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The time is 1950. You are in New York City. And you've got a lady friend to flatter. What do you do? Fast forward to 2016. You are now in the Steel City. Same situation. How can you win over a doll's heart? The answer to both questions is surprisingly the same: take her to the hottest show in town--in both cases--Guys & Dolls! [caption id="attachment_2140" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Joel Hurt Jones (Nathan Detroit), Quinn Patrick Shannon (Nicely Nicely Johnson), Gavan Pamer (Benny Southstreet)[/caption] Premiered on Broadway in 1950, with music by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, this classic American musical is now the opening Act for Pittsburgh Public to kick off another great year of theater in 2016. Winner of Tony Award for Best Musical and also known as one of the most popular choices for revivals and local productions, this show has everything that a great American musical can offer: comedy, dazzling choreographies, and great Broadway show tunes. Originally based on the writings of Damon Runyon, Guys & Dolls is a story about New York City in the 1950s—gamblers are conquerors of the club scenes during the night, Christian salvation armies running around the street trying to save souls, and of course there is always the “oldest established permanent floating crap game” going on somewhere in the city. With everything centered on a bet and a goal to find the location to host the next crap game, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’s stage adaption plot is always going forward with a book full of great humor and twists. Frank Loesser’s timeless score is filled with warmth. And with the enchanting voices of the wonderful casts, you will feel like you are traveling back in time again to that magical Golden Age, the minute the lights go down in the house. With a cast as singular as the nominees of the Academy Award this year, talents at Pittsburgh Public are always top-notch. And this production is no exception. The “Doll” of Guys & Dolls, missionary Sarah Brown, is played by the wonderful Ms. Kimberly Doreen Burns, who was just “danced all night” in last year’s My Fair Lady as Eliza Doolittle. With a beautiful voice and a stunning range, she gives this role a great depth without losing the diversity and internal conflict of Runyon’s original character. Her “love and hate” interest in the show, the infamous gambler Sky Masterson, was played by CMU alumnus Mr. Charlie Brady, who managed to deliver the ultimate “bad guy” character in the show that we all love and root for. The first love duet “I’ll Know” between the two is no doubt one of my favorite moments of the night. [caption id="attachment_2141" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Stephanie Maloney, Kimberly Doreen Burns (Sarah Brown), Charlie Brady (Sky Masterson), Joe Jackson[/caption] Along the side is Mr. Joel Hurt Jones playing the main protagonist Nathan Detroit. This role is always kind of the “weight” of the entire show as he is the focal point of the plot. From Frank Sinatra to Nathan Lane, the casting of this role will usually decide the proportion of romance versus comedy in the entire production. And Mr. Jones did just that by giving us a character that we all truly care about while enjoying his struggles and wondering how the great Nathan Detroit can always turn out just fine. His doll in the show--night club performer Miss Adelaide whom he’s engaged to for 14 years, was played by Ms. Kirsten Wyatt, who is absolutely the comedic support of the show. Every time she sings she steals the scenes. Her sneezy and brilliant solo number “Adelaide’s Lament” took home the most laughter of the night. The supporting casts in this production also deserve all the applause. Mr. Tony Bingham unleashes his comedic side as Lt. Brannigan in this story. Mr. Larry John Meyers’s Arvide Abernathy, aka the Grandpa, will make you think that he’s truly the “Dumbledore” of the Save-a-Soul Mission. Mr. Jerry Gallagher played the Chicago gangster Big Jule with a “ground breaking height”. And finally with his great energy, Mr. Quinn Patrick Shannon, who played the Nicely Nicely Johnson, will be sure to tell you to “Sit down, sit down, you’re rocking the boat!” (pictured below) Directed by the Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Public Theater Ted Pappas himself, this production added a refreshing new sound and look to this aged material and proved that truly great theater does stand against the test of time. Although without your typical big glamorous opening, it felt slowly warming up until the first group number. But once the suspense is established, the game is on! The major musical highlights of the evening are definitely the duets, which are all great character development moments and filled with the actors’ brilliant chemistry and exquisite dynamic on stage. And with Mr. Michael Schweikardt’s breath-taking set design and Mr. Kirk Bookman’s gorgeous lighting, you’ll just know you’re in for a great classic musical show! Guys & Dolls is another one of those “Pittsburgh Public plus Ted Pappas” shows that you know you simply can’t miss. And now with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, you bet you will have a great time! The show runs until February 28th. Thanks to Pittsburgh Public Theater for the complimentary tickets. Please check out www.ppt.org for seasonal and ticketing information.
A world premiere is a major commitment for any theater company. City Theater Company chose well with Keith Reddin’s Some Brighter Distance, directed by Tracy Brigden, in her 15th year as City’s artistic director.The play’s title and opening characters both quote Goethe’s Faust, a reminder of bargains made with the devil and how hidden history can dismantle our perceived truths. Brigden’s taut, 120-minute production has all the right stuff. Some Brighter Distance is a theatrical jewel whose facets reflect human nature, science, love, and recent history. At its heart is a man with a dream, Arthur Rudolph, a lesser-known tragic hero, credited with development of the Saturn V rocket that indeed propelled American astronauts to the moon. Reddin’s script (revised for this premiere since originally commissioned and supported by The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project), sparkles in City’s version--as efficient as a space station kitchen--compact, practical, equipped with what’s needed for the trip. Moreover, Some Brighter Distance is recommended as an exemplary experience of theater, inviting us to imagine, open our minds, and leave somehow changed. [caption id="attachment_2123" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Marta Rudolph (Elizabeth Rich) and Aurthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle)[/caption] Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting includes some rocket effects and illuminates a simple thrust stage. Scenic Designer Gianni Downs beautifully supports Brigden’ s effective pacing with seamless scene changes. A tall back wall is cleverly constructed of pale, identical file storage boxes stacked neatly from floor to ceiling. Its looming presence suggests policies, protocols, paperwork, and first-person accounts that hound rocket engineer Arthur Rudolph. Jordan Harrison’s projections recall unforgettable 20th century moments and images ranging from mathematical formulas on a chalkboard to iconic Nazi banners. Rudolph’s 50-year journey begins as the Third Reich is born. His lifelong penchant for rockets fuels his career and aligns with the demand for both wartime and aeronautic applications. At the end of World War II, Rudolf and 117 of his German colleagues surrendered at the end of World War II. Under the innocuous label “Operation Paperclip” during President’s Truman post-war tenure, the rocket engineers were deemed clear of classification as “war criminals” to provide US citizenship. Through relocation, they saved themselves and helped to realize President Kennedy’s “new frontier” agenda and eventual NASA achievements. At lights up, a retired Rudolph is interviewed by Department of Justice official Robert Davis, played with tenacity by Leroy McClain. Almost 40 years later, McClain tells Rudolph that newly found evidence connects him to war crimes. Asked renounce his citizenship and return to Germany, Rudolph insists he built rockets to protect his country and “to stop Communism”. Evocative of C.P. Taylor’s play Good and the 2006 film The Good German, Reddin’s play accurately mines history. The playbill’s relevant timeline of 1923-84 events lists that the German V-1 and V-2 rockets that took thousands of civilian lives in Europe were built by Buchenwald concentration camp prisoners. The Nazis moved to laborers to the secret Mittelwerk rocket facility where thousands worked and died. Brigden aptly places the actors for conversations over time and space. Backstory and foreshadowing of both future and past smoothly intermingle. In the first flashback to 1946, the affable Major Turner, played with a light touch by Matthew Stocke, sets Rudolph up for his new life as American citizen with his wife Marta. In the 1969, the Rudolphs watch man land on the moon on their TV as Arthur confirms that Neil Armstrong flubbed his lines and Marta’s critiques NASA’s show. By 1984, Major Turner and McClain coexist, standing on either side of Rudolph, demanding two ways to sign his life away. Brigden’s impeccable ensemble of five actors brings great depth even in short and expositional scenes and in straight delivery of Reddin’s deft comic relief. One senses these artists could present in any order the scenes Reddin has drawn from real life. Robert C.T. Steele’s handsome costume choices work well for time traveling characters. From Marta’s hat to Von Braun’s Nazi medal, Steele’s details support historical accuracy and personalities. [caption id="attachment_2124" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle) and Wernher von Braun (David Whalen)[/caption] Arthur Rudolph appears consistently as a kind of “rumpled professor”, but Jonathan Tindle aptly ages and youthens Arthur with subtle shifts through the years. He’s like Willy Loman, just doing his rocket scientist job while wishing for a more recognition. Onstage almost constantly, Tindle endears Arthur to us and we grow to like him. Elizabeth Rich is Marta Rudolph, Arthur’s long-suffering spouse. Young Marta is pretty in pink, but Arthur, too obsessed with rockets to even remember her dress color, takes her repeatedly to a silent film about space travel. Rich warmly depicts smart and practical Marta’s unfailing belief in her husband’s talent and dream--to land a man on the moon. Rich reveals an impressive range: youthful devotion, middle-aged resignation, and mature recognition of a longtime burden of silent complicity. David Whalen, a delightful chameleon on Pittsburgh stages, plays the dapper Wernher Von Braun, the likewise passionate rocket scientist who hires young Rudolph. When the former Nazi expert narrates (true story) a Walt Disney short predicting space exploration, Whalen cunningly tempers his German accent and elicits giggles. Von Braun seems always committed to the Nazi purpose. While Rudolph may be regretful at heart, he puts on blinders. Later, even Marta finally asks her husband if the accusations about how the rockets were built are really true. The opening night audience hold their collective breath during the final DOJ interview scene, as silent as a full house could ever be. [caption id="attachment_2122" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Major Turner (Matt Stocke), Marta Rudolph (Elizabeth Rich), Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle), Robert Davis (LeRoy McClain), Wernher Von Braun (David Whalen)[/caption] In a dream-like finale, the Rudolphs return to fantastical film of their early movie dates. Images dance on those innumerable anonymous boxes. What secrets are hidden there? Whose possessions might be stored inside? Will anyone remember the names or numbers in those dusty files? Arthur and Marta zoom in for kiss on their imagined moonscape. Sure, dreams can come true. But at what price? Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Photos: Kristi Jan Hoover Some Brighter Distance runs on City’s Mainstage through February 14th. For tickets and more information, check out their website here.
Time and again, Carnegie Stage and off the WALL Productions force the audience to challenge their perception of what live theater is, constantly introducing plays with confrontational topics and thought provoking characters. Mother Lode is no exception. The play is a powerful and captivating delivery of agitation, anger and tension but also regrets, sentimentality and love. Written and co- directed by Pittsburgh playwright Virginia Wall Gruenert, co-founder of off the WALL, Mother Lode is based on the life of Pittsburgh actor Linda Haston and her mother Ruth. The play stars Haston as the only two characters; Linda, the adult daughter charged with the task of caring for her aging mother, and Ruth, the mother who suffers from dementia. The set is nostalgic with large portraits from decades past hung on the wall, a vintage stand-up radio in the corner, hat boxes and a tall coat rack decorate the space which serves throughout the performance as an office, Ruth's home, a dance studio and a hospital waiting room. The blues play softly and the lights are dim until Linda approaches the audience and begins her dramatic monologue. Linda, the dutiful daughter, fulfills the role of pharmacist, chauffeur, cook, nurse and primary companion while her brother lives a few blocks away but only calls when he needs money. Ruth is not easy to care for, she is demanding, confused and moody. Linda struggles with exhaustion and resentment while her mother struggles to make peace with her past. Haston takes us back and forth between the role of mother and daughter simply by putting on or removing a hat and coat. Linda, dressed casual in slacks and a nondescript blouse speaks frankly with the audience, stating saucily, 'I could kill her', as she describes her daily battles with Ruth. When she places the bowler hat with flowers in the band on her head and slips a purple jacket over her blouse she is transformed into Ruth. Ruth knows Linda would probably 'kill her if she thought she would get away with it'. Regardless, she doesn't allow the audience to hear only one side of the story and talks of growing up poor and black in Alabama in the early 1920's. She speaks of her move up North to Pittsburgh at the young age of fifteen, the life of independence she made for herself and especially the life she desired for her daughter Linda. Ruth wears many hats. Each prompts the telling of a story, a secret, a moment that needs revisited. One for the youthful waitress in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood dancing carefree and independent, one for the new bride and young mother raising a family with her husband Royal Sr., one of a mother guiding and protecting her young children. A brokenhearted hat for a daughter who has to come to terms with the death of her mother, Eldorado. She wears yet another hat when Royal Sr. leaves the house and she is left alone to raise the children, pay the bills and maintain a home. Linda never changes costume, and remains tried and true throughout the performance however, with each story Ruth shares we see Linda crack just a bit. We learn how emotionally taxing caring for an elderly parent can be and and how desperate for relief Linda is quickly becoming. One of the most compelling scenes is when Linda seeks a brief reprieve from care taking, and attends a dance rehearsal. She ties her tap shoes, counts the beats and begins her sequence. She bounces and smiles enthusiastic, temporarily escaping the verbal and and emotional abuse of her mentally deteriorating mother, then her phone rings. She stops dancing to answer her mother's call, quickly getting back to the routine. No sooner is Linda tapping again when the phone rings, then a third time. Linda's spirit crushed, she screams out in frustration and fatigue. Linda realizes her own mental and physical health are on the line. Linda cannot continue to sacrifice her life for the sake of her elderly mother. Where does she draw the line? Mother Lode keeps Linda and Ruth tied together with one common thread; singing. Each character sings deeply emotive and guttural hymns when feeling troubled, scared, or need uplifted. Song acts as the testament of their unspoken love and unwavering bond. Haston moves fluidly between characters, adopting different mannerisms and styles of speech. As Linda she is straight forward and tells it like it is. In a purple jacket and a hat she is Ruth and enjoys sharing her colorful stories with zeal. Over the course of one hour and ten minutes Mother Lode blurs the line between life and art. Gruenert's rendering of this time in Haston's life is far from tender. Yet Haston's deliverance of characters is heartfelt. I left the theater thinking no matter how often the phrase, 'like mother, like daughter' is denied, there is always some truth to it. Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets. Catch a few more performances of Mother Lode in June and August. For tickets and more information, check out their website here.