Midnight Radio A Christmas Story

MDRchristmasStoryFINAL3-890x420Bricolage Production Company created a brilliant episode in their Midnight Radio series when they opened the audiovisual masterpiece A Christmas Story on December 7th. Based on the cult classic film, that practically runs 24/7 on TNT/TBS during December, the plot was adapted for stage by Philip Grecian and directed by Jeffrey Carpenter, the Bricolage Artistic Director. The show follows Ralphie Parker as he embarks on a multi-phased plan to ensure his receipt of a legendary official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built right into the stock. Layered with humor and fundamental truths about what it means to be human, the Bricolage storytellers brought A Christmas Story to life right before my very eyes.

Bricolage is nestled downtown in a refurbished building as Pittsburgh-y as they come. Original octagonal tile floors greet you when you enter the cozy lobby and the vaulted ceiling and architectural details were decked out in their holiday best as the space had been transformed into a holiday party with each audience member as a welcome guest. A complimentary “Happy Half-Hour” warmed bellies and spirits as guests interacted with holiday-themed activities (I couldn’t pass up the giant present selfie station!) pulled from threads woven through the show we were all about to enjoy.

The playing space itself is a black box, and upon settling into my comfortable (a wonderful traditional maroon) seat, my eyes feasted upon the organized clutter and chaos that was the stage. Each element had been carefully placed to evoke that 1940’s living room decked out in all its Christmas tree and poinsettia glory while also being a fully-functional Foley studio. Arm chairs and side tables and plush rugs, oh my! Evoking the experience of a live radio show audience, electric signs indicated when the show was “on air” and cued the audience to applause. The idea of a vintage radio show married perfectly with the time period of the show itself, and so the action unfolded seamlessly right from the first chord of the opening jingle.

Each performer had their own station that was constructed to look like classic speaking podiums, with stylized microphones and Foley materials, but the scenes were anything but static. Performers moved from station to station as the story played out, and the unique set-up of the stage meant that the facial expression and vocal acuity of the performers rightly took the spotlight. Toeing that fine line between over performing and passive performing can be difficult, and the actors did the tango on it. Just a fraction more commitment and a purposefully over the top show would have been hokey, just a hair less acting and the show’s jokes would have fallen flat.

Every character that the performers played was so distinct in intonation and expression that it didn’t matter that there weren’t any costume changes – from the parents to teachers to the school kids they were all fully believable, compelling, and down right hilarious. The level of commitment the performers showed to their craft was extraordinary, and it was not unusual for faces to turn red from the intensity of interacting in a particular scene.

Accompanied by a Music Director who performed each sound cue with laser-like precision and an occasionally bored-looking Cello Fury (the cellists were placed right with the rest of the performers on stage, and every apathetic face or expression was highly visible to the audience. As well as every impatient finger tapping, oh so rapping, on the fingerboard), the musical numbers were a creative and clever delight, oftentimes adapting well-known songs with a tongue in the check twist. But beyond being merely clever, all of the vocal pieces were performed effortlessly even in the face of audience laughter not a few feet from the performers.

Experiencing a live show filled with talented Foley artists added another element that made the audience feel like they were right there in the middle of the action. It was absolutely believable that doors slammed, dogs barked, tongues were ripped off of lamp-posts, and a furnace just wouldn’t behave. The live sound effects added to the novelty of the radio show setting, and simultaneously added an authenticity rarely found in canned sound.

While a central theme of the show was Ralphie’s desire for a material object, the audience got swept along with him as he develops new-found bravery when confronting a bully and begins to build a friendship with his mother that goes past the simple parent-child relationship. Surprisingly poignant for a show so wonderfully comedic, the whole world seemed to slow down as Ralphie learned the importance of family above everything else, and the show was brought to a close.

As a whole, A Christmas Story was replete with all of the classic movie imagery, from the beloved Leg Lamp to the Pink Bunny Pajamas, and was a delight that would be a welcome addition to any theater lovers holiday plans. A Christmas Story runs at the Bricolage from December 6th through 23rd. Tickets are available at http://www.bricolagepgh.org/buy-tickets/ or by calling (412) 471-0999 for groups of ten or more.

Beauty and the Beast

22256807_10154913721746016_2095757868663835950_oA tale that has enchanted old and young alike opened at the Byham Theater to the tones of a live orchestra tuning. A slightly blurry projection of the traditional Disney’s Beauty and the Beast logo graced the promising black curtains and the myriads of little girls matching in their Nutcracker and Swan Lake best, complete with faux fur stoles, left no doubt in an attendee’s mind that magic was about to happen on stage.  

Our journey with Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory’s production begins with the rich voice of the Narrator ushering us through the follies of the Young Prince’s youth, Carson Gregg, as lighting and translucent screens mostly hide and reveal the transformation of the Young Prince into the Beast before we transition to a French open air market of generically post-mediaeval time period. The costumes and choreography of the day-to-day hustle and bustle of rural townspeople flowed together and presented a convincing portrayal of natural human interaction, though some of the non-main characters’ lines and musical phrases were drowned out by the orchestra due to muffled speakers and uneven sound mixing.

Jordyn Walker as Belle was a breath of fresh air as she danced onto stage with natural grace. An obvious wig and too much eye makeup were quickly overshadowed by the ease with which she interacted with her fellow cast members and the pure quality of her beautiful voice. The chemistry between Belle and Brecken Farrell as Gaston made their scenes together utterly believable and Gaston’s inappropriate advances all the more skin crawling. Throughout the production Gaston stole the show with his over the top performance that was simultaneously convincing and absolutely absurd. Gaston was often accompanied by a disappointing LeFou, Amarianna Busa, whose wonderful physicality was marred by songs that should have been set to a key more compatible to her range

A lovingly bumbling Maurice, Jeramie Welch, opens the curtain to the enchanted castle after a brush with Wolves that was a convincing dance scene not too scary for the younger eyes in the crowd. A multi-tiered interior castle scene gave characters the opportunity to play out encounters with diverse blocking, leading each scene to be unique and visually intriguing. On the far sides of the sets, however, the painting details evoking stone work was not continued with as much care and the visible wood sheets covering the set’s skeleton put a just little ding in the fantasy illusion’s armor.

Though the set may not have been as polished, a delightfully festooned Lumiere, Nick Staso, and Cogsworth, Ben Godley-Fisher, married their French and British accents to perform classically witty repartee. And while the chemistry between Lumiere and Cogsworth was not mirrored by the relationship between Belle and the Beast, Matty Thornton, Belle interacted with the characters of the castle with absolute conviction. But after a compelling scene where Belle stands up to the Beast on behalf of her father, the progression of Belle and the Beast’s relationship seemed forced and lacked the spark that warms actual relationships. And while the Beast had a devilishly clever mask, which had a working jaw that made it look like he was actually speaking, his plain costume looked like it had just been whipped up from muslin. Though of course a Beast would not care about his appearance, any clothing remaining from the Beast’s human days would have been at least as rich as the maître’d Lumiere’s.

But when Belle, and the audience, was asked to Be Our Guest, the costumes of the various household implements were positively delightful and Mrs. Potts, Mia Schmidtetter, and the Wardrobe, Torrance Bejuszik, stole the show with their powerhouse vocals. The entire Be Our Guest sequence was spectacular with a rich array of household objects in delightful costumes – a particular favorite was a cheese grater – and well-executed dance moves utilizing the entirety of the set, and it was obvious the directors and choreographers had taken great care to entertain their audience as much as the cutlery were entertaining Belle. The only drawback in the ensemble’s costuming were the plates who were clothed in short, pink, lingerie-esque baby dolls. Putting minors in undergarment-showing costumes for a show where most of the attendees are young girls seems to go directly against the message of brains and bravery over beauty that Belle embodies and tries to turn young girls into sexualized inanimate objects.

Once Mrs. Potts began to sing Tale as Old as Time, time itself seemed to stand still because of her flawless intonation and musical expression. Mrs. Potts serenaded Belle and the Beast as they twirled before a background of actually twinkling stars and realized they were in love when the Beast learned to let go of his last true hope for physical humanity. Belle’s gown was a gorgeous interpretation of the classic golden gown and the Beast’s new-found finery was exquisite as obvious care was given to this beloved scene from director to costumer to actors.

As a whole, Beauty and the Beast was an entertaining, high-school level production that left the audience humming and skipping a little as they wound out of the theater into the chilled October air. Beauty and the Beast at the Byham Theater has unfortunately closed, but to find out more about PMT’s season, click here.