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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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
God of Carnage
A Year With Frog and Toad
[title of show]
The Normal Heart
The Music Lesson
Into the Woods
Other Desert Cities
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Peter and the Starcatcher
The Full Monty
Mothers and Sons
Little Shop of Horrors
The Last Five Years
La Cage Aux Folles
The Book of Will