From ‘Memphis’ to Reedley, the fight against racism must continue

River City Theatre Company offers an ambitious production of the Tony Award-winning musical

THEATER REVIEW

It’s a perfect time to reacquaint yourself with “Memphis,” the uplifting and thoughtful 2009 Broadway show focusing on how the crossover appeal of black music in the early 1950s helped weaken the race barrier in the South.

The depressing word in the previous sentence, unfortunately, is “weaken.” Nearly 70 years after the era of “Memphis,” we aren’t able to say that pervasive racism in the South (and the rest of the country) has been eliminated or even thoroughly defanged. The most optimistic spin we can take is that things are better than before. (No more segregated drinking fountains, at least.)

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‘Memphis’ continues at the Reedley Opera House through July 29. Photo / River City Theatre Company

Even more depressing: Racial issues are even more sharp-edged and glaring in 2018 than they were in 2010, when “Memphis” won the Tony Award for best musical. (If you’re into hashtags, this one would be #goingbackwardsucks.)

All this explains why the new River City Theatre Company production of “Memphis” at the Reedley Opera House — a central San Joaquin Valley community theater premiere — is a worthwhile outing. With stirring lead performances and rousing vocals, the show is inspiring.

It’s also uneven at times in terms of acting, staging and production values when compared to other community theater in the region. And there are elements of the book itself that can feel formulaic, something that was apparent in the original Broadway production. But the ambition and dedication on display at Reedley shines through.

Here’s a review rundown on the production, which continues through July 29:

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Children’s Musical Theaterworks and Caitlyn Lopez catch ‘Island’ fever

“Once on This Island” is getting a lot of renewed attention because of an acclaimed Broadway revival. Plus: Enter to win a four-pack of tickets

Just call her Caitlyn “Island” Lopez. In her last starring role, as Sophie in the Good Company Players production of “Mamma Mia,” she got to frolic on a picturesque Greek island. Now, as Ti Moun in the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Once On This Island,” she has the chance to call a gorgeous Caribbean island in the French Antilles home.

It’s a great role for the talented young actress, who stars in a cast that ranges in age from 8 to 23. I caught up with Lopez for an interview and to ask the burning question: If she had to choose between a vacation to a Greek island vs. a Caribbean island, which would she choose?

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Caitlyn Lopez plays Ti Moun in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of ‘Once on This Island.’ Photo / Dylan Reyes

Q: Tell us a little about Ti Moune, the character you play in “Once On This Island.” Is she the kind of person you’d want to be friends with?

A: Ti Moune is a curious peasant girl who longs for more. She is ambitious, brave, and compassionate. I try to surround myself with people I can look up to, and Ti Moune would absolutely be one of those people.

Q: In the musical, four gods rule the island. How do they get along with each other? Tell us about the bet that sets up narrative of the show.

A: The gods get along fairly well, other than the conflict between Erzulie, the goddess of love, and Papa Ge, the god of death. Ti Moune prays to the gods. After hearing her prayers, the gods decide to send her on a journey to prove whether death or love is stronger.

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An appealing ‘Proof,’ but it doesn’t quite add up at the 2nd Space Theatre

THEATER REVIEW

I envy people who are about to see David Auburn’s “Proof” for the first time. This smart and engrossing 2001 play, which captivated Broadway audiences (and won the Pulitzer Prize and best-play Tony Award) with its tale of high-level mathematics and debilitating mental illness, is masterfully constructed. On subsequent viewings of “Proof,” it probably isn’t possible to replicate the tension and surprise of the first go around. But while I’ve seen it several times, I find myself still admiring the way Auburn manages to mash together a nerdy, numbers-oriented mystery plot together with a moving portrayal of father-daughter interdependence and liability.

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Catherine (Bailey Johnson) and Robert (Gordon Moore) in a scene from ‘Proof’ at the 2nd Space Theatre. Photo / Good Company Players

I have some mixed thoughts and reactions after viewing the new Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre:

The relationships: Integral to “Proof” are the connections between Catherine (Bailey Johnson), the 20-something protagonist, and the three other characters in the play. Robert (Gordon Moore), her father, was a famous and troubled mathematician. (You find out very early in the play how he ended up.) Catherine, who is justly proud of her talented dad, has also worried for most of her adult life about his mental stability. It’s more than just a feeling of filial responsibility: She’s concerned that she, too, might have inherited the same tendencies. Catherine’s relationship with her much more together sister, Claire (Marikah Christine Leal), is more fraught. Claire has left Chicago, where their father taught and did his research, to make a notable life for herself in New York. Catherine feels diminished by comparison. And, finally, there’s Hal, a graduate student of Robert’s, who brings his own baggage to the proceedings: He wants to honor his mentor’s genius, but his own stalled career brings out conflicted feelings.

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5 things to Know about Reedley’s ‘Memphis’

The musical opens Friday, July 6, at the Reedley Opera House

THEATER PREVIEW

I got the chance to slip into a recent rehearsal of the musical “Memphis” at Reedley’s River City Theatre Company. The show’s two stars, Camille Gaston and Jonathan Wheeler, sat down beforehand for an insightful interview that was part of the July episode of the TV version of “The Munro Review.”

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Camille Gaston stars as Felicia in “Memphis” at the Reedley Opera House. Photo / River City Theatre Company

In the meantime, here are Five Things to Know about the production:

1.

It’s a central San Joaquin Valley premiere.

That fact helped Reedley director Joseph Ham nab top-notch local talent for the show, which requires a diverse cast with powerful singers and actors. Gaston, one of the best and prolific performers on the local scene, jumped at the chance to play Felicia, the aspiring singer in early 1950s Memphis who dares to break through the color barrier with her new brand of rock ‘n’ roll.

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With a tender and luminous ‘Fun Home,’ StageWorks illustrates the power of musical theater

THEATER REVIEW

It’s so easy to praise “Fun Home” for being important — the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist — that it’s easy to forget just how good it is. I love the way this cheeky adaptation flings its arms around the drawings and captions of Alison Bechdel’s famed graphic memoir and makes them live and breathe in the altogether different world of the stage. I revel in the deep and conflicted characters — not just the pivotal role of Alison herself, but also her father and mother, whose transgressions and heartaches have been (heartbreakingly) immortalized. I admire the way Bechdel’s memories of her dysfunctional childhood never bog down in the melodramatic but instead trace a spare, elegant arc of human dignity and resilience. I applaud the way the play nuzzles and flirts with memory, never striving for the authoritative but instead offering an unabashedly impressionistic picture of a life. I smile at the humor. And hurt at the tears.

Video: Thani Brant gives an in-studio performance of “Changing My Major” from “Fun Home.” It’s a bonus clip from the July episode of “The Munro Review” on CMAC.


Most of all, I love the way the score (music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Lisa Kron) amplifies and enhances the emotional power of the material. For days after seeing the opening night performance of the fine new StageWorks Fresno production (which continues through July 15), a song from the show rattled around in my head. It might not be the one you’d expect. It wasn’t “Ring of Keys,” the beautiful exploration of burgeoning sexuality performed by Small Alison (played by a terrific Novi Alexander) as she melts at the sight of a butch delivery woman. And it wasn’t “Changing My Major,” the bursting-with-first-love comic showstopper sung by Medium Alison (a wonderful Thani Brant), just after her first sexual experience.

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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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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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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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