Anything Goes

anything goesAre you are looking for a lighthearted break from reality with quirky characters, great songs, and dance routines? The classic Cole Porter musical comedy Anything Goes is Delightful, Delicious, and De-Lovely.

There are several versions of Anything Goes available to theater companies, with each offering a slightly different song list, running order and book (script) variations.

This McKeesport Little Theater production uses the 1962 version, there is also a 1987 version and a 2011 Roundabout Theatre version as well, so don’t think you’re crazy if this is a bit different than you may remember.

Unlike many musicals of its day, Anything Goes has a strong plot line full of twists and turns as you wonder who gets the girl and who gets the boy.  The later the version, the more fully developed the story line is. The musical is set on the S.S. American a cruise ship that is sailing between New York and England.  The voyage is packed with a comically colorful assemblage of passengers: Reno Sweeney, a popular nightclub singer and former evangelist, her pal Billy Crocker, a lovelorn Wall Street broker who has come aboard to try to win the favor of his beloved Hope Harcourt (who is engaged to another passenger, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh), and a second-rate con man named Moonface Martin, aka “Public Enemy #13.” Song, dance, and farcical antics ensue as Reno and Moonface try to help Billy win the love of his life.

Anything Goes offers a fascinating stylized glimpse at American life in the 1930’s. It’s Broadway debut in 1934 was a year after prohibition ended and roughly at the mid-point of the Great Depression. Roosevelt was just elected president in 1933 and the mood of the country has shifted towards cautious optimism.  Attitudes regarding women, class structure and foreigners have slowly begun to change. Although you might be surprised to see how little has changed between then and now.  Odd as it may sound, this retrospective is more predominant in the latter Roundabout version than the earlier ones, but this is still worth observing.

What community theater lacks in resources and experience, it often makes up for in enthusiasm. This production is no exception.

Most of the scenes take place on deck, the main highway for characters coming and going. Director Dorothy Fallows scenic design makes use of two winglets on either side of the main deck that serve as staterooms and the brig. Getting the large cast on and off the deck often seems a bit contrived as secondary characters appear as needed for big musical numbers.

The leads come to the production with various levels of experience and talent. It was interesting to see the diversity of age of the actors that embodies the true spirit of community theatre.

Riley Tate is a lovely woman and carries off the somewhat older than she Reno Sweeney quite well. She has played Reno before and it shows. While this production’s musical numbers choreography is not as lush as might be expected, Tate dances with joy and grace. She shows great promise vocally. Ron Clawson’s Billy Crocker doesn’t have the good looks of Ryan Gosling;  but he has a good voice and pleasant delivery. Tim Tolbert’s portrayal of Moonface Martin was fully realized with entertaining expressions and gestures and a good voice. Sam Minnick’s Sir Evelyn Oakley has just the right restrained British character, flummoxed often by American sayings and culture. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Reno and Evelyn just isn’t there. Emily-Ann Stephens’ Hope Harcourt never quite explains why Evelyn and why not Billy. Julia Lodge is a triple threat as the ditzy sexpot Bonnie.

Anything Goes features some of Cole Porter’s and musical theater’s most memorable standards, including “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “It’s Delovely”, “Friendship”, “You’re the Top,” and of course, the title song.

According to Linda Baker, President of MLT “This is one of the classic musicals that unfortunately not enough millennials have had the opportunity to experience.” So disconnect and go see it.

Anything Goes continues it’s run at the McKeesport Little Theatre May 19th to 21st. Tickets available at http://mckeesportlittletheater.com

Thanks to MLT for the complimentary tickets to a Broadway classic.

Peter and the Starcatcher

peterstarcatcher300x300You are correct, there has been a “boatload’ of Peter and the Starcatcher productions this summer, three in fact.  I must confess I did not see Little Lake or the University of Pittsburgh’s productions.

I did see the Broadway national tour in 2014 and the Shaw Festivals production in 2015, both left me with the feeling of “meh”.

This review of Stage 62’s charmingly clever production of Peter and the Starcatcher was for me a voyage of re-discovery.  It was as if I had never really “seen” the show before.

Starcatcher is a comedy with some music, but not a musical. There are the requisite dancing girls, in this case mermaids, played pretty much mostly by boys. The opening number to the second act is hilarious.

Without getting too much into the plot here (You can read about that in Nicole Tafe’s review of the Little Lake production in the PITR archives here) Starcatcher is the prequel to J.M. Barrie’s 1904 novel Peter Pan, about the boy who never grew up.

The story: Lord Aster (J.P. Welsh) has been assigned by the Queen of England to insure safe transport of a treasure chest full of “starstuff” known to give anyone who possesses it the ability to realize his or her dreams.  Aster devises a plan to ship two identical chests on two different ships by two different routes to insure safe delivery. He dispatches his daughter Molly (Casey Duffy), a Starcatcher-in-training, on the ship Never Land and he takes the trunk with the real starstuff on the Wasp. Unbeknownst to Lord Aster and Molly, the trunks are switched by pirates before the ships set sail and Never Land holds the goods.

The Never Land’s crew is actually pirates, led by Black Stache (Brett Goodnack) and in addition to the trunk with the real starstuff. The Pirates also have three orphan boys held prisoner in the bilge of the Never Land.  And so we set sail…..

The thing that makes this production so special is the group of actors, all of them are Pittsburgher’s or graduates from our universities’ theatre programs. A few are in the early stages of their acting careers; many are very experienced having played many roles in multiple companies. What makes it work so perfectly is Spencer Whale’s creative vision and direction. The actor’s comedic timing, gestures and expressions seamlessly integrate together creating an ensemble that is a joy to watch as they are having such fun performing together.

L-R Brett Goodnack, Nate Willey
L-R Brett Goodnack, Nate Willey

Pittsburgh’s brilliant comedic actor Brett Goodnack as the silly and sinister Black Stache leads the ensemble. His stage presence keeps your eyes riveted to him and a smile on your face.

Other standouts in the uniformly strong cast include Point Park graduate Nate Willey as the Boy who becomes Peter Pan. Cody Sweet’s portrayal of Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Brumbrake, captures the sweet caring woman with a beard and a twist who can raise a pirate’s flagpole. J.P. Walsh’s portrayal of Lord Aster conjures up the classic proper British explorer and caring father. Casey Duff’s Molly is an ageless girl full of hopes and dreams, eager to prove her worth and trustworthiness. The entire cast has double if not triple duty. The orphans, Prentiss and Ted, played by Jake Smith and Charles Buescher Rowell keep their characters in perfect sync as they switch back and forth.

Nate Willey and Cast
Nate Willey and Cast

Director Whale called on old friends and colleagues Nathan Mattingly and Ellen Pyne for the set design, reminiscent of ship sails and outfitted with a hoarder’s treasure trove of props, flotsam, and jetsam.  Costume Design also by Pyne is spot on. Where a dozen actors with strong physical characteristics play a hundred roles, the costuming helps us identify their character of the moment. Black Stash’s look reinforces his silly yet frightful pirate nature and Molly’s enhances her character as a young girl just transitioning to a strong young woman.

In the pit, percussionists Tony Tresky and Brendan Higgins work subtly; their background rhythms perfectly match the action without overpowering the actors.

L-R Nate Willey, Casey Duffy
L-R Nate Willey, Casey Duffy

As we were leaving the theatre, reflecting that this was one of the best shows we saw this season, I wondered how three companies had come to choose the same play to present this spring. Perhaps in troubling times, sitting together in a dark room watching silliness and wishing you never grew up is good therapy for us all.

If you haven’t seen Starcatcher yet, this production is the one to see. If you have seen Starcatcher before, by all means this production is worth a visit. Come prepared to smile till your jaw hurts, laugh till your head hurts and be sure listen carefully so you don’t miss any of the great lines.

Stage 62 presents Peter and the Starcatcher at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Avenue, Carnegie, PA 15106

 Performances Thursday through Saturday, May 11-13 and 18-20 at 8 pm, Sun. Matinees May 14 and 21 at 2 pm Tickets: Adults: $20, Students/Seniors: $15. Click here for more information. 

Our special thanks to Stage 62 for the complimentary tickets.

Wild With Happy

YT17-Feature-Wild-With-HappyThe situation playwright Colman Domingo presents us with in WILD WITH HAPPY is rather straightforward.  Gil, a struggling black actor, has left New York City to deal with the death of his eccentric mother Adelaide.

The show opens with Gil reflecting on being raised by a struggling single mother and the time she took him to church when he was ten to hear Elder Bovane and “Get some Jesus”. He hasn’t been to church since!

If you were wondering how dealing with death, funerals and grief were going to be funny, wonder no more. Elder Bovane sets the tone for just how zany this thing is going to become.

Gil arrives at the funeral home before his Aunt Glo, and his friend Mo, who were supposed to join him there to finalize the arrangements.  Gil, on his own and with no desire or patience to deal with the myriad of expensive choices opts for cremation, the simplest and cheapest of the options.

While waiting for coffee and the arrangements to be completed, Gil recalls one of the last phone conversations with his mother.  She talks about having just received from QVC one of her proudest possessions, a Disney Cinderella princess doll. Adelaide and Gil had been to Disneyworld thanks to a contest the year before and she was hooked on the Magic Kingdom.

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Corey Jones as Gil (background: C. Kelly Wright as Adelaide)

Once Gil has decided on a minimalist cremation with no services, followed by a grief-quenching quickie with Terry the young new age funeral director, he heads to Adelaide’s apartment.

After Gil gets to his mother’s apartment his zany Aunt Glo arrives and begins to rummage through Adelaide’s closet, selecting the things she wants for herself. Aunt Glo has an outspoken opinion on everything including Gil’s choice to “burn up” his mother.  Glo is angry that he is not giving her the opportunity to grieve in the customary community way. Gil just wants to put this all behind him and get back to New York. The dialog is flowing back and forth like a game of verbal tennis just as Gil’s friend Mo arrives on the scene. Mo, by all outward appearances and behaviors, might be thought of as a little bit off center, but he does have a solid yet unannounced plan to help his friend grieve.

Once he and Gil pick up Adelaide’s ashes, they start the drive back to New York. Mo then takes a surprise detour; a road trip to Disney World with Terry and Aunt Glo in hot pursuit.  Thanks to CPTS (Colored Person Tracking System) placed in the Cinderella doll by Mexicans at the request of Aunt Glo, they have no trouble following them.

Once the fireworks begin at the happiest place on earth everything turns out happily ever after!

Corey Jones as Gil, C. Kelly Wright as Aunt Glo
Corey Jones as Gil, C. Kelly Wright as Aunt Glo

City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio is an intimate three quarter thrust performance space seating around one hundred and twenty five people. It’s the perfect venue for Wild With Happy. The comedy is in the style of Robin Williams, Lucille Ball or Dick Van Dyke delivered in both physically and the verbally with jousting between the characters.

Director Reginald L. Douglas’ casting choices create a perfect ensemble for Wild With Happy in terms of style, physical presence, and comedic timing.

Corey Jones’s Gil is the comedic foil and the reality balance that grounds all the other performances. Gil may be the one who’s struggling with grief but the rest of them are genuinely crazy.  Jones brings the action forward through the process of dealing with the logistics of the non-funeral and disposal of her assets. He conveys Gils’ desire to just get on with it and yet reveals the difficulty Gil has in dealing with his mother’s passing.

Point Park alum Monteze Freeland delivers physical comedy with perfect timing as both Elder Bovane and Mo. The latter is a sort of multi-gender character who possesses all of the required practical wisdom to resolve any issue in the best theatrical tradition. Freeland’s characters keep the audience laughing whenever he is on stage.

Pitt alum C. Kelly Wright plays both Adelaide and Aunt Glo. Adelaide while being a funny character has a required seriousness for the audience, she just died after all. Glo, on the other hand, is over the top opinionated and thirsty. She is that zany relative that seems to live in everyone’s family. She’s generally correct but can make you crazy while getting her point across. Wright’s portrayal of the two characters so different that if you didn’t know by the program it was the same actor you wouldn’t know. There is a brilliantly done moment at the end of the play when she literally morphs before your eyes from Aunt Glo to Adelaide.

Corey Jones as Gil, Jason Shavers as Terry, Monteze Freeland as Mo
Corey Jones as Gil, Jason Shavers as Terry, Monteze Freeland as Mo

Pittsburgh native and Point Park alum Jason Shavers portrayal of Terry, the fourth generation funeral director, has just the right amount creepiness for a guy who deals with dead bodies all day yet with a degree of sensitivity that isn’t fake.

Tony Ferrieri’s scenic design elements are minimalist yet cleverly executed including the cars for the road trip and the pop out bench. Costume Designer Karen Perry’s suit for Gil is classy and expensive looking, but a tad misfit, subtly reinforcing the perception of Gil’s less than successful acting career.

Douglas’ directorial vision brings all the elements and timing together perfectly in a show that’s both fun filled and a joy to watch. Not bad for a show about death and grieving, it is a small world after all and a Cinderella story too!

WILD WITH HAPPY by Colman Domingo, Directed by Reginald L. Douglas At the City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio now through May 7, 2017  For tickets and more information call 412-431-2489 or click here.

Thanks to the City Theatre for the complimentary tickets.

Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or The Most Popular American Play You’ve Never Seen

SlidersUNCLETOMPoint Park University’s Conservatory Theatre production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or The Most Popular American Play You’ve Never Seen is an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin first published in 1852 and George Aiken’s stage production of the same era.

Stowe’s book was the most popular novel of the 19th century. Aiken’s production was the most popular play in England and America into the 1920s. The book is also the first widely read political novel in the United States.

The story centers on the life of Tom, a very responsible, kindly and forgiving black man trapped as a slave in the south. His owner is a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby. To repay a debt, Arthur is forced to sell Tom and a baby boy named Harry, the son of Arthur’s wife’s housemaid Eliza.

Eliza learns of the plan to sell Harry and decides to run away with him to Canada. Tom is sold and placed on a riverboat that sails down the Mississippi. We learn on the trip that Tom has saved a young white girl, Eva St. Claire from drowning when she accidentally fell off the boat. Augustine Saint Claire, Eva’s father, subsequently purchases Tom and takes Tom to his home in New Orleans to help raise Eva. Tom and Eva become fast friends, she refers to him as Uncle Tom.

The story of Eliza, Harry and her husband George’s escape to freedom in Canada is intertwined in the story line.

Augustine later purchases a young slave girl, Topsy, and gives her to his northern cousin Ophelia, to raise and educate. Augustine hopes by that by raising Topsy, Ophelia will realize her opinions of black people are wrong. Eva and Topsey play together and become good friends.

Several years later Eva falls ill and on her deathbed asks her father to grant Uncle Tom his freedom. Augustine agrees to this, but dies tragically several days later before he has signed Tom’s papers. Augustine’s wife goes against his will and sells Tom to the vicious plantation owner Simon Legree as she settles the estate. This is Tom’s first experience with an evil Master and things do not end well for Tom.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the plays it has inspired have fallen out of favor due to what is seen as condescending racist characteristics in the portrayals of the black characters. Unfortunately, the book’s popularity served to reinforce those stereotypes with the public.  Once out of favor, the importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an anti-slavery tool leading up to Civil War has been lost.

This adaptation by co-directors Jason Jacobs and Tome Cousin attempts to address some of those concerns, regretfully those stereotypes of both blacks and white southerners still come shining through.

This is not a reason to ignore Uncle Tom’s Cabin today. Slavery is an important part of this country’s history that, as horrible as it is, cannot be forgotten. We continue to struggle with the implications of slavery in a country where “all men are created equal”. Uncle Tom’s Cabin reminds us just how evil and reprehensible slavery was; human beings are not critters like farm animals or property to be sold.

The book’s plot involves a lot of characters and sub plots, which makes it a challenge to create a stage adaption that fits neatly into two hours. The Jacobs – Cousin adaptation struggles with the story’s complexity and disjointed at times in its flow.  Set Designer Tony Ferrieri’s one-piece stylized log cabin is beautiful to look at but doesn’t always help the audience follow where the story is taking place. Sometimes it feels as if there are too many people crowded into the cabin.

The concept for the staging of the two young girls, Eva and Topsey, was problematic to me. The Directors chose to have two adult women play the characters as puppeteers with children’s baby dolls. This is too Avenue Q like. Eva and Topsey’s dialog is not baby talk; it’s that of maturing young girls struggling to find their place amongst their differences and in the process becoming friends. This relationship between two young girls who have not yet learned to hate ends tragically with Eva’s death at a young age. But it represents the hope for future generations.

There are two standout performances: Kendall Arin Claxiton, in spite of the puppet situation, beautifully captures the “wicked” nature of Topsey, her growing friendship with Eva, and her winning over of Ophelia.

Lamont Walker II’s Tom casts an imposing figure and crushes all the typical stereotypes of a slave. Walker brings out Tom’s reserved, kind and gentlemanly nature without sacrificing his personal humanity.  In Walker’s portrayal, all manner of indignities coupled with slavery are endured by Tom, yet he never becomes an “Uncle Tom”.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an important part of America’s literary, cultural and political history and it deserves another look today as we continue to struggle with racial issues. The Jacobs / Cousin adaptation reminds us of how far we have come in one hundred seventy five years and how much further we have to go for true equality to be realized. Though I felt at times this production got in the way of that important message.

Point Park Universities Conservatory Theatre production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or The Most Popular Play You Have Never Seen plays through April 16th at the Rauh Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

For tickets visit: http://www.pittsburghplayhouse.com/tickets or call 412-392-8000

Thanks to Pittsburgh Playhouse for the complimentary tickets.

Oedipus Rex

oedipus-cutAlan Stanford’s new adaption of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex is a modern day masterpiece.

Sometimes you just know within the first few minutes that this is really going to be good. That first inclination comes not from the play itself, but from that initial exposure to the actors, setting, and direction. Admittedly, you know the story written by Sophocles some twenty-five hundred years ago has to be pretty compelling to have held up over the long haul.

Chances are, you are aware of the main story, much of which transpires before the play actually begins. Queen Jocasta of Thebes has just given birth to a beautiful baby boy. Her husband King Laius learns from the oracles that he is doomed to die at the hand of his son. That doesn’t really leave the King a lot of options, either kill the baby boy now or be killed by him later.  The King figures he might as well nip this in the bud and after injuring the child’s feet he orders his servant to take the baby to the mountains and leave him there to die.  Instead, the servant gives the child to a shepherd who names him Oedipus (Greek for swollen feet).

Justin Wade Wilson as Oedipus, Shammen McCune as Jocasta
Justin Wade Wilson as Oedipus, Shammen McCune as Jocasta

The servant takes the boy to his home country of Corinth, where he gives the child to the barren Queen and King of Corinth and the child is raised as their son. He becomes the handsome, educated and articulate Oedipus. He learns from another oracle that he is destined to kill his father and mate with his mother, which horrifies him. He doesn’t realize he is adopted, and because he wishes his parents no harm he leaves Corinth.  While on his travels he gets into a scuffle with another group and in a fit anger of kills some men. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, one of the men was King Laius and the first portion of the oracle’s prophecy has come to pass.

Our play begins with Oedipus arriving in Thebes as the city is under siege by the Sphinx. Oedipus solves the riddles of the Sphinx and as his reward is given the kingship of Thebes and the hand of Queen Jocasta (his biological mother) in marriage. None of the main characters know this, which sets the stage for the resulting drama.

If you have seen Oedipus or read one of the literal translations from the original Greek, it’s pretty difficult to get through the long speeches and endless choruses.

In this production Director Alan Stanford has adapted the original to a more modern style of speaking yet still retains the timeless sense of the original. Stanford has created an Oedipus Rex for our time. This adaptation and production serve to reinforce Sophocles’ reminder that humanities flaws haunt us generation after generation. Corruption is self-delusion that leads to the belief that only one person has all the answers to cure our ills.

Oedipus is not an inherently flawed or bad fellow, he doesn’t yet know he murdered his father or married his mother.  After all, he’s the hero that saved Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx.  Once rumors of the truth come out, his human failings take hold.

Karen Baum as The Sphinx
Karen Baum as The Sphinx

The Union Projects’ performance space is long and linear, with audiences on either side. Stanford’s staging has he townspeople on one end of the stage with the castle and ruling people on the other. The action flows back and forth like March Madness. Madness it is as, Oedipus and the townspeople come to grips with the conundrum of Oedipus’ lineage, the oracle’s prophecy and what it means for them.

PICT’s cast is a mix of veteran actors with prolific resumes and those early their careers.

Twenty nine year old Penn State alum Justin Wade Wilson’s powerful performance as Oedipus presents both a likeable and admirable leader as he saves Thebes. He skillfully transitions to a much darker and intriguing Oedipus as he searches for the truth that when revealed will bring his ultimate downfall.

Pittsburgh’s Shammen McCune is Queen Jocasta. Watch her performance closely as her initial meeting with Oedipus turn into romantic love. Through the course of the play she beautifully portrays the realization of horror; she has married her son, born him children and yet still loves him as both a son and husband.

Central to moving the story forward is the blind prophet Tiresius played by Pittsburgh’s James Fitzgerald. Tiresius is, against his own objections, the first to tell Oedipus that he killed his father and married his mother, facts that Oedipus refuses to believe.  Fitzgerald’s strong performance is pivotal in unleashing the carnage to follow.

Johnny Lee Davenport plays Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon. Davenport has the perfectly imposing stage presence to counter Wilson’s Oedipus. There is quite an interesting bit of clever stage direction as Oedipus demands Creon be executed for supposedly attempting to undermine him.

Shammen McCune as Jocasta
Shammen McCune as Jocasta

Stanford’s Oedipus Rex is set in North Africa. Set design by Johnmichael Bohach is simple in form and nearly monochromatic in color, conveying a sense of warmth, royalty and the bloodshed ahead. Michael Montgomery’s costume design relays the African theme with a touch of Egyptian motif. The actors transition between chorus members and main characters with their costumes effectively supporting their dual roles.

Almeda Beynon’s Sound Design underscore the tension and drama very effectively, subtlety appearing ghostlike as needed and disappearing just as subtlety. Her compositions serve to give the mind a pause and as a means to gather your thoughts as an audience member.

This production through Stanford’s direction and adaptation brings to audiences a timeless Oedipus Rex, a modern take on the human condition. This is a powerful and yet entertaining classic drama full of conspiracy theories, distrust, intrigue and, yes, love.

Oedipus Rex by PICT Classic Theatre at the Union Project in Highland Park playing now through April 3rd. Tickets at picttheattre.org or by calling 412-561-6000

Thanks to PICT for the complementary tickets. Photos courtesy of Suellen Fitzsimmons.

Daddy Long Legs

Layout 1The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Daddy Long Legs under the direction of Ted Pappas, once again demonstrates theatre at its best. This subtle and nuanced production is the perfect balance of all the elements of theatre that combine to present in an evening of theatre magic.

The story of Daddy Long Legs celebrates the connection of lives brought together by unlikely circumstances. The cast is only two but the connection between the characters fills the stage.

It is set between 1908 and 1912 in a time when there was no instant communications by email, text or tweet or phone.  Letters were written and you yearned for a response that sometimes never came.

Daddy Long Legs is the story of Miss Jerusha Abbott, the oldest resident of The John Grier Home, a New England orphanage.  When she turns eighteen a mysterious benefactor decides to pay for her college education. There is one condition, she must write him a monthly letter, express no gratitude and not to expect any replies.PPTdaddylonglegs024

Prior to learning her good fortune, she notices from her window a man leaving the orphanage. She sees him in shadows and imagines him to be a very tall distinguished older gentleman. In her first letter, she begins to identify him as Daddy Long Legs and over time treats him more and more as the father figure she has never known.

Through her letters we see Jerusha transform from a sheltered and naive orphan girl into a confident and independent college educated woman. As he reads her letters, Daddy Long Legs becomes more enamored with this enchanting young woman. She reveals to “Daddy” a developing relationship with Jervis Pendleton, a well to do younger uncle of one of her roommates.

What makes Daddy Long Legs so compelling is what we in the audience have known all along. Jervis is actually her benefactor. His mother passed away when he was eleven and his father is absent from his life.  As Jervis reads her letters aloud we learn he is a surprisingly kind and caring man.  Although their circumstances are very different, he feels a strong connection to Jerusha and yet struggles to tell her the truth of their connection, never replying to her letters until….PPTdaddylonglegs096

Jervis and Jerusha are the only two seen on stage; the other characters in the story are brought to life by her letters.  Allan Snyder (recently relocated to our fair city) and Danielle Bowen are perfectly cast as Jervis and Jerusha.  Snyder is the more accomplished actor and Bowen is early in her professional career, that perspective and their age proximity gives them great chemistry on stage. He gives just the right amount of angst to Jervis as he struggles with what to do about his increasing affection for Jerusha. Bowen’s Jerusha conveys the right enthusiasm of a teenage girl along with with the wisdom and longing of a person who has never really been outside of the orphanage her entire life.

Ted Pappas once again he proves his directorial skills and sensitivity in Daddy Long Legs. The transformation of Jerusha from eighteen-year-old orphan is subtle and nuanced; a different dress, a different hat, a more confident carriage. The show is two hours, but it seems like we have been with her every day.PPTdaddylonglegs062

The orchestra made up of piano, cello and guitar under the direction of long time Public collaborator Wade Russo perfectly underscores the vocals. The musicians are on stage, and yet you almost forget they are there. The transition into the musical numbers is so natural and easy you almost don’t notice. Be it solos or duets Snyder and Bowens performances are first rate.

Pappas uses Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design to its optimum, but subtlety again rules. Jervis’ office is elevated upstage. It is decked out like a proper gentlemen’s library, a safe perch from which he “watches” Jerusha. Hers is an open more simple space, as it would be in the orphanage or college dorm and her letters are what connects them.

Theatregoers left the O’Reilly last night reminded of what makes life special, the connection we celebrate that develops between two people. Might as well change the name to Pittsburgh Perfect Theater!  Thanks Ted for another night of theatre magic.

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Daddy Long Legs is playing now through April 9th at the O’Reilly Theatre. Tickets 412-316-1600 or online at https://ppt.org/calendar

Photos courtesy of Michael Henninger

Patience

15042008_908457625955605_6895723887467380350_oThe Pittsburgh Savoyards open their 79th season with a rousing production of Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Patience is a virtue, but in this case she is a milkmaid and satire on the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ’80s in England and, more broadly, on fads and crowd mentality.

Imagine if the TV series The Bachelor took place about a hundred fifty years ago. The bachelor in Patience is the self-styled aesthetic poet Reginald Bunthorne. All the rapturous maidens have all become his groupies much to the dismay of the Dragoons, the girls’ macho military boyfriends.

This brings us to Patience, the virtuous village milkmaid who claims to have never loved anyone. But while Bunthorne is infatuated with Patience, she falls for her childhood crush Archibald Grosvenor, another “famous” aesthete who attracts women even faster than Bunthorne. By means of whimsical song, dance and typical Gilbert and Sullivan nonsensical logic, a happy ending is achieved while reminding us that every generation has its own temporary insanity!

Zach Wood as Archibald Grosvenor

Gilbert and Sullivan’s operatic works are clearly not fads. After all, how do you explain the Pittsburgh’s Savoyards mission and a nearly singular passionate focus on Gilbert & Sullivan’s work over the past 79 years?

Patience was the sixth operatic collaboration of fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan including H.M.S. Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, all of which retain a nice degree of contemporary relevance by addressing superficiality, vanity, hypocrisy, and pretentiousness while satirizing romantic love and military bluster.

Director Rob Hockenberry has a full stage with a large cast of characters to fill along with the challenge of double casting the leads. There are many well-staged bits and some really nice physical comedy particular in scenes with Bunthorne and Grosvenor. A full orchestra of volunteers under the direction of Guy Russo accompanies this production. Keeping with the period, the show uses no microphones. Supertitles are used above the stage for the songs, which helps when vocals don’t quite cut through as well as revealing the multi-part complexity of the lyrics.

Sarah McCullough as Patience
Sarah McCullough as Patience

The Savoyards show off some excellent Pittsburgh area talent. Some standouts from Saturday night’s performance were Sarah McCullough as Patience with a nice balance of naivety and wisdom along with a nice voice. Michael Greenstein was perfect as the fleshy and pretentious Reginald Bunthorne with a great sense of physical comedy and timing. Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane singing Sad is a Woman’s Lot drew lots of sympathy and laughs from the women in the audience. Zachary Wood shows off his performance experience and vocal training as Archibald Grosvenor.

The scenic elements are nicely painted with the decorations capturing the era’s fascination with all things Egyptian. The large cast requires a lot of period costumes. I particularly liked Designer Ellen Rosen’s costumes for the four leads.

Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane
Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane

Patience originally premiered in London in 1881, and later that year moving to the larger Savoy Theatre.  Henceforth, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas would be known as the Savoy Operas, and both fans and performers of Gilbert and Sullivan would come to be known as “Savoyards.” Another bit of interesting theatre trivia; Patience was the first theatrical production in the world to be lit entirely by electric light.

A good measure of any company’s production is noticing the pleasure the actors have in their performance, in other words, are they having fun and enjoying their craft. By that measure and the mission to expose the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan to contemporary audiences, this show is a success and worth of the opportunity to see one of their lesser-known works.

The Pittsburgh Savoyards continue their 79th season in spring with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. Performances continue March 9-12, 2017 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie. All performances except for the 2:30pm Sunday matinees are at 8pm. Click here for more information. 

Thanks to the Pittsburgh Savoyards for the complimentary tickets.

Photos by Lauren Stanley.

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Spring

Pittsburgh theatregoers have a great mix of musicals to choose from this spring. Our preview features five shows that offer a mix of style, period and contemporary relevance. Two of them are new to Pittsburgh, Daddy Long Legs from the Public Theatre and Violet from Front Porch Theatricals.  The classic Cole Porter musical Anything Goes will be offered by the McKeesport Little Theatre and the contemporary hit Dream Girls from Pittsburgh Musical Theatre. Rounding out the mix and out of today’s headlines is the Duquesne Red Masquers’ production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.Layout 1

Pittsburgh Public Theatres second musical of the season is Daddy Long Legs, the story of Miss Jerusha Abbott, who is the oldest resident of a New England orphanage. When she turns eighteen, a mysterious benefactor, Jervis Pendleton, decides to pay for her college education. There is one condition, she must write him a monthly letter and not expect any reply.

During the course of her education, Jerusha begins to imagine the woman she could become which leads to critical thinking about religion, the social issues of the day, and politics.

The story is set between 1908 and 1912 and Daddy Long Legs is a story of emotional growth told in song by both characters – as she’s composing and he’s reading her letters.

Pittsburgh’s own Allan Snyder plays Jervis. Audiences will remember him from PMT’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and the CLO’s 39 Steps. Danielle Bowen plays Jerusha.

The New York Times described Daddy Long Legs as “a great treat,” and Variety called it “a wholesome tuner in tune with the times.” Daddy Long Legs has been touching hearts for more than 100 years. Ted Pappas’ new production at the Public is “guaranteed to continue the tradition.”

Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s Daddy Long Legs

Playing March 9th through April 9th at the O’Reilly Theatre

Tickets 412-316-1600 or online at https://ppt.org/calendardream girls

American music has undergone many changes from the big band sound of the forties to rhythm and blues, to the new American sound of Motown. In 1962 even though Elvis was king and we listened to the Beatles, American’s were dancing to the new beat of The Supremes and other girl groups. Dream Girls tells the story of the The Dreamettes, a hopeful Black girl group from Chicago who enter the famous Amateur Night talent competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

The musical explores the relationships between the girls, their boyfriends and managers as the chase their respective dreams.

It is also about the behind-the-scenes reality of the entertainment industry that made this cultural phenomenon possible. The subject matter of this play deals with a musical contribution to America of such importance that only now — decades later —  we are beginning to understand.

“And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and “One Night Only” are just two of the great songs from Dream Girls that have become part of the canon of modern musical theatre.

Dream Girls from Pittsburgh Musical Theatre with performances at the Byham Theater March 9th to 19th. For tickets call 412-456-666 or at https://trustarts.org/production/49516BB andrew j

Pittsburgh’s oldest amateur theatre company, The Duquesne University Red Masquers certainly had excellent foresight in picking Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as their Spring Musical. After all, our President considers himself a modern day Andrew Jackson.

The shows opening song, “Populism Yea Yea”, reflects the desire of Jackson to bring political power back to the public and away from the elite. The subject of immigration today is a topic of much discussion. In Jackson’s era it was native Indian lands. At first, the citizenry meets Jackson’s exhilarating cowboy-like governing tactics with great enthusiasm. But, as the problems grow tougher, the public begins to resent him.

Jackson decides he must take ultimate responsibility for the nation’s choices and autocratically declares that he alone will be the one to make the difficult policy decision.

At the Broadway opening in 2010, The New York Times noted “there is no show in town that more astutely reflects the state of this nation than Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Duquesne University Red Masquers playing 

March 15-19.

Tickets at http://www.duqredmasquers.com/purchase-ticketsanythign goes

Are you are looking for a lighthearted break from reality with quirky characters, great songs and fabulous dance routines?  The McKeesport Musical Theatres production of the classic Cole Porter musical comedy Anything Goes is just your ticket.

The S.S. American is sailing between New York and England with a comically colorful assemblage of passengers: Reno Sweeney, a popular nightclub singer and former evangelist, her pal Billy Crocker, a lovelorn Wall Street broker who has come aboard to try to win the favor of his beloved Hope Harcourt (who is engaged to another passenger, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh), and a second-rate conman named Moonface Martin, aka “Public Enemy #13.” Song, dance, and farcical antics ensue as Reno and Moonface try to help Billy win the love of his life.

Anything Goes features s some of musical theater’s most memorable standards, including “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “You’re the Top,” and of course, the title song.

According to Linda Baker, President of MLT “This is one of the classic musicals that unfortunately not enough millennials have had the opportunity to experience.” So disconnect and go see it.

Anything Goes at McKeesport Little Theatre May 5th to 21st. Tickets available at http://mckeesportlittletheater.com

Acclaimed Director Robyne Parish has returned to PPrintittsburgh to live after spending five seasons as the Artistic Director of the Gilbert Theater in North Carolina. Her second directorial assignment since returning is the Tony nominated Violet presented by Front Porch Theatricals.

Violet is a scarred woman who is traveling across the 1964 Deep South toward a miracle. She is looking for the healing touch of an evangelist that will make her beautiful. Though she may not succeed in being healed, Violet is able to repair those injuries that lie deeper than her skin. On the way she meets a young, African-American Soldier whose love for her reaches far past her physical “imperfections”.

I asked Robyne about her approach to the production. “One of the most interesting themes in this play, besides the complicated relationship Violet has with her Father, are the parallels between Flick and Violet. A black man in the south judged by the color of his skin and a white woman being judged by her scar. As an audience we will experience Violets growth, discovery of love, beauty, enlightenment and ultimately redemption.”

“Patrons will discover themselves in the characters in Violet. It’s the story of family, of first love, of desperation and of hope. They will identify with these folks and recognize them in an intimate way some shows may not allow. This is an intense and uplifting play about real people with real hopes, dreams and desires and real loss, failure and disappointment. This is a play about life.”

Violet from Front Porch Theatricals is in performance May 19th to 28th at the New Hazlett Center for the Performing Arts located in Pittsburgh’s historic North Side

Tickets https://www.showclix.com/events/12886

The spring of 2017 promises something for every theatregoer to enjoy.

 

 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

unnamedThe cold and snow got you down? Then a trip to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Henry Hayman Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh campus just might help with your winter doldrums.

Set at the Putnam County Middle School, the 25th annual spelling bee is complete with a quirky cast of characters on either side of the microphone. Word pronouncer Douglas Panch returns to the Bee after a long hiatus due to a mysterious incident.  Grade schooler William Barfée spells words with his feet. There is an ex-con who serves as a “comfort counselor” to help troubled students.  Throw in a speller who wears a cape and goes into a trance when spelling, a couple of gifted kids, some shy kids, the janitor, absent parents and a dim bulb or two and you have a recipe for, well, a typical spelling bee.

Through the early rounds, we learn how each of the students has made it to the finals; some due to their spelling skill and some due to dumb luck.  As the words become multisyllabic, and the pressure mounts tensions rise. After all, what could possibly go wrong at a spelling bee?Putnam production 3

There are a few things you should know. Prior to the show’s start, several audience members are selected as guest spellers. On preview night, they were quite funny.   There is a new addition to the show and as best as I can figure, only this Pitt production has a mascot. The Putnam County Middle School’s mascot is a mermaid!  Who knew? She(?) is played swimmingly and silently by pharmacy major David Steffes. I can’t explain it, but he’s funny and it works. There are some other alterations to the original casting to accommodate available talent.

Currently, the University’s Theatre Arts program is in the midst of a rebuilding phase. This season and the selection of Spelling Bee reflect an increased emphasis on musical theatre. Not unexpected from a program in the rebuilding phase with a mostly undergraduate cast from a variety of majors and interests is an unevenness in vocal, dance and acting skills.

Director Robert Frankenberry’s direction brings out the stereotypical perceptions of what each character should be like without creating empathy for the difficulties of growing up as a teenager.Putnam production 2

A couple of standout performances s are the Vice Principal, Doug Panch, played with a perfect sense of lust, leering and sick humor by MFA candidate Jose´ Perez IV. Corey Forman shows his comedic skills as the cape wearing, possibly autistic, definitely odd Leaf Coneybear.  Rachaelmae Pulliam is delightful as the snot-nosed William Barfee, the boy who spells with his feet. Lauryn Morgan Thomas nails the overly studious, Catholic schoolgirl Marcy Park. I would have liked Fenice Thompson’s Mitch the “comfort counselor” to be just a bit more menacing in counterpoint to the character’s title.

The Henry Heymann theatre is an intimate three-quarter thrust space. The Set Designer Laura Velenti has perfectly recreated a school gym down to the team banners and mandatory metal screen over the glass clock cover. There is nice paintwork on the multi-hued ceramic brick back wall and the wooden floor. Megan Bresser’s Lighting Design takes advantage of the flashbacks for some lighting fun. Three-quarter round staging in a theatre with low ceilings is tough to light creatively while keeping the light out of the audience’s eyes and still letting everyone see the actors. Nice job. Costumes by Minjee Kasckow captured the unique nature of the characters that inhabited them.Putnam production 1

Those of you who have read my reviews know I’m a stickler for good sound design, particularly musicals in intimate venues. Zach Beatty-Brown’s sound design and its execution was exemplary in that it was subtle and filled in audibility where needed. A very nice touch was the change in the sound when actors approached the stand microphone to spell their words and Panch as he was pronouncing into his desk microphone

I personally like reviewing shows staged in three-quarter thrust venues. It gives me a chance to watch the audience, see how they react, look at how they are engaged and their facial expressions.  Tonight’s audience of mostly college students laughed and enjoyed the performance.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays at the Henry Heymann Theatre on the Pitt campus, now through the 19th, with Sunday matinees. For tickets and more information, click here. 

A special thanks to the University of Pittsburgh, Theatre Arts Department for the complimentary tickets to the show. Photos courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Stages. 

Cabaret: The Musical

15826638_1214895788576018_9144172179117245613_nThe multiple Tony Award-winning Cabaret is a musical frozen in time, yet its themes remain powerful and even more relevant today.

It is set in Berlin at the seedy Kit Kat Klub during the Nazis rise to power. Cabaret revolves around the relationship of Cliff, an American writer, and Sally, a young expat English performer.

A character that guides us through our journey is the Klub’s Emcee, a quirky androgynous individual played by Mandie Russak. Her Emcee portrayal brings a new and interesting perspective to a traditional male role. Katie Aiello McCusker’s Sally is a likable enough opportunist. Her singing at the Klub lets you know she is never going to be a big star.  That being said, her Perfectly Marvelous and Maybe This Time are indeed marvelous vocally.

Directors Nate Newell and Rob Jessup follow the trend of recent productions, including the Sam Mendes’ Broadway revival, which has played up the decadence, depravity, and decay of German society prior to WW II. This interpretation brings the period’s sexual mores to the forefront.

This can be a slippery slope depending on your audiences’ perspective. The power of Cabaret lies in the audiences’ ability to identify and empathize with each character in the show. Over time we have to grow to accept the odd personalities and character flaws. This strong relationship that the audience builds with the characters is key to achieving the emotional finale.

As the show comes to a close, the Emcee is usually heard to say: “ Where are your troubles now? See I told you so! We have no troubles here…” Implicit in this line is the warning that this could happen to you, your friends and your loved ones.

When the ending works, the audience should be near tears as the final curtain comes down.

The Newell / Jessup re-imagined finale is more in your face than the original, as it removes the opportunity for the audience to slowly envision in their own mind what is about to happen to the characters they have grown to like and care for.

Maybe in today’s world of alternative facts, we need a blunt reality check as this has never been a feel-good musical. Cabaret reflects the chaos and poignancy of its times.

The production is well cast, and it reflects on the depth of the many talented performers that work in the theatres in the Pittsburgh area. Notable standouts include Linda Stayer as Fraulein Schneider and Cassidy Adkins as Fraulein Kost. Their characters span generations of women, each in their own way doing what they need to do to eek out a living while searching for some degree of happiness. Donning a beard is Seaton Hill senior Josh Reardon’s Cliff (perhaps to help him appear older), but the facial hair is unfortunately totally out of period.

Choreographer Laura Wurzell makes good use of the compact stage and features of the Lamp Theatre. The choreography is complex and well executed by the Kit Kat Girls and Boys.

The orchestra is visible on stage, physically integral but not integrated. Costume Designer Sharon Wiant missed an opportunity by not dressing the on stage musicians as the Kit Kat Klub orchestra. I personally longed for a couple of strings to smooth the sound of the orchestrations.

Sound Designer Bill Elder hit all his cues with a moderately loud audience forward mix. However, sound design for a classic musical in an intimate venue should be unnoticeable, just filling in the gaps to insure audibility. There is a needed balance between the Klub performances and the more intimate scenes.  A prop vintage microphone would have helped create a perceived acoustic signature for the Klub performances.

Mike Pilyih’s lighting design failed to take advantage of the Lamp’s extensive fixture collection to create a visibly different atmosphere between the Klub and the plays other locales. This is an important design consideration when scenic backgrounds remain essentially the unchanged throughout the production.

This is one of the most uniformly well-done community theatre productions we have seen this winter season. Cabaret delivers on Split Stage Co-founders Nate Newell and Rob Jessup’s vision to bring relevant and challenging theatre to the Westmoreland County area.

One patron was overheard leaving the theatre saying, “This (theatre) is the best thing to ever happen to Irwin.”

Split Stage presents Cabaret at the Lamp Theatre in Irwin. Performances February 2nd through 4th at 8pm. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Thanks to Split Stage and Lamp Theatre for the complementary tickets.