In ‘Star-Spangled Girl,’ these guys flunk the #MeToo test

Good Company Players offers vintage Neil Simon at the 2nd Space Theatre


Some of Neil Simon’s plays still sparkle — and they will for generations to come.

“The Star-Spangled Girl” is not one of those plays.

At its best, this Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre offers a few amiable moments and amusing one-liners. At worst, it’s lackluster in terms of laughs, dated in terms of its humor and — to be blunt — eye-rollingly sexist, at least by today’s standards.

Norman (Joseph Ham), left, and Andy (Anthony teNyenhuis), duke it out in “The Star-Spangled Girl.” Photo / Good Company Players

Here’s the setup: Andy (Anthony teNyenhuis) publishes a protest magazine in San Francisco. He runs the business side of things while his roommate, Norman (Joseph Ham, who alternates the role with Aaron Gomes), is the writing talent. When Sophie (Paige Tucker), a Midwest “girl” (this is, alas, a world in which all women are “girls”), moves next door, Norman instantly falls for her.

That’s when things get weird.

Continue reading “In ‘Star-Spangled Girl,’ these guys flunk the #MeToo test”

With ‘Lydia,’ Fresno State straddles more than one kind of border

Gina Sandí-Díaz makes her Fresno State directorial debut with Octavio Solis’ searing drama


So just who is Lydia?

In Octavio Solis’ fascinating and exasperating play “Lydia,” set in the 1970s, the title character is a Mexican maid who has slipped across the border into El Paso, Texas. There she finds a job in a dysfunctional household. (Which is putting it mildly. The Flores family is better described as cataclysmically broken.) Most apparent of their woes is the teenage daughter of the family, Ceci, who is brain-damaged after an accident and unable to care for herself. From early on, through the play’s moody shifts in tone and Ceci’s periodic transformations from vegetative state to cogent narrator, the play appears to be more than straightforward realism. Things happen that can’t quite be explained rationally.

Ruby Arreguin, left, plays the title role in “Lydia.” Her character becomes a caretaker for Ceci, played by Kenia Morales. Photo / Fresno State

And thus, in a work of magical realism, there are fair questions here to ask: Is Lydia simply a maid imbued with a dramatic gift of empathy? Or is she more than a mere mortal, some magical or extraordinary being — a Latinx Mary Poppins, if you will — whose role in the universe is to hone in on each family member’s deepest psychological wounds, gain their confidence and set things right?

Continue reading “With ‘Lydia,’ Fresno State straddles more than one kind of border”

As the Smith sisters sing farewell to ‘Annie,’ they’re happy for the good knocks in life

Joy, Anna and Charity Smith have relished the chance to play orphans together on stage

The Smith household in northwest Fresno is about as far away from Austria as you can get, but as I take a seat in the comfy living room, I can’t help but think of “The Sound of Music.” There are five children in the Smith family — from eldest to youngest, Michael, Tim, Anna, Joy and Charity — and they’ve all been stellar performers in Good Company Players productions over the years. If we could get Wendy (Mom) and Patrick (Dad) in the act, we’d have the Fresno version of the Von Trapp Family Singers.

Three sisters: Charity, left, Joy and Anna Smith with dog Harry in the Good Company Players production of “Annie.” Photo / Wendy Smith

But today we’re here to talk about “Annie,” which ends its successful run on Sunday, March 18, at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The three younger sisters all have significant roles in the show. Joy plays Annie herself. (In my review, I write that she “has that certain spark on stage that suggests big things to come.”) Anna, 15, is July, the streetwise older orphan, while the youngest, Charity, 8, plays Molly, the spunky scene-stealer. Even the Smith family dog, Harry, gets in on the act in the role of Sandy.

It’s been quite a hectic and fulfilling few months for all of the Smiths, but particularly for 12-year-old Joy, who has relished every red-headed moment of the run. I sat down with the three girls and their mother for a closing-weekend debriefing.

Donald: First off, I just have to ask: Why do you think there’s so musical talent in your family? Is it something in the genes?

Continue reading “As the Smith sisters sing farewell to ‘Annie,’ they’re happy for the good knocks in life”

Donald’s list: Weekend choices (March 16)

You can win tickets to Sunday’s Fresno Philharmonic concert. Plus: “Bullets Over Broadway” opens in Visalia, and Ethan Bortnick performs live at the Tower Theatre

I have three promising weekend picks for you. They are the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Virtuoso Orchestra” concert (to which you can win a pair of tickets; for details, see below); the Central Valley premiere of the musical “Bullets Over Broadway” at Visalia’s College of the Sequoias; and a special performance by PBS star Ethan Bortnick with a select group of singers from the Bach Children’s Chorale. Read on:

Fresno Philharmonic

stephanie phil
Fresno Philharmonic concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio

Most of the time, a different stellar guest artist joins the Fresno Philharmonic at each concert for a solo performance. But for its next concert (3 p.m. Sunday, March 18), the orchestra is turning to one of its great talents within: concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio.

“The Virtuoso Orchestra” will showcase Sant’Ambrogio performing Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and Foss’ “Three American Pieces.” The program also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (“The Hen”) and Ginastera’s “Variaciones concertantes.”

In 2016 I did an interview with Sant’Ambrogio (here’s a link to the Fresno Bee story), who has been concertmaster in Fresno since 2010, and after talking with her, I came away even more impressed. After graduating from Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music, she landed a spot in the famed Cleveland Orchestra at age 24, then went on to become reigning concertmaster at the San Antonio Symphony for 13 years.

Continue reading “Donald’s list: Weekend choices (March 16)”

Capt. Von Trapp and Maria spice things up in frisky and fresh ‘Sound of Music’

The Broadway in Fresno touring production continues for another performance on Thursday, March 15


“The Sound of Music” might be 58 going on 59, but it’s still got a lot of edel in its weiss. The national tour that opened at the Saroyan Theatre on Wednesday night (and continues for one more performance on Thursday) is a solid and amiable production of the beloved classic, complete with often charming renditions of the songs you know and love. A few thoughts:

Mike McLean as Captain von Trapp and Jill-Christine Wiley as Maria. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Mike McLean as Capt. Von Trapp and Jill-Christine Wiley as Maria in the national tour of “The Sound of Music.” Photo / Matthew Murphy

The production is traditional without being stodgy. I’ve seen versions of “Sound of Music” that clunked along like a doddering church service, but this tour (directed by Matt Lenz based on original direction by Jack O’Brien) has a lively — even frisky — sensibility to it. Part of that has to do with the youngish cast. Capt. Von Trapp (played by a dashing Mike McLean) has an air of the handsome, misunderstood hunk about him, and there are nice affectionate sparks between him and Maria (an appealing and charismatic Jill-Christine Wiley), who seems genuinely rattled when her heart starts pitter-pattering faster than normal. (No worries in terms of the family-friendly front, however; this is no “Fifty Shades of My Favorite Things.”) With this youthful dynamic, there’s no danger of the love story straying into icky March-November romance territory, which sometimes occurs in the show with a much older Captain.

Continue reading “Capt. Von Trapp and Maria spice things up in frisky and fresh ‘Sound of Music’”

In Fresno State’s ‘Lydia,’ strong women navigate their Mexican-American identities

Gina Sandí-Díaz and Ruby Arreguin discuss the Latinx theater production, which opens Friday, March 16

Fresno State’s theater and dance department welcomed a new director last fall: Gina Sandí-Díaz, originally from Costa Rica by way of the University of Kansas, where she received her doctorate in theater. She is the university’s first Latinx theater specialist, a welcome appointment for an officially designated Hispanic-serving institution. Sandí-Díaz’s first production for Fresno State is “Lydia,” opening Friday, March 16. The 2006 play is by Octavio Solis.

I got the chance a few weeks ago to feature a preview for “Lydia” on the March TV episode of “The Munro Review,” my monthly arts talk show produced by the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC). I featured Sandí-Díaz and Fresno State student Ruby Arreguin, who plays the role of Lydia, on the program. I’ve trimmed the show down to just their interview in the clip above. It’s approximately 11 minutes. (You can see the entire episode here.) Here’s a brief rundown as explained by Sandí-Díaz and Arreguin:

The play: “Lydia” is a story of a Mexican-American family set in the early 1970s. The mother and father crossed the river from Mexico and settled in El Paso, Texas, to raise a family, which now includes three teenage children. A horrible accident traumatized the family, and they have a disabled child who needs care. They make the decision to hire a maid, and the person who shows up is Lydia. She’s an undocumented immigrant, and develops a special bond with different members of the family. In fact, Lydia is so chummy that deeply buried secrets are revealed. “The secrets unleash the rage of the family, and unfortunately, they take their rage out on Lydia,” Sandí-Díaz says. “What we are witnessing as audience members is how each member of the family is dealing with the accident and the aftermath of that accident.”

Continue reading “In Fresno State’s ‘Lydia,’ strong women navigate their Mexican-American identities”

5 Things to Know about Broadway in Fresno’s ‘Sound of Music’

You can win a pair of tickets to opening night plus dinner at Cosmopolitan Tavern

UPDATE: Congratulations to winner Andrew Esquer.

ORIGINAL POST: When I catch up by phone with Keslie Ward, who plays Liesl in the national tour of “The Sound of Music,” she’s in Sioux Falls, N.D. Which is not the warmest place on the planet in February, particularly for someone who grew up in Texas. She’s happy that warmer California is on the horizon as the tour prepares for a two-night stand at the Saroyan Theatre (it opens Wednesday, March 14). Here are 5 Things to Know about Ward and the show.

Plus: You can win a pair of tickets to opening night and dinner at Cosmopolitan Tavern and free parking. See details at the end of this post.

Keslie Ward as Liesl and Chad P. Campbell as Rolf. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Keslie Ward as Liesl and Chad P. Campbell as Rolf in the national tour of ‘The Sound of Music.’ Photo / Matthew Murphy


She’s 24 going on 16.

But don’t worry: Ward is used to playing younger than she is. One of her gigs before the tour was working on a Disney cruise ship, where in one production she played a girl of 12. So pulling off an infatuated teen singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is no big deal.

Continue reading “5 Things to Know about Broadway in Fresno’s ‘Sound of Music’”

In a must-see show, Brad Myers gives his weightiest performance yet

Fresno City College production of “The Whale” is haunting and compelling


You hear Brad Myers in “The Whale” before you see him. The wheezing from the darkened stage is alarming and disorienting, like in the middle of the night when you wake from a deep sleep to hear one of your kids throwing up. As the lights slowly rise, we begin to focus on the source of this unhealthy sound. That’s when we first see Charlie, a troubled man. He thinks he could weigh 600 pounds, though it’s been years since he’s been able to get on a scale to know for sure. In a culture in which obesity seems ever more common, Charlie’s physical condition is still enough to alarm.

whaleposter2In Fresno City College’s fine production of Samuel D. Hunter’s play, which ran off Broadway in 2012, Myers — a Fresno State theater professor appearing in this production as a guest actor — gives a performance as Charlie that is revelatory. It’s a terrific, mesmerizing and deeply affecting piece of work.

You might be tempted to attribute my over-the-top praise to something similar to the Oscar “disability effect,” in which actors playing characters with physical or mental disabilities — often gut-wrenching roles involving extensive makeup or prosthetics — have an edge in terms of critical acclaim. Yes, perhaps that is a factor. But at its core, Myers’ performance seems so much more than a couple of hours in a fat suit. (And what a well designed fat suit it is, thanks to Debra Erven). With limited mobility other than from the neck up, he relies almost exclusively on his voice and eyes to make the character work.

Continue reading “In a must-see show, Brad Myers gives his weightiest performance yet”