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Critic’s notebook: Catching up with Chris Colfer, Jack Fortner’s memorial and Erven’s friends

I’m way behind on writing about a couple of notable events I saw earlier this month:

Chris Colfer and Good Company Players in ‘All Together Now!’ (Nov. 14, Shaghoian Hall)

Pure Imagination. Good Company Players performer Lyric Gianni would have needed some of that a few months ago if you suggested he’d soon be singing on the same stage as “Glee” star Chris Colfer.

That’s exactly what unfolded in GCP’s “All Together Now!” at Shaghoian Hall. Gianni got to sing and dance alongside Colfer, who appeared in about 20 of the company’s shows when he was growing up in Clovis. The Sunday concert marked the first time he’d come home to sing since attaining TV fame. Colfer did it by opening the benefit performance with the song “Pure Imagination,” from the musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Five young members of the Junior Company joined Colfer on stage for the intro, and it was as sweet as can be. So was the rest of the show. Some highlights:

Colfer was a terrific host. Warm and funny, he laced his crisp sense of humor with just the right amount of acerbity. Responding to the audience’s generous applause when he walked on stage the first time, he quipped: “The last time I was on this stage I lost a talent show, so that means a lot to me.” Another great line: “I’m so glad that Audra McDonald was busy.”

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Related story: INTERVIEW: IN ‘ALL TOGETHER NOW!,’ ‘GLEE’ STAR WILL SING LIVE IN PUBLIC FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 10 YEARS

That starring role 20 years ago in “A Christmas Story” will follow him forever. Colfer appeared as Ralphie in the 2002 GCP production at the 2nd Space Theatre, and he’s never been able to live a certain costume down. At the “All Together Now,” performance, Colfer told the audience he had attended the current production of “Elf: The Musical” at Roger Rocka’s. (He offered a rave review, by the way.) A fellow audience member seated nearby offered a stare, gave him a long look up and down and said, simply, “Bunny suit.” Forget “Glee.” Forget the best-selling book series. “My performance as Ralphie is the highlight of my career,” Colfer told the Shaghoian audience, laughing.

The GCP memories: Colfer had plenty of them, lobbing lots of insider references at the audience. Tracy Jones used to sneak him into Tower District bars so he could go out with the cast. Director Nancy Miller took him under her wing, letting him watch old GCP videotapes at the office. He went through a phase of Janet Glaude vocal worship, singing her big number from “Hot Mikado” as he stood in the shower, trying to replicate the rendition. Once, during a performance of “Jane Eyre” at the 2nd Space Theatre, a homeless man wandered into the theater and onto the stage, and the cast just ad-libbed around him. (Bet that never happened on the set of “Glee.”) “Charlotte Bronte might have spun in her grave, but I think it might have been our best show,” he said.

The performances: With a deep bench of GCP talent, many of the songs in the musical-revue portion of the evening were standouts. Among my favorite moments: Emily Pessano bringing back memories of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Terry Lewis (who got an extra shoutout from Colfer) offering a masterful selection from “Les Miserables,” Shawn Williams offering a heap of union-growling, non-elf sparkle in “Seize the Day” from “Newsies,” Teddy Maldonado on fire in “Rockin’ the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls,” and the excellent ensemble cast shuffling back and forth from the wings in a hilarious “Mamma Mia.” (In my notebook, I wrote down “Terry Lewis, Camille Gaston, nipple tug,” which I can pretty much assure you are words I’ve never used before in that particular combination.)

One very special thing for me: To see Kaye Migaki, the longtime GCP choreographer, performing in front of the audience instead of sticking behind the scenes. Her dancing was wonderful, and her presence — as she performed alongside Junior Company members — a testament not only to the years of talents she has brought to the community but also the generational breadth of a company like this.

The fun Colfer surprise: He showed up as the snowman in a rendition of “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” firing a bubble gun and in general hamming it up. Fun stuff.

The final zinger: Colfer has been outspoken about the bullying he experienced in school and the lack of support he received from the educational establishment. There’s been no love lost between Colfer and “The Clovis Way of Life.” At the GCP show, he offered this farewell line: “Personally I would like to thank Clovis Unified for ignoring that restraining order that doesn’t allow me on campus.” (See what I mean about his sense of humor being sharp?) It was a great and pointed way to end a great show.

And as for Lyric Gianni, currently doing great things in “Elf,” who wouldn’t have dreamed a few months ago of performing with Chris Colfer, it doesn’t take pure imagination anymore. It really happened.


Orpheus Chamber Ensemble (Nov. 14, Wahlberg Recital Hall, Fresno State)

One of the players took a head count and figured out there was 237 years of cumulative music experience amongst the participants in a concert memorializing Jack Fortner, the driving force for four decades of Orpheus Chamber Ensemble.

Fortner founded the ensemble and became its artistic director in 1978, and most would agree he expanded Fresno’s musical horizons in ways that no else ever has. Kenneth Froelich, Fortner’s successor as composition professor at Fresno State, says that whenever someone complained to Fortner that his music was hard to play, he’d tell them: “It was also hard to write.”

The concert had two purposes: It was a chance for friends and colleagues of Forkner, who died in June 2020 (but whose memorial service was postponed by the pandemic) to bid farewell in grand musical style; and it also marked a life transition of sorts for Orpheus itself. The institution will likely shift more into the mode of a presenting organization, collaborating with others instead of a performing ensemble with regular concerts and artistic director. (The concept of what Orpheus will be is still fluid, says David Fox, board president.)

The participating musicians were organized into solos, duets and a large chamber ensemble, all featuring noted Fresno-area musicians. From nimble fingers (Kevin Cooper strumming his lute, Andreas Werz pounding the piano keys) to nimble vocal cords (Maria Briggs singing soprano), most of the pieces highlighted Fortner’s vivid and varied compositional language. Werz’s performance of Fortner’s “Blanche and Petro” was extraordinary: a forceful, torrential experience that utilized the extreme ranges of the keyboard.

In the midst of this intriguing aural environment, Fortner’s daughter, Lydia, thanked the audience for attending. Up until the moment the concert began, she said, she kept thinking her father would fly in from Brazil — the country he made home at the end of his life — to make an appearance.

“But that’s not going to happen,” she said.


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The climax came with the North American premiere of Fortner’s final piece, “AISEA.” A star-studded chamber ensemble embarked on an eclectic adventure that combined winds and strings, vocals, percussion and performance art. As it kicked off with a series of male guttural noises, the piece immediately set a mood and tone — weird but not exactly creepy. I felt an overwhelming cinematic sense to the work, as if I could “see” the scene that Fortner was evoking. To me that scene was “inside” something, being inserted into a structure or building of some sort: lots of corridors in shadow, strange angles, odd furniture, oddly shaped doors. Or, if it were an “outside” scene, it would be a dark and tangled forest, branches obscuring the sun, a strongly fecund odor in the air. These are not places of danger, but they are environments in which it is best to be sure of yourself, to move through them with confidence. I could sense Fortner, who loved hockey and once came to composition class with broken teeth, leading us through these spaces with ease.

Near the end, most of the players stood up from their music stands, grabbed wood blocks and castanets and other percussive objects, and started filing and thumping off the stage with the whimsy and individuality of an amiable but plodding circus parade. As they bopped and rattled, their highly trained musicianship melted away into the far more primal act of banging sticks on things to make noise. On stage, only jazz saxophonist Benjamin Boone and soprano Briggs remained, offering a final, three-minute riff together. And then, darkness.

All I can say, Jack Fortner, is this: What a way to take a final bow.


‘Gifts of My Friends’ (Nov. 21, Fresno City College Theatre)

For his first live production since the pandemic, Fresno City College theater professor Chuck Erven got a little help from his friends. He asked some of his published playwriting colleagues if he could direct a few of their short scenes and monologues. The result was “Gifts of My Friends: An Evening of Short Scenes.” In an intriguing twist, Erven interviewed the playwrights on Zoom beforehand and edited the conversations into tight packages that preceded their works; as an audience member, it was a great way to feel more invested in what was to come.

The all-star cast offered some choice moments: Brandon Weis and Ashley Hyatt musing about death, divorce and dismemberment, Aleah Muniz as a hapless, wannabe surrogate mother, Elizabeth Fiester as an emphatic bag lady, Brandi Martin working out her relationship woes through gardening implements. Best of all, the production was live. With the tenuousness of the pandemic, that’s something to grab hold of and enjoy.


 

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.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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