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Seasonal Allergies

By: Tiffany Raymond
Screenshot (80)South Park Theatre’s production of Katherine DiSavino and Kevin Mead’s play, Seasonal Allergies, reminds us that dealing with recovery from loss is not a skill in which us humans generally excel. When we hurt, it tends to makes other people uncomfortable. Even among those who genuinely desire to help us with our pain, the cultural default seems to be the urge to tell the wounded to keep busy and remind them to move on. Such is the situation in Seasonal Allergies, directed by Lorraine Mszanski. Good-intentioned Julia Shelby (Krista Strosnider) wants to help her divorcing brother, Pete Dumbowski (Cameron Nickel). She offers him the living room couch in her domestic sphere, which includes her husband/Pete’s best friend, Thomas (Erick Rigby) and their eight-year old daughter, Charlotte (Chelsie Clydesdale). Alas, it turns out the siblings haven’t changed much since childhood. As older sister, Julia plays mom and battles control freak tendencies. Pete as the little brother drives her nuts by thoughtlessly littering the living room with dirty laundry. Cameron Nickel as Pete is the weakest link in this production. While the other characters are cast age appropriately, Nickel is clearly quite young (in fact, he’s still in college). Visually, it stretches credulity that he has a successful dental practice and is divorcing after five years of marriage. His youth is exacerbated by the fact his performance lacks nuance, a miss on director Lorraine Mszanski’s part. Nickel vacillates between overly dramatic manic mode and a poor imitation of pain. Mszanski also fails to cultivate the relationship between Pete and Thomas. They are supposed to be best friends but feel more like father and son. In fact, Thomas is clearly better bonded with J.D. (Timothy Dougherty), the husband of Julia’s best friend, Allison (Danette Marie Levers). The play opens on Thanksgiving Day with Thomas and J.D. planted on the couch in green Jets gear chugging beer and cheering for their beloved football team. While Dougherty perfectly captures the stereotypical corpulent football fan, it’s a stretch to envision him as the florist he’s supposed to be. His aesthetics seem limited to toting around a shrimp platter he snacks from and eating leftover Thanksgiving stuffing out of Tupperware on the couch. His lack of delicacy is reinforced by an atrocious fake bouquet he brings Julia, an abysmal miss for a supposed florist by prop designer Elizabeth Lucas. Rigby brings a light humor to Thomas’ character. Mszanski develops a playful marital banter that feels genuine between him and Julia’s Strosnider. Rigby’s most memorable scene is when he’s alone in the kitchen crafting a towering sandwich of Thanksgiving leftovers pre-Black Friday shopping to the roiling music of Mannheim Steamroller Christmas. It’s a total dad moment. Levers shines as Allison. Like Julia, she’s a bit of a control freak, which DiSavino and Mead seem to troublingly suggest is part of the successful woman trajectory. Julia is a notable chef, and Allison is a thriving attorney. Allison is learning to surrender control as she’s perched on the edge of 40 and pregnant with her first child. Levers has an irreverent charm, vocally longing for a vodka at the Thanksgiving table while also recognizing her prego flattened bladder now rules her world. Costume designer J. Childe Pendergast maintains cohesion among a dazzling number of costume changes. She also does a nice job of continuing to inflate Allison’s pregnant stomach throughout the play, which stretches from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. Levers already looks like a bursting turkey at the Thanksgiving table, but she’s a shaken bottle of champagne begging to be uncorked by New Year’s Eve. Allison’s expanding belly also serves as a visual metaphor for the building familial tensions. The final character in this ensemble is Emily Cantwell (Riley Stanzione), a neighbor and young widow whose front yard fir tree is mistakenly mowed down by Pete’s car. When we learn that Emily and Pete both love Thanksgiving’s much-maligned creamed onions, it’s clearly the precursor to wedding bells. If only life were so simple… Admittedly, it’s hard to understand Emily’s attraction to Pete. He doesn’t want to sign his divorce papers and seems to awkwardly weird out in her presence and want to talk about his soon-to-be ex-wife. Mszanski can’t find a sensible motivation for the relationship beyond creamed onions, and Emily comes across as pitying poor Pete. However, the play’s primary faults lie with writers Katherine DiSavino and Kevin Mead. While there are some chuckles, the overall script lacks originality. When Pete storms out queen-like on Christmas Eve swearing to never return, you know with absolute certainty he’ll be back. And there he is on New Year’s Eve. As the siblings chat, it is a feel good moment. Much like the creamed onion connection, you long for the illusion of five-minute adult conversations on tough subjects that let everyone enter the new year with a clean conscience. Cheers to that. South Park Theatre’s production of Seasonal Allergies continues through June 30th. For more details, visit South Park Theatre online.

The Rocky Horror Show

By: Linda Harkcom
rocky horrorWhen you go to see The Rocky Horror Show you know going in, you are not expecting anything akin to Shakespeare or Wicked. You are going for pure R-rated, campy, fun where the audience participation adds to the hilarity and enjoyment of the show. Split Stage’s production of this live action musical did not disappoint. The theatre company celebrated the opening of its 5th season Friday night at The Lamp Theatre in Irwin. Split Stage is not one to shy away from edgy material. I have in the past enjoyed their productions of Avenue Q and Assassins so it was not surprising that they would take on this, the edgiest of them all. If you have never experienced the live musical before and have only ever seen it on TV or a shadow cast production, buckle up, you are in for one hell of a ride because you have not experienced anything yet. Being a Rocky veteran I thoroughly enjoyed watching the “Rocky Virgins” get their “V” and being initiated as part of the pre-show fun. I do wish those who chose not to comply with the initiation request would have been spanked as a punishment, but those who did really got the crowd warmed up. Part of enjoying the show is watching the audiences’ responses to it. A Rocky Horror audience can be as funny or funnier and just as entertaining as what is happening on stage. And honestly, that is what you are hoping for as it takes the experience to a whole new level. Many virgins initially bristled to the foul but funny callbacks that start as soon as the show began but they soon loosened up and realized it was okay to laugh at the bawdy humor taking place on stage and off. The lighting was on point and the set minimalistic with the band at its center. While I wasn't’ sure how I would feel about the sparse, industrial looking set when I saw it, I was pleasantly surprised by the end how it really allowed you to focus more on the action on and off the stage.  And Director Brady D. Patsy made great work of the entire space The Lamp Theatre has to offer. The band under the direction of Nick Stamatakis rocked the house and completely met my expectation, including the “sick” kazoo solo. However the volume on a few of the numbers did seem to overpower the vocalists, mainly in the ensemble numbers. This could be either from their location being on stage or due to the small size of the ensemble. Former American Idol contestant and Norwin High School graduate Aubrey Burchell made her theatrical debut as the Usherette. The truly talented vocalist opened and closed the show with her powerful voice singing “Science Fiction Double Feature,” that received well deserved cheers from the crowd. I would have liked for her to have also been part of the ensemble as her voice would have added greatly to it. Katherine Harkins and Mickey Orange were the perfect Janet Weiss and Brad Majors. Acting, vocally, both were everything you want those characters to be and never broke under the onslaught of callbacks that came from the audience. Speaking of not breaking, Matthew Russak and Riley Tate as Riff Raff and Magenta did a great job of keeping their somber demeanor throughout the hilarity. I was extremely impressed with the vocals of Russak which an unfortunate microphone issue slightly hampered, but I’m sure will be fixed for future performances. Adam Fladd took on the role of Frank n’Furter. I’ve seen some great Frank n’Furters in the past so with this role I may be a little hard to please. Fladd seemed to drift out of character from time to time from what may have been opening night jitters, adjusting to the slipping costume and navigating in those high boots. We expect his performance will only get better as the shows go on. The potential is there. Vocally however, Fladd more than made up for any acting shortcomings.  His powerful vocals shone through in every number. Although he didn’t make me feel for Frank like I normally do at the end, he definitely made me cheer, as did rest of the audience, at the end of “I’m Going Home.” Other performances of note, Hank Fodor, I enjoyed as both Eddie and Dr. Scott and Ian Olson did a good job acting and vocally as Rocky. He definitely looked the part and his interaction with Harkins was quite entertaining. Overall Split Stage’s Rocky Horror is a fun interactive experience I recommend to all non-prudes. Grab a group of friends, but leave your, children,  large water guns and frankfurters at home, and head out to The Lamp Theatre in Irwin. The show runs through June 23 with an 8 p.m. and special midnight performance on June 23. Tickets and show times can be found here.

On Your Feet!

By: Brian Pope
on your feetI think there is a crucial plot point missing from each of the shows in the recent rash of biographical jukebox musicals adapting the stories of iconic recording artists for the stage. Nowadays, these shows come in many varieties: long-running hits (Jersey Boys), newly-minted hits (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical), and probable hits in the making (The Cher Show). These Broadway biopics are an industry unto themselves. While it’s true that they are sometimes shunned by the Tony Awards nominating committee, check your DVR for a hint of how the ratings-hungry producers of the Tony Awards telecast feel about them. This is the element of these rags to riches stories that I crave to have dramatized. Luckily, On Your Feet!: The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan does the best job of any of these musicals in involving its subjects in the once-thought-to-be improbability turned profound profitability. While it only occurs a few times over the course of this show’s somewhat bloated 150-minute runtime, when it does, it’s magic. [caption id="attachment_7220" align="aligncenter" width="656"]Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and company Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan and company[/caption] I had to brace myself on the armrests to keep from literally getting on my feet whenever the larger and louder than life orchestra—featuring five members of the real Miami Sound Machine—took center stage to jam on Estefan-penned classics like “Turn the Beat Around” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”. These exhilarating moments and slick direction by Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) can’t entirely lighten the load of the heavy-handedness with which the show wants to draw a line connecting the ugly prejudice the Estefans experienced on their way up the Billboard charts to the ugly prejudice immigrants experience in America today. However, they make you appreciate the tricky tonal balancing act of distilling a whole life in just one evening. Although the moment when Gloria decides to perform for the first time following her spinal surgery can read more saccharine than triumphant, the scenes in the hospital and rehab center immediately following her tragic 1990 tour bus accident are genuinely gripping. [caption id="attachment_7223" align="aligncenter" width="656"]Adriel Flete and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio Estefan and company Adriel Flete and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio Estefan and company[/caption] The range of reactions from my audience (from cheers to sobs) proves that, whether Gloria and Emilio appear as disembodied voices in a playful pre-recorded curtain speech or their passionate spirits are embodied by terrific triple threats like Christie Prades and Mauricio Martínez,  they still have legions of devoted fans. When it comes to Pittsburgh, this can be attributed to the couple’s status as global music moguls and the fact that On Your Feet! was originally co-produced on Broadway by Pittsburgh CLO. Despite the misfortune of opening in the same season as Hamilton, On Your Feet! played a respectable 746 performances on Broadway before embarking on a US tour. This stop high kicks off CLO’s red-hot 72nd annual summer season. I was not using a cliche when I classified On Your Feet! as a rags to riches story. The first scene shows young Cuban immigrant Gloria (Ana-Sofia Rodriguez) in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami actually doing laundry and making music with her neighbors, much to the chagrin of her disapproving namesake/mother. In one of the show’s many authentically thrilling salsa dance sequences choreographed by Tony nominee Sergio Trujillo and flawlessly executed by the inhumanly gifted ensemble, we meet a teenage Gloria whose sense of responsibility to her education, ailing father (Jason Martinez), and younger sister (Claudia Yanez) has mostly overshadowed her passion for songwriting. Enter a swaggering, short short-wearing Emilio who visits Gloria at her home after hearing around town about her musical talents. Thanks to the meddling of her kind-hearted abuela (her grandmother played by a delightful Debra Cardona), Gloria ends up blowing everyone away with an original song of hers, “Anything for You”. And the rest, as we’re shown, is history. If Gloria and Emilio’s legacy weighs heavily on the shoulders of Ms. Prades and Mr. Martínez, it’s impossible to tell because their performances are so uplifting. They play the highs and lows of the couple’s love story and career trajectory so convincingly that you’ll find yourself doubting the outcome of a story you may already know. [caption id="attachment_7221" align="aligncenter" width="656"]Joseph Rivera, Adriel Flete, Jeremey Adam Rey, Nancy Ticotin and Gloria Fajardo and Hector Maisonet Joseph Rivera, Adriel Flete, Jeremey Adam Rey, Nancy Ticotin and Gloria Fajardo and Hector Maisonet[/caption] Doreen Montalvo (as Gloria’s mother) and Carlos Carreras (in a trio of roles including Gloria and Emilio’s young son Nayib, alternately played by Jordan Vergara) round out the family unit by delivering some of the evening’s most electrifying musical moments in the flashback showstopper “Mi Tierra” and the literally showstopping megamix finale, respectively. When the members of Gloria’s family come out in Emilio Sosa's increasingly more bedazzled costumes and lend their voices to a medley including “Conga” and the show’s title song, it beautifully underscores the way that they and their relationships with her inspired music continue to bring joy to millions of people. Coming to this realization would have caused me to lose my rhythm if not for this ebullient cast's pitch-perfect dancing and singing. As a show that is equal parts Miami, sound, and yes, machine, On Your Feet! is like a well-timed confetti cannon, a pure blast. On Your Feet! plays at the Benedum Center through June 17th. For tickets and more information, click here. Photos by Matthew Murphy  

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