For ‘Cinderella’ opening, a princess diary

Ashley Taylor (or that’s ‘Lady Ashley’ to you) offers 5 things to know about the touring Broadway musical

THEATER PREVIEW

For many years, the Fresno-area theater community was blessed with the presence of Ashley Taylor. She was known for many things, among them: 1) her terrific voice; 2) her warm and generous stage presence; and 3) her complete and utter fixation with All Things Royal. I became aware of Ashley’s passion for princesses gradually over time — a Facebook post here, a genuflection to the Disney canon there — and knew that if I ever needed to call on someone with expertise on anything to do with tiaras, she’d be my source.

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Curbside palace service: Brian Liebson, Tatyana Lubov and Arnie Rodriguez in ‘Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.’ Photo / © Carol Rosegg

Ashley (yes, she is on a first-name basis with this blog) now lives in a land of highrise castles called Manhattan and goes to local theater there (um, Broadway) on a regular basis, but she’ll always be connected to the hamlet of Fresno’s theater scene. Which is why I asked her to help me preview the national tour of “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” which opens Tuesday, May 16, at the Saroyan Theatre. (I also asked her to give us a bonus royal update on Broadway’s new “princess hit,” the musical “Anastasia.”)

She tells me:

It’s time to break out the tiaras! I saw the show twice on Broadway and was completely enchanted (pun intended). So if you’re going, or thinking about going, here are five things to know. (No spoilers, obviously. I’m not like that).

Take it away, Ashley:

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An important review for Mai Der Vang

The New Yorker praises Fresno poet’s ‘Afterland,’ a piercing look at the Secret War in Laos

Let’s take a moment and revel with Fresno’s Mai Der Vang, whose poetry continues to get the kind of career-boosting national attention that could amplify her into a major voice. The latest pronouncement is a laudatory review in the New Yorker.

Critic Dan Chiasson makes Vang’s new book, the haunting and powerful “Afterland,” the leading item in a roundup of two “remarkable, virtuosic collections from young poets.” Vang’s book, published by Graywolf Press after she won the 2016 Walt Whitman Award, the nation’s most valuable first-book prize for a poet, is a complicated reflection on the “Secret War” in Laos during the Vietnam War era.

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A featured spread in The New Yorker. Photo / Shane Moreman

When I interviewed Vang in April when “Afterland” was released, I asked her if the title alludes to ancestors in the Hmong perception of life after death. Or does it have to do with refugees traveling to a new home?

Her reply:

I think “Afterland” can be any place, terrain or geography in the aftermath of a crisis or conflict. It can be an individual experience or a collective experience rooted in a people’s historical memory. It certainly has to do with the after-place of the refugee, but it also has to do with the after-place of that post-war country from which the refugee has just fled. And in the obvious sense, I found myself also exploring the after-place of the spirit.

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A new Dolly? Bette on it

As Broadway revival album is released, a look at 5 versions of the title tune

Bette Midler has been wowing audiences on Broadway for weeks now in the much ballyhooed revival of “Hello, Dolly!” Now, starting today, we on the left coast get a chance to hear her sing the famed title tune on all digital platforms, including iTunes.

After listening to the new version, I decided to rank some well-known Dollys in terms of that song:

1. CAROL CHANNING: No matter who comes along, even the Divine Miss M herself, can surpass the gravelly tones of Channing, for whom “Hello, Dolly!” became her signature tune. Her rendition of the song is simply baked into my perception of the essence of Dolly Levi. I remember as a kid listening to the Channing-as-Dolly recording and thinking: “But she can’t sing!” As the years went by, I began to realize that singing for the musical theater isn’t always about technical perfection but about character and distinctiveness. Adding some loyalty points for me is the fact I got to meet Channing when she performed in Fresno years ago.

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Bette Midler in Broadway’s ‘Hello, Dolly! Photo / Julieta Cervantes

2. BETTE MIDLER: Yes, it’s Bette, all right, in all her glory. But for those expecting a va-va-voom blast of Midler, the title tune comes across as more relaxed and carefree than I would have expected. Unlike Channing, whose sheer force of personality is enough to bowl the average listener over, Midler plays it more on the coy side, even a little reserved. I like her interpretation a lot.

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Blues period

I’m giving away a pair of tickets to the Fresno Philharmonic’s jazz season finale at the Saroyan Theatre

The Fresno Philharmonic has finished up its search for a new music director, and all that’s left is an official announcement. After six memorable concerts featuring some of the greatest works of classical music, the orchestra is ending on a slightly different note:

Jazz.

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Byron Stripling performs Saturday in ‘What a Wonderful World.’ Photo / Fresno Philharmonic

Saturday’s finale pops concert is titled “What A Wonderful World: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong” and features renowned trumpeter and singer Byron Stripling, a soloist for the Boston Pops and a PBS star. You’ll be able to catch such favorite tunes as “Hello Dolly,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

‘What a Wonderful World: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong,’ 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 13, Saroyan Theatre. $25-$79

The orchestra will be conducted by Chelsea Tipton, II, music director of the Symphony of Southeast Texas and principal pops conductor of the New Haven Symphony.

Two important things to mention:

• I’m giving away a pair of tickets (orchestra Row H) to the concert. To enter, leave a comment on this Munro Review post telling us your favorite Louis Armstrong song. (Or, if you’d prefer, just tell us why you want to go to the concert.) I’ll pick a winner at random and notify via email. You’ll be able to pick up your tickets at Will Call. Deadline to enter is 3 p.m. Friday.

• In a fortuitous twist, several great jazz events in Fresno all came together on the same weekend. Along with the Fresno Philharmonic concert, there’s a Fresno Filmworks screening of the movie “Chasing Trane” (5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Tower Theatre); and “Milestones on Fulton,” the concluding concert of the Milestones Youth Jazz Workshop (2 p.m. Saturday, Frank’s Place). Musicians from the workshop will perform in the lower lobby of Saroyan Theatre following the Fresno Philharmonic concert.


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We are Fresnito

Juan Felipe Herrera celebrates the end of his term as U.S. poet laureate with a memorable Fresno State concert

CONCERT REVIEW

The event: Fresno’s Juan Felipe Herrera, the 21st poet laureate of the United States, was back in town Tuesday with the Fresno State Chamber Singers to reprise the closing concert at the Library of Congress that marked the end of his term.

The man of the hour: Herrera has a special knack when dealing with official occasions and the various rituals afforded an artist of his stature. He knows how to never underplay the dignity of a ceremonial moment. He can come across as refreshingly relaxed and informal, but there’s a certain gravitas and authority there, too, a reflection of his ability to get along with the establishment but also give it a bit of a hard time. On this evening at the university’s Concert Hall, he’s dressed in a casual bone-colored sports jacket, bright plaid shirt and a cheerful white hat.

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Juan Felipe Herrera with the Fresno State Chamber Singers at the Library of Congress on April 26, 2017. Photo / Facebook

The format: Most poets treat a reading as something to do in a single voice. Herrera wanted a choir. Benjamin Boone and Kenneth Froelich, both Fresno State music composition professors, teamed up with the poet, setting the words to music. Then the university’s Chamber Singers, under the direction of Cari Earnhart, brought the resulting songs to life at the Washington, D.C., concert. “This is a dream that I had as a child,” Herrera tells the audience before the Fresno event begins. “It’s about standing up, facing the people, giving a voice to the people.”

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Welcoming a (really tall) new downtown mural

What’s five stories tall and makes you proud of downtown Fresno?

The answer is a massive mural livening up the historic Fresno Bee building painted by Francisco Letelier and Mauro Carrera. The Arte Américas project will officially be unveiled at 10 a.m. Thursday, May 11, in a program that will include outgoing U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

Musicians Omar Naré and Patrick Contreras will kick off the program, which also will feature words from supporters of the project and the reading of a poem by a student from a neighborhood school.

Frank Delgado, the executive director of Arte, says:

This is the thirty year anniversary of Arte Américas, and this mural simply emphasizes the impact that our organization has made on the Cultural Arts District and is a testament to the dedication that we have in continuing to make the Valley a flourishing place for Latino art. The best part is that we have plans to continue to install murals in the Downtown Fresno area.

Tiles will be sold to run along the base of the mural as a fundraiser for those murals.

A reception at 11 a.m. will follow at Arte.

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Mural artists Francisco Letelier and Mauro Carrera. Photo / Arte Américas

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Gently, with a chainsaw

Fresno State’s ‘Heathers’ offers a caustic and funny take on people just dying to get ahead

THEATER REVIEW

“Welcome to my candy store,” sing the Heathers, that beautiful and terrifying clique of alpha females who rule Westerberg High. Just like Skittles, these three “popular” girls are glossy, artificially colored and probably bad for you. As the reigning triumvirate at the top of Westerberg’s social hierarchy, they wield power with a ruthlessness and cunning that could make a dictator sit up and take notice.

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A lunch tray genuflection to the ruling class in ‘Heathers the Musical.’ Photo / James Ramirez

I appreciate the candy store reference, because for me, any chance to experience “Heathers” makes me feel like a kid in one. I’m a fan both of the classic 1988 movie and the 2014 off-Broadway musical adaptation. (I already got a chance to revel in the show when Selma Arts Center offered the local stage premiere last summer.) I’m a big enough fan of the material that I’m going to laugh out loud every time I hear “Grow up, Heather, Bulimia’s so ‘87.”

Does that mean that when going into the new Fresno State production of “Heathers: The Musical,”  I would be hyper-critical? Or more forgiving?

I think a little of both. I have definite, deep-rooted views on how this audaciously dark satirical romp steeped in the zeitgeist of the late 1980s — famed for its memorable teen lingo, it’s an experience that manages to be both acerbically funny and downright grim in terms of human nature — should unfold. At the same time, I love the show so much that getting to see it with a new directorial vision is exciting in itself.

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A blog is born

I’m here and I’m clearly passionate about continuing to cover local arts.

New platform. Newer Donald.

Welcome to The Munro Review, where I cover arts, culture and other interesting stuff in the central San Joaquin Valley. I spent the last 16 years covering local arts and culture for The Fresno Bee. Now I’m ready to take my passion for the arts to the next level.

Based on questions you’ve been asking, here’s a quick rundown to start things off:

Q: What do you plan to cover on The Munro Review?

A: I’m going to offer a curated look at the local scene with a special emphasis on theater, classical music, visual art, dance, the literary arts and anything else that strikes my fancy. I believe that advance stories about upcoming events are an important part of arts coverage because they give audience members added context in terms of relating to and connecting with artistic events. I’ll be continuing to offer a critical voice through reviews, and I will cover local arts news. I’ll throw in coverage of some of my own interests, too, including travel and books, and will likely be unleashing some Fresno-centric commentary from time to time. All this is in the early stages, but I’m excited about the possibilities ahead.

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Photo / Craig Kohlruss

Q: Will other writers be contributing?

A: Maybe! I’m starting off as a one-person show, but who knows what the future holds?

Continue reading “A blog is born”