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James and the Giant Peach Jr.

By: Emily Koscinski
410bc1174d6a19beb7e212476e00019b950281e5Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center presented their third junior production, James and the Giant Peach. Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book, this production features students from grades seven through nine, along with featured dancers. It is an hour long show with no intermission. James and the Giant Peach is about a young boy, James, whose parents were killed in a tragic accident with a rhino - leaving James to live in an orphanage. That is until his two selfish aunts are granted custody, and he is moved out to live with them and their schemes to get rich. Upon arriving, James meets the magical Ladahlord who guides him to make a potion that will bring full power to whoever digests it. But then things go wrong, and a giant peach grows from the dilapidated peach tree, leading to gigantic adventures. Walking into the Center, still to this day, continues to take my breath away. Once you walk through the double glass doors, you are greeted by an open foyer with a high-arching ceiling. Typically, during events, refreshments will be served, a gift shop booth to purchase Center or Charter School clothing, and a small table with coloring pages and crayons for the little ones. A cute attraction outside the Main Theater is the cardboard cut-out of a peach with two face-shaped holes for anyone to take a picture with. Although I have been a student here, my excitement never dwindles each time I enter the grand building. [caption id="attachment_5985" align="aligncenter" width="656"]James and his aunts James and his aunts[/caption] A lot of the times I could barely hear and understand the actors while they were singing and speaking. Their voices would be quiet - almost in a hushed tone - as if they were voicing out to the audience, and not into the mics attached to their foreheads. Although, after a few moments, their voices would become clear and crisp, indicating an issue with the sound that was not yet resolved before the actors went onstage. Nicholas Vanhorenbeck, who played Grasshopper, could have been a bit more clear and concise with his speaking and singing parts. His voice was very quiet and shy, which made it difficult to hear and understand what he was saying. I am unsure if this was first night jitters, or not. But, I would have liked for him to have belted out his words more confidently. Professionals always say that you know you are doing well when you feel embarrassed – so just run with it. It is common, though, to experience nervousness when performing your first big musical. Although, Vanhorenback’s counterparts, Hannah Post (Ladybug) and Clare Rectenwald (Spider) performed with astounding voices that were almost soothing at some points. Even though these two are one of the eldest of the cast, being ninth graders, I was taken aback by their precise singing. Each note seemed to be on key, and their voices never wavered. Sydney Clay, who played the Matron Nurse, needed more expression for her role. During the times that she had a speaking part, she seemed she was uninterested in performing that part, within the play, or in general overall. When she did speak, she was monotonous and didn’t try to add any changes in tone or facial expressions to give the character a more three-dimensional feel. It’s always exciting to feel the actors’ excitement to be performing onstage at a young age. I’m sure with more practice and being in more plays will help her improve. Tyler Pintea, who played Earthworm, had such an enthusiastic performance. Even though this is supposed to be about James, hence the name of the musical, Pintea stole the show with his humorous acting and confident tone. The audience was laughing until they were teary-eyed during “Plump and Juicy” where Pintea danced around the stage while he sang of being the best snack for the seagulls. Laughter always erupted when he would scream, wiggle his body, and flaunt his behind. [caption id="attachment_5984" align="aligncenter" width="656"]James (in vest) and cast members James (in vest) and cast members[/caption] Olivia Dempsey (Spiker) and Sophia Curry (Sponge) both had these odd accents that made their parts hilarious at times. When they would sing, they still kept that strange accent within it. Once again, being very impressive for freshmen in high school. They also handled a small accidental incident when Curry dropped a can of whipped cream. Instead of panicking and making a show of it, she kept on acting as though she had never dropped it. Although, it was enjoyable how Curry kept spraying mouthfuls of whip cream into her mouth. A really creative aspect of this play was when they demonstrated the peach growing bigger and bigger on the tree. Some actors stood underneath the cardboard branch and opened up a few umbrellas in intervals. It was a cute and unique way to express the growth of the gigantic peach. All of the character’s costumes had a sort of 50s or 60s era spunk to them. The costumes were full of bright colors and cute little pins that adorned frilled jackets. It brought light to what would be seen as a bleak situation. Though the rhino, played by Luke Brahler and Tyler Johnston, was simply a blanket thrown over two actors, with a few pots put together to create the head. It may have been intriguing and filled-in more to have seen an all over fabric costume (like those two-person horse ones) or even a cardboard cut-out that an actor moved around. Despite the actors all being younger, they showed a level of matureness within this junior production. They were able to work together as a team with the leaders of the Center, and were treated as though this was a true Broadway show. A strong amount of confidence and eagerness poured from the souls of these young minds as they performed in this show. You can see James and the Giant Peach at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, Pennsylvania from November 17-19. Tickets range from $15, $18, and $20 and can be purchased online at lincolnparkarts.org. Photos courtesy of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center.

The Impresaria and Djamileh

By: George Hoover
.kljhgdtsetdrfykhuIt has been said that musical theatre and opera are the two most collaborative art forms. Actors, singers, dancers, designers, musicians, choreographers, and directors must work together in real time to create the work of art. If your passion is opera, you must find a like-minded group of individuals to collaborate with, unlike the more solitary work of a painter.  For those whose passion has not become a professional career, community theatre and opera community provide a vehicle to express their art and passion. Undercroft Opera’s mission is to “create a community for singers and orchestral musicians by offering performance experience to emerging and seasoned local artists and developing audiences through both innovative and traditional operatic productions.”  Closing out Undercroft’s 11th season with a wildly varied and unique offering of two one-act operas, The Impresaria and Djamileh, display both their commitment to the mission and the company’s versatility. The Impresario, or Der Schauspieldirektor was composed in a day as part of a contest by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is arguably the most renowned figure of late 18th-century opera. Mozart describes it as "comedy with music" and it is viewed as one of the most playful of his works.  Undercroft has updated and adapted the story and characters to the 1950s. The traditional male role of the impresario has been switched to be a woman, hence the title shift to Impresaria Set in post-war Vienna, famed soprano turned director Francesca Zeller is starting a new theatrical company. But funds are tight and her assistant Buff comes up with a tried but true solution. Get an eager actresses’ sugar daddy to finance the tour! The said actress is the not so young anymore Alura Pierce. She auditions with a long Noel Coward piece. As she finishes, an aspiring young singer arrives to wow Francesca and Buff, but she comes with way too many demands for a wannabe. This sets off a seemingly endless parade of aspiring actresses and actors all who desire a larger and larger cut of the non-existent budget pie. Finally, two sopranos arrive, duel it out with different arias that, turn into a catfight for bragging rights as to who really is the diva. Once that is “settled”, the fight over salaries breaks out again. Francesca, who cleverly demonstrates why she is The Impresaria, turns it all around and the company comes together to celebrate their art in the final song. As operas go, this interpretation of The Impresario is heavy on dialogue and light on singing. That’s too bad as the auditions involving singing are entertaining and well done as opposed to those that are just belabored readings.  No schauspieldirektor worth their salt would let those take up so much of their time in auditions. Anna Singer (formerly WQED host and recently seen in Pittsburgh Festival Operas’ Sweeny Todd) makes an excellent Impresaria and gets to show off her singing chops in the opera’s first scene. Rob Hockenberry’s and Mary Beth Sederburg’s direction can’t quite find purpose the growing masses of hopefuls on stage with little to do as the auditions wind their way to the dueling soprano’s in this “odd duck” of an opera. The singers all have strong voices, clarity is sometimes difficult to discern in the acoustically live auditorium in Seton Center. Conductor Hyery Hwang (Ball State University) has an excellent command of her musicians and brings out the beauty of Mozart’s score. The orchestra is marvelous and underutilized in this performance. The second presentation of the evening is Djamileh is an opéra comique in one act by Georges Bizet.  The opera begins at the end of the day the caliph Haroun (William Andrews) reclines and smokes a hookah in his Cairo palace, with his servant Splendiano (Zach Luchetti). The conversation turns to Haroun’s lover Djamileh (Mary Beth Sederburg), who is actually his slave girl. As is his standard practice, Haroun trades in his lover at the end of the month for a new model.  Djamileh’s month is up and therefore she must go. Splendiano confesses to Haroun that he loves her and would like to keep her for himself. Haroun says not to worry; “he is not in love with her, only with love itself.” Djamileh however loves Haroun. The slave merchant, Mervin, brings the prospective new girls in to dance for Haroun, and he chooses his new concubine. Splendiano comes up with a scheme to confirm Heroun is not in love with Djamileh. He will dress her as the new girl. If she fails to win Heroun’s heart, she will be available to Splendiano. Heroun eventually recognizes her and therefore Splendiano has lost out. Undercroft calls this is a “stylish evening of one-act operas galvanized by Diva Dynamism.” Are slave girls taken as lovers on a monthly upgrade cycle truly representative of girl power? There were some interesting glitches with the auditorium lights during the Impresaria, but the actors, singers, and musicians paid it no heed. It was distracting but not disastrous. Tonight’s evening featured excellent singers, a great conductor, and an accomplished orchestra, a tribute to the quality of opera and musical talent in the Pittsburgh area. Undercoft Opera's performances of The Impresaria and Djamileh are at the Seton Center Auditorium, 1900 Pioneer Ave in Pittsburgh on  November 17th and 18th at 7:30 pm and November 19th at 2:00 pm. For tickets visit https://www.undercroftopera.org/community/tickets/ Thanks to Undercroft for the complimentary tickets.

Arsenic and Old Lace

By: Mark Skalski
arsenic-oldlace1Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a play about how we interpret spaces. When our protagonist Mortimer Brewster (Ron Clawson) returns to his family’s home, he’s pleased to once more re-enter the womb of boyhood memory. The aunts who were so sweet to raise him, Martha (Dorothy Fallows) and Abby (Jan Gerber), are still as safe and mundane as a Norman Rockwell portrait. His brother, Teddy Brewster (Randy Berner), continues to suffer from a dissociative psychological condition that has reduced his life to the pleasant recurring fantasy that he is actually former US President Theodore Roosevelt, therefore rendering him harmless. You know, normal stuff. Life is knowable; life is good. Life, also, can be terrifying. Mortimer does not expect to find that his aunts are more or less remorseless serial killers who lure unmarried elderly men into their home to poison them. He also does not expect to find that his other, more sociopathic brother, Jonathan Brewster (John Paul Richie), is back in town with a new face the intent to murder. Everything Mortimer thought was knowable is not, and likely never was. And so it is with us, the audience, during McKeesport Little Theater’s production. We enter the theater to find ourselves in a lovingly hand-crafted living room in Brooklyn. It is a space designed by Edward Bostedo, who is also Arsenic’s director, and it exudes a dusty American nostalgia. The lights dim. Abby appears, and disposes of a corpse as casually one would throw away a receipt to the tune of Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” which immediately blows out the theater’s speakers. This generates static, making the otherwise comedic image immediately unsettling. Martha joins her shortly after, barely masking her enthusiasm to discuss their latest victim. The women are so plainspoken that their detachment from the murder reads as realistic. Enter: Teddy, who storms around the stage in a larger than life performance that is all practiced caricature. His comedic physicality literally shakes the decorative plates and framed photographs hung around the apartment. Later, when Mortimer arrives and discovers the body, which is roughly half his size, it weighs him down as dramatically as a bag of bricks. Clawson’s mixture of incredulity and his ability to improvise comedy out of production bumps and scrapes – at one point a gesticulation launched the receiver of a telephone he was using clean from the chord, which he used to re-ignite his character’s sense of panic – make him a kind of self-foiling straight man, simultaneously Abbot and Costello, especially when contrasted with the other three protagonists. A lot about McKeesport’s Arsenic and Old Lace can be excavated from its war of performative tones; it feels like several interpretations of one play. Example: Fallow and Gerber’s Arsenic is a quiet show propelled by the witticisms of two realistic women who have lost touch with reality. Clawson’s panicky Mortimor and his put-upon partner, Elaine (Elizabeth Civello), have classic comedic chemistry and transmogrify Arsenic into a dark, yet friendly improv show. The introduction of a disparate third duo, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein (Michael Ciarlone), initially feels like an attempt at narrative cohesion, considering how Jonathan is such a straightforward (re: convincing!) killer and that Ciarlone’s Einstein feels like it was pulled straight out of an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory. Unfortunately, because the play’s tone is so scattershot they actually end up feeling too menacing, and scenes in which they put bystanders in peril become such a tonal mishmash that it propels any potential comedy violently into a wall. I will say that Arsenic and Old Lace is a play that has aged well. Our rose-colored perception of its ‘40s-set America has defanged the era enough that revealing its quaint exterior to be such a brutal space escalates an already fairly escalated farce. It’s also a play that, appropriately, has so much more thematic depth than is popularly portrayed and is therefore ripe for re-interpretation. To the credit of McKeesport’s production, its varied methods of performance do make the play read differently. These interpretations, however, are largely without cohesion. Much like Martha and Abby’s poisoned victims, we the audience need to believe Arsenic and Old Lace’s façade before we succumb to it. Arsenic and Old Lace runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through November 19, for tickets and more information, click here. 

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