Annie

annie300x300I had high expectations for Stage 62’s production of Annie. Sitting in the audience at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, I listened dreamily as the orchestra introduced the show with a lively preface to one of the best known children’s Broadway musical score.  As the rich red curtains open to reveal the stage crowded with bunk beds and little girls quickly scrambling into place I am quickly swept into the story.  Annie is heartwarming.  A tale of a girls orphanage in New York City during the  1930’s overseen by an abusive and drunk Miss Hannigan. Annie, a precocious orphan with boundless hope that she will soon be reunited with her parents.  The story unfolds when she is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Warbucks as an act of goodwill for the holidays.  Warbucks quickly warms up to Annie, touched by the story of her abandonment, and agrees to help locate her biological parents.  

Nora Hoyle, Lola Armfeild
Nora Hoyle, Lola Armfeild

The show boasts a sizable cast.   Actors range in age from very young children, portraying underprivileged yet adorable orphans to others whose faces and voices are custom to Stage 62.  Each are boundless with talent.  Nora Hoyle, in the starring role, has a strong voice and maintains the spunk of her character, an innocent and neglected but optimistic orphan, throughout the show.  The orphan ensemble is tireless and animated.  Together this group of young performers, exude charisma.  They especially dazzle during the energetic “It’s the Hard Knock Life” song and dance scene.  Tom Strauman, as Oliver Warbucks has the looks to easily come across as the big named billionaire.  I didn’t feel he clearly revealed the cold and callous side to Warbucks but his mannerisms easily align with a distinguished and wealthy man and his performance during, “Something Was Missing” is incredibly sweet and touching.   It is really Stage 62’s ubiquitous Becki Toth as the heartless Miss Hannigan who steals the show.  She is nothing short of a powerhouse performer.  The pitches of her voice illuminate into the audience and her imitation of sloppy drunkenness delivers a show stopping performance.  She immediately wins the audience’s applause during her rendition of “Little Girls” and portrays her role with pizzazz.

 Candice Fisher, Seth Laidlaw, Becki Toth
Candice Fisher, Seth Laidlaw, Becki Toth

I am particularly pleased by Annie’s set design.  Designed by Andy Folmer, the exhibition of many different places; a dreary orphanage, Miss Hannigans disheveled office, the slums of Hooverville, to name a few, are enchanting.  One of my favorite scenes, the opening of Act 2, The NBC Radio Studio, hosted by Bert Healey, played by Jeff Way and staring the Boylan Sisters, Amy DeHaven, Kaitlin Schreiner and Katie Turpiano, depict the timeframe of the story with sweet sentiment. Folmers highly detailed sets and a smart selection of props offer opportunity for the cast to create an added level to their character.  The comedic moments laced into the fabric of the plot and a glimpse into the lost art of radio media, is a highlight of the show.   

The actors who hold supporting roles, Ashley Harmon as Grace Ferrell, Carmen LoPresti as Drake, Heather Friedman cast as Mrs. Pugh, Nina Napoleone portraying Cecille and Amy LaSota as Mrs. Greer alongside the ensemble wow the audience in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”.  Another stunning performance, “Easy Street”, which features the unmistakable talent of Seth Laidlaw as Rooster and Candice Fisher cast as Lily St. Regis.  Alongside, Toth, this trio complete a fantastic musical number.  The reprise of “Tomorrow”, sung by Annie, Warbucks, President Roosevelt, played by Chris Martin, and cabinet members is another high point in the show.  This scene highlights director Rob James’ focus on creative visuals that propel the audience to become emotionally invested in the characters.

Nora Hoyle, Jeff Johnston
Nora Hoyle, Jeff Johnston

I do have mixed feelings about the use of a puppet to portray Sandy the dog, a stray Annie finds while wandering the slums of NY.  In many instances theater companies hire or train a live animal but Stage 62 chose to use a life sized Marionette whose movements are orchestrated by a puppeteer.  Initially I thought this was clever.  There is an instant bond between Annie and Sandy that is irresistible, yet as the scene progressed I began to feel there was something bizarre about the whole thing.  Perhaps it was the way the puppeteer placed the dogs two front paws on Annie’s shoulders and continually maneuvered it to lick her face and neck.  It quickly lost all allure for me and left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable.  Fortunately, the role of Sandy was used primarily in just one scene and I was relieved to not have to witness too much interaction between Hoyle and the concocted canine .  

Growing up in the 80’s with red hair and freckles Annie was my childhood hero. A neighborhood friend owned the movie soundtrack and we listened to it on her suitcase record player while dressing Barbie Dolls. I loved the record so much I received my own for Christmas, only the one I got was the original Broadway recording.  At first listen I turned my nose up to it, the voices were not the same, the music was different, including songs I didn’t recognize from the film, but after a few plays I fell in love, especially to the overture. Soon I was tap dancing through the house to It’s the Hard Knock Life and You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.  Annie was probably the show responsible for my lifelong love affair with musicals.  What this all means is I expected a powerful performance. Once again, Stage 62 presents a caliber of talent on and off stage, and the ability to make their art truly come alive for the audience.  Annie is delightful and will certainly entertain an audience of all ages.

Annie runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall through November 19. For tickets and more information click here. 

Photos by Friedman Wagner-Dobler.

The Matchmaker

22221720_10155166726051859_7469565685554816557_nCarnegie Mellon University (CMU) School of Drama 2017- 2018 Season opens with Thornton Wilder’s classic comedy The Matchmaker.  One of  America’s favorite farces, The Matchmaker experienced many adaptations before becoming a success on Broadway and eventually taking credit for the wildly popular mid- century musical, Hello Dolly!  

Set in 1880’s Yonkers, NY, The Matchmaker is the story of Dolly Levi, a marriage- broker and friend to Horace Vandergelder’s late wife. Vandergelder, a wealthy shop owner has arranged for his niece, Ermengarde, to relocate to the city in hope of separating her from Ambrose Kemper, an artist she has fallen in love with.  As final preparations are made to get Ermengarde on a train, Vandergelder receives a visit from Dolly, whose services he has secured for himself.  Dolly overhears Ermengarde and Ambrose discussing their dilemma and secretly agrees to help them.  Vandergelder reveals to Dolly his plans to propose to New York widow, Mrs. Irene Malloy.  Dolly interjects, telling Vangergelder she has found him the perfect wife, in an attempt to delay his marriage proposal. Meanwhile, Vandergelder’s employees, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, upon learning their boss is leaving them in charge of the store, decide to have an adventure in New York City.  From start to finish, ridiculousness ensues as the gregarious, outspoken and nosy Dolly meanders her way into the life of every character, attempting to help all find love and prosperity, including herself.  

The performance is a splendid orchestration of absurdity. Each character under Dolly’s spell, falling prey to her matchmaking antics and easily swept up by her zany schemes. The Matchmaker, in typical farcical fashion, is fast paced, physical comedy which highlights Anthony McKay’s direction especially during the cafe scenes which is finely tuned chaos.  

Chantelle Guido, cast as Dolly Levi, is charming. Guido flawlessly delivers her lines but it is her cherubic face rendering a sly and manipulative personality, that really sets her apart; her smirks and sideways glances speak almost as much as the delivery of her dialogue.   William Brosnahan, cast as Horace Vandergelder, has a strong and confident command of his voice.  Despite makeup, and wardrobe, at the beginning of the performance I struggled to see past his apparent young age.  By the time he finished masterfully executing Vandergelder’s monologue in Act 1, I felt completely different.  Kevin William Paul and Scott Kennedy, playing the parts of Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, have some of the best energy on the stage.  Both are cast to play the naive and innocent type. Paul as Cornelius, the older of the 2 shop clerks, and initiator of mischief and adventure is daringly handsome and engaging.  Tucker as Barnaby is Cornelius’ side kick who portrays a cute and innocent boy with perfection. Together Paul and Tucker create a memorable team.    

The whole cast is polished and professional, as well as the scenery and lighting.  I didn’t expect anything less knowing the caliber of the artists the university graduates.  I love the way the cast engaged with the audience, taking as many cues from the applause as the audience took from the dramatic irony and comedic timing.  This level of engagement was not something I was expecting and it was surprising. The Matchmaker is a strong opening production by gifted students, just one step away from stardom.  

The Matchmaker runs at CMU’s Philip Chosky Theater through October 14. For tickets and more information, click here. 

PNWF 2017: Program B

PNWF LOGOThe 27th annual Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) Program B offers is a mixed bag of theatrics.  On stage, three world premiere one act plays, produced by local theater troupes.  I reviewed the line up beforehand on PNWF’s website and just knew my dramatic pallet would be well attended to.  

Program B features The Heritage Players, longtime PNWF contributors, the artists collaborative, Cup-A-Jo Productions, and The Duquesne University Red Masquers, the oldest amateur theater company in Pittsburgh.  Each company, with their own unique cast, offers a dramatic illustration of the playwright’s characters, a time and place showcased in their new works; gently breathing life into the story.  

exitFirst up for review, Exit Strategy by Fairbanks, Alaska playwright Tom Moran, is produced and directed by Jay Breckenridge and Nicole Zalek of Pittsburgh’s South Hills troupe The Heritage Players. Love dating?  Hate dating?  Either Way, Exit Strategy offers insight on improving your date worthiness, navigating the desires and intents of the opposite sex and being true to yourself.  This one act consists of a simple set; a high top bar table and a couple of glasses.  Lead character Sean, played by Connor McNelis, experiences a series of dates, each one propelling him to tweak his ‘style’.  His dates played by Nicole Zeak, Elena Falgione and Renee Rabenold help McNelis deliver Moran’s dialogue, which is ordinary and familiar, often fast paced and 100% natural.  Sean’s evolution of self- awareness is comedic, mainly because it’s an honest representation.  The dialogue keeps the audience engaged and Sean’s attempts to improve his dating skills are anything but cliche. The end offers a pleasant surprise, sometimes a happy ending is the icing on the cake.

finalThe second play, All Sales Final, by New York City playwright John Yarbrough, is presented by Cup-A-Jo Productions and performed by a seasoned cast of actors.  The play takes a subject typically considered delicate, sacred and often sensitive and introduces financial exploitation and the callousness of greed through the absurdity of a ponzi scheme and characters with questionable personal boundaries. The comic relief flourishes from actors Mark Yochum, as Mr. Festerberger and Megan May cast as Mrs. Wilkinson.   All Sales Final has a lot of ‘one liners’ that seemed to challenge the cast into keeping a straight face.  I enjoyed seeing the actors reactions to each other as much as I enjoyed watching them perform.  Director, Nick Mitchell’s stage direction requires the cast utilize the whole stage and is high energized, both appropriate and appreciated.  Produced by Joanna Lowe for Cup- A- Jo Productions, together Mitchell and Lowe present a cast who brings Yarbrough’s one act melodrama, a rendition of a price tag on life to the stage with passion.  

sparrowsProgram B’s  final performance, The Sparrows, written by Pennsylvanian playwright Evan W. Saunders and presented by The Duquesne University Red Masquers.  An introspective plot offering a brief examination into the memory of Will, played by Ian Brady.  Will struggles to accept a memory or the way the event actually occurred. The memory includes Holly, played by Angela Trovato, and he relives a moment in time, playing out many different angles and possible outcomes.  Holly sometimes shows compassion, other times frustration and boredom all while Will remains reticent. This one act is an interesting perspective and constructs a somewhat surreal reflection on life.  The dialogue is repetitive but with each imagined scenario the actors deliver in a different manner. I really enjoyed The Sparrows being placed at the end of the series.   I enjoyed the sentimentality Saunders created with a visit down memory lane.  

Remaining true to their mission and style, Carnegie Stage, once again hosts the month long PNWF.  Always a hospitable staff, beverages, ample parking, accessible location to tri county roadways and ample restaurants and bars within a few short blocks from the theater and innovative and unique theater experience with every visit.  PNWF is a great opportunity for the theatrically adventurous audience, writers, and performers to explore Pittsburgh’s theater community.

For tickets and more information about the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, click hereStay tuned for more coverage of the festival coming soon!

Spamalot

spamalotI love musicals for the interlude of melodrama and escape they provide from my tragically mundane life. The singing and dancing, costumes, and live orchestra swelling between me and the stage make my heart happy. Opening night of Stage 62’s production of Monty Python’s Spamalot has me beyond excited. This is my first time seeing Spamalot but I am familiar with the zany British sketch comedy of Monty Python and the absurdist humor that forces you to laugh, even if you aren’t sure what you are seeing and hearing is stupid beyond measure or ridiculously hilarious. As I wait for the curtain to rise, I can’t imagine disappointment.

Rob James and Carl Hunt
Rob James and Carl Hunt

Spamalot is a parody of the 1975 film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Theatergoers who have never seen the film will not be left in the dark. The musical, ‘lovingly ripped off from the motion picture’, maintains much of the plot of the film, (or what there is of a plot amongst the craziness of smutty French soliders, a killer rabbit, knights who say “Ni” and the impossible task of locating Jews for a Broadway musical). Spamalot takes place in 932 A.D. England, when King Arthur, played by renowned Rob James and the animated Carl Hunt cast as his servant Patsy, traverse the country in search of recruits for the Round Table at Camelot. King Arthur’s first 2 volunteers, Matthew Rush as Robin and Jeremy Spoljarick playing Lancelot are soon followed by a political radical, Sir Galahad played by Chad Elder and Nick Mitchell as Sir Bedevere. After some convincing by, leading lady, Stephanie Ottey as The Lady of the Lake and her Laker Girls the troupe arrive in Camelot. Once there they are contacted by God, the voice of Marcus Stevens, fresh from the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s prominent performance An Act of God, who instructs the knights to locate the Holy Grail. The men receive more encouragement from The Lady of the Lake and set off traveling the land, visiting a French castle, a dark and “very expensive” forest, and a frightfully comic run in with The Black Knight.

L-R Nick Mitchell, Matthew J. Rush, Rob James, Jeremy Spoljarick, Carl Hunt, Chad Elder
L-R Nick Mitchell, Matthew J. Rush, Rob James, Jeremy Spoljarick, Carl Hunt, Chad Elder

The Knights of the Round Table are next tasked with finding Jews for a Broadway musical then Lancelot runs off to rescue a damsel in distress and The Lady in the Lake is ticked off for not getting enough stage time. All of these experiences are expounded through madcap musical numbers, some ripping off other well known musicals. Songs such as “I Am Not Dead Yet”, “The Song That Goes Like This”, “Knights of the Round Table”, “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway”, “Whatever Happened to My Part?” and “His Name is Lancelot” will without a doubt cause laughter. There is so much more hair- brained chaos I would hate to spoil the show by revealing too much, but I assure you, with the help of the audience, the Holy Grail is found and a Broadway-esque musical is successfully performed, nonsensical perhaps but loads of fun.

Stephanie Ottey
Stephanie Ottey

Typical of Stage 62 productions, Spamalot’s cast is bursting with talent. Aside from James and Ottey, each lead is cast in multiple roles, which requires many costume changes and sometimes different accents and it all appears effortless. The cast includes many accomplished thespians, but it is without a doubt James and Ottey who steal the show. Their strong voices and mastered characterization are delightful to watch. Ottey’s diva flourish and Jame’s execution as King, provide moments of side stitching hilarity. The ensemble is a tight bunch, especially The Laker Girls. After seeing several musicals at Stage 62 I am confident in reporting the choreography for Spamalot is by far the best I have ever seen. Hats off to choreographer Devyn Brown for creating routines that are energized and engaging, especially, ”Fisch Schlapping Song”, “I Am Not Dead Yet”, “Knights of the Round Table” and “His Name Is Lancelot”. Becki Toth’s skilled stage direction allows the cast to emanate ease in movements and smooth scene changes on a small stage, all of which translate into a show well done.

I will offer you with a trigger warning: if easily offended by the offensive, if you are uncomfortable with bawdy jokes, parodies, preposterous plots, ‘little boy’ type humor often revolving around flatulence, then perhaps you might lighten up just a bit. This is a summer show you don’t want to miss. Spamalot does not make much sense but that doesn’t matter. The show is for grins, starring a tremendously talented cast and crew who clearly aim for having as much fun on stage as the audience does watching them.

If planning to attend a performance of Spamalot be aware that the venue has a major construction project happening right now and there is no parking on their property. Neighborhood side streets may offer a few spaces. The theater company has a shuttle service that will transport you from the parking lot on Main Street in downtown Carnegie, up the hill to the entrance of their building.

Spamalot runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall through July 30. For tickets and more information click here

Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Friedman Wagner-Dobler.

4.48 Psychosis

17523703_1389815077723503_6902056036399418031_n4.48 Psychosis opened 4.21.17 at Carnegie Stage.  The black box theater is the perfect space to host an experience which invites the audience inside the mind of someone mentally ill.  The play is a dramatized confession oozing sadness, confusion, anger, lust, fear and desperation, presented as a stream of consciousness narrative. Director Robyne Parrish quickly absorbs the audience into a position of bystander by amalgamating the private and personal pain of emotional illness with the public’s reproach to victims through an intricate portrayal of agony.  With a cast of 3, each playing one dynamic part of a scarred psyche, none of whom are named, lead many people to assume 4.48 Psychosis is a first hand account of playwright Sarah Kane’s plummet toward suicide. This show is not for someone who could easily be triggered by a theatrical execution of mental illness, or representation and discussion of symptoms such as self- harm and suicide. Written by British playwright Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis is often interpreted as an actual account of her intimate relationship with her own mental illness.

Off The Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage presents "4.48 Psychosis" by Sarah Kane; directed by Robyn Parrish; choreographed by Moriah Ella Mason; starring Siovhan Christensen, Erika Cuenca, and Tammy Tsai. Running April 21-30, 2017. For more information, go to www.insideoffthewall.com

off the WALL Productions have cast Erika Cuenca as the lead/ego, and supporting actors, Tammy Tsai as the superego and Siovhan Christensen as the id.  Cuenca recites the raw and unapologetic dialogue with sincere professionalism.  At times I found her stage presence conflicting with her character;  she wasn’t accurately disheveled, and consistently delivered her lines with confidence.  None of these traits spoiled the role but produced moments when I wondered how comfortable she is imitating someone with a severe emotional disease.  Regardless, the majority of her performance steadily portrays a horrified and frightened victim of derangement.  

Tsai, remains stoic through her sobering representation as superego and doctor. Charged with guiding the ego toward healing, teetering between the superego and a sound and grounded medical professional Tsai delivers the disarrayed and disturbed mind most accurately.  As doctor, she asks her patient, “Have you made any plans?”  The ego responds, “Take an overdose, slash my wrists then hang myself.”  Tsai matter factly states, “That won’t work”,  seamlessly blending her role as superego and psychiatrist both cold and isolating.   448-206

Each character is dressed simply in white and this costume design suits Christensen, the id, most appropriately.  She is simply just there; aloof, mercilessly depicting the need for desire, love, and lust.  Like the audience, the id is merely along for the ride through an unhinged mind. She does not flinch when ego screams, “Fuck you for rejecting me by never being there.  Fuck you for making me feel like shit about myself”.  Christensen’s id unintentionally taunts ego with a natural femininity and moves like a dancer. 

4.48 Psychosis is an exhibition of art. The exchange of dialogue between the psyche is intentionally desperate and charged with self-doubt and self-loathing. It is the cold and calculated approach to treatment, specifically pharmacology that instigates anxiety in me, as a witness and audience member.  After admittance into a hospital, and yielding to medication, Cuenca, Tsai and Christensen adapt their roles to include uncontrollable physical restlessness, pacing, twitching, shaking, anxiety, panic, and paranoia.  This is hard to watch.  I was compelled to glance away; to momentarily divert my senses, stealing a minute to process what I was seeing and hearing. It may be cliche to say this production of 4.48 Psychosis is ‘edgy’, but it is.  It is moving and troubling and thought provoking.  In the typical manner of off the WALL Productions, 4.48 Psychosis challenges my way of thinking and exposes me to ideas I would not necessarily choose to explore.  This is a theatrical embodiment of madness and an attempt to drive awareness.  The play is sad and disturbing.  It will make you uncomfortable.  It will challenge your perceptions and force you to reevaluate your ideas of mental illness and treatment.  I purposely left out a  synopsis of the play because it is Kane’s poetically scripted chain of experiences, voiced through the talented and driven cast, that will entice theater goes to Carnegie Stage to be a witness to Kane’s final outreach through art.  

4.48 Psychosis runs at Carnegie Stage through April 30th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Special thanks to off the WALL Productions for complimentary press tickets.

Photos courtesy of off the WALL’s website here. 

Friday Fringe at AIR!

17636851_781096878709340_3255313992491545639_oThe evening began with the ridiculous but thoroughly entertaining one man show Laundry Night by Captain Ambivalent.  Captain Ambivalent sings with the accompaniment of a gold accordion,  telling the story of an ordinary super hero.  The one man show reflects on the struggles of being a regular guy in Chicago, through lyrics reminiscent of They Might Be Giants or King Missile.  Sharing experiences of heartbreak, boredom and public transit as well as his rise to local fame, and a brief stint on America’s Got Talent. His costumes and props, including a 15’ purple inflatable dinosaur(not Barney) compliment the silliness of his lyrics.  The show is amusing and certainly a production all ages will enjoy.  Of course in Pittsburgh, everyone loves the the accordion.  All music performed is original, except for the famed 1989 hit by Technotronic, Pump Up the Jam, which is beyond hilarious played on an accordion.  

Next up, is Melissa Cole’s Mo-to-the-Oncle.  The story begins when Detroit img-2737Price loses his vision insurance, just at the time his teenage son, Detroit Price Jr. is in need of new glasses.  When Price reveals to the eyewear associate he has no vision coverage for his son, Detroit Jr is provided with a monocle in place of eyeglasses. The teen is horrified at the abuse he anticipates upon returning to school with a monocle. He goes to school only to have his greatest fear come true.  Another student threatens to jump Detroit Jr, so he elicits the help if his uncle, a pimp.  

Through detailed costume changes, voice reflection and finely tuned body language Cole expertly presents each character; father, optical sale associate, teenager, pimp and doctor.  The program lists Mo-to-the-Oncle as a comedy.  Detroit Jr’s rhyme is clever, the colorful characters depicted by writer/ performer Cole are well developed, the dialogue is sharp but in today’s political climate, to clarify this is a dark comedy.

Proxemics, a wearable art performance by local Pittsburgh fabric sculpturer hannah-thompson_origHannah Thompson is performed on the 3rd floor at AIR, in the gallery exhibiting Visual Fringe 2017 artists. By definition,  Proxemics is the study of humans use of space and the effects of population on behavior, communication and the ways in which humans interact with one another. I was intrigued by the synopsis in the program, I enjoy how performance art challenges my perceptions. Unfortunately, this performance was tarnished for me before it even began.  The artist arrived late, experienced technical difficulties with her music and as she prepared her props, she casually engaged other audience members in conversation about her political positions. When launched, the performance consisted of Thompson climbing into several elaborate cocoon-like stretchy ‘Snuggie’s’. Then she rolled around on the floor, extending her arms and legs or stood and stretched inside the long tubes of fabric.  Maybe she was practicing yoga or some form of free movement dance.  No one else in the audience seemed bothered.  Others mingled around after the 20-minute show engaging the artist in conversation and asking questions.  Performance art? Definitely, but definitely not my thing.

The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within is written valerie-david-the-pink-hulk-richard-booper-photography-pressand performed by Valerie David, 2 time cancer survivor and improv artist.  Part anecdotal comedy and 100% personal narrative, solo artist David shares her terror,  frustration, depression and anger after learning she is diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks after celebrating her fifteenth anniversary of being cancer free from Lymphoma.  David bares her soul and owns the stage as she reveals the darkest time of her life; a direct attack on her womanhood; breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.  She holds back nothing, is brutally honest and frank. This is uncomfortable and frightening but David’s skill for storytelling puts me on the edge of my seat, almost immediately feeling an alliance with her.   She uses minimal props and I am tempted to say, they could actually be eliminated altogether as her narrative and stage presence are engaging enough.  

pittsburgh-image-2The Portable Dorothy Parker written by Annie Lux is a flashback in time.  The year is 1944, New York.  Writer Dorothy Parker is visited by a young editor for Viking Press, tasked to help edit the soon to be released The Portable Dorothy Parker.  Parker reflects on her time working for Vanity Fair, her friends and enemies, and the places she visited and shares these experiences and stories.   Actor Margot Avery portrays Parker over the course of the eighty minute solo performance.   Avery delivers Parkers witticisms and a straightforward rendition of her life and career with brilliant ease.  Avery reincarnates Parker on stage, and Lux channels her intellectual poise and intelligent cynicism through the script. The show, directed by Lee Costello is smart and moves fast despite being nearly an hour and a half of monologue.  

Avery’s ability to capture and exhibit Parker through delivery of dialogue, body language and slight movement are further captured through the use of period dress.   If you are a Dorothy Parker connoisseur, do not skip this performance.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

A Musical Christmas Carol

Hero_50495Holiday spirit abounds at the Byham Theater! Pittsburghers greet the season with a classical tale starring a cast of captivating characters and tremendous singing. A Musical Christmas Carol is a gateway to all things Christmas. The CLO kicked off their 25th anniversary inaugural performance to a packed house on Friday December 9. Enticing a second generation of guests, the musical rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol welcomes repeat patrons and many performers who return to the stage, reviving their roles for a second, third or sixth season. The CLO honors a quarter century of performances by unveiling a handsome new set and innovative special effects that will not disappoint. All the while maintaining the charm and inspiration of characters Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come and the wise, young Tiny Tim.DSC_4500-RETOUCH

Together, Patrick Page as Ebenezer Scrooge and Jeffrey Howell cast as the gentle and hardworking Bob Cratchit, are a forceful presence, depicting both the ‘ba humbug’ attitude and the poor but contented father, with energy and conviction. Tim Hartman portrays a gregarious Mr. Fezziwig and a surprisingly frightening Ghost of Christmas Present. Terry Wickline cast as both Mrs. Dilber and the zealous Mrs. Fezziwig and Daniel Krell as the commanding Ghost of Marley help draw the audience deeper into the story. The artistic energy between Hartman and Wickline, as Mr. and Mrs. Fizziwig is perfectly timed. Their playful banter evokes warm returns of laughter from the audience. The children own their roles with polish and professionalism, especially Marco Attilio Petrucci, making his theatrical debut as Tiny Tim, the youngest Cratchit child who ultimately influences Scrooge’s change of heart.

Performance highlights include Krell, as the ghost of Jacob Marley, emerging from the floor, an aura of smoke clouding the stage. His booming voice calls out “Scrooge!” and nearly stuns the audience. It is an ominous scene that enthralled me. As the show progressed with each specter’s appearance, I was taken aback by how down right creepy the spirits are; nothing like the angelic image I anticipated from a Christmas themed story. The contrast between the hauntings, enhanced with dim lightning and lots of smoke, against the colorful and jubilant costumes of the Carolers was mesmerizing. So, what would be A Musical Christmas Carol without Carolers? The enchanting ensemble files through the theater and onto the stage dressed in authentic attire; men sporting top hats and suits and women in full skirts and capes. Their resounding voices are a glistening accoutrement next to the dark hauntings and despicable demeanor of Scrooge.

DSC_4226-RETOUCH
Patrick Page (left) and Daniel Krell (right)

Since this was my first time attending A Musical Christmas Carol I have nothing to compare from previous years but in regard to the set, I found the design of Scrooge’s residence magnificent. His over-sized and stately bed and the neatly arranged parlor chairs represent his abundances in true Victorian fashion compared to the drab and sparsely decorated home of the Cratchit family. I also particularly enjoyed the London street vendors who further added color and life to the mise-en-scene.

Never mind what you already know of the plot of A Christmas Carol. This show is A Musical Christmas Carol and includes many glorious musical selections delivered alongside an all- star cast. Dickens messages of charity, humility, forgiveness and family resonate throughout making this a perfect holiday event no matter your age or creed.

A Musical Christmsa Carol runs at the Byham Theater through December 23rd. For tickets and more information click here. 

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

The Music Man

the music manStage 62‘s The Music Man presents a caliber of talent that surpasses the status quo of community theater. This rhythmic masterpiece, made up of sweet melodies, a lively story and charming characters is a slice of American pie. The production boasts a wide range of music styles, dance ensembles, comedic moments and romance. This is a performance the whole family can enjoy. There are opportunities for performers of all ages to shine and Stage 62‘s rendition rises to this challenge.

The performance begins with the orchestra playing the overture. The sound swells the theater, traditionally designed for concerts, permitting the acoustics to resonate. Having never seen The Music Man before I enjoyed the prelude of familiar tunes realizing just how many songs I recognized. The story unfolds quickly, partly due to the tempo of the first 3 musical numbers, Rock Island, Iowa Stubborn and (Ya Got) Trouble, and the superior delivery of dialogue by con man ‘Professor’ Harold Hill (Andy Folmer) the fast- talking traveling salesman. Hill’s scam; convince parents their sons will keep out of trouble by joining in a band. Hill sells instruments, uniforms and music materials, promises to offer instruction and direction to the boys, then once the supplies are delivered and payment collected, he’ll skip town before anyone catches on. Arriving in River City, Iowa Hill learns the townsfolk are not very friendly. He determines the best way to earn the confidence of parents is to gain the assurance of the local music teacher/ librarian, Marian Paroo (Becca Chenette). She too is cold and stand-offish but luckily, for Hill, Marcellus Washburn (Chris  Martin) a former ‘associate’ turned straight, is living in River City. Washburn agrees to help Hill launch his scheme and escape town without a hitch. Things go, more or less, as Hill intends; except for the few residents who question his credentials, a young boy in need of a father figure and a blossoming romance that quickly changes the path of Hill’s plan.

Harold Hill (Andy Folmer) and Marian Paroo (Becca Chenette)
Harold Hill (Andy Folmer) and Marian Paroo (Becca Chenette)

If you’re familiar with The Music Man you won’t be surprised to learn this is a 61 person cast. Director Rob James successfully incorporates all elements necessary for a seamless production and choreographer Devyn Brown manages to keep the shows momentum flowing with movement. Two memorable dance numbers, Marian the Librarian and Shipoopi, showcase the abundance of talent from supporting cast members Chris Martin, Adam Speers as Tommy Djilas and Alex Ficco as Zanetta Shinn. Other highlights include, the harmonizing Quartet and the ladies Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little) song and dance. There’s a lot of theatrical zeal from each character especially the budding talent of cast members Alexa Speicher as Amaryllis and Elliott Bruno as Winthrop, who appear poised and confident in character despite their young age.

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Amaryllis (Alexa Speicher), Winthrop (Elliott Bruno), Amaryllis (Hannah Post)

A strong supporting cast and a dynamite ensemble can carry a show a long way but The Music Man demands veteran performers to fill the shoes of Professor Hill and Marian Paroo. Andy Folmer as Hill is a big presence on a small stage, a virtuoso of voice, he consistently maintains savvy delivery of both dialogue and song. Becca Chenette is a genuine Marian. Her voice is lilting and strong. A seasoned vocalist she exudes sweetness and sentimentality while singing the beautiful ballads.

Stage 62‘s performance of The Music Man is lively and fun. It has all the elements of a classic American musical. The costumes are bright and represent a time and place that accentuate the extensively detailed set. Highlights of the show included the expertly executed speak- song, Rock Island the highly energetic Ya Got Trouble, the notable Seventy-Six Trombones and the endearing Till There Was You .

Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. The Music Man runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall (ACFL& MH) Carnegie, PA through November 20th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photos courtesy of Amber Smith.

PNWF Program A

1456790_591177400919641_1267552918_nSeptember 1, 2016 was opening night of the 26th annual Pittsburgh New Works Festival.  The tiny lobby of Carnegie Stage was full of chatter.  I saw Lora Oxenreiter, all smiles, sitting near the front door. Lora introduced me to Festival Director, Mindy Rossi- Stabler.  I felt so lucky being at the festival for opening night and having my sister accompany me.  My sister, visiting from NYC, is no stranger to theater, art and culture and I was so proud and excited to share this unique Pittsburgh event with her.  We each ordered a glass of wine then found seats  in the theater.

Thursday was a full house. Scanning the audience everyone was grinning looking happy, thumbing through their programs, pointing at the large plants positioned on stage, leaning sideways or forward in their seat to talk to the people around them.  When the lights dimmed the audience hushed but the  energy swelled.   As introductions were made and announcements presented  the audience responded repeatedly with cheers.   Thanks given to mayor Jack of Carnegie, to Off The Wall Charitable Trust and FedEx Ground, the first corporate sponsor of PNWF.   The audience cheered.  The reception by the audience clearly reflects the success of the PNWF for reaching out and creating a community of theatergoers, actors, playwrights, directors and producers who support one another.  The festival and all present on September 1 are clearly committed to the festival’s growth and success.

Program AThe first performance of the evening, More Than Meets The Eye, written by Johnston, PA playwright F.J. Hartland and presented by South Hills Players, Castle Shannon, PA is a one- man, one- act.  The play features actor Sean Butler as Tommy.   In the beginning I struggled to discern whether Tommy was a child or a grown man.  His character wavered  between the two.  He dressed in camouflage, with a bandanna on his head and binoculars around his neck.  On stage he military crawled between trees and shrubs.  The monologue consisted of Tommy communicating with ‘Mother Hen’ through a walkie- talkie.  He identified himself as ‘Eagle Eye’.

Eagle Eye Tommy spies on a family.   He gives play by play details to Mother Hen via the walkie talkie, announcing how the children greet father when he return  home from work, what mother has prepared for dinner and dessert and how parents help the children with their homework and tuck them into bed. He intersperses song lyrics, the chorus of popular  songs nearly anyone would recognize.  Just when you would really begin to wonder if Tommy is a creep or maybe slow the true meaning of the play is revealed.  When it appeared all the audience sucked in their breath at the moment of revelation.  Suddenly the silliness of the bitty choruses sung by Tommy are no longer cute but mournful.  Quickly the story turned from lighthearted to serious.  Playwright Hartland, addresses an important subject in a  unique way and  Butler delivers the effect of bystanders in a manner that will make you think.

A quick pause then  Deck Chairs begins.  Presented by Cup-A-Jo-Productions, written by Bill Arnold of Connecticut. The play takes place on the deck of the Titanic- as it is sinking.  Albert Swanson, deck hand, is busy arranging chairs, positioning them just right when Chief Steward Harrington appears and questions why he is doing this.  Swanson doesn’t believe the ship is sinking, ‘because the band is playing music on the deck, it can’t be serious’.  The two debate White Star Line policies, which is one of the funniest moments of the play.  Eventually Harrington agrees with Swanson, stating his logic is infallible.   He begins to aid Swanson with the setting up the deck chairs, then, Chief Pembrook hurries by.  He stops to question the actions of the two men.   Swanson states it was he who gave the direction to get the chairs in proper order.  Pembrooke reminds them the ship is sinking.  Swanson and Harrington relay their infallible theory to Pembrooke  and soon he too questions what he thought  to be  true about the status of the ship.  Finally, Duchess Ida Mansard frantically enters.  Frightened, she wants answers and assistance.  The men easily convince her  the ship is not sinking and she offers to  help arrange the deck chairs through Feng Shui.  The play is filled with witty dialogue, delivered exquisitely by the cast;   Benjamin Michael as Albert Swanson, Eric J. McAnallen as Chief Steward Harrington, Jim Froehlich cast as Chief Pembrooke and  Candice Fisher as Duchess Ida Mansard.

After a second pause and a quick set change, CCAC South Campus presents All Good Things by Australian playwright Michael Lill.  The one-act, features Frank Shoup and Rose- Lorene Miller, husband and wife, Tom and Claire.  The two tell stories about their youth.  They begin each story with a number; Tom starts with fourteen.  He speaks about Allison Cooper, a dance, a kiss, his erection and how much happiness he felt in that moment.  It was a story told in the voice of a fourteen year old, I found it easy to get lost in the memory.

Claire starts with the number twelve. She shares the story of her best friend Billy and the tragedy of his life.  The next number is forty and is a story about class 7-C and teacher Molly Hardwick.  Each story means something- as Tom and Claire reflect they reveal twelve is about confidence, fourteen represents courage and forty is about compassion.  These are the lessons Tom and Claire have learned form the different people associated with the stories. All of the story telling culminates in an announcement; Tom and Claire received a big lottery winning; fifty- million dollars.  Each person addressed in the stories impacted them in a positive, taught them about the traits of courage, confidence and compassion, and reminded them, ‘Hate never works’, ‘be kind’ and ‘love is like Pi, it goes on forever’.   Feel good messages, no matter how they are delivered.

PNWF, Program A, presented 9/1, 9/9 and 9/10 at 8pm as well as 9/3 at 4pm and finally on 9/4  at 2pm. For more on the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, check out our preview article or hit up the PNWF website here.

Buy your tickets to these world premiere plays.  Support local theater and familiarize yourself with the art of one- acts.  After viewing Program A on Thursday evening, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be disappointed.

PNWF Returns for 26th Annual Showcase

1456790_591177400919641_1267552918_nOn a rainy Sunday I sat down with Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) director, Lora Oxenreiter.  A board member for well over a decade, Lora instantly began talking about the time commitment involved in planning a six- week long annual event, especially this time of year; the festival is just a month away, but Lora obviously loves being a part of the theater community, teaching and sharing the mission of PNWF with others.  I certainly was no exception.

A well established annual Pittsburgh event, PNWF has actively worked to create a community; their relationships are a focal point of their success and span all facets of the the festival. Lora, is quite proud of the ways in which the organization builds alliances, “We are the only one we know in the world who does this- we get 18 theater companies to come in and direct”.  This is where the bonds begin.

Program A Showcase
Program A Showcase

It starts with a call for submissions of one- act plays.  Playwrights from all over the world proffer their plays;  this year a total of 275 were received.  Next the submissions are narrowed down, to just 40, through a reading process.  Then 18 theater companies from the Pittsburgh region choose a play to present.  From these 18 plays, 6 are  produced as staged readings and the remaining dozen are produced as world premiere full stage productions.  The 22 plays not chosen by a presenting company receive recognition through a reading series.  This event held at the 3rd Street Gallery in Carnegie is open to the public.  The readings give local actors a chance to perform in front of an audience and for the playwrights, opportunity to see life breathed into their story. Theater lovers are encouraged to attend the readings, sip wine and be introduced to new works. The reading series connects local thespians with an occasion to perform, exposes the public to the festival and gives the playwrights a chance to collect some feedback.

Program B Showcase
Program B Showcase

Carnegie Stage, the small 90 seat black- box theater in Carnegie will host the 2016 festival for the fourth year in a row. The relationship between festival and theater has grown over the years and finally spilled out into the borough of Carnegie.  The mayor of Carnegie is a huge supporter of the festival and has gone so far as to park cars for attendees.  This kind of rapport enhances the festival’s synergy and carries their ideology throughout the threads of both the Pittsburgh theater community and the borough of Carnegie.  This kind of exposure can lead to big opportunities for playwright, producing company, theater organizer and community supporter to network.   These relationships encourage stronger ties, better communication and solid professional relationships, all f which complement the mission of the PNWF.  A mingling of small town with art and culture has the potential to open doors to many new patrons as well as for those involved in the festival hands- on.Program C

When I asked Lora what is new to the series for 2016 she excitedly revealed a major corporate sponsor, FedEx Ground.  This collaboration is evidence of the professional partnerships PNWF has achieved throughout their years of growth and maturity.  Despite 26 years of producing and premiering one- act plays, Lora reports there are still plenty of people, and theater companies, in the area unaware of who or what PNWF is all about.  Lora wants the public to know that the festival doesn’t just begin and end over the course of two weekends in September.   An event of this magnitude takes round the clock efforts.  She hopes, as the festival continues to grow so will the bonds of the close knit theater community she has helped to create.   Lora points out,  a common misconception regarding one-acts may hold people back from attending.  She wants readers to understand these are complete plays with a beginning, middle and end to each, comparable to a short story.

Last, I asked Lora what is so special about PNWF, what should everyone know?   Simply said,  “it’s unique”.

Interested in checking  out the festival this year?  The event is split into 4 programs, each hosts three one- acts, ranging from 15- 40 minutes a piece.

Program D Showcase
Program D Showcase

Staged readings opened August 21 with Not About the Money by Los Angeles playwright Amy Tofte,   On Golden Sands written by Mark Costello of Philadelphia, PA and Unlikely Event by Dennis Moore of Bothell, WA.  The second series of readings begin August 28th with three plays produced by local theater companies Prime Stage Theater, producing Mercy Killing, Pittsburgh New Works presents We Got This! and Retro Red Theater Productions with That Time At Black Lake.

Starting September 1st and running 9/1, 9/3, 9/4, 9/9 and 9/10 Program A will debut, Deck Chairs by Bill Arnold,  All Good Things written by Michael Lill of Murwillumbah, N.S.W., Australia and More Than Meets the Eye by Johnstown, PA playwright F.J. Hartland.

Program B begins 9/2 and runs 9/3, 9/8, 9/10, and 9/11.  This series features The Man Who Invented Love, produced by Thoreau, NM, My Strange Journey produced by R- Act Theater Productions and Writer’s Block presented by Actors Civic Theater.

Program C offers another sequence of one- acts by two Pittsburgh based playwrights Evan Saunders and Whitney Rowland as well as Chicago’s Steven Peterson. Program C runs from 9/15, 9/17, 9/18, 9/23 and 9/24.

The final series of plays Program D, kicks off 9/16 and runs 9/17, 9/18, 9/22, 9/24 and 9/25.  This set offers three plays, Brotherhood produced by The Theater Factory, Influence presented by The Heritage Players and finally Once Upon a Mattress Store produced by Stage Right Players.

The Pittsburgh New Works Festival, Inc. is a non-profit organization with a mission of encouraging and supporting the writing and production of original one-act plays. Since its founding in 1991, PNWF has served as a collaborative organization, pooling the talents and rich resources of western Pennsylvania’s emerging theater community and playwrights from around the world in a series of creative activities” (www.pittsburghnewworks.org).

All ticket information, including weekend and series passes can be found by visiting http://www.pittsburghnewworks.org/tickets/