The Little Mermaid

mermaidWonder Woman screenwriter Allan Heinberg has specifically cited Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid as an influence on his script. Viewers can easily recognize the scene where Diana rescues Steve Trevor from drowning as a direct reference to the almost identical moment where Ariel first lays eyes on an unconscious Prince Eric on the beach.

I admire how Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins paid homage to the animated classic without aping everything that made it a classic in the first place. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the stage adaptation of that movie that just docked at the Benedum Center.

I certainly don’t blame Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight for producing this touring production of the popular property because they’ve assembled an outstanding and buoyant cast. I’m not sure I can entirely blame the show’s creators Alan Menken (music), the late, great Howard Ashman (lyrics), Glenn Slater (new lyrics for the stage), and Doug Wright (book). Even before the idea to bring Ariel and company to the Broadway stage crossed their desks, it was ill-conceived.

Cast_of_Disneys_THE_LITTLE_MERMAID_Photo_by_Steve_WilsonDisney Theatricals justly garnered tons of acclaim for their dazzling stage renderings of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, it seems that all the theatricality and inventiveness the company had to offer was poured into those productions with none left for subsequent mountings of Tarzan, Aida, and, yes, The Little Mermaid.

It has been a long swim for Ariel from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale to the Pittsburgh stage. After a pair of poorly received runs in Denver and New York in 2007, it was back to the drawing board for new director Glenn Casale. He incorporated wire work—in favor of the Heelys (half sneaker, half roller skate) from the original production—to more realistically simulate how mermaids and seagulls glide across the ocean and sky. The effect took my breath away at first, but it eventually wore thinner than the cables holding the actors up.

When combined with Casale’s aerial (pun very much intended) gimmick, Amy Clark and Mark Koss’ overworked costumes and Kenneth Foy’s underwhelming sets create a far too literal translation of the film. In failing to do the impossible task of putting that world on stage exactly how it was initially presented, they do their incredible craftsmanship a disservice.

Diana_Huey_in_Disneys_THE_LITTLE_MERMAID._Photo_by_Mark__Tracy_PhotographyThe one thing that the musical couldn’t corrupt about the characters are their clear-cut motivations. Ariel is a young mermaid who yearns to be “where the people are”. Her father King Triton has a deep-seated prejudice towards humans based on an assumption about his wife’s death. His disgraced, banished sister Ursula (Jennifer Allen, delicious even when saddled with the regrettable new song “Daddy’s Little Angel”) desires revenge and sets her sights on his youngest daughter.

Once Ariel crosses paths with Eric, she easily falls prey to Ursula’s trap and agrees to trade her voice for the chance to be human for three days and share true love’s kiss with her prince. Like any respectable Disney story, there are a host of wacky supporting characters to pick up the slack when our red-headed heroine’s immediate, undying love for our hero gets monotonous.

Musical theatre tropes serve the story best during the Act II opener “Positoovity”. Scuttle’s (Jamie Torcellini) attempts to get Ariel on her feet for the first time erupt into an exuberant tap dance break. Any time Torcellini was off his feet flying like a bird, I felt that I was being robbed of the best this show had to offer.

As Ariel, Diana Huey sells both descriptors in the show’s title. The petite powerhouse’s gorgeous instrument is extremely well-suited to the vocal demands of Ariel’s timeless aria “Part of Your World”. Huey is among the most graceful of the cast members that are repeatedly hoisted up by the wires. She exhibits no signs of strain while singing or maintaining the hula-esque wiggling that dominates the underwater scenes.

Originally the character of Ariel was a lightning rod for feminist critique of the Disney Princess brand. If you’re wondering why, look no further than the characters of Sebastian and Eric who seem to only value Ariel for her voice. Despite that, Melvin Abston (Sebastian) and Eric Kunze (Eric) won me over. The Academy Award-winning showstopper “Under the Sea” and new addition “Her Voice” were standout moments.

Jennifer_Allen__Brandon_Roach_and_Frederick_Hagreen_in_Disneys_THE_LITTLE_MERMAID._Photo_by_Steve_WilsonAs far as laughs go, look to the female ensemble and Dane Stokinger. Seven of the women show of their own impressive pipes doubling as Ariel’s older sisters and eligible bachelorettes vying for Eric’s affection in “The Contest” Stokinger transcends the obvious parallels between his Chef Louis and another Ashman-Menken creation, Lumiere, by making the slapstick antics of “Les Poissons” hilarious to both kids and adults.

There were dozens of little girls buzzing around the lobby clutching their Ariel plush dolls tight, hopes high for the experience of seeing her live in living color. And, while I can’t speak to all their impressions of the show, the fact that the little girl seated next to me did not return for the second act should tell you all you need to know.

The Little Mermaid plays at the Benedum Center through June 25th. For more information, click here.

Photo credits: Steve Wilson and Mark & Tracy Photography.

An Act of God

18673220_10154590149738388_3679876666088007479_oCommandment 11: Thou shalt buy tickets to this show.

I wouldn’t expect God to toot His own horn, especially when he has Gabriel around to do it for Him, but He was remiss in omitting that mandate from the list of laws He delivers from on high in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s miraculous mounting of An Act of God. I was enraptured from its thunderous genesis to its rollicking revelations and left praying for more.

This play is the gospel according to author David Javerbaum. The 13-time Emmy winning writer has a résumé that should have earned him an honorary doctorate in comedy by now. Most of Javerbaum’s acclaim stems from his long stint as head writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but his memorable work as a lyricist—for musicals including Cry-Baby—is also highly lauded. As a solo author, he has penned two books, the most recent of which serves as the basis for this 2015 one-act.

If that novel’s title The Last Testament: A Memoir by God doesn’t prepare you for the glory in store at the O’Reilly, I’ll do my best to paint the picture of a god that refers to Himself not only as jealous but also as a racist, sexist mass-murderer.

(left to right) John Shepard, Marcus Stevens and Tim McGeever
(left to right) John Shepard, Marcus Stevens and Tim McGeever

With a little help from His archangels Gabriel and Michael, God reflects on His infinite history and the small portion of it He has spent creating and recreating the universe we call home. Via a revised slab of Ten Commandments (handsomely projected on Michael Schweikardt’s razzle dazzle set that literally leaves you on Cloud 9) paired with surprising anecdotes that allude to God’s darker motivations, The Bible is largely and amusingly debunked as religious fan fiction.  

Fully aware of the fact that His facetiousness might be considered heresy to some, God even “takes questions” from the audience during His holy TED Talk. When God lays down His final judgment, it’s impossible to know if the world is saved or doomed but also impossible to deny that this small corner of it is entertained.

I value cleverness in a script above nearly all other virtues, and An Act of God is brimming with it. Rather than settling for just turning ancient Bible stories inside out, the play sets out to ground them in modern sociopolitical contexts.

Perhaps the most gut-busting and astute monologue of the show recasts Eve as Adam’s gay lover Steve. Steve’s sampling of the forbidden fruit is the first domino in the long legacy of homophobia and self-loathing we know all too well today. I was impressed at how skillfully the play balanced being sophisticated and preposterous at times while remaining relatable.

It’s an even stranger feat to craft what is basically a one-person show with three actors, but Javerbaum has conquered the task with ease.

Using Emmy-winning sitcom superstars like Sean Hayes and Jim Parsons to deliver His testimony has been God’s wont for previous Broadway productions of this show, but it’s truly a blessing that He’s chosen “Forbidden Broadway star and beloved Pittsburgh actor” Marcus Stevens as His vessel for this engagement.  

PPTActOfGod002There is no limit—not the sky, nor the heavens—to his likability and versatility. His poor wrath-management skills will leave you quivering in your seat even as that trademark grin spreads across his face. When God smites His most inquisitive angel Michael or delivers a cheesy pun, Stevens receives a huge and hilarious assist from sound designer Zach Moore.

Stevens’ “offbeat charm” is necessary to guide the show through some of its cringe-worthy topical mad lib references to notorious figures including  Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, and Kanye West. Discussing the sacrifice of his middle child Jesus Christ brings up an unexpected amount of emotion for Stevens’ God and the audience witnessing that rare quiet moment of contemplation.  

Rounding out the trinity—decked out in Valerie M. Webster’s pearly white suits and wings—are Stevens’ silver-haired sidekicks Tim McGeever (Michael) and John Shepard (Gabriel). Javerbaum’s late night talk show roots reveal themselves in the way he utilizes these two characters.

Shepard is divinely droll as God’s in-studio co-host, always backing him up with a Bible verse and supportive gesture. McGeever zips all around the theater displaying the strong improv chops and sarcastic appeal inherent in any successful field correspondent.

God and his wingmen are tons of fun, but the real king of the universe here is director Ted Pappas. He works in mysterious and magical ways ensuring that the pace doesn’t drag for one moment. Simply by placing Stevens in various positions in relation to a white sofa, he transforms it into a therapist’s couch, a majestic throne, and the rock from behind which the serpent slithers in the Garden of Eden.  

Whether it’s comedy, drama, classical, or contemporary, you can always count on Pappas to lucidly portray characters and events with tremendous flair. It may have taken God six days to create paradise, but for Pappas and his disciples, it took only 90 minutes.

An Act of God plays at the O’Reilly Theater through July 2nd. For more information, click here

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for complimentary press tickets. Photos by Michael Henninger.

 

Artist Spotlight: Quinn Patrick Shannon

db01f92e-d563-432e-a457-b2aa8dc3efc4Is it weird to think that an actor has done it all at only age 31?

Maybe. Still, that’s the impression I got after talking with Quinn Patrick Shannon.

Over the last decade, you’ve likely seen Shannon star in regional shows of all genres in venues of all sizes. It’s also true that his incredible talent is directly proportional to his generosity and work ethic.

Those values were fostered in him at a very young age. Although he grew up in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Washington and Bethel Park, he identifies as a Pittsburgher. Between his father’s work and his mother’s acting career, Quinn’s family spent a lot of time in the city. She co-starred in a musical comedy that literally defined the phrase “back by popular demand”, Nunsense.

His connection to the city actually goes back further than I ever imagined. The Shannon name has a lot of weight when dropped around baby boomers. Quinn’s grandfather was local media legend Paul Shannon. He emceed KDKA’s Dream Weaver and WTAE’s Adventure Time throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Paul Shannon passed away when Quinn was young, but his legacy has followed Quinn ever since. One of Quinn’s Grease cast mates showed him a 50-year old ticket stub from one of his grandfather’s shows. It was only a non-native Pittsburgher like me that confused that classic Adventure Time with the modern Cartoon Network show of the same name.

15068960_10154110007671696_496352613198024282_oI made him chuckle when I suggested that he was part of a performing dynasty, but I think the proof is in the pudding.

Even though it was a “million years ago” his brother was in a production of Peter Pan, Quinn still cites him as his “first and best acting teacher”. When his mother asked him if he wanted to be in shows, he replied with a resounding yes. His career as a child actor kicked off in similar fashion to many kids looking to find work on the Pittsburgh stage.

Three words: A Christmas Carol. At age six, he debuted with Pittsburgh Musical Theater as their first Tiny Tim.

He followed in both his siblings’ footsteps by graduating from Point Park University with a theatre degree. Recently, he revisited his first conservatory credit, Hair, not as an actor among his peers but as a director of teenage members of PMT’s own conservatory. He relished the chance, saying “there’s nothing like kids doing that show”. Rather than burdening his Hair with a Trump-hating agenda, he mounted the show as a thwarted “celebration of youth” and gave into its trippy moments. For Quinn, the job of directing children is twofold: ensuring that the kids learn and keeping their parents happy.

Frequent collaborator Guy Stroman and Pittsburgh Public Theater Artistic Director Ted Pappas have been two influential directors in Quinn’s career.

Stroman’s vast body of work includes originating the role of Frankie in the 1950’s jukebox musical revue Forever Plaid. In 2013, Quinn played Frankie in a pseudo-sequel to that show called Plaid Tidings. That experience was where everything truly “clicked” for him. Realizing that acting was his true calling on this project was a feeling he compares to falling in love. He credits Stroman with teaching him the value of “having a vision” and being meticulous as a director.

Pappas is responsible for casting Quinn in one of his dream roles, Nicely Nicely Johnson in last year’s production of Guys and Dolls.

“That offer was THE offer.”

Joel Hurt Jones (Nathan Detroit), Quinn Patrick Shannon (Nicely Nicely Johnson), Gavan Pamer (Benny Southstreet)
Joel Hurt Jones (Nathan Detroit), Quinn Patrick Shannon (Nicely Nicely Johnson), Gavan Pamer (Benny Southstreet)

He admits that there’s always pressure performing such iconic material but, as an actor, he thrives on it. Performers crave larger stages (Broadway, TV, film) because greater exposure often leads to bigger breaks.

CLO’s Cabaret at Theater Square is certainly not the biggest stage that Pittsburgh offer, but Quinn maintains that it’s the best job in the city. He’s performed there a few times including in the hardest show he’s ever done, The 39 Steps (also directed by Stroman). It’s a slapstick riff on the classic Hitchcock film of the same name in which Quinn portrayed several characters. The secret to succeeding at the Cabaret is building the stamina to perform the frequently extended runs. That involves forging good relationships with the cast and crew, taking care of your body and voice, and not letting the show “get away from you”. More than anything, shows in that setting require focus.

Offstage, Quinn enjoys playing the drums, a 16-year old pastime of his. When he lived in New York City, he was a member of about six different bands. He also wrote and recorded some solo music. It’s been a while since he flexed those muscles, but he’s eager to get back in that arena sometime soon.

This year, he also plans to arrange further readings of an original script he’s been working on with his best friend and roommate. He declined to reveal more about the project, insisting it be (literally) a surprise.

IMG_6894The last time Quinn led a PMT production was in the role of Quasimodo (pictured above) in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This rare chance to carry a show was a “surprisingly special” opportunity for him. Alan Menken’s score definitely took a toll on voice by the end of each show, but it was well worth it.

“When I came out for that last bow, it really meant a lot to me because I’m not going to get a lot of those being a character actor.”

The life of a character actor can be a difficult one spent in the shadows of people who fit the elusive leading man/woman type. If a person sticks it out though, there’s the chance for someone in a supporting or unconventional leading role to eclipse his co-stars and dazzle audiences.

Quinn Patrick Shannon is a proud, self-professed character actor. But, in my eyes, the sum of his charmingly self-effacing nature and positive attitude equal more than that. What his resume and bio won’t tell you is that he is also an actor with character.

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Violet

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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.

Tarzan

2016Mast-Tarzan

This week saw the announcement of the nominations for the 71st annual Tony Awards. As is the case with every year, some shows were lavished with nominations across the board—Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 with 12, the most of any production this year—while others were snubbed entirely—Amelie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Significant Other, and the revival of Sunset Boulevard, to name a few.

If you’re wondering what time might have in store for these and other shows that failed to be recognized on Broadway’s biggest night, I can assure you that receiving none or even just one or two Tony nominations doesn’t mean that a show or production can’t thrive in regional productions or in the hearts of those who did consider it award worthy.

When Tarzan premiered on Broadway in 2006, it garnered mixed reviews from critics and only one Tony nod for Natasha Katz’s lighting design. The show closed the next year due to poor box office returns. History has lumped the show in with Aida and The Little Mermaid as embarrassing black marks on Disney Theatrical Productions’ Broadway report card.

 Despite all that, Pittsburgh Musical Theater is closing out its eclectic 25th season with a well-acted, gorgeously-sung revival production of Tarzan. Under the competent direction of PMT Executive Artistic Director Colleen Doyno, a handful of the principal cast members from the original 2013 production return here. Everyone on stage is so wonderfully animated that they almost convince you that this show didn’t get a fair shot when it opened in New York 11 years ago.

tarzan 1

David Toole as Tarzan

I say almost only because Tarzan is undeniably plagued by one of musical theatre’s most common pitfalls, second-act trouble. The brisk and bouncy first act is followed by an anti-climactic and convoluted conclusion. I’m choosing to lay the ape’s share of the blame on the show’s architects, composer/lyricist Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins) and book writer David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), for not providing themselves a safety net for the high wire act of adapting the thrillingly realized 1999 feature length cartoon of the same name.

The show is also billed as being “adapted from the story ‘Tarzan and the Apes’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs”. I’m not sure where the influence from the latter comes in, but, if you grew up watching the Disney film or remember watching your kids watching the Disney film, there are no surprises in store with the stage version.

Tragedy strikes twice in the West African coast when an evil leopard (danced wonderfully by Nathaniel Burich) murders the parents of a human infant and kidnaps the newborn of two gorilla parents. Amid the desperate search for her child, the mother gorilla Kala discovers the crying, newly orphaned baby in a tree. She names the child Tarzan and decides to bridge the two worlds of human and gorilla and raise him as her own, much to the disgust of her husband Kerchak.

Tarzan grows up thinking he’s an ape but feels like he is different from everyone else in his family. An incident in which he inadvertently creates and brandishes a makeshift weapon at the apes confirms his suspicion and vindicates Kerchak’s deep prejudice and fear of man. Kerchak banishes Tarzan from the family, but Kala, refusing to live without her son, joins him in exile. She raises him to be a kind, strapping man but is unable to prepare him for his meet cute with English expeditioner Jane. Not even the language barrier or a near death experience with a giant man-eating spider is enough to keep the sparks from flying between these two.

tarzan2

Now comes that disappointing second act. It’s an onslaught of cheesy villainy, cheesier love ballads, and predictable plot points. It’s a real slog, but the cast makes the journey worthwhile.

David Toole is one of the actors reprising his performance from PMT’s 2013 Tarzan. From his first primal yell to his last, he grabs the role of Tarzan with both hands like the vine and swings across the stage as if he was born to do it. He convincingly speaks and acts like he was raised by a pack of apes and looks like he was raised by a pack of Men’s Fitness cover models. Toole expertly milks every bit of the fish-out-of-water humor out of the script. His lovely voice never fails to reach the pop-tinged heights of the soaring score.

If you notice that he has especially great chemistry with Jane, you’ll swoon when you find out she’s charmingly played by his real-life wife Kathlene Queen.

tarzan3

David Toole as Tarzan and Kathlene Queen as Jane

I don’t believe that Alysha Watson and Brad David Patsy are Toole’s parents in real life, but the love that Kala and Kerchak share for each other and for Tarzan radiates from the stage. Their deeply felt renditions of the Oscar-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart” and “No Other Way” supply the production with a surprising gravitas.

Other standouts were Allan Snyder, Benjamin Godley Fisher, and Tru Verret-Fleming. As Tarzan’s best friend Terk, Fleming scats his way to one of night’s most energetic and entertaining moments with “Trashin’ the Camp”.

Whether you leave the Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Tarzan walking upright or using your knuckles in tandem with your feet to mimic the gorilla ensemble (utilized superbly by choreographer Lisa Elliot), you will do so with a huge smile on your face. If Broadway ever decides to give the show a second chance, producers need not look any further than this gifted ensemble to elevate the material.

Tarzan plays at the Byham Theater through May 14th. For more information, click here.

True West

Screenshot (16)The incessant, nagging chirp of crickets.

It’s the iPhone noise that never reached the popularity of the classic marimba ringtone. It underscores many a painful, unending awkward silence in our imaginations and in TV and film. Crickets also supply the unofficial soundtrack for much of the Duquesne Red Masquer’s milquetoast production of True West. Unfortunately, that is not solely as a recurring component of Nick Cipriano’s overbearing sound design but also as the audience’s prevailing reaction to the show.

Director Michael Makar chisels some striking tableaus out of Sam Shepard’s solid-as-a-rock, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-nominated script. In True West, Shepard ignites fireworks by repeatedly smashing beer can-shaped circle hole Lee (Evan W. Saunders) into Ivy League-educated square peg Austin (Max Begler). While screenwriter Austin is away from his own wife and children, house sitting for his mother, his brother Lee blows in like a tumbleweed to disrupt his creative process and repeatedly ask to borrow his car.

Their five-year estrangement makes the tension between the brothers positively palpable. The arrival of flashy Hollywood agent Saul Kimmer tacks on a professional layer to the bitter blood feud. When Kimmer is unexpectedly intrigued by Lee’s half-baked concept for an authentic story about men in the west, Austin’s world begins to crumble. As they question all the choices they’ve made in life, they have only the fickle and dangerous call of the wild to give them answers.

Whether the characters are embroiled in heated face-to-face conflicts or unable to look at each other in the eye, many of the images, created by Makar’s occasionally meticulous hand, are dying to be photographed—pre-show, anti-cell phone announcement be damned. Despite the literal extended setup of the toaster scene in Act II, the punchline, like the bread, truly popped as a refreshing bit of slapstick.

Makar wears not one but two cowboy hats with the production. But his works as a set designer is anything but picturesque. He deploys an enormous swath of white fabric against the back wall that succeeds only in cannibalizing the rest of the simple scenery and accentuating Antonia Gelorme’s garish, unfocused lights.

With his casting of the two leads, Makar emphasizes the ways in which Lee and Austin are more alike than they’d care to admit. They share something thicker than blood or water—an all-encompassing desire for what the other has.

If you thought it was hard to direct and set design for a single production, be prepared to marvel at Saunders’s ability to manspread, smize, pout, and constantly shrug hair out of his face all in a single performance. He’s not always convincing when he talks tough or takes a physical jab at Austin, but he most definitely looks the part of the hard-bitten desert drifter in a Canadian tuxedo and black tank top designed by Clare Rahill. Saunders’s chops aren’t strong enough to chew on any scenery, but he makes easy and hilarious work of a prop with his teeth. It is in such moments of mild mania that he embodies Lee’s truth most honestly.

Begler too relishes the chance to unleash Austin’s id in the character’s increasingly violent and desperate outbursts. For much of the first act, he relies too heavily on hands-in-pocket acting to appear uptight. But, as if he got a jolt from sticking a fork in one of Austin’s beloved toasters, Begler plays drunk and downtrodden almost too well.

I instantly remembered hearing about a production of True West where Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly occasionally alternated in the roles of Austin and Lee. I think Begler would be more than up for the challenge. As Lee attempts to begin writing a screenplay, Begler hurls insults across the room like darts and hits a bullseye every time. No matter who has the keys to Austin’s car, the actor who portrays him is firmly in the driver’s seat of this production.

You’ll find Hayden Lounsbury and Christina McElwee riding in the back playing two small, yet pivotal roles. As Saul Kimmer, Lounsbury more than holds his own with the strong lead actors. McElwee, who plays Lee and Austin’s mother, is upstaged by a dying plant in the corner.

In the pursuit of truth, the Duquesne Red Masquers are on the right track. But they’ll need a stronger compass (along with more polished design elements and a more cohesive cast) to locate true west.

Thanks to the Duquesne Red Masquers for the complimentary tickets.

True West runs at the Genesius Theater until Sunday April 30th. For more information, click here.

 

 

Peter and the Starcatcher

17620182_1831228916903076_1273660694744146106_oHow does one continue the timeless story of a boy who never grows up?

Steven Spielberg’s Hook notwithstanding, the obvious answer to that question is to explore his past.

And that’s just what Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson did in the 2006 YA novel Peter and the Starcatcher. Their incredible success with the book series (surely due to their respect for the incredibly rich source material) led playwright Rick Elice to adapt their work into a charmingly meta and humorous stage play of the same name. Since its 2009 premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, Starcatcher has wowed New York and national audiences with the wit of its craftsmanship and the universality of its themes.

Pitt Stages’s current production, docked at the Charity Randall Theater, may torpedo Wayne Barker’s musical score but it undoubtedly soars straight on ‘til morning in almost every other aspect.

Before the green getup—in the 1885 British Empire—Peter Pan had no home and no name. Still reeling from a traumatizing stint in an orphanage, the Boy once again finds himself trapped by circumstance. This time, he’s a prisoner on a ship called Neverland with his two best friends, Ted and Prentiss. Little do they know that, above deck, the ship’s captain Bill Slank has masterminded a devious switcheroo that mistakenly lands a great treasure on his vessel rather than on the majestic Wasp.

This is good news for no one. Not for Lord Aster who was tasked by the Queen herself (God save her!) to protect the mysterious and mystical “starstuff” that lies within the treasure chest. Not for the bumbling band of pirates, led by the silly and sinister Black Stache, who commandeer the Wasp to steal the treasure.

As a starcatcher-in-training working to safeguard the power of starstuff (the ability to realize the dreams of anyone who possesses it), Aster’s young, confident, and wildly adventurous daughter Molly takes it upon herself to complete her father’s mission. After she ditches her shrieking governess Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly begins to explore the ship. There are horrors and delights aplenty aboard the Neverland but nothing like the company of her peers, alike in age and disposition. Jockeying for leadership of the team all the while, the lost boys and Molly work together to thwart Black Stache’s dastardly plans.

Eventually, the stage is set for J.M. Barrie’s classic tale to play out. But a litany of unexpected starboard and port twists and turns will leave you and our heroes on the edge of the plank throughout.

While the magical exploits of the Aster family are dazzling, I strongly believe that the real starcatcher at the center of this production is director Kathryn Markey. She has assembled a spirited crew of actors brimming with talent and infectious enthusiasm. It’s rare to see performers clearly having so much fun while expertly navigating such intricate design and staging.

Imagine my surprise when I perused my playbill and found out that several members of the diverse 19-person ensemble were making their Pitt Stages acting debuts. That’s proof that these actors aren’t just stars on the rise, but also shooting stars.

Brightest among them are Tanner Prime, Molly Balk, and Dennis Schebetta. Like the play, their performances truly set sail in Act II. Prime’s adorable pluckiness and vulnerability make his character’s wish to never grow up seem like something we should all aspire to. As the Boy’s most colorful adversaries, Fighting Prawn and Black Stache, Balk and Schebetta showcase their unmatched charisma and sense of comedic timing.

Zachary Romah, Sabrina Rothschild, Alex Knapp, and Sean Gallagher also shine as pairs of Lost Boys and unlikely lovers, respectively.

In addition to crafting a versatile landscape evoking equal parts childlike wonder and workmanlike grit, scenic designer Gianni Downs should also be credited with providing Markey a lively canvas on which to paint her various thrilling stage pictures. Their work goes hand in hand—more like hand in rope, in this case—during all the show’s most action-packed moments. Markey channels the inherent whimsy of Starcatcher most potently when she seamlessly transforms her actors into doors, animals, and crashing ocean waves. Downs’s creative combination of hand-painted and hand-built pieces more than live up to Donyale Werle’s Tony-winning Broadway sets.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the sound design by Tyler Bensen or the costume design by KJ Gilmer. Both are plagued by a troubling sameness. It’s a problem when you can close your eyes and not be sure if you’re listening to the hiss of an angry housecat or the growl of a hungry crocodile. It’s a bigger problem when the iconic swashbuckling style of the man who will become Captain Hook is watered down to the point of resembling poor Captain Jack Sparrow cosplay.

Still, there is tons to admire in Pitt Stages’s Peter and the Starcatcher. Growing up doesn’t seem so bad if it means just aging the two and half hours of this energetic and touching production’s runtime. Believe me and fly your way over to the theater.

Peter and the Starcatcher runs through April 9th at the Charity Randall Theater. For more information, click here.

Thank you to Pitt Stages for the complimentary tickets.

 

 

Fringe-Worthy Entertainment

A bright, beautiful Sunday afternoon was the perfect backdrop for my second day at Pittsburgh Fringe.

The glorious sunlight showed the blurred lines separating the performances in the festival and the rich, real lives being lived in the North Side. The festival wasn’t taking over the city. It was highlighting the great stories and original voices everyone there has inside them.

The time had come for the artists in the festival to expose their work. I walked the Mexican War streets feeling like that time was coming for many of the people seeing the shows in the theaters and those feeling them from afar.

Inspiration for a fringe entry struck unexpectedly in the case of this first show.

pittsburgh-fringe-imageIf you’ve walked down a busy street in Scranton, PA in the last several months, there is a chance you witnessed one of this festival’s most passionate and touching shows being born. Well, as creator Vanessa White Hernandes attests, The Hugging Army: An Experience in Connection is not a performance. I agree wholeheartedly. More than anything it is a testimony to the healing capacity of hugging.

When you enter her space, she encourages you to pull up a chair and have a piece of chocolate. That’s what I enjoyed most about her message and its delivery—it wasn’t pushy or aggressive at all. It mirrored her approach to offering free hugs in her hometown. She did so first while bravely wearing a blindfold. Later, she went out again without one to truly connect with the people she hugged.

She shares her stories using several beautiful photographs taken by her wife. And, in the room taking pictures during the testimony I attended, was her son. It’s hard not to be affected by the incredible support she receives from her family and even harder not to offer some of your own via a hug at the show’s end. I didn’t take one of the “Free Hugs” signs Vanessa offered, but I feel much safer knowing there are people like her reaching out and not letting go until things change.

Fluid storytelling filled a lot of my day from the conversational mood of The Hugging Army to two zany improv shows.

unnamed (2)It takes guts to bill your act as “really funny” in the title. Luckily for the St. Louis improv team Awkward Attic Ensemble, their comedy set That Really Funny Improv Show displayed both guts and glory. For a portion of this performance, I was the only person in the audience, but AAE made me feel right at home.

Their subtle approach to improv was epitomized by their dry joke delivery. Whatever the random conversation that carried on between scenes, I felt like I was among friends. The precision of their humor was only enhanced by their chemistry as a troupe. When a joke really landed, the audience and the improvisers laughed in unison. They proved that with some games, at least those involving comedy, there does not have to be a loser.

And, then there was this show, where losing was the only rule.

It turns out that we were wrong when we predicted that only cockroaches would survive the apocalypse. According to Triage, reality shows did as well.

traige-3x3-webEveryone in the audience is forced to take part in the humiliation experienced by its two contestants. A deranged Host brings the pain along with her machine gun bullet sash-wearing pianist sidekick. All while barking through a gas mask, Host forces the players to compete in challenges fashioned after game shows from Project Runway to The Bachelor.

You’d think that Bent Antennae Productions was the real tyrant for constructing a 90-minute improvised show with this bizarre and unpredictable a format. Fortunately, all four performers have ample amounts of physical and comedic stamina to keep the energy high and the audience cackling. It was a disturbingly delightful treat of a show that relished in its schadenfreude and absurdity.

I have to admit that, for much of the weekend, I was craving a more traditional, one-act play theatrical experience. I read in my program that that was precisely what Thoreau, NM’s The Booth was, but its looks were definitely deceiving.

I thought I made a wrong turn when I arrived at the performance. 17523517_781603965325298_590342876739843186_n

I saw a long, white folding table, a few laptops, and dozens of knobs and switches between the light and sound boards. I assumed I was intruding on space of the show’s crew, but, once I noticed audience members already seated, I made my way in. I am so glad I did because I left having seen what remains my number one show of the festival.

The set recreated the tech hubs from which stage managers and board operators make theatre magic a reality. Lance-Eric Skapura’s tight script drags these humble heroes out of the shadows to humanize them for those who are unaware of the great work they do.

Much of the meat of the action takes place during a “pizza cue” for the show that Athena, Paula, and Robert are calling. They joke that this break between cues in the show is so long they could order, receive, and eat a pizza in the interim, but they air their dirty laundry instead.

As stage manager, the show within the show literally hangs on Athena’s every word. Similarly, as an actress, Lisa Germ lights up the room as she hysterically rants about the tribulations of stage crew life in what is supposed to be an inspirational speech for middle schoolers. She still inspired me, though. I’ll never look at stage managers or the ending of West Side Story the same way again.

dorothy-matrix-72dpiAnd you’ll never look at your Gameboy the same again either thanks to The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra. Who is Dorothy Matrix? She’s the heroine of the Super Maestro Bros. video game. Haven’t heard of the game? No problem. After defeating her wicked rival, Dotty has crossed over into our world to share her one of a kind gift.

Armed with just eight Gameboy Classics, Dorothy Matrix (played with eccentric charm by Andrew Davis) conducts a collection of some of the classical genre’s greatest hits. The bombastic flourishes of Beethoven’s 5th lifted me a few inches of my seat during the performance’s finale. I also appreciated the demonstration of the “atonality stone”, which served to deepen Matrix’s fictional mythology and reveal the full potential of her unorthodox instruments. It’s not your grandmother’s symphony concert, but she’d be so much cooler if it was.

My first festival was eye-opening in every sense. I didn’t get a lot of sleep along the way. But every minute of this experience was worth it. I now understand that fringe-worthy entertainment is everywhere as long as we make ourselves able to see it.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For more information about Fringe, click here. 

Fringe Culture

If you’ve been keeping up with our coverage of the Fourth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, you’re probably assuming that this is also my first time attending such an event.

If you did assume that about me, you’re half correct.

Two years ago, I had my very first Pittsburgh Fringe experience. I saw an outdoor performance of an original play produced by my friends. I cherished the chance to support them. I also relished getting a taste of what guerilla theatre can look like and of who it can reach with some professional support.

Little did I know that that small taste, that one play was only the cherry on top of something greater.

This year, I came to realize that it is not just a random assortment of performance pieces. It is a family. Pittsburgh Fringe has its own culture.

I learned that eavesdropping in the lobby before shows just as important as watching the performances. I found it thrilling spotting patrons attending all the same shows as me and trying to guess what the other official Fringe lanyard colors—besides the purple one I wore—signified. It was interesting to hear performers share war stories from other fringe festivals around the country.

It became clear that this festival is an accepting space for all types of storytelling by all types of people. My first day of the Fringe binge featured two one-woman shows. Both were alike in structure, but very dissimilar in content and genre.

p1000995_2Swan? was the first. In it, we follow Essie, the stereotypical ugly duckling. She doesn’t have a home where she was hatched and is told as much by a curmudgeonly bullfrog. With that, she flies off in search of herself. Along her journey, she encounters a cat that teaches her about companionship, a peacock that exposes her to culture, an eagle that brings out her creative side, and a beetle that shows her the silent power of introspection.

Suddenly, with a clearer vision of the beautiful swan she always was, she is finally able to find her tribe.

Kristin Ward wears a lot of hats in this production of Swan?. Literally. She employed light and sound cues to establish an interactive atmosphere for her play. Portraying nearly a dozen characters, she also cleverly uses gesture to switch between various points of view. I admired the playfulness of her custom animal-themed head pieces and of her joyful dance steps. Much of the audience may have been too shy to groove with her onstage, but we were with her in every other way.

Next up was the hilarious Mo-to-the-oncle. This was New York-based actress Melissa Cole’s Bronx hood chronicle of Detroit Price, Jr. When his father losesimg-2737 his vision insurance, it is Detroit Jr. who must give up the shred of street cred he possesses in exchange for his sight. Since the family can’t afford any brand of glasses, all that is left for Detroit is, you guessed it, a monocle.

I simply could not stop laughing at Cole’s joke-a-minute script. She grounds outlandish characters like the country music loving pimp Uncle Sugar Free with the most thorough costumes I’ve seen featured in a solo show. Just when you think there are no more surprises in store, Cole nails a silly original rap and belts out a side-splitting rendition of “What Hurts the Most”. This was my favorite show of the day, if you couldn’t tell.

Luckily, Mo-to-the-oncle was not the only show to incorporate strong musical storytelling elements.

When it comes to that, it’s hard to beat Penelope’s Dragon. This original 45-img-20170131-092118468minute musical comedy by Puppets in Performance welcomes us in song to a peaceful, medieval kingdom. Everything changes when Lester the Jester feeds the baby dragon locked up in the kingdom’s zoo. Drake grows up, escapes his prison, and eventually finds love with a human girl named Penelope. Friendships and family ties are tested as everyone objects to their relationship, including her parents and the brave knight Sir Dirk.

The star of this show is undoubtedly PIP’s detailed and gorgeous puppet design. There were a couple of gasps from my audience when the Drake puppet first flew onstage with his magnificent sequined scales shimmering in the light. The score is a small collection of catchy charm songs that find every rhyme for the word dragon from wagon to waggin’. I also loved Elena Egusquiza’s performance as Penelope whose ferocity and fascination with dragons can be matched only by Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones.

Last on my agenda today was surely one of the more unique pieces in the festival, Teeth and Sinew. It exemplifies the mission statement of the 404501_10150601331240797_648691161_nexperimental theatre company Cup-A-Jo Productions. Through dance, three women embody the real-life account of one woman’s loving turned toxic relationship. The interpretive dance is echoed by a stirring suite of original music and by two artists who hand paint a visceral portrait of the narrator’s struggle with her abuser.

This performance featured an eclectic mix of artistic disciplines. During the final dance interlude, the movement and the voice over synced up to truly breathtaking effect. The most resonant image had to be the twisted collage of hope and regret that the improvised painting evolved into by the show’s end. New meanings and images reveal themselves depending on where and how you look at it.

Right before the house opened for Teeth and Sinew, I overheard the end of What Comes Next: A Hamilton Sing-Along. Of course, I couldn’t help mouthing along with the lyrics with the tracks. I also couldn’t stop smiling when I realized that many of the people having the times of their lives performing at that karaoke extravaganza were kids and tweens.

For me, this was further proof that Pittsburgh Fringe really is for everyone. Whether you love dragons, have memorized all the words to Hamilton, have unfortunate vision insurance, or, like me, you’re guilty of all three, there is a Fringe button and a good time awaiting in the North Side.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

Findings

brain-scan-cropped-300x200This is not a review of the world premiere of Arlene Weiner’s play Findings produced by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. This is a “re-view”.

What’s the difference?

In Findings, running now at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, we repeatedly witness life coach Jennifer Cortland “re-viewing” certain facts and circumstances of her life. Sharing a particularly vulnerable moment with her husband Roger, she painfully admits her greatest fear, that, because she’s made mistakes as a mother, their daughter Lainie hates her. After immediate “re-view”, Jennifer assures herself that this malice is just Lainie’s search for independence.

I admit that I envy Jennifer for her ability to harness the power of positive thinking. My review of Findings is that it is a deeply problematic drama that bites off way more than it can chew. Over its ill-paced 85-minute runtime, issues of race, mental illness, and sexual abuse are pureed together in a blender without the lid on. Unfortunately, the resulting mess could not be cleaned up by the solid efforts of the fully committed cast or by the good intentions of the playwright.

My “re-view” of Findings is that, while guilty of all the offenses I listed above and more, it is commendable for (literally) spotlighting the little-known and insidious effects of frontotemporal dementia. Also known as Pick’s disease, frontotemporal dementia is characterized by a shrinking of the frontal and temporal anterior lobes of the brain. These changes can manifest themselves in a variety of ways including a lack of motivation and impulse control, deterioration of language, and formation of irrational fears.

L-R - Julia De Avilez Rocha, Sam Lothard, Lissa Brennan, Amy Marsalis & John Michna
L-R – Julia De Avilez Rocha, Sam Lothard, Lissa Brennan, Amy Marsalis & John Michna

The last thing that comes to mind when spitfire Gloria Bazon first blazes onstage in a flirtatious flurry is how some of those tragic symptoms will disrupt and destroy her life. That’s a credit to the vibrant performance of Lissa Brennan. Her cheeky candor creates every one of the evening’s very few fleeting (and fizzling) moments of levity. Brennan does rely too heavily on the clichéd choice of portraying Gloria’s fractured mental state by wildly staring off into space, but occasionally—usually in scenes with Amy Marsalis’ Jennifer—her profound sense of confusion is truly gripping.

Long before the disease takes hold of Gloria and her family, we catch her mid-meet cute with Ray Jerome, an African-American man looking to sell a lone puppy to a loving owner. Before we know it, the two are sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner as an engaged couple with Jennifer and her family. Jennifer and Gloria may be sisters, but their similarities end there. Rebellious teen Lainie has a very positive relationship with her artistic, cool, fun-loving “Auntie Glo”.

Things truly begin to crumble when Gloria’s dangerous shopping habit forces Ray to take a job overseas to rescue them from financial ruin. The shocking revelations Gloria makes when he returns home snowball into her devastating diagnosis, her transferal into Jennifer’s care, and into the dark secrets of their childhood finally coming to light.

It’s a wild ride, to say the least. It’s a tedious and emotionally manipulative one, to say the worst.

As Roger and Lainie respectively, John Michnya and Julia de Avilez Rocha are by far the most natural and consistent members of the six-person ensemble. The play never really makes a strong case for why Lainie is so staunchly anti-everything. It is similarly unclear why Roger, a seemingly successful and respected oncologist, has little more invested in the plight of his sister-in-law than annoyance over the cell phone she swipes from him in one scene. Still, they both are clearly doing their best to bring some dimension to their cardboard cutout characters.

Besides the one aspect of its subject matter, another refreshing element of Findings is the passion of first time playwright Arlene Weiner. It seems that it was her lifelong love and exposure to theatre that inspired her to write, workshop, and submit the play for production. When I learned that she is a published poet, I grew nervous that her dialogue would be bogged down by flowery verbiage. While there were a few lines sprinkled throughout that tickled my ear, I never felt compelled to answer a soliloquy with finger snaps.

Honestly, though, I would have preferred snapping in praise to face palming in frustration. There are some disturbing implications about the quality of life victims of Pick’s disease (and ostensibly people with all kinds of disabilities) can have. The selfish character of Jennifer embodies those implications by referring to and eventually acting on them. She’s insensitive and irresponsible and, ultimately, so is the play she’s featured in.

Director Lisa Ann Goldsmith’s uninspired and immutable staging do nothing to smooth out the incredibly rough edges of the play’s content. She and Weiner sidestep nuance and mistake cheap shock value for compelling storytelling.

I wish that I found Findings in the positive spirit in which Weiner wrote it. Sadly, her good intentions paved a road, and it was not to an evening of enjoyable theatre.

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company for the complimentary tickets. Findings runs through March 19th, for more information click here.

Photo by Heather Mull.