOOSA (Fresno Summer Orchestra Academy) pilgrimage to perform at Disney Hall. And I was lucky enough to be invited.

For these musicians, who descend on Fresno State each summer from around the world, getting to step inside Disney Hall is a treat. Getting to be part of a concert there is on an entirely different musical level. I detailed the experience in an in-depth post about the trip. I had a lot of fun writing it.

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Composer Mason Lamb’s ‘Solstice’ will receive its world premiere at Disney Concert Hall.

Now the FOOSA folks are repeating the experience. The orchestra will perform Symphony No. 2 by Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), described by the academy’s executive director, Julia Copeland, as “little known but suddenly hot,” and the always popular “Der Rosenkavalier Suite” by Richard Strauss.

Also on the program is the elegiac Kol Nidrei, by Max Bruch, performed by the great cellist Lynn Harrell. (At FOOSA, the teachers — who represent some of the nation’s finest orchestras and institutions of higher learning — perform alongside the students, adding to the thrill.) And there’s a world premiere: a piece titled “Solstice,” written for this occasion by Fresno-based composer Mason Lamb.


Related story: 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 (June 2017)


The Disney Hall concert is tonight (8 p.m. Friday, June 22), and I know that most of us can’t make it. But never fear: The FOOSA crew will hop back on their buses and return to Fresno for a free finale concert (7 p.m. Sunday, June 24, at Peoples Church).

I caught up with Lamb, the composer, to talk about the experience of writing a piece that will receive its premiere at one of the most famous concert halls in the world. We also talked about his travels, his family, and even his “surly, unappreciative beagle.”

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Debating if you should see ‘Joseph’? Go, go, go, go!

Good Company Players brings a beloved musical favorite back to Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater

THEATER REVIEW

If you have a pulse and are into musical theater, chances are you’ve seen the ever-popular “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” not once but multiple times. It gets done a lot. The reason is obvious: It’s tuneful, warm-hearted, silly, low-tech, has a wide range of musical styles, features an enormous cast (you can’t skimp on Jacob’s 12 sons) and is based on a Biblical story so far removed from our contemporary lives that you’d have to try really hard to find anything at which to be offended.

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Tim Smith, as Joseph, enjoys his Coat of Many Colors. Photo / Good Company Players

Even though I’m a repeat (and I mean repeat) viewer, I never put up a fuss when it’s time to see another production of “Joseph.” Particularly one by Good Company Players. As I’ve written at length in the past, this is the perfect-sized show for the intimate space of Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Productions of “Joseph” in bigger theaters tend to get too show-biz glitzy as producers and directors try to pump up the fun but slight material. This show doesn’t need elaborate stagecraft and expensive moving scenery to impress an audience. The most important thing is the quality of the singing and acting.

Which the latest “Joseph” has in abundance.

Is it my favorite “Joseph” ever? It could be. I’m tempted greatly by my recollection of the 1996 Good Company version directed by Fred Bologna, whose “Go Go Go Joseph” first-act finale is probably my most prized “Joseph” memory. (The cheerleader moves in that number had a giddy verve and precision that remain with me to this day, though I also freely acknowledge that the mists of nostalgia might have something to do with it. Seeing a choreographed bit like that the first time is always the best.) That said, I like this current “Joseph” a lot as well. Here are 5 Favorite Things I offer from the show:

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A traditional ‘Othello’ gets jealous at Woodward Park

THEATER REVIEW

Under new leadership, the resilient Woodward Shakespeare Festival kicks off a new era with a compelling season-opening production of “Othello.” This slow-burn exercise in the darker side of human nature — chock full of anger, envy, misogyny, insecurity, ruthless manipulation, problematic racial politics and, of course, the famed “green-eyed monster” of jealousy — is heavy stuff. I’ve always considered the play to be a major challenge both for a theater company and the audience. This production, which continues through July 7, has its uneven spots, but it also can be quite accomplished. Here’s a rundown:

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LaVon Jean-Pierre plays the title role in “Othello.” Photo / Woodward Shakespeare Festival

The storyline: The play is one of the best known of Shakespeare’s works. The talented Othello (a commanding LaVon Jean-Pierre) is a Moorish prince in Venice. (The term “Moor” at the time was generally used to describe someone with dark skin, and the role is expected to be played by a person of color.) After eloping with the high-born Desdemona (Alexis Elisa Macedo), Othello is sent to command the Venetian army on the isle of Cyprus to defend against the invading Turks. Luckily for him, a storm destroys the Turkish fleet. Unluckily for him, his trusted lieutenant, Iago (Casey Ballard), hatches an elaborate scheme to make Othello think his wife is cheating on him. With nary a fact-checking bone in his body, Othello’s jealousy takes over.

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