‘Breaking Up’ is hard to love, but the songs are fun

Good Company Players production continues through mid-January

THEATER REVIEW

I’m pretty lukewarm about “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” the Neil Sedaka jukebox musical pulling the holiday shift at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. (It runs through Jan. 14.) On one hand, some of the singing is very good in this Good Company Players production. The comedy is often crisp and the production design is nice, especially the costumes.

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The cast of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Photo / Good Company Players

On the other hand, the storyline is absurdly dumb, but that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The narratives of most jukebox musicals are little more than flimsy excuses to string along a selection of well-known songs, in this case such Sedaka classics as “Lonely Nights,” “Where the Boys Are and “Next Door to an Angel.” Some musicals of this genre, such as “Mamma Mia” (a GCP offering coming soon to Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre), manage to feel clever and accomplished when those songs come together, as if the writers figured out how to put together a complicated puzzle. Others, like “Breaking Up,” offer plots that just sort of limp along.

Here’s a quick review rundown:

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This ‘Annie’ orphan is all grown up

In 2001, 7-year-old Vanessa Brown played her very first stage role: one of the orphans in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Annie,” directed by Joel Abels.

In 2017, 21-year-old Vanessa Brown was in the audience to see the newest CMT production of “Annie,” thanks to — get this — free tickets won by her mother, Pat, from The Munro Review.

I asked mom to take a photo of her grown-up daughter at the performance so we could juxtapose then-and-now pics. All together now: Awwwww …

(The earlier photo shows the young Vanessa, left, with her friend Olivia Haagensen.)

Vanessa Brown went on to perform in or crew almost 20 CMT shows.

The Browns say they thoroughly enjoyed the show.


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In appreciation of Good Company’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

Director Dan Pessano finds holiday magic in a happily streamlined version of the Dickens classic

THEATER REVIEW

Dan Pessano directs a brisk and bountiful production of “A Christmas Carol” at the 2nd Space Theatre. Ever since the show opened the first week in November, a large and holiday-spirit-filled cast has been entertaining audiences with the classic tale.

It can be hard for me to get into the Christmas mood that early in the calendar, which is probably one reason why I put off seeing the production near the beginning of the run; Thanksgiving travel plans out-of-state and lots of other theater commitments also impacted my reviewing schedule.

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Noel Adams is Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo / Good Company Players

But I finally got over to see the Good Company Players production last weekend. It’s a joy. Pessano uses a bare-bones adaptation of the Dickens novel by playwright Romulus Linney to streamline and focus the show. (The running time is less than 90 minutes, including intermission.) But this just isn’t a case of slicing away text to make a shorter show. Linney condenses things, yes, but Pessano also finds his own way to make the experience feel fresh and newly insightful. (It actually reminds me of what Brad Myers at Fresno State managed to do with his crisp new production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”) The result is a production that feels sleek yet cheerily old-fashioned, a nice combination.

Continue reading “In appreciation of Good Company’s ‘A Christmas Carol’”

A mixed ‘Annie’ at CMT, but still lots of heart

Children’s Musical Theaterworks production continues through Sunday at Veterans Memorial Auditorium

THEATER REVIEW

With an all-ages cast, the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Annie” is a hybrid of community theater and children’s theater. I don’t truly “review” children’s theater, at least in terms of finding areas of improvement needed with individual performances, but I do offer my opinions on community theater. So the review that follows is also a hybrid that blends my approaches to community and children’s productions: I offer five aspects of the show I find really strong; and a couple of areas that could use some improvement.

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Samantha Shaheen-Smith, center, shares the title role of Annie with Elizabeth Burbidge in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production. Photo / CMT

Overall, this “Annie” is not as accomplished as other CMT productions of the same title I’ve seen in the past. And it doesn’t reach the heights of some other CMT community theater productions. But there’s still a lot to like about the show:

Continue reading “A mixed ‘Annie’ at CMT, but still lots of heart”

For Fresno State’s ‘Gentlemen of Verona,’ a rousing update

Fine acting and direction make Shakespeare’s comedy feel fresh and relevant

THEATER REVIEW

Let’s do something different and focus on the ending of Fresno State’s accomplished production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Usually critics avoid writing about the end of a play because they don’t want to give anything away. But I think I can do it without diminishing the audience’s appreciation for this well-acted and conceived comedy.

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Alyssa Benitez, left, as Julia, and Steven Weatherbee, as Proteus, in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Photo / Fresno State

I’ve long been a fan of well-crafted endings and feel they’re far more important than some directors give them credit for. I’m not talking necessarily about a show’s climax — that moment of highest tension when a narrative starts sparking into resolution — which is very important, of course. I’m thinking more about the final seconds of a production, when all the elements of stagecraft come together: the lighting and sound cues, the positioning of the actors, the directorial choices that coalesce to give the audience that crucial ending impression. Give us confidence and precision, and it can make a powerful impact. Give us sloppy and bland — a light cue a second out of sync, an awkwardly delivered final line, a less-than-punchy closing visual tableaux — and it can cut a production off at the knees.

Which brings me to Brad Myers and his “Verona,” a charming and deftly directed show.

Continue reading “For Fresno State’s ‘Gentlemen of Verona,’ a rousing update”

Double the curls in CMT’s ‘Annie’

Children’s Musical Theaterworks opens the classic musical at Veterans Memorial Auditorium

THEATER PREVIEW

For the holiday season, what’s better than one red-and-curly haired, endlessly optimistic little girl named Annie?

Try Annie times two.

Young performers Elisabeth “Ellie” Burbidge and Samantha Shaheen-Smith share the title role in the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Annie,” directed by Karan Johnson, which opens Friday, Dec. 1. The two Annies alternate performances. They’re both outrageously excited to get to belt out such songs as “Tomorrow” and “Maybe,” of course. Here’s a rundown on each Annie:


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One of two: Samantha Shaheen-Smith plays the title role in “Annie.” Photo / Children’s Musical Theaterworks

SAMANTHA

Age: 10

School: Manchester GATE.

Continue reading “Double the curls in CMT’s ‘Annie’”

Heading off to the big city

Fresno State opens Shakespeare’s ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’

THEATER PREVIEW

Brad Myers is a master director of Shakespeare, so it’s always a must-see event when he tackles a play by the Bard. The latest outing for the Fresno State director is the comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which opens Friday, Dec. 1, at the university’s John Wright Theatre. Myers took time out of his busy tech week for the show to engage in a dialogue about the production.

Q: In “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” two best friends are parted when one leaves his hometown for the big city of Milan. Am I the only one who immediately thinks of high school kids wanting to get out of Fresno for San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York?

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Aaron Gomes, left, and Steven Weatherbee in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Photo / Fresno State

A: Yes, Proteus and Valentine are facing the same decisions that high school grads are facing today. One of the gents chooses to leave his hometown and head off for the big city; the other wants to stay at home because he is head-over-heels in love with his girlfriend. This is one of the many elements of the “Two Gents” storyline that makes this play very accessible for high school and university students.

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Holiday theater: previews for Santa

At CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre, four talented singers tackle “Plaid Tidings,” and at Reedley’s River City Theatre Company, Kris Kringle gets put on trial in “Miracle on 34th Street”

Santa is certainly busy this month, but even he needs to take a break now and then. And why not do it with live theater? In honor of The Big Red Guy, and with help from the directors, we take a look at two promising holiday-themed local openings: “Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings” at CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre; and “Miracle on 34th Street,” at Reedley’s River City Theatre Company:

‘FOREVER PLAID: PLAID TIDINGS’

The director: Scott Hancock.

The run: just four performances over this one weekend: 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30; 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, Clovis Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 808 4th St., Clovis.

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The cast of “Forever Plaid”: Kyle Dodson, Darren Tharp, Brandon Crane and Adam Kitt. Photo / CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre

The plot: “Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings” is a semi-sequel to the incredibly popular “Forever Plaid.” The four plaids (Adam Kitt, Darren Tharp, Brandon Crane, and Kyle Dodson) return to earth for a second time and (at first) are not quite sure why. Through song and self discovery, they realize that they are here to do the Christmas show they never got to do while they were still alive.

Continue reading “Holiday theater: previews for Santa”