Fresno Philharmonic gallops to glory with Hotoda at the reins


Forgive me in advance for the likely overwrought equine metaphor, but here’s what the Fresno Philharmonic made me think of after Sunday’s lively concert:

A tall, powerful, spirited and stately thoroughbred horse, one displaying a graceful rhythm and palpable sense of energy to its gait.

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Jack Perez, 8, enjoys his first visit to the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday. His mother, Caty Perez, won tickets to the concert from The Munro Review.

Holding the reins, of course, was Rei Hotoda, the orchestra’s new music director and conductor, who is infusing her first season with a passion and vitality that feels infectious. The orchestra looks happy. The audience looks happy. Attending a performance is like a day at the races when your bet pays off.

The orchestra overall sounded wonderful. Do I think the concert was perfect? No. (Read on.) But I think I’m in the minority.

Here’s a quick rundown:

The scene: A very good crowd in the Saroyan Theatre, gathered for an intriguing program consisting of a piece by Fresno composer Kenneth Froelich, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with guest artist Awadagin Pratt, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

The Froelich: Titled “Spinning Yarns,” this 8-minute work by the Fresno State composition professor was inspired by the jazz tradition of “trading fours,” referring to a point in which the horns and drummer improvise four-bars of music at a time. The fun thing about this piece — and that’s the operative word I’d use to describe it, fun — is that the “Yarns” of the title refers to obviously boisterous stories being swapped by the musicians. The effect is that of a series of spirited conversations unfolding in a crowded noisy room, perhaps a beer joint. Though the music has a driving, pounding quality to it — it’s quite a workout for the percussion — there’s also something familiar and even relaxing about its impact, the way the din of a dozen conversations can seem warm and friendly. I thought it was grand.

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5 things to know about ‘Shen Yun’

As the Chinese cultural arts performance returns to Fresno the day after Christmas, here’s some background


The advertising is relentless. If this touring show’s marketing campaign were an ocean-going vessel, it’d be a dreadnaught — one of those massive warships with large-caliber guns, circa World I, that could obliterate on-shore targets miles away. The “Shen Yun” team floods a market with any means at its disposal: billboards, TV and radio, direct mail, vastly expensive wrap-around newspaper ads that easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars (and perhaps even more, in the largest markets). And “Shen Yun” seems to be everywhere — I was driving through McAllen, Texas, and, boom, there was the familiar billboard. The advertising is so pervasive, in fact, that I half expect a dancer or two to pop up at my front door and press a leaflet into my hands.


All this marketing must take a lot of money, even with the deep-pockets support of the Falun Gong movement. Which brings me to my next point:

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‘Breaking Up’ is hard to love, but the songs are fun

Good Company Players production continues through mid-January


I’m pretty lukewarm about “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” the Neil Sedaka jukebox musical pulling the holiday shift at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. (It runs through Jan. 14.) On one hand, some of the singing is very good in this Good Company Players production. The comedy is often crisp and the production design is nice, especially the costumes.

The cast of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Photo / Good Company Players

On the other hand, the storyline is absurdly dumb, but that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The narratives of most jukebox musicals are little more than flimsy excuses to string along a selection of well-known songs, in this case such Sedaka classics as “Lonely Nights,” “Where the Boys Are and “Next Door to an Angel.” Some musicals of this genre, such as “Mamma Mia” (a GCP offering coming soon to Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre), manage to feel clever and accomplished when those songs come together, as if the writers figured out how to put together a complicated puzzle. Others, like “Breaking Up,” offer plots that just sort of limp along.

Here’s a quick review rundown:

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A mixed ‘Annie’ at CMT, but still lots of heart

Children’s Musical Theaterworks production continues through Sunday at Veterans Memorial Auditorium


With an all-ages cast, the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Annie” is a hybrid of community theater and children’s theater. I don’t truly “review” children’s theater, at least in terms of finding areas of improvement needed with individual performances, but I do offer my opinions on community theater. So the review that follows is also a hybrid that blends my approaches to community and children’s productions: I offer five aspects of the show I find really strong; and a couple of areas that could use some improvement.

Samantha Shaheen-Smith, center, shares the title role of Annie with Elizabeth Burbidge in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production. Photo / CMT

Overall, this “Annie” is not as accomplished as other CMT productions of the same title I’ve seen in the past. And it doesn’t reach the heights of some other CMT community theater productions. But there’s still a lot to like about the show:

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For Fresno State’s ‘Gentlemen of Verona,’ a rousing update

Fine acting and direction make Shakespeare’s comedy feel fresh and relevant


Let’s do something different and focus on the ending of Fresno State’s accomplished production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Usually critics avoid writing about the end of a play because they don’t want to give anything away. But I think I can do it without diminishing the audience’s appreciation for this well-acted and conceived comedy.

Alyssa Benitez, left, as Julia, and Steven Weatherbee, as Proteus, in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Photo / Fresno State

I’ve long been a fan of well-crafted endings and feel they’re far more important than some directors give them credit for. I’m not talking necessarily about a show’s climax — that moment of highest tension when a narrative starts sparking into resolution — which is very important, of course. I’m thinking more about the final seconds of a production, when all the elements of stagecraft come together: the lighting and sound cues, the positioning of the actors, the directorial choices that coalesce to give the audience that crucial ending impression. Give us confidence and precision, and it can make a powerful impact. Give us sloppy and bland — a light cue a second out of sync, an awkwardly delivered final line, a less-than-punchy closing visual tableaux — and it can cut a production off at the knees.

Which brings me to Brad Myers and his “Verona,” a charming and deftly directed show.

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Of monsters and men

Selma Arts Center offers an accomplished production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”


He becomes a hunchback before our eyes. One instant Thomas Hayes is standing straight, tall and unblemished, and then, in a few measures of song and with a few key costume additions, including a strapped-on hump that looks as if he’s slinging on a small backback, and some smears of black makeup, we are introduced to Quasimodo.

Powerful performance: Thomas Hayes plays Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Photo / Selma Arts Center

I like this moment of theatricality in the ambitious and sensitive new production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Selma Arts Center. The transformation reinforces the lyrics: “Who is the monster and who is the man?”

Indeed, who is the “monster” in this classic tale? The disfigured and physically impaired young man with a pure heart and a longing to commune with others? Or the preening and pious “man of God,” the archdeacon of none other than the great cathedral of Notre Dame, whose unbridled lust and cruelty destroys lives?

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In fresh and relevant ‘Native Son,’ audience might ask: Has anything changed?

Fresno State production of a new adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel is troubling and well-done


Fresno State’s provocative and worthwhile “Native Son” begins with the nearly naked form of Bigger Thomas, the play’s troubled protagonist, lying motionless on a table. Is he a dead body on a slab at the morgue? That’d be a pretty good guess. The audience is seated on all four sides of the stage, like a boxing ring, and as we stare at the character (played by Josh Slack) under the fierce stage lights, dressed only in flesh-colored briefs, a thought occurs: In these opening moments, it as if we are being asked by director Thomas-Whit Ellis and his cast to take on the role of voyeurs.

Inner turmoil: Josh Slack, left, Emily Kearn and Jalen Stewart in “Native Son.” Photo / Fresno State

The object of our focused attention is the black body in U.S. society. Specifically, the bodies of black men like Bigger: products of abject poverty, blatant racism and diminished prospects. Bigger has spent his life under the gaze of a society that sees him first and foremost as a black male, and thus he is to be placed under careful and constant surveillance.

Eighty years in Chicago, when the play is set, that scrutiny was blatant. Under the social norms of that era, black men were to be cordoned off, kept in their place, pressed firmly under the greater culture’s thumb.

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All the men in Merced keep getting killed by Candarian demons

Well, perhaps not every man. But the ones in Playhouse Merced’s jaunty “Evil Dead: The Musical” are possessed by supernatural fun. (The women, too)


If you’re a musical-theater fan, you understand when I say that sometimes a particular song from a show simply makes you happy. Often there’s no rhyme nor reason as to why this is so: It could be the lyrics, the tempo, even just the way the harmonies arrange themselves into a pleasing chordal resolution. When the mood strikes, I can listen to it on repeat for longer than I’d like to admit.

Confession time: One of those songs for me is “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons” from “Evil Dead: The Musical.”

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Chainsaw massacre: Aaron Kohlhoff and Bridget Mitchell in “Evil Dead: The Musical.” Photo / Playhouse Merced

As a guilty pleasure, it makes me smile every single time.

When I found out that Playhouse Merced was presenting “Evil Dead” — which I’ve never seen live — I knew one thing: I’d be there opening night.

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