The ‘Lion’ gives a Fresno pre-party, and he doesn’t skimp on the invitations

Several years ago, producers of the national tour of “Wicked” held a press event at the Saroyan Theatre. It was a few months before the popular musical opened in Fresno for the first time. I was among a few dozen invited members of the media. We sat in chairs arranged right up there on the stage itself. (No need for that tiny number to sit in the cavernous auditorium.) One of the stars of the show from the current tour was on hand to sing a couple of songs, including the show-stopping “Defying Gravity.” A rep for Broadway in Fresno talked about when single tickets would go on sale. There was time for a few questions, press conference-style.

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Jack Eldon, a Disney Theatricals vice president, instructs us on the aerodynamics of Julie Taymor’s gazelles. Photos / Caty Massey Perez

So you’ll understand why I was expecting pretty much the same thing on Monday evening for the introduction of “The Lion King” to the Fresno market. (It opens Nov. 28 and runs through Dec. 9.) I’d glanced at the email invite and sent in my RSVP. I figured I’d breeze in, grab a seat, ask a few questions, listen to a couple of songs, and be on my way.

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‘The Lion King’ is coming to Fresno … finally!

The Broadway in Fresno 2018-19 season also includes “Something Rotten!” and the return of “Wicked”

After years of Fresno-area theater fans whining like hyenas about the unfairness of it all, there is justice on the savanna: In six months, “The Lion King” is coming to Fresno.

The extravagant Broadway touring production, known for its fanciful puppets and elaborate, actor-inhabited animal costumes that have provided untold billable hours for the nation’s chiropractors, will open Nov. 28 at the Saroyan Theatre for a 12-day run. The show opened in New York in 1997 and is still going strong. So it took 20 years for Fresno to feel the love tonight. No wonder the wildebeests were getting restless.

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“The Lion King” opens Nov. 28 at the Saroyan Theatre. Photo / Dean van Meer, ©Disney

Season tickets go on sale online at 8 a.m. today (Monday, May 14). The announcement was embargoed until that time. You can also purchase by phone at 888-255-9363 and in person at the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center Box Office, 700 M Street. (Hours for the box office are listed as 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, and I’m not sure if it will be opening early for this sale.)

The 2018-19 Fresno Lexus Broadway In Fresno season has some other big titles as well. “Something Rotten!” — the newest title in the season — will play April 16-17, 2019. The 20th anniversary of “RENT” will play Feb. 6-7, 2019. “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I,” based on the the 2015 Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Theater production, will play Jan 15-16.

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‘Rain’ brings the ‘Beatles’ back to Fresno, this time to celebrate ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’

THEATER REVIEW

Editor’s note: I’ve seen the national tour of “Rain” before, so I thought it’d be fun to get a younger perspective of the updated version that came through town last night. Paige Gibbs is a Fresno State journalism major in my advanced editing class. Here’s her take on the Fresno tour stop. — DM

By Paige Gibbs

Yes, I wasn’t born when “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was originally released over 50 years ago.

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Kasper Gailey, 13, shows his true Beatles colors Thursday night at the Saroyan Theatre. Photo / Paige Gibbs

But “Rain,” last night’s Beatles tribute at the Saroyan Theatre, proved to me that The Beatles are still relevant and their music is stretching through the ages to generations well beyond their time.

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Win tickets to ‘Rain,’ the Beatles tribute show

Broadway in Fresno touring production plays at the Saroyan Theatre

“Rain” is in the forecast for Thursday evening.

The popular Beatles tribute show returns as part of the Broadway in Fresno series for one performance only. There’s a big date to celebrate: It’s the 50th anniversary of the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The production promises updated sets, new LED and high-definition screens and multimedia content, along with a note-for-note performance of the album.

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And here’s the best part: You can win a pair of tickets to the show (7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at the Saroyan Theatre) plus dinner for two at the Cosmopolitan Tavern and free parking in the restaurant’s convention center lot.

To enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this post answering this question: Thanks to the nifty Munro Review Mostly Accurate Time Machine™, you get the chance to go back to 1967 to meet one (and only one!) of the Beatles. Which one would it be and why? (Assuming you don’t get sent back to the Paleozoic Era by mistake.) If you’re too shy to share your time-travel plans, just tell us why you’d like to go to “Rain.”

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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

THEATER REVIEW

“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.

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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

1.

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.

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A mixed ‘Kinky Boots’ is big on sparkle, but sound and singing are a bit of a drag

National tour features an impressive Jos N. Banks as Lola, and Cyndi Lauper’s songs are first-rate, but Harvey Fierstein’s book has some problems

THEATER REVIEW

“Kinky Boots” strutted into Fresno’s Saroyan Theater on Wednesday night with a happy bounce to its step and enough patent leather to stock a Jimmy Choo outlet store. The audience ate up the show’s crowd-pleasing, feel-good, mildly subversive message of inclusion, which includes a rousing declaration of “Just be who you wanna be!”

Some in today’s contentious political climate would likely waggle their jowls at the thought of a Broadway musical celebrating men who wear glamorous gowns, but, frankly, “Kinky Boots” is pretty mild as far as kinky stuff goes. As Lola (aka Simon), the proud female impersonator driving the plot of the show, proclaims: “Drag queens are mainstream!”

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Jos N. Banks, center, is Lola in the national tour of “Kinky Boots.” Photo / Broadway in Fresno

I saw the show on Broadway, and this non-Equity national tour feels more scaled down and less representative of its original New York production than, say, the impressive national tour of “Beautiful,” which wowed the Saroyan last fall. At the same time, however, this “Kinky Boots” has a bright, cheery vibe and lots of dazzle, and Cyndi Lauper’s buoyant score and lyrics soar. Here are some thoughts from opening night:

A well-played Lola: Jos N. Banks imbued Lola with a scrappy vulnerability that was an especially effective counterpoint to her brassy bravado. The show only really begins to heat up midway through the first act with the song “The Sex is in the Heel,” sung by Lola, and Banks offered a rousing rendition. Of all the actors in this production, Banks was most successful at making his character feel multidimensional on stage.

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From fan to star: This Lola’s boots are charmed

Jos N. Banks, who plays the role of Lola in the national tour of “Kinky Boots” (opening Wednesday at the Saroyan Theatre), is following in the footsteps of his idol Billy Porter

UPDATE: Congratulations to Chris Ortiz-Belcher, our “Kinky Boots” prize-package winner.  In his entry, he wrote: ” ‘Kinky Boot’s is one of my favorite shows and I would pass out if I got to see it in person!” (No word on whether Chris lost consciousness this morning when he heard the news.)

ORIGINAL POST: Join with me for a few moments, if you will, to revel in the story of Jos N. Banks and his unlikely “Kinky Boots” journey. He went from “world’s biggest fan” of the actor playing Lola on Broadway to nabbing the role himself in the national tour of the show.

A bit of background is in order:

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Lance Bordelon, center left, and Jos N. Banks, center right, along with the cast of the national tour of “Kinky Boots.” Photo / Matthew Murphy

Banks, who studied musical theater in college, had long been an admirer of Billy Porter. The veteran Broadway actor originated the role of Lola, the empowered drag queen who winds up in a crazy scheme to save a failing English shoe factory by making thigh-high “kinky boots” for men. (Porter won a 2013 Tony Award for best actor in a musical for the show.)


Win a pair of tickets to opening night of “Kinky Boots” plus dinner at Cosmopolitan Tavern and free parking. See details at the end of this post.


Banks — gregarious and chatty when he answered my call while on tour with the show in Colorado — was also a fan of “Kinky Boots” the show itself. A resident of Chicago, Banks had seen a rehearsal for the musical, which features a powerhouse book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, in its pre-Broadway tryout in that city.

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