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

Good Company Players production continues through mid-January

THEATER REVIEW

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.

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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

THEATER REVIEW

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.

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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

THEATER REVIEW

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.

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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”

THEATER REVIEW

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.

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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

THEATER REVIEW

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.

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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)

THEATER REVIEW

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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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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