A charming ‘Heiress’ navigates love and money at 2nd Space

Good Company Players production is an adaptation of Henry James’ ‘Washington Square’

THEATER REVIEW

Is the matrimonial-minded Morris Townsend, with his smooth talk and good looks, every father’s nightmare? Or is he a principled and upstanding young man who only cares about marrying for love — and not a big, fat, juicy inheritance? Just what do we know of his background, his education, his propriety?

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Suzanne Grażyna, left, as Catherine, and Amelia Ryan, as Aunt Lavinia, in “The Heiress.” Photo / Good Company Players

In 2018, these questions could probably be answered in about 0.37 seconds. But in the 1850s, the era in which Henry James set his celebrated novel “Washington Square,” Ye Olde Ghoogle wasn’t available. The uncertainty of Morris’ intentions — is this guy a gold digger or not? — helps give “The Heiress,” a resilient 1947 theatrical adaptation based on the James novel, a crisp dramatic punch.

But the bigger appeal in the well-done Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre, co-directed with aplomb by Karan Johnson and Elizabeth Fiester, is the chance to watch two fascinating women characters portrayed in strong performances.

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Suzanne Grażyna finds female empowerment, 19th Century-style, in ‘The Heiress’

Good Company Players presents this classic adaptation of Henry James’ ‘Washington Square’ at the 2nd Space Theatre

THEATER PREVIEW

When Catherine Sloper falls for a guy, she falls hard. And that complicates her life in “The Heiress,” a new production at the 2nd Space Theatre of the 1947 Broadway play. Catherine is rich. Her new beau, Morris, isn’t. And Daddy doesn’t approve.

Though the premise might seem soapy, the inspiration isn’t. “The Heiress,” which opens Thursday, April 26, is based on the classic Henry James novel “Washington Square.” This lavish period piece might be full of 19th Century angst, but its sense of female empowerment is more than relevant today. I talked with Suzanne Grażyna, who plays Catherine, about what it’s like to play such a challenging character.

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The cast of “The Heiress” at the 2nd Space Theatre, including Suzanne Grażyna, center. Photo / Good Company Players

Q: Congratulations to you for being the heiress in “The Heiress.” It’s certainly a step up, socially speaking, from playing an insane street vendor with no teeth in last year’s “Fools.” Is it fun to play someone who is rich and, as they said back in the 19th Century, of “marriageable age”?

A: I loved playing The Yench! Those blacked out teeth were my idea, I don’t remember what gave me the idea! It IS fun to play someone so wealthy. Catherine’s costumes are the most luxurious I’ve ever worn, and as a clotheshorse in actual life, I feel like a princess. A vegan cupcake, even. Cathie’s got style.

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Vocals soar in Good Company’s big-hearted ‘Mamma Mia’

THEATER REVIEW

“Mamma Mia,” here we go again …

And that news makes me chipper.

Fresno last got its “Mamma Mia” fix in 2015 when the third visit of a national tour rolled through, and it wasn’t at the top of its class. (Previously, much more polished national tours stopped here in 2006 and 2008.) Now Good Company Players brings us a homespun version of the title, and I’m happy to say it’s better (and a lot more intimate) than the version that most recently played the Saroyan Theatre. An energetic cast, clever design and buoyant vocals all help GCP deliver the ABBA fix that fans expect.

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Kay Wilkins and Nicholas Nunez are charming in “Mamma Mia.” Photo / Good Company Players

There were some weak spots, mostly among individual actors, in the opening-weekend performance I attended, but I’m hoping that as the run settles in, many of them will get stronger. Some observations:

The vocals soar. The best thing about this “Mamma Mia” are all those deftly performed ABBA songs, which are delivered to the audience with the layered tracks, rhythmic intricacies and percussive vocalizations that everyone expects. Vocal coach Judith Dickison whips all those parts — as many as 15 in some songs — into a pleasing ensemble. I like how the vocals seem to surround you in the intimate space of Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.

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Lay all your love on those backup vocals, because they’re one of the stars of ‘Mamma Mia’

Jacquie Broach and other members of the ensemble in the Good Company Players production play a crucial part in the show

THEATER PREVIEW

Take a chance on me, please, as I try to paint this “Mamma Mia” mental image for you in vivid detail:

It’s backstage at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater during the show (now in its opening weekend). Jacquie Broach, a Good Company Players veteran and an ensemble member, is dressed like a “Greek grandma.” Think layered peasant garb meets Ninja warrior: black stockings, black shoes, black skirt, black babushka. She and her fellow ensemble members have just come offstage after singing the ABBA song “Under Attack,” which involves lots of energetic dancing around the daughter character, Sophie (Caitlyn Lopez), while she has a nightmare about her upcoming wedding. Now that they’re backstage, everyone is shucking off clothes to change for upcoming numbers, in Broach’s case the wedding scene. As she puts it, “We strip right there down to our undies.”

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Alex Figueroa and Paige Parker, center, get frisky in “Does Your Mother Know” in the new production of “Mamma Mia.” Photo / Good Company Players

Off comes her sweaty Greek garb. On goes her wedding wear: dress, jewelry, high heels.

But as all this controlled mayhem unfolds, the ensemble comes to one of its most important duties. The actors rush to one of two microphones. There, with garments dangling, they start singing the layered backup vocals for “One of Us,” performed by the mom character, Donna (Emily Pessano). To make sure they’re in sync with the recorded instrumental track and the live singing on stage, Broach gets down close to the monitor on the floor, so she can be sure to hear, and becomes a de facto conductor, pounding out the beat.

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In ‘Star-Spangled Girl,’ these guys flunk the #MeToo test

Good Company Players offers vintage Neil Simon at the 2nd Space Theatre

THEATER REVIEW

Some of Neil Simon’s plays still sparkle — and they will for generations to come.

“The Star-Spangled Girl” is not one of those plays.

At its best, this Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre offers a few amiable moments and amusing one-liners. At worst, it’s lackluster in terms of laughs, dated in terms of its humor and — to be blunt — eye-rollingly sexist, at least by today’s standards.

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Norman (Joseph Ham), left, and Andy (Anthony teNyenhuis), duke it out in “The Star-Spangled Girl.” Photo / Good Company Players

Here’s the setup: Andy (Anthony teNyenhuis) publishes a protest magazine in San Francisco. He runs the business side of things while his roommate, Norman (Joseph Ham, who alternates the role with Aaron Gomes), is the writing talent. When Sophie (Paige Tucker), a Midwest “girl” (this is, alas, a world in which all women are “girls”), moves next door, Norman instantly falls for her.

That’s when things get weird.

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As the Smith sisters sing farewell to ‘Annie,’ they’re happy for the good knocks in life

Joy, Anna and Charity Smith have relished the chance to play orphans together on stage

The Smith household in northwest Fresno is about as far away from Austria as you can get, but as I take a seat in the comfy living room, I can’t help but think of “The Sound of Music.” There are five children in the Smith family — from eldest to youngest, Michael, Tim, Anna, Joy and Charity — and they’ve all been stellar performers in Good Company Players productions over the years. If we could get Wendy (Mom) and Patrick (Dad) in the act, we’d have the Fresno version of the Von Trapp Family Singers.

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Three sisters: Charity, left, Joy and Anna Smith with dog Harry in the Good Company Players production of “Annie.” Photo / Wendy Smith

But today we’re here to talk about “Annie,” which ends its successful run on Sunday, March 18, at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The three younger sisters all have significant roles in the show. Joy plays Annie herself. (In my review, I write that she “has that certain spark on stage that suggests big things to come.”) Anna, 15, is July, the streetwise older orphan, while the youngest, Charity, 8, plays Molly, the spunky scene-stealer. Even the Smith family dog, Harry, gets in on the act in the role of Sandy.

It’s been quite a hectic and fulfilling few months for all of the Smiths, but particularly for 12-year-old Joy, who has relished every red-headed moment of the run. I sat down with the three girls and their mother for a closing-weekend debriefing.

Donald: First off, I just have to ask: Why do you think there’s so musical talent in your family? Is it something in the genes?

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Don’t be a crab: Win tickets to Junior Company Foundation fundraiser

UPDATE: Congratulations to winner Charles Rabb.

ORIGINAL POST: If you love crab, this one is for you. If you love the thought of uber-talented young people getting tremendous training for musical theater, this one’s for you, too. I’m giving away a pair of tickets to the big Junior Company Foundation 4th Annual Crab Feed on Tuesday, March 6, at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.

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Proceeds benefit the Junior Company and its scholarship program. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and dinner starts at 6. Tickets are $65.

To enter my giveaway, leave a comment on this post telling us your favorite way to eat crab. Is it crab cakes? Crab salad? Crab smoothies? Or just good old fashioned cracked crab? (Or if you’re too shy to share your culinary tastes, just tell us what you think the Junior Company means to Fresno.)

Deadline to enter is 7 p.m. Monday, March 5. I’ll be picking the winner at random soon after, so keep a watch on your email. May the biggest crab lover win.


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Good Company serves up a Neil Simon fix with ‘Star-Spangled Girl’

Director J. Daniel Herring talks about the 2nd Space Theatre production, which runs through April 22

Sometimes you just need a little Neil Simon in your life.

Good Company Players takes us back to the 1960s with Simon’s “Star-Spangled Girl,” a period comedy that mixes laughs and politics — but in a way that’s far removed from the partisan rancor of 2018. Don’t worry: Your after-theater cocktails won’t end in fisticuffs.

Fresno State theater professor J. Daniel Herring is directing this vintage Simon experience. He took a break out of his busy schedule to chat about the show.

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Paige Tucker plays Sophie Rauschmeyer in “The Star-Spangled Girl” at the 2nd Space Theatre. Photo / Good Company Players

Q: Set the scene for us. What sort of “America,” in terms of time and place, does the show take place in?

A: “The Star-Spangled Girl” takes place in the late 1960s in San Francisco at a time when the search for truth, defining patriotism and the roles of men and women in a changing world are in the daily headlines. And, just as with many 1960s television shows, like Rowan & Martin’s “Laugh-In,” these topics are examined in a humorous and somewhat lighthearted manner with a biting truth underscoring many of the scenes.

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