Tuesday is ‘One Fine Day’ for Carole King fans

Broadway in Fresno brings the national tour of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” to the Saroyan. And you can win free tickets

THEATER PREVIEW

UPDATE: Congratulations to ticket winners Timothy Savage
and Erin Adams.

ORIGINAL POST: Broadway in Fresno kicks off its 2017-18 season with its biggest production of the year. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opens Tuesday, Oct. 24, will play for eight performances through Sunday, Oct. 29. That’s compared to a two-night run (most often Tuesdays and Wednesdays) for most shows in the series.

What can you glean from this? That “Beautiful” has the name recognition and broad appeal to attract thousands more people to the Saroyan Theatre than other shows in the season lineup. It’s also a Broadway-level production featuring actors who are members of Actors Equity, the professional stage union, which isn’t always the case with shows that tour through Fresno.

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Leading role: Sarah Bockel plays Carole King in “Beautiful.” Photo / Matthew Murphy

(If you haven’t yet gotten your tickets, here’s a chance to see the show for free: I’m giving away two pairs of tickets to the opening night performance. More details at the bottom of this post.)

I got to see “Beautiful” on Broadway in 2014, and I can see why it’s such a big hit: Unlike many so-called jukebox musicals that focus on one person’s music, this one has a strong, compelling storyline. We follow the young King just as she’s getting her start in the business, through the ups and downs of success and relationships, the music complements the emotional trajectory of the story. And, of course, some of those songs by the famed singer/songwriter are so well known you’ll be humming along after just a few bars.

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Audrey power

StageWorks Fresno’s production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ gives us a memorable Audrey, and her namesake chews up the scenery to perfection

THEATER REVIEW

The plant steals the show in StageWorks Fresno’s chipper “Little Shop of Horrors,” which is as it should be. Carnivorous leafy life forms are a rarity in the musical theater canon, especially ones that sing and dance, and the plant is a big part of why this much-loved musical has become a community-theater staple. I envy neophyte audience members to this show who get to experience that voice — and those moves — for the first time.

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Knockout performance: Abigail Nolte, right, is a standout in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Photo / StageWorks Fresno

It actually takes two actors to make Audrey II, as the mysterious plant is known, do its thing in the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium. Will Bishop, who voices the plant, is terrific. He brings a wry edge and an excellent singing voice to the role, paying homage both to its Motown roots while still finding his own contemporary take. And Logan Cooley, as the “body,” is spot-on in terms of the plant’s movements, connecting with and adding to Bishop’s artistic interpretation.

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All across the alien nation

With a stellar production design and pumped-up ensemble, ‘Green Day’s American Idiot’ is a stomping good time

THEATER REVIEW

Fresno City College’s incendiary production of “Green Day’s American Idiot” opens with the cast singing a raucous version of the title song. The number unfolds with thrashing choreography on a grunge-punk-industrial set pulsing with video projections and drenched in moody lighting. Near the end, one of the show’s pivotal characters, Johnny (Josh Taber), takes a flying leap and lands on a bare mattress in the middle of the stage.

It’s a sliver of a moment in a show filled with visual and aural excess, but it caught my eye.

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Visual and aural spectacle: The cast of “Green Day’s American Idiot.” Photo / Fresno City College

Why? Because it’s so playful.

Sure, there is grit and angst aplenty in this punk-rock tale of generational disaffection. How could there not be? Its characters fight for a chance to make a difference in a country that is embroiled in two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), mired in economic inequality, and pandered and sold to by a relentless corporate media. Not to mention the murky torrent of alcohol and drug abuse that washes through the show like a raging river.

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Exclusive: The plant tells all

As StageWorks Fresno opens a three-week run of ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ we ‘interview’ the veteran actor who plays Audrey II, with an assist from Logan Cooley and Will Bishop

THEATER PREVIEW

She’s a big girl, this strange and interesting plant, when you see her in person. Or do you say he’s a big boy? Think about it: The famous alien life form in “Little Shop of Horrors” has a male voice but is named Audrey II. When it comes to plants, there’s no need to get so gender specific.

One thing is certain, however: There’s no harder working actor in Hollywood today than the beloved Leaf Erickson (a stage name given to her years ago by an uninspired agent, but it stuck), the only singing and dancing extraterrestrial life form known on the planet.

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What a coup: The Munro Review snags an interview with Leaf Erickson (Ms. Leaf for short), the only one of his/her kind in the world. Photo / StageWorks Fresno

Ms. Leaf has been in every single production of “Little Shop of Horrors” since the show began, which means the veteran actor spends a lot of time on the road. At the moment she’s starring in the StageWorks Fresno production of the classic musical, which opens Friday, Oct. 6.

Ms. Leaf (her requested way of being addressed) has a reputation for being a little cranky, which you’d expect considering how hard she works and long she’s been performing. To my surprise, she agreed to a sit-down interview. To preserve her voice, she asked the two local cast members who “assist” her onstage — Will Bishop, who helps in the vocal department, and Logan Cooley, who offers full-body-puppetry expertise — to speak for her in the royal “we.” Our wide-ranging discussion included life on the road, favorite foods, the character of Audrey II, and even, ahem, Ms. Leaf’s sex life. Here are excerpts:

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Now exploding at a City College near you

‘Green Day’s American Idiot’ makes its local premiere in a hard-charging Fresno production

THEATER PREVIEW

A decade or so ago, if you’d had the chance to peek into the childhood room of 11-year-old Marcus Cardenas, you would have seen something very important to him on the wall:

A poster for the Green Day album “American Idiot.”

Not that the young Marcus really understood all the lyrics in Green Day’s passionate and political songs. He was still pretty young. But he listened ravenously to such oft-played tunes as “Holiday” and “September.”

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Three friends: Marcus Cardenas, left, Josh Taber and Dylan Hardcastle star in the new production of “Green Day’s American Idiot.” Photo / Fresno City College

Besides, kids can still pick up on the emotionality of so-called “adult” lyrics, even ones such as Cardenas, whose parents tried to shield him from the images of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were streaming into living rooms across the country via the nightly news. When Green Day, in “Holiday,” sings, “Sieg Heil to the president gasman, Bombs away is your punishment,” it’s pretty clear that it’s no love song for George W. Bush, who was in office at the time.

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A salute to Sam Shepard

Fresno State’s theater department tackles the playwright’s last work, ‘A Particle of Dread’

Fresno State’s theater department selected Sam Shepard’s most recent play, “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations),” to open its fall season many months ago, long before the playwright died on July 27. What was intended as a chance to celebrate one of America’s great living playwrights has become a valedictory of sorts.

“We were saddened to hear that he had passed, and I knew immediately that I wanted to honor him because it was his last play,” says director and theater professor J. Daniel Herring.

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Final Sam Shepard play: Steven Weatherbee plays Oedipus/Otto in “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations).” Photo / Fresno State

The play might be the last he wrote, but it’s still vintage Shepard: sharply drawn and eccentric characters, disturbing subject matter, twists that shock and surprise. The playwright added a compelling narrative twist: He reimagines the classical Greek story of Oedipus (who famously was prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother) as a modern murder thriller.

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Beware those hungry poodles

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” which opens Thursday at Roger Rocka’s, is chock full of laughs. Here’s an appreciation

Could “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the musical-comedy romp being revived by Good Company Players, be the funniest Broadway musical ever?

There’s certainly a lot of competition in that category. “The Producers,” “The Book of Mormon,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Avenue Q” would all be on the list. But — to use an outrageously mixed metaphor — in terms of sheer number of laughs per square inch, “Chaperone” is a strong contender. In fact, it’s my underdog favorite. The musical is so stuffed with clever references, silly asides, brilliant non-sequiturs, droll social commentary and laugh-out-loud sight gags that you might miss some of the hilarity on first viewing.

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In the end, does love prevail? Laurie Pessano, as Mrs. Tottendale, and Charles Rabb, as Underling, in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Photo / Good Company Players

That’s why, to mark the opening of the show at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, I’ve compiled my list of funniest bits to watch and listen for in the show. (I asked some of the current cast members to jog my memory.) Spoiler alert: Some first-time audience members might not want to have any laughs previewed for them, so if you fall into that category, it’d be better to wait until after the show to read this piece and see how many you caught.
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A hurting ‘Mother,’ 20 years later

In StageWorks Fresno’s “Mothers and Sons,” Terrence McNally revisits characters he wrote about in 1990

Joel C. Abels saw the original Broadway production of Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” a few years back, and something about the show — which is about a sharp-tongued, homophobic mother having a tense reunion with her dead son’s former lover — really stuck with him.

“ I knew it was a play that I wanted to produce — a story I wanted to tell,” Abels says.

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Tense reunion: Billy Jack Anderson, as Cal, and Amelia Ryan, as Katharine, in “Mothers and Sons.” Photo / Ron Webb, StageWorks Fresno

The StageWorks Fresno production, which opens Friday, Sept 8, at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium, is a Fresno premiere.

I talked with Abels, who directs the production, and Amelia Ryan, who plays the mother character, to get more of a feel for the show. Here are 10 things I learned.

1. It’s a sequel, of sorts. In 1990, McNally wrote a film titled “Andre’s Mother” that was broadcast by PBS. The film is set at the Manhattan memorial service for a gay man named Andre Gerard, who died of AIDS. Katharine, his mother, who never accepted her son’s sexuality, cannot share her grief with Cal, her son’s lover.

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