Pittsburgh Festival Opera presented the local premiere of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Arabella Friday night, in the company’s ongoing commitment to give performances of the lesser known works of this great composer. They are consistently successful in their endeavor, and, if they wish, may continue to unveil such works for some summers to come, for most of Strauss’s fifteen operas fall into the rarity category, at least in this country, and certainly in Pittsburgh. The singers saved the night in this opera that is dramatically quite a stretch and not the composer or librettist’s best effort by any means. The second act is the strongest, and it was in this portion that the company made the best of the material with which they had to work. Originally set in Vienna in the 1860s, Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s staging bumps the action a few decades closer to the Freudian era, and what a challenge that analyst would have faced trying to dissect the dysfunctional family at the center of the story. In the first, rather chattery act, the audience is introduced to a Count with a serious gambling problem and creditors nipping rather viciously at his heels, his wife who relies on a fortune teller for answers about the family’s financial future, one daughter who dresses as a boy because the parents can’t afford to keep two young women in the finery becoming a society debutant, and one, Arabella, who they’ll gladly “sell” to the highest bidding suitor. It’s the general consensus of musical historians that the opera would have been considerably revised had not Hofmannsthal died suddenly after his son’s suicide, leaving Strauss so distraught that he put the work aside for a few years before its poorly received premiere in Dresden in 1933. The exquisite orchestration Strauss always delivered was for the most part finely in evidence under the baton of Brent McMunn, though there were rough spots; the scenic effects and costumes were a mixed bag of effectiveness, as was the ensemble, but so many gifted singers are in the cast that the good-sized audience was quite enthusiastic after three hours of listening that at times seemed longer. A few brief moments of concerted singing by the ensemble are the closest Strauss comes to using a chorus, and there are short spoken or silent parts – even a spot or two where the main characters exchange spoken dialogue, something not unusual for Strauss. Soprano Melinda Whittington sang the title role with a powerfully pure voice that soared to some of the most thrilling moments of the performance. She was well costumed and acted the part with an understanding of its complexities. Count Waldner, Arabella’s father, was sung and acted by Matthew Scollin with his usual reliability, and Danielle Wright, as Adaelaide, the mother, made the most of her opportunities, singing well and adding delightfully comic facial expressions to her acting of the role. Katie Manukyan was the daughter/son (Zdenka/Zdenko), and did as well as could be expected with a role that is, frankly, not especially or clearly defined by the librettist or composer. She sang and acted quite vigorously. [caption id="attachment_7417" align="aligncenter" width="684"] Melinda Whittington (Arabella) and Andrew Cummings (Mandryka)[/caption] True to form in his usual treatment of tenors, Strauss makes great demands of the not especially grateful roles of Matteo, an officer whose friendship with Zdenko turns to love once Zdenka can no longer hide her gender, and Count Elemer, one of Arabella’s suitors. Mark Tempesta did all that could be done with the first, and Robert Chafin, the latter. A standout in the second act is the role of The Fiakermilli, the “belle of the Coachmen's Ball,” and Gyu Yeon Shim dazzled as a petite powerhouse of coloratura pyrotechnics. Hers was one of the most astonishing successes of the evening, both vocally and in vivaciously comic acting. [caption id="attachment_7416" align="alignleft" width="200"] Katie Manukyan (Dzenka) and Melinda Whittington (Arabella)[/caption] Mandryka, a wealthy Croatian who comes to Vienna after falling in love with a photograph of Arabella, is in some respects the most “sympathetic” role in the opera, and was in the quite capable hands of Andrew Cummings. He was another of the vocal standouts, both in solo passages and those with Ms. Whittington. The audience gave him a well deserved demonstration of its appreciations of his accomplishments. Vincentia Geraldine made the most of her brief appearance as the Fortune Teller, as did Rob McGinness and Adam Cioffari as the Counts Dominik and Lamoral, two additional suitors of Arabella. ShayLyssa Alexander, Asmik Arutiuniants, Devan Balaguer, Joel Balzun, Sophia Emmanuel, Lauren Lea Fielder, Mitch FitzDaniel, Kaswanna Kanyinda, Nick Krsnich, Brenten Megee, Jesse A. Preis, Elisabeth Rosenberg and Ma Skolnick made up the ensemble of spoken or silent parts. Only one performance remains – Sunday July 22 at 2:00 pm, so for extensive production details, history, a more extensive analysis of the opera that can be provided here, tickets and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera. This is the final weekend of the company’s 2018 summer season. The Production Team for Arabella – Conductor, Brent McMunn; Director, Dorothy Danner; Scenic Design, Kate Noll; Costume Design, Rachel K. Wyatt; Lighting Design, Bob Steineck; Hair & Makeup Design, Jina Pounds; Assistant Director, Haley Stamats; Assistant Conductor, Joseph Bozich; Rehearsal Pianist, Justin Pambianchi; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Louise Brownsberger and Morgan Lea Palmer Photography - Terry Clark
The musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels first premiered on stage in 2004, an offshoot of the movie by the same name. The story revolves around two con artists. Lawrence Jameson lives a lavish lifestyle on the French Rivera, made possible by talking rich old ladies out of their jewels and money. He meets Freddy Benson, a new arrival, who makes his living swindling women with stories of his grandmothers failing health. The two men meet on a train. For some reason, the suave, debonair and experienced Lawrence takes the crass rookie Freddie under his wing. They soon realize the Rivera is not big enough for both of them. Since they are fond of fun and games and schemes, the dastardly duo decides to see who can dupe some damsel out of fifty-thousand dollars first. Jeffery Lane's book along with the music and lyrics by David Yazbeck created a musical that is mostly fluff. This is not a morally uplifting tale of love and romance with tunes destined to be show stopping chart toppers that you will go away humming. It is an excellent vehicle to showcase the talents of its leading and supporting actor. For this show to be entertaining the actors must have great comedic timing, be masters of physical comedy and possess good singing voices as well. The cast of Stage 62’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels more than delivers. [caption id="attachment_7402" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Matthew J. Rush and Damon Spencer[/caption] Matthew J. Rush plays Lawrence in a hybrid style with a touch of David Niven, the smile of Cary Grant and a dash of James Bond. He’s smooth talking, well mannered, and handsome in a worldly way with an aura of sophistication and trustworthiness along with a smooth clear tenor voice. The names Lawrence and Freddie convey a sense of opposites, and Damon Spencer’s Freddie is about as opposite of Lawrence as you can get. He’s crass, physical, unsophisticated and over-the-top nuts in the best tradition of Jack Black’s character portrayals. Leon S. Zionts is Andre the local Chief Inspector who serves triple duty as Lawrence’s bodyguard and bag man. Zionts equips Andre with the world’s worst French accent. (This Stage 62 production is worth the ticket price just to see Zionts, the Producer of the acclaimed Front Porch Theatricals, singing and hoofing it on the boards!) [caption id="attachment_7401" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Cynthia Dougherty, Leon S. Zionts[/caption] There is a string of women who fall under the charms of the two cons. Cynthia Dougherty plays Muriel Eubanks, a mature woman eager to fund a revolution, and perhaps find love along the way. She and Andre have a funny and sweet morning-after moment in “Like Zis, Like Zat” in Act II. She is brilliant in her quest to land a man after her failed marriage. Her portrayal is consistently wonderful. Candice Fisher’s Jolene Oakes is the funniest and most physical of the female characters with an alternate of “Oklahoma?” unlike anything you have ever heard before. Stephanie Ottey is Christine Colgate, the heiress with the famous name that becomes the target of Lawrence’s and Freddie’s last con. Of all the characters, Colgate has the most depth and complexity and the highest audience sympathy which Ottey quite effectively captures. Act II's opening number, “Ruffhousin’ Mit Schuffhausen” with Lawrence, Freddie and Christine is quite a hoot. [caption id="attachment_7400" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Candice Fisher, Matthew J. Rush, Damon Spencer[/caption] The six main characters are surrounded by an ensemble cast of talented men and women that fill out the musical numbers vocally and in dance. All are clearly enjoying their characters. T.J. Pieffer, who has been working with Stage 62 for some years, makes his directorial debut in this production. He helms the very experienced cast and large ensemble quite well. There might have been a few missed opportunities for some funny bits but all-in-all an excellent directorial debut. Katlin Schreiner’s choreography is bright and snappy contributing to the overall fun and appeal. Costume Design by Sam Moyle is quite lush for such a large cast. The costumes perfectly reflect the characters’ personalities. Jay Weaver’s and Adam Butler’s sound design tries valiantly to overcome the acoustical problems with the hall and the use of body microphones. The room will continue to win that battle without attention to the acoustics of the space at an architectural level. Lastly and unfortunately, the lighting design by Garth Schafer left actors too often in total or semi-darkness violating a fundamental tenant of lighting design, that of visibility. Hopefully, this was just an opening night technical glitch. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a show just for the fun of it; cotton-candy for musical theatre fans. Stage 62’s cast brings out the inherent comedy in the piece, and the overall production showcases their considerable talent from both a vocal and comedic perspective. Scoundrels is definitely worth a visit to Carnegie and Stage 62 at the Library and Music Hall. You won’t have a rotten experience. Remaining performances are at 8 pm on the 20th and 21st and again the 26th to 28th with Sunday matinees on July 22nd and 29th at 2 pm. For tickets visit https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3499814 Photos courtesy of Image 42
There often isn’t the emotional or pragmatic space anymore to dedicate the time to storytellers and fantastically capricious tales. Deeply nostalgic in nature, plays and films and books that illuminate and glorify the fantabulous storytellers, the people who weave yarns with the elaborate and hyperbolic precision that in some ways now seems misplaced or sentimentally feckless in a world where catastrophes seem to happen with alarming alacrity. The musical adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel Big Fish (also very famously adapted by Tim Burton with the 2003 sprawling cult-classic film of the same title) takes the whimsicality of storytelling to its extreme—not only is its narrative entirely devoted to hyperbolic, fanciful stories, but it is also a musical, famously the most flamboyantly and delightfully illogical of genres. The Theatre Factory’s production of Big Fish dares to delve into the beautiful tapestry of stories and family dynamics with a refreshingly loyal take on the original material. The nonsensicality and grandiloquent flair of Big Fish masks a brutally heart-wrenching, if not simple, plot when stripped down. A young man embarking on matrimony and fatherhood, somewhat begrudgingly, and with an air of distrust, re-engages in a relationship with his father as his father’s death rapidly approaches. Most of this process of reconnection and understanding revolves around the untangling of the wildly intricate mythos the father has presented to his son about his origin story—from over-embellished schoolyard brawls; to run-ins with witches; to travels with a quick-witted, agoraphobic giant named Carl. The Theatre Factory’s recent production of Big Fish, directed and designed with flourish-filled adroitness by Scott Calhoon, is truly a visually dazzling and earnestly heartfelt revival of the Wallace’s story about stories that emphasize the spectacular richness that can exist in the simplest of things. Given the scale of the theatre, the production quality and presentation are especially impressive, with the audience being immediately engulfed in the sea of marvelous, larger-than-life props and electrifying choreography that ushers in the mythical, dreamlike quality of the show. Spot-on choreography and musical production are captivating champions of the Theatre Factory’s Big Fish, as they carry the show through some of the hokier and slower moments, and Musical Director Michael Rozzell (as well as the tremendous musicians working with him) and Choreographer Laura Wurzell deserve special praise for the seamless presentation of the show. A musical that is so dependent on leaping from one yarn to another (especially ones which are shown as interpretations through a son’s eyes) requires certain brands of performances that relentlessly articulates both wonder, profound ruefulness, and impassioned befuddlement, which match the wonder imbued in such a narrative. The performances of the entire cast meet these standards, even if at times there is a tendency towards over-exaggerated camp and excessive slapstick to illicit laughs. Rob Jessup delivers one of the more charming and lovely performances as he takes on the role of the father, Edward Bloom, at every stage of his life. Jessup manages to consistently engage in a role that I would otherwise find aggravatingly plucky and overwhelmingly and archetypally male. Missy Newell, evidently stepping in after a last-minute cast adjustment, was outstandingly enchanting, and all the more awe-inspiring for the whirlwind nature of her integration into the cast. Putting on a musical that is utterly ensconced in stories in some ways seems brazen—as the world around us seems increasingly dire and bleak, with people losing the ability to tell their own stories properly more and more every day, fantastical tall tales and father-son arcs can come across as out-of-place. However, the Theatre Factory’s Big Fish provides more blissful distraction than tone-deaf theatre piece. Big Fish is stuffed to the gills, to be wildly trite, with unencumbered enjoyment and moving sentiment that entertains a bevy of audience-goers. Big Fish runs at the Theatre Factory through July 22. For tickets and more information click here.