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Amahl and the Night Visitors

By: Helen Meade
23509011_1502775556458378_1922291248159416369_o“What brings you joy?” asks Resonance Works | Pittsburgh board of directors president Rob Frankenberry. There is certainly joy in listening to live classical music. There is joy in the artistry of skilled musicians. There is joy in the unadorned sound of classical instruments. There is joy in well-honed voices filling a space with the arias and choruses of an opera. The Resonance Works’ production of Amahl and the Night Visitors provides many opportunities for joy, along with unfortunate moments of disappointment and sadness. The evening was divided into two acts. The first act featured a trio of orchestral works, scored for a small chamber group that consisted of (if I counted correctly) 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 1 bass as the core group. The core ensemble was joined by oboists Stephanie Tobin and David Fitzpatrick for Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon by Handel. I found the oboe duets delightful, played with both precision and aplomb. Arrival is a fun piece, though I prefer a slightly faster tempo, to emphasize the celebratory and de-emphasize the ceremonial aspect of the piece. Next was Dances Sacrée et Profane by Debussy, featuring the talented harpist, Marissa Knaub Avon. This piece is dreamy, almost meditative - until it’s not. Then the harp explodes with rhythm and aggression, only to be brought back into line by a gentle, repeating motif. The harp can’t be completely tamed though, and the piece ends with a final, good-natured thunk. Rounding out the first half of the evening was Vivaldi’s Bassoon concerto in E minor, featuring Andrew Genemans on bassoon, with Uliana Kozhevnikova on harpsichord. I’m far from an expert, but Mr. Genemans is a rock star on that bassoon! He was facile, quick, and a master at both the high and low registers of the instrument. It was just fun to watch and listen to him play. Keeping everyone on track throughout both acts was conductor and artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner. Maestra Sellner has a light, masterful touch, creating a very balanced sound throughout the evening. But that’s where most of the good news ends. Disappointingly, the second half of the evening, the performance of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, was not quite as successful as the first. The singing was universally good. Ivy Walz (Mother), Andrew Maughan (King Kaspar), Andrew Adelsberger (King Melchior), and Jonathan Stuckey (King Balthazar) all gave strong vocal performances, ably supported by the Resonance Chamber Orchestra. The Slippery Rock University Chamber Singers sounded great as the chorus of shepherds; they had a nice blend and their diction was spot on. Eighth grader Liam McCarthy’s thin soprano (Amahl) didn’t fare quite as well as the rest of the cast in the unforgiving Charity Randall Theater, though he acquitted himself nicely, making it through a big role with some very tricky vocal moments. Despite some really fine vocal performances, the production as a whole didn’t work. It came down to the fact that this production is neither fish nor fowl: it is neither a concert version of the show, nor is it a fully-realized production - which is a real shame, because I think stage director Craig Joseph had a solid germ of a concept. He tried to place the show within the context of a circus, which had the potential to be a wild, mysterious, magical take on the story. Unfortunately, the concept was never fully realized, and the result was a mish-mash of elements that added up to confusion, instead of a unified vision. There wasn’t enough set to create a sense of place, time, mood, anything. The set pieces that were onstage were off-concept. The costuming was spotty at best, and the chorus looked like they pulled items from their own closets or raided a thrift store. Lighting design was minimal and clunky. You can do minimal and still have high quality production values; this show didn’t meet that mark. Resonance Works habitually has the orchestra on stage, in full view, often intertwined with the staging space of the show. I really like this; it makes the connection between singer and musician even stronger, and fits the model for the company. However, in the case of Amahl, this meant there wasn’t enough room on stage for the full ensemble, which was just awkward. This lack of space also didn’t help with staging, which tended to be too static anyway. And, while I appreciate the enthusiasm and pluck of the chorus, I cannot approve the decision to forgo the use of professional dancers to perform the dance done for the Kings by the Shepherds. What resulted was far too amateurish for this fine company, and the production would have been better served by cutting the dance interlude all together. Amahl and the Night Visitors runs this weekend only, through Sunday, December 17, 2017. You can find out more about Resonance Works and purchase tickets at www.resonanceworks.org.

That Time of the Year

By: George Hoover
toyWe are at the Lamp Theatre in Irwin for the final dress rehearsal and a preview of Split Stages production of That Time of the Year which begins its two-day run tonight. Split Stage Productions co-owners Rob Jessup and Nate Newell, who produced last season’s production of Cabaret, have teamed with Director Matt Mlynarski in this musical revue featuring 25 all-original Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s songs. The songs, with lyrics by the ASCAP award-winning team of Laurence Holzman & Felicia Needleman, and music by seven different composers, range from group numbers, that highlight the joys and anxieties of the holiday season, to ballads about the meaning behind both holidays. The show has a cast of five community theatre veterans; Victoria Buchtan, Megan Lloyd Harding, Brittany Teague, Zakk Manella, and Josh Reardon with music direction by Andrew DeBroeck. That Time of the Year’s songs range from rock to blues, and jazz, with an opportunity for the cast to show off their voices in their best cabaret/show tune style. The challenge for any theatre company, particularly a relatively new one, is to find a show that isn’t already produced in the area or isn’t a Christmas cliché. Those “visions of sugar plum dancing in their heads” always don’t reflect the reality of our modern holiday season. In That Time of the Year, Holzman & Needleman’s songs include Angelo Rosenbaum with Reardon as Angelo. Buchtan has a raunchy Stay Home Tonight as Mrs. Claus who has other plans for Santa Christmas Eve. Other titles include Rock 'n' Roll Hanukkah (Mannella & Reardon), Little Colored Lights (Tague), Mama’s Latkes (Harding), People with Obligations, Calypso Christmas, They All Come Home (Harding), Wong Ho's China Garden, Miracles Can Happen, and That Time of Year. You can see this is no White Christmas! This production has the potential to capture the warmth and humor of America’s multi-faith holiday season. As presented, it is just another yet different cliché for the holidays. That Time of The Year plays Friday and Saturday, December 15th and 16th at 8 pm with a 2 pm matinee on Saturday.  For tickets click here.  Thanks to Split Stage for the sneak peek at final dress Thursday.

In the Company of Oscar Wilde

By: Mark Skalski
Company-of-Oscar-WildeThe thing we seem to forget about legendary creative radicals like Oscar Wilde is that they were, in a word, radicals. Oscar Wilde may have been a student of literary history, but his work was prescient. To Wilde, society was a solved puzzle box of obvious illusions masking desires that were even more obvious. He may have been inspired by the great authors who came before him, but he wasn’t the kind of artist who often looked back. PICT’s In the Company of Oscar Wilde takes, in a very literal sense, exactly the opposite approach to storytelling. At the play’s open, two high society women (Marsha Mayhak and Karen Baum) approach the stage and commiserate about the party they’re attending and the men within it. Two of these men (Martin Giles and James Fitzgerald) enter mid-conversation and strike up a discussion about Oscar Wilde with the women, who have primarily only heard rumors about him. This, I feel, is an unfortunate framing device for a story. I do not want the entirety of a narrative to be expressed by a pair of men interrupting women at a party to explain things to them; I also don’t want the women to express gratitude in return, because even a fantasy demands some context in reality when put onstage. I could very well be wrong, but if I remember correctly, there is at least one “well, actually…” moment early on that drives the point home. I digress. All four participants begin speaking about Wilde’s life and written works at length – or, to be more precise, they begin to quote him directly ad nauseum. We learn Wilde’s real-life biography via these people, and nothing more, because they do not exist to be known. They are flesh-vessels of Wilde’s timeline, vague shadows of nineteenth century caricature energetically performing dozens of the man’s one liners before disappearing off into the ether. They’re effective at being that, to be fair, as I learned a thing or two about Wilde I didn’t know before I entered the theater. I’m a fan of Wilde but I’m no expert, and some of In the Company’s greatest insights come from a dramatic reading of his diary, which was written while he was imprisoned for (more or less) his love affair with another man. When I call this moment a dramatic reading, I mean it literally: Alan Stanford, who both directs the show and acts as its contextual narrator, offers up insights and quotes from Wilde’s life his four protagonists cannot, in this case by simply reading Wilde’s diary to us. Stanford’s voice is effective, one I’d gladly sit with it in the context of an audiobook, but his narrative technique here reveals a lot about the show in general, too. In the Company is an elaborate act of hero worship. It does not exist to explicate Wilde’s illustrious career - it just wants you to know the rough outline of it. There is a somewhat odd scene in which the well-loved Lady Bracknell (Ingrid Sonnichsen), a human brick wall of indecipherable high society judgement written for The Importance of Being Earnest, relieves the play of its reality by generating a corporeal form and reciting the dialogue from her most beloved scene in its entirety.  This sort of ‘fictional guest star’ role is exclusive to Bracknell, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. It’s no surprise that Stanford would refrain from fan fiction-ing new lines for the character, but she is the only of Oscar’s creations we get to see for ourselves. While I suppose it’s a particular kind of delightful to get a Bracknell-for-Bracknell’s-sake scene, as an isolated moment it’s jarring, and begs an obvious question: why don’t more of Wilde’s characters make an appearance? I don’t necessarily need to see Dorian Gray walk onstage and be a sociopath to everyone for a few minutes, but there are a lot of Wilde characters worth reading who are rarely read or studied. If there was ever a place to explore Wilde’s lesser-known work, this would seem to be it. In the Company of Oscar Wilde is fine for newcomers or diehards with an unquenchable thirst for any and all things Wilde, but as it stands the show doesn’t engage in conversation with the author it is inspired by so much as embody the echo of his voice. It’s rather like a cover band of a group that broke up decades ago; your relationship with it will almost certainly be dictated by your pre-established relationship with its progenitor. In either case, you will at least have a few extra quips in your back pocket the next time a man at a party begins explaining things about your favorite author to you. In the Company of Oscar Wilde has unfortunately already closed but you can check out what PICT is up to hereCompany-of-Oscar-Wilde

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