H.M.S. Pinafore

Pinafore-Website-Banner-Draft-1It’s been three days since I saw Pittsburgh Savoyards’ production of H.M.S. Pinafore, and I’m still singing “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” to myself, which tells you just how catchy Gilbert & Sullivan tunes can be!

Pittsburgh Savoyards marks its 80th season of celebrating the beloved works of Gilbert & Sullivan with their latest production H.M.S. Pinafore, stage direction by Shane Valenzi and music direction by Guy Russo. It’s Mr. Russo’s 20th season as music director and conductor for the company, and the Savoyards have their own special way of marking the occasion during selected performances of Pinafore. If you are interested in seeing what they do, go to a performance on October 19 or 20th; that’s all I’m saying since it’s set up as a surprise.

Director Valenzi has previously directed for the Savoyards in 2009 and 2010. Mia Bonnewell (Cousin Hebe) has been in 10 Savoyards productions, while Connor Halloran (Sailor) is a high school senior making his debut with the company. Concertmaster Laura Leonard has played the violin in every Savoyards production since 2009. Corey Nile Wingard (Dick Deadeye) is returning to the company after an 8-year hiatus. All of which is to say that Pittsburgh Savoyards seems to successfully nurture both long-standing artistic relationships and new, inexperienced talent in their company.

On the community front, Pittsburgh Savoyards has an impressive number of individual donors supporting their work, and I was privileged to speak with an audience member who has been coming to see the Savoyards productions for the last 19 years.

In other words, this is a company entrenched in the life of the community, that has a clear vision of what they do and how they want to do it, and that has succeeded in their mission for 80 years. That alone is a notable achievement.

The Pittsburgh Savoyards proudly claims their status as a community-based, semi-professional theater company, with the majority of their cast and orchestra volunteering their time to the production, and they stand by this identity. As a result, their final product is a bit uneven. The varying skill levels of the performers are obvious, but the overall effect is one of joy. These people love performing Gilbert & Sullivan, and that feeling carries over the footlights to the audience.

There were two stand-out performances that deserve a mention. Anna Lahti sang Little Buttercup with great vocal control and stamina throughout the evening. Sarah Marie Nadler as Josephine was the highlight of the production. With her beautiful soubrette soprano, Ms. Nadler’s voice floated through all of her numbers with delicate precision while still cutting through the orchestra when power was required. She also exhibited a delightful sense of comedic flair in her acting that was always welcome. Ms. Nadler shares the role of Josephine with Caryn Alexis Crozier, who I did not see perform; you can see Ms. Nadler’s remaining performances on October 20 and 22nd.

Also of note was the Pittsburgh Savoyards orchestra, conducted ably by Guy Russo and Edward Leonard. While sounding a little thin at times, this small orchestra put on a beautifully controlled performance, always in support of the singers, never overpowering them. The orchestra played as one, well-conditioned unit.

Misters Russo and Leonard should also be commended for their work with the singers in this production. Diction across the board was excellent, making it easy to understand all of the lyrics and get all of the jokes without really needing to look at the projections above the stage. Likewise, all of the voices were well balanced and the chorus sounded great as a group.

The stage at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall has its pros and cons as  a performing space. On the plus side: it’s a beautiful, traditional proscenium stage with great acoustics. I was thrilled beyond measure there was no, repeat NO, miking of the performers or the orchestra, and all of the singers’ voices carried easily throughout the hall. It was a delight for the ears.

On the minus side: the stage is very shallow, which greatly limits design options and staging options. This didn’t help with the staging of the show, which had a tendency to be too static in general, and then had to contend with there being nowhere for the performers to move during the big, full-company numbers. Lighting positions seem limited as well, which created problematic lighting moments with performers being too much in the dark. And the company really needs at least 2 follow-spots, if they are going to use follow-spots.

A G&S production is always a silly good time with its high comedic style, catchy tunes, and good-natured send-ups of 19th century English society. Whether you’re an inveterate Anglophile or musical theater fan, G&S always fits the bill.

You can catch Pittsburgh Savoyards’ production of H.M.S. Pinafore through October 22, 2017 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall. Tickets are available at www.pittsburghsavoyards.org.

Our Town

OurTown-Poster-WebThornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, marks the opening of the mainstage season for University of Pittsburgh Stages in the newly renovated Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Our Town is a deceptively easy play to produce, famously requiring a minimal set and easily understood dialogue. But don’t let the surface simplicity fool you; this is a production that to be fully realized requires nuanced acting, a firm control of pacing, and obsessive attention to detail.

The problem starts with the director’s note, which focused on the casting choices for the show, explaining casting was not based on “physical appearance,” but instead on “who seemed to inhabit the character in an interesting and/or compelling way.”  The director’s note went on to explain how the casting affected the interpretation of character and dialogue. All well and good, but the result of this self-conscious emphasis on the casting was to draw focus away from the play itself and onto the actors, not the story. In practice, director Ricardo Vila-Roger seems to have attempted to create a production that allowed for racial diversity and gender equity. Commendable goals, and I applaud the attempt, but he “over-corrected” sometimes from my perspective.

He was most successful at building an ethnically diverse acting company, who worked well as an ensemble, giving committed, balanced performances. In fact, I think this production was more successful at providing a racially diverse cast than most of the productions I’ve seen in Pittsburgh in recent years. Kudos for that! What I didn’t like was the inauthentic use of Spanish for some of the Webbs’ dialogue. To my admittedly limited ears, it didn’t sound like any of the actors were actually native Spanish speakers; the accents were off, and so the addition of Spanish in the play didn’t seem organic. I didn’t mind the idea, but the execution was clumsy, which took away from the performances in the end.

Mr. Vila-Roger was less successful in his decisions around gender in the casting. He did not cast traditionally with the gender of the actor matching the gender of the character in all cases. Nor did he use gender-neutral casting to fill the roles, where actors don’t necessarily play characters that match their own gender. Instead, he cast several females as male characters, and then changed all of those characters to females. (Side note: he did not cast any males as female characters.) For me, this just didn’t work. It created too many anachronistic moments that simply did not mesh with the period dialogue of the play. This was especially egregious in the case of “Editor Webb” — Mr. Webb in the original script. The decision was made to play “Editor Webb” as a female character, leaving us in the audience to reconcile the idea that an openly lesbian couple would be married and have children in 1901 small town New Hampshire. While it’s a nice thought, it stretches the bounds of verisimilitude past the breaking point. It takes you out of the play too much. Not to mention that Editor Webb’s dialogue, particularly that between him/herself and George before and during the wedding simply didn’t work with a female Editor Webb. The dialogue, written in the 1930’s about the early 1900’s, wasn’t built for that kind of a stretch.

Let me be clear, I have no problem with actors of any gender playing characters of any gender. There is a long history of this practice, and it works quite well. But this changing of the character’s gender to match the actor’s gender seems almost regressive, as though women can’t play male roles. And, ultimately it takes the audience out of the world of the play.

In the end, by focusing the audience so much on his casting, by trying to be everything to everybody, and by trying to make an early twentieth century play fit the model of a twenty-first-century ideal, the director created a tortuous framework that distracted the audience from the simple meditation on ordinary life and death that is Our Town.

Despite all of these concerns, I commend Mr. Vila-Roger on this production, because it does what good university theater should do – it experiments with the form; it reimagines traditions; it allows a space for both professional and casual theater practitioners to expand the limits of their work.

This production of Our Town was a pleasant, university level production with good production values. I especially liked the directorial/design choice made at the end of the play when Emily’s ghost returns to her past to visit her family, and we see the colors and details of the world that Emily missed in life (you’ll have to see it to understand what I mean). The show was moving, bringing several audience members to tears in the third act. And best of all, the actors were emotionally brave and committed to their performances.

Our Town is playing at The Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus, through October 15, 2017.  For tickets, call 412-624-7529 or visit www.play.pitt.edu

Middletown

MiddletownYou know you are in for an interesting experience when you are welcomed into the world of Middletown by a Public Speaker who tries to encompass all of humanity in all its forms through an exhaustive monologue that is wildly entertaining while ultimately insufficient to the task. It is this struggle to capture the uncapturable, to verbalize the ineffable experience of being a finite human in an infinite universe, to encapsulate the sacred, scary, mundane journey between the mysteries of birth and death, that Will Eno grapples with in his play.
Mr. Eno’s Middletown, a play set in the middle of America, in the middle of a typical small town, in the middle of the characters’ lives, is often compared to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town. Both plays take as their subjects the ordinary life events of an average town, and set them within the context of infinity. Both plays break the fourth wall and have characters speak directly to the audience. But while Wilder celebrates humanity’s place within the macrocosm, Eno struggles with the essential inconsequence of human existence. His main characters are rudderless, lost in the infinite distances of the universe, searching for meaning and connection they cannot find.
This is a play for play lovers. It does what theater does best; it revels in language. It throws you off guard with comedy, lures you into a sense of security with commonplaces, and then “whoosh, clank!” it twists, and you find yourself in the middle of metaphysical inquiry.
Little Lake Theatre Company’s production of Middletown is a solid effort. It is an engaging show that leads you through the lives of its characters with quiet good humor.
In the spirit of Our Town, the production uses minimal set pieces to create multiple locations, viewed simultaneously by the audience. Director Ponny Conomos Jahn is quite successful in her staging in-the-round (or rectangle, in this case), creating pleasant stage pictures, and making the most out of minimal settings.
The design is utilitarian, serving the basic, practical needs of the staging, without adding to the overall experience with a deliberate aesthetic point of view in and of itself.
The large acting ensemble is competent, and, except in a few minor cases, performances are polished and even. The three leads – Eric Leslie as John Dodge, Mary Meyer as Mary Swanson, and Bill Lyon as Mechanic are solid and likable. They are supported most notably by the funny Danette Marie Levers and Tom Protulipac as Tourists (among other roles) and the charming, relaxed presence of Charlotte Sonne as Librarian and Jonathan Wilson as Cop.
The pacing of the show needs some improvement. This is a long production, over 2 1/2 hours with one intermission. A quicker pace for both the scenes and the scene changes would keep the energy of the company and the audience from flagging.
There was one major problem I had with the production – the intermittent use of Native American influences. This is a playwriting problem first and foremost, that must necessarily become a production problem. There are several moments in the script where characters refer to the Chawkmawg Indians (couldn’t find anything on the web indicating this was a real native tribe – those who know more than me, please let me know) who first lived on the land now occupied by Middletown. The Librarian reads the audience a native medicine story. There’s a dream catcher used as a character totem in at least two scenes. The Mechanic does a Native American-inspired medicine dance near the end of the play.
All of these moments felt inauthentic to me, superfluous and distracting to the main enquiry of the play. What is the playwright trying to say? In such a very middle-American (and almost exclusively white in this production) town, how do these side trips into Native American symbolism fit into the journey of this play? It never worked for me, and left me feeling uncomfortable about cultural appropriation and insensitivity issues.
Despite this, Little Lake Theatre Company’s production of Middletown is worth the investment of your time and money. It is a pleasant production of a fascinating play, and if you love theater, this is a show for you.
We’ve been lucky in Pittsburgh to have had two Will Eno plays performed recently: the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist Thom Pain (based on nothing), produced by 12 Peers Theater in July 2017, and now, the Horton Foote Award winning Middletown, currently performing at Little Lake Theatre Company. Yay, Pittsburgh! Mr. Eno is considered one of the foremost playwrights of his generation. It is a real treat to see his work performed, and I thank both companies for giving us all a chance to experience these plays.
Go see this play!  You won’t regret it. (And order a piece of carrot cake for intermission; it was delicious!)
Middletown runs through October 7, 2017. Visit www.littlelake.org for tickets.