Equus

equusWhodunnit? This question has been posed to audiences for centuries of storytelling. Whether it’s a murder mystery or a comedic caper, there’s nothing better than finding out the truth by the journey’s end.

With his Tony Award-winning 1973 play, Peter Shaffer presents an intriguing variation on the genre. Equus is a chilling whydunnit that delves deep into the troubled mind of a man delving deep into the troubled mind of a teenage boy.

With its paramount production of Shaffer’s modern classic, Pittsburgh Public Theater gallops into its 43rd season with the force of a thousand charging stallions.

Holding the reins as director here is, of course, Pittsburgh Public’s artistic director Ted Pappas. Much to heartbreak of many local theatregoers, this season marks his last with the company. Luckily, Equus is a high note in Pappas’s PPT swan song. He delivers a perfectly paced and deliberately acted two hour and twenty minute evening in the theater.

Like any whodunnit, Equus opens with characters learning of a horrific crime. Like any whydunnit, the culprit’s identity is known to all from the beginning.

Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Daniel Krell as Dr. Martin Dysart
Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Daniel Krell as Dr. Martin Dysart

Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Daniel Krell) speaks directly to the audience about a case that has come across his radar. In a fit of mania, seventeen year old Alan Strang (Spencer T. Hamp) brutally blinds six horses with a metal spike. Dysart’s discussion of the Strang case is no longer abstract when court magistrate Hesther Salomon (the always compelling Lisa Velten Smith) basically drops the boy on Dysart’s doorstep.

In an effort to discover the method behind Alan’s madness, Martin turns to Alan’s parents, Frank (Timothy Carter) and Dora (Nancy McNulty). Martin quickly unearths Frank’s utter intolerance for the religion that Dora constantly thrusts upon Alan and the damage it has done to Alan’s mental state. After resisting for a while, Alan too opens up about his first real life experience with a horse outside of staring into the eye of the horse on the poster his dad gives him to replace one depicting Jesus’s crucifixion.

The experience of riding a stranger’s horse was transcendent for Alan and the start of his journey down an increasingly dark path. We learn that Alan meets a young woman named Jill (Jessie Wray Goodman), who works at a local stable and offers Alan a job there. Their instant attraction sparks something in Alan that brings his obsession with horses and his carnal desires to their inevitable violent conclusion.

Before you pick up the phone to call PETA, know that there were no horses harmed in this production of Equus.

The animals are portrayed by a sextet of strapping male actors (including Ben Blazer playing Nugget, Alan’s favorite horse) wearing elaborate foot and headpieces realized by costume designer Tilly Grimes. Pappas beautifully balances the pageantry of the horses’ many thrilling entrances with the grotesqueness of Alan’s twisted relationships with them.

Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Ben Blazer as the horse, Nugget
Spencer T. Hamp as Alan and Ben Blazer as the horse, Nugget

The psychological cat and mouse game between Alan and Martin is made all the more exhilarating by the fact that, at any given moment, it is unclear who is the cat and who is the mouse. Pappas ratchets up the tension and finds tremendous meaning in the play’s gray areas. He pushes his audience and his actors to their very limits.

Equus is probably most famous for the 2007 Broadway production featuring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to find discussion of Radcliffe’s performance in the show than it is to find discussion and photographic evidence of Radcliffe’s nude scene in the production. While that scene is pivotal to the show and, in this production in particular, spellbinding to behold, it shouldn’t distract from the incredible amount of work that the actor playing Alan must put in before then to make that scene land.

It certainly does not distract from Hamp’s beguiling work because he is laid bare before the audience long before he removes his clothing. His Alan is a horrifying reminder of what can happen when parents attempt to craft their children’s minds in their own image. Carter and McNulty have separate vicious moments with Hamp, but their anguish in their roles as confused parents is unmistakably sympathetic.

Hamp fills the stage (an elegant metaphor for the industrial, prison-like recesses of Alan’s and Martin’s minds created by scenic designer James Noone) whether he’s in the fetal position under a blanket in the corner or commanding center stage riding high on Nugget’s back.

At times, it feels like Martin Dysart is the audience’s patient. A lot about Martin’s personal life and nightmares are revealed via monologue, but Krell very effectively uses the silences between them divulge the most about his complicated character. It is a tour de force role and he delivers a truly tour de force performance to match.

I left the O’Reilly Theater an even bigger fan of Equus than I was when I went in. It is a play that is relevant not because its subject matter is ripped from the headlines but because the various characters’ searches for deeper meaning in life and its ugliness resonate.

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production (literally for me) brought that point home. It’s no Trojan horse, it’s the real deal.

Equus plays at the O’Reilly Theater through October 29th. For more information, click here.

Photos by Michael Henninger

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City

CT1710_FunnyThing_573x437City Theatre’s dynamic production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City may not be for the faint of heart, but it is about the faint of heart.

This mounting marks the opening of City’s 43rd season and the Pittsburgh premiere of Halley Feiffer’s fizzy and caustic comedy. Unfortunately, these forces are at war here. Fortunately, the impeccable set design, quartet of wonderful performances, and precise direction that City Theatre brings to the table overpower Feiffer’s funny albeit inert script.

Four characters—a mother, her daughter, another mother, and her son—sit or lay in a hospital room aggressively, vulgarly, silently, and desperately in search of release.

Jenni Putney as Karla and
Jenni Putney as Karla and Helena Ruoti as Marcie

A young aspiring comedian named Karla (a sweet and salty Jenni Putney) furiously scribbles in a notebook as her mother snores alongside her tethered to the hospital bed by an IV and nose cannula. Marcie (Helena Ruoti, not letting her limited mobility get in the way of her excellent comedic timing) remains asleep through her daughter’s entire rundown of a new bit she wants to incorporate into her act.

I won’t go into specifics of the bit because its controversial content clearly lost a lot of audience members right off the bat. Luckily, the humor in the play only improves from this low point on.

Middle-aged, disheveled Don (Tim McGeever) enters halfway through Karla’s impromptu rehearsal and is horrified by the indelicate nature of her jokes. But he too is tethered to this room by his own ailing mother Geena (Kendra McLaughlin), who is in much more dire condition than Marcie, and by the dissolution of his family thanks to his wife’s desire to leave him and his son’s penchant for stealing money from his bank account.

170919_CityTheatre_FunnyThing_044Unlikely as it may seem, tech multi-millionaire pessimist Don and down-on-her-luck pessimist Karla share far more than a pair of sick mothers. They form a messy, unorthodox bond that will have you rooting for them against all the imaginary odds they try to put in their own way. It’s as much a love story between those two people as it between them and their mothers and between them and themselves.

If you don’t know playwright Halley Feiffer’s name, it’s not for lack of trying on her part. She and this play, in particular, have been taking the theatre scene across the country by storm in recent years. 

Off-Broadway company MCC Theatre staged the world premiere of A Funny Thing Happened… in the spring of 2016. As you can imagine, it wasn’t difficult for word of mouth for a play with a title that long to spread fast. On the momentum of that successful New York run (including the coveted designation of New York Times Critic’s Pick), A Funny Thing Happened… made its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse (starring Feiffer in the lead role) this fall.

While I found A Funny Thing Happened… to be somewhat of a disappointment as a script, I was not immune to its crowd-pleasing qualities. Framed by a rocky start and an unsatisfying ending, it has lots of laughs and a few moments of genuine emotional impact to offer. Director Joshua Kahan Brody gets the most of the comedy and pathos eliciting the best kinds of chuckles and tears, those that sneak up on you.

The first interaction between Don and Karla is less meet-cute and more hilarious sliding-curtains farce. Brody knew just when to make the chemistry between the characters combust and when to let it mellow out.

What’s missing on the page is a logical arc outside of the inevitable tragic fate that befalls characters waiting for tragedy in a cancer ward.

170919_CityTheatre_FunnyThing_014While still mostly a mystery, we learn the most about Don and how his choices have landed him here wearing sweatpants and a ripped jacket, despite his exorbitant wealth. Tim McGeever’s defeated body language lays it all out for us before Don even has a chance to explain his plight. His charming and adorkable performance is the big, beating heart of this show. When Don does eventually let his walls down for Karla, it feels like he’s entrusting his own big, beating heart to all of us as well.

If you have to sit in a hospital room while your loved one’s health deteriorates, there’s probably no better companion than Don. That is entirely a credit to McGeever’s remarkable work.

If hospitals do make you uncomfortable, you’re still in for a treat with scenic designer Tony Ferrieri’s uncanny realization of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. From the dry erase boards listing the nurses on duty (stage hands cleverly costumed in scrubs by Michael Montgomery) to the various pieces of hospital equipment, there is not a single detail overlooked here.

Ferrieri simultaneously grounds City Theatre’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City and allows it to fly.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City runs through October 15. For more information, click here.

Photos by Kristi Jan Hoover.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company Represents In Its New Season

15202584_10154240854639482_3157747837221990337_nIf you enjoyed the historical gravitas of The Homestead Strike of 1892, get ready for a whole group of productions spearheaded by that show’s playwright, Mark Clayton Southers. He is the artistic director and founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, and is responsible for bringing more diversity, representation, and originality to the city’s theatre scene. It’s not normally a compliment to call something “more of the same”, but when it comes to PPTCo’s 2017-2018 season in comparison to the company’s acclaimed past productions, that statement is a compliment and the truth.

An exciting regional premiere will set the tone for another unforgettable year of shows. Eugene Lee’s East Texas Hot Links opens on September 29th and plays at PPTCO’s downtown penthouse theater space through November 5th.

21728303_10155106170854482_5179045031400984274_nThe play takes place in 1955 but, unfortunately, the insidious actions of the KKK that underscores the daily lives of black Texans who congregate at Charlesetta’s Top o’ the Hill Cafe in the play still underscore the lives of Americans today. The violence has even cost some young men in the town their lives. A man named Delmus blows into the cafe one night determined to celebrate good news in his life, but his friends find it harder to get in the spirit. They all strive to make a normal night like any other, but their efforts are in vain. East Texas Hot Links comes to Pittsburgh after earning raves in multiple Chicago productions in 1995 and 2016.

heat-of-the-night-IMG_7327-300x216PPTCO’s next production, In the Heat of the Night, is also a resurrection of an established property. John Ball’s novel has inspired an Academy Award-winning film starring Sidney Poitier, an Emmy-winning television series, and this stage adaptation by playwright Matt Pelfrey.

This thriller takes place in Argo, Alabama in the dead of summer 1962. When the body of a dead white man is discovered, the blame for the murder quickly lands on the mysterious Virgil Tibbs. Much to the chagrin of the people that judged him solely based on his skin color, it turns out that Tibbs is himself a homicide detective. With all the town’s judgmental and fearful eyes on him, Tibbs agrees to take on the case., but finds that he may have met his match this time. Solve the mystery alongside Tibbs as In the Heat of the Night plays from February 16th to March 25th.

joe-turner-IMG_7329-300x171Iconic Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Pittsburgh native August Wilson chronicled the life of African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century with his 10-part series called “The Pittsburgh Cycle”. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone takes place during the 1910’s and sees its characters still reeling from the aftershocks of slavery.

A Pittsburgh boarding house is the destination for many descendants of slaves migrating from the south to the north where they can fully embrace the freedom they won in the Civil War. Father and daughter Herald and Zonia Loomis are not only trying to escape their past but are also pursuing their long lost wife/mother. When the Loomises reach the boarding house, they (Herald specifically) immediately butt heads with owner Seth Holly and eventually warm up to his wife and fellow owner Bertha. The Hollys, Loomises and other transient residents of the boarding house all rely on each other to come to terms with the fact that an era of their lives and of their race has come to an end.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone marks the return of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company to the historic home of August Wilson at 1727 Bedford Avenue after last season’s production of Seven Guitars. Joe Turner… runs from April 27th to June 3rd.

Don’t worry about Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s downtown space being neglected while Joe Turner’s Come and Gone takes over August Wilson’s former home. Overlapping that run from May 31st to June 10th back at Liberty Avenue is the 13th Theatre Festival in Black and White.

This signature annual event is no longer just a PPTCo tradition but also something that all avid theatre patrons in the city look forward to every year. The goal of the festival is to produce a collection of short new plays by up and coming and established writers alike. PPTCo’s twist on this familiar formula is the pairing of white directors and black playwrights and black directors with white playwrights to create theatre that combines those two unique points of view.

energy-1024-300x169This year’s theme is “Energy”. A play that I wrote was featured in the festival a few years ago, and I can’t say enough how culturally and artistically enriching the experience was for me. I can definitely in good faith promise the same for audiences who attend the upcoming festival.

Whether your theatrical preference is for time-tested classics, inventive adaptations, or intriguing new works, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company has you covered.

For tickets and more on Pittsburgh Playwright’s upcoming season, check out their website here. And stay tuned for our reviews throughout the year!

Photos taken from PPTCo’s website.  

There’s No Place Like City Theatre’s 2017-2018 Season

FB_IMG_1504555887586“We are one City for this city.”

There are tons of leaders and movements that launch their campaigns on platforms of unity. Some are genuinely attempting to heal insidious schisms in society while others say and do whatever it takes to curry favor even if it means lying about what they believe in. The slogan above belongs to City Theatre, which has proven over the last four decades that, as a company, it is a prime example of the former.

Their upcoming 43rd season boasts six shows, all of which are Pittsburgh premieres and two of which are world premieres. Artistic Producer Reg Douglas bills this “standout year” as a “celebration of bold storytellers who are creating timely and thrilling plays that entertain and enlighten”. It’s a feast for anyone with an endless artistic appetite.

CT1710_FunnyThing_573x437If I had to describe City Theatre’s first show of its 2017-2018 season in one word…I couldn’t. I would need at least 21 words to tell you about Halley Feiffer’s black comedy because that’s how many words are in its title. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City may be an extremely lengthy title that “barely fits in a Tweet” according to City’s marketing director Laura Greenawalt, but no one can fault it for lack of specificity. Greenawalt jokingly warns that there a “no refunds” for patrons who walk into the theater expecting to see Stephen Sondheim’s musical romp A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Feiffer’s play sets the stage for the most unlikely meet-cute for Karla and Don. She’s an up and coming comic. He’s in the throes of a messy divorce. They’re both visiting their ailing mothers in the titular gynecologic oncology unit. Somehow flirtation, provocative conversations, and, most of all, laughs ensue. In its Off-Broadway run, A Funny Thing Happened… received enthusiastic acclaim and I’m sure the same will happen when it takes Pittsburgh by storm from September 23 through October 15.

CT1711_Tomatom_573x437The opening of PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Old Man and The Old Moon marks a triumphant homecoming for this band (in every sense of the word) of storytellers. Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Dan Weschler, Matt Nuernberg, and Ryan Melia began their journey together as students at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 and made stops along the way including various stages/critics’ top pick lists across the country and beside Meryl Streep in her film Rick and the Flash.

The Old Man and the Old Moon, playing from November 11 through December 3, is an all-ages show that combines an indie-folk score, thrilling movement, and puppetry in a way that defies genre to tell the story of the Old Man. His simple life of keeping the moon bright is interrupted when his beloved wife goes missing. The Old Man embarks on an epic and enchanting journey of his own to find her sailing across the seas and into the audience’s hearts.

CT1712_AbsoluteBrightness_573x437Disappearance is also the spark for The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Audiences can search for the missing teen with the help of a host of colorful characters all played by one actor from January 20-February 18. Academy Award winner  James Lecesne (and co-founder of the LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention organization The Trevor Project) gives life to the struggles Leonard faces being out in a less-than-accepting New Jersey town. The detective assigned to search for Leonard uncovers much more about the impact Leonard’s spirit has on the people in and around his life before Leonard’s own fate is revealed.

For anyone who attended City Theatre’s Momentum Festival this past June, the next two shows will definitely ring a few bells. The 2017 Momentum Festival included workshops and readings of new works including Citizens Market by Cori Thomas and The White Chip by Sean Daniels. City’s Director of New Play Development Clare Drobot takes pride in the company’s proclivity for “foster[ing] new work at a variety of stages” and these two productions embody that initiative.

CT1713_CitizensMarket_573x437The first, Citizens Market, playing from March 3-25, is one of the aforementioned world premieres. In this story of New York City at its finest, immigrants from around the globe staff a local supermarket. As Hamilton taught us, they do indeed “get the job done” but the work doesn’t stop when the store closes. They must navigate a world that discriminates against them with all the hope they can muster. Luckily for them, that’s quite a lot.

Drobot worked closely with playwright Thomas and director Douglas all summer and will continue to revise the script throughout the rehearsal process to make it the best it can be. “It’s exciting to share those changes with audiences and there will be noticeable differences between the spring readings and the March premiere,” Drobot teased.

CT1714_WhiteChip_573x437-1Fresh from his thrilling direction of Benjamin Scheuer’s deeply affecting autobiographical musical The Lion, Sean Daniels returns to City Theatre as a playwright with a raw look inside his own life. As this is The White Chip’s second production, its script will only undergo some minor refinement during this production process.

The white chip signifies a milestone in Sean’s (the character and the writer) ongoing struggle with alcoholism. Even with a strong support system and goals to live for, Sean sometimes finds himself just barely hanging on. The play is a comedy, but it provides no chaser for the harsh and bitter realities that addicts brave to maintain sobriety. The White Chip plays from April 7 through May 6.

CT1715_NomadMotel_573x437The world premiere of Fear the Walking Dead writer Carla Ching’s Nomad Motel, opening on May 12 and closing on June 3, definitely ensures that this season will end on a high note. Alix, her twin brothers, and her friend Mason find themselves away from home not because they’re rebelling or avoiding chores. Their parents’ neglect (motivated by wildly different circumstances) forces the children to fend for themselves and make a life out in the wild. And, by wild, I mean a series of motel rooms in California.

If you can’t wait for late September for the opening of A Funny Thing Happened…, City is presenting a return limited engagement of Late Night Catechism by Maripat Donovan, featuring Kimberly Richards from September 7-17. A devout nun is your host, teacher, and conscience for an evening that will tickle your funny bone as much as it enriches your soul. Who doesn’t need that nowadays?

City Theatre has thrived for so long on Bingham Street in Southside (and in Oakland before that) because it consistently presents well-rounded, well-produced, and responsible entertainment. They keep audiences and artists coming back for more every year because, according to Douglas, those “who call Pittsburgh home can call City home”.

For tickets and more information about City Theatre’s upcoming season, click here. 

Point Park Gets to Work on Another Eight Shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse

11391480_10153367774739464_1509896223937134191_nSummer may be ending, but things are about to heat up at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

The home of Point Park University theatre— The REP Professional Theatre Company and the Conservatory Theatre Company—is about to welcome eight exciting new productions into its hallowed halls for its 2017-2018 season. Artistic Director Ron Lindblom confirms that the amount of enjoyment the audience receives from the high-quality productions is equal to the educational benefits that the student cast and crew members receive.

“The Conservatory is geared towards training young artists and these classics really give the students the opportunity to get the training they need,” he said. It’s a win/win situation for anyone who steps foot in one of Point Park’s theatre spaces with the only variable being the shows in question that are chosen.

WebPosterBOYSKicking things off for Point Park’s season is a critically-acclaimed musical, authored by one of musical theatre’s most prolific and iconic writing teams. Making its Pittsburgh premiere, The Scottsboro Boys with music and lyrics by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb tells the dramatic true story of nine African-American teenagers falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white women on a train riding through Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The media circus and infamous series of trials that followed were plagued by extreme prejudice against the defendants and unfair judicial practices. If you’re expecting the fun conventions of musical theatre to make the dark subject matter more palatable, you’re out of luck here.

As they did with shows like Cabaret, Chicago, and Curtains, Kander and Ebb have brilliantly framed this tragic narrative in a distinct and unique theatrical style. Rather than using vaudeville or golden age musical comedy as its structure, The Scottsboro Boys is built as a minstrel show. In the early 19th century, these performances featured mostly white actors in blackface mocking African-Americans. In Kander and Ebb’s musical, originally directed on Broadway by Susan Stroman, the tropes of the minstrel show are employed to underline the countless injustices that ruined the lives of the titular characters. Lindblom laments that he finds “great relevance” for a story about black men being discriminated against in the legal system in the headlines of the modern world. Fortunately, this production is being helmed by Tomè Cousin whose frequent collaboration with Stroman makes him “perfect” director for this piece. The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Rauh Theatre from September 8-24.

Thankfully for patrons looking for musicals that provide some level of escapism, there are productions of Kiss Me, Kate and 42nd Street in the pipeline following The Scottsboro Boys.

WebPosterKATEBoth are “backstage musicals” that tell stories of two troubled theatre productions. Original Tony Award-winning Best Musical Kiss Me, Kate—featuring a classic score by Cole Porter and a book by Sam and Bella Spewack—introduces us to divorced couple Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi who are co-starring in a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Although it’s clear that love still lingers between them, they simply cannot stand each other. They’re surrounded by a host of wacky characters, including a pair of gangsters with a bone to pick with Fred, who prove against all comedic odds that the show must go on. Kiss Me, Kate runs at the Rockwell Theatre from October 20-29.

WebPoster42Wide-eyed ingenue Peggy Sawyer is the heroine of the tap-tastic musical 42nd Street. The only thing bigger than her dreams of stardom are the show’s numerous dance breaks supplied by Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s score. Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book is the tale as old as time in show business of what happens when an inexperienced understudy takes over for a seasoned star. What happens is musical theatre magic that has been enchanting audiences since legendary director Gower Champion’s original 1980 Broadway production. 42nd Street also plays the Rockwell Theatre from March 16-25.

As usual, Point Park offers as much variety in genre, setting, and subject matter in their play selections for the season as they do in their musical selections. Whether contemporary or classic, the scripts illuminate points of views of a diverse group of characters.

WebPosterMOORSIn the case of Jaclyn Backhaus’ You on the Moors Now, playing at the Studio Theater from November 10-December 3, those characters are rather well known. Jane Eyre, Lizzy Bennet. Cathy Earnshaw, and Jo March are no longer just well-established fixtures of high school English class syllabi. Backhaus imagines the four 19th century literary leading ladies running away together and comparing notes on what their experiences in life have taught them. The women exist in a sort of timeless state where modern references and profanity are fair game for their epic girl talk session.

WebPosterALBAThe five women in Frederico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba would most likely also benefit from a vacation from their dissatisfying lives. They are all sisters who spend their time dreaming of getting out of their mother’s house and truly experiencing life. Their routine is broken by the appearance of town hunk Pepe el Romano and his flirtation with the family’s eldest sister. Desire under the Bernarda Alba’s roof proves to be a dangerous thing that sets the stage for a frank look at the ways in which members of the opposite sex relate. The House of Bernarda Alba plays at the Rauh Theater from February 23-March 11.

WebPosterDEVILRussian literature served as the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s black comedy A Devil Inside. This gory romp sees Gene receiving far more than just cake on his 21st birthday. His mother finally reveals the truth behind his father’s death—he was murdered!—and insists that it is Gene’s duty to avenge him. He’s simultaneously disturbed by the request and distracted by his infatuation with Caitlin, who lusts after her Russian literature professor who lusts after the blood of his nemesis. For the non-squeamish, A Devil Inside runs at the Studio Theater from February 2-18.

The final two shows are either adaptations or translations of well-known works and living, breathing proof that theatre is an ageless, universal language.

WebPosterMAGIThe Gift of the Magi, adapted by Jon Jory, opens at the Rauh Theatre just in time for the holiday season. From December 8-17, you can learn the valuable lesson at the center of the story of Della and Jim Young. They are a young couple struggling to make end’s meet, but who are still determined to make Christmas special for one another by purchasing the perfect gifts. As with most stories set around that time of year, the true meaning of the season is explored to touching effect.

WebPosterVANYALast but not least is Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya playing from April 6-15 at the Rauh Theater. It’s an example of one of Chekhov’s estate dramas that features as much unrequited love as you can fit on a single stage. The enchanting Yelena is the object of two men’s affections. Unfortunately, they are crippled by profound existential crises exacerbated by the facts that she’s married and the estate, on which Vanya, one of the men, lives, is about to be sold. It’s all in a day’s work for a Chekhov character.

Along with The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss Me, Kate, and A Devil Inside, one performance of Uncle Vanya will be followed by a lecture in a completely new series called Freud on Forbes. Representatives from the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center will take audience members into the writers’ brains armed only with the text of the script. These talks are sure to take your post-show conversations with friends to the next level. And that’s fitting because Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse 2017-2018 season of shows seeks to do the same thing for theatre.

For tickets and more information on the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s upcoming season, click here. 

Cloud 9

18010569_10155290370617171_8852994147793860716_nCloud 9 is a peculiar, challenging play. Its title brings to mind feelings of euphoria and images of paradise. On the other hand, Throughline Theatre Company’s production of Caryl Churchill’s controversial and unorthodox examination of the social and sexual aftershocks of British colonialism—under the unfocused direction of Edwin Lee Gibson—conjures feelings of befuddlement and images of purgatory.

To be fair, Churchill’s script is a real high wire act. The play is staged in two acts. The first is set in 1880 while the second is contemporaneously set in 1979, when it premiered at Dartington College of Arts in southwest England. But, while a century has passed for the world the characters exist in between acts, only 25 years have passed in the lives of the characters themselves. To add Brechtian insult to Brechtian injury, nearly every role in both acts is played by an actor of the opposite gender or opposite race than what the character would typically be. On top of that, the actors all play completely different characters in the second act than they do in the first.

This choice wasn’t a preemptive strike by Churchill to take advantage of the The Man in the High CastleConfederateBlack America-led alternative history craze gripping pop culture by the throat at the moment. It’s an attempt to force the audience to give familiar characters (a unappreciated wife) in familiar circumstances (a mother coming to terms with the choices made by her adult children) a second look and, more importantly, a second thought.

Unfortunately, Gibson’s work here steers clear of any of this potential for resonance thanks to the countless tonal shifts that take place throughout. In Act I, some of the wise cracking characters appear to be straight out of a 1970’s sitcom like The Jeffersons while others fret about like they’re straight out of a BBC period drama like Downton Abbey. He handles some of the more frank and frankly disturbing moments where the characters act on their sexual desires with a complete lack of sensitivity.

That leaves it up to the ensemble to get to the heart of Churchill’s message and, thankfully, Gibson has assembled a very capable group of actors.

When the play opens in an English-colonized African nation in turmoil, we meet Clive, a colonial administrator played hilariously by Malic Williams—an African-American male actor. In the wake of protests from the local people, Clive does his best to strategize and protect his wife Betty (Liam Ezra Dickinson, a white male actor), their son Edward (Jalina K. McClarin, an African-American female actor), their daughter Victoria (a crude prop), and Betty’s mother Maud (Tracey D. Turner, an African-American female actor). It is soon revealed that both Betty and Clive have wandering eyes and their own unique, complicated relationships with their “boy” Joshua (Victor Aponite, a white male actor).

It also becomes clear early on that there is a strange coincidence involving Ellen (Betty and Clive’s governess) and Mrs. Saunders (Betty and Clive’s widowed acquaintance). The striking and versatile Maeve Harten plays both women to great comedic effect thanks to a few well-timed entrances. She turns from downtrodden to determined at the drop of a curly red wig.

While the first half of the show is definitely its weakest, it is anchored by Shannon Knapp’s atmospheric and ominous sound design. The more surefooted second half is conversely muddled by Paige Borak’s distracting and obvious lighting design.

One hundred/twenty-five years after Act I, Victoria (McClarin) is all grown up and in an unfulfilling marriage of her own. She meets a lesbian single mother named Lin (a soulful and earnest Turner) in a park in London and eventually embarks on a sexual awakening. Along for the ride is Edward (Williams), who is at odds with the gender politics of his relationship with his lover Gerry (a sultry Dickinson). Looking on in prim disapproval is Betty (a once again scene stealing Harten), widowed and grappling with loneliness.

In trying to prepare you to grapple with all the pleasures and pitfalls of Throughline Theatre’s Cloud 9, I am also reminded of the game where people gaze up in the sky and compare their ideas for what the clouds rolling by up there most closely resemble. This production is proof that, no matter how hard a person might try to impose their vision on it, a cloud is ultimately just a distant, amorphous blob.

Cloud 9 plays at the Henry Heymann Theater in the Stephen Foster Memorial through August 19th. For more information, click here.

Million Dollar Quartet

20664445_10154837815581696_2542258192457373764_nThere are two kinds of jukebox musicals in the world.

In one type, the songs originally performed by an established musical act are incorporated into that person or group’s biography. Examples of these highly marketable, live docudramas include Jersey Boys and the upcoming Pittsburgh CLO production, On Your Feet!. The second is the jukebox musical that channels the spirit of the artist(s) whose songs it repurposes to fit a completely original and/or zany narrative. Examples of these highly marketable, unabashed spectacles include Rock of Ages and recently closed Pittsburgh CLO production, Mamma Mia!.

Pittsburgh CLO’s current production, Million Dollar Quartet, is the best of both worlds: captivating and dazzling. It doesn’t transition as smoothly into a sing-a-long encore or succeed fully at humanizing its subjects as other jukebox musicals do, but this production is remarkable because of the inhuman talents of its multi-hyphenate ensemble,

Before I get to them, though, I have to call out the stars whose names appear above the title: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Originally conceived and directed by Floyd Mutrux and co-written by Mutrux and Colin Escott, Million Dollar Quartet is a living time capsule of the fateful night of December 4, 1956 when those icons played together at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The man who brought them all there that cold evening, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, is also responsible for kick starting each of their illustrious careers and narrating this show.

Quartet opens with a thrilling rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” and, to my surprise, the two hours that follow feature real stakes, genuine conflict, and solid laughs.

Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_MILLION_DOLLAR_QUARTET._Photo_by_Matt_PolkPhillips must decide by the end of the day whether he wants to fold his independent record label into the juggernaut label RCA. If he does, he’ll get the chance to collaborate with Elvis again after selling Presley’s contract to RCA to save Sun from financial ruin, but he also risks losing the authority to take the creative risks that put him and his artists on the map. He teases the presence of Presley to coax the other members of the quartet to participate in the impromptu jam session.

One by one, the men and Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne (Zurin Villanueva, too skilled a vocalist for this show not to be titled Million Dollar Quintet) trickle in—their swaggering approaches to the studio and live musical exploits inside it are framed by Derek McLane’s intimately detailed set. Up and coming pianist and showman Lewis spars with bitter guitarist Perkins about the prospects of launching/relaunching their careers. Presley laments his status as an in-demand musician being forced to cross over into the film industry while Cash positions himself to take his music to the next level.

Whenever the going gets too tough, they break into another rip roaring standard of that era including everything from  “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Hound Dog” to “See You Later, Alligator”.

Christopher Ryan Grant prevents the clunky flashback scenes sprinkled throughout the show from stopping it cold. His Sam Phillips is a complex portrait of a person trying to survive in the recording business, blending the sharpness of a shrewd business man and the sensitivity of an earnest music lover.

Phillips’s cavalcade of stars is portrayed by another cavalcade of stars who shoot past cartoonish imitation and land on an uncanny embodiment of the quartet that can only be explained by reincarnation.

Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_MILLION_DOLLAR_QUARTET._Photo_Matt_PolkMartin Kaye may not have taken home a Tony Award for his performance as Jerry Lee Lewis, like original star Levi Kreis did, but it’s clear that Kaye has played this part around the world for over five years because there are few people on the planet who can do what he does. He is a lightning rod of energy with great balls of fire coming out his fingers and smoke coming out of his ears. James Snyder has proven his abilities as a professional dreamboat and hip swiveler in Broadway shows like Cry-Baby and If/Then, but it’s still jaw dropping to witness how effortlessly he harnesses Elvis Presley’s virility and charisma into every move he makes.

As Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins respectively, Derek Keeling and Billy Finn’s musicality shines through in their subtle renderings of the quartet’s least flashy members. Keeling’s low notes pierce through your soul even as they rumble the floor beneath you. The palpable passion in Finn’s rockabilly crooning reveal his desperation to reclaim his former glory

I credit director David Ruttura and musical director James Cunningham in equal measure for putting together a musical that I went into having no intentions on enjoying. I now have to admit that it was just about pitch perfect in every way.

I am living proof that you don’t need to know every lyric to these songs or every detail about these people’s lives to get the most out of this snapshot of rock ‘n’ roll history. You only need to marvel at how history always finds a way of repeating itself.

Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Benedum Center through August 13, for tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

Newsies

20106537_10154782789481696_7925143825675537356_nBelieve it or not, times used to be harder for those with a career in the journalism industry.   

No clear victor has emerged in this war between modern journalists and their cantankerous subjects who cry “Fake news!” in the face of all negative press. Unless you consider late night TV talk shows who need look no further than current headlines to find material for a week’s worth of broadcasts.

There’s a similar battle brewing that pits those who write the news against those who make it at the Benedum Center in Disney’s Newsies presented by Pittsburgh CLO.

Fortunately, the titular characters of this show—a ragtag group of poor young men selling newspapers on the streets of New York City—are aided in telling their underdog story (based on the actual Newsboys strike of 1899) by toe-tapping Tony-winning tunes courtesy of iconic composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman and supported by a production that literally leaps off the stage and into your heart.

Joey Barreiro and Daniel Quadrino
Joey Barreiro and Daniel Quadrino

When the illustrious publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the price that the delivery boys must pay for their daily stack of newspapers, a dreamer named Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) quickly becomes the face of a strike and leader of a newly established newsie union. What Jack desires most is to leave the closed off Big Apple for the wide open plains of Santa Fe. Still, he knows that his true responsibility is to his colorful band of fellow newsies including his handicapped best friend Crutchie (Daniel Quadrino) and a new-to-the-game brother duo, Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and Les (William Sendera).

With Jack’s heart and Davey’s brains the only thing left for the union to acquire is a voice. They find one in what was, at the time, the most unlikely of sources, a female reporter. After a series of run-ins with Jack, including one at a vaudeville theater owned and headlined by the brassy yet classy Medda Larkin (another bravura turn by Patricia Phillips, last seen and raved about by me in CLO’s In The Heights), Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) follows and shepherds the story of the strike all the way to the front page.

Cameron Anika Hill, Patricia Phillips & Carina-Kay Louchiey
Cameron Anika Hill, Patricia Phillips & Carina-Kay Louchiey

Katherine and the newsies tangle with a variety other baddies, including the shady detention center warden nicknamed Snyder “the Spider” (Connor McCanlus), but when the word “Disney” is in the billing, you know how the story is going to end.

That doesn’t make the journey to the show’s tidy, hopeful ending any less satisfying though. For that, we owe the acrobatic and hunky male ensemble our thanks and unanimous slack-jawed expressions of amazement. With only a first name and a creative variation on Dixon Reynolds’ authentic newsie ensemble, each actor distinguishes his character from the others with memorable line readings. As Spot Conlon and Race respectively, Sky Bennett and Michael James carried the banner most admirably and adorably.

Richard J. Hinds is the only member of the ensemble that we don’t see onstage, but his ebullient direction and choreography is the backbone of the production. He provides both actors and audience with a much needed breather from the gymnastic wizardry by employing dynamically stark march sequences during a few of the show’s many dance breaks.

DSC_6833-RETOUCH_1Four people who know those dance breaks all too well are Newsies veterans and lead the cast in the roles of Jack, Katherine, Crutchie, and Davey. In the show’s often-reprised signature theme “Santa Fe”, Barreiro’s transcendent final notes shoot far past New Mexico somewhere into the stratosphere and bring down the Act I curtain with the sheer force of their gravity. He is extremely well-matched by Laird who conveys a winning wit in her difficult patter “Watch What Happens”.

Bruce Brockman’s urban-industrial sets evoke West Side Story during group scenes and Romeo and Juliet during Jack and Katherine’s romantic Act II duet.

Crutchie and Davey’s characters are the closest that this show gets to tragedy, but the inner warmth they both display couldn’t be more uplifting. On one healthy leg, Quadrino stands tallest with a smile and a spirit that could light up the whole theater. While I wish that Langton sang more, it was lovely to witness Davey’s arc as living proof of the positive effects of male fraternity.

DSC_6350-RETOUCH_1Sharing the byline, as book writer, alongside Menken and Feldman is a legend in his own right, Harvey Fierstein. They originally envisioned Newsies as nothing more than a licensing opportunity for regional and amateur theaters. The original 1992 film, starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale was a massive flop, but it gained a huge cult following in the intervening years.

Everything changed when the show premiered at the Papermill Playhouse in 2011 to rave reviews. The production was fast tracked to Broadway where it ran for over two years and inspired its own fervent legion of admirers called “Fansies”.

You may feel silly counting yourself among the Fansies, but there’s no better argument for their cause than Hinds’ electric production of one of Disney Theatrical’s strongest outings. It does what every successful musical is supposed to, inspires audiences sing and dance about what the characters are singing and dancing about.

Newsies plays through July 23rd at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

In the Heights

heightsA lot has changed since the 2007 Off-Broadway premiere of In the Heights. For the career of its creator/composer/lyricist/original star Lin-Manuel Miranda. For the landscape of musical theatre—thanks to his 2015 follow up Hamilton. For the quality of life for immigrants of all origins in a country where its president has railed so viciously against them.

Why then has this show—that might seem immature when compared to a sung-through magnum opus about America’s ten dollar founding father—survived to be mounted so exuberantly by Pittsburgh CLO?

It’s because Miranda and book writer Quiara Algería Hudes (who has picked up a Pulitzer Prize since Heights opened) have created something that is both timeless and a period piece. They made a point of not including the gang violence and hard crime that is endemic of stories about Latin-American people, but it’s hard not to speculate what these characters would endure in today’s crueler world. Instead, they make a sweet character named Usnavi—who rhymes “awning” and “Good morning” and references Cole Porter in his opening rap—the narrator. Seems strange until you count the show’s four Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and numerous regional productions.

Stepping in for Miranda to wear Usnavi’s signature hat is the luminescent Joshua Grosso. If your heart doesn’t beat faster when his charming, nerdy energy bubbles into a hilarious, high-pitched squeal, you don’t have a pulse. His rapping and singing chops are of equal measure as are his dramatic and comedic capabilities. From the start of the show, you know you’re in good hands with him.

David Del Rio, Joshua  Grosso & Marcus Paul James
David Del Rio, Joshua Grosso & Marcus Paul James

When Usnavi calls for “lights up on Washington Heights”, he isn’t just heralding the sunrise and the start of a new day of work, he is also shining a beacon on the secrets and struggles of his friends, family, and neighbors in the barrio. Anna Louizos’ Tony-nominated, incredibly intricate set gives vibrant life to the homes and businesses where he lays our scene. It also miraculously succeeds where most scenic designs fail in bringing some level of intimacy to the gargantuan Benedum Center.

To the immediate left of the corner store Usnavi runs with his wise-cracking cousin Sonny are the steps of Abuela Claudia’s home, where everyone in the neighborhood finds solace and delicious cooking. Next door is Kevin (alpha male Rick Negron) and Camila Rosario’s (fiery Blanca Camacho) eponymous taxi dispatch. They’ve sacrificed everything they have, but the business is failing anyway. Their most loyal employee, an African-American dreamer named Benny, still admires them and does his best to learn Spanish to find deeper community with them.

On the right side of Usnavi is a salon owned by gossip hound Daniela. She supervises flighty Carla and a credit-challenged bombshell named Vanessa desperate to fly the coop.

_AC29598-RETOUCHThree things throw a wrench in what was set to be a typical Fourth of July celebration: the huge revelation Nina Rosario returns from college with, a winning lottery ticket valued at $96,000, and a heat-induced natural disaster.

Still, nothing can stop the resilient citizens of the barrio from living full lives complete with romance, tragedy, and self-discovery. As immigrants or descendants of immigrants, they get the job done.

He may be Joshua Grosso’s right-hand man, but David Del Rio is also a one-man carnival del barrio in the role of Sonny. He spun what could’ve been a string of annoying one-liners into a complex characterization of a kid too clever and compassionate for his own good (but certainly not ours). If Grosso is the heart of the production, Del Rio is the brains and funny bone.

Rounding out the show’s organs are its sturdy spine and powerful lungs embodied by the epic performance of Patricia Phillips. The range of Abuela Claudia’s physicality from the frail older woman to the surefooted survivor she becomes while relaying stories of her harsh upbringing in “Paciencia Y Fe” took my breath away.

Patricia Phillips and Joshua Grosso
Patricia Phillips and Joshua Grosso

Miranda’s eclectic score is chock full of showstoppers from that solo to Benny and Nina’s soaring “When You’re Home” (given wings by Marcus Paul James and Genny Lis Padilla’s insane vocals) to act one’s aspirational anthem “96,000”.

Pinpointing the reason for Miranda’s success is as easy as recognizing how he has been able to inspire artists like Tony winners Karen Olivo and Alex Lacamoire with his singular vision and keep them coming back to his projects. Another of those artists is Michael Balderrama. After dancing for Michael Jackson, he was dance captain, fight captain, and swing for the Broadway iteration of Heights.

At the helm of this production, he maintains the high caliber of work originally executed by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. With his fluid and fresh movement, Balderrama has ensured that every member of the ensemble has a distinct identity and heritage. It’s difficult to stay in your seat when the cast is tearing it up in “The Club”.

The ubiquity of fireworks on July fourth makes it unlikely, but, if by some chance you couldn’t see a colorful, crowd-pleasing, explosive display of patriotism somewhere, you’re in luck.

Pittsburgh CLO’s heartwarming and winning In the Heights is hot enough to cause a blackout. You won’t see your fears and anxieties anymore, just what’s right in front of you: home and the people and memories that make it meaningful.

In the Heights runs through July 16th at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.

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.