Catch that Sunday morning fever

With a powerful performance in the leading role, Camille Gaston elevates the silly Good Company Players production of “Sister Act”


Camille Gaston takes us to heaven in “Sister Act,” the cheery and extravagantly disco-centric Good Company Players musical creating its own brand of nunsense at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Sometimes you just know in your soul (and ear canal) that an actor is right for a role in the first few minutes of the show, and that’s the case here: Gaston has the warmth, sass, vocal chops, comic timing and silly streak to corral the outsized role of Deloris Van Cartier, aka the “Whoopi Goldberg character,” into shape on a small stage.

Dream sequence: Camille Gaston stars as Deloris Van Cartier in “Sister Act.” Photo / Good Company Players

The rest of the production happily trails along in Gaston’s wake, for the most part delivering a solidly feel-good, fun and tuneful musical event. The show itself as written has a much stronger first act than the second, and the opening weekend performance I attended got a little clumsy and perfunctory while wrapping up the increasingly dippy plot.

But I was still in such a glow from the shenanigans before intermission that the reservoir of goodwill kept me a fan pretty much throughout.

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Hotoda puts her mark on Fresno Philharmonic season

New music director includes five living composers in the 2017-18 season

I just received my first press release from the Fresno Philharmonic with the words “Rei Hotoda, Music Director” in big, bold letters at the top. How exciting! It means a new era has begun.

The occasion is the official announcement of the orchestra’s 2017-18 season. We already knew the outline of the season a few months ago, including guest artists and major works to be performed, but the Fresno Philharmonic waited until now to give Hotoda the chance to put her own touches on the lineup.

Rei Hotoda Portraits

One of the most impressive developments: Works by five living composers will be featured, including Fresno State’s Kenneth Froelich.

Key quotation from Hotoda: “By combining exciting and innovative works by Aaron Jay Kernis, John Adams, Kenneth Froelich, Jennifer Higdon and Tan Dun with beloved pillars of the symphonic repertoire by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Debussy, we will demonstrate how the great orchestral tradition has evolved and been enhanced by new voices from the United States and around the world. We will embrace together these extraordinary works and champion them as new staples of the classical canon.”

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Hip hop and Shakespeare at the park

Here’s a quick pick for a worthwhile mid-week event:

Fresno Pacific University and Woodward Shakespeare Festival present a Wednesday performance of the YES! (Youth Engage Shakespeare) project at the festival stage in Woodward Park.

project yes

Ten high school students will present scenes, dances and original material from and inspired by on Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” A highlight will be hip hop led by Fresno Pacific senior Joy Ndombeson. The project is in its fifth year. Participants meet on the FPU campus for three weeks before going to Woodward Park for dress rehearsals and the performance.

Says project director (and FPU professor) Julia Reimer: “This is something new from the Renaissance dances of the past.”

The performance is 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, on the Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, near the Fort Washington entrance. Admission to the show is free. Entrance to Woodward Park is $5 per car.

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From a spark, the arts get down to business

Innovative partnership between business leaders and schools relies on a pragmatic philosophy: the arts are needed for economic survival

Here’s something to celebrate about Fresno County: Local business leaders and educators are leading the way in terms of supporting arts education in our schools.

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I got to know a lot more about the county’s innovative arts-business coalition and its SPARK! program when writing a freelance story that was posted yesterday on the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation website. The folks at Hewlett are so enamored of this program — which was originally conceived by Bob Bullwinkel at the Fresno County Office of Education and Darius Assemi of Granville Homes — that they awarded two sizable grants, totaling $280,000, to build the SPARK! program’s website and market it.

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Going beyond the genital jokes

As StageWorks Fresno opens the local premiere of “The Full Monty,” its six steelworker strippers sit down to talk about body image, gender roles and the challenges of taking off their clothes in the intimate Dan Pessano Theatre


The six men who promise “The Full Monty” in the new StageWorks Fresno production are sitting in the lobby of the Dan Pessano Theatre, and there’s nary a nipple nor belly button in sight.

In just a few hours at rehearsal on  this Tuesday evening, these men will be bumping and grinding down to a state of undress that may or may not include a glimpse of what those of a Victorian sensibility might refer to as the actors’ nether regions. (We’re going to dispense with the “Will they?” or “Won’t they?” take-it-all-off tittering right at the top of this story: As an audience member, you won’t find out until the final moments of the play. And I’m not going to ruin any surprises. There will be no more coy references to that red-hot question in the words that follow.) But for now, the atmosphere is clothed and introspective.

Let it go: James Schott plays Jerry in the StageWorks Fresno production of “The Full Monty.” Photo / StageWorks Fresno

Maybe stripping does that to people.

Being introspective, that is. Not the clothed part. In fact, the lack of clothes is the topic of conversation.

“I’m coming to grips with the fact that isn’t quite as easy as I thought to get down to a bunch of tighty whities in front of a bunch of people,” Aaron Pierce is saying. He plays Ethan, one of the out-of-work steelworkers in this musical adaptation of the 1997 film.

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Donald’s notes: Summer Arts, week 4

Friday’s update includes details on the free student showcases.

This is a roundup of news, reviews and notes from the fourth and final week of the CSU Summer Arts program, which is back at Fresno State after a five-year absence. I’ll be updating this post as the week progresses. If you have Summer Arts tidbits or thoughts on a performance you’d like to share, email me at For the public calendar of events, click here.

Cutting-edge technology: Students prepare for the 3-D video projection mapping showcase, 9 p.m. Friday, July 21, in the South Gym at Fresno State. Photo / Todd Sharp, CSU Summer Arts

Student showcases

One of the best (and cheapest!) things to do at Summer Arts is attend one of the free student showcases. After two weeks of intensive learning and creating, these students are anxious to show off a little. One of the highlight events is sure to be Friday’s “Video Projection Mapping in 3D Space” in the South Gym.

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A mostly sure-footed ‘Fiddler’ remains solidly on the roof

CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” includes a stellar leading performance and top-notch scenic and lighting design


Tevye is the sun at the center of the “Fiddler on the Roof” solar system. If he doesn’t flood you with light, gravity and nurturing, all-encompassing warmth, you might as well forget it.

That’s a major reason why CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre’s production works as well as it does. Darren Tharp, a seasoned community-theater actor making his debut as Tevye, often shines in a booming, well crafted performance as theater history’s most famous dairyman.

To Life: A scene from CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Photo / Kyle Lowe

His “If I Were a Rich Man” is a delightful exercise in crisp comic timing. The nostalgic “Sunrise, Sunset” is heartfelt and achingly sung. Director Scott Hancock coaxes emotion and depth from this strong and nuanced actor.

I’m still not convinced that Tharp, who recently turned 40, is quite old enough to dig into Tevye as deeply as he might in the years to come, and he finds it a little harder in the second act to command the stage like he does in the first. But it’s still a notable outing.

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A handsome and soaring ‘Hunchback’

Children’s Musical Theaterworks offers a sophisticated and inspired take of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” that feels closer to the Victor Hugo novel than the Disney movie

Abigail Paxton, director of the impressive new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” gives us some great highs and memorable lows. She and her hard-working cast members — a talented bunch ages 14 to 20 — take us on a sweeping theatrical journey from the dizzying heights of the world’s most famous cathedral to the somber depths of human despair. (It plays for only four more performances through Sunday, July 23.)


I make it a practice not to do standard reviews of CMT shows — at least in terms of offering negative critiques of individual performances — because these young performers are still in a learning environment. But I want to share 10 significant thoughts on “Hunchback.”


It’s got great bones. By that I mean the overall structure and resonance of the show. This Disney adaptation can trace its lineage directly from the animated 1996 movie, but the revamped stage version dispenses with a kiddie sensibility. Paxton commits wholeheartedly to the melancholy tone of the material without making it too grim. (All that youthful energy helps.) And I’m impressed by how every person on stage, from the solo-belting principal characters to the background ensemble members, seems invested in the concept as well.

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