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Undercroft Opera Presents Puccini’s “La Rondine.”

By: George B. Parous
RondineUndercroft Opera is performing a Giacomo Puccini “rarity” this weekend at Carlow University’s Antonian Theatre - La Rondine (“The Swallow”), which hasn’t been heard locally since early 1982, when Pittsburgh Opera presented it here for the first time and the newspaper critics went to work panning it as weak operetta with few moments of importance. The work has never been considered one of the composer’s greatest efforts, in part because it is too often unfavorably compared to his Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and so on. But historical fact makes it clear that he had no intention of making it one of his "grand operas" when he was originally approached to work on a piece more in keeping with the popular "Viennese" style of operetta. It has merits that would be considered praiseworthy if they had flowed from the pen of a lesser known composer, and after the opera premiered at Monte Carlo in March 1917, while war raged in surrounding European countries, the composer made a couple of revisions to his score in an attempt to broaden its appeal. But to this day, there is no official “final” version, since Puccini died in 1924 before he could decide on which revision was the last word. It didn’t reach the Metropolitan Opera in New York until 1928, partly due to the complications of the war, but has never played a particularly large part in that theater’s doings, and revivals there and elsewhere worldwide have been sporadic for the last century. Its comparative unpopularity is something along the lines of berating a Leonardo da Vinci painting that doesn’t measure up to the “Mona Lisa,” for while La Rondine may not be Puccini’s most shining achievement, it has musical beauties in the score that are worth more hearings than they receive. But, in fairness, to say that La Rondine is an underrated masterpiece of the composer wouldn’t be entirely true, either. Puccini composed the music to an Italian libretto Giuseppe Adami adapted from a German version by Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert. Originally set in mid-19th century Paris, the slight plot revolves around a “kept” woman in search of true love, her circle of acquaintances; her finding true love, and her desertion of it to save the young man and his family’s reputation (even though he doesn’t want to be saved). Of course, there are small side antics and bits of action that make the story more colorful, but not so many as to make great demands on audience appreciation or tax the concentration of the listener. Despite the large cast, most of the vocal demands are made on a few characters, mainly Magda, the leading soprano role. She is the metaphorical “Swallow,” on the wing in search of happiness. Undercroft’s trimmed production moves the action of the first two acts to Prohibition-era New York, while the third takes place on the French Riviera. There was a great deal of vocal talent on the stage last night. The young singers, colorfully costumed, performed their roles amidst minimalistic but adequately effective staging, and had a reliable and engaging conductor, Brian Gilling, to help them along when needed. While Undercroft’s orchestra produced a more consistent tone than on the one occasion I heard it play last spring, there were still a few rough spots, but Mr. Gilling smoothed them over to the best of his ability, and the players showed a decided improvement in unity and precision. A native of Boston, Mr. Gilling holds bachelors and masters degrees from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music, and hopefully will conduct again in this city in the near future. It’s easy to spot a conductor who is a thorough musician, and Mr. Gilling is just such a leader. Because the opera tries the strength of only a few of the singers, the cast is able to remain largely intact for performances on three consecutive evenings and an afternoon. The program notes and Undercroft’s website don’t specify as much, but I suspect that the leads heard last night will perform again on Saturday evening, while Carolyn Forte (Magda), Emily Swora (Lisette), Jesse Lowry (Ruggero) and Sarah Marie Nadler (Yvette) will be heard Friday night and Sunday afternoon. The large ensemble last night (and for the remaining performances) was for the most part handled quite successfully by Joseph Andreola (Rambaldo, Magda’s “keeper”), George Milosh (Prunier, the poet), Caryn Crozier (Bianca), Stephen Kuhn (Périchaud), Naomi Berkey (Lolette), Amanda Lewis (Georgette), Takako Petek (Gabriella) and Namy Joseph Farah (the Butler), while two members did “double duty” – Paul Yeater (Gobin and Adolfo) and Benjamin Zaksek (Crebillon and Rabonnier). They were an entertaining group, and added to the enjoyment of the performance. Last night’s Magda, Emily Hopkins, brought to the role a strong, brilliant voice, particularly impressive in its upper register, and a smooth sense of legato that allowed her to soar to the higher flights with ease. She was becoming in appearance and made the most of the part’s slight acting opportunities. Shin-Yeong Noh was a delightful Lisette, the maid with singing aspirations. It challenged the imagination to hear such a beautiful voice sing of her failure as a singer! Everything said of Ms. Hopkins may be said in equal degree of Ms. Noh, and her role allowed for comic episodes which she handled quite amusingly. Claudia Brown, as Yvette, made the most that could be made of her role, and sang very effectively. William Andrews, in the role of Ruggero, sang with a pure tenor voice well suited to Puccini’s music, and showed to much better advantage than he did last summer in Strauss’ The Silent Woman. One or two spots were a trifle high for him to reach with ease, but overall his interpretation was effectively sung and well acted. He was at his best, vocally and histrionically, in the heart-broken bewilderment of Ruggero in the final act. A crucial Thursday hockey night in Pittsburgh may have had an effect on the opera’s attendance, which wasn’t very large. The opera is well presented, allows highly gifted young singers performance experience, and is well worth the reasonably priced admission. Patronage of the remaining performances is highly recommended. For tickets, please visit Undercroft Opera. The Production Staff for La Rondine Brian Gilling, Conductor; Seamus Ricci, Stage Director; Colin Farley, Chorus Master; Hyery Hwang, Vocal Coach; Karen Jeng Lin, Rehearsal Accompanist; Grace Lazos, Assistant Director and English surtitles; Shane Gillen, Assistant Conductor; Krista Ivan, Costumes; Michelle Engleman, Stage Manager; Garth Schafer, Lighting Design/Light Board Operator; Alexis Retcofsky, Light Board Operator; Neil Sederburg, Technical Director; Mary Beth Sederburg, Producer.

Violet

By: Brian Pope

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Front Porch Theatricals’ heavenly production of Violet has a lot of baggage. Johnmichael Bohach’s rustic, minimalist scenic design is primarily comprised of suitcases, chests, and duffel bags that the actors sit, sleep, and sing on. This concept is not only incredibly creative and whimsical, but it also artfully realizes the themes of travel and identity that are central to the musical. This show is the explosive kickoff to Front Porch’s summer season, which is being billed as “Journeys & Tall Tales”. Despite premiering Off-Broadway a little more than 20 years ago, the musical probably didn’t register on most people’s radars until it transferred to Broadway from a one-night production at New York City Center in 2014. Both outings received widespread acclaim including the Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical and a slew of Tony Award nominations. By bringing together an exceptional group of artists all at the tops of their game in this production (which also marks Violet’s Pittsburgh premiere) Front Porch has cemented its reputation as Pittsburgh’s finest producer of musical theatre and the show’s legacy as one of musical theatre’s purest hidden gems. Bus Ride 4Violet, set during the late summer of 1964, takes you on a wild ride with a disfigured young woman of the same name as she journeys via Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek a life-changing miracle from a TV evangelist. Twelve years before, an incident with a wayward ax blade leaves her with a horrible scar on her face and a broken relationship with her father (Jonathan Visser). The extended trip introduces her to a host of diverse people and places including a hilariously talkative old lady (Becki Toth) and two handsome soldiers, Flick (Lamont Walker II) and Monty (Daniel Mayhak). Both men take a keen interest in Violet as her fiery personality and dark past unfold. As an African-American living in a difficult time in history, Flick understands the constant pain Violet suffers always being harshly judged at face value. Monty learns from Violet that he does not have to rely on his machismo and playboy antics to make real connections with people.

Magazine Beauty

When Violet finally reaches Tulsa, her steadfast faith in God is tested. She learns lessons that cannot be summed up by old clichés about beauty. Her truest journey begins at the show’s end. For the first time, it’s one entirely on her own terms with no clear destination. I know I commended writers Jeanine Tesori (music, also responsible for Fun Home) and Brian Crawley (book/lyrics, also responsible for A Little Princess) for not saddling their skillful adaptation of Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” with tired platitudes defining the “true” meaning of beauty, but I’m going to employ a few now. Like most clichés, these are just true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in this case, that’s director Robyne Parrish. She deftly navigates Violet through its recurring flashback scenes while ensuring that each moment has equal visual and emotional impact. At absolutely no fault of Walker, Mayhak or their extraordinary voices, the love triangle their characters are entangled in with Violet just doesn’t work. Parrish allows that part of the story to shine and illuminates what emerges as the heart of the piece, the resentment festering between Violet and her late father. At my performance, you could hear a pin drop during the sequence where they sing “Look at Me” and “That’s What I Could Do”. Healing Meeting 3 Two women play Violet, one as an adult (Elizabeth Boyke) and the other at the time of the accident (Samantha Lucas). Like the many actresses before them who took on this role, including Sutton Foster, their raw and passionate performances subvert the idea of beauty being only skin deep. Without the help of complicated makeup effects, they must create the image of Violet’s mutilation in the minds of the audience as sharply as it exists in her own. Boyke is nothing short of a force of nature seamlessly pivoting from tremendous hope to profound despair as her character’s fickle fate plays out. Lucas’ haunting presence and command over an array of complex affects prove that she is perfectly cast as a girl wise beyond her years. Violet is disgusted by her appearance and lets everyone know it, but the work of these two great talents make it impossible to look away. Violet’s “imaginary” scar is also brought to life during the show through the reactions of the people she encounters on her trek. The hard working ensemble of Violet is more than up to the task of making themselves look good while making Violet feel bad. Erich Lascek and Gena Sims lead the gospel number “Raise Me Up”, which stopped the show multiple times over its nearly seven-minute runtime. At the end of this Violet’s intermission-less two hour run time, you’ll find that your heart has an invisible, deep, and permanent scar that matches the one on Violet’s face. Don’t make the same mistake she does. Don’t convince yourself that your heart is now broken or ugly because, as the preacher teaches her, a scar means that you’re healed. Violet runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Ironbound

By: Yvonne Hudson
YT17-Feature-IronboundThe waiting in life takes up a lot of our time--waiting for the next big thing, the next job, the next person. Ironbound’s Darja reconfirms out that anyone who takes public transportation is captive to waiting. Her attachment to a significant bus stop represents her own continual anticipation of the right man and better times. City Theatre’s Pittsburgh premiere of Ironbound depicts an important slice of immigrant life in America. It reminds us that everyone on the bus has a story, a reality perhaps most magnified in the dense greater New York-New Jersey metro area. Ironbound zooms in on one woman who could be anyone, but Darja is inspired for playwright Martyna Majok by both her own Polish immigrant mother and the notable absence of working class women in contemporary plays. Rebecca Harris, in her 10th role with the company, captivates with impeccable realism as Darja. Harris is the constant force here along with a dark, menacing bus stop. Her solid and fierce portrayal is someone like many who endure wearing commutes to whatever job they can get to make rent while avoiding any unexpected financial catastrophes. They persevere and crave, as Darja says, “even the ugly jobs they don’t have no more.” This Polish immigrant cleans houses in an upscale community two buses away, struggles to make ends meet following the loss of her factory job. Darja’s own crises are not just about being alone; she could easily become homeless due to a bad choice or broken relationship, perhaps more recognizable in hindsight. [caption id="attachment_4791" align="aligncenter" width="3440"]Rebecca Harris as Darja Rebecca Harris as Darja[/caption] On stage for all of the 90-minute piece (intensely performed with no intermission), the actress is either alone or interacting with three male characters. Harris’ powerful performance impresses with raw and honest craft as a character who is remarkable in her stamina, resilience, and lifeforce. She weighs her options in relationships and finances, bargaining to try to somehow gain some enhanced security. City’s Artistic Director Tracy Brigden, who was eager to program this new play, said in the production news release that  Majok’s “unique point of view as the child of Polish immigrants ripples throughout her work. Ironbound is a truly American play—raw and alive from the very first words.” And we must agree as Ironbound so deftly depicts aspects of the immigrant experience that Brigden describes as “so vital to this moment in time.” Ironbound debuted in New York at Rattlesnake Theater in 2016 before Brigden took the wheel to direct its next production. Pittsburgh audiences will recognize the ramifications of losing an industrial economy. Brigden places the Elizabeth, New Jersey bus stop intimately in City’s thrust configuration.The centerpiece of Anne Mundell’s compact set is a giant graffiti covered steel girder appearing to pierce the top of the theater as it towers over the action, the litter, and a ubiquitous abandoned car tire. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski flashes from above as Eric Shimelonis’ sound effects are heard by the audience upon and arrival and continue to indicate the rattling of both New Jersey transit trains and traffic above and in in the house. If you know New Jersey and I-9, you can especially conjure the traffic, potholes, and smells. The stink of the paper factory where Darja once worked may be gone in this century, but the setting evokes the industrial Jersey of the late 20th century. [caption id="attachment_4792" align="aligncenter" width="4169"]JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja[/caption] We wait with Darja at this dark and dirty bus stop where a lot happens but some things never change. As time shifts among scenes, her journey of relationships always brings her back to the bus stop near her former factory job and its associated memories. In several flashback scenes, her first husband Maks is sweetly played by JD Taylor. Darja’s backstory is built through their alternately hopeful and bittersweet encounters. In 1992, she is pregnant with their son Alex as Maks dreams of making music in Chicago. In his one scene with her, Vic, a young man played by Erick Martin, finds a battered Darja trying to sleep at the bus stop after her second husband has abused her. Vic provides an objective listening ear and a comedic rap. He reminds her that a shelter or motel room would be safer and offers some money to help her out. Pittsburgh’s Erick Martin’s Vic is the energetic parallel to her son Alex--the absent male in this version of Darja’s story. Martin is endearing in his portrayal of a kid who’s struggling with his sexual identity. [caption id="attachment_4793" align="aligncenter" width="4256"]Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic[/caption] Don Wadsworth’s exacting dialect coaching supports Darja and Mak’s Polish slant. The characters’ sometimes muddled sentence structure also adds to the authenticity of Majok’s script along with her inclusion of some Polish. Costumes designed by Robert C.T. Steele aptly convey the look of the implied decades from Vic’s track suit and sneakers and Tommy’s geeky postman shorts. Ironbound reminds us how lives intersect–even if only for a few minutes on our respective commutes as everyone dreams and holds on to survive a new day. Closing City Theatre’s 41st season, Ironbound runs through June 4 with tickets starting at $15 for under 30 with generous discounts for many patrons (seniors, military, etc.) as well as a “pay-what -you-want” option for the Sat., May 27 matinee. Special audience opportunities include a post-show talkback on May 24 and another with the playwright on Thurs., May 25. Greenroom on second Fri., May 26 provides a $25 ticket that includes beverages and a post-show chance to hang out with the show’s cast and team. Click here for more information.  Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover

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