Sweet Charity

17309529_10155119503499464_6508762438322067663_nThe girl who couldn’t hold on to a guy is the victorious heroine of Sweet Charity, on stage of the equally spunky and iconic Rockwell Theater at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. The colorful and groovy Broadway and film hit showcases Point Park University student talent under the savvy direction of returning Michael Rupert in a Conservatory Theatre Company production.

The mind-blowing 1960’s are calling! Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1969 and has almost been continually produced by leading international companies. At the Playhouse, the spot on professional band, ensconced on the second level of Johnmichael Bohach’s inventive set, is led by frequent Playhouse musical director Camille Rolla. A huge arch echoes both the Rockwell mid-century interior and Central Park’s tunnels while a gritty framework and understage evokes the city’s dark corners and elevated train trestles. Costumes range from everyday to evening wear, so there’s no shortage of flower power, fringe, mini-dresses, sequins, and outrageous wigs in Michael Montgomery’s designs.The Cast of Sweet Charity2

Charity Hope Valentine’s very name reassures us that all will be well and even failed romances and turbulent times are wrought with lessons that strengthen us. The “It Girl” and shining star of Sweet Charity is graduating PPU senior Jasmine Overbaugh. As resilient and charming as the venue itself, Overbaugh takes a classic role of a Times Square “taxi-dance” girl (who provides other “services”) and runs with it from the moment she steps on stage–and almost immediately is pushed into the Central Park lake by male companion who runs away (for the last time) with her cash. Still, she writes off such incidents off as the “fickle finger of fate.” As Charity explores the wilds of New York City, Overbaugh is on stage during most every scene.  Her engaging singing, outstanding dancing, and comic pratfalls connect with the audience and we look forward to what this young artist does next.

The Neil Simon book and the 1960’s style of Sweet Charity supports a story as old as (real) time: The girl doesn’t always get the guy. Or perhaps any guy. The story is one of self-exploration and experiences that inform Charity’s life journey. On a first date, she winds up at a “church of the month,” a hippy, cultish group meeting under the Manhattan Bridge. She even stays overnight in the apartment of a dashing Italian movie star between getting dumped. However, she struts and taunts with “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” Despite tumbling into bodies of water–twice–and suffering the sexism, pay inequity, and stereotyping that fueled the “women’s movement,” she picks herself up and starts all over and over again as young single woman trying to find her way.

Jasmine Overbaugh as Charity
Jasmine Overbaugh as Charity

 

One wants to rewind or request more reprises as the show is so jam-packed with hits by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields including “Big Spender,” “There’s Gotta be Something Better than This,” and “I’m a Brass Band.” Choreographer Jim Cooney has an imaginative blast with most all the numbers. On two classics he pays homage to Bob Fosse’s original choreography. He summons the show’s original moves for the iconic “Big Spender” featuring the dance hall  “taxi girls” and the fascinating postures of “Rich Man’s Frug”. The cast expertly executes Fosse’s signature shoulders, wrists and hips with his obligatory knee and ankle angles.

Jasmine’s fellow cast members are superb, too, singing and dancing their way to graduation, auditions, and the next show. Gianni Annesi (Helene) and Jane Zogbi (Nickie) both make their PPU musical debuts and stand out in their duet “Baby, Dream Your Dream”. When Overbaugh joins them in “…Better than This,” this triple threat of strong women owns the show with their song and dance acumen.

Lauren Lerant, also a senior, leads the cast in “Rich Man’s Frug” with all those Fosse moves and high-style hair swinging. Atiauna Grant steps out of the ensemble as The Good Fairy with some fine attitude as she doesn’t settle on a typical “happy ending” for the ingenue.

Nikky Robinson, Lauren Lerant, Kurt Kemper
Nikky Robinson, Lauren Lerant, Kurt Kemper

When the entire 31-member cast is dancing, it’s just delightful with rising stars in the spotlight conjuring their future stage careers. They depict sardine-like straphangers on a subway car, self-absorbed New Yorkers who try not to “get involved,” haughty party-goers, and the city’s working class cops, waiters, as well as the Fandango dance hall girls.

Now, here’s to all the boys–solid and charming characterizations and performances by: Michael Joseph Krut as Charity’s boyfriend Oscar; Kevin Gilmond as Charity’s boss Herman; Russell Badalamenti as sauve film actor Vittorio Vidal; and David Gretchko as the Rhythm of Life congregation leader Daddy. Ensemble charmers included Daddy’s assistants Nikky Robinson and Ben Northrup, who also appears as Marvin, a dance hall regular who fancies Charity.  

In deference to the entire and almost constantly moving and costume-changing cast, it’s only right to list all the others for their energy, artistry, and many roles here. Caroline Hitesman is cool and classy as Vittorio’s Ursula. Ladies of the ensemble include: Sierra Barnett (dance captain), KellyAnn Coyle (Alice), Halle Mastroberardino (new girl Rosie), Hailie Hagedorn (Frenchy), Sarah Martinez (Carmen), Sophie Ankin, Mackenzie Manning, Maddy Miller, and Kyra Smith.

Kurt Kemper, Halle Mastroberardino, William Bureau, Micah Stanek, Jasmine Overbaugh, Ben Northrup, Peter Brannigan, Atiauna Grant
Kurt Kemper, Halle Mastroberardino, William Bureau, Micah Stanek, Jasmine Overbaugh, Ben Northrup, Peter Brannigan, Atiauna Grant

The gentlemen are also impressive in many multiple roles: Kurt Kemper (solo tenor), Eric Freitas (Monte the Cop), Liron Blumenthal, Peter Brannigan, William Bureau, Jared Thomas Roberts, Austin Sultzbach, and Jacob Wasson, and Austin Trynosky (swing).

It’s always joyful to again find PPU students still singing and dancing their hearts out. And it’s bittersweet, too, as the university will brand its new Playhouse facility downtown within a few years. (This alumna and writer proudly discloses that I wrote my first reviews for The Globe, the student newspaper there, so the Playhouse is in my DNA, too.)

Sweet Charity has five more performances, March 23-26 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Take a friend, someone you love, or, better yet, go it alone. You’ll be just fine! Guarantee you’ll dance onto Craft Avenue as you head for home and add the 1969 film version to your watch list. Check out the production details and great ticket prices of $10 to $24 at: PittsburghPlayhouse.com.

Photos courtesy of John Altdorfer.

Daddy Long Legs

Layout 1The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Daddy Long Legs under the direction of Ted Pappas, once again demonstrates theatre at its best. This subtle and nuanced production is the perfect balance of all the elements of theatre that combine to present in an evening of theatre magic.

The story of Daddy Long Legs celebrates the connection of lives brought together by unlikely circumstances. The cast is only two but the connection between the characters fills the stage.

It is set between 1908 and 1912 in a time when there was no instant communications by email, text or tweet or phone.  Letters were written and you yearned for a response that sometimes never came.

Daddy Long Legs is the story of Miss Jerusha Abbott, the oldest resident of The John Grier Home, a New England orphanage.  When she turns eighteen a mysterious benefactor decides to pay for her college education. There is one condition, she must write him a monthly letter, express no gratitude and not to expect any replies.PPTdaddylonglegs024

Prior to learning her good fortune, she notices from her window a man leaving the orphanage. She sees him in shadows and imagines him to be a very tall distinguished older gentleman. In her first letter, she begins to identify him as Daddy Long Legs and over time treats him more and more as the father figure she has never known.

Through her letters we see Jerusha transform from a sheltered and naive orphan girl into a confident and independent college educated woman. As he reads her letters, Daddy Long Legs becomes more enamored with this enchanting young woman. She reveals to “Daddy” a developing relationship with Jervis Pendleton, a well to do younger uncle of one of her roommates.

What makes Daddy Long Legs so compelling is what we in the audience have known all along. Jervis is actually her benefactor. His mother passed away when he was eleven and his father is absent from his life.  As Jervis reads her letters aloud we learn he is a surprisingly kind and caring man.  Although their circumstances are very different, he feels a strong connection to Jerusha and yet struggles to tell her the truth of their connection, never replying to her letters until….PPTdaddylonglegs096

Jervis and Jerusha are the only two seen on stage; the other characters in the story are brought to life by her letters.  Allan Snyder (recently relocated to our fair city) and Danielle Bowen are perfectly cast as Jervis and Jerusha.  Snyder is the more accomplished actor and Bowen is early in her professional career, that perspective and their age proximity gives them great chemistry on stage. He gives just the right amount of angst to Jervis as he struggles with what to do about his increasing affection for Jerusha. Bowen’s Jerusha conveys the right enthusiasm of a teenage girl along with with the wisdom and longing of a person who has never really been outside of the orphanage her entire life.

Ted Pappas once again he proves his directorial skills and sensitivity in Daddy Long Legs. The transformation of Jerusha from eighteen-year-old orphan is subtle and nuanced; a different dress, a different hat, a more confident carriage. The show is two hours, but it seems like we have been with her every day.PPTdaddylonglegs062

The orchestra made up of piano, cello and guitar under the direction of long time Public collaborator Wade Russo perfectly underscores the vocals. The musicians are on stage, and yet you almost forget they are there. The transition into the musical numbers is so natural and easy you almost don’t notice. Be it solos or duets Snyder and Bowens performances are first rate.

Pappas uses Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design to its optimum, but subtlety again rules. Jervis’ office is elevated upstage. It is decked out like a proper gentlemen’s library, a safe perch from which he “watches” Jerusha. Hers is an open more simple space, as it would be in the orphanage or college dorm and her letters are what connects them.

Theatregoers left the O’Reilly last night reminded of what makes life special, the connection we celebrate that develops between two people. Might as well change the name to Pittsburgh Perfect Theater!  Thanks Ted for another night of theatre magic.

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Daddy Long Legs is playing now through April 9th at the O’Reilly Theatre. Tickets 412-316-1600 or online at https://ppt.org/calendar

Photos courtesy of Michael Henninger

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

BB andrew jThe Duquesne Red Masquers could not have asked for better timing for their production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. A show about a populist President who rides to power by claiming to represent the will of “The People,” only to find himself in over his head? There’s really no way that could get any more on-the-nose, right? Well… on its opening day, Donald Trump visited Jackson’s grave. And then talked about how he disagreed with a court ruling about people he didn’t want in the country. Although written prior to 2008, the themes of populism and racism explored in the show sometimes feel eerily relevant to the current moment. The Red Masquers actually decided to stage this play before the election, but its result obviously influenced director Jill Jeffrey’s choices in developing the production.DSC_0535

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical satire written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, provides a not-quite-sympathetic chronicle of the life of the seventh President from his origins in rural Tennessee to his clashes with Congress and the courts in Washington. Depicting Jackson as a swaggering rock star, the show embraces the DIY aesthetic and breakneck pace of a punk show. Jackson himself is one of the only constants on stage, portrayed by sophomore Michael Tarasovich. The rest of the cast cycle through multiple characters, donning simple additions to their costumes to identify each one. The effect can be jarring at first – especially as the plot rockets through Jackson’s early life without a lot of recurring characters. But with Jackson’s entry into politics, the show finds a steadier pace and it becomes easy to identify actors with characters.

For most of its runtime, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson refuses to rest for more than a few seconds. Although the minimalist set remains mostly static, the cast successfully draws attention to one area while the others are being re-furnished to accommodate new scenes. Cast members move into the audience when Jackson is addressing the people, or speak from behind the fence that divides the stage in half (see, I told you it was topical) when breaking the fourth wall is called for. It is only late in the production, when the consequences of the President’s increasingly erratic behavior begin to catch up with him, that the action slows down to dwell on his legacy with the song “Second Nature.” Jeffrey accentuates this moment with images of the modern America Jackson helped to create and the people he hurt along the way.DSC_0879

The Red Masquers are a student theater group at Duquesne University, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an alumni show, featuring returning members alongside current students. Although the cast members’ experience levels vary widely, they work well together. “The Corrupt Bargain,” a number featuring the plotting of the Out-Of-Touch Coastal Elite, demonstrates this range:  John Beckas, who plays soon-to-be-former President James Monroe, is a first time actor, while Justin Sines – a hilarious John Quincy Adams – is a veteran of multiple local theater companies and is the Technical Director for the very Genesius theater in which this show was performed.

In addition to leading man Tarasovich, who captures the posturing hotheadedness that is Jackson’s defining characteristic here, the show features notable performances from Lauren Gardonis and Katheryn Hess. While individual singers can sometimes get lost in some of the larger ensemble pieces, these two stand out shine in songs that focus on their voices  – Gardonis in the dark “Ten Little Indians” and Hess as Jackson’s wife Rachel in “The Great Compromise.”IMG_2322

This is a lively and relevant show that seems to be as much fun for the cast as the audience. But it should come with a bit of a content warning. Remember, it is a punk show. First of all, there’s a few f-bombs. Some dick jokes. A very-nearly-too-old reference to the Tea Party movement that takes a while to register if you weren’t active on Daily Kos in the early years of the Obama administration. (I guess that’s a dated reference, too? My bad.) But the controversy that has followed this show through multiple productions is its treatment of Native Americans. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not subtle in its portrayal of its title character as the villain – the phrase “American Hitler” is actually used at one point – but any piece that deals with genocide in a broad satirical tone has to be careful. Especially when relying on simple visual cues to identify characters. Masquers alum Jeff Johnston, who plays Black Fox, the most prominent Native American character, made it clear in a post-performance talkback that the company was very aware of this and did their best to avoid stereotypes. As long as you’re comfortable with all that, the Red Masquers’ production is an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through March 19 at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater, with shows at 8:00 and Midnight on Friday and Saturday, and a 2 PM matinee on Sunday. Visitors unfamiliar with the Duquesne Campus would also be well-advised to make sure you know where the Genesius Theater actually is. Hint: it’s not at 600 Forbes. I totally knew that.

Special thanks to the Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. For tickets and more information, click here

Photos courtesy of Dale Hess and Morgan Paterniti.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

16864036_10154948753785797_8467742892383435851_nEver have that dream where you’re suddenly in the middle of a play, but it’s in someone’s living room instead of on a stage and the actors are inches away from you? And then you realize it’s not a dream; you’re just watching Cup-a-Jo Productions’ version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Never had that experience? Just me? Oh. Well, you’re in luck, because for the next two weekends you’ll be able to live the dream and see a powerful piece of theater while you’re at it.

If you’re not familiar with the play, it’s entirely set in a living room and there are only four characters. Cup-a-Jo decided to make the play-viewing experience as real as possible. Or surreal, in some ways. Their version is performed in a living room instead of on a stage. A real, authentic living room, as in someone lives in this house and now you are there watching actors sit on their furniture. It fits the play perfectly, and aside from some initial awkward feelings, I found that it truly benefited the performance.Woolf production8

I’ve seen many shows with box seating, some extremely small and intimate, but they’ve always been on a stage somewhere. For this show, there is no “set” because the set is real. Where I’d spend a good deal of time in a different play looking around at the scenery and set pieces, here it was a familiar setting. I got to spend those moments watching the actors instead. My attention was focused on the players, which could have been a bad thing if they hadn’t performed so wonderfully.

All four actors are significantly practiced thespians. Their experience must have been a delight to director Everett Lowe. Because the whole show is set in one room with the same pieces of furniture, the movement he gave the characters becomes so much more important. Nothing feels forced, and the characters’ activity is natural. The discomfort between them is intentional and expertly done.Woolf production4

The most awkward character, Honey, is brought to life by Hilary Caldwell. You start to feel sympathetic for Honey before she even appears onstage, with the two main characters talking about her before she arrives. Caldwell plays up the shy and sweet side of Honey, who really just wants to have a fun night out. Her physical acting is spot on, becoming less stiff and more fluid the more she drinks. And although everyone is an emotional wreck by the end, Caldwell siphons pity from the audience with her facial expressions and reminders that Honey never asked for any of this.

Honey’s husband, Nick, is more of a straight man. Tom Kolos is excellent in giving Nick an even yet firm personality. You could almost be fooled into thinking he isn’t very emotional, until he hits a breaking point. Both Nick and Honey are broken down to places of disbelief throughout their evening. Kolos makes his character’s suffering stand out by giving him such control the rest of the time. His reaction to the other three characters is distinct and varied, and while you do feel bad for him, you don’t feel that bad for him.

Cut to Brett Sullivan Santry, who absolutely shines as George, the manipulative professor and husband. It’s often hard to tell what George is up to, but it’s not hard to be captivated by Santry’s flow and commitment to the character. Sitting so close up to the show, it’s easy to notice all the details of fighting, prop handling, facial responses, etc. Santry excels at all of it. You find yourself at war internally over George: hating him and pitying him, finding him disgusting and being impressed by him. Albee wrote George to demand the attention of the other characters, and Santry demands the attention of the audience.Woolf production3

But for me, the most profound performance was that of Joanna Lowe as Martha, George’s bitter and brutal wife. The mind games played between George and Martha are nearly scandalous to watch. Lowe acts in waves, throwing out humor, lust, deception, nostalgia, rage, apathy, and grief at any given moment. She’s able to transform sentiments like flipping a light switch. Martha is a woman who could take on the world, and a woman who has been utterly destroyed. I don’t know how Lowe is able to perform like this every night and not be completely exhausted.

All four actors have a palpable bond with their characters, and watching this show will give you feelings. Which is exactly why you should go see it. It’s long, each of the three acts taking roughly an hour, but refreshments are provided before the show and during intermissions. Because it’s in a private residence, you’ll have to make your reservation before you’re given the address. But I can promise you, this is not your average night at the theater.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs weekends through March 25. For ticket reservations or more information click here for their Facebook page or email cupajo.woolf@gmail.com.

Photos courtesty of Ken Kerr.

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. 

Polish Joke

16427723_1414233895288023_3891042495884003170_nQuestion: “How do you sink a Polish battleship? Answer: Put it in the water.”  Please, don’t get offended, the David Ives’ play Polish Joke is loaded with “Polish jokes” that are not meant to offend, but to explain a feeling, an emotion, an acceptance of a lifestyle. For example, “How do you get a one armed Polish person out of a tree? Wave to him.”  But this play being performed at McKeeesport Little Theater is much more than a machine-gun litany of Polish one-liners.

As the play opens, a very Polish Uncle Roman (Eric Buell) has the audience in stitches sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway with his barrage of “typical” Polish jokes while trying to indoctrinate his then 9 year old nephew Jasiu (Arjun Kumar) as to the reasons that Polish people are doomed to be at the receiving end of some pretty hefty amounts of stereotypes. Why? Because, according to Uncle Roman, the birthright of Polish descendants is to accept the public’s perception of them as lazy and basically not too bright. As he explains, Polish people are prone to sit around drinking beer with eggs and salt, eat blood sausage, and hang kielbasa in their living rooms.  “That’s what Polish people do,” he explains to young Jasiu.

However, the response of Jasiu always being a “why does this have to be” is the driving force behind this comedy. Jaisu is determined not to settle into this fate. Hence, the Polish Joke becomes, in actuality, Jasui’s quixotic journey into fighting his own windmills (in this case, his Polish heritage) to become anything but Polish, discovering, along with way, that this is an impossible task. He fools no one.

Polish Joke is a “coming of age” ritual of Jasiu’s to purge his ethnicity, at least publically, which moves him into an extremely confused adulthood. He leaves home to explore the world and chooses a variety of surnames and occupations (Jewish, WASP, Irish) hoping to settle on a “heritage” that will be more accepting.  The task of each of the other four actors in this comedy is to become “someone” or “something” different, to teach Jasiu a lesson, which, actually, works well on stage.

The real joke is not the expected, actual Polish jokes heard throughout the play, but the fact that it is the understanding toward Jasiu’s adulthood. The joke is actually on him. His “Polish cover-up” never really works.

Ives’ play, directed by David Hofmann, itself is produced into small collections of 13 scenes that follow Jasiu throughout his life, returning to the acceptance of his history, and, after (finally and accidentally) settling in Poland and marrying an authentic Polish woman, returns home to explain to his uncle that being Polish is not as bad as he was lead to believe.

Kumars angst, which he carries throughout the play, is believable, surrounded by characters of all different cultures ultimately discovering his false attempts to join the “intelligencia” of the world. This leads to soliloquies directed at the audience that beg the question of “who am I, really?”.  It’s actually up to the other characters to discover his true identity – forcing him to accept his Polish fate. The lesson Jasiu learns is that one cannot escape one’s identity presented by Uncle Roman in the first scene of the play.  Kumar’s four cast mates help move him to this reality.

Each of the five actors cast in this play take on a variety of roles: sanitation workers, doctors, priests, Irish travel agents, florists, policemen, Yentas, and more and do so convincingly in extremely quick scene changes.

Buell, Amanda Anne Leight, and Justin Koffard are asked to do almost the impossible by the continuously changing roles, action, and scenery in this work. They all do a yeoman’s job changing themselves into believable characters transforming every scene. The one aspect of this play that works is that Buell, Haggerty, and Kofford pull off the changes and, through the usual but necessary “willing suspension of disbelief” force the audience to believe that these truly are different characters.

However, the witty and eccentric Kate Haggerty very much pushes this comedy along and carries the weight of the real wit and humor throughout the variety of scenes. She portrays the foil to Kumar’s seriousness as he seeks an identity; it is Haggerty who transforms each of the scenes into almost “belly-laugh” responses from the audience.  Her portrayal of a nurse, a Yenta, and a Polish flight attendant are precious.

Haggerty captures the comic essence of the six or seven roles she plays help to add the true hilarity Hoffman is searching for in this work.  She’s a funny actress and definitely an audience grabber. It’s difficult to take your eyes off her because she is that adorable and scene grabbing.  She knows shtick. Her portrayal of an Irish travel agent and a Polish Airline stewardess (eventually Jasiu’s wife as he accidentally settles in Poland) is “tears-in-the-eyes” funny.

The cozy and inviting McKeesport Little Theater, including director Hoffman, took a chance on this at times fragmented comedy (Ives’ issue, not Hoffman’s), and, for the most part, he and his band of actors pulled it off.  No one in the audience left offended by what the title might suggest.  Polish Joke is no joke. Rather, it’s a journey toward human understanding.

Polish Joke runs weekends through March 26, for tickets and more information click here

Forever Plaid

plaid-1Escapism has no tool more effective than nostalgia. Forever Plaid, an off Broadway musical originally created by Stuart Ross, is a series of harmonized covers and polite sketches from a musical culture that’s been extinct for decades.

The Plaids, a close-harmony cover band in the style of ’50s boy-bands (think barbershop quartets), were, we are told, slaughtered by waves of hungry Beatles maniacs in the 60’s on the way to the Ed Sullivan Show. Due to a yearning in their soul to have performed before they died and a space-time portal opened by the hole in the ozone layer, the Plaids are back, this time at The Lamp Theater, to be milquetoast in nature and cover a few ’50s standards.

Directed by Allison Petrillo and performed by Josh List, Mickey Orange, Rob Jessop and William Elder, Forever Plaid is The Lamp Theater’s first self-produced show. There was a certain buzzing energy that could be felt at the ticket stand and the lobby before the show, an energy which translated easily to the nerve-wracked protagonists onstage. The natural, openhearted naivety nicely compliments the fledgling theater; if nothing else, beginning a first season with a warm hug of a show seems like a smart move.

Much like its cast of lovable dorks, Forever Plaid is not a show that intends to leave you with any big ideas, the various character arcs of its four leads largely intended to give the show some emotional weight in its later numbers. More than anything, the show is a passive series of ‘remember that?’ and ‘times sure have changed!’ moments. Because of the show’s accessibility and some encouraged moments of audience interaction, it is best experienced with a large group, and maybe a drink or two.

As far as the actual meat of the musical, many of the numbers performed are primarily focused on harmonies, and the choreography is there to inject moments of levity into the otherwise straightforward songs.

The humor of the show failed to hit me. It isn’t so much that the cast fail to embody the scripts’ jokes so much as the script has exactly one joke, which it repeats again and again. At a certain point, we understand that the Plaid boys are nervous academics from the ’50s. These are caricatures, meaning that on their face they are not inherently funny. They need something more to do. Social awkwardness, cultural irrelevance and effeminate physicality altered with sudden, purposeful displays of masculinity will only take them so far.

There is a satisfying conclusion to Forever Plaid’s thin plot, even if it’s a few songs too late. Some of the numbers, such as a performance of “Perfidia” that’s dedicated to a very attractive Spanish teacher the group had in high school, do a solid job of enhancing the relationship between the characters in small but meaningful ways, even if the portrait of their Perfidia that’s displayed during the song looks suspiciously like a stock photo.

Other numbers are too soaked in familiar goofs or feel too tonally one-note to be appreciable for an uninitiated audience member. Forever Plaid is a cute show and potentially a fun night at the theater, but it would do well to build its momentum from its four leads rather than the archetypical platitudes it relies so heavily upon.

Special thanks to the Lamp Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Forever Plaid runs through this weekend, tickets and more information can be found here

1984

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Prime Stage Theatre’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1949 classic, 1984, is ambitiously loyal to its original text.  It attempts to extrapolate the inner story of one man inside of a paranoia machine, and does so with many attributes reminiscent of the original if only lacking a bit of the fervor.

It is the story of Winston Smith, a forlorn citizen in a world made up of enemies; or a world where every area of the world is under surveillance.  Government agents have the right to surreptitiously stalk and hunt and arrest any citizen on a whim.  Neighbors are forced by fear of their own unannounced imprisonment to all work as deputy spies against one another.  Everyone is scared of everyone.

1984 holds a lot of very relevant themes that should be explored more.  The main focus of this story is to expand on an idea that history is merely the story of the victors, and how nefarious that idea might be in an information age.  This is a story that ties the insidious pull of propaganda, the neuroses of a surveillance state, the anxiety of a police state and the challenging eventuality of what could be the inevitable progression of nationalism as a belief structure.  It is a book that foretells of a civilized society becoming an entire prison-like world filled with lies and terror.

Prime Stage’s adaptation has done a fine job achieving certain aspects of the original: the storyline is barely changed, the leads fit their character types, the world is somewhat surreal, sterile, ominous and oppressive.

1984 is a horror story.  It’s about a man living under the oppressive circumstance of an all-controlling fascist government, yes.  But it’s also so much richer in horror than simply that.  It’s horror in the details.  1984 explores how a futuristic fascism could, as it’s said in the play, “narrow the range of thought.”

It’s an entire world that is creepy, overarching, dim, and terrifying.

My favorite aspect of this show was the video design, which I suppose are attributed to Artistic Director Wayne Brinda.  These contain uniform images dotting the landscape of what seemed to be droll, oppressive institutional walls, as well as creative uses of CCTV-style display.  For a show that really deals in a story that accurately predicted a kind of futurism, I feel that this aspect was handled in a very strong manner.  It was captured perhaps best in what was the climactic moment of the show: a truly agonizing physical assault.  To hear Winston scream in unrelenting terror captured exactly what this story is: an unflinching, freakishly frightening nightmare.

Justin Fortunato’s Winston comes off as an awkward, bumbly Englishman.  He’s squeamish, cautious and his anxiety shines through his stolid mannerism.  I was irked by watching the actor, thinking how little I’d like to be his character.  He delivered in sturdily displaying his hidden well of apprehension.

This is a surreal, horror story.  I can’t say that enough.  Prime Stage does eventually achieve the mood that I believe makes the book what it is: riveting, institutional terror.  However, they don’t get to this point of swollen emotional piercing until the third act.

When they do get there though, what an amazing job of reflecting the horror of torture and interrogation.  My god.  Combining imagery of relevant torture iconography (Abu Ghraib, anyone) with the insanity of a power who doesn’t offer solutions: What do you want me to do?  How can I do it, if I don’t know what it is!  The last leg of the play ends on a great note.  Not a high note.  But a note that carries with it the right weight of troubledness.  (Though the use of modern music in both the scene changes and for the last bit of the play are pretty awful and don’t fit with the loyal adaptation at all.  I literally cringed at the last lights out from the tacky use of a certain song).

One place that delivers rather well is the linguistic conversation had by Michael Lane Sullivan’s Syme.  I always understood this character as a weaselly intellectual sort, with a nuanced ignorance in decimating the exact thing that made him intelligent: the breadth of language.  Sullivan’s ability to play this part with the candor of confidence, not too annoying and not not annoying; but just annoying enough.  (I guess “double-plus un-annoying”?)  It’s a well-realized character.

Another stand-out is Samantha Camp’s Parsons, who does a good job of taking a robotic, creepy churchliness to a monstrously sterile level.  She reminded me of an HR lady on a strict diet of amphetamines and fake news

This production does utilize many of the original details and the script fully utilizes the prose from the original.  The problem is it’s a bit boring.  There’s a great attention to detail, but not the detail’s detail.  This story contains the aggravating encapsulation of an intelligent man repressing by necessity all of his human instincts and surviving within survival mode amongst a seemingly mundane, or inconspicuous set of factors.  It’s a boring outside world (save for the people disappearing every so often, and the routine projections of forced, constructed violence (more to come on that)).  We see the inner man in an outer world in the book of 1984.  In the stage play, we see this strange outer world but don’t get as much of a sense of the true arc of suspense, recoiled reaction, and ghastly, disturbed awe that creates such an emotional arc for Winston.  There are great hints of it, sure.  But not the impact of a world so turned on its head, it’s impossible to be sane.

I’m mostly conflicted about the direction.  In some regards, I really appreciated the choreography and the staging.  The “Two Minutes of Hate”, for instance, is a surreal episode where the government employees are forced to watch a speech by a terrorist (who was previously known as a revolutionary for the state, a la Trotsky or someone of his ilk), and then they are watched and rated for how fiercely they deject and boo the screen on which he talks.  The book characterizes this episode so well, I personally recall the vitriol in detail.  It’s such a captivating moment to be captured.  To quote the novel:

People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen…

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp….

To me, this scene has lasted within my head for the last seventeen years since I first picked up this book.  The sheer animosity and vivid nature of the scene strikes me like the chaos in an auditorium during an air raid.

What this production lacked was the hysteria.  We saw the characters from the show lob words of hate, stamp their feet.  Even the moment when one of the workers throws a shoe at the telescreen happens.  But I think this moment lacked the visceral nature of Orwell’s intention.  I think the power of it comes from the madness.  It wasn’t really brutal, it was just a little tense.  Orwell wanted to show an emotional outlet in a deranged, mindwashed people.  I think Prime Stage only gets a glimpse at the surface.  I was craving a theatricality that was much more severe.

The same could be said for Winston and Julia’s relationship.  Jessie Wray Goodman’s Julia looks the part of Winston’s counterpart.  Orwell described her as young, pretty and sexless.  Goodman does a great job of approaching the part with a pent-up air, a shrunken tenacity.  She looks like someone who would obsess over a uniform, and this makes her reveal all the lovelier.  When they are finally allowed a life together, her contentedness and excitability is mousy and comes in small, gleeful gestures.  She plays this character well.

And yet, there was an issue with their arc too.  What makes Winston and her relationship so lovely is that it comes after a long, turbid set of doubts and reveals.  I know that prose is much different than a stage play, but the difference between saying “I love you” versus receiving the note and poring over its authenticity in a context where any sort of conviviality could easily be a trap set by a sociopathic compatriot….it just spells a different kind of inner turmoil, a slushy force of trusting in a distrustful environment.

I’m nitpicking.  I apologize.  But there’s something to the swish and sway of the neurotic Winston in Orwell’s 1984 that gets to the modern reader.  It’s a reason why it’s regarded as probably the most influential modern novel.  It is still cited constantly by people using its terms, its themes and the probably cheaply, overused (and ironic, therefore) “Orwellian.”  It’s because this story really gets inside the head of a paranoid person in fear of surveillance.

All said, 1984 is a cool trek through a classic.  It falls short in reaching some of the ecstatic buzz of both terror and overwhelming relief I believe the original achieves, though it does get the point of the original novel across sincerely.  I believe this show was made with an earnest enthusiasm for the content and sums up the book nicely, including even the wracked fear and anxiety of its meat.  And it’s testament to a future that, especially at this particular time, seems all the most relevant.  Read it.  See it.  Whatever.  Know it.

Ignorance isn’t Strength, comrade.

For ticketing information visit Prime Stage Theatre’s website here.

Findings

brain-scan-cropped-300x200This is not a review of the world premiere of Arlene Weiner’s play Findings produced by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. This is a “re-view”.

What’s the difference?

In Findings, running now at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, we repeatedly witness life coach Jennifer Cortland “re-viewing” certain facts and circumstances of her life. Sharing a particularly vulnerable moment with her husband Roger, she painfully admits her greatest fear, that, because she’s made mistakes as a mother, their daughter Lainie hates her. After immediate “re-view”, Jennifer assures herself that this malice is just Lainie’s search for independence.

I admit that I envy Jennifer for her ability to harness the power of positive thinking. My review of Findings is that it is a deeply problematic drama that bites off way more than it can chew. Over its ill-paced 85-minute runtime, issues of race, mental illness, and sexual abuse are pureed together in a blender without the lid on. Unfortunately, the resulting mess could not be cleaned up by the solid efforts of the fully committed cast or by the good intentions of the playwright.

My “re-view” of Findings is that, while guilty of all the offenses I listed above and more, it is commendable for (literally) spotlighting the little-known and insidious effects of frontotemporal dementia. Also known as Pick’s disease, frontotemporal dementia is characterized by a shrinking of the frontal and temporal anterior lobes of the brain. These changes can manifest themselves in a variety of ways including a lack of motivation and impulse control, deterioration of language, and formation of irrational fears.

L-R - Julia De Avilez Rocha, Sam Lothard, Lissa Brennan, Amy Marsalis & John Michna
L-R – Julia De Avilez Rocha, Sam Lothard, Lissa Brennan, Amy Marsalis & John Michna

The last thing that comes to mind when spitfire Gloria Bazon first blazes onstage in a flirtatious flurry is how some of those tragic symptoms will disrupt and destroy her life. That’s a credit to the vibrant performance of Lissa Brennan. Her cheeky candor creates every one of the evening’s very few fleeting (and fizzling) moments of levity. Brennan does rely too heavily on the clichéd choice of portraying Gloria’s fractured mental state by wildly staring off into space, but occasionally—usually in scenes with Amy Marsalis’ Jennifer—her profound sense of confusion is truly gripping.

Long before the disease takes hold of Gloria and her family, we catch her mid-meet cute with Ray Jerome, an African-American man looking to sell a lone puppy to a loving owner. Before we know it, the two are sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner as an engaged couple with Jennifer and her family. Jennifer and Gloria may be sisters, but their similarities end there. Rebellious teen Lainie has a very positive relationship with her artistic, cool, fun-loving “Auntie Glo”.

Things truly begin to crumble when Gloria’s dangerous shopping habit forces Ray to take a job overseas to rescue them from financial ruin. The shocking revelations Gloria makes when he returns home snowball into her devastating diagnosis, her transferal into Jennifer’s care, and into the dark secrets of their childhood finally coming to light.

It’s a wild ride, to say the least. It’s a tedious and emotionally manipulative one, to say the worst.

As Roger and Lainie respectively, John Michnya and Julia de Avilez Rocha are by far the most natural and consistent members of the six-person ensemble. The play never really makes a strong case for why Lainie is so staunchly anti-everything. It is similarly unclear why Roger, a seemingly successful and respected oncologist, has little more invested in the plight of his sister-in-law than annoyance over the cell phone she swipes from him in one scene. Still, they both are clearly doing their best to bring some dimension to their cardboard cutout characters.

Besides the one aspect of its subject matter, another refreshing element of Findings is the passion of first time playwright Arlene Weiner. It seems that it was her lifelong love and exposure to theatre that inspired her to write, workshop, and submit the play for production. When I learned that she is a published poet, I grew nervous that her dialogue would be bogged down by flowery verbiage. While there were a few lines sprinkled throughout that tickled my ear, I never felt compelled to answer a soliloquy with finger snaps.

Honestly, though, I would have preferred snapping in praise to face palming in frustration. There are some disturbing implications about the quality of life victims of Pick’s disease (and ostensibly people with all kinds of disabilities) can have. The selfish character of Jennifer embodies those implications by referring to and eventually acting on them. She’s insensitive and irresponsible and, ultimately, so is the play she’s featured in.

Director Lisa Ann Goldsmith’s uninspired and immutable staging do nothing to smooth out the incredibly rough edges of the play’s content. She and Weiner sidestep nuance and mistake cheap shock value for compelling storytelling.

I wish that I found Findings in the positive spirit in which Weiner wrote it. Sadly, her good intentions paved a road, and it was not to an evening of enjoyable theatre.

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company for the complimentary tickets. Findings runs through March 19th, for more information click here.

Photo by Heather Mull.

Patience

15042008_908457625955605_6895723887467380350_oThe Pittsburgh Savoyards open their 79th season with a rousing production of Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Patience is a virtue, but in this case she is a milkmaid and satire on the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ’80s in England and, more broadly, on fads and crowd mentality.

Imagine if the TV series The Bachelor took place about a hundred fifty years ago. The bachelor in Patience is the self-styled aesthetic poet Reginald Bunthorne. All the rapturous maidens have all become his groupies much to the dismay of the Dragoons, the girls’ macho military boyfriends.

This brings us to Patience, the virtuous village milkmaid who claims to have never loved anyone. But while Bunthorne is infatuated with Patience, she falls for her childhood crush Archibald Grosvenor, another “famous” aesthete who attracts women even faster than Bunthorne. By means of whimsical song, dance and typical Gilbert and Sullivan nonsensical logic, a happy ending is achieved while reminding us that every generation has its own temporary insanity!

Zach Wood as Archibald Grosvenor

Gilbert and Sullivan’s operatic works are clearly not fads. After all, how do you explain the Pittsburgh’s Savoyards mission and a nearly singular passionate focus on Gilbert & Sullivan’s work over the past 79 years?

Patience was the sixth operatic collaboration of fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan including H.M.S. Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, all of which retain a nice degree of contemporary relevance by addressing superficiality, vanity, hypocrisy, and pretentiousness while satirizing romantic love and military bluster.

Director Rob Hockenberry has a full stage with a large cast of characters to fill along with the challenge of double casting the leads. There are many well-staged bits and some really nice physical comedy particular in scenes with Bunthorne and Grosvenor. A full orchestra of volunteers under the direction of Guy Russo accompanies this production. Keeping with the period, the show uses no microphones. Supertitles are used above the stage for the songs, which helps when vocals don’t quite cut through as well as revealing the multi-part complexity of the lyrics.

Sarah McCullough as Patience
Sarah McCullough as Patience

The Savoyards show off some excellent Pittsburgh area talent. Some standouts from Saturday night’s performance were Sarah McCullough as Patience with a nice balance of naivety and wisdom along with a nice voice. Michael Greenstein was perfect as the fleshy and pretentious Reginald Bunthorne with a great sense of physical comedy and timing. Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane singing Sad is a Woman’s Lot drew lots of sympathy and laughs from the women in the audience. Zachary Wood shows off his performance experience and vocal training as Archibald Grosvenor.

The scenic elements are nicely painted with the decorations capturing the era’s fascination with all things Egyptian. The large cast requires a lot of period costumes. I particularly liked Designer Ellen Rosen’s costumes for the four leads.

Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane
Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane

Patience originally premiered in London in 1881, and later that year moving to the larger Savoy Theatre.  Henceforth, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas would be known as the Savoy Operas, and both fans and performers of Gilbert and Sullivan would come to be known as “Savoyards.” Another bit of interesting theatre trivia; Patience was the first theatrical production in the world to be lit entirely by electric light.

A good measure of any company’s production is noticing the pleasure the actors have in their performance, in other words, are they having fun and enjoying their craft. By that measure and the mission to expose the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan to contemporary audiences, this show is a success and worth of the opportunity to see one of their lesser-known works.

The Pittsburgh Savoyards continue their 79th season in spring with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. Performances continue March 9-12, 2017 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie. All performances except for the 2:30pm Sunday matinees are at 8pm. Click here for more information. 

Thanks to the Pittsburgh Savoyards for the complimentary tickets.

Photos by Lauren Stanley.