StageWorks Fresno productions over the years: Here’s my Top 10

With the news that StageWorks Fresno has closed its doors after 10 years, let’s reflect on how the company graced the local theater scene.

Pictured above: The cast of ‘Dogfight.’

Originally I intended to pick the Top 5 productions. My rationale: I figured that the company produced 36 productions, and that honoring a ratio of one out of seven shows would be a good plan. But I found it too tough to narrow my top picks down to five.

Then I changed to the Top 7. The same thing happened.

I couldn’t do it.

Related story: After a decade of memorable work, StageWorks Fresno closes its doors

And, finally, I succumbed and went for the standard Top 10. I think it says something about the quality of the StageWorks body of work that I had to go through such gyrations.

So, here is my (highly arbitrary) list of the Top 10 StageWorks productions. I initially came up with this list mostly from memory, rather than going back and rereading reviews; I figured that the shows I’m able to rhapsodize about all these years later had the biggest impact.


Here’s my list in descending order.

I hope you’re able to respond in the comments with your favorites as well.

10. “The Mountaintop” (2014)

Camille Gaston and tony sanders in ‘The Mountaintop.’

On the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, a maid knocks on the door of his motel room with room service and begins an (imagined) interaction that swirls through his formidable strengths and all-too-human weaknesses. Camille Gaston and tony sanders (who does not capitalize his name) excelled in a powerhouse production that manages to seem both taut and dreamy — a charismatic and combustible combination. (Directed by Joel C. Abels)

9. “The Music Lesson” (2015)

A husband-and-wife pair of refugees who fled the atrocities of the 1990s Bosnian War attempt to forge a new life in Philadelphia. In this sensitive and lyrically staged production, Leslie Martin and Chris Carsten brought these memorable characters to life and showed us the powerful way that war and music can intersect. (Directed by J. Daniel Herring)

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8. “La Cage Aux Folles” (2019)

When you introduce your future in-laws to you parents, things can get complicated when your mom is a drag queen and your girlfriend’s father a conservative politician. In this intimate version of the gorgeous Jerry Herman classic musical, Joel C. Abels made a ravishing Albin. The dazzling production made you feel as if you were sitting in the nightclub itself. (Directed by J. Daniel Herring)

Terry Lewis in ‘I Am My Own Wife.’

7. “I Am My Own Wife” (2013)

In this tale of famed 20th century German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, Terry Lewis played all the characters, more than 40. This eloquent production nudged us toward a deeper understanding not only of an interesting historical figure but also the nature of history itself. (Directed by J. Daniel Herring)

6. “The Light in the Piazza” (2011)

A mother and daughter partner in a dance of memory, heartbreak and letting go. Amelia Ryan and Taylor Abels, in the leading roles, gave finely etched performances. And I can still hear the sounds of Laura Porter’s wonderful harp spilling out into the Severance Theatre space. (Directed by Joel C. Abels)

5. “Grey Gardens” (2013)

A strange and wonderful documentary about a reclusive, eccentric mother and daughter became an even stranger and more wonderful Broadway musical. This tale of Big Edie and Little Edie, aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, featured standout performances from Sara Gettelfinger and Tessa Cavalletto and a striking contrast between wealth and squalor. (Directed by Joel C. Abels)

StageWorks Fresno

Benjamin McNamara, top, and Taylor Babcock in StageWorks Fresno’s first production.

4. “[title of show]” (2010)

You never forget your first StageWorks show. This deceptively simple musical about a tight quartet of friends (including Fresno’s own Heidi Blickenstaff) writing a musical is quirky, touching and infused with a happy musical energy. I remember watching this production “click” and thinking: I hope this theater company sticks around for a long time.

StageWorks Fresno

Leo Jimesanagnos, left, Novi Alexander and Lucas Stephens in ‘Fun Home.’

3. “Fun Home” (2018)

Alison Bechdel’s famed graphic-novel memoir gets a beautiful theatrical treatment in a shifting timeline of flashbacks and memories. The three wonderful “Alisons” — Haley White, Thani Brant and Novi Alexander — offered a view of a dysfunctional childhood that never bogged down in the melodramatic but instead traced a spare, elegant arc of human dignity and resilience. Amalie Larsen, in a performance of astonishing rigidity and tenderness that remains with me to this day, was breathtaking. And of the dozens of performances from Terry Lewis I’ve seen over the years, I think this one of his as the conflicted, closeted father was the best yet. (Directed by J. Daniel Herring)

2. “Dogfight” (2015)

On their last night before shipping off to the Vietnam War, a group of Marines plays a cruel game: inviting the ugliest woman they can find to a party. There are so many beautiful things to recall about this fine production: the standout performance of Jordan Litz as a Marine with a conscience; the effective minimalist set; the gorgeous vocals. But the highlight of the show was the performance of Ellie West, who played the central character of Rose. Through her eyes we felt, ached, fought, laughed and rejoiced. You can’t ask for much more from a musical than that. (Directed by Joel C. Abels)

StageWorks Fresno

The cast of ‘Next to Normal.’

1. “Next to Normal” (2012)

From my top three shows, I think you can get a sense of my musical-theater predilections: I love intense, emotional, quirky musicals that explore raw human emotions in distinctive and compelling ways. Which is a category you’d definitely want to put this musical about bipolar depressive disorder and electroshock therapy. The family depicted in this show — played exquisitely by Melinda Parrett, Joel C. Abels, Taylor Abels and Daniel Rodriguez — took me to places no musical had taken me before. The set, music and acting all soared. This show became to me a towering tale of love, grief and resilience in a world in which we all, at one time or another, feel a little bit crazy. For that, StageWorks Fresno has my eternal thanks. (Directed by J. Daniel Herring)

StageWorks Fresno’s production history

[title of show]

The Light in the Piazza
Beauty and the Beast, Jr.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Next to Normal
A Little Night Music
A Year With Frog and Toad

I Am My Own Wife
Les Miserables
Grey Gardens
God of Carnage
A Year With Frog and Toad

[title of show]
The Mountaintop
The Normal Heart

The Music Lesson
Into the Woods
Other Desert Cities

Casa Valentina
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Peter and the Starcatcher

The Christians
The Full Monty
Mothers and Sons
Little Shop of Horrors

The Fantasticks
Fun Home
The Last Five Years

Mamma Mia!
La Cage Aux Folles
The Book of Will

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (4)

  • Michelle

    I didn’t know about SWF in time, and missed the first few years of productions. Of the ones I’ve seen, I share a love for many in your Top 10. “Spelling Bee” will always be a favorite (not just because I love my Leaf Coneybear). Maybe separate lists for musicals and plays? For me, “Mothers & Sons” and “The Book of Will” deserve honorable mention, at least. Also, Terry Lewis and Christy Hathaway as The Black Stache and Smee will live happily in my memory for years to come – not my favorite show, but one of my very favorite duos! I really enjoyed the “page to stage” series, too. SWF will be sorely missed.

  • Donna

    There were 3 on the list I didn’t see, so I’d swap La Cage for Casa Valentina. And remove Grey Gardens and A Night at the Piazza (which I am sure were stellar) for The Normal Heart and Ragtime. I’ve seen 20 of the shows on the list! You already had my favorite 2 on yours-/The Mountaintop and Next to Normal.

    • Donna

      And I am super sad there will be no more. Joel and J Daniel are incredible humans with a good sense of what the valley needs to see. We are better for them.


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