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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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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Hot, hot Norwegian repression

A freewheeling discussion between star Brooke Aiello and director Heather Parish of “Hedda Gabler”? We’ll drink to that

THEATER PREVIEW

It’s Hedda Gabler’s birthday morning, and she’s kicking off the celebration with a mimosa. The thing is, I’m so clueless about alcohol in the a.m. that I get to the end of a 90-minute breakfast interview at Irene’s Cafe before I realize that the grand dame of 19th century theatrical realism sitting across from me isn’t drinking straight orange juice. Champagne before 9 a.m.? I’m shocked. Aghast. This is no mere woman … this is a monster!

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Past fling: Ted Nunes is Eilert and Brooke Aiello is Hedda in “Hedda Gabler.” Photo / The New Ensemble

Actually, Brooke Aiello — one of Fresno’s most passionate acting talents — is nursing not one but four beverages as we talk about The New Ensemble’s new production of “Hedda Gabler.” There’s coffee from Irene’s, black tea from Starbucks, a glass of ice water and her tall, frothy birthday drink. There’s a method to all this, even though I don’t quite understand it: something about sweet followed by sweeter. Or is it sweet followed by bitter? It doesn’t matter; she has a process in mind. This is someone who has definite views on many things, including the liquids in her life.

“I’m going to be very well hydrated today,” she happily tells me.

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The ‘Lion’ doesn’t sleep Friday night

Children’s Musical Theaterworks offers community-theater premiere of the Disney Jr. version of “The Lion King”

This is worth a roar for Children’s Musical Theaterworks: The company is opening one local premiere after another. CMT tackled “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” last month with its older players (ages 14-20), and now it’s offering the local community theater premiere of “Disney’s Lion King, Jr.” with a cast ranging in age from 6 to 13. The show opens Friday, Aug. 4, at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium.

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Circle of life: the cast of “Disney’s The Lion King, Jr.” Photo / Sandy Tacchino, Children’s Musical Theaterworks

Here are five things to know about the production:

1.

This show is exposing lots of children to the theater bug. There are 39 kids in the Savannah Cast and 41 in the Grassland Cast, making 74 total (six of them are in both casts.). The three biggest roles are the characters of Rafiki, played by Vega Ankrum (Savannah Cast) and Mia Carino (Grassland Cast); Scar, played by Jake Corson (Savannah Cast) and Jeremy Marks (Grassland Cast); and Simba, played by Nathan Gettman (Savannah and Grassland casts).

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A farewell ‘Titus Andronicus’

Woodward Shakespeare Festival tackles the bloody play about revenge in director Greg Taber’s last show as executive producer

THEATER PREVIEW

Greg Taber, whose dedication to Woodward Shakespeare Festival over the years has heated up half a dozen Fresno theater summers, is stepping down as executive producer after he finishes the last production of the season. For that milestone he decided to direct Shakespeare’s brutal and little performed “Titus Andronicus,” with Jay Parks in the title role. I caught up with Taber, known for his commitment to theater that nourishes the intellect, to talk a little about the play, which opens Thursday, Aug. 3.

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Revenge: Rene Ponce, left, and Jay Parks, right, who plays the title role in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Titus Andronicus.” Photo / Victor DesRoches

Q: You mention in your director’s note that most people don’t know anything about “Titus Andronicus.” As you try to generate interest in your production this summer, what’s your 30-second pitch to people about the show?

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Win tickets to Selma Arts Center’s ‘Carrie’

To get in the mood, readers submitted their own high-school prom photos.

UPDATE: Congratulations to our winners: Silvia Fisher and Michelle Olson. Plus, at the end of this post, check out the photo gallery of vintage prom pics submitted by readers.

ORIGINAL POST: Hopefully your high school prom went better than Carrie’s. Then again, the musical “Carrie” — based on the classic Stephen King novel about a girl with telekinetic powers who is picked on by her classmates — is pretty much the baseline for a prom from hell, so that isn’t saying much.

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Outsider: Abigail Halpern plays the title role in the Selma Arts Center production of “Carrie.”

Still, to get you in the high school mood, and to mark the new production of “Carrie” at the Selma Arts Center, the Munro Review is giving away two pairs of tickets for any opening weekend performance. Plus, as a winner, you’ll get two extra special perks: a backstage tour after the show AND a photo onstage with the cast.

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