Aida

13781908_1136811556342000_4099638509622557037_n“Every story, new or ancient……all are tales of human failing, all are tales of love at heart.”

Originally debuted on Broadway in 2000 and the winner of four Tony Awards, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida opened at Benedum Center this week and brought back a beam of heat and passion to these rainy July days. In its first-time production of this timeless musical, Pittsburgh CLO beautifully delivered another huge summer hit with a sensational cast and a phenomenal design.

With a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang, basing on a children’s storybook adaption of Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian-language opera of the same name , Aida tells a star-crossed love story between an enslaved but courageous Nubian princess Aida, and her captor Radames, captain of the Egyptian army who is betrothed to the Princess Amneris of Egypt. In the show where love is conflicted with hate, and peace is trumped by war and separation, the talents of the cast were destined to shine through and became the biggest spotlight of the night.

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Emmy Raver-Lampman and the cast of Aida

Playing the title role with great strength and elegance is Hamilton veteran Emmy Raver-Lampman, who is an original workshop cast member of The SpongeBob Musical and can be recently seen as Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked. With the very first note she sings in her solo number “The Past is Another Land” in Act I, she immediately grabbed audiences’ attention. Then in the entire two and half hour show, she took us on the heroine’s journey fueled with intricate emotions and an astonishing voice. And when she delivered that Act I finale number “The Gods Love Nubia” accompanied beautifully by the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church Choir, with everyone already on their feet cheering, you just know that with a Broadway powerhouse in the theater,  you never have to wait until the end of the show to get a standing ovation.

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Mark Evans and the cast of Aida

Another audiences’ favorite is Captain Radames, played by Mark Evans who was recently pressing the doorbells around the nation as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon. Presenting both physicality and agility fiercely throughout the show, Radames is the hero you will care and fall for in a heart beat. And Mr. Evans turned that romantic notion just up a notch with a breathtaking dynamic on stage with Ms. Raver-Lampman. Playing his betrothed Princess Amneris is another Broadway veteran Ms. Kathryn Boswell who portrays this comedic-relief character in a broader emotional dimension with a sharpened vocal performance. And last but no least, Point Park senior Lamont Walker II plays the young confidant Mereb with a lovable wit, and proved to everyone in his powerful rendition of “How I know You” in the Act II reprise that he’s the true black horse of the night.

Mark Evans and Kathryn Boswell
Mark Evans and Kathryn Boswell

Aida is THE timeless love story, and with this production Pittsburgh CLO showed us all that Barry Ivan is THE director and choreographer it needed. With a visual narrative focus and an electrifying yet faithful staging, Mr. Ivan masterfully captured the transformative nature of the hero and heroine’s journeys throughout the show while always kept the story engaging. Directed by Tom Helm, the Orchestra plays Ser Elton John’s exceedingly diverse yet incredibly moving score gorgeously and also became the perfect companion to Mr. Ivan’s artistic creation. And the end result–every dance and ensemble number became a theatrical highlight.

If the cast is the full moon of the Egyptian night, then the design teams in this production are the true stars of the sky. From the modern museum to the ancient Egypt palace and pyramid, the set and scenery of the show, designed by Neil Patel (whose work can recently be seen in no other show than Benjamin Scheuer’s one-man musical The Lion), truly fused two timelines together and produced a work of heart and passion that will transcend through space and time. And every scene change only became a more exhilarating moment supplemented by Mr. Paul Miller’s breathtaking lighting design walking on the edge of light and shadow. And finally when the entire royal bedroom suddenly turned into a fashion T stage full of star-stunned costumes and luxurious hairpieces, you just couldn’t help but agree with the fact that “the dress is truly the show’s strongest suit”.

Another Pittsburgh CLO production. Another Broadway classic turned into a new hit. Although Aida might already temporarily end its journey in the Steel City, the real message and momentum of the heroine’s journey ever stop. Just like how it sings in the song, “this the story, of a love that flourished, in a time of hate.” And perhaps next time when we face another conflict between love and hate, peace and war, unity and separation, we just need to remember those simple but powerful stories that stood against a hundred lifetimes, and assure ourselves that, “love never ends.”

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets. For ticketing and seasonal information, click here.

Photo credits: Archie Carpenter

Jesus Christ Superstar

gfhsersrtA man, rises to power from nothing, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers along the way, whose fame and status eventually became the center of controversy for his inseparable fate with the unity and peace of his nation.

Yes, some would say this man challenges the faith of many. No, as much as it sounds alike, I’m not talking about any presidential candidate from this heated election season. And yes, this is a story we all know by heart.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar tells the journey of Jesus during his final week, from his arrival all the way to crucifixion, with a focus on the evolving relationship between him and his loyal apostle Judas Iscariot. Originally started as a concept album with a Broadway debut in 1971, this audience-favorite sung-through musical is now the newest production at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, PA, only this time the real superstar is its theatrical company, Stage62.

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Mary Johnson-Blocher as Judas

If heaven has a rock band, Duquesne graduate Jeff Way is certainly the lead singer of the gang. Playing the title role with a sensational voice, Mr. Way took the audience on a hero’s journey fueled with passion and emotion–his solo number “Gethsemane” in Act II was sincerely moving and full of halo. But you see, Jesus isn’t the only rock star you’ll meet. Musical theater powerhouse Mary Johnson-Blocher conquered the role of Judas–a role that’s traditionally played by male actors–and proved that she’s the real cherry-on-top within the first ten minutes of the show. Her portrait of Judas’s conflicted journey was the moving momentum of the story, and her final betrayal scene at the end of Act I was easily one of the spine-chilling moments of “all time’.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a show about memorable characters. And the amazing casts at Stage62 delivered these characters gloriously. Nina L. Napoleone plays the beautiful Mary Magdalene with a voice of clearance and color. Jeff Danner plays the evil High Priest Caiaphas on a rich bass tonality that will give you goosebumps every time he sings. Larissa Jantonio’s Annas, another traditionally male role, is genuinely wicked and full of sharp edges. And finally, just like all the other Stage62 productions, every single ensemble number in the show is a highlight and deserves all the applause of the night.

Jeff Way as Jesus
Jeff Way as Jesus

Behind this innovative production is the creative mind of singer and performer Seamus Ricci in a directoral debut at Stage62. Through the revolutionary casting choice of having female actors playing traditionally male roles, Mr. Ricci perfectly captured the diversity of talents that are deeply rooted in the Pittsburgh theatre community and gave this timeless musical a fresh and revitalizing look. Due to the sung-through narrative nature of the show and its vast variety of characters, at certain scenes the staging might feel a bit overwhelming if the audience is not familiar with the plot, but overall the dramatic texture is never lost. Throughout the night a recurring theme of “”emerge”, “encompass” and “contrast” will lead the audience through this constantly changing journey of power and faith on stage, and when the house suddenly becomes an extension of the stage with an atmospheric choral build-up, you can just feel the tension in the air!

Supporting the storytelling is the Orchestra, lead by Music Director Thomas Octave, playing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s electrifying rock score faithfully live on stage, and elevating the sound of the show to a heavenly level. Angela Essler’s choreography brings home the biggest surprise of the night with a dosage of great energy and star-dust–in the number “Herod’s Song” in Act II where King Herod, played by IUP student J’Quay Lamonte Gibbs, totally brought the house down with a bombshell performance that eventually became one of the biggest show-stopping moments of the night.image

But a story is never really alive without its theatrical counterpart. Jeremy Eiben’s costume design masterfully incorporates the modern clothes into the ensemble’s costumes with an abstract twist and gave this ancient account a 21st century make-over. Garth Schafer’s lighting design beautifully reflects the pulse of the story and set the base line of all the emotions. But the biggest bone-chilling and most surreal moment has to go to the end of the show, when a gigantic cross literally erects on stage and the entire scene of crucifixion, accompanied by a hauntingly realistic sound design by Soundcolor Productions, is being replayed in front of the audiences’ eyes, you just can’t help but wonder, is this still theater, or are we actually traveled back in time?

After the show I had a small chat with the director Mr. Ricci himself, and naturally we both agreed that the timing of bringing back this ALW classic now couldn’t be more perfect. With so much chaos and hatred and violence and senseless acts happening around the world everyday now, people desperately need a beam of hope and faith to keep us steady and strong. But the themes presented in Jesus Chris Superstar are more than just hope and faith. The show is also about power worship, about moral conflict, about betrayal, and mostly importantly, about abandonment and returning home.

No matter where we stand, the direction we are walking to is always the same. So why not walk together? But sometimes walking in life still feels like a shot in the dark. A wise man once said, “happiness can be found, even in the darkest of the times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”. Perhaps this time, Jesus Christ Superstar is the only guiding star we will need to get through the thunderstorm, and come home to the light.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall until July 31st. For tickets and more information, click here.

Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Image 42.

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Summer

“Curtain up! Light the lights!” “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Yes, sing up and dance away, the summer theater season is finally here! As the breezy spring days quietly drift away into those dreamy summer nights, the Pittsburgh theater scene is also heating up for another great three months full of beautiful music and soulful stories. Whether you are already relaxing out in the sun, or listening to the Hamilton album for the fifteenth time, chances are you’re gonna want to see a show or two this season.  So as we prepare for another jam packed summer here at Pittsburgh In the Round, let’s all take a moment together and look at the line-up of this year’s musical productions right here in the Steel City, and dig into the five shows that you definitely don’t want to miss this summer!

Damn Yankees LogoFirst up, we have Damn Yankees opening up the season with a swing at Benedum Center from July 5th to 10th. Presented by Pittsburgh CLO as part of its annual summer musical season, this muscular musical comedy surely sets to bring America’s favorite pastime back to the stage again.

Originally based on the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop, the show features a book by Wallop and George Abbott, with music by Richard Adler and lyrics by Jerry Ross. Just in time for baseball season, the story focuses on Joe Boyd, a loyal baseball fan who transforms into a star slugger by making a deal with the devil. He later tries to lead his home team Washington Senators to victory in a pennant race against those “damn Yankees”. Premiered on Broadway in 1954, this musical is one of the first two shows the legendary Bob Fosse choreographed, and eventually it took home 11 Tony Awards that year, including the Best Musical. With Pittsburgh CLO’s usual summer production style of promoting local artists and talents, a dose of Pittsburgh pride and freshness is destined to be added to this timeless story. Tickets and more information about Damn Yankees can be found here.

Next, from July 21st to 31st at Stage62 gfhsersrtin Carnegie, PA, we have Jesus Christ Superstar, another Broadway classic with music and lyrics by audience favorites Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Building upon the success of its recent production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, this sung-through rock opera projects to be another thought-provoking, socially and politically relevant show.

As a parallel analogy to the rise of contemporary celebrity and fame worship, the show depicts the final days of Jesus and highlights the interpersonal struggles between Jesus and Judas, as well as Judas’s psychological development for his final betrayal. Directed by Stage62 veteran Seamus Ricci, with music direction from Thomas Octave and choreography from Angela Essler, this production also sets to break the conventional casting boundaries by bringing in female actors to play some traditional male roles, such as Judas (whom will be played by Point Park alumnus Mary Johnson), and hence form a new conversation of theatrical presentation giving this aging story a fresh modern look. An innovative production of a timeless musical, this one you definitely cannot to miss! Tickets and more information about Jesus Christ Superstar can be found here.adw Still can’t get enough of Rock ‘n Roll? Well worry no more, there is another rock opera coming to town this July! Produced by Alumni Theater Company, punk rock band Green Day’s less-revived sung-through rock opera American Idiot will make its way to the stage at New Hazlett Theater from July 29th to 31st, bringing another blast of energy and excitement to this already too hot summer season.

americanidiotOriginally released as a concept album in 2009 and them followed by a Broadway stage adaptation in 2010 (in which the idea was inspired by the success of no other show than Jesus Christ Superstar,  which also had a concept album prior to its stage debut), the story of American Idiot echoes as a commentary response to the cruel realities of the post-9/11 era by tracing the journeys of three dissatisfied young men whose life paths were heavily intertwined with the themes of war and love. With a mission to “create bold theatrical work that gives fresh voices to the experience of young urban artists”, Alumni Theater Company is surely going to surprise everyone with the biggest hit in town! For tickets and more information about American Idiot, click here.

adsfaewNext up, from August 18th to 28th, we are going to take a small trip with The Summer Company down the rabbit hole and learn about A History of American Film, in the brand new Genesius Theater.

With a long-overdue Broadway premiere AmerFilmBookin 1978, this hilariously brilliant musical comedy by Christopher Durang with music by Mel Marvin is possibly the best way Hollywood could clash with Broadway, in a down-to-the-earth over-the-top parody of every American film cliché from silent film era all the way until the present. Think about The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) funny, but only this time with films and Hollywood jokes! Directed by John Lane, one of the founding producers of the company, the five stereotypical leading characters and nearly sixty supporting characters in the story will be divided and doubled among the entire cast, just like how it was done in Hollywood from the 30s to the 40s. And because there is no original cast recording or that much of revival information to fall back on, the audiences surely will find this one a surprise! But just in case you’re still not sure, well, Mr. Lane himself said it the best, “If you like movies, little known musicals, and outrageous comedy–this show is for you!” Tickets and more information about The History of American Film can be found here.

unnamedfloydLast but certainly not least, as part of its ‘American Dreamers” series, we have Front Porch Theatricals presenting Floyd Collins, another beautifully moving musical with gripping drama, at New Hazlett Theater from August 26th to September 4th.

With a book by Tina Landau and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (the legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers’s grandson who wrote the score for last season’s The Light in the Piazza), the story follows the life and death of a cave explorer Floyd Collins and reflects the journey of a true hero of its time, sort of like the “Alexander Hamilton” of Central Kentucky in the 1920s if you will. From the creative mind of Point Part alumnus Rachel Stevens who is currently also directing The Spitfire Grill, this musical promises to engage Pittsburgh audiences at a new level with a revolutionary story and a soaring score that will resemble the spirit and history of our own city, while featuring some of the newest and best talents in town. “A burning passion that has been on the producers’ minds since the company’s inception”, this is one of those star-studded, quality-guaranteed Front Porch Theatricals productions that you just simply cannot miss! Tickets and more information about Floyd Collins can be found here.

Go see a musical this summer!

Check out the rest of our 2016 Summer Preview here! Follow along with our summer adventures with the hashtag #SummerwithPITR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

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The Lion

TL_playYes, it’s THAT good.

As the grand finale of its 2015-2016 season, City Theatre’s latest Main Stage production The Lion invites Pittsburgh audience onto a soulful journey with a heart-warming roar. Originally premiered Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014 and followed by a critically-acclaimed world tour, the show already welcomed a full house just one week before the official opening night.

Featuring its original creator, singer, and songwriter Benjamin Scheuer, this one-man autobiographical musical starts with a simple phrase, “My father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs”, and then immediately dives right into a kaleidoscopic memory of family, love, and survival. As the music goes on, the narrative also gets more intense and dramatic, but with Mr. Scheuer’s rich melody, poetic lyrics, and exceptional guitar-wielding, the storytelling is always engaging and the emotional connection never stops.

Beginning with a reminiscing song about his old “Cookie-tin banjo”, Mr. Scheuer, or “Ben” in the story, first introduced to us his father, the man who gave him the gift of music, and essentially the center character figure of the show. And then bit by bit, line by line, we started to put together a bigger family portrait including his mother and two brothers, and learned about his childhood dreams, wonderings, and a specific dispute with his father which later led to one of the biggest unresolved guilts and regrets of his life. Then as little Ben outgrew his homemade toy, left his family and moved to New York, we sailed further down the timeline with him and met Julia, a girl who would make Ben laugh and write adorable love songs like “Lovin’ You Will Be Easy”. Finally the “happily ever after” fairytale was brutally broken again by devastating news and we were then thrown right back to the reality, looking at the lowest and most vulnerable stage of Ben’s life. The show eventually ends with an inspiring note, and when the title song “The Lion” was sung, everyone was on their feet cheering for the return of the king to the Pride Rock.

Highly praised by Broadway composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) in a recent Dramatists Guild event held at City Theatre, the music and lyrics of The Lion are the true blood and bone of the story and deserve all the applauses. Fueled with a folk tonality, Mr. Scheuer brilliantly transcends the boundaries of traditional solo performances by playing and switching in between a total of six different guitars during the whole show and hence adds another layer of variety and complexity to the overall sound. Along the storyline, each guitar would “come in” at a specific point with a special history and add more character and distinct qualities to the music, and with the change of the narrative style, the compositional genre also ranges from hauntingly beautiful acoustic ballads (“Weather the Storm”, “Invisible Cities”) all the way to exciting electric Rock ‘n Roll (“Saint Rick”). Occasionally some lyrics are sung in a parlando fashion, but overall the texts are full of rich emotions and nostalgic flavour. In the program Mr. Scheuer points out that one of the best songwriting advice he’s ever received is “to write a good song, write what you don’t other people to know about you. But if you want to write a great song, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.” And that’s exactly what he did–the balance between raw, even unsettling details and metaphorical analogies in the lyrics perfectly captured the light and shadow of this courageous expedition, and the end result is just powerful and honest storytelling with truthful, unadulterated emotion.

Because of the intimate performance setting and the nature of autobiographical conversation, certain times you may forget the fact that you’re watching a show and feel like you are just listening to an old friend talking about his life while jamming on a bunch of guitars. And that traceless acting is exactly where Mr. Scheuer’s charismatic personality comes in. Presented with genuine passion and a goofy big heart, each scene eventually felt like a deja vu and each moment felt deeply personal on stage. And even sometimes when a certain patron accidentally broke the tension of this magical experience in the theatre with a sneeze or worse, a ringing cell phone, Mr. Scheuer’s improvised story incorporation and heartfelt music takes you back in.

Directed by Sean Daniels, the show reflects the rise and fall of Ben’s transformative journey seamlessly with a narrative staging–from time to time Mr. Scheuer might loosen his tie, sit on a different chair, or take off his shoes, but each momentous transition ultimately strengthens the tension of the drama and the resonance with the audience. Designed by Ben Stanton, the lighting of the show masterfully projects the color and texture of each song and scene onto the canvas of space and is a storyteller itself. And that only got heightened by Neil Patel’s gorgeous set in which a concept of reborn and revisit echoes the flames of time.

Just like how Ben sings it in The Lion, I, too, “only say I love you when I’m sure”. And when you go to City Theatre and see this 2015 Drama Desk Awards Best Solo Performance yourself, I bet you will want to sing and roar and say “lovin’ you will be easy” too.

Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. The Lion opens Friday May 20th, for tickets and more information about the show and the free song writing workshop on May 28th, click here.

Assassins

682637-250“Attention must be paid!”

In the midst of another Presidential Election year with gun violence and gun control at the center of everybody’s attention, it seems perfectly appropriate to bring back Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1990 concept musical Assassins to remind everyone what that darkness in the American dream could do. Delivered by Stage 62 with a sensational cast, this time it opens with a strong momentum.

Originally based on the idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, the show tells the story of nine historically recognized men and women who attempted, successfully or not, to assassinate various Presidents of the Unites States. We begin in a fictional setting where all the assassins gather together at a country fair and try their luck with a shooting-gallery game. The Proprietor hands over a gun to each of assassin and as the history starts to unfold, a “target” gets shot down.

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L-R Stephanie Ottey, Corwin Stoddard, Mark McConnell, Stanley Graham, Connor Bahr, Darrel Whitney, Chad Elder, Cassie Doherty, Rob James

Leading the cast is Mr. Stanley Graham who masterfully plays John Wilkes Booth, the first assassin we get to know. Delivering his signature The Ballad of Booth” death scene with great vocals,  Mr. Graham sets the emotional tone for the rest of the show. Through the story Booth also functions as the internal seductive demon of other assassins with a catchphrase, “You should kill the President”, and this series of dramatic build-ups eventually led him to successfully convincing Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger and join the ranks of history in the end. Oswald was played by Mr. Connor Bahr, who also traditionally doubled as the Balladeer for the rest of the show. His transformation into Oswald and on-stage dynamic with Booth in the intense “Scene 16” made it easily one of the best scenes of the night.

But just as the characters of Assassins, every actor in the show earns their prize in the “history” with distinct personalities and strong vocals. Mr. Chad Elder plays Charles Guiteau who dies with a comedic bang. Ms. Kassie Doherty and Ms. Stephanie Ottey portray the assassin duo Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore with a crazy but tender tempo.  Mr. Rob James delivers the Santa-Claus-suit-wearing sandwich-eating Samuel Byck with intricate soliloquies that turn into some of the most hilarious and spine-chilling solo scenes. And finally, under the direction of Music Director Mr. Michael Meketa and accompanied beautifully by the Orchestra, every single group number or chorale moment in the show was a spectacular highlight.

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Rob James

Assassins offers a unique space and timeline where we get a rare chance to look into those everyday humans’ minds by going down this journey with them to discover what eventually turned them into assassins, and Mr. Nick Mitchel’s direction offers exactly the type of guidance you need when you are on such a delicate and bumpy road. The transition between each assassination was brilliantly marked with the targets down and the gun fire effect, and the balance between light comedy and dark drama is so well calibrated that all the irony and satire eventually became the part of the narrative sentiment itself.

Designed by Ms. Patty Folmer and Ms. Michelle Nowakowski, the costumes of the show generally brought back some historic flavor while maintaining the contemporary freshness. At the beginning, certain character’s costumes might seem confusing, but in the end you will realize that they all perfectly transcend the character development in a necessary way. Mr. Garth Schafer’s lighting managed to reflect the psychological rise and fall of each assassin while tying everything together with the transformative set by Ms. Lynnetta Miller and Mr. Andy Folmer. And the final film projection during the climax scene designed by Ms. Gina Marie Rush certainly added another layer of honesty to this already too real show.

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L-R Sephanie Ottey, Kassie Doherty

After the show I had a brief chat with one of the patrons about the show. After I told him that I’m a Sondheim fan but this was my first time seeing a live production of this not-so-often-revived Sondheim showhe said, “I’ve seen this show twenty years ago, it was really funny. Now I see it again and it’s not funny anymore. It’s scary”. And I agree. Isn’t that the irony  history is playing on us?  What’s the lesson here? In one of Byck’s monologues he complains to Leonard Bernstein that “no one ever listens”. And as each assassin’s story unfolds you will start to see this seems like a common trend–being ignored, being forgotten, being misunderstood… In the program Mr. Mitchell said “Open your ears, eyes, and hearts so fewer people will feel like they are alone in the world, voiceless without violence.” Is ignorance, injustice, and discrimination the ultimate source of crime? Or do we simply just need to really listen?  How did we fail those innocent people as a society and turn them into assassins? Will the story in this musical still be this relevant and timeless twenty, fifty years from now? I wonder.

History comes with many different versions. But the truth stays the same. Assassins is one of those truly powerful theatrical moments that you just need to experience it to understand. It’s like how they sing in the show, at the end of the day, “everybody’s got the right to be happy”, only this time, that happiness means you have to look deeply into that darkness, and find that purest beam of light.

“Attention has been paid.”

Assassins runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall until May 22nd. For tickets and more information, click here.

Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Friedman Wagner-Dobler.

The Musical of Musicals

Poster-Musical-790-200x300Have you ever wondered what if Jonathan Larson didn’t write Rent, but Rogers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Kander & Ebb wrote it instead?

Wonder no more, as you can finally unwind your fantasies and find the answer you’ve been looking for in off the WALL theatre’s newest production of Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell’s musical parody classic, The Musical of Musicals (The Musical)!

Originally premiered off-Broadway in 2003, the show tells the ageless melodrama story of “I can’t pay the rent” with some all-too-cliche theater characters such a beautiful leading lady who cannot pay her rent, a villainous landlord who demands the rent be paid, and a handsome hero and love interest who eventually offers to pay the rent. But the catch is that the story will be told five times over the course of five acts, and each act differently through the style of a famous musical theater composer or composer/lyricist team. So as you can imagine, the entire musical is full of stylistic jokes and lyric puns, and the audience never stopped laughing throughout the show.

The cast was an ensemble effort, with one music director Nancy Gordon Galuzzo masterfully playing the piano like a full orchestra, and six actors rotating between characters. Leading lady June is played mostly by Ms. Brittany Graham, who delivered a great range of lovable personalities and won all the applause with her stunning vocal in the ALW/Phantom of the Opera parody segment. Her major savior in the show is played by Mr. Ryan Patrick Kearney, who always managed to save the plot and the scene with just the right dosage of comedy and romance. Ms. Elizabeth Flemming functions mostly as the character actress in the show and plays the comic relief with a spirit. And her on-stage dynamic in the Company-inspired sequence with her co-star Ms. Elizabeth Boyke in the Sondheim segment easily made it one of my favorite Acts.

But the true superstars of the night must go to the Director Ms. Robyne Parrish and the choreographer Mr. Gavan Pamer, both of whom are also featured as actors in the cast. Under Ms. Parrish’s direction, all five acts came together as one seamless unison of satirical comedy, and whenever she was on stage, whether as the “Mame” or the “queen” from Sunset Boulevard, the energy in the theater only got higher and louder. And that excitement was delightfully augmented by Mr. Pamer’s on-point choreography, which truly brought back the Broadway glamour in big dance numbers such as the Cabaret-inspired Speakeasy Willkomen. The big bonus finish was the entire cast standing in “a chorus line” singing about how the show is not only over, but “Done”. From the demon artist landlord, to the phantom of the “meow-pera”, every character Mr. Pamer plays was a highlight and took home the most applause of the evening.

The designs of this production are filled with audiences’ favorite things from those classic musicals as well. Ms. Adrienne Fischer and Ms. Jenna Campbell’s set and sound design brilliantly traveled between stories and dimensions in between acts along with several peculiar and familiar surprises including certain murderous door bell. Ms. Madeleine Steineck’s lighting will take you back through time to the original moment you fell in love with these composers with a just a few changes of color and light. And finally, whenever there’s a magical chandelier involved, you just know it’s the “production of the night”.

Whether you know your musicals like you know your alphabet, or just want to laugh for two and half hours, The Musical of Musicals (the Musical) is THE musical for you! Because when legendary composers combined with sensational casts, all that’s guaranteed is always great great fun!

Special thanks to off the WALL productions for complimentary press tickets. The Musical of Musicals (the Musical) runs at Carnegie Stage until May 21st. For tickets and more information, click here

Grease

2015Mast-GreaseIt’s systematic. It’s hydromatic. It’s Grease the Musical!

From the original 1972 Broadway premiere, to the 2016 Grease Live TV broadcast on FOX network, the story of Rydell High seem never cease to entertain the American audience with its timeless energy and passion. As the grand finale of Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s 2016 “Magnificent Movie Musicals” season, Grease brings the long-awaited summer nights back to the Steel City with those classic ’70s tunes and exciting rock n’ roll.

Written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the show follows high school teenagers Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski as well as their boy gangs or lady squads as they navigate the realities and complexities of growing up. The stage version is a lot different from the 1978 hit film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as more songs were included and familiar songs were sung at different scenes. But overall the story and themes stay the same.

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Hayhurst and Gee

Leading the Burger Palace Boys is Point Park alumnus Mr. Ricky Gee who played Danny with a toned-down personality. The chemistry of the character didn’t really sparkle until later but Mr. Gee’s vocal and dance moves surely held the summer heat through the very last scene. His love interest Sandy was played by Ms. Lara Hayhurst who portrayed the classic “girl next door” with such a freshness and a beautiful voice. Her solo number “Hopeless Devoted to You” would make you sing “Oh Sandy” in a heart beat, and her strong spirit and “spicy” transformation in Act II is easily the momentum that drives the show upward.

But the true stars of this show are the secondary characters. Ms. Larissa Overholt played Rizzo with a sharp edge and tender emotions. Her squad, the Pink Ladies, has the best dynamics whenever they are on the stage together, and her 11 o’clock number “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was easily the most tear jerking moment of the night. Black horse of the show goes to Mr. Quinn Patrick Shannon and Ms. Audra Qualley who played Roger and Jan and stunned the audience with their shinning duet “Mooning”. Another highlight is Doody played by Mr. Adam Marino whose “Those Magic Changes” is full of magical charms. And last but not least, honorable mention Mr. Brady D. Patsy, who played Miss Lynch as the comic relief of the show and took home the most laughs of the night.

Originally inspired by writer Jim Jacobs’ own high school experience in Chicago, Illinois, Grease was much more violent and explored darker themes during some of its early productions before the 1972 Broadway premiere. But over the years the story has been sanitized many times and eventually made more family friendly for the movie version. For this production Director Trey Compton tended to bring back some of the edgy elements while keeping the overall entertaining feeling,  but because the stage version already didn’t have some of the climatic scenes in the movie, overall the plot felt bland and weightless. All of the big character moments and tense scenes eventually lost to the waiting for the next audience-familiar song.

However, because most of the songs in Grease are so well-known, every number felt like a sing-along. Music Director Dr. Brent Alexander did a great job with the orchestra; you could just feel the hype in the house whenever the music started playing again. And this energy is only amplified by Ms. Lisa Elliott’s electric choreography, integrating car tires and those good old hand jives.

Tech design of this show turned out to be my favorite memory of the night, if not the best of the season. Ms. Kim Brown once again wowed the Pittsburgh audience with costumes that stole the spotlight. Mr. Todd Nonn’s dreamy lighting proved that he’s the true “Greased Lightnin'”. Mr. Jeff Perri’s brilliantly designed backdrop made of school lockers combined with colorful patterns will make your inner teenage self feel like it’s prom night with every set change.  And finally, when all tech aspects came together in “Beauty School Dropout”, you will realize that this is the true magic change that made you fall in love with Grease in the first place.

Whether you’re a fan of the original movie, or just love wearing leather jacket, Grease is the word! It might not be your everyday high school romantic musical comedy, but a night that ends with “happily ever after” is always guaranteed, only this time it’s “a-wop-bam-a-loo mop and top bam boom”!

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Musical Theater for complimentary press tickets. Grease runs at the Byham Theater through Sunday May 1st. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photo by Rockhan Photography

Fringe Day 3: Four Voices One Story, It’s Who You Know, and Always B Sharp

drake 3My second and last day of Pittsburgh Fringe Festival started rather late in the Sunday afternoon. All three of my assigned shows Sunday were all at Young Men’s Republican Club, a smoky sports bar with a performing space in the basement. Needless to say the scene and the atmosphere are rather different, but the art and the fringe spirit stay the same. So without further ado, let’s “dive” right into it!

Presented by Moquette Volante, the first show of the day, Four Voices…One Story, took a sharp turn from all the classic school plays or comedy improv Saturday and truly showed me the experimental side of the fringe spectrum. Written and directed by Kristin Ward, it tells the classic fairy tale of Cinderella but through the visions, contexts, and voices of four different women who come from different cultural and ethnic background: Kenya, Italy, Czech Republic, and India. As the four beautiful actresses standing together all proudly wearing their own special ethnic dresses and lifting those timeless words from the book but each with its unique focal point and flavor, the stage presentation alone is already the strongest statement of the artist.

Director Ms. Ward said that this is a story about the heroine’s journey, about transformation. But as four different versions and interpretations intertwined together a bigger theme of beauty and diversity started to become clearer and clearer. Some versions of the story interestingly included some pretty dark twists and turns–definitely not your classic “happily ever after” Disney journey. But in the end the impact is still moving and powerful. Tech wise besides your usual Fringe Festival minimal lighting change, there is also an accompanying percussionist using different tempo, rhythms, and forces to represent each time line and each princess’ figure and personal journey. But if you ask me, the true “tech” support of this show would be the most fundamental and simplistic technology we have: human voice–simple but full of emotions. The constantly changing dynamic between four actresses on stage through position changes and hand gesture is another highlight of the show. And together, four story lines turned into one beautiful bouquet before the audience’ eyes with amazing color and depth.

Before we go on and talk about any further details of the second show which later turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the festival, I want to tell you all a little anecdote. So there I was, standing in line getting my tickets checked out by the volunteers for the second show, suddenly a gentleman in his 40s/50s wearing ripped jeans and a plaid shirt approached me and said, “Hey you know, I heard the guy in the next show is crazy, like CRAZY!” Now you have to remember that we are in the basement of a dive bar. So naturally I froze for a second and said, “Ahh, okay?”. And then he said, “Hahaha just kidding, that’s me!”

Anyway that’s how I met the host of the one-man show, It’s Who You Know, Chambers Stevens, and if one day I would do a show like his by pulling names of the people I’ve met in my life out of a box and telling a story of how I met him or her, that’s how I’d tell that story.

So there you go. It’s Who You Know is a show about stories, told by a master story-teller. From listening to Judy Garland’s granddaughter singing, to encountering the “homeless” Jonny Depp, all of the stories are randomly picked out of the box but at the same time carefully arranged, teased, and tailored  in a dramatic order. And with the casual setting of the performing space and an intimate lighting, all characters gradually come to life and become a reflection of the story teller’s own life journey. Through the 60-minute run Mr. Stevens has told stories that made the audience laugh, think, learn, and most importantly, connect. Not a single second during the show did the audience (myself included) not feel engaging with the stories and memories replaying on stage. And in the end, we were already wanting for more.

My final show of this Fringe Festival is Always B Sharp, a musical improv group with great energy and a sharp talent. Leading by the pianist and music director James Rushin, the crew on stage would take any word suggestions from the audience and turn it into a song. On Sunday night for warm up one of the games during the show was “World’s Worst Employee”, meaning that the audience would suggest an occupation and the actors will act or “sing” out a scene about how the world’s worst employee of this job would behave. In the second half of the show a full length musical based on two suggestions “Pomegranate” and “Jordan” were made on the spot filled with solos and group numbers, ballads and up-tempos, even an improvised lighting change of one of the Festival volunteers! It was the perfect way to say goodnight to another wonderful day full of theater and arts, and all in all it was just great great fun.

Just like that, my first Pittsburgh Fringe experience officially concluded with a big finish. Beautiful stories and wonderful music. What more could you ask for? It’s been truly a thrill sharing an intense but art-full weekend with so many talented artists, volunteers, and audiences from all over the city (and country!) The Festival once again reminded all of us of why we love Pittsburgh and its vibrant cultural scene so dearly, and I simply cannot wait for the many more Fringe Festivals to come!

 

Fringe Day 2: The Last Lifeboat and A Dream of Midsummer

Lastboat BBThis year the Fringe Festival is once again held in the beautiful North Side. And it’s almost as if the weather god is also a big fan of this annual unjuried theatre event where we celebrate the brightest and boldest talents with the most vibrant theatre scenes here in Steel City. This entire weekend suddenly escapes the Pittsburgh April weather curse and is blessed with sunshine and a 70 degree summer breeze. So with my sunglasses on, press pass in hand, and the hilly red brick pavement with old rail track under my feet,  I was on my way to my first day of shows in my first ever Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, and thinking that how this gorgeous Saturday afternoon just couldn’t get better.

My first two shows are in St. Mary Lyceum, which located on the Chestnut Street away from all the other venues this year near East Ohio Street. It’s a little cozy dive bar with the nicest bar tender. You have to go through a sliding door to get to the performing space in the back, which made the whole experience a lot more magical for me like going to Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. I’m feeling good about this so far!

The first show The Last Lifeboat was presented by Waynesburg University Players. Based on the play by Luke Yankee, this one-act play tells the story of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line and the man behind the Titanic (yes, that Titanic). Through memory flashbacks and linear story narratives, the whole blueprint of Ismay’s life before and after the Titanic will get closer and closer to sight in the 60-minute ride, with the actual sinking moment naturally being the most intense dramatic moment of the play. The main conflict of the show is between the misunderstanding toward Ismay from the press and other survivors, and the truth of what really happened on that last lifeboat. And in the end you will walk away with a question: what would you do if you were in Ismay’s shoes, see your loved ones again and live a coward, or do the noble thing and die a hero?

Directed by Michael Merten, the very fast pace of the play made the story feel like a crash course of Ismay’s personal history that a lot of tense moments seemed melodramatic without proper build-up. And the love triangle between Ismay and two women of his life turned out to be rather distracting and eventually made the play lose its anchor on what the story was really about. But the comeback of the people whose lives were affected by the incident and Ismay’s decision in the end was indeed a nice touch and made the whole experience wholesome again.

Most of the casts play multiple characters at the same time with costume and accent changes indicating who is on stage now. Major highlights are Mr. Dawson Laabs, who played J. Bruce Ismay with a heroic personality and a conflicted soul that we all care about, and Mr. Adam Tapparo, who played almost all the villainy characters in the play opposing Ismay with a sharp edge and a terrifying style. Ms. Kally Hallett’s Florence Schieffelin is also one of my favorites, whose portrait of a caring mother and courageous wife will bring out the emotional dimension of the story.

Presented by Brawling Bard Theater, the second show A Dream of Midsummer  took a completely different direction and brought the comedy back to the spectrum. Think about this as a rehearsed improv version of Shakespeare’s classic, and if you’ve read the story in high school, you will already know 90% of the story.

Written and directed by Mr. Alan Irvine, the play opened with the premises that the ensemble from Brawling Bard Theater went to the wrong venue and got the wrong program for the day, so they had to come up with an non-rehearsed, completely “improvised” 60-minute version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sort of like a “show within a show” if you really get technical about it. The entire play was going as Mr. Irvine directing all the actors playing their parts on the spot, and occasionally some audience will participate by playing a “sit-in” role or drawing a name from a hat to decide who get to play the mischievous Puck.

The structure of the play seemed chaotic at first but maybe that was the intention as no one on stage was supposed to know what was going on. And due to the fact that it was meant to be an improvised show, it was really hard to engage with the audience too despite of the audience participation effort. But once you realize that this show is actually not about the story of Midsummer Night’s Dream at all but more like a Fringe spirited comedy improv, then all there is left is just great great fun. The acting was an ensemble effort like what you would usually see in an improv show. One of the highlights was Ms. Elizabeth Irvine, an 11th grade Pittsburgh CAPA student who brilliantly played two characters at the same time on stage. And as for other surprises including a “sword fight” and some Hand to God references, I’m afraid you will just have to see it to find out!

For tickets and more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, click here. Stay tuned for more reviews coming soon!

Sister Act

2015Mast-SisterActAs the third show of Pittsburgh Musical Theater (PMT)’s “Magnificent Movie Musicals” season this year, Sister Act is an excitingly soulful production filled with blessings, laughs, great gospel music, and power-house performances.

Based on the 1992 hit comedy film of the same name, Sister Act tells a story of a lounge singer, Deloris Van Cartier, who has been put under protective custody in a convent and has to pretend to be a nun to hide from her mobster boyfriend Curtis Shank after she accidentally witnessing a gangster crime. Originally opened on Broadway in 2011 with book written by Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner, Douglas Carter Beane, new music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Glenn Slater, this is another classic feel-good musical comedy that will keep you on the edge of your seat all night jamming to the great soul-lifting music, while being moved by the touching story at the same time.

The star of the show is played by Pittsburgh native and AMDA graduate Ms. Amanda Foote, who is absolutely a musical star herself. With a powerful voice,  an amazing range, and a “less Whoopi Goldberg more Patina Miller” character portrait,  every time Ms. Foote steps on stage all eyes are on her and every time she sings the crowd go crazy. Ms. Foote’s equally excellent acting also successfully delivered the Sister Mary Clarence we all know and love and the heroine we would all care and root for in a heart beat. Her show title solo number “Sister Act” in Act II channeled the emotion of the character to a surprising high level and easily became one of the dramatic and musical highlights of the night.

But this show is not just about Deloris the “diva wannabe”. In fact, one of the amazing things about this how is how diverse the ensemble characters are and how the dynamic between Deloris and each single one of them would play out and gradually affect the progression of the plot.

Mother Superior was played by Ms. Allison Cahill, who gave this “old school Maggie Smith” character a great depth. Her solo number “Here Within These Walls” beautifully set up the emotional conflict and struggle for the main plot. And her resolving moment with Deloris in the second Act is one of those tear jerking scenes that would make you want to praise the Lord. Main antagonist Curtis was played by Mr. Brady D. Patsy, who easily managed to bring the coldness and cruelty to the story with songs like “When I Find My Baby”, which was hauntingly comedic and terrifyingly creepy. The subplot love interest “Sweaty Eddie” was played by Mr. Justin Lonesome, who shined in his solo number “I Could Be That Guy” and foreshadowed the triumph in the plot. And the comedic relief Monsignor O’Hara was played by Mr. Tim Hartman, whose “MC” moment in the beginning of second Act with a live raffle ticket drawing (including Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh) on the opening night definitely brought the house down.

And of course, the sisters, the true “wine and bread” of the show. Ms. Nicole Uram played the sweet and innocent Sister Mary Robert, who instantaneously connected with the audience in her solo number “The Life I Never Led”. Ms. Christine Laitta and Ms. Nina Danchenko played Sister Mary Lazarus and Sister Mary Patrick with eye-catching personalities that took home the most laughter of the night. And finally, every single chorus number in the show with the nuns is a show stopping moment.

Composed by the king of Disney music, Alan Menken once again delivered a score full of character and spirit that the first group number “Raise Your Voice” alone is worth the ticket price. And besides occasional tempo and sync issues, those gospel and soulful melodies sounded loud and great as always with the orchestra in the pit led by Music Director Dr. Brent Alexander. And Ms. Lisa Elliott ‘s energetic choreography also added a great beat to the overall narrative.

Because the popularity of the original film and how familiar most audience are with the story of Sister Act, Director Ms. Colleen Doyno gave the show a very fast paced tempo, that some of the plot-driven dramatic scenes were dealt with relatively quickly and more time and attention were focused on the musical elements of the show. But the tech aspect seamlessly balanced the tension by providing an overall stunning impression to the production. Mr. Kevin Kocher’s scenic design kept the momentum of the show going without losing the grandeur of the theatrical reality in each scene. And Ms. Kim Brown and her Spotlight Costumes team wowed the audience by pulling a “William Ivey Long” with a double breakaway and once again proved that her seasonal collaboration with PMT production is truly a “blessing to our show”.

Whether you’re a fan of the original films or have never seen nuns singing and dancing before, Sister Act will bring you all the fun and feels you need to convince yourself join the fan base (or the sisterhood). And if you are still looking for a reason to go to the Byham Theatre this Easter weekend and experience the energy, Director Ms. Colleen Doyno herself said it the best, “Sister Act is truly a heavenly good time!”

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Musical Theater for complimentary press tickets. Sister Act runs at the Byham Theater until Saturday March 26th, tickets and more information can be found on their website.