The Lion in Winter

Lion-Final-WebIt’s well into the holiday season and there’s a chance you’ve either had or will have a tense family dinner. No matter your family situation, you’re probably not going have as tense a Christmas as King Henry II and his family. In James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, Henry, his wife, his sons, and his mistress all gather round for a fun holiday of constant manipulation and harsh betrayals. PICT Classic Theatre opened their new production in the appropriately castle-like Union Project in Highland Park, and they invite you to spend a tense holiday with a family that will most likely make yours seem better.

Henry and his wife, Eleanor, have quite the estranged marriage (he imprisoned her). But he invites her back to the castle on Christmas for some verbal sparring and to reveal his plans for his heirs. The eldest son, Richard, is a bold warrior and his mother’s favorite. The youngest, John, is weak and childish, yet is his father’s first pick. The middle son, Geoffrey, is very clever but feels ignored by both parents (middle children, right?). Also over for the holidays is the new young King of France, Phillip, and his half-sister Alais, who is betrothed to a son but is Henry’s lover. It’s a complicated situation as parents, children, and lovers try to deduce if there is any real love between them and who is just a pawn in the political game.

Alan Stanford and Cary Anne Spear head things as Henry and Eleanor, capturing the utter contempt but also admiration the two have for each other. As the most senior members of the family the two are experts at “the game” they play, and the actors create characters that relish in the manipulation and putting on of “scenes’. Henry and Eleanor are very clever, and as such have some of the more biting lines in Goldman’s genuinely funny script. The history between them is fascinating: they both claim to have never loved the other, yet their love of the game suggests there may be affection there somewhere, even if they wouldn’t admit it. If a married couple could be called “Frenemies”, it would probably be Henry and Eleanor.

Their sons are more easily broken. Tony Bingham’s Richard is physically intimidating and hotheaded, more prone to angry shouting than his brothers. Matt Henderson’s John is an annoying little twerp, but his childlike reactions bring a lot of humor to what could otherwise be ultra-heavy scenes. Gregory Johnstone as Geoffrey is the best thinker, no doubt inherited from his parents, but is ironically overlooked by them. Geoffrey has an air of smarm that masks some real hurt and, like everyone else, his breaking point can be reached. Karen Baum and Dylan Marquis Meyers play Alais and Phillip as strong young people who are still probably in over their heads, new players in a cruel game.

PICT places its audiences in the castle with just a few simple touches. The set features a giant table in the center that serves to be whatever furniture the character’s need. A downed chandelier serves as a rack for characters to hang their crowns or jewelry off of when they’ve retired to their “rooms”. The audience sits on either side of the big table, and John Shepard’s direction has made it so no action or facial expression is missed out on depending on where you’re sitting. Costumes are just elaborate enough to suggest royalty without weighing down the actors or distracting from the story.

If you’re unwilling to sit through your holiday dinner and argue about whatever horrible politics with your family, why not go see The Lion in Winter and watch horrible politics unfold in front of you? The royal family is probably funnier than yours anyway. It’s another solid production from PICT, so I would recommend seeing it before the real winter hits.

Pittsburgh Irish-Classic Theatre’s production of The Lion in Winter runs at the Union Project in Highland Park through December 17. For tickets and more information click here.

Special thanks to PICT for complimentary press tickets.

The Who’s Tommy

tommyMany people credit The Who as one of their favorite rock bands. Maybe you like their music as the theme song for your favorite CSI: series. One thing the Who should probably get credit for is creating the first rock opera to make it to the stage. Tommy started out as a concept album before becoming a stage show, and then becoming a super trippy movie. It’s a show that polarizes theater audiences; more for Rent or Rocky Horror lovers than, say, West Side Story fans. Its insanely fun rock score and unique imagery make it a favorite for many, and the students at Point Park have just opened their fun production last weekend.

The tale surrounds Tommy and the many tragic events in his childhood. In 1940’s London Tommy’s father, Captain Walker, is declared missing in action before Tommy is born. Years later this is proven to be false as the Captain shows up and surprises Mrs. Walker-and her new lover. In the ensuing struggle the man is shot, and the Walkers convince young Tommy (who witnessed it) that he didn’t see or hear anything. This causes Tommy to go inside himself and no longer react to anything around him, nor does he speak. Eventually he is summed up as a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who will one day play a mean pinball. He endures further physical and sexual abuse at the hands of relatives, and by the time he reaches adulthood he is renowned for his pinball playing skills.WhoTommy3

For act one the adult Tommy (Lamont Walker II) appears as a spiritual narrator for the audience, guiding him through his traumatic childhood while younger actors (Primo Jenkins, then Gabriel Florentino) portray him as he grows up. While most younger performers have a solid classical tone to their singing voice, Mr. Walker sheds that for powerful rock-type vocals. Emotion overtakes his songs, and the audience absorbs all the anguish and frustration (and occasional joy) that Tommy puts out. Matt Calvert and Kyley Klass have a tough challenge as Tommy’s parents, who I would say are harder to pin down as characters (for example, are they horrible people or not?). It’s a challenge both for acting and singing, but the two are game for it and get moments to shine, particularly Klass when Mrs. Walker loses it in “Smash the Mirror.”

The rest of the large ensemble is brimming with talent. The dancing is positively electric, with the whole lot of them putting 110% into it. Strong vocals are scattered throughout the cast, particularly the crazy belting of abusive Cousin Kevin (David Lindsay) and the unsettling drugged-fueled Acid Queen (Markia Washington). Kevin Gilmond does a great turn as evil Uncle Ernie, bringing some tight vocals and odd sort of charisma to the skeeziest character in the show. I’ll also give a shoutout to the awesome harmonies provided by Jared Roberts and Brenden Henderson in “Eyesight to the Blind” and, of course, the trio of Kurt Kemper, Jack Holmes, and David Lindsay who kick off the well-known act one closer “Pinball Wizard”. You can mine the show for all sorts of good music moments like this, but these are the ones that particularly stuck with me.WhoTommy2

When it comes to the message of Tommy, my first instinct is to mention the obvious effects of child abuse and neglect. As a crowd of happy people party around him at Christmastime, little Tommy sits staring straight ahead while his parents wonder what’s wrong. They’re expecting an emotional response from him that they’re not getting. Not once do his parents think that maybe they are the reason for his condition. They want him to get better, but they also don’t protect him. Instead they drag him to specialists and doctors, and when Tommy is finally “free” and becomes a pinball sensation, his family is right there to profit from his fame. The Walkers come off as narcissistic and uncaring, even though they claim to have love in their hearts for Tommy (again, I think they’re very complicated roles).

The production makes a few social points as well by having Tommy portrayed as a black man to white parents. His family’s treatment of him creates a dark and unsafe world for Tommy, similar to how the world can seem a dangerous place for anyone who is discriminated against. The fantastic set by Britton Mauk has ropes for handrails and doorframes that fly in on shaky cables: Tommy is in an unstable environment and nowhere is safe. Other moments like Captain Walker shooting his wife’s lover (also black) and not going to prison for it are a commentary on the world today. It’s a nice touch, and a good way of keeping Tommy’s themes fresh for audiences.WhoTommy4

I will say, being more or less unfamiliar with the material, I was thrown off by how the story just…ends. Tommy appears to be a better person at the end of the show, but I’m sorry I still can’t get past the abuse and trauma he’s endured at the hands of his family. Tommy may have made peace, but I haven’t. Couldn’t he have at least shown his creepy Uncle Ernie the door? I’ll take it up with The Who. The students of Point Park have a terrific production started, so if you’re looking for a loud and high-energy good time I’d say give Tommy a watch.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets. Tommy runs at the The Rockwell Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse through Sunday October 30. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of John Altdorfer

The Fantasticks

FANTAS2831Try to remember a time when you were young and in love. You had a certain mindset for how the world would be: you’d fall in love, get married, and live out years and years in perfect bliss. Then reality hit you like a thunderbolt and you realized you didn’t know what you were talking about. That’s all part of growing up, and that’s what happens in the classic musical The Fantasticks, currently playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

We open on an empty loft-like room. A Mute (Jason Shavers) comes onstage and with a pointed glare “tells” the audience to shut their phones off. Soon after that the Narrator (Josh Powell) enters and prepares the room to tell the story of The Fantasticks. The actors are introduced and we jump into act one. The Narrator explains that our heroes, Matt and Luisa, are young, in love, and insane. They each have fantasies of what perfect and happy love will be like and are adamant they have found it in each other. Jamen Nanthakumar and Mary Elizabeth Drake are adorable as the young lovers, brimming with enthusiasm and annoying positivity. The performances and the script (written in verse) suggest that the actors are having a laugh at their cheery optimistic characters.

(left to right) Mary Elizabeth Drake, Jason Shavers, Jamen Nanthakumar.
(left to right) Mary Elizabeth Drake, Jason Shavers, Jamen Nanthakumar.

The plot unfolds: Matt and Luisa are neighbors and are separated by a wall that their feuding fathers have constructed. But wait! The fathers (played by Gavan Pamer and Daniel Krell) are actually good friends and the wall is part of an elaborate plot to make their very young children fall in love! They advance their scheme by paying a bandit, El Gallo (played by the Narrator), to stage an abduction of Luisa that forces Matt to become a hero by “saving” her.

The whole cast is endearing during act one, an act about love. The fathers sing a song about tricking their kids, El Gallo sings a song about planning the abduction, the kids sing multiple songs about being in love. As the hired actors, Noble Shropshire and Tony Bingham score some good comic moments. The act is a bit one-noted, but that’s the point: everyone is blinded by the potential love and the talk of a happy ending. The picture-perfect conclusion comes at the end of act one, and then for act two things take a more cynical turn.

Josh Powell, Noble Shropshire, Tony Bingham
Josh Powell, Noble Shropshire, Tony Bingham

As the metaphorical/cardboard sun rises on act two the characters realize things aren’t as magical as they thought they’d be. The lovers realize their love may have been hasty, while the fathers don’t particularly enjoy the fact that the wall has been torn down. As a cynical person I enjoyed act two better than the first, and it began to be clear what made this show a hit back in 1960. The show dares to question the “happily ever afters” associated with musicals and takes the characters to an uglier place. At the end of the day The Fantasticks conveys that love is never simple and reality doesn’t end up matching the fantasy.

The score is by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not him), and contains classics like “Try to Remember” and other songs that I can’t remember. The cast sings beautifully (Drake has some nice clear high notes as the show’s lone female) but the songs don’t stay in your head after you leave. Minimal pieces are used in James Noone’s slick set. The show doesn’t call for scenery and it makes the action a little claustrophobic as the actors look like they’re walking in circles. The production is aided by the Mute, who appears to fill the role of the Narrator’s stage manager. For technical reasons, the Mute exists to represent the “wall” between houses, throw confetti into the air to signify changing seasons, and pass out props. From a storytelling standpoint, I’m not sure what the Mute is supposed to represent. I will say that having Jason Shavers, the only black cast member, playing the Mute can feel somewhat uncomfortable. In one scene the Mute is kneeling by a bench representing a workman rebuilding a wall, and the (white) father characters try to speak to him before noting “He’s not supposed to speak.” On one hand I’m maybe reading too much into it. On the other hand, here’s a black actor denied a voice who exists solely to carry the white actors’ props.

Daniel Krell, Mary Elizabeth Drake, Jamen Nanthakumar, Gavan Pamer.
Daniel Krell, Mary Elizabeth Drake, Jamen Nanthakumar, Gavan Pamer.

The Fantasticks is the longest-running Off-Broadway musical and has had thousands of productions all over the world. As with most classic musicals, the question “does this hold up?” has to be asked. In terms of the music and the campy matchmaking plot, not really. But the dismissing attitudes towards young puppy love and happily ever after adds an element of fun to it. The charming cast make the show entertaining, and succeeds in balancing a silly story with a bit of earnestness.

The Fantasticks runs at the O’Reilly Theatre through October 30th. For tickets and more information, click here. For more information about the rest of our Top 5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Fall, click here.

The Toxic Avenger

13920592_10153878214136696_6619933184213095285_nDo you remember The Toxic Avenger? A cult film from the eighties about a little nerd who gets drenched in chemicals and becomes a violent, deformed mutant hero? Bad production value but an excess of gore, camp, and ridiculousness? You probably saw it back in the day or maybe discovered it on a lazy weekend when you were in college. It’s terrific. And it’s trash. And like many trash cult movies, it inspired a musical. The Toxic Avenger (the musical) has moved into the CLO Cabaret, and it has come to party.

The musical loosely adapts the story of the movie, which was pretty loose to begin with. Melvin Ferd the Third (a nerd) discovers that large amounts of green nuclear waste is being dumped into the rivers of his beloved Tromaville, New Jersey. When he confronts the corrupt Mayor she orders her goons to dispose of him. The bullies dump him in a barrel of the deadly goo and, with an outrageous display of arm-ripping violence, the Toxic Avenger is born. He continues his quest to clean up Tromaville while also trying to win the love of sweet and pretty librarian Sarah…who’s blind.Evan_Ruggiero_and_Katie_Sexton_in_Pittsburgh_CLOs_THE_TOXIC_AVENGER.Photo_Matt_Polk

Katie Sexton is hilarious as Sarah, getting huge laughs with simple moves like looking the wrong way at someone or just saying “Sorry. I’m blind!” when asked for help. Meanwhile Evan Ruggiero destroys (heh heh) as Toxie, clearly enjoying himself as he tears off limbs and belts his way through the carnage. His voice also brings some heartbreaking soul to Toxie’s sadder moments, like the song “You Tore My Heart Out.” Toxie is gross and disgusting but Ruggerio makes him a lovable, if temperamental, hero.

Stealing the show is the remaining ensemble who play the roles of everyone else. Quinn Patrick Shannon (who just played “everyone else” in The 39 Steps) and Billy Mason are “White Dude” and “Black Dude”, respectively, who change characters at an incredible pace. Seriously, they’re everywhere: good guys, bad guys, men, women, old, young, cops, doctors…the list feels endless. Shannon and Mason have a different voice and physicality for each one, and they can land a strong joke even if it isn’t on the page. They also have incredible voices, showcased when Shannon plays a folk singer who enthusiastically wails out “The Legend of the Toxic Avenger” or when Mason croons a sexy duet with the evil Mayor about how “Evil is Hot.”Billy_Mason__Caroline_Nicolian_and_Quinn_Patrick_Shannon_in_Pittsburgh_CLOs_THE_TOXIC_AVENGER

Caroline Nicolian rounds out the cast as the aforementioned Mayor, while also sharing the role of Melvin’s disappointed mother. The dual roles build to a head at the end of Act 1 where the Mayor confronts Ma, her old rival from back in the day. Using methods like hiding behind curtains, swapping wigs, and some hilariously unconvincing stunt doubles, the women “confront” each other in the throw down number “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”. Nicolian, who’s hilarious as both characters throughout the night, shines here as she rapidly changes personas and belts her face off.

The city of Tromaville is represented with fantastic trash dump scenery, with doors hiding behind rusted walls and things like office chairs formed from metal barrels. The bright colors of the costumes really pop against the dingy metallic background of the set. Wigs are big and fun and really help complete the cartoon-like vibe the show has, as does the eyeball that hangs out of Toxie’s socket (everyone hates it).Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_THE_TOXIC_AVENGER._Photo_Matt_Polk

While previous Cabaret productions have been a bit silly in tone, none have quite taken it to the level that Toxic Avenger has. It’s campy and it’s proud and loud about it. The plot isn’t likely to raise any internal questions you may have about life or the world, but it’s damn entertaining. Sarah learns about overcoming flaws in the ones you love, while Melvin finds the confidence he needs to stand up and fight for what he believes in. You’ll root for their love: she’s blind, he’s disgusting, and they’re both kind of a mess.

“It’s silly” an astute woman at the table next to mine said at intermission. “Yeah,” her friend said, “but we need that.”  Righto, ladies. The Toxic Avenger will be keeping street safe for the next two months and I would highly recommend visiting the CLO Cabaret to visit him. And if you don’t like it, remember: He’ll rip your face right off.

Special thanks to the CLO for complimentary press tickets. The Toxic Avenger runs through December 18 at the CLO Cabaret. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

Wig Out!

14192187_10154511348529464_6830925276580346219_nIn the past few years drag culture has begun to stake its place in the public eye. Drag queens have, of course, been around forever but shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race have provided recent insight into the art and lives of drag. Previous musicals have had main characters who are drag queens, but their stories just lightly touch on drag culture. But now there’s Wig Out!, a newer show by Tarell Alvin McCraney that goes behind the curtain and into the tight and complex Queendom.

The audience is thrown into the world almost immediately; the queens have their own language, rules, and hierarchies. At the head of the House of Light is kind “mother” Rey-Rey, who runs a firm but loving house overseen by the house “father” Lucian, a hothead who never hesitates to show off his dominance. The plot picks up speed when the House of Light is invited to a Ball thrown by rival house, The House of Diabolique. A “ball” is a party but also a contest between houses, and the House of Light only has one day to prepare. Winners of contests get bragging rights; losers get “cut”. It’s a vicious party, and they take it very seriously.

Characters are expectedly large and dramatic, since drag isn’t exactly known for its subtlety. Most of the tension in the first act comes in the form of arguments that are caused mostly by sensitive egos. One of the queens, Ms. Nina (also called “Wilson”), picks up young man Eric on the subway and begins to give him a crash course on the drag world. Eric is obviously enticed by Wilson but has trouble grasping why he would want to live as Nina. Nina is patient with him, knowing that she can be a lot to handle and that her lifestyle doesn’t always mesh with everyone. Another queen, Venus, argues with her ex-boyfriend and house DJ, Diety, about gender roles in their sex life. And Lucian spends his time either trying to fuck everybody or threatening anyone who won’t fuck him. Lucian’s a complicated man. And an asshole.

That is the source of the drama in the show (forgive me: the DRAAAAAMAAAAA! In the show). It’s broken up by the humor in the catty snipes the queens make at each other. If drag humor is your cup of tea regularly, you’ll love it here. Sexual entendres, bitchy name calling, angry finger snaps. If you laugh and hoot every time someone says “Yass Queen!!” you’ll laugh and hoot here too.

But the crazy talented cast shines more when their characters get a chance to reveal themselves. Jordon Bolden and Justin Lonesome share many intimate scenes as Eric and Nina. Mr. Bolden makes Eric a little ignorant while still being charming, and Mr. Lonesome’s honey-voiced Nina is at times alluring, stern, and tragic. Jordan Phillips gives house mother Rey-Rey a strong backbone and presence, making it inspiring to watch her face her challenges and heartbreaking when she struggles. Jerreme Rodriguez succeeds in making Lucian sexy and alluring, while also making him someone very easy to hate. The entire cast also does excellent work individual monologues, all starting with a recurring phrase, that provide emotional background on their lives before the House of Light.

Act two opens at the Ball, easily the most captivating part of the night. Connor McCanlus starts it off with some hilarious audience interaction as rival (evil) queen Serena. Then the ball begins, showcasing the fantastic and energetic dancing of Freddy Miyares (Venus), LaTrea Rembert (Diety), and Jared Smith (Loki, Serena’s stooge). Britton Mauk’s fantastic set becomes an explosion of color as it transforms into a crazy club scene with Andrew Ostrowski’s lighting design. Robert C.T. Steele’s costumes, which are on point for the whole show, really shine at the Ball, ranging from Serena’s insane “evil queen” dress to Rey-Rey’s more elegant “Aunt Viv number one” style.

While the queens all do the drag, the “real girls” of the House of Light get to do some real singing. Krista Antonacci, Arica Jackson, and Amber Jones played the Fates Three, three ladies in the House who also serve as the show’s Greek chorus. In some scenes their dialogue feels a bit unnecessary, while in others their presence is crucial. The ladies and musical director Jane Howell deserve a shoutout to the power that their vocals and song choices brought to the production.

As the play just shows twenty-four hours in these characters’ lives, not everything is all tied up neatly at the end. Some characters have learned a few things, while others are left in less-than-desirable situations. The breaking point in act two dissolves away quickly in a way that’s not exactly reassuring, but one thing is clear: this is a true family. Their family is nontraditional and may not be accepted by everyone, but they are each others’ backbones. It’s a powerful and uplifting story that brought the crowd to its feet for a long ovation on opening night.

Wig Out! runs at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through September 25th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets.

Season 42 at City Theatre Brings Even More New Plays!

YT17-Logo-Square-e1465836196246You’d be hard-pressed to find a better representation of new and diverse theatre than City Theatre. For their upcoming 2016-17 season, City Theatre has lined up six newer plays by playwrights of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. Ranging from the outrageously absurd to the deeply personal to the soberly poignant, City’s lineup is guaranteed to take its audience on a fantastic journey. Artistic Director Tracy Brigden is more than thrilled to announce their 42nd season. Here is a brief peek at what to expect from them in the upcoming months.

YT17-Feature-Hand-to-GodThe season opens on an absurd note with Robert Askins’ Hand to God, a dark comedy that recently enjoyed a successful run on Broadway. The play is set in a small Texas town where a church’s youth group is really going to hell. The battle of good and evil is fought both externally and internally, instigated by a foul-mouthed hand puppet named Jerome. Seriously. “It isn’t all heresy and dark humor, though. Robert Askins is a fantastic new voice in the American theater” Brigden assures us.

Hand to God starts previews September 24th and runs through October 16th in City Theatre’s Mainstage.

YT17-Feature-DragonNext up is the world premiere of Sharon Washington’s new show Feeding the Dragon. A one-woman autobiographical piece, Ms. Washington will take her audience through an animated tale about growing up and her favorite place: the New York Public Library where her father worked. Family secrets and the author’s passion for words promise to capture the audience as she shares a piece of her heart. After seeing Washington’s work in progress at City’s Momentum Festival, we’re excited to see where she’s taken it in the last three months.

Feeding the Dragon starts previews on October 22nd and runs through November 20th in City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre.

YT17-Feature-The-RoyaleStarting out 2017 is The Royale by Marco Ramirez. Jay Jackson is a heavyweight boxer with eyes on becoming the world champion, but the racist attitudes of 1905 may prevent him from reaching that goal. Jackson fights for his dream in spite of the lack of support and kindness, even if at times he finds himself standing alone. Inspired by the real life of boxer Jack Johnson, this drama is sure to be as intense as three rounds in the ring.

The Royale begins previews on January 21st and runs through February 12th on City Theatre’s Mainstage.

YT17-Feature-The-GuardFollowing that is Jessica Dickey’s The Guard, a time-twisting piece that gives lessons on seizing the day. An experienced museum guard explains to two young artists his personal connections to all the paintings and pieces he’s watched over for years. In doing so he begins a tale that weaves into different time periods, with the likes of Homer and Rembrandt coming alive and proving just how impactful art can be in one’s life. Brigden describes The Guard as “a captivating new work that is going to take you on a magical journey from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art back in time”.

The Guard will begin previews on March 11th running through April 2nd on City Theatre’s Mainstage. YT17-Feature-Wild-With-HappyColman Domingo’s Wild with Happy is next, a comedy that seeks to find the humor in grieving. An actor returns home to bury his mother but runs into conflicts while dealing with the antics of his friends and family. The complications lead to a hilarious chase from funeral homes to the “Happiest Place On Earth”, all the while showcasing the humor and madness that result from a loss. This particular show will be directed by City’s Artistic Producer, Reginald Douglas.

Wild with Happy starts previews on April 8th running through May 7th in City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio.

YT17-Feature-IronboundFinally the season closes with Ironbound by Martyna Majok. This somber drama tells the story of a Polish immigrant woman trying to make a living in New Jersey. Set in various years but always at the same bus stop, the play shows a fierce determination and a cynical view of a world that, at times, can be cruel and unforgiving. Brigden considers Ironbound “a quintessential City Theatre play.”

Ironbound begins previews on May 13th running through June 4th on City Theatre’s Mainstage.

All information about dates, show times, company information, and more can be found at City Theatre website (tickets, of course, can be purchased there as well). Do yourself a favor: check out their exciting season. With such a variety of new shows there is bound to be something for everyone to enjoy. And click back here to find reviews of the shows as they premiere.

Check out the rest of our 2016 Fall Preview here! Follow along with our autumn adventures with the hashtag #FallwithPITR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

American Idiot

13517598_1308298545864278_868733200584097980_oWhile I sat in the New Hazlett Theater to see the opening show of American Idiot, back in my small West Virginia hometown the community theater had their opening show of Grease. They are putting on Grease because it is exactly what the people there want: it’s a classic, it’s wholesome, and it’s a safe show that won’t offend anyone. It even starts at seven so that people aren’t out too late. I’m sure it was a great production that everyone loved. But when the lights went down in Pittsburgh the cast of American Idiot came out: all black, all young, and all yelling furiously. As they tore into the opening number, belting out lines like “maybe I’m the faggot America/I’m not part of a redneck agenda” I was reminded why I love seeing theatre here: variety. I’m all for fun silly theatre (I saw Shrek for God’s sake) but theatre is at its best is when it grabs an audience and delivers a message, and that is exactly what the Alumni Theater Company does. I was jolted with the realization I was about to see something you don’t get to see everywhere, and that excitement stayed with me through the whole ninety-minute act.13661819_1329217117105754_8089160272369224913_o

American Idiot is a musical that grew from the Green Day album of the same name. The album was written as a “punk rock opera” and as such the stage version is mostly entirely sung trough in the same order, with a few songs added in. The admittedly loose plot centers on three friends (Johnny, Tunny, and Will) who are getting tired of living in their small and boring town. After finally snapping and getting fed up with going nowhere, the trio decides to make a break for “the city”. Will ends up not leaving to stay home and deal with a pregnant girlfriend. Tunny soon runs off to join the army. Johnny has a blast but runs into trouble with bad influences and falling in love. The opera chronicles their separate yet intertwining ordeals, set to the angst-filled punk rock that Green Day is known for.

Now as it is, American Idiot has a lot to say to its audience. It’s a show about the dangers of leaving to go out on your own but also the dangers of staying where you are and feeling “stuck”. It’s an anti-war piece for a new generation. But performed with a young and all-black cast (as is custom for ATC) the show takes on so much more. It’s not just a young generation trying to find their way in life; it’s a group standing up against the way they’re treated by society. A screen above the stage displays important scenes and images in black history, from President Obama to Rosa Parks and so many more. But one visual up there consistently was the American flag, a reminder that we are all human beings and it is outrageous how bad things have been. One ensemble member wears an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt. The number “21 Guns”, while an antiwar number, also becomes a Black Lives Matter statement. It’s hard not to imagine the ensemble pleading to police as they sing “lay down your arms”. It’s powerful stuff.

Shae Wofford (Will), Shamari Nevels (Johnny), and James Perry (Tunny)

Now to gush about the company at ATC, who have all done a fantastic job. A great set and lighting design job (by Katelynn Fynaardt) is both practical for the staging but also creates an in-your-face rock show. The young ensemble (average age in the cast is 18) have a lot of dancing in order to create a scary and confusing world, and they do so without showing any signs of tiring. The three male leads, Shamari Nevels (Johnny), James Perry (Tunny), and Shae Wofford (Will), deliver incredible punk-rock vocals that capture the trials and frustrations their characters go through. Lyn Starr is smooth and dangerous as Johnny’s dark conscience St. Jimmy, while Tyra Jamison (Heather) and Elexa Hanner (Whatshername) provide strong voices yet vulnerabilities as two women in the boys’ lives. Another shout out for the enticing and expressive dancing of Cherish Morgan as Tunny’s “Extraordinary Girl” (pictured below). Really, the whole damn cast is so talented so hats off to them and the production team.13692891_1329217047105761_117478214965918927_o

So we’ve got ourselves a good punk rock musical, and probably the most powerful bit of theatre I’ve seen all summer. There are the occasional snags with hearing some lyrics over a rock band that never really gets to stop playing, but that’s to be expected. The characters in American Idiot find a way to resonate with everyone, whether you get carried away like Johnny, make desperate choices like Tunny, or feel trapped in your life like Will. This production delivers some beautiful imagery, wonderful performances, and hits home a powerful message. I highly recommend you catch it this weekend.

Special thanks to Alumni Theater Company for complimentary press tickets. American Idiot runs at the New Hazlett Theater through July 31st. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photos courtesy of ATC’s Facebook page.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

13510792_534822413395493_8031095847387694555_nOh, how does one describe Mr. Holmes? It’s seems like such a simple thing to do, but it’s so terribly complicated. To capture the man’s essence in a review would take too long and ultimately wouldn’t do him any justice. Similarly one could not capture the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles properly, so I’m reluctant to try. Normally one doesn’t want to ruin the plot of the play, but in The Hound’s case I don’t wish to ruin the punchlines. So your best effort would be to go the Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theater downtown and see Kinetic Theatre Company’s latest production.

The play is a follow-up to Kinetic’s production of Sherlock’s Last Case, although the only continuity is David Whalen returning as Sherlock Holmes, greatest detective in the world. This production brings a different stage, a different Watson, and a different feel altogether. While Last Case was humorous but also surprisingly dark, Hound is more of a high-energy farce. Three actors play a wide range of characters with the absurdity of a Monty Python movie. The stage is small, featuring only a few trunks stacked against a brick wall to serve as a backdrop.IMG_0493

I could go on and on about the cast and all they have to do and how well they do it. Whalen’s Sherlock gets to have more fun here, and is still appropriately arrogant. James FitzGerald is excellent as the world’s greatest sidekick Watson, who alternates being the straightman to being a bizarre creature himself, with a few violent tendencies to boot. Connor McCanlus is also terrific, bringing an adorable “well shucks” attitude to Sir Henry Baskerville while playing a slew of other characters.

One would be foolish to ignore the fantastic tech work in this production, because it seems like they have an awful lot to do for such a physically small space. There are so many lights, sounds, scenery flying in and out, and all of it has to time out perfectly to keep things flowing. It’s overwhelming trying to keep track of it all. Luckily one doesn’t have to, because one’s just in the audience. The crew has to keep track of it all, and they do a damn good job of it.IMG_0494

Jokes fly at a furious fast pace, and there seem to be enough of every joke to go around. There are a few cornball jokes, a few overly sexual ones, farce work, costume changes, red herrings, fourth wall breaking, dark humor. It’s a smorgasbord really. You may not laugh at all of them, but you’re guaranteed to laugh at something. Maybe even you’ll find yourself laughing loud while the rest of the audience is going “aww”…maybe….if you’re certain people….like me.

Have I said enough? Have I said nothing at all? Perhaps I’m being vague to create a sort of…”mystery”…about it all. Or really, why spend the time describing one of Sherlock’s more popular tales when I could just tell you to go see the production? And you should do just that. If you don’t like the BBC television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, good news: it’s nothing like that! By which I mean it’s not boring! (I’m teasing, don’t come at me about your precious Cumberbatch). Do yourself a favor and go see The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Special thanks to Kinetic Theatre for complimentary press tickets. The Hound of the Baskervilles runs at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre through August 7. For tickets and more information click here.

Would you like to see more reviews and articles like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!

Shrek: The Musical

hero_47266If you’re of a certain age then you probably think the movie Shrek is a classic. And you’re correct: Shrek was a movie that mainstream audiences had never seen before. The hero was disgusting, the humor rode the line between kid jokes and adult jokes, and the fairytale trope was flipped around. People loved it, so it was followed by a good sequel (I’ll fight anyone over the quality of Shrek 2), and then a crappy sequel, and then I don’t know what followed because I stopped paying attention. By the time the Dreamworks executives decided to cash in and bring Shrek: The Musical to Broadway, most people were a little Shrek’d out. But since the film franchise is over (Right? Please?) the stage show allows audiences to revisit one of their favorite stories in a new way, with all the positive messages still intact.

The musical follows the plot of the movie, where a cantankerous ogre named Shrek happily lives in solitude until evicted fairy tale creatures are forced to live in his swamp. Shrek seeks out to evict them by contacting the evil and comically short Lord Farquaad, who in turn is trying to find a princess so he can marry her and become King. Shrek and his “new best friend”, a talking Donkey, are sent to rescue Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded tower. Problems arise, hilarity ensues, things get complicated, you know how it goes.Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_SHREK_THE_MUSICAL._Photo_by_Matt_Polk

Moving the film characters to the stage is going to allow them a few adjustments. Shrek makes the point that ogres, like onions, have many layers. Shrek’s own layers are peeled away (I’m sorry) in emotional songs where the character confesses what he’d sometimes like his life to be. Rory Donovan makes his Shrek intimidating while also vulnerable, and his smooth rock vocals makes solos like “When Words Fail” or the angry “Build a Wall” soar. Shrek had tender moments on film, but on stage they’re appropriately bigger and make him a character everyone can sympathize with. Kids who feel like they’re different can relate to Shrek, as can adults who understand the desire to put up walls and be left alone.Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_SHREK_THE_MUSICAL._Photo_Matt_Polk

Shrek’s sidekicks are both a little nutty, much to Shrek’s exasperation. Donkey is a fast-talking and excitable little thing who races around the stage with endless energy. Andre Jordan reprises the role he played on the national tour, and his solos “Don’t Let Me Go” and “Make A Move” cement him as the comical best friend character everyone loves. The stage version of Princess Fiona is made a little more manic in the musical, a side effect of living locked up in a tower for twenty years. Haven Burton (also from the tour and Broadway productions) brings experienced comedic timing and a powerful voice to make Fiona a sly scene-stealer. Benjamin Howes also scores many laughs as the pint-sized Farquaad, a role which has fake legs and requires the actor to perform on his knees. It looks like an exhausting role to play, but Howes captures the comedy of the arrogant jerk without showing any signs of fatigue.

Since enjoying a run on Broadway Shrek has become a popular choice for many regional and high school productions, which is curious given the insane amount of tech requirements. There are numerous locations, magic spells, a fire-breathing dragon, exploding animals, Pinocchio telling lies. It’s a very tall order, and the CLO runs on a very tight rehearsal schedule to get four shows out every summer. Mishaps are understandable and things do happen, although the flubs on opening night were a bit harder to avoid. At one point a crew member’s microphone was heard over the characters’, and the projector wasn’t being very cooperative either (in one scene you could see the words “server message” in the corner of the set). But such is the excitement of live theater, and cast, crew, and audience powered through it.Haven_Burton__Andre_Jordan_and_Rory_Donovan_in_Pittsburgh_CLOs_SHREK_THE_MUSICAL._Photo_Matt_Polk

The humor in Shrek does tend to lie more on the childish side, which is totally acceptable since I would say this is a children’s musical. The song “I Think I Got You Beat” ends in a round of dueling bodily noises; it’s crass, but everyone laughed. The jokes in the script alternate between lines from the film, fairy tale humor, references to other popular musicals, and the requisite Pittsburgh joke. There was also a hack Caitlyn Jenner joke but, hey, let’s not dwell on it.

The positive messages in Shrek still hold up, namely that less-conventional heroes still deserve to have whatever happy ending they desire. The show also encourages kids to be themselves, particularly through the fairy tale creatures’ rallying “Freak Flag”. Shrek is a good story for children to see, and for long time Shrek fans to revisit the characters they love. And laugh at fart jokes.

Shrek: The Musical runs until July 24th. Production and ticket information can be found here.

Photos by Matt Polk. Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for two complimentary press tickets. Would you like to see more articles and reviews like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!


Damn Yankees

Damn Yankees LogoLet’s make one thing very clear: I will not being doing any stupid baseball puns in this review. Damn Yankees has been around for over fifty years, and I’m sure every possible joke has been made. There will be no “It’s a hit!” or “They really knock it out of the park!” or “It’s a home run!”, and I liked the show. But I’m not writing those jokes. You already know them, I know them, we’re all better than that. Now let’s talk about Pittsburgh CLO’s new production of Damn Yankees.

The story concerns Joe Boyd, an old out-of-shape man that has an obsession with baseball that makes his wife, Meg, feel unwanted. Perhaps their marriage is in a rut or maybe Joe is depressed, but he soon proclaims that he’d sell his soul for the Washington Senators to have a winning season. From below enters Mr. Applegate, a man who promises to take him up on that offer. You see, Mr. Applegate is actually the devil and convinces Joe to bet his soul that he would choose to permanently leave his domesticated life to be a hotshot ball player. Joe agrees, and Applegate transforms him into a younger star athlete who goes by Joe Hardy.

Jeff Howell (left) and John Bolton (right)

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I mean the devil just shows up in a pinstriped suit and offers a man something in exchange for eternal servitude, and Joe thinks about it for all of a minute before agreeing. It sounds like it should be a much darker story, but the whole thing is gone about with the attitude of a cheesy 50’s musical so it’s actually kind of charming. I mean, how dark can a story get with there’s a baseball team doing dance numbers? They’re adorable! Whether it’s Coach Van Buren (Gavan Pamer) telling his players they gotta have “Heart” or the boys trying to keep their minds on “The Game” and not their sexual conquests, the Washington Senators are a sheer delight.

Jessica Crouch and the Washington Senators

John Bolton as Mr. Applegate steals the show, which is something the devil would probably do. His punchlines are a bit dated (it’s the fifties), but he delivers them with such a smarminess and some knowing sarcasm that suggests his Applegate is cooler than the script wants him to be. He can grab a laugh just by entering dramatically through smoke or shooting a knowing glance at the audience. Applegate is aided by the best homewrecker on his staff, Lola (Sarrah Strimel). Ms. Strimel has the charm, voice, and leg length needed to make the devil’s number one girl a character you cheer for, and her seduction of Joe with “Whatever Lola Wants” is a standout.

Sarrah Strimel and John Riddle

The mere mortals get to be a bit less campy, with Sally Wilfert as Meg giving a grounded performance, coping with her husband vanishing after years of maybe not being there much to begin with.  Jeffrey Howell and John Riddle do a great job playing the different ages of Joe; both the old man despondently looking back on his life and the young man reinvigorated with the chance to start over again. Determined reporter Gloria Thorpe (Jessica Crouch) leads the team in the first big dance number of the night, “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.”, which kicks the show into a higher gear. Meg’s baseball-loving friends (Christine Laitta, Jill Keating) bring the laughs while obsessing over baseball players and being picked on by Applegate.

Damn Yankees goes back to a time when baseball was still America’s “national pastime” but still hits the message that love is still the most important thing we can possess. The show says a lot about corruption and evil lurking in the shadows (an election joke gets a predictable big laugh), but at the end of it all, just being able to be around the person you love can be enough to thwart the devil himself. The Pittsburgh CLO has got a talented crew together to make a very fun and very cute show. Go see it. Get yourself some peanuts and crackerjacks (There. I did one).

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets. Damn Yankees continues through Sunday, July 10th. For tickets and more information, click here. Would you like to see more articles and reviews from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!

Damn Yankees

Presented by Pittsburgh CLO

Directed by Charles Repole

Written by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (book), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics)

Designed by Rob Bissinger (Scenery), Alejo Vietti (costumes), Ken Billington (lighting), Christopher Evans (sound), Matt Polk (photos)

Starring John Bolton (Mr. Applegate), Ryan Cavanaugh (Smokey), Jessica Crouch (Gloria Thorpe), Jeffrey Howell (Joe Boyd), Benjamin Howes (Welch), Jill Keating (Doris), Christine Laitta (Sister), Dallas Padoven (Vernon), Paul Palmer (Commissioner), Gavan Pamer (Van Buren), John Riddle (Joe Hardy), Avery Smith (Rocky), Sarrah Strimel (Lola), Sally Wilfert (Meg Boyd), and ensemble: Ben Bogen, Christopher Campbell, Ixchel Cuellar, Lucas Fedele, Jeffrey Gorti, Michael Greer, Justin Lonesome, Carina-Kay Louchiey, Mara Newberry, JJ Niemann, Kate Margalite, Taylor Kellas Warren.