I think even the time of the appointment is the same: 4:45 p.m. on a scorching Fresno summer afternoon. I scurry from my car to the theater entrance. Just as it did two years ago, the heat radiating from the empty parking lot of the Clovis North performing arts center feels like someone just hit the start button on the microwave.
Inside, in the dark and cool lobby — thank goodness for that superior Clovis Unified chilled air! — I say hello to Melinda Parrett.
Two years ago, I met her for the first time for an interview days before the opening of StageWorks Fresno's remarkable "Next to Normal," one of the high points in recent years in Fresno theater. In that show, which audaciously turned a storyline about mental illness and electroshock therapy into a gripping musical, Parrett took us on a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, giving us a wrenching emotional journey.
Her performance remains with me to this day. I saw the great Alice Ripley, who originated the leading role of Diana in "Next to Normal," in both the off-Broadway and Broadway productions of the musical, and at the time I couldn't quite imagine any other actor following in her footsteps. But I was wrong. Parrett, in a performance a little darker and less manic than Ripley's iconic portrayal, gave us a Diana that more than made the character her own.
Now Parrett — a member of the professional Actors Equity stage union who bounces around the country from one regional production to another — is back with the same company, at the same theater, and reunited on stage with two members of the "Normal" cast (Daniel Rodriguez and Taylor Abels) and behind the scenes with another (director Joel Abels).
But in a much more light-hearted experience.
How different from "Next to Normal" is the strange and wacky "[title of show]"?
Let's just say electroshock therapy is not part of the equation. (Filled as the show is with insider Broadway references, however, Ripley's name does pop up.)
The show opened Saturday and continues through July 20.
As I sit backstage with Parrett in her dressing room at the Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North complex, I listen to her describe the musical with perfect deadpan delivery:
"It's about two guys writing a show. So it's a show within a show, and how they put on that show — from them dreaming the show, to creating the show, and where the show goes.
"I'm not one of those guys."
There are also two gals in the show — the guys' actress friends. Parrett plays one of them, the character of Susan, as part of a "meta" experience that lets you get to know the four characters as they prepare their still unnamed show for competition in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
"You're guaranteed to laugh," Parrett continues. "You're guaranteed to laugh some more. You might even get touched a little bit. There are some touchy moments. I'm not going to lie. It's about anyone who's ever dreamt about something. Dreamt about creating something, whether it be a family, friendships, art, work … anyone can relate to this show."
If "[title of show]" sounds familiar to Fresno audiences, it should: Joel Abels, artistic director of StageWorks Fresno, opened the company with the show in 2010. It played at the Severance Theatre.
Before that, the show got a lot of local buzz because of Heidi Blickenstaff, one of the four original cast members who ended up taking the show to Broadway in 2008.
Blickenstaff is a veteran of Good Company Players, and the memories related by her character in the show have several allusions to Fresno.
Parrett has kept busy in the two years since she last performed in Fresno, including runs in other versions of "[title of show]" and "Next to Normal" in Sacramento and the summer season of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where she got to play both Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes" and Ariel in "The Tempest."
The life of a professional regional theater performer can be tough, and one thing is unchanged for Parrett since her last time in Fresno: She doesn't really have a permanent base for herself, but instead travels from gig to gig.
That needs to change, she says.
"Maybe I should put this out there: I would love to be able to say that I am moving finally to New York in January. Because I've never done it and stayed there. I've done it and gotten jobs that have taken me out (on the road), but I've never pounded the pavement. I feel like it's the right time in my life to do it."
Regardless of where she calls home, however, she's managing to create a "mini-base" for herself in Fresno. The once-every-two-years timeline has a nice feel to it.
One role that Parrett would absolutely love to play is the dance teacher in "Billy Elliot." Who knows? Perhaps StageWorks Fresno could bring it to us in 2016.
StageWorks Fresno's "[title of show]," through July 20 (recommended for adult audiences only), Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North performing arts complex, 2770 E. International Ave. www.stageworksfresno.com, (559) 289-6622. $18.50-$23.50