The Little Mermaid

By: Brian Pope
27748199_10155222036826016_1480033966791455687_oIf you’ve seen this year’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, you know it tells the story of a mute woman doing everything she can to live happily ever after with an anthropomorphic fish creature. If you loved that film, you have probably wondered what the story would be like if the mute woman was recast as the fish now pursuing the love of a human. Well, wonder no more! Pittsburgh Musical Theatre has endeavored to put your fan fiction-writing minds at ease with their exuberant if ultimately flat revival production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Long before Disney got its metaphorical and musical hooks into Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” to manufacture 2013’s Frozen, they adapted his original “The Little Mermaid” for the screen in 1989. Bolstered by Oscar-winning music by composer Alan Menken and the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman, the incredible success of The Little Mermaid ushered in the Mouse House’s first animation renaissance. That renaissance begat more highly acclaimed films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King which begat highly acclaimed stage adaptations of those movies. Sadly, “highly acclaimed” are not two words anyone would use to describe Ariel’s New York outing. The general verdict seemed to be that the directing and design departments did not realize the underwater scenes as elegantly as inanimate objects and wild animals were brought to life in those other shows. This is why I really feel for PMT’s Executive Artistic Director Colleen Doyno, who also helms this ...Mermaid. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Menken, new lyricist Glen Slater, and book writer Doug Wright, she is left up a creek and without a paddle with this material. CompanyTheLittleMermaid2An onslaught of fish puns and plot holes bog down the simple story of Ariel (Larissa Overholt), the youngest of King Triton’s (Brady Patsy) seven daughters. She spends all her time at the ocean’s surface collecting artifacts of the human world with her lovesick friend Flounder (Benjamin Godley-Fisher at the performance I saw) and human stuff “expert” Scuttle (the always hilarious Joe York). Everything changes though when she lays eyes on the dashing Prince Eric (Dave Toole). Ignoring advice from her father and her maestro Sebastian (the always exciting Tru Verret-Fleming), Ariel makes a deal with her evil aunt Ursula to trade her voice for the chance to be human and win Eric’s affection. You can certainly guess how things end up, but what’s harder to picture is how to stage this aquatic fairy tale. Ms. Doyno has outfitted a few of her actors with roller shoes, or Heelys, to simulate swimming. It didn’t work for the show on Broadway in 2008, and it still doesn’t work now. The uneven start and stop gliding motion created by the roller shoes is reflected in the production’s overall momentum and comedic timing. Heavy is the head that wears Ariel’s signature red wig whether it’s little girls and boys in the audience or Ms. Overholt on the Byham stage, returning the role she played in PMT’s 2015 production. While her wholesome performance is rather effortless, her vocals are generally strained. Her Ariel is bubbly but, naturally, shallow as a puddle. [caption id="attachment_6635" align="alignleft" width="200"]David Toole as Prince Eric David Toole as Prince Eric[/caption] Unfortunately, Mr. Toole is miscast as the human prince. With a powerful and captivating voice like his, he should really be the mermaid in this story. His renditions of the longing ballad “Her Voice” and Ariel and Eric's adorable pas de deux “One Step Closer” are exquisite. Although the story dictates that it is Ursula that steals Ariel’s voice, the sound equipment had other ideas at the performance I attended. But thanks to the swift intervention of the stage management team, Sandy Zwier rebounded tremendously after her microphone went out during the opening chords of Ursula’s truly heinous (in every sense of the word) song about familial genocide, “Daddy’s Little Angel”. Honestly, having Ursula perform the show with a handheld mic beautifully plays up the inherent diva-style campiness of the character, and the deliciously diabolical Ms. Zwier plays that up to even greater effect. [caption id="attachment_6636" align="alignright" width="200"]Jerreme Rodriguez, Sandy Zwier and Adam Fladd Jerreme Rodriguez, Sandy Zwier and Adam Fladd[/caption] Here she is flanked by Jerreme Rodriguez and Adam Fladd in the roles of Ursula’s electric eel henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam, respectively. Their synchronous, slithering full-bodied physicality make them the most convincing of the many ocean dwellers we’re introduced to. Choreographer Lisa Elliot and Costume Designer Kim Brown make magic with this show’s hugely talented all-ages ensemble in the Act I showstopper “Under the Sea”. That number is the lively, technicolor benchmark you wish the rest of the show lived up to. Disney is set to attempt the impossible again with an upcoming big screen, live action adaptation of The Little Mermaid with new songs by Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s definitely a tall order, but I think they’ll crack the code if they cast it spectacularly like Pittsburgh Musical Theatre did with their version. But I implore them to get the characters feet/fins out of the roller shoes and keep them firmly planted on the ground... or the ocean floor as it were. Disney's The Little Mermaid plays at the Byham Theater through March 25th. For tickets and more information, click here. Photos by Melissa Wallace

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ Week of Will Preview

By: Ringa Sunn
Week of Will TypeWe’re almost a month away from William Shakespeare’s birth and death day, April 23rd, and that means we’re coming up upon Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ fourth annual Week of Will. Yvonne Hudson, a board member of PSIP and the creative talent behind Pittsburgh’s Mrs. Shakespeare, Will’s First & Last Love, gave us the full scoop on the history of Week of Will and what you can expect to find at this year’s event. 10176265_835176826496875_3783908585866359958_nWeek of Will is a continuation of a tradition in Pittsburgh where teachers brought students to the Shakespeare statue in Oakland every year on his birthday to bring flowers. In the 1980s, Pitt’s Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival contributed to the tradition by sending a costumed actor to play Shakespeare. For a time, the event began to fade in popularity, but that changed in 2005 when Hudson met Jennifer Tober and they created a birthday event called The Bard Walk. That same year, Tober founded Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, and they continued the yearly summer ritual of performing Shakespeare’s works outdoors that had been started in Pittsburgh by the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival. [caption id="attachment_6621" align="alignleft" width="219"]Mrs. Shakespeare herself, Yvonne Hudson Mrs. Shakespeare herself, Yvonne Hudson[/caption] Hudson explains, "I conceived and now produce Week of Will to celebrate Will and keep our company visible during our off-season. This fourth Week of Will is the fullest with two solo shows, a film, Public Theater's Hamlet, and much more. It's Pittsburgh, so cake is a must!” No further explanation needed, Yvonne. You had me at cake. As the Week of Will has grown in attendance and collaboration, it has turned into much more than just seven days. This year’s event spans March 26th through April 30th, which includes two “warm up” events centered around a character that knew Shakespeare. This showcase of talent and art includes performances by PSIP members as well as many other local organizations, including their partner company Britsburgh. Here’s the 2018 Week of Will schedule, which you’ll be able to check on PSIP’s social media. Several online events are being organized as well, and those will be announced soon. Monday, March 26 Jeffrey Chips' One-Man DREAM Threadbare Cider House and Meadery Tasting Room 7:00pm doors open, 7:30pm performance Tuesday, April 3 Aria 412 presents Shakespeare's Frolics Wallace Tap Room, Hotel Indigo, East Liberty 7:00pm-9:00pm PSIP's Mrs. Shakespeare is hostess for this monthly first Tuesday themed concert of opera, musical theater, and American songbook favorites by the city's new showcase of top singers-- Aria412! Free admission, cash bar and food available. Thursday, April 19 Mrs. Shakespeare, Will's First & Last Love Sewickley Heights Historical Center 7:00pm-8:00pm, including a short talk back after a 50 minute performance Performance by Yvonne Hudson of her long-running solo show. Free admission, refreshments served, donations accepted. Saturday, April 21 New Renaissance Theatre Company Performance The Leaning Cask Brewing Company, Springdale 4:00pm-8:00pm PSIP cheers on Britsburgh and fellow arts partner New Renaissance Theatre Company. Beer tastings and a spring Shakesbeer will be introduced. Free admission. Sunday, April 22 Shakespeare Statue Salute Outside of Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland 12:00pm Mrs. Shakespeare (Yvonne Hudson) leads the city's annual tribute to Will with story, sonnets, and flowers. Free to the public. Shakespeare's Saucy Minions Schenley Plaza Tent 12:15pm-2:00pm A pastiche of favorites from Will's words by PSIP artists and Shakespeare colleagues. Birthday cake served at the end of performances. Monday, April 23 Facebook live events with PSIP players, Mrs. Shakespeare, and more on the Bard's 454th birthday. Details and times TBA. Tuesday, April 24 Hamlet Pittsburgh Public Theater 7:00pm A collaborative event with Britsburgh. Food and fun for Will's most personal drama. Tickets to be on sale via Britsburgh. Wednesday, April 25 Happy Hour Franktuary, Lawrenceville 5:00-7:00pm Meet our players and board members at an informal annual gathering. Benefits PSIP. Sunday, April 29 Julius Caesar Southside Works Cinema 11:00am (2.25 hour show) The Bridge Theater's groundbreaking production recorded live at the National Theater. Food and conversation after the 2.5 hour broadcast at Claddagh Irish Pub, nearby at Southside Works. A collaboration with Britsburgh. Book tickets online for $20 at: https://omniwebticketing.com/cleveland/southsideworks/?schdate=2018-04-29&perfix=123018 Monday, April 30 Friended by Shakespeare Threadbare Cider and Meadery, first floor production space 7:00pm doors open, 7:30pm show begins https://www.facebook.com/FriendedbyShakespeare/ Cash bar featuring Threadbare specialties until 9:30 pm. Free parking. Pittsburgh's Stoney Richards takes over PSIP's monthly Bring Your Own Bard (BYOB) with his solo show about Will for this fundraiser for September's Two Gentlemen of Verona. Ticket details March 26 at PittsburghShakespeare.org Admission includes one beverage; light fare and dessert provided with additional patron levels and perks available.

Citizens Market

By: Yvonne Hudson
CT1713_CitizensMarket_573x437Like a good New York City supermarket that has everything its neighborhood needs, a strong play like Cori Thomas’ Citizens Market serves up multi-layered characters and their captivating personal stories. Full of laughter and life, this world premiere celebrates an ever-shifting and eclectic America that is at once diverse and reflects often painful experiences. The latest new play developed at City Theatre, directed by Reginald L. Douglas, runs through March 25 on the main stage in the South Side. Playwright Thomas is a rising playwright who workshopped the piece about “finding home” in her second stint at City. She considers her own immigrant parents among her inspirations. The program describes the script development process with a nod to the invaluable role of dramaturg for new works. Clare Drobot, as dramaturg and director of New Play Development at City, contributed greatly to getting this work ready for its debut. Citizens Market is a timely close-up of the life of new Americans--hopeful, brave immigrants who have come here for brighter futures. The play asks if today’s immigrants are invited to genuinely belong or if such hopes should be expected to be dashed during the long and expensive process of “getting legal” by ICE Raids and the threat of deportation. The Super Union is one of those family Manhattan markets where the languages and accents are as diverse as the food and products on sale. Bigger than a bodega, such larger independent stores must compete with national brand stores throughout the five boroughs. The 119th Street store was created on City’s stage by the incomparable Tony Ferrieri. There is no distraction by customers as the action is cleverly set when shoppers aren’t in the store, so the audience can focus on Thomas’ lovely characters. Director Douglas efficiently moves five actors from the fullest and to most intimate scenes on Ferrieri’s realistic set, somewhat frozen in an earlier decade. Ferrieri fills the entire proscenium stage with details including every imaginable item, from cases of coffee stacked at the back wall to fresh produce displayed downstage. Three levels contain a retro manager’s office, stocked store aisles, working check-out stations, equipped staff break room, and the store facade, complete a door and some windows with hand-painted grocery signs. Thomas’s script teems with the realities for immigrants who become established business owners like long-time store manager Jesus and newcomers like Akosua, recommended by her new co-worker Ciata for her intelligence and caring nature. Thomas quickly establishes her characters’ situations. One month in, Akosua and Ciata talk about men over lunch. “Find one who doesn’t smoke,” Ciata advices, recalling a past love who “smoked more than Bob Marley AND the Wailers.” And we learn how a romantic blunder contributed to Akosua leaving home. Their boss was not born in the US, having come from El Salvador as a teenager. Akosua observes, “It seems to me that here in America, no one is really from here.” Akosua ventures, “When is the day that you know actually what it is that you are doing here?” The older couple, Bogdan and Mofina, still struggle to be happy as some among the most vulnerable. But still, Bogdan blusters optimistically: “We are American now. This is a country of hopes and dreams and that is why we came here.” Thomas accurately explores typical language challenges as Jesus inappropriately speaks to Akosua using some Spanish words and asks Akosua if he can just use the English version of his new employee’s name rather then deal with learning to pronounce it. Their dreams? Jesus aims to someday own the store, Ciata to earn enough to send money back home, and Akosua to save for tuition. Bogdan and Mofina just want to survive with some food and shelter. All share a hope to avoid complications with immigration. No one seems immune from being “sent back”, a threat hanging over their insular world. Ngozi Anyanwu is endearing as the soft-spoken Akosua with her fresh green card. We cheer for her as she gains confidence and becomes the counselor to her new-found family members far from her home in Ghana. Market manager Jesus is drawn as alternately brash and caring by the likable Juan Francisco Villa. Shamika Cotton is the strong and resilient Ciata, a teacher in her native Sierra Leone who now finds solace over personal tragedy in her store job. Cotton conveys strength born from grief in one of the play’s most moving moments even as she and Jesus consider a close personal relationship. Pittsburgh veteran actor Jeff Howell is the 50-something Bogdan whose appears older. He’s had a hard journey from a career as civil engineer in Romania to a struggling near-homeless person in New York. The versatile Ann Talman also returns to City as his spunky wife Morfina and also as a new Irish market employee. Her physicality as Morfina includes very accurate navigation of the store stairs by her apparently arthritic legs. Karen Perry’s costumes aptly suggest the status of each characters means and origins. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski is appropriately full for action in the store and intimate for the most personally impactful moments. Well-placed sound by Zachary Beattie Brown supports the setting and action with both music and effects. Patti Kelly, City’s production stage manager, runs the smooth show. For all the laughter and tears sprinkled throughout Citizens Market, there’s no sugar coating here. Thomas reminds us that all that Americans are never “from here”--regardless how long your family has “been here”. She draws us in so that by the time we face the characters most troubling circumstances, we care about the characters. Sure, a production of Citizens Market could be even grittier and event more gripping than City’s premiere, but it’s exciting to know Thomas’ play now will find its legs with room to grow. Citizens Market runs 100 well-aced minutes with no intermission. The show is on stage through March 25 with special discounts and events listed online. With the continuation of its season-long community engagement initiative, City Connects, the company invites patrons to bring donations of toiletries throughout the run to benefit clients of Jewish Family & Community Services Immigrant Services and Refugee Resettlement Program.  

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