Dreamgirls

dream girlsIf you go to Dreamgirls expecting a biopic musical about The Supremes, you’ll be surprised: The show actually is a fictionalized tale inspired not just by the legendary female trio from the ‘60s, but other Motown-era acts including The Shirelles and James Brown.

Still, the look, feel and sound of The Supremes flavor every bit of Dreamgirls, a Pittsburgh Musical Theater production that is playing at the Byham Theater through March 19. The show’s lead trio of women – played by Delana Flowers (Lorrell), Anastasia Talley (Deena) and Adrianna M. Cleveland (Effie) – wear those legendary, sparkly, pizzazz-filled gowns for which The Supremes were known, built by costume designer Tony Sirk. The characters in this band – called The Dreamettes, then The Dreams, in the show – go through at least a half-dozen costume changes throughout the show.

One of those costumes, a dazzling sequined blue gown, had such a mirror effect that it briefly created the illusion of blue ocean waves on the walls of the Byham. And the woman wearing this gown – Effie, beautifully played by Cleveland, a Pittsburgh native – may be part of an ensemble-like cast, but she indisputably plays the part that needs the most powerful vocals, and she gets the loudest applause at the end. Cleveland’s feisty Effie can hit and hold notes for an awe-inspiring amount of time at several points throughout the play.

The real-life-inspired, but fictionalized Dreamgirls storyline takes the audience through the history and evolution of American R&B music in Detroit. The plot begins with the manipulative Curtis discovering The Dreamettes at a talent show, and claiming the young women and declaring himself their manager. Curtis – played by Monteze Freeland, who trained at Point Park University – arranges for the ladies to sing backup with R&B star Jimmy “Thunder” Early. Of course, a lot of drama ensues, with the women competing for star roles, and having ill-fated love affairs and crushes: Effie falls for Curtis, and Lorrell begins an affair with married man Jimmy.

You won’t hear the songs of The Supremes in Dreamgirls, but the show has its own energetic soundtrack with fun, original music. Memorable songs include the title tune “Dreamgirls” and “One Night Only,” sung by Effie, Deena and Lorrell; and the moving, empowering “I Am Changing” from Effie. The funniest musical moment comes when Jimmy – hilariously portrayed by LaTrea Rembert, a Point Park graduate – sings his song “I Meant You No Harm.” The song begins softly as almost a ballad, then dramatically shifts gears into a zany rap where Rembert declares “Jimmy got soul!”

Although Pittsburgh Musical Theater productions often feature students from the company’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory, the cast of Dreamgirls – almost all African-American – is a cast of professional adults. They give a delightful performance that transports the audience back to another era in pop-culture history and bring a new appreciation to this classic R&B music.

Dreamgirls continues March 17-19 at the Byham Theater. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $9.25 to $54.75. For tickets and more information about Pittsburgh Musical Theater, click here. 

Woody’s Order!

WoodySliderAs it turned out, Ann Talman was, indeed, her brother’s keeper – literally.

Talman – a playwright and actress who grew up in Pittsburgh – has an older brother, Woody, who has severe cerebral palsy.

And in a one-act, one-performer play running through Feb. 19 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse – Woody’s Order!, making its debut here – Talman uses superb acting skills to turn her life story into a nonfiction stage drama.

Talman’s self-penned solo play has the simplest setup: just one performer on a tiny stage, giving multi-character monologues while a screen, set up in a structure that looks like the white border of a vintage Polaroid photo. Then, a wire studded with dozens of Polaroids from Talman’s childhood with Woody winds above the stage.

Yet sometimes the beauty of a show lies in its simplicity, which doesn’t preclude depth; in fact, the simplicity can enhance a story’s poignancy.

Ann Talman 8We see in Talman the passion, the pain, the enthusiasm and the humor of a woman who grew up with a sibling who has a major disability, and when her parents die, Talman becomes his guardian. It might be difficult to follow Talman’s changing characters at first – she plays herself, Woody, and her mother and father in dialogues. But once viewers catch on to the traits of each voice – along with the unique facial expressions, especially the squinty, grinning, “Mm-hmm!” of nonverbal Woody – we can follow Talman’s characters and story.

Talman especially channels her brother, who is still alive in real life. He communicates only with facial expressions and sounds, and nods his head to say “yes” or “no.” As simple as his persona may be, Talman makes it endearing and heartwarming. She obviously adores her brother and feels a fierce sense of loyalty to him, although she feels the inevitable frustration and resentment of someone who wants to live her own life and pursue her own dreams, unencumbered by the responsibility of caring for someone.

Eventually, Talman – who went to Upper St. Clair High School – did leave to live in New York City to pursue her dream of acting, which included time on the Broadway stage. She and her brother have remained close throughout their lives, though, despite physical distance at times. Her Broadway credits include “The Little Foxes,” “The House of Blue Leaves,” “Some Americans Abroad’ and “The Woman.”

Ann Talman 6The story of Talman’s baby-boomer life with Woody begins with Woody’s “order”: asking his parents for a sibling at age 8 by pointing at Mom’s stomach and Dad’s … er, lap. Talman’s parents, and especially her mother, really struggle with caring for Woody. Talman, the dutiful daughter, struggles with the overwhelming responsibility facing her, and concern for her parents. Yet all family members also get great joy from Woody, who is intelligent and quite funny at times.

After wrapping up its run in Pittsburgh, Talman is taking Woody’s Order! to Los Angeles. Hopefully, this wonderful play will make its way around the country. I especially recommend this show for people with family members and friends who have special needs, as the show will be highly relatable and comforting.

John Shepard – an actor, director and close friend of Talman’s – directs Woody’s Order!, which is a production of The REP, a professional theater company, based at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

Woody’s Order! plays Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, through Feb. 19. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 to $29. Details: 412-392-8000 or pittsburghplayhouse.com

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets.

Photos courtesy of John Altdorfer

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

hunchbackPittsburgh Musical Theater’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame brings a powerful mixture of student and professional performers to the Byham Theater, where it continues playing through February 5th.

The show – based on the Victor Hugo novel and animated Disney movie – captures the drama of Paris in the Middle Ages, with its brutality and the cruel, corrupt version of religion often seen in the 16th century. The stage setting recreates the unmistakable architecture of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with curving triangular windows – backed by members of the orchestra playing in a dark background – mimicking the shape of the cathedral’s concrete impressions.IMG_6894

In the opening, the actors and actresses make a surprise appearance from these dark areas; they come out singing their first number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” near the front of the stage. We are introduced to the opposite Parisian communities: the gypsies, seen as immoral, and the high-society religious folks headed by ruthless archdeacon Frollo. The background story is set when Frollo – well played by pro actor Allan Snyder – accepts an orphaned baby. Quickly, that baby turns into grown man Quasimodo – the “Hunchback” who has physical abnormalities and limited verbal skills, having been raised in isolation as a bell ringer for the cathedral under Frollo.

Quasimodo – played powerfully by Quinn Patrick Shannon, who brilliantly channels the bedraggled young man’s social difficulties and soft heart – forms the core of the touching and sad Hunchback tale, which fundamentally is a story about love and sacrifice. Quasimodo – having enjoyed sweet stolen moments on the Notre Dame roof’s “Top of the World” with lady interest Esmerelda – knows he likely will lose his love to the handsome Phoebus, played by New York actor Javier Manente. But Quasimodo still risks his life to rescue Esmerelda – played by Emily Lynne Miller, a pro with a beautiful voice – from the murderous wrath of Frollo.IMG_6948

Often, Pittsburgh Musical Theater shows uses their students in their casts, with mostly teenagers, as was such in their fall production of Jekyll & Hyde. But the many professionals in this cast bring an extra punch of quality and depth to the show; plus, it would have been difficult to portray characters of such a large age range, especially Frollo, with a cast of youths.

And the young cast members played strong supporting roles, lending their voices to group numbers, singing in robes from a choir loft, and often portraying the Notre Dame gargoyles that speak to Quasimodo and advise him on what to do.

The music throughout the show ranges from lively, sweet and lighthearted to intense. Shannon’s Quasimodo especially gets credit for singing with such passion and intensity, about the character’s anguish and desire to fit in with society.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs at the Byham Theatre through February 5th. For tickets and more information, click here.  

Photos courtesy of Julie Kahlbaugh.

Midnight Radio Holiday Spectaular

livingdead (site banner)Pittsburghese and yuletide cheer converge in the Midnight Radio Holiday Spectacular at Bricolage Production Company’s space downtown.

No, this is not the live version of a local radio show that airs at midnight. Midnight Radio – a program of Bricolage – is a popular live theater variety show that has run for eight seasons. Structured like a 1940s radio broadcast with commercial parodies and music, the performers do zany skits before the audience. And in the Holiday Spectacular, the five performers stand before podiums that are dressed up as wrapped Christmas gifts, with other wrapped gifts on the floor, poinsettias and faux decorated trees to enhance the yuletide atmosphere.
The show begins with a takeoff on “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the Tim Burton classic. Brett Goodnack does an amusing and spookily spot-on imitation of the Jack Skellington character, called Josh Skellebenz in this program. Goodnack sounds like Danny Elfman, the voice that sings the Jack songs in the movie, when he sings “What’s This?” and “Making Christmas.” This number included many comical twists on the Nightmare show, like a ghost cat named One instead of the movie’s ghost dog name Zero.
Other skits in the 90-minute show, which doesn’t have an intermission, include a parody of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” song, substituting lyrics about black ice and the winter hazards it can cause in Pittsburgh.
You will see many Pittsburgh touches in the show, like references to the former Horne’s department store – which has a tree that wraps around a Downtown building during Christmastime to this day – and a “Miracle on Stanwix Street” interlude. A takeoff on the Christmas movie “Home Alone” places the story in the context of a dysfunctional family – namely performers Julianne Avolio and Amy Landis – in Homestead, with heavy Pittsburgh accents.
Another funny touch in the show is the twisted Christmas carols, with songs like a parody on “O Holy Night” which swaps in “O hear the collectors’ voices” for “O hear the angels’ voices.” This song is a play on the overspending we all tend to do around the holidays. Then, we hear holiday-themed Mad Libs, with the zaniness that results from plugging a random word into an unknown sentence.
Throughout the show, performer Jason McCune entertains the audience with a Frosty the Snowman impersonation. Wali Jamal plays the role of the alleged fourth wise man in the Jesus story, with an amusing local twist. Meanwhile, the audience gets the feel of being in an actual radio studio, with light-up signs that indicate when you are on the air and when to applause.
Punctuating the acts are short acoustic performances by local musicians that vary show to show.
Midnight Radio Holiday Spectacular, designed for ages 8 and older, runs through December 17th and ticket information can be found here.

To Kill a Mockingbird

mockingbirdPrime Stage Theatre has kicked off its 20th-anniversary season with a not-to-miss production of the beloved literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird, which continues to play for two weekends at the New Hazlett Theater in the North Side.
One of the best parts of this two-act show, which runs two hours plus an intermission, comes with the double-casting of the Scout character. One actress – Samantha A. Camp, who recently returned to Pittsburgh after 11 years in the Tacoma, Washington area – plays the adult, who goes by the proper name of Jean Louise Finch. The adult Scout serves as a reminiscing narrator whom the other characters don’t see. With a good Southern accent reflecting the story’s 1935 Maycomb, Alabama setting, she talks to the audience as she looks back on this dramatic time in her life, and sometimes – like during the trial of Tom Robinson – she sits quietly and watches for long stretches of time.
The tomboyish child Scout – played very well by double-braided, overalls-clad sixth-grader Grace Vensel – captures and brings to the stage the spunk of the literary character. During the opening and closing scenes, the adult and child Scouts face each other across the Finch’s front porch and hum a sweet tune.
Author Harper Lee’s bestseller – adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, and directed for Prime Stage by Scott P. Calhoon – comes to life on stage in this condensed version and captures the feel and theme of the novel. The theater did a good job of creating a stage scene with little room, portraying three house fronts in a Maycomb neighborhood, with an American flag hung off the Finch’s porch, and a spooky look at the Radley house. Strings hung from the ceiling over a mock tree, depicting the Spanish moss trees common in the South. A tire swing hung near the Finch porch. Then, in the second act, the central stage scenery changed to depict a courtroom with a witness chair and lawyer tables.
Actor Brian Ceponis – a former professional volleyball player who has acted in TV shows including “NCIS” – gives a solid performance as the gentle, patient, smart and moral Atticus Finch, who sets an example for his children and the townspeople. Brian Starks gives a moving performance as Tom Robinson, the man falsely accused of sexual assault by a white woman.
The To Kill a Mockingbird story contains a timeless lesson that is just as relevant today: Don’t judge and hurt people who have done nothing to hurt anyone else. The mockingbirds in this story are the African-American Tom Robinson, who tragically is convicted of a rape he clearly didn’t do because of his skin color; and Arthur “Boo” Radley, the mysterious neighbor thought to be a monster. But as it turns out, the hermit Boo is just a socially awkward but harmless character who saves the lives of Scout and Jem when they are attacked at the end. If we look around us, it wouldn’t be difficult to find metaphorical mockingbirds in our world.
To Kill a Mockingbird continues through Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Special thanks to Prime  Stage for complimentary press tickets. Tickets are $25 to $30 for adults, $20 to $25 for age 63 and older, and $12 to $17 for kids under 18. Details: 724-773-0700 or primestage.com

Jekyll & Hyde

2016Mast-JandH

People know when attending a Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory Company (RERC) show that the production features all youths, rather than a Broadway cast of professional actors.

But if audience members didn’t know that going in to Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, which played Oct. 20 to 23 at the Byham Theater, chances are, they might not have noticed. Except for the young age of the mostly teenage cast, the production seemed very professional and not amateurish as one might expect with a student production. The only time the age factor showed was when characters portrayed a father and daughter, yet looked to be the same young age.

The two-act play – based on the Victorian-era book, “Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by author Robert Louis Stevenson –  brought to life the London-set creepy story with perfect timing for Halloween, punctuated by lively and often intense music. It takes a special acting talent for the same person to portray such a split personality – the polite and nice scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the evil and violent alter ego known as Mr. Hyde. Talented teen actor Nick Cortazzo fulfills this challenge with passion and finesse, along with a powerful singing voice. He wears a ponytail when in Jekyll mode, and lets down his hair when switching to Hyde mode. The intensity of the Hyde character brought a spine-tingling element to the story, in which characters spoke in decent British accents.

Complementing Cortazzo was Elena Doyno as Jekyll’s fiance, Emma Carew. She and her partner awed the audience during the tragic climax at the end of the play, when Jekyll turns into Hyde during their wedding and falls dead, with Emma crying over his body.

The stage scenery was simple but fitting and evolving, with a beaker-filled mad scientist’s lab, flanked by two staircases, serving as a frequent centerpiece. This is where Jekyll conducted his ultimately ill-advised experiment seeking to prove that in every man dwells both a good and evil force. The Jekyll and Hyde story is perhaps the most poignant example in literary history about the dangers of flirting too much with evil.

These few dozen students in the cast – including Sabina May, who does a fine job playing the supporting prostitute character Lucy Harris – are theater students at Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory in the West End. They all show great talent and potential.

We would be remiss not to mention the unseen members of the cast: the musicians in the orchestra pit come from Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, the city school district’s arts-magnet school. A total of 133 students, according to the program, participated in Jekyll & Hyde.

This show, which kicks off PMT’s four-show 2016-2017 season, should give PMT a good celebration for its 25th anniversary this year. The next shows playing at the Byham are: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (Jan. 26-Feb. 5); Dreamgirls (March 9-19); and Tarzan (May 4-14.)

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Musical Theater for complimentary press tickets. For more information about PMT’s upcoming season, click here.