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The Lion

By: Drake Ma
TL_playYes, it’s THAT good. As the grand finale of its 2015-2016 season, City Theatre’s latest Main Stage production The Lion invites Pittsburgh audience onto a soulful journey with a heart-warming roar. Originally premiered Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014 and followed by a critically-acclaimed world tour, the show already welcomed a full house just one week before the official opening night. Featuring its original creator, singer, and songwriter Benjamin Scheuer, this one-man autobiographical musical starts with a simple phrase, “My father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs”, and then immediately dives right into a kaleidoscopic memory of family, love, and survival. As the music goes on, the narrative also gets more intense and dramatic, but with Mr. Scheuer’s rich melody, poetic lyrics, and exceptional guitar-wielding, the storytelling is always engaging and the emotional connection never stops. Beginning with a reminiscing song about his old “Cookie-tin banjo”, Mr. Scheuer, or “Ben” in the story, first introduced to us his father, the man who gave him the gift of music, and essentially the center character figure of the show. And then bit by bit, line by line, we started to put together a bigger family portrait including his mother and two brothers, and learned about his childhood dreams, wonderings, and a specific dispute with his father which later led to one of the biggest unresolved guilts and regrets of his life. Then as little Ben outgrew his homemade toy, left his family and moved to New York, we sailed further down the timeline with him and met Julia, a girl who would make Ben laugh and write adorable love songs like “Lovin’ You Will Be Easy”. Finally the “happily ever after” fairytale was brutally broken again by devastating news and we were then thrown right back to the reality, looking at the lowest and most vulnerable stage of Ben’s life. The show eventually ends with an inspiring note, and when the title song “The Lion” was sung, everyone was on their feet cheering for the return of the king to the Pride Rock. Highly praised by Broadway composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) in a recent Dramatists Guild event held at City Theatre, the music and lyrics of The Lion are the true blood and bone of the story and deserve all the applauses. Fueled with a folk tonality, Mr. Scheuer brilliantly transcends the boundaries of traditional solo performances by playing and switching in between a total of six different guitars during the whole show and hence adds another layer of variety and complexity to the overall sound. Along the storyline, each guitar would “come in” at a specific point with a special history and add more character and distinct qualities to the music, and with the change of the narrative style, the compositional genre also ranges from hauntingly beautiful acoustic ballads (“Weather the Storm”, “Invisible Cities”) all the way to exciting electric Rock ‘n Roll (“Saint Rick”). Occasionally some lyrics are sung in a parlando fashion, but overall the texts are full of rich emotions and nostalgic flavour. In the program Mr. Scheuer points out that one of the best songwriting advice he’s ever received is “to write a good song, write what you don’t other people to know about you. But if you want to write a great song, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.” And that’s exactly what he did--the balance between raw, even unsettling details and metaphorical analogies in the lyrics perfectly captured the light and shadow of this courageous expedition, and the end result is just powerful and honest storytelling with truthful, unadulterated emotion. Because of the intimate performance setting and the nature of autobiographical conversation, certain times you may forget the fact that you’re watching a show and feel like you are just listening to an old friend talking about his life while jamming on a bunch of guitars. And that traceless acting is exactly where Mr. Scheuer’s charismatic personality comes in. Presented with genuine passion and a goofy big heart, each scene eventually felt like a deja vu and each moment felt deeply personal on stage. And even sometimes when a certain patron accidentally broke the tension of this magical experience in the theatre with a sneeze or worse, a ringing cell phone, Mr. Scheuer’s improvised story incorporation and heartfelt music takes you back in. Directed by Sean Daniels, the show reflects the rise and fall of Ben’s transformative journey seamlessly with a narrative staging--from time to time Mr. Scheuer might loosen his tie, sit on a different chair, or take off his shoes, but each momentous transition ultimately strengthens the tension of the drama and the resonance with the audience. Designed by Ben Stanton, the lighting of the show masterfully projects the color and texture of each song and scene onto the canvas of space and is a storyteller itself. And that only got heightened by Neil Patel’s gorgeous set in which a concept of reborn and revisit echoes the flames of time. Just like how Ben sings it in The Lion, I, too, “only say I love you when I’m sure”. And when you go to City Theatre and see this 2015 Drama Desk Awards Best Solo Performance yourself, I bet you will want to sing and roar and say “lovin’ you will be easy” too. Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. The Lion opens Friday May 20th, for tickets and more information about the show and the free song writing workshop on May 28th, click here.

Assassins

By: Drake Ma
682637-250"Attention must be paid!" In the midst of another Presidential Election year with gun violence and gun control at the center of everybody's attention, it seems perfectly appropriate to bring back Stephen Sondheim's classic 1990 concept musical Assassins to remind everyone what that darkness in the American dream could do. Delivered by Stage 62 with a sensational cast, this time it opens with a strong momentum. Originally based on the idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, the show tells the story of nine historically recognized men and women who attempted, successfully or not, to assassinate various Presidents of the Unites States. We begin in a fictional setting where all the assassins gather together at a country fair and try their luck with a shooting-gallery game. The Proprietor hands over a gun to each of assassin and as the history starts to unfold, a "target" gets shot down. [caption id="attachment_2758" align="aligncenter" width="656"]assassins 2 L-R Stephanie Ottey, Corwin Stoddard, Mark McConnell, Stanley Graham, Connor Bahr, Darrel Whitney, Chad Elder, Cassie Doherty, Rob James[/caption] Leading the cast is Mr. Stanley Graham who masterfully plays John Wilkes Booth, the first assassin we get to know. Delivering his signature "The Ballad of Booth" death scene with great vocals,  Mr. Graham sets the emotional tone for the rest of the show. Through the story Booth also functions as the internal seductive demon of other assassins with a catchphrase, "You should kill the President", and this series of dramatic build-ups eventually led him to successfully convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger and join the ranks of history in the end. Oswald was played by Mr. Connor Bahr, who also traditionally doubled as the Balladeer for the rest of the show. His transformation into Oswald and on-stage dynamic with Booth in the intense "Scene 16" made it easily one of the best scenes of the night. But just as the characters of Assassins, every actor in the show earns their prize in the "history" with distinct personalities and strong vocals. Mr. Chad Elder plays Charles Guiteau who dies with a comedic bang. Ms. Kassie Doherty and Ms. Stephanie Ottey portray the assassin duo Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore with a crazy but tender tempo.  Mr. Rob James delivers the Santa-Claus-suit-wearing sandwich-eating Samuel Byck with intricate soliloquies that turn into some of the most hilarious and spine-chilling solo scenes. And finally, under the direction of Music Director Mr. Michael Meketa and accompanied beautifully by the Orchestra, every single group number or chorale moment in the show was a spectacular highlight. [caption id="attachment_2759" align="aligncenter" width="656"]assassins 14 Rob James[/caption] Assassins offers a unique space and timeline where we get a rare chance to look into those everyday humans' minds by going down this journey with them to discover what eventually turned them into assassins, and Mr. Nick Mitchel's direction offers exactly the type of guidance you need when you are on such a delicate and bumpy road. The transition between each assassination was brilliantly marked with the targets down and the gun fire effect, and the balance between light comedy and dark drama is so well calibrated that all the irony and satire eventually became the part of the narrative sentiment itself. Designed by Ms. Patty Folmer and Ms. Michelle Nowakowski, the costumes of the show generally brought back some historic flavor while maintaining the contemporary freshness. At the beginning, certain character's costumes might seem confusing, but in the end you will realize that they all perfectly transcend the character development in a necessary way. Mr. Garth Schafer's lighting managed to reflect the psychological rise and fall of each assassin while tying everything together with the transformative set by Ms. Lynnetta Miller and Mr. Andy Folmer. And the final film projection during the climax scene designed by Ms. Gina Marie Rush certainly added another layer of honesty to this already too real show. [caption id="attachment_2760" align="aligncenter" width="656"]assassins L-R Sephanie Ottey, Kassie Doherty[/caption] After the show I had a brief chat with one of the patrons about the show. After I told him that I'm a Sondheim fan but this was my first time seeing a live production of this not-so-often-revived Sondheim showhe said, "I've seen this show twenty years ago, it was really funny. Now I see it again and it's not funny anymore. It's scary". And I agree. Isn't that the irony  history is playing on us?  What's the lesson here? In one of Byck's monologues he complains to Leonard Bernstein that "no one ever listens". And as each assassin's story unfolds you will start to see this seems like a common trend--being ignored, being forgotten, being misunderstood... In the program Mr. Mitchell said "Open your ears, eyes, and hearts so fewer people will feel like they are alone in the world, voiceless without violence." Is ignorance, injustice, and discrimination the ultimate source of crime? Or do we simply just need to really listen?  How did we fail those innocent people as a society and turn them into assassins? Will the story in this musical still be this relevant and timeless twenty, fifty years from now? I wonder. History comes with many different versions. But the truth stays the same. Assassins is one of those truly powerful theatrical moments that you just need to experience it to understand. It's like how they sing in the show, at the end of the day, "everybody's got the right to be happy", only this time, that happiness means you have to look deeply into that darkness, and find that purest beam of light. "Attention has been paid." Assassins runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall until May 22nd. For tickets and more information, click here. Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Friedman Wagner-Dobler.

The Giver

By: Yvonne Hudson
giverLooking into a world where it never snows and no hills punctuate the landscape, Pittsburghers might be envious. However, it isn’t long before The Giver at Prime Stage Theatre reveals the flaws in a community designed to relieve its citizens of the small and large bumps (and potholes) in life’s road. Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult novel is the basis for Eric Coble’s adaptation into a  script, which runs two hours with one intermission as set in the New Hazlett Theater. The Giver takes a story from the page to the stage, as is the Prime Stage mission. This book is often read in school, so The Giver is a natural choice for young people and many who experienced the book as students. Director Melissa Hill Grande applies a thoughtful hand to the action on the Hazlett’s thrust stage. These characters are confined by their perceived utopian world and an inability to venture from their regimented days and nights. Grande assigns movement that is functional and practical, like the “Community” where “Rules” dictate appropriate behavior and speech. The Community is really a grey dystopian world never disrupted by color, rebels, seekers, or innovators. Here, parents may tell their sons and daughters they enjoy or admire them, not that love they love them. Rudeness is forbidden and reciprocal apologies and acceptances pepper conversations. “Sameness” is required and everyone dresses in identical and comfortable grey jackets and pants, here designed by Kim Brown. [caption id="attachment_2748" align="aligncenter" width="785"]Screenshot (51) Jonas, portrayed by Will Sendera (right), and the Giver, played by Ken Lutz (left)[/caption] The central character Jonas is approaching age 12, the time at which each child in the Community is assigned their life’s work by the Committee of Elders. His father is a Nurturer, caring for infants and children, and his mother was selected to work in law and justices. Jonas’s own gifts of perception and sensitivity are recognized by the Elders who assign him to the singular role of Receiver of Memories. He enters an apprenticeship with a man who has long captured and stored the memories of the world. It’s a big job, but as the Community has no shared memories--or knowledge of history for that matter--the Receiver absorbs all that for everyone. It’s Jonas, portrayed by Will Sendera, and the Giver, played by Ken Lutz, who break the mold.  Jonas is the recipient of all the happiness, sadness, enthusiasm, and pain to be stored. Ken Lutz is the play’s empathic storyteller, also bringing humanity to the grey world. Sendera brings warm and compassion to his character’s world. As Jonas comes to understand human realities including war and starvation, Sendera’s performance captures Jonas’s frustrations, caring, and intelligence. The ensemble of adults and young players aptly conveys the sterile aura of the Community. Families focus on raising children delivered by “birth mothers” and older folks go to live in the House of the Old where they receive daily care. Naomi Grodin as the Chief Elder and Gina Preciado both bring thoughtful dignity to their roles as they explain the life journey from being “assigned” to being “released”. Vanna Fredlana and Ricardo Vila-Roger are solid as the detached parents. On the surface, they aren’t doing anything wrong, but they supervise their children cooly, providing structure more like programmed robots than caring parents. These actors’ lovely voices and movements provide a deceptively soothing facade as Mom and Dad in the Community are raising kids with no grandparents in sight. Other children give us a glimpse of childhood in the Community, but they leave much of it behind once “assigned”. Sadie Primack is precocious little sister Lily who is quick to comment and question, but we know that will end with her childhood in a few years. [caption id="attachment_2749" align="aligncenter" width="788"]Screenshot (52) Grace Vensel (left) Will Sendera (right)[/caption] Grace Vensel as Fiona and Micah Primack as Jonas’ friend bring youthful energy that contrasts with the regulated adults. But these kids play more by the rules than childish impulse, even knowing riding a bicycle before age nine is not permitted and that their assignments are to be obeyed. Balancing the greyness of the setting with his new visions, Jonas experiences through received memories is the major production challenge. Sound by Angela Baughman underscoring some moments and providing the necessary effects as Jonas’ new memories are revealed. J.R. Shaw’s precise lighting accents Jonas’ dreams, visions, and forward thinking through the entire set. One of the city’s most capable and consistently inventive scenic designers, Johnmichael Bohach succeeds in creating a set the provides both sameness and enlightenment. Rectangles that are functional early on and also provide later splashes of color create a maze-like backwall. The set enables projections of light, words, numbers, and, well, shades of grey. Bohach’s wonderfully accommodates the grey Community, details of nature and memories the Giver shares, and simple set pieces for daily routines and special ceremonies. The set opens up to provide the Giver’s residence and alcoves behind a later visible scrim. Unexpected alcoves showcase things the Community doesn’t know it’s missing--things of representative of music, art, beauty, convenience, and comfort--things we associate with home. Prime Stage again, through its targeted mission, brings another significant book to life. With The Giver, audiences are encouraged to appreciate their own world. Utopia looks sweet from the outside, but the unpredictability of home may be underrated. Prime Stage Theatre’s The Giver runs at Prime Stage Theatre, on stage at the Hazlett Theater, Northside, through May 22. A sensory-friendly performance will be given on Sat., May 21. Details performances and tickets can be found at primestage.com. *Photos courtesy of primestage.com

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