Critic’s notebook: Review roundup of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ Fresno Philharmonic Masterworks concert, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Spring Awakening’
A review roundup:
‘SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN’
Through March 12, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater
e’ve watched Peter Hartley grow up on stage at Good Company Players, and it’s a pleasure to see him get a comic (and cardiovascular) workout in a leading role as Cosmo Brown, the hammy vaudevillian character (played in the movie by Donald O’Connor) in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Equally as pleasurable: Watching Kaitlin Dean, a talented GCP veteran who has performed valiantly over the years in secondary roles, getting her chance to play a lead as Kathy Selden. The role is especially fitting because Kathy herself, an aspiring but decidedly underemployed actress, hits it big when she bumps into movie star Don Lockwood (a charming Shawn Williams, who is not playing his first leading role), and he falls for her beauty and talent.
As a trio, the three have a nice spark, particularly in the “Would You Finale” number, when Kaye Migaki’s choreography gets a welcome spotlight.
Based on the MGM film of the same title, complete with the iconic street-downpour dancing scene, the musical plays up what’s funniest about the source material: the conflict between silent pictures and “talkies,” and how letting the movie audience hear their favorite stars instead of just look at them changed the film business forever.
Another GCP veteran, Madeline Wristen, nabbed the show-stealing role of Lina Lamont, the silent-screen star who has the monster truck of voices. Wristen gets all the expected laughs – the way she mangles the word “moonlight” could be a felony in some states – and also wrings an unexpected pathos from the role.
Directors Dan Pessano and Emily Pessano capture the glitter of Old Hollywood, and the physical comedy is strong throughout. (Roger Christensen, as the huffy studio head, injects a welcome bit of craziness into the proceedings.) The show is well put together, and while the play itself feels lightweight in terms of emotional punch, it burns off a lot of welcome comedic calories.
FRESNO PHILHARMONIC PLAYS MAHLER’S 5th SYMPHONY
Performed Feb. 11, 2023, Saroyan Theatre
Music director Rei Hotoda is mad about Mahler. She has vowed to play one of the composer’s works each season, and at this Masterworks concert, she and the orchestra flung themselves into the sprawling, massive, opaque 5th Symphony. At the end, my friend whispered to me, “I’ve never seen her so happy on the podium.” And it’s true: Hotoda radiated unabashed joy as she and the orchestra took well-deserved bows. It’s like when someone starts laughing and you join in, even if you aren’t sure of all the jokes; I’m not enough of an expert in Mahler to know why it was such a successful performance technically and emotionally, but the exuberance on the faces of the conductor and musicians couldn’t help but draw the audience in as well.
Contrary to my expectations, my favorite movements were neither the fourth (Mahler’s famed musical love poem to his young wife) nor the fifth (which is where the piece really gets big). Rather, it was the third movement that really soared for me. I’m one of those listeners who try to find a narrative line in the music, which is quite difficult with this piece because there’s no literary inspiration or historical theme to figure into the equation. In visual arts terms, the Mahler No. 5 is much closer to abstraction than realism.
For me, I focused on not trying to assign a narrative. I concentrated on the contrasts in tempo and dynamics, on the way Mahler gets all grand and uplifting one moment and then quiet – almost shy – in the next. If I did come away with an overall tone, I’d say the movement is about liveliness and sophistication, of ice cubes clattering in drinks and the patter of pleasant conversation.
One note: Hotoda took time before the piece to address the audience and gave us a brief overview. This gave the audience a bit of structure to hang their hats on as they listened: first a funeral march, then a storm, followed by an opulent waltz (the sophisticated third movement mentioned above), a love poem. And then, to top it off, an explosive, optimistic evocation of nature and life.
Her remarks were an outstanding strategy. Sure, digital program notes can offer lots of information, but Hotoda gave us an emotional connection and a vested interest in the piece. The most important thing, she told us, was to pay attention to the transitions between the colors and flavors of the music. In a way, that advice can be applied to life itself: While you’re living through the peaks and valleys – the somberness and joy – recognizing and embracing those key transitions is a way of feeling more in control.
Hotoda paired the Mahler piece with a delightful shorter (and much newer) piece: Jessie Montgomery’s “Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra” featuring pianist Awadagin Pratt. The piece, which preceded the Mahler, had a nimble, almost athletic feel, with Pratt (a return guest artist to the Fresno Philharmonic) offering dazzling keyboard work and an improvised cadenza that included using the strings of the piano itself to great effect. The piece was a great contrast to the sweep and mourning-to-ecstasy gravitas of the Mahler Five.
‘SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE’
Finished its run Feb. 19, 2nd Space Theatre
Just like in “Singin’ in the Rain,” Good Company Players tackled another play adapted from a hit movie. I’m annoyed with myself for not posting this review before the show closed. But considering I am essentially a one-person show, and that cloning still isn’t reliable, I’m trying not to beat myself up for not being the equivalent of a fully funded newsroom. Anyway, “Shakespeare in Love” at the 2nd Space was warm and charming. Besides boasting a top-notch cast – more on that in a moment – my major takeaway (and one that lingers weeks later) was how deft the direction was. Laurie Pessano took a sprawling script with a bunch of settings, a bevy of secondary characters, numerous intersecting plot threads and (insert gasp for breath here) a whole slew of period costumes by Ginger Kay Lewis Reed, and she managed to make the whole thing seem as smooth as, well, an Elizabethan smoothie. (Which, I’m guessing, would be spit-warm ale blended with, let’s see, lamb, and maybe hay?) That Pessano did all this in a space only a little bit larger than a London tenement bedroom is remarkable.
Among my favorite performances and moments: Augstin Chapa, in an endearing performance as Shakespeare, noisily hoisting himself up to the balcony; Jessica Knotts, as Viola, the Gwyneth Paltrow role from the movie; Elizabeth Fiester exuding maximum nursy-ness as Nurse; Mark Standriff as a ruddy wreck of a thespian (an astonishing turnaround from his recent role as a soon-to-be saint in “A Man For All Seasons”); and a truly elegant Sally Tay Howe as Queen Elizabeth herself. Plus: Alex Vaux’s codpiece punchline. That man knows how to land a laugh.
Finished its run Feb. 18, Shine! Theatre at St. James
Isaw this limited-run musical on the day of closing. Typically through the years, Shine! artistic director tony sanders seemingly pulls theater magic out of a budgetary hat so small you’d need a nuclear microscope to see it. However, this production was very rough in terms of stagecraft – the set, sound and the temporary stage itself, built in the church gymnasium – which distracted from the material. For someone not familiar with “Spring Awakening,” I think it would have been hard to follow some of the action – particularly some of the subplots involving secondary characters – because of the difficulty in hearing the lyrics.
While all the cast members appeared committed to the material, the acting, singing and choreography was uneven. There were some great directorial touches from Sanders and co-director Jenny Myers : I loved how characters would leave the stage and then take a long walk around the back of the audience, still in character, before heading backstage. And seeing father and mother characters holding their teenagers by ropes, like a leash, was a bold, literal depiction of the often fraught relationship between parents and children regarding sexual maturity. (Allison Botello and Jeremy Salas’ portrayals of the adult roles in the show were sharply realized.)
Overall the production was a valiant effort whose ambitions outstripped its resources.
Through it all, Cady Mejias was a wonder as Wendla, whose sexual awakening drives the storyline. Perhaps because the stagecraft felt so bare, there was nothing to distract us from the performance itself. Even with the rudimentary set and brash daylight streaming in at the matinee, pretty much overwhelming any attempt at lighting design, Mejias still managed to take me to another place, offering a striking, emotionally raw, vocally powerful portrayal. “I’ve never felt anything,” her character says at one point, and the bleakness with which Mejias made that statement, combined with her character’s place as a girl/woman in a strict 19th century German town, was something I won’t soon forget. She was a standout.