A fond adieu to 2017

I’ve already told you my Top 20 favorite cultural events for 2017. Now here are a couple of year-ender wrap-up lists that I can’t resist:

My favorite stories of the year

My criteria: It’s completely subjective. I just like how these stories came out. For some, it was the fun in reporting them, and for others the joy in writing them. (Note: Because of my hybrid year — working through May as the Fresno Bee’s arts reporter, and the remainder of the year in my new role at The Munro Review — you’ll find stories from both platforms.) Here they are in chronological order:

In the moment of totality: my photograph taken from Mary’s Peak in central Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Photo / The Munro Review

In Delphi, a mysterious past provokes navel gazing: In this travel piece from Greece, I visit the strangely moody location where the famed oracles changed the ancient world.

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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (Oct. 20)

Here’s a roundup of promising arts/culture picks for the weekend:


All eyes on Saturday will be on the Fulton Mall — whoops, Fulton Street, and it will be a while before I can train myself to automatically say that — for the official ribbon-cutting and opening celebration. This isn’t just an event; it’s an historic occasion. I remember when I came to Fresno more than 25 years ago for my job interview, and my future boss took me to lunch at the Downtown Club, pointed in the direction of the mall, and told me, “We hope this can be revitalized soon.”

Photo / Downtown Fresno Partnership

So, decades later, change is in the air. I’m crossing my fingers.

Bethany Clough has a nice list in The Bee of pop-up stores and restaurants that will line the street for the 3 p.m. ribbon cutting at Fulton Street and Mariposa Mall. Most will be open until 10. (It’s nice to see the Fresno Art Museum on the list with a wine/shopping option.) There will be two beer gardens and three stages for live music.

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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


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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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


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.

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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Like a star, Ryan burns white-hot in ‘Mother’

In StageWorks Fresno’s “Mothers and Sons,” Amelie Ryan gives an indelible performance, though the play itself can feel dogmatic at times


The opening moments of StageWorks Fresno’s “Mothers and Sons” are remarkable. When the lights go up, we see a man and woman standing next to each other, about as much awkward distance between them as in a police lineup, both staring straight ahead. The silence hanging between them is thick and uncomfortable, verging on excruciating. When they finally murmur some strained small talk to each other about the landmarks of the New York skyline, it becomes clear: The theater’s “fourth wall” in this production is a large picture window with a sweeping view of Central Park.

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

I was captivated by the non-verbals in this moment. To watch the face of Katharine, who has dropped by the apartment of her dead son’s former lover unannounced, is to see a woman struggling — and failing — to overcome the anger and sadness that is chewing up every inch of her frame. Her surprised host, Cal, obviously still stunned at the unexpected intrusion, likewise works to keep his distress in check, wanting to be polite but unable to completely cover up his exasperation.

Together, standing side by side, watching these complicated emotions flit across their faces, it’s as if with we’re being given a speeded-up, capsule version of what’s to come in this tense drama by Terrence McNally.

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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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StageWorks is bringing ‘Fun Home’ to Fresno

The company announces its 2018 season, which includes “The Fantasticks.” Plus: recaps from CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP, Shine! Theatre, the Selma Arts Center, College of the Sequoias, Children’s Musical Theaterworks, Good Company Players, Fresno City College, Fresno State and Reedley’s River City Theatre Company.

UPDATE 6 (Sept. 27): The CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP cancelled its production of “Frida” at the Fresno Art Museum.

UPDATE 5 (Sept. 12): I’ve added the Fresno State theater season, which originally had its own post in May, into this roundup.

UPDATE 4 (Sept. 11): I’ve added the remainder of the 2017 season for CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP.

UPDATE 3 (Sept. 4): I’ve added the 2017-18 season for Shine! Theatre.

UPDATE 2 (Aug. 28): I’ve added the 2018 season for the Selma Arts Center.

UPDATE 1 (Aug. 13): I’ve added the seasons for Children’s Musical Theaterworks and Visalia’s College of the Sequoias.

ORIGINAL POST: Stop the digital presses: StageWorks Fresno has snagged the rights to perform “Fun Home: The Musical.” The show was nominated for an impressive 12 Tony Awards in 2015 and won five, including best musical.

In “Fun Home,” composer Jeanine Tesori and writer-lyricist Lisa Kron transform the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s popular graphic-novel memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” into a spare and beautiful musical.

National tour: “Fun Home” continues on the road through the end of the year. A local production opens June 29 in Fresno. Photo / “Fun Home” tour

Bechdel’s adult self is narrator, looking back at herself as a 9-year-old navigating through childhood and as a 19-year-old college freshman embracing the fact she’s lesbian.

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No half-effort for this ‘Full Monty’

StageWorks Fresno offers a robust and meaningful production of the steelworker-stripping comedy


In one of the best numbers in StageWorks Fresno’s rousing new production of “The Full Monty,” the six out-of-work (and, in varying degrees, out-of-shape) steelworkers at the center of the musical are finding it hard to get inspired for the Chippendales-style strip show they’ve agreed to put on for their friends, family, and the greater Buffalo., N.Y., area.

What gets them in sync and rhythm?

The mention of Michael Jordan.

Feeling like “Scrap”: a scene from “The Full Monty.” Photo / StageWorks Fresno

Yes, that Michael Jordan. The famed basketball player is immortalized in the first-act finale. Coming in this late 1990s musical, at first it seems a stuffy and dated reference. As the actors on opening night whipped themselves into a wonderful choreographic frenzy in the song “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” inspired by the sports star’s effortless moves on the court, I found myself pondering: If this sweet and funny show endures for, say, 40 years, will audiences in the future be only vaguely aware of Jordan’s legacy, the same way kids today nod politely when their elders talk about such sports heroes as Babe Ruth?

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