Amahl and the Night Visitors

23509011_1502775556458378_1922291248159416369_o“What brings you joy?” asks Resonance Works | Pittsburgh board of directors president Rob Frankenberry.

There is certainly joy in listening to live classical music. There is joy in the artistry of skilled musicians. There is joy in the unadorned sound of classical instruments. There is joy in well-honed voices filling a space with the arias and choruses of an opera. The Resonance Works’ production of Amahl and the Night Visitors provides many opportunities for joy, along with unfortunate moments of disappointment and sadness.

The evening was divided into two acts. The first act featured a trio of orchestral works, scored for a small chamber group that consisted of (if I counted correctly) 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 1 bass as the core group.

The core ensemble was joined by oboists Stephanie Tobin and David Fitzpatrick for Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon by Handel. I found the oboe duets delightful, played with both precision and aplomb. Arrival is a fun piece, though I prefer a slightly faster tempo, to emphasize the celebratory and de-emphasize the ceremonial aspect of the piece.

Next was Dances Sacrée et Profane by Debussy, featuring the talented harpist, Marissa Knaub Avon. This piece is dreamy, almost meditative – until it’s not. Then the harp explodes with rhythm and aggression, only to be brought back into line by a gentle, repeating motif. The harp can’t be completely tamed though, and the piece ends with a final, good-natured thunk.

Rounding out the first half of the evening was Vivaldi’s Bassoon concerto in E minor, featuring Andrew Genemans on bassoon, with Uliana Kozhevnikova on harpsichord. I’m far from an expert, but Mr. Genemans is a rock star on that bassoon! He was facile, quick, and a master at both the high and low registers of the instrument. It was just fun to watch and listen to him play.

Keeping everyone on track throughout both acts was conductor and artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner. Maestra Sellner has a light, masterful touch, creating a very balanced sound throughout the evening.

But that’s where most of the good news ends. Disappointingly, the second half of the evening, the performance of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, was not quite as successful as the first.

The singing was universally good. Ivy Walz (Mother), Andrew Maughan (King Kaspar), Andrew Adelsberger (King Melchior), and Jonathan Stuckey (King Balthazar) all gave strong vocal performances, ably supported by the Resonance Chamber Orchestra. The Slippery Rock University Chamber Singers sounded great as the chorus of shepherds; they had a nice blend and their diction was spot on. Eighth grader Liam McCarthy’s thin soprano (Amahl) didn’t fare quite as well as the rest of the cast in the unforgiving Charity Randall Theater, though he acquitted himself nicely, making it through a big role with some very tricky vocal moments.

Despite some really fine vocal performances, the production as a whole didn’t work.
It came down to the fact that this production is neither fish nor fowl: it is neither a concert version of the show, nor is it a fully-realized production – which is a real shame, because I think stage director Craig Joseph had a solid germ of a concept.

He tried to place the show within the context of a circus, which had the potential to be a wild, mysterious, magical take on the story. Unfortunately, the concept was never fully realized, and the result was a mish-mash of elements that added up to confusion, instead of a unified vision. There wasn’t enough set to create a sense of place, time, mood, anything. The set pieces that were onstage were off-concept. The costuming was spotty at best, and the chorus looked like they pulled items from their own closets or raided a thrift store. Lighting design was minimal and clunky. You can do minimal and still have high quality production values; this show didn’t meet that mark.

Resonance Works habitually has the orchestra on stage, in full view, often intertwined with the staging space of the show. I really like this; it makes the connection between singer and musician even stronger, and fits the model for the company. However, in the case of Amahl, this meant there wasn’t enough room on stage for the full ensemble, which was just awkward. This lack of space also didn’t help with staging, which tended to be too static anyway. And, while I appreciate the enthusiasm and pluck of the chorus, I cannot approve the decision to forgo the use of professional dancers to perform the dance done for the Kings by the Shepherds. What resulted was far too amateurish for this fine company, and the production would have been better served by cutting the dance interlude all together.

Amahl and the Night Visitors runs this weekend only, through Sunday, December 17, 2017. You can find out more about Resonance Works and purchase tickets at www.resonanceworks.org.

A Christmas Story

cache_899459874The Theatre Factory’s holiday offering of A Christmas Story opened Thursday, December 7, 2017 to a small, but enthusiastic audience. Adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, and directed for the Theatre Factory by Catherine Kolos, the play attempts to capture the magic of the original 1983 movie chronicling 9-year old Ralphie Parker’s quest for the perfect Christmas present: the legendary official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time! Unfortunately, this production falls short of the mark.

Let’s face it, anyone trying to re-create the specific humor and chemistry of the original movie already has a hard row to hoe. Any chance of success requires mad skills from everyone involved. It requires a light touch, that lets the wry comedic voice of the original storyteller, Jean Shepherd, speak for itself, while allowing the individual creativity of its new storytellers to shine through as well. This production didn’t manage to do this.

The rhythm of the performance was always just a little off, comedic timing was not quite there, and the cast never meshed as a unified whole – which is a shame, because the adult cast all seemed like competent performers, and I’d like to see them in other productions. On the positive side of things, particular note should be given to Brittany Bara as Miss Shields and Marianne Bayard as Mother, who created intelligent, subtle, interesting characterizations with strong stage presence. Also of note was Lawrence Karl, who did yeoman’s work playing multiple ensemble roles, including the nefarious Scut Farkas. On the negative end, the relationship between Mother and The Old Man never really clicked. And grown up Ralph, the narrator for the whole piece, was too presentational and declamatory for my taste, descending too much into sentimentalism at the end of the play. I write this somewhat reluctantly, since he did have charisma and carried us through the narrative of the play with unwaning energy.

The Theatre Factory is a semi-professional company working in an underserved area of Pittsburgh, and creating opportunities for children to be introduced to and participate in theater through their KidWorks program – all very laudable goals, deserving of support.

Their budgets would appear to be small, based on the production values of this show, and I never expect small budget shows to have the same material quality as higher budget shows. What I do expect is companies to use their resources effectively and creatively. The Theatre Factory didn’t meet this mandate for me with this production of A Christmas Story. The set was more 1920s depression-era flop house than 1940s nostalgic middle-American family home. The black wall at the back of the stage was downright spooky and depressing. The stationary set ultimately limited staging options and the ability to create multiple locations effectively. The set pieces were mismatched and beaten up. Costume choices ranged from “Little House on the Prairie” skirts to 80s outerwear. Lighting was awkward with uneven focus and execution. The sound cues that existed were actually well done. But, this is a show that benefits from an almost continuous soundtrack, so the existing cues only served to highlight the dearth of sound during the rest of the show.

And details matter – having no food props, especially the turkey, when the anticipation of the turkey was a highlight of the action, was a mistake. Lighting the Christmas tree with modern lights instead of appropriate period lights was a mistake. And, Mother’s unconvincing fake “knitting” was distracting and a mistake.

I am passionate with my criticism, because I saw a potential that I believe can grow into creative success for this company. I want their talented actors to have success. I also happen to ADORE the original A Christmas Story movie, and play it for the entire 24-hour marathon usually offered on Christmas Day. So, I really want any stage adaptation to be flawless.

You can visit The Theatre Factory’s website at www.thetheatrefactory.org or email theatrefactoryboxoffice@gmail.com.

Love, Love, Love

KINETIC-LOVE-LARGE-SQUARE-1Playwright Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love is damn fine theater, performed with great style, humor, pathos, bravery, and yes, love, by a damn fine ensemble, assembled and directed with intelligence and insight by Andrew Paul, producing artistic director of Kinetic Theatre Company.

At the grand old age of 37, Mike Bartlett is already one of Britain’s distinguished modern playwrights. His award winning plays on Broadway and across the pond include the much lauded King Charles III, Earthquakes, An Intervention, COCK, Bull, Game, 13, and Albion. Mr. Bartlett also boasts impressive radio and television credits, including the BBC series “Dr. Foster.”

Love, Love, Love was first produced in England in 2010, when Mr. Bartlett was only 30 years old – a fact I find particularly interesting since that makes him a member of Generation X….or Generation Y…or both…it depends on who you ask.

Since the distinction between the generations is so central to Mr. Bartlett’s play, I decided to take a look on the internet to clarify the ages attached to each generational label. There is not an absolute consensus about the division and categorization of the generations into distinct groups, but most people agree the Baby Boomers include people born between 1945 and 1964. Generation X encompasses people born between 1965 and 1984. There’s a nebulous Generation Y that may or may not exist that covers between 1975 to 2005, sort of. And then there are the Millennials born between 1982 to 2004. No one has come up with a name for the folks born after 2004 yet.

Mindy Woodhead and Darren Weller
Mindy Woodhead and Darren Weller

In Love, Love, Love Bartlett sends up the behavior of both the Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers, demanding accountability for their mistakes, but always from a perspective of affection and sympathy. The play gives us three distinct, exquisitely distilled moments in time, each act expertly crafted into its own mini-play with its own emotional highs and lows, climax and denouement. Taken together, the three acts of Love, Love, Love let us witness the turning of the world over a period of 43 years – its politics, its economic conditions, its obsessions – through the microcosm of some seriously, yet endearingly, narcissistic people.

Through the actions of Kenneth (played by Darren Weller) and Sandra (played by Mindy Woodhead), we experience the Baby Boomer generation – their optimistic aspirations, their selfishness and self-obsession, their struggles with adulthood, the realities of marriage, money, and children, and the consequences of their life-long self-absorption for the next generation, as depicted through Kenneth’s and Sandra’s children, Rosie (played by Aviana Glover) and Jamie (played by Ethan Saks). This is all brilliantly accomplished by a remarkable acting ensemble. Darren Weller and Mindy Woodhead adroitly careen through the years as pot-smoking 19 year olds, 43 year olds feeling trapped by the obligations of adulthood, and then 62 year olds who are content to enjoy themselves and leave it up to their children to figure everything else out. Mr. Weller fares a little better as a 19 year old Oxford student than does Ms. Woodhead, but both performances are remarkable for their humor, subtlety, and no-holds-barred emotion throughout. Likewise laudable were the performances of Ms. Glover and Mr. Saks, who bravely played the whiny (often with good reason), bewildered, entitled children, who might be unhappy because they aren’t “rich and famous,” but also must look on with disbelief as their parents barrel through life blissfully unaware of pretty much anyone but themselves. Playing ages ranging from 14 to 37, both Ms. Glover and Mr. Saks manage to remain sympathetic in the midst of whining and shirking adulthood. Mr. Saks should be congratulated for also taking on the role of “Kenneth’s” slightly older brother, “Henry,” in the first act; Henry just missed out on the “summer of love” and represents the hard working, no non-sense, get-the-job-done generation known today as the Greatest Generation; he’s dead in the third act of the play, which I find emblematic.

Ethan Saks, Mindy Woodhead, Aviana Glover, and Darren Weller
Ethan Saks, Mindy Woodhead, Aviana Glover, and Darren Weller

The sets, costumes, and make up design of the show were almost universally successful. It was great fun watching the living room for each act getting bigger and nicer with each iteration. I was particularly fond of the 80s pastels and prints in Act II; it all hit the right notes for each time period. And let us not forget the amazing hair and wardrobe changes required of “Sandra” for each time period. Except for some minor technical problems with Ms. Woodhead’s Act I and Act II costumes, which I expect will be addressed as the play proceeds, all of the design work was spot on for this production.

And I love the Pittsburgh Playwrights theater space. It’s dirty and sweaty, small and unpretentious. The small space allows intimacy and immediacy for the audience that you miss in grander, more well-heeled spaces. It’s a space that says, “Come in. We love theater, and we’ll make it happen!” Just my kind of space. And it works perfectly for the immediacy of this play.

Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of Love, Love, Love runs through December 17, 2017 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. You can find tickets at www.kinetictheatre.org. During this holiday season, if you’re looking for something more substantial than Nutcracker, but still want some humor and humanity, this is the perfect play for you.

Photos by Rocky Raco.

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.