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.

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.

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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.

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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.