The Wizard of Oz

wooIf you are parents or grandparents of preschoolers, and love theatre, a suitable show to introduce them to the magic of theatre isn’t always easy to find.

Gemini Children’s Theater has the perfect solution to introduce the kiddos to both live theatre and the Wizard of Oz. Their production, with an original musical adaptation for children by company founders Dennis Palko and Lani Cataldi, captures Dorothy’s (Savanah Bruno) adventure in a preschooler-friendly style.  Dorothy sets out on the familiar yellow brick road, with her beloved pup Toto (Quincy Sauter). She meets the Scarecrow (Darrin Mosley, Jr.) Tin Man (Bogdan Haiko) and the Cowardly Lion (Bob Colbert). They accompany her to find the Wizard and ask for the things they need; a brain, a heart, some courage and a way home.

Palko and Cataldi along with Director June Beighley show their skill and experience in crafting a child-friendly production. It is not too loud, not too scary and it is very interactive. The lead actors play not only their characters but serve as “helpers” to keep the children in the audience engaged. Several times, just as the kids in the audience are on the edge of fidgety, the actors call them up on stage to help move the story along.  The actors teach them movement and marching with magic scarves that each child receives upon arrival at the theatre along with poppies to cast a spell. Excess energy is burned off, and when the children return to their seats, they are ready to absorb a new character and situation. This approach works superbly well over the two-hour runtime, avoiding any meltdowns in the audience. The munchkins, flying monkeys, students, citizens and crabby trees are played both by children and adults further engage the young audience and perhaps sparking interest in participating on stage in the future. (Gemini offers classes for children interested in theatre.)

Bruno’s Dorothy approaches her adventure out of kindness and friendship, without fear. She yearns to get home, yet helps others along her way. Mosley’s Scarecrow takes advantage of his dance and theatre training at Slippery Rock with expressive movement and gestures. Haiko’s Tin Man is perfect. In an interesting twist, he channels a bit of C3PO from Star Wars, who was somewhat inspired by the Tin Man. The audience loved Colbert’s Cowardly Lion, the tough guy in search of courage. Carina Iannarelli as the Wicked Witch and Emily Palma as Auntie Em and Glinda (the good witch) are excellent in their portrayals.

26910225_1708740829188710_6605773551841023666_oLani Cataldi has written new songs and lyrics for the production and serves as Musical Director for the production as well. While I confess I didn’t leave the theatre humming a tune from the show, the score and songs integrate very well into the flow of the story and serve as another means to engage the young audience. Gemini’s production is different than the MGM musical extravaganza, but no one seemed to mind.

The Wizard of Oz is an elaborate show to stage with many characters and locations. Dennis Palko’s set design is efficient and beautifully executed. Jill Jeffery’s costumes fit the bill perfectly, bright and colorful without overwhelming the characters. June Beighley’s imaginative direction seamlessly integrates it all together along with the audience interaction.

After the show, the entire cast is available to sign autographs in the lobby which is a nice touch for the kids. Space for the autographs is provided in the program. Gemini Children’s Theatre has been around for twenty plus years; they have the children’s theatre thing figured out. There new modern home at the Father Ryan Arts Center is the perfect intimate venue for their work.

If you have preschool kids or grandkids, Gemini Children’s Theater production of The Wizard of Oz is the perfect opportunity to introduce them to the magic of live theatre and spur their creativity and imagination.

The Wizard of Oz, by the Gemini Children’s Theatre at the Ryan Arts & Culture Center in McKees Rocks. Performances are at 1 pm and 3:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays now through  February 4th.

For tickets visit https://geminitheatercompany.thundertix.com/events/111239

Thanks to the Gemini Theater Company for the complimentary tickets.

Photos from Gemini Children’s Theater

That Time of the Year

toyWe are at the Lamp Theatre in Irwin for the final dress rehearsal and a preview of Split Stages production of That Time of the Year which begins its two-day run tonight. Split Stage Productions co-owners Rob Jessup and Nate Newell, who produced last season’s production of Cabaret, have teamed with Director Matt Mlynarski in this musical revue featuring 25 all-original Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s songs.

The songs, with lyrics by the ASCAP award-winning team of Laurence Holzman & Felicia Needleman, and music by seven different composers, range from group numbers, that highlight the joys and anxieties of the holiday season, to ballads about the meaning behind both holidays.

The show has a cast of five community theatre veterans; Victoria Buchtan, Megan Lloyd Harding, Brittany Teague, Zakk Manella, and Josh Reardon with music direction by Andrew DeBroeck. That Time of the Year’s songs range from rock to blues, and jazz, with an opportunity for the cast to show off their voices in their best cabaret/show tune style.

The challenge for any theatre company, particularly a relatively new one, is to find a show that isn’t already produced in the area or isn’t a Christmas cliché. Those “visions of sugar plum dancing in their heads” always don’t reflect the reality of our modern holiday season.

In That Time of the Year, Holzman & Needleman’s songs include Angelo Rosenbaum with Reardon as Angelo. Buchtan has a raunchy Stay Home Tonight as Mrs. Claus who has other plans for Santa Christmas Eve. Other titles include Rock ‘n’ Roll Hanukkah (Mannella & Reardon), Little Colored Lights (Tague), Mama’s Latkes (Harding), People with Obligations, Calypso Christmas, They All Come Home (Harding), Wong Ho’s China Garden, Miracles Can Happen, and That Time of Year. You can see this is no White Christmas!

This production has the potential to capture the warmth and humor of America’s multi-faith holiday season. As presented, it is just another yet different cliché for the holidays.

That Time of The Year plays Friday and Saturday, December 15th and 16th at 8 pm with a 2 pm matinee on Saturday.  For tickets click here. 

Thanks to Split Stage for the sneak peek at final dress Thursday.

The Carols

nbfjksd,Carnegie Stage has a hit in the making on its hands with the Christmas musical The Carols which had its Western Pennsylvania premiere on Thursday in Carnegie. The show was commissioned by Philadelphia’s 1812 theatre company and first premiered there in December of 2016.  The book and lyrics were written by 1812’s Artistic director Jennifer Childs with music composed by Pittsburgh’s Monica Stephenson.

The Carols is set in the small town of Picatinny, NJ shortly after the United States officially entered World War II. It’s Christmastime and the town longs for their loved ones to return from battle.  The VFW Post is empty, manned only by the three Carol sisters, Lily, Rose, and Sylvia, who work with Miss Betty (Jill Keating), a grumpy middle-aged woman who appears to be the wartime keeper of the Post along Teddy (Nick Stamatakis), the resident silent pianist.

Rose (Mandie Russak) is the boy crazy “dumb blonde” with a problem pronouncing words with silent letters, so “ghosts” to her are “gee-hosts.” Sylvia (Kate Queen-Toole) is the ambitious career girl who absolutely and gushingly adores Eleanor Roosevelt. Lily (Moira Quigley), the youngest, is the girl next door, the least hip of the trio, but she loves to use modern slang. She manages the story flow and serves as narrator.

The girls feel it is their patriotic duty to stage the annual production of A Christmas Carol even if it means doing so without male actors.  Betty, who mysteriously wants no part of this Christmas Carol effort argues to “just cancel the darn thing.”  After much debate, the girls conclude that the show must go on.

Audition posters go up which catch the eye of Mel (Leon S. Zionts), a too-old for combat and out-of-work Borscht Belt stand-up comic who is looking for a gig on the way his to Florida for the winter.

Without Betty’s help, the girls, Mel and Teddy, begin to craft their own version of Dickens’ classic tale as they bring their hopes for the future to the deconstructed classic.

Mel recognizes Betty as a famous burlesque and vaudeville performer. He was a patron of those arts as a young man when he was honing his comedic skills. To a young Mel’s eyes, Betty Bell was unforgettable. Betty has a revelation and comes around to join the show. Rose sends a perfumed note to the local military base inviting any boys who might be in town to come to the play. Sylvia asks her hero Eleanor Roosevelt to attend, and Lily holds it together in spite of her concerns for the future.  The show goes on, much to the delight of the audience.

If this sounds typical of the contrived plot of many Christmas shows, well, you are correct. The play may be the thing, but in the case of The Carols, it’s really about the skill of the director and the singing, dancing and acting talents of the ensemble cast that make it a fun-filled laugh-out-loud show to watch and enjoy.

Director Robyne Parish recently directed the well-received production of Violet for Front Porch Theatricals this past summer. In The Carols, she has drawn upon some of our regions most talented actors. Jill Keating has extensive acting experience and is a thirty-three-year member of Equity. Her portrayal of Betty is at first unsympathetic. In the number where she warms to the idea of playing Scrooge, she presents a fantastic transformation in demeanor both physically and vocally as Betty comes to appreciate her Burlesque past. Some period accurate costumes for her might be helpful, but her performance is stellar which, makes the costume oddity superfluous.

The three sisters’ characters as written are as thick as greasepaint. Parish has humanized them, reminding us that we all know and love someone who is just like them. All three young women are rising stars to watch in the Pittsburgh theatre scene.

In the intimate setting of Carnegie Stage, Russak’s Rose is a joy to watch. Her smile lights up the sage at the most opportune moments.  Her facial expressions, delivery, and physical comedy skills are top-notch.

Quigley’s Lily is most real of the characters as she wonders what will happen to her as she gets left behind in Picatinny when Rose and Sylvia leave to pursue their dreams. Lily and Mel have a fun tap dance number as they cement their friendship and kindred spirit.

Zionts as Mel is perfect, just the right mix of an opportunist Catskill comic, adoring fan, and all around funny guy and tap dancer. His butchered rendition of Dickens’s story is hilarious. Zionts and Keating have great chemistry as two old performers, a little past their prime. Their energy is magical to watch.

The brilliance of Parish’s casting shines in the vocal talents of the actors. With Nick Stamatakis in addition to playing Teddy serving admirably as musical director, the trio of Rose, Sylvia, and Lily is pitch perfect. Their harmonies in the acapella songs are stunningly and surprisingly beautiful. Jill Keating’s choreography is superbly subtle, not over the top Mamma Mia style, but the perfect finishing touch for this trio of talented voices.

Any shortcomings in the plot are more than made up by this talented ensemble of actors under Parish’s and Stamatakis’ direction.  For a laugh-out-loud evening of theatre that will leave you smiling and marveling at the talent in Pittsburgh, The Carols is a must-see show. Carnegie Stage – start a tradition, save the set and book all these actors for next Christmas season, you have a hit on your hands. Pittsburgh Producers – find another show for these three talented young actresses can work together.

The Carols at Carnegie Stage has performances on December 8th, 9th, 14th, 15th, 16th at 8 pm, December 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th  at 3 pm. For tickets click here.

Thanks to the Carnegie Stage for the complimentary tickets.

A Tuna Christmas

TunaChristmasIt seems that every theatre company has its own Christmas show or two. The Little Lake Theatre Company in Canonsburg has A Tuna Christmas, set in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas. Like everywhere else, the Yuletide holidays can wreak havoc, and create turmoil in what is otherwise a pretty low-key community. The “big doins” here is the town’s annual Christmas Yard Display Contest, usually won (14 times in a row) by one Ms. Vera Carp. This year the contest has been thrown into tailspin by a mysterious “Christmas Phantom,” who is covertly sabotaging the yard displays! Tuna embraces the usual holiday angst of Christmas; tipsy radio announcers, a crazy gun dealer, reform school loser, stressed waitresses, over-crowded animal shelters, alcoholics, dysfunctional siblings and grandmas, a pregnant cat and a struggle to mount the annual holiday pageant production without electricity.

If all that sounds silly, it is, and fun as well! A Tuna Christmas is a loving yet biting satire of life in a small Texas town. The second of three “Tuna” plays, it was first produced in 1989 and played a command performance at the White House for President George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

In reality, all three Tunas resemble the TV comedy sketches by Harvey Korman and Tim Conway from the Carol Burnett Show which, aired on CBS the previous decade.  As cleverly written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, Tuna Christmas’ large cast of characters pop in-and-out of scenes like customers at a Starbucks in the morning.

To add just a bit more zaniness, the authors have chosen to have all twenty-two of the townspeople played by only two actors. Kevin Bass and Art DeConciliis who brilliantly share the load equally performing the mixed bag of characters; young, old, men, women and all just a little off center. Dozens of back and forth costume changes occur at breakneck speed throughout the show. Dressers Rebecca Herron and Danette Marie Levers receive well-deserved billing for their herculean efforts.

A Tuna Christmas is so watchable and enjoyable due to the excellent physical comedy skills and near-perfect comedic timing of Bass and DeConciliis (who also co-directs). Theirs is a combination of Korman, Conway, Red Skelton and Robin Williams style-wise with the delivery of punch lines like two boxers feinting and throwing punches in the ring. Both actors have years of experience working together and separately, and it shows in the quality of their work. Yes, the jokes are a little stale. Co-director Jena Oberg, Bass, and DeConciliis offer a few surprise jokes reflecting current times.

Yes, the show is a bit too long. None the less, the audience filled Little Lake’s barn theatre with laughter and smiles throughout the evening. Watching these two veteran actors pull off the show in a brilliant an engaging fashion is definitely worth the trip to Canonsburg.

A Tuna Christmas runs December 1st, 2nd, 7th 8th 9th 14th, 15th 16th at the Little Lake Theatre. For tickets visit https://www.showclix.com/event/a-tuna-christmas

This show will sell out quickly so don’t wait to get your tickets.

Thanks to Little Lake Theatre for the complimentary tickets.

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Winter 2017

Welcome to our annual pick of five of must-see musicals this winter. We have a diverse mix that includes two community theatre productions; Annie at Comtra and The Last Five Years by Split Stages at the Theatre Factory. From the University of Pittsburgh, there is the off-Broadway classic Little Shop of Horrors and CMU presents the Drowsy Chaperone Wrapping up our list for this post is the world premiere of Up and Away at the CLO Cabaret.

Yvonne has a separate story coming later this winter on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Ted Papas’ final musical as Producing Artistic Director at the Public Theatre.  If you yearn for a touring Broadway show, the Cultural Trust / PNC Broadway Across America has How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Wicked, Love Never Dies and, The Bodyguard this winter. Lastly, what would the holidays be without the CLO’s annual A Christmas Carol at the Byham.

But now to our winter musical picks:

annieAnnie, Miss Hannigan, Daddy Warbucks and Sandy have been making the rounds of the areas community theatres this past year and Cranberry’s Comtra Theatre has snagged them right before Christmas. Despite having been around for nearly one-hundred years since Harold Gray launched his popular comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” in 1920 they haven’t aged a bit!

In case you just arrived on earth and haven’t heard of Annie, here is the story. She is an orphan who lives in the evil Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Luckily, she gets sprung for the holidays because she has been chosen to stay over the Christmas holidays at billionaire Oliver Warbuck’s mansion. She is ever so cute and loveable and Annie wins the hearts of Warbucks and his staff.  They Honor her wish to find her parents.  Ms. Hannigan, true to form, schemes to make a buck off the deal with her brother and his “lady friend” to help.

Brent Rodgers returns to Comtra Theatre to direct Annie after last spring’s musical hit Sister Act. Brent is also the musical director at Riverside High School.   He says “You won’t want to miss the beautiful score and heartwarming story of this All-American musical.  We are bound to put everyone in the Christmas spirit!”

Recently produced by Stage 62 and the Palisade Playhouse, the Comtra Theatre features an intimate performance space with affordable tickets. It’s the perfect place to introduce young children to the live theatre experience. As an added bonus, Comtra has a nice troupe of young actors with a focus on family-friendly shows.

Annie, at the Comtra Theatre in Cranberry Township, has performances December 1st to 16th. For dates, shows times and tickets click here

upupThe CLO Cabaret Theatre is a great venue to relax have a drink, some food and enjoy a light-hearted comedy. Up and Away is the CLO’s latest offering in their mission to develop and nurture smaller-scale musicals.  Fifty different characters are played by five actors in this high-flying world-premiere comedy guaranteed to keep the suspense high and the laughs rolling!

The story features brothers Joe and Jerry Jessup who live in the not much happening, very rural hamlet of Farmtown, USA.  When Joe discovers he has superpowers, he naturally high-tails it out of town to seek fame and fortune in “Big City.” He finds trouble instead and forces his jittery brother Jerry to follow which turns their boring life upside down. Toss in an eccentric billionaire, a plucky reporter, and dastardly villains, and you’ve got the rip-roaring adventure tale of the world’s FIRST superhero.

Up and Away at the CLO Cabaret in Theatre Square has performances beginning January 25th through April 15, 2018. For tickets and times click here

l5ySplit Stage Productions wraps their season with The Last Five Years, an emotional and intimate musical with an interesting storytelling approach. Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt are two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show uses reverse storytelling; Cathy is a struggling actress, who tells her story in reverse while Jamie, a rising novelist, reveals his story chronologically from when they first met.  What is theatrically interesting here is the two characters play opposite of each other and are only together on stage once, at their wedding, in the middle of the timeline.

The Last Five Years plays January 26th to February 3rd at The Theatre Factory in Trafford. For tickets and more information click here.

lsohAs winter drags on and you long for the Spring Flower Show at the Phipps, The University of Pittsburgh’s Drama Department has just the right solution, Little Shop of Horrors, a musical about a plant! Well, it is not just any plant, but a foul-mouthed, alien R&B-singing carnivore plant. A milquetoast floral assistant, Seymour Krelborn stumbles across a new breed of a plant which, he names “Audrey II” – after his coworker crush. Audrey II promises unending fame and fortune to the down and out Krelborn as long as he keeps feeding it. It loves BLOOD. Over time, Seymour discovers Audrey II’s out of this world origins and intent towards global domination!

Reginald Douglas, the Artistic Producer at the City Theatre, directs this Off-Broadway classic by playwright Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman’s the creative geniuses behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, and Aladdin.

Little Shop of Horrors in performance at Charity Randall Theatre on Pitt’s campus from February 8th to February 18th.  For tickets call 412.624.PLAY (7529)

tdcThis university theatre season is a feast for musical theatre fans and that unique musical form, the musical within a musical. Point Park this fall produced Kiss Me Kate (to be seen on Broadway in 2019 with Kellie O’Hara) and it has the classic 42nd Street scheduled this spring. Carnegie Mellon grabs the winter slot with The Drowsy Chaperone, a loving send-up of the Jazz Age musical, it is Directed and Choreographed by Tony Award-nominated (Ragtime) Marcia Milgrom Dodge with Musical Direction by Pittsburgh’s Thomas Douglas.

When a diehard theatre fan plays his favorite cast album the recording comes to life and The Drowsy Chaperone begins as the man in the chair looks on. Mix in two lovers on the eve of their wedding, a bumbling best man, a desperate theatre producer, a not-so-bright hostess, two gangsters posing as pastry chefs, a misguided Don Juan and an intoxicated chaperone, and you have the ingredients for an evening of madcap delight that involves gangsters, show people, millionaires, servants and of course tap dancing!

The Drowsy Chaperone “does what a musical is supposed to do! It takes you to another world and it gives you a little tune to carry in your head for when you’re feeling blue…”

Carnegie Mellon’s production of Drowsy Chaperone runs February 22nd to March 3rd. For tickets click here. 

Once again, the Pittsburgh area theatre companies provide a winter filled with almost enough (Is there ever?) singing and dancing to satisfy any musical theatre nerds’ passion. For those of you still on the fence about musicals, check out this clip from Something Rotten at the 2015 Tony Awards https://vimeo.com/139792908

Love’s Labor’s Won

23435043_10155257750121859_3773208933795964793_nDirectors and theatre companies have been adapting and tweaking the works of William Shakespeare for centuries. Alterations run the gamut from changing the setting and characters genders to modernizing the language. Sometimes the core story has morphed, for example, Romeo & Juliet begat West Side Story. Imagine if you could take a story concept and write it in the style of Shakespeare. Elizabethan English, in verse form with iambic pentameter rhyming schemes and his typical comedy conventions; the buffoon, the snooty royal, women dressed as men and missed identities. Theatre, just as the Bard would have written it.

Shakespeare’s Loves Labors Lost, first published in 1598, ends with the death of the King of France, leaving the other characters future in limbo. It has long been surmised that a sequel had been written by the Bard, but alas it has never been found. Scott Kaisers’ Love’s Labor’s Won could be that sequel, set near the end of World War I, just as the armistice is about to be signed. Thematically, it asks the question “Will love survive the brutal war?”

Many of the characters from Lost make the transition to Won. For a memory refresh, they are Ferdinand (Christopher J. Essex), the King of Navarre, the country in the center of the conflict and about to be divided. He has taken a three-year oath of celibacy and sobriety, encouraging his friends to do the same. Princess Isabelle of France (Kennedy McMann) arrives on the scene and causes that oath to fly out the window. She is a no-nonsense talented politician. She has lost her father in the war and also her purpose. Her position keeps her silenced, but she is just waiting to leap in and save the day.

Dumaine (Chase Del Rey) who is not the cleverest of the bunch. Decorum is not his thing but affection towards his crush Kathrine is, along with his other desire- for wealth. Kathrine (Myha’la Herrold) is Isabelle’s closest friend. She is beautiful and graceful, yet possesses and inner strength. She views Dumaine as a money hunger hypocrite but she loves him anyway.

Berowne (Christian Strange) is the ambitious class clown of the group all the while searching for a sense of stability in a war-torn world. His love Rosaline (Aubyn Heglie) who can verbally joust with the best of men. A woman of action, she calls Berowne a fool when he professes his love for her.

Longaville (Kyle Decker) has been locked up in the Embassy’s dungeon for being a spy. Of all the characters, he has the greatest sense of and respect for humanity. He has also signed up for the oath but has found a loophole, by proclaiming his love, Maria (Eleanor Pearson) is a goddess. Maria is calm and collected, but ultimately brokers the deal to finalize the armistice and restore all their relationships.

Costard (Jordan Plutzer) is the foot soldier, wounded in battle and worse for wear. With a bad eye and a bad leg on his left side, he always seems to be searching for the right direction. He adds the comic relief to what would otherwise be very sad times. Rayquila Durham plays the jazzy Jacquenetta, his love interest.

The playwright, Scott Kaiser, has written several books on Shakespeare and another play Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues. He clearly knows and understands the Bards writing style and conventions. He has created a very watchable and enjoyable play. Some of the rhymes are a bit over the top, but hey why not. Perhaps the double entendre is a bit overdone at times. The characters have depth and complexity with the ultimate outcome of the story in doubt until the very end.

CMU has a well-deserved reputation for recruiting top talent. That talent with a master director really shines in this production delivering rich well-crafted performances. The university posts no cast bios, so it’s a guess as to their path to CMU, past experience or whether they are undergraduates or grad students. Regardless you can see bright futures for them as actors. Two standouts are Jordan Plutzer’ Costard for his comedic skills and timing along with Rayquila Durham’s as Jaquenetta for her exquisite singing voice.

The Scenic Design by Fiona Rhodes looks as if a grand marble staircase was lifted from one of Pittsburgh’s old mansions, or perhaps the Carnegie Museum. The single set design conveys the essence of a country on hold in wartime. The intersecting point of the character’s lives. Priceless works of art, initially secured and sequestered have come unwrapped as the war raged on, just as relationships have come undone over time. Kudo’s to the painting artists and crew.

Natalie Burton’s costumes convey the almost post great war era. Men in their uniforms, although not always military, and women with that soft flowing radiance that leads into the era of the flapper. In the opening scene, Costard’s uniform tells you everything about the time and place of the play, before the first word is spoken.

Anthony Stultz’s score and Sound Design for Jaquenetta’s songs at the close of Act II nicely and understatedly foreshadow the world of post-war France.

Leaving the theatre and thinking about were these young actors and designer’s careers would take them, we overheard two young women walking behind in animated conversation.  “The men were stupid and stubborn, but the women, they ended the war”.  A fitting sentiment for these times.

Carnegie Mellon University Drama’s production of Love’s Labor’s Won at the Phillip Chosky Theater, Purnell Center for the Arts has a performance on Saturday, November the 18th at 8 pm. Performances resume after Thanksgiving, November 28th through December 3rd. For tickets visit http://drama.cmu.edu/box-office/loves-labors-won/

Thank you to CMU Drama for the complimentary tickets.

The Impresaria and Djamileh

.kljhgdtsetdrfykhuIt has been said that musical theatre and opera are the two most collaborative art forms. Actors, singers, dancers, designers, musicians, choreographers, and directors must work together in real time to create the work of art. If your passion is opera, you must find a like-minded group of individuals to collaborate with, unlike the more solitary work of a painter.  For those whose passion has not become a professional career, community theatre and opera community provide a vehicle to express their art and passion. Undercroft Opera’s mission is to “create a community for singers and orchestral musicians by offering performance experience to emerging and seasoned local artists and developing audiences through both innovative and traditional operatic productions.”  Closing out Undercroft’s 11th season with a wildly varied and unique offering of two one-act operas, The Impresaria and Djamileh, display both their commitment to the mission and the company’s versatility.

The Impresario, or Der Schauspieldirektor was composed in a day as part of a contest by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is arguably the most renowned figure of late 18th-century opera. Mozart describes it as “comedy with music” and it is viewed as one of the most playful of his works.  Undercroft has updated and adapted the story and characters to the 1950s. The traditional male role of the impresario has been switched to be a woman, hence the title shift to Impresaria

Set in post-war Vienna, famed soprano turned director Francesca Zeller is starting a new theatrical company. But funds are tight and her assistant Buff comes up with a tried but true solution. Get an eager actresses’ sugar daddy to finance the tour! The said actress is the not so young anymore Alura Pierce. She auditions with a long Noel Coward piece. As she finishes, an aspiring young singer arrives to wow Francesca and Buff, but she comes with way too many demands for a wannabe. This sets off a seemingly endless parade of aspiring actresses and actors all who desire a larger and larger cut of the non-existent budget pie. Finally, two sopranos arrive, duel it out with different arias that, turn into a catfight for bragging rights as to who really is the diva. Once that is “settled”, the fight over salaries breaks out again. Francesca, who cleverly demonstrates why she is The Impresaria, turns it all around and the company comes together to celebrate their art in the final song.

As operas go, this interpretation of The Impresario is heavy on dialogue and light on singing. That’s too bad as the auditions involving singing are entertaining and well done as opposed to those that are just belabored readings.  No schauspieldirektor worth their salt would let those take up so much of their time in auditions.

Anna Singer (formerly WQED host and recently seen in Pittsburgh Festival Operas’ Sweeny Todd) makes an excellent Impresaria and gets to show off her singing chops in the opera’s first scene.

Rob Hockenberry’s and Mary Beth Sederburg’s direction can’t quite find purpose the growing masses of hopefuls on stage with little to do as the auditions wind their way to the dueling soprano’s in this “odd duck” of an opera. The singers all have strong voices, clarity is sometimes difficult to discern in the acoustically live auditorium in Seton Center. Conductor Hyery Hwang (Ball State University) has an excellent command of her musicians and brings out the beauty of Mozart’s score. The orchestra is marvelous and underutilized in this performance.

The second presentation of the evening is Djamileh is an opéra comique in one act by Georges Bizet.  The opera begins at the end of the day the caliph Haroun (William Andrews) reclines and smokes a hookah in his Cairo palace, with his servant Splendiano (Zach Luchetti). The conversation turns to Haroun’s lover Djamileh (Mary Beth Sederburg), who is actually his slave girl. As is his standard practice, Haroun trades in his lover at the end of the month for a new model.  Djamileh’s month is up and therefore she must go. Splendiano confesses to Haroun that he loves her and would like to keep her for himself. Haroun says not to worry; “he is not in love with her, only with love itself.” Djamileh however loves Haroun.

The slave merchant, Mervin, brings the prospective new girls in to dance for Haroun, and he chooses his new concubine. Splendiano comes up with a scheme to confirm Heroun is not in love with Djamileh. He will dress her as the new girl. If she fails to win Heroun’s heart, she will be available to Splendiano. Heroun eventually recognizes her and therefore Splendiano has lost out.

Undercroft calls this is a “stylish evening of one-act operas galvanized by Diva Dynamism.” Are slave girls taken as lovers on a monthly upgrade cycle truly representative of girl power?

There were some interesting glitches with the auditorium lights during the Impresaria, but the actors, singers, and musicians paid it no heed. It was distracting but not disastrous.

Tonight’s evening featured excellent singers, a great conductor, and an accomplished orchestra, a tribute to the quality of opera and musical talent in the Pittsburgh area.

Undercoft Opera’s performances of The Impresaria and Djamileh are at the Seton Center Auditorium, 1900 Pioneer Ave in Pittsburgh on  November 17th and 18th at 7:30 pm and November 19th at 2:00 pm. For tickets visit https://www.undercroftopera.org/community/tickets/

Thanks to Undercroft for the complimentary tickets.

The Silver Theater Project Presents Mother Tongue

MTThe Silver Theater Project presented the third of their 2017 inaugural fall season’s Salon Readings with F.J. Hartland’s Mother Tongue on Saturday, at the Glitter Box Theater. Most readers will be familiar with the staged reading of a play, where the actors are still “on book” with perhaps a costume piece or two and a couple of props with generally no scenery. The Salon concept originated in Italy in the 1600s as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, it serves partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.” The Silver Theater’s Salons are on book and more un-staged, with the readers seated or standing. The important added feature over a staged reading is the opportunity for the audience to interact with the author, readers and each other before, at intermission and after the reading. This serves as a valuable tool for playwrights to try out scripts and revisions. For the audience, it is an opportunity to let your imagination roam, conjuring stage directions, scenery, lighting & costumes in your mind. It also brings the dialogue to the forefront unencumbered by the trappings of a partial or full production.

It has been said that “Love conquers all.” Hartland’s Mother Tongue adds the tincture of time as an essential element of the equation. Bertie, read by Marianne Shaffer, is living in Seattle and divorced from her husband who left her for a younger woman. He later passed away rather suddenly without her seeing him before he met his end. The combination of anger and an admitted tinge of grief sends her into therapy. The solution for her to deal with her “issues” is to become a standup comedian so she can vent and unleash every mean-spirited joke about men and relationships to help her cope with her loss.

Bertie has a gay son in his mid-twenties, Matt (Ezra Dickinson) who is living in New York City and struggling to get his artistic painting career off the ground. The play opens with Matt “under the sheets” with his new love interest, an older gentleman named Cale, (Randy Oliva) who tries to distract himself from Matt’s oral skills by reciting the multiplication and periodic tables out loud. During one tryst as the scene nearly reaches its climax, Bertie, forgetting the time zone difference, rings up Matt. She guesses from Matt’s curt answers that he has a man over and persuades Matt to put him on the line.  Let the grilling begin!

Mother Tongue juxtaposes Bertie’s comedy club routines with scenes of the budding relationship of Matt and Cale as we learn their backstories and the impact of Bertie’s standup career on Matt and his own unresolved issues with his father and his sexuality. The full and complex story of the relationships reveals itself in an emotional and touching fashion as the play comes to an end.

In rehearsal: Randy Olivia as Cale, Liam Ezra Dickinson as Matt and Marianne Schaffer as Bertie
In rehearsal: Randy Olivia as Cale, Liam Ezra Dickinson as Matt and Marianne Schaffer as Bertie

Allison Weakland (BA – Seton Hill) directs the reading as well as delivering the stage directions to the audience. Weakland takes her readers to near performance level acting particularly, the scenes between Matt and Cale. The intimacy of the Glitter Box makes this an ideal venue for Salon Readings, it’s as if you are a fly on the wall listening in without distractions. The facial expressions and body language between the men make their mutual attraction, that turns to love, all the more believable. You can see the Bertie character evolving to become more of a female George Burns or Don Rickles type, or perhaps the attitude of an older Sara Silverman in a more fully developed performance.

Playwright F.J. Hartland (MFA – CMU) has sixteen appearances in the Pittsburgh New Works festival to his credit along with over one-hundred stage directing credits and twenty-six years as an Equity actor. His newest full-length work, Rust, had its world premiere at Duquesne University this past February. Keep Mother Tongue on your radar, I expect to see a full production premiere in Pittsburgh’s future.

Founder and Artistic Director Michael McGovern (BFA – Point Park, MFA – CMU) created the Silver Theatre Project as a venue for actors and authors over forty.  For an enjoyable and affordable evening watching new works come to life in an intimate setting coupled with some nosh, a glass of wine and good conversation, the Silver Theater Projects’ Salon Readings are hard to beat.

The Silver Theater Project takes a winter hiatus (Florida anyone?) returning in the early spring. Follow them to learn of the next reading at https://www.facebook.com/TheSilverTheaterProject/

Salon Readings are one night only events on Sundays at the Glitter Box Theatre in Oakland with a $10 suggested donation per person.

Thanks to the Silver Theater Project for the complimentary tickets.

The Crucible

crucible-logo-300x287Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, is a dramatized and partially fictionalized play based upon the Salem Witch Trials during 1692/93.  When taken at its simplest form, the plot centers on a love triangle between John Proctor (Eric Leslie) his wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Sinatra) and their young and quite attractive former servant girl Abigail Williams (Elizabeth Bennett). When his wife suffered from a period of sickness, he committed adultery with Abigail. John generally views this as an unfortunate indiscretion not to be repeated, but Abby feels as though a much deeper relationship has developed between them. She plots to get Elizabeth out of the way and marry John.

Abby’s scheme to secure John as her husband takes advantage of the growing fear of witches. She convinces the colony’s clergy that she and other young girls have seen the older village women commit witchcraft and cavort with the devil. The young girls were caught dancing in the moonlight and claimed they were possessed as a diversion from their activity. Abby frames Elizabeth with a doll and accuses Elizabeth of using the doll to hurt her. This sets up Elizabeth to be hanged, so John Proctor would then be available to marry Abby.

(left to right) Jennifer Sinatra, Eric Leslie and Elizabeth Bennett
(left to right) Jennifer Sinatra, Eric Leslie and Elizabeth Bennett

In the English system of justice in the late 1600s, both the courts and church together established the standards of justice and prosecution. The easiest way for the court to gain a conviction and an execution for charges of witchcraft was a confession.  As it turns out, in reality, none of the accused Salem witches who confessed were convicted or executed. However, all of the women and men who refused to confess to consorting with the devil were found guilty and executed.

As the suspected witches watched the other’s trials progress, they become faced with a moral choice; confess to witchcraft and most likely you would be spared from the gallows. Then you would only answer to God upon your death and have your soul damned to hell. Miller’s play asks us think about how we would handle ourselves if we were to find ourselves in this situation, would we lie to save ourselves and our family?

(left to right) Sophia Englesberg, Lindy Spear, Isabella Englesberg, Elizabeth Bennett, Martha McElligott, Amanda DeConciliis-Weber, Heather Dressel, Moriah Hathaway
(left to right) Sophia Englesberg, Lindy Spear, Isabella Englesberg, Elizabeth Bennett, Martha McElligott, Amanda DeConciliis-Weber, Heather Dressel, Moriah Hathaway

While The Crucible appears to be totally about the Salem Witch Trials, Miller wrote the play in 1952 as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the rallying cry of the era was “Are you now or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?” How different is that from with the question that haunts The Crucible: “Did you see Elizabeth Proctor or Francis Nurse with the Devil?”

The intimacy of the Little Lake Theatre should be just perfect for this type of soul searching drama. However, as seems often the case at Little Lake, actors and directors fail to take advantage of the intimate setting to create a nuanced and sublime performance, instead resorting to shouting to accentuate the drama. By the end of the second act, Director Jena Oberg’s over the top delivery style becomes tiring. This is regretful just as the simple love triangle story transitions to the more complex morality play that requires our full attention.

(left to right) Joshua Antoon, Eric Leslie, Warren Ashburn, and Jeff Johnson
(left to right) Joshua Antoon, Eric Leslie, Warren Ashburn, and Jeff Johnson

That is not to say that this production doesn’t have its moments. Standout performances are delivered by Elizabeth Bennett for her portrayal of Abigail, Jennifer Sinatra as Elizabeth Proctor and Ina Block as the elder Rebecca Nurse. John Reilly is the perfect representation of the self-perceived totally infallible and yet totally evil Judge Hathorne.

The resurrection of witch hunts seems to be common practice in today’s political environment.  The Crucible takes us back in time to America’s original witch hunt, the questions raised then are just as relevant today.

Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. Performances Thursday, Friday and Saturdays, November 2-4, 9-11 & 16-18 with all performances at 8pm.

For tickets visit https://www.showclix.com/event/the-crucible

Photos by James Orr

Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers

21558947_1589498057738984_6722449227359433515_n“Everyone deserves one song.” Author Molly Rice has provided just that in her work Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers. Performed as a cabaret-style concert, it features the impressive vocal and instrumental talents of Milia Ayache accompanied by Zorahna on guitar and bass and Murder for Girls Michele Dunlap on drums.

Rice’s songs attempt to explain the rationale behind the eight-featured killer’s behaviors.  At the same time they ask the audience, “How is this possible for a human being to do such evil things to others?” .  What is the motivation?  Is it personal abuse or social inequity that simmered and festered resulting in violence or is it just some strange personality quirk?  As we reflect on our world today, these questions are even more relevant given today’s capabilities to inflect serial death in “rapid-fire” succession.

Aftershock Theatre is a new to the current cultural scene performance space. The Venue is located in a historic Slavic social hall in upper Lawrenceville.  The property is undergoing major renovation, and it is a good match for this concert play by Real/Time Interventions. Director Rusty Thelin uses the raw space on the main floor as his performance space. Walls are draped in plastic, chairs with white slipcovers and the band in white nurses’ dresses. It’s an appropriate gritty space that is enhanced by the fresh smell of old plaster dust and the hum of a portable propane heater. There is the feeling of a being in a haunted house as you enter the performance space, perhaps the ghosts of the killer’s victims are in the audience as well seeking the explanation for their fate?

Since the social hall is under renovation and possesses the barest of essential accommodations, it creates essentially a pop-up performance space. In spite of the lack of any formal theatrical infrastructure at this point, the tech team has created an intimate venue with an accompanying intimate cabaret sound.

In a typical cabaret performance, there is usually some banter between the performer and the audience. In Rice and Thelin’s collaboration, there is no verbal banter, just pantomime involving objects selected to reflect the killer’s persona, and their photo pulled from a bulletin board. The audience is left to read their backstories in the program. (Hint- do so before the performance begins.) I would have liked the performer to have introduced each song, making a more direct connection to the evil events that the songs attempt to explain. There is a precedent for this within the show as Ayache does introduce the last number as intended for those who have yet to kill.

The band, lead by Ayache as the lead vocalist, is really quite good. Once the break of character leading to the curtain call, it would be fun to listen to them jam for a post-curtain encore, complementing the inclusive nature of the Aftershock Theatre’s mission.

Theatre is a constantly evolving art form, Pittsburgh is fortunate to have companies like Real/Time Interventions and spaces like Aftershock Theatre to push that evolution ahead.

For more, read our Nichole Faina’s insightful preview click here. 

Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers by Real / Time Interventions at Aftershock Theatre, 115 57th St. in Lawrenceville, now through November 11th with performances Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. On-street parking is available but needs to be looked for, so allow time for this. Price: $20 for a ticket (includes one adult beverage with each ticket).  Tickets at www.realtimeinterventions.org