Macbeth

19466329_1710954552531860_4629879117822679369_oAn appreciation for the true essence of ensemble theatre, the electricity of enthusiasm and kinetic nerves that can pulsate through members of a troupe, is something that is not often considered or discussed in modern dramaturgy. While there are certainly a preponderance of awards specifically honoring the strength of ensembles, the actual spirit of ensemble acting or the dynamics which emerge from the productions put on by troupes, is somewhat lost on modern audiences. In the New Renaissance Theatre Company’s recent outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Tragedie of Macbeth, actively challenged and both the conventions of modern theatrical staging and the conceptions of ensemble interactions.

This recent staging, which was paired with the Company’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew, was designed specifically to capture the Shakespearean vision for theatrical productions, specifically of his own works (if, of course, you believe they were indeed his own). This staging of The Tragedie of Macbeth was prefaced—after an impressive, charmingly anachronistic sonorous introduction by two of the company members singing a very impassioned rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Trouble”—by the prompter for the show explaining the historical precedent for an outdoor, unrehearsed performance of Shakespearean theatre. Explaining the fear of creative theft and wanton reproduction in the absence of copyright laws, the prompter emphasized the importance of spontaneity in performance style and the irreproducibility of the scripts that the actors would work have to work with in their nightly stagings. Not only would actors not have the chance to rehearse their lines and stage directions for the highly demanding pieces they would have to perform each night (and often in a different locale every night), but each actor would be dependent upon a scroll that would only contain their own lines, in the hopes of preserving the integrity of the whole play. This production of Macbeth, part of the innovative Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, forced the actors to rely on not only just a scroll of parchment with only their lines transcribed upon it, but was also completely unpracticed (or, at least, relatively “unpracticed,” given the inability for a modern thespian to exist in a vacuum which Shakespeare or Macbeth cannot permeate) rendition of the play. Moreover, the Company’s production braving the element outdoors added to the purist authenticity of the production.

The results, while at times anxiety-inducing given the precarious weather, were invigorating if not a little a disjointed. Granted, a fair amount of the disjointedness of the production can be attributed to the show’s lack of rehearsal—and, to the Company’s credit of authenticity, the actors relied impressively on a prompter for the entirety of the show as performers in the Shakespearean era would have. The production of Macbeth, while occasionally interrupted by modern disruptions like helicopters and planes, was enlivening, and the actors’ stamina and commitment to their cohesion, remarkable. The interconnectivity of the actors truly highlighted the potential of ensemble acting to be a beautiful beast in its own right—though, forced to single out, the Duncan, Lady Macbeth, and beloved witches truly stood out. The New Renaissance Theatre Company aptly lived up to the challenged they set out for themselves. And what is more, getting to hear a grown man with a beard belt out Kesha’s “Tik Tok” as a way of distraction from an interrupting plane was a delight, and probably had Shakespeare (or whoever actually penned Macbeth) sneering from his grave.

The New Renaissance Theatre Company’s productions of Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew sadly have both already closed but if you’d like to know more about New Ren and their Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, click here. 

Resounding Sound

5d4-5133-copy-2_origI didn’t know much about Texture Contemporary Ballet’s Resounding Sound before arriving at the New Hazlett Theater. I was a fill in for another writer that had fallen ill, so I only really knew the time and the place. I walked into the theater to take my seat and I was automatically intrigued. The stage was level with the ground the seats were cascaded like bleachers, knowing that was here to see a contemporary ballet performance I was thrilled, I would be able to see everything!

The show starts and the band (for lack of better words, it was simply a vocal artist accompanied by guitar) is highlighted above the stage and begins to sing, and the dancers come out and I’m instantaneously thrilled. When I was a performer myself, we had this joke that we always wanted to give our best performance especially in ensemble numbers, to truly let our personality shine through because a critic that came to review a show we had previously performed said that they were “blown away by the 3rd ensemble member from the right”. Fast forward 11 years later and I found my very own 3rd ensemble member from the right, a dance student from Point Park University named DaMond Garner. I can’t explain how or why he was so captivating, but he demanded my attention from the first second that he stepped onto the stage and I was happy to give it to him. Upon exit my girlfriend said the same thing to me, she was mesmerized. (Thank you for such a great show, DaMond)

The show itself was a unique experience for me. The band, Sacramento-based musicians, Justin Edward Keim and Vincent Randazzo, were singing songs that I was unfamiliar with but loved, very reminiscent of a John Mayer singing his own version of Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane. The dancers turned these songs into love stories that revolved around the theme “A Twist of Fate”. The performance was short, only lasting about 45 minutes with no breaks or intermissions, but they took us on such a beautiful journey in that little bit of time.

The choreography was elegant and beautiful. At times I thought the dancers were out of sync and then they came back together instantly, which honestly is genius when you consider that they were telling stories about love. Perfectly imperfect is what I would call the work that Artistic Director and Dancer Alan Obuzor prepared for Resounding Sound. If you are familiar with the work of Mia Michaels, I would highly recommend you attend anything that he has to offer to the stage in the future. Along with Assistant Artistic Director Kelsey Bartman, he delivered an extremely original and passionate performance.

Overall, I truly feel like they can separate the band from the dancing each can stand on their own as a great show.  This was an absolutely beautiful performance from Texture Contemporary Ballet, which is in their 7th season, and now that I’m aware of what they do and how well they do it I am looking forward to what they have to deliver to us next. They will return to the New Hazlett Theater September 29 – October 1 2017 for Boundless. Can’t wait to see you all there.

For more information on Texture Contemporary Ballet, check out their website here. 

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.

Wonder of the World

WonderoftheWorldLittle Lake Theatre’s production of Wonder of the World is a zany madcap comedy populated by characters who are just a bit off center. What is normal these days?

As the play opens, a young woman from Brooklyn named Cass is preparing to leave her husband Kip. She has recently discovered his collection of Barbie heads while arranging his sweater drawer and he confesses to an unusual sexual fetish,

Kip arrives home unexpectedly with a surprise make-up gift of trout aspic for lunch. Through the course of rapid-fire zany “I’m leaving”, “Please don’t” banter, it becomes quite obvious these two characters are at the opposite end of the spectrum in just about every aspect of their public and private lives.

After she disentangles herself from Kip, Cass hops a bus to Niagara Falls in search of freedom, enlightenment and a chance to check off a few items from her voluminous personal bucket list. On the bus, she winds up sitting next to Lois, a suicidal alcoholic with a barrel. She is on her way to the Falls and one can easily guess why.

wonder07Cass has the boundless energy and inquisitiveness of a puppy which is the last thing the alcohol infused Lois needs. However, lunch in the form of trout aspic wins her over and they bond. Next scene, they are sharing a hotel room at the Falls, complete with the mother lode of a well-stocked mini bar. Lois is pleased.

In order to research how the barrel-over-the-falls thing might work for Lois, she and Cass decide to take a trip on the “Maid of the Mist”. Here we meet an older couple Karla and Glen (hold that thought) and Mike, the handsome widower tour boat captain. After meeting  Mike, Cass decides to check off an item from her list by sleeping with a ship’s Captain.

Turns out Karla and Glen are a pair of bickering and bumbling private detectives hired by Kip to track down Cass.  In reality, they are really just down on their luck yarn shop owners who decide to be detectives to make a few bucks.

(left to right) Jacob Wadsworth as Kip, Arjun Kumar as Captain Mike, and Renee Ruzzi-Kern as Janie
(left to right) Jacob Wadsworth as Kip, Arjun Kumar as Captain Mike, and Renee Ruzzi-Kern as Janie

Just to round out the fun, there is a woman on the boat who has lost her hair , a helicopter pilot who drinks while flying, three waitresses at three different themed restaurants and a clown therapist on parole.

Wonder of the World was written by David Lindsay-Abaire who previously wrote Fuddy Meers. Both works show off his madcap imagination and snappy dialogue writing style.

The ensemble cast is led by Elizabeth Glyptis who plays Cass to perfection as a delightful victim of unfocused ADD whose words careen out of her mouth with little connection between thoughts or sentences for that matter.

Jacob Wadsworth portrayal of Kip leans towards that of a gay man, which further reinforces the inherent incompatibility of Cass and Kip as a married couple. His opening scene begging Cass to not leave him is a bit over the top, not quite as hysterical as was perhaps intended. Wadsworth demonstrates good comedic timing skills in his portrayal.

You would not necessarily expect an alcoholic on a bender to be the sane one of the group, but Leah Hillgrove’s portrayal of Lois provides a breath of relative calm and draws in our sympathies. The scene with Cass and Lois on the bus is just perfection. Her facial expressions are subtle and spot on.

David Hoffman as Glen and Marianne Shaffer as Karla, are the down and out yarn shop owners turned detectives. They perfectly portray the long-married couple. The scene where they are searching the girl’s hotel room as Glen can’t keep his mouth shut and Karla tries her best to stifle him was delightful.

Captain Mike, played by Arjun Kumar, is probably the most “normal” character in the show. There was a missed comedic opportunity as Cass was trying to seduce him in the wheelhouse of the “Maid of the Mist”.

(left to right) Arjun Kumar as Captain Mike, Renee Ruzzi-Kern as waitress, and Elizabeth Glyptis as Cass
(left to right) Arjun Kumar as Captain Mike, Renee Ruzzi-Kern as waitress, and Elizabeth Glyptis as Cass

Renee Ruzzi-Kern plays the other six characters, the best of which is the “who cares it’s just another flight over the Falls” helicopter pilot. She is also the Clown Therapist, which is a challenge to draw our attention late in the show with all these other crazy people on stage.

Physical comedy is not easy to pull off yet Director Jena Oberg brings the ensemble together quite effectively. The show is complex in its staging with multiple scene locations and her experience with Little Lakes in-the-round stage pays off.

Little Lake’s veteran Prop Master Pam Pasternak once again demonstrates her gift of creating effective settings with no scenery, just props. Program credit is not given for lighting or sound design, but both were quite effective in setting the mood of the scenes. On opening night, the run crew was spot on with their cues. Kudo’s to Technical Director Andrew Seay.

Cass’s journey of enlightenment on the way out of her marriage and into the Falls brought joy and smiles to the audience, to the point of people almost falling out of their seats with laughter, a perfect escape for a hot summer night.

Wonder of the World at the Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. Performances on July 21st  & 22nd , 27th to 30th and August 1st to 3rd.

For tickets visit http://www.littlelake.org/box-office/  or call 724-745-6300

Special thanks to Little Lake for the complimentary tickets. Photos courtesy of James Orr. 

Intermezzo

intermezzoPittsburgh Festival Opera continues to make good on its promise of producing Richard Strauss rarities, and for the fourth consecutive summer has revived one of the composer’s lesser known works. The company last year set the bar as high as it seemingly could go with its magnificent performances of The Silent Woman, but that was pretty much the same impression the previous summer’s Capriccio performances left, as did Ariadne on Naxos the summer before. Next summer will see what the company can do with Arabella, but last night’s performance of Intermezzo (another Pennsylvania first) was a quite excellent evening of majestic music and comedy.

The story of Intermezzo is based (and only somewhat loosely) on misunderstandings which occurred between the composer and his wife. In the early 1900’s, a letter meant for a conductor was sent by a woman to Strauss in error. His wife opened and read the letter, and it was with the greatest of difficulty that Strauss was able to convince her of his innocence. A separate incident, involving Mrs. Strauss’ head being briefly turned by a man who later tried to get money from her, is incorporated into the mix. Strauss apparently thought that setting these events to music – without telling his wife the plot of his latest opera – was a good idea. The composer describes the work as a “Bürgerliche Komödie mit sinfonischen Zwischenspielen,” and that mouthful translates into a “bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes.”

Robert (Ryan Milstead) confronts Christine (Meghan DeWald) about the drawing that Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) made of her.
Robert (Ryan Milstead) confronts Christine (Meghan DeWald) about the drawing that Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) made of her.

Strauss’ usual librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wanted nothing to do with the project. Strauss was turned down by a couple of other writers, and one wrote text that wasn’t quite what Strauss had in mind. Hermann Bahr, a distinguished German critic and author, who had written the draft which hadn’t impressed Strauss, suggested that he write the book himself. Strauss becomes “Robert Storch,” a famous conductor in the finished opera, and his wife, Pauline, is represented by “Christine.” The story goes that after the opera premiered in Dresden in 1924, soprano Lotte Lehmann (who had just created the role of Christine) congratulated the startled Pauline Strauss on the “marvelous present” her husband had given her. There are a couple of versions of her response to Lehmann, all containing the word “damn.”

Like a number of his other operas, Strauss’ Intermezzo includes no overture – the singers hit the ground running within seconds of the orchestra’s first tones. The composer’s majestic orchestration, complex, ravishingly beautiful, and virtually continuous, is one of the finest features of this work, and it was played remarkably well and conducted with a thorough sympathy with the music by Brett McMunn. He has demonstrated before that he is quite capable of bringing Strauss’ colorful scores vividly to life, and he proved his abilities again last night. The stamina of the instrumentalists made his vision possible, and all are to be congratulated on a performance that greatly pleased the audience.

Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) bringing Christine (Meghan DeWald) flowers.
Baron Lummer (Jason Slayden) bringing Christine (Meghan DeWald) flowers.

The lion’s share of the opera falls on the shoulders of the leading soprano role, Christine Storch. The part is astonishingly difficult. Almost continuously she must deliver a huge amount of text at a breakneck speed, with few moments of slowly sustained singing. Demanding half-spoken, half-sung “patter” to use of the uppermost flights of the soprano range in rafter-rattling fortissimo passages, it’s by no means a role for the faint of heart. Only the most highly skilled of singing actresses can hope to make a success of the part, and last night Meghan DeWald did exactly that. In voice, action, appearance and more she was outstanding. This remarkably gifted woman gave a performance encompassing the use of a magnificent voice and charming, comedic acting skills that aren’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon by those on hand last night to see and hear her.

Strauss modestly confines his counterpart, Robert Storch, the conductor, to a comparatively short portion of the first act, bringing him more to the fore in the second, but this does not mean that the role is an easy one. Ryan Milstead sang and acted the role quite well, and the chemistry between he and Ms. DeWald was rather enchanting, and the comic bickering between the two, which could not hide a deep and abiding love between the two characters, was great fun throughout. Maggie Burr, as Anna, the long-suffering maid, was a comic delight who sang the part well and did more acting with her face than many can do with their entire bodies. Jason Slayden, as “Baron Lummer,” the young Lothario type who briefly captures Christine’s half-hearted fancy, certainly looked the part and has a voice which is quite pleasing.

Ryan Milstead as Robert Storch.
Ryan Milstead as Robert Storch.

For the most part, the other roles are sung (or spoken), in the second act, and all were in the hands of artists who made the most of their opportunities – and the audience wish that their parts were larger. Adam Hollick was quite engaging as the lawyer Christine visits in her attempt to start divorce proceedings against the quite innocent Robert, and here again the entertaining results came largely through the chemistry he shared with Ms. DeWald. Others who came and went all too quickly were Elise Mark (the attorney’s wife), Robert Chafin (Stroh), Robert Gerold (A Commercial Counselor), Evan Koons (A Legal Counselor), Adam Cioffari (A Celebrated Singer), Marie Anello (Fanny), Lori Carrau (Marie) and Heather Hale (Resi). A charming young lad named Jake Blackledge spoke a few lines as the Storchs’ son Franzl, and won all when he offered his distraught mother a teddy bear.

The ensemble, including Thomas Cilluffo, Diego Del Valle, Kelsey Fredriksen, Chunghee Lee, Francesca Molinaro, John Teresi and Terriq White, had their work cut out for them, mainly in the shifting of the opera’s numerous scenes. Some of these were quite effective, and thanks to Hank Bullington’s innovative projection and scenic designs, the audience was treated to children (Maggie Belliston, Sasha Cowan, Lila Weber and Simon Weber) tobogganing in snow, and at one point saw a large opera audience staring back at them.

Only one performance remains – Sunday, July 23, at 2:30 p.m. Please see and hear this Strauss rarity that you’re not likely to have a chance at any time soon, locally or otherwise!

For tickets and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The Production Team for Intermezzo –

 Conductor, Brent McMunn; Director, Jonathan Eaton; English Translation, Andrew Porter; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Pianists, Stephen Variames and Soo-Yeon Park; Costume Design, Krista Ivan; Lighting Design, Madeleine Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Rikkilee Rose; Assistant Director, Eunbi Cho; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Lauren Wickett and Katy Click

Photography – Patti Brahim

Newsies

20106537_10154782789481696_7925143825675537356_nBelieve it or not, times used to be harder for those with a career in the journalism industry.   

No clear victor has emerged in this war between modern journalists and their cantankerous subjects who cry “Fake news!” in the face of all negative press. Unless you consider late night TV talk shows who need look no further than current headlines to find material for a week’s worth of broadcasts.

There’s a similar battle brewing that pits those who write the news against those who make it at the Benedum Center in Disney’s Newsies presented by Pittsburgh CLO.

Fortunately, the titular characters of this show—a ragtag group of poor young men selling newspapers on the streets of New York City—are aided in telling their underdog story (based on the actual Newsboys strike of 1899) by toe-tapping Tony-winning tunes courtesy of iconic composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman and supported by a production that literally leaps off the stage and into your heart.

Joey Barreiro and Daniel Quadrino
Joey Barreiro and Daniel Quadrino

When the illustrious publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the price that the delivery boys must pay for their daily stack of newspapers, a dreamer named Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) quickly becomes the face of a strike and leader of a newly established newsie union. What Jack desires most is to leave the closed off Big Apple for the wide open plains of Santa Fe. Still, he knows that his true responsibility is to his colorful band of fellow newsies including his handicapped best friend Crutchie (Daniel Quadrino) and a new-to-the-game brother duo, Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and Les (William Sendera).

With Jack’s heart and Davey’s brains the only thing left for the union to acquire is a voice. They find one in what was, at the time, the most unlikely of sources, a female reporter. After a series of run-ins with Jack, including one at a vaudeville theater owned and headlined by the brassy yet classy Medda Larkin (another bravura turn by Patricia Phillips, last seen and raved about by me in CLO’s In The Heights), Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) follows and shepherds the story of the strike all the way to the front page.

Cameron Anika Hill, Patricia Phillips & Carina-Kay Louchiey
Cameron Anika Hill, Patricia Phillips & Carina-Kay Louchiey

Katherine and the newsies tangle with a variety other baddies, including the shady detention center warden nicknamed Snyder “the Spider” (Connor McCanlus), but when the word “Disney” is in the billing, you know how the story is going to end.

That doesn’t make the journey to the show’s tidy, hopeful ending any less satisfying though. For that, we owe the acrobatic and hunky male ensemble our thanks and unanimous slack-jawed expressions of amazement. With only a first name and a creative variation on Dixon Reynolds’ authentic newsie ensemble, each actor distinguishes his character from the others with memorable line readings. As Spot Conlon and Race respectively, Sky Bennett and Michael James carried the banner most admirably and adorably.

Richard J. Hinds is the only member of the ensemble that we don’t see onstage, but his ebullient direction and choreography is the backbone of the production. He provides both actors and audience with a much needed breather from the gymnastic wizardry by employing dynamically stark march sequences during a few of the show’s many dance breaks.

DSC_6833-RETOUCH_1Four people who know those dance breaks all too well are Newsies veterans and lead the cast in the roles of Jack, Katherine, Crutchie, and Davey. In the show’s often-reprised signature theme “Santa Fe”, Barreiro’s transcendent final notes shoot far past New Mexico somewhere into the stratosphere and bring down the Act I curtain with the sheer force of their gravity. He is extremely well-matched by Laird who conveys a winning wit in her difficult patter “Watch What Happens”.

Bruce Brockman’s urban-industrial sets evoke West Side Story during group scenes and Romeo and Juliet during Jack and Katherine’s romantic Act II duet.

Crutchie and Davey’s characters are the closest that this show gets to tragedy, but the inner warmth they both display couldn’t be more uplifting. On one healthy leg, Quadrino stands tallest with a smile and a spirit that could light up the whole theater. While I wish that Langton sang more, it was lovely to witness Davey’s arc as living proof of the positive effects of male fraternity.

DSC_6350-RETOUCH_1Sharing the byline, as book writer, alongside Menken and Feldman is a legend in his own right, Harvey Fierstein. They originally envisioned Newsies as nothing more than a licensing opportunity for regional and amateur theaters. The original 1992 film, starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale was a massive flop, but it gained a huge cult following in the intervening years.

Everything changed when the show premiered at the Papermill Playhouse in 2011 to rave reviews. The production was fast tracked to Broadway where it ran for over two years and inspired its own fervent legion of admirers called “Fansies”.

You may feel silly counting yourself among the Fansies, but there’s no better argument for their cause than Hinds’ electric production of one of Disney Theatrical’s strongest outings. It does what every successful musical is supposed to, inspires audiences sing and dance about what the characters are singing and dancing about.

Newsies plays through July 23rd at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

Peter Pan

Peter-Pan-Production-PosterComtra Theatre brings to the stage Peter Pan, fitting for both children and adults. This musical will have you soaring away with laughter as you fly to Neverland. A couple of special features in this production are the pirate band playing in a balcony above, and a casting of young actors/actresses.

Peter Pan is primarily focused around the Darling family, more specifically Wendy Darling, the eldest child. When Wendy finds an unknown boy, Peter Pan, crying in her bedroom it begins their magical adventure to a land where no one grows up. This rendition slightly combines Disney’s two movies of Peter Pan – where Wendy is a child and an adult.

Mandie Russak, who played Peter Pan, brought such a powerful voice to her character. Her singing elevated the roof of the building as her voice filled the entire room. She did a perfect job enveloping Peter Pan’s personality – spunky, childish, yet with a touch of seriousness. Russak was great with the child actors and actresses and always had a smile on her face.

An interesting part about Comtra is it is set up as a “theatre in the round,” or a stage that is surrounded by an audience. This creates a smaller stage, yet more inclusiveness between the actors and audience, thus breaking that fourth wall. It also creates the issue of occasionally having the character’s back towards you – which can be irritating at times. The actors used the whole room to their advantage – from running up the aisles, to appearing from hidden doors located in the corners of the area.

Captain Hook, played by Brady Patsy, is a fuming pirate looking for revenge on Peter Pan for cutting off his hand, leaving him to use a hook as a replacement. Patsy made Hook both a lovable and hateful character. There were funny moments where Captain Hook would get caught in a trap or mistake and Patsy would exaggerate the situation. There were also serious moments that sent shivers down your spine as Patsy sang of “killing all the children.”

The most adorable part of this musical was actually during intermission. A couple of the pirates, along with Tinkerbell, came out and interacted with the audience! The pirates did a splendid job swarming in the kids to get them playing along and taking pictures – even giving them little pirate hats. Tinkerbell, played by Lyla Rose Petrucci, was the most favored participant for pictures.

The child actors were just as precious – from the two little Darling boys – Domenic Petrucci (Michael) and Brett Barthelemy (John), to the Lost Boys – Connor Benson (Slightly), Todd Turner (Tootles), Michael Petrucci (Curly), Noelle Errafaq (Nibs, and Rylan and Reegan Corbin (1st and 2nd twin). They all did a very wonderful job delivering their lines and I was extraordinarily impressed. I give all the little ones a special applause for their courage and willingness to work hard to do this show. Although, it did seem that the Lost Boys were a bit out-of-hand at times – such as when they were all grouped together in a scene. They all did very well, but I would have liked to see a bit more discipline with them.

There were many times when I had difficulty hearing an actor or actress sing or speak. I had no issue being able to hear Russak and Patsy, since they exhorted their voices so well. But everyone else I did have to strain. It was either the band playing too loud at times, or the sound wasn’t turned up fully to pick up the voices, or they simply needed to speak up. In addition to not being able to hear some of the characters, I really wanted to be able to hear Jane’s, played by Olivia DeJeet, narration throughout the musical. Rarely could I hear a word that she spoke. It was either a technicality issue with the microphone she had, or she simply did not know how to speak through it.

A fun addition to the musical was the bands participating. They were all dressed up as pirates and pianist Nick Stamatakis, who played as Mullens, would talk to Captain Hook – such as asking him what tempo to play the music they were about to sing along with. It was even hilarious when Captain Hook accidentally shot Mullens, then Mullens threw himself down onto the piano. Captain Hook also accidentally shot the trombone player and he, too, fell to the ground. Their participation was such a delightful addition to the whole show.

Unfortunately, Peter Pan has already closed but you can see musicals each month and a comedy show at the end of every month at Comtra Theatre in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. Tickets range in price and can be purchased online at www.comtratheatre.org. The next comedy show will be MYQ Kaplan at Comtra Theatre from July 28-29 where tickets will be $25 in advance and $28 at the door.  The next musical will be Little Shop of Horrors running from August 4-19 and tickets will be $15.

The Liar

KINETIC-LIAR-SMALL-RECTANGLEClassical theatre has a reputation among the American public for being stuffy, cumbersome, and just plain boring.  Anyone who has seen a well-performed Shakespeare knows what hogwash this is, but if any more proof were needed, Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of The Liar, adapted by David Ives and directed by Andrew Paul, provides a stunning example of just how relevant and entertaining the classics remain.  A metatheatrical goose chase, it packs in seduction, dueling, and mistaken identities while uncovering a poignant truth under a mountain of lies.

The Liar, originally penned by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille, has been conscripted by Ives, a contemporary American playwright with a taste for the absurd.  Although the play takes a few twists and turns, the basic premise is this: a young man, Dorante (Ethan Saks), who cannot tell the truth adopts a valet, Cliton (Patrick Halley), who cannot tell a lie.  He quickly falls in love with an unknown woman, Clarice (Erika Strasburg), but fails to get her name and winds up getting the name of her close friend, Lucrece (Sarah Silk), instead.  He proceeds to pursue the friend, thinking only his beauty could be named Lucrece, and hilarity ensues.  Oh, and the whole play is written in verse, as the original was (Ives stretches some of the rhymes for comedic effect).

Patrick Halley as Cliton and Ethan Saks as Dorante in Kinetic Theatre's THE LIAR
Patrick Halley as Cliton and Ethan Saks as Dorante in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR

Dorante tries to sum up the lesson tidily in his ending monologue: “How liars are punishèd by their own lies!/Was not the moral of this exercise -/But rather how, amidst life’s contradictions,/Our lives can far out-fick the finest fictions.”  But what Dorante goes on to say rings even more true: that although the entirety of the play has been a “lie,” this makes it no less full of truth, since that is the essence of theatre, finding truth in a fiction.  The performance has built up to this conclusion, since it has been self-aware from the start, and the characters constantly remind us that we are watching a play.  One of the more humorous instances comes about when Alcippe (Charlie Francis Murphy) exclaims in the middle of a fight with Clarice, “Is this a stage?!  Are these just props?!” and flips a plate of colorful macaroons that stay attached to the plate, shrieking in horror.

Erika Strasburg as Clarice and Sarah Silk as Lucrece in Kinetic Theatre's THE LIAR
Erika Strasburg as Clarice and Sarah Silk as Lucrece in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR

Although he thinks himself quick and clever, and in spite of all the recurring references from Othello, Dorante is no scheming Iago.  He may have the skill to fool earnest Cliton, but his plots fall apart and he must constantly bolster his wild fabrications with more.  A self-centered troublemaker, Saks still plays Dorante with a charm that makes it impossible to dislike him.  He may not be the dominant figure on stage at the start, but by the end of the show, he somehow has everything well in hand.  Yet the cast as a whole work strongly as a unit.  They interchange the fast-paced verse convincingly and without faltering.  Saks and Murphy, though they have swords in scabbards, fight an intense and physical “air” duel with invisible blades, and even invisible lightsabers, brought to life with Angela Baughman’s sound design.  Strasburg and Silk give us feisty and quick-witted love interests in Clarice and Lucrece, who are no dummies, even if they are susceptible to a charming liar.

Julianne Avolio as Isabelle and Patrick Halley as Cliton in Kinetic Theatre's THE LIAR
Julianne Avolio as Isabelle and Patrick Halley as Cliton in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR

Gianni Downs’s scenic design, Kim Brown’s costuming, and Johnmichael Bohach’s props all work together to convey just enough of a sense of seventeenth century Paris to ground the setting (intricate scrollwork, shoulder capes and rapiers, elegant furniture), and yet tweak these styles to make the production contemporary and playful.  Downs’s design of large blue-washed panels at skewed angles convey the sense of a maze or a puzzle appropriate for the confusing plot.  Brown’s costuming is tailored to each character.  Dorante is outfitted in an orange-peach color (perhaps as a wink and nudge to the Donald) with lace cuffs, setting him apart and lending him the air of a dandy. Cliton’s beggarly lifestyle is evidenced in his worn out jeans and a dirtied shirt.  Clarice and Lucrece at the start of the play are made the yin and yang of each other, the outgoing Clarice in a white gown with a black fan, and the introverted Lucrece in a darker gown with a white fan, a clever choice since the women are almost opposites in personality.  The various touches of anachronism onstage, like the jeans or the metallic pink of Clarice’s furniture, suit the anachronisms flying about in verse.

Kinetic Theatre’s production is a timely reminder of how twisted our lives can become with misinformation, but also how important theatre is for speaking the truth, even if through the means of a lie.  Ives’s source may be a couple hundred years old, but the cliché is right, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Liar runs at the Henry Heymann Theatre through July 30. Tickets and more information can be found here. 

Photos courtesy of Rocky Raco.

Xerxes

xerxesPittsburgh Festival Opera gave the first of three performances of Händel’s Xerxes last night, and it was a delightfully rare opportunity to hear this seldom performed “Baroque” music. The work premiered in London in 1738, and flopped after a handful of performances. The famous “Ombra mai fu” opening aria survived to become a standard with concert singers many decades later; is in the repertories of most organists, and has been recorded by tenors, contraltos and counter-tenors from the earliest days of “phonographic” history until the present. But the opera itself virtually disappeared until the 1920’s. Its original production failed because it was not the type of opera early 18th century listeners were accustomed to and enjoyed – the arias were not of the long, three-movement “da capo” variety so popular at the time, and its comic elements were perceived as out of place. Audiences preferred either the comic or tragic, with little tolerance of the middle road, and the admixture of “noble” characters with those of a “common” sort was a distinct deviation from what was acceptable on the stage, to say nothing of life in general in those days.

Händel composed the opera (“Serses” in the original Italian, as that language’s alphabet does not include “x”) to a libretto with a rather complex history. Nicolò Minato wrote the first version, for an opera of the same name by Francesco Cavalli, first heard in Rome in 1654. Silvio Stampiglia adapted Minato’s book for composer Giovanni Bononcini’s 1694 opera. There is some disagreement among music historians regarding who reworked Stampaglia’s version for Händel, but all are loosely based on King Xerxes of ancient Persia and, with slight variations, real people and events in his life.

Andrey Nemzer (Xerxes) with dancers Weylin Gomez and Mils James
Andrey Nemzer (Xerxes) with dancers Weylin Gomez and Mils James

A quick synopsis of the three act opera – Xerxes loves and is determined to marry Romilda, a daughter of Ariodate, one of the king’s generals. But Romilda is also loved by Arsamene, Xerxes’ brother. Atalanta, Romilda’s sister, is in love with Arsamene. Amastre, Xerxes’ abandoned fiancée, disguises herself as a man to seek revenge. Atalanta’s amusing attempts to convince all that Arsamene loves her causes a series of complicated misunderstandings, while the comic servant Elviro pops in and out to liven up the confusion of mistaken identity and love letters helped to fall into the wrong hands. The opera ends with a quick resolution that reunites Xerxes with Amastre, and Arsamene with Romilda. The mighty king is humbly forgiving, Atalanta does not appear to be especially distressed that her sister is the victor in their sibling rivalry, and no one is killed. It takes an exceptional group of singing actors and strong direction to keep up interest in such doings, and Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s production, fortunately, has both.

Bonnie Frauenthal (Atalanta) and Lara Lynn McGill (Romilda)
Bonnie Frauenthal (Atalanta) and Lara Lynn McGill (Romilda)

Written in the age of the castrato, today it is a showpiece for the counter-tenor. Not as strong a work as Händel’s Julius Caesar (which was outstandingly presented by the company last summer) it has been said that the elements of Xerxes that fared so poorly with its first audiences are precisely those which make it so appealing to audiences nearly three centuries later, and that this is true was amply demonstrated last evening. The audience loved it, and the performance ended in an ovation that was quite a roar of approval.

It is doubtful that this would be the case if the production did not have such a strong ensemble of talent, onstage and off. The cast is one of exceptional excellence. The orchestra, augmented by Chatham Baroque’s Andrew Fouts (violin), Patricia Halverson (viola de gamba) and Scott Pauley (theorbo) was conducted by Walter Morales, and the last named gentleman has proven on several occasions that he truly understands and loves the music of this genre. He proved it again last night quite successfully. Metropolitan Opera director Dan Rigazzi returned to work the same wonders he did with Julius Caesar, and the production as a whole is a well-choreographed, colorfully costumed and entertaining evening, despite a slight monotony in some of the music and a comparatively mild plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit a mighty king.

James Eder (Elviro), background, and Daniel Moody (Arsamene)
James Eder (Elviro), background, and Daniel Moody (Arsamene)

Andrey Nemzer, in the title role, made the most of the demanding music written for the character. Händel screws the tessitura up to a very high register, and pretty much keeps it there throughout. Nemzer was formidable in appearance, and poured out the vocal line with apparent ease, a feat quite impossible for all but the most highly skilled and talented performer of this vocal range. His voice is huge and brilliant, and his singing and acting of the fatiguing role pleased the audience greatly. Fellow counter-tenor Daniel Moody, as Arsamene, made a fine showing with the vastly more varied music Händel wrote for his role. His performance was a highlight of the evening, despite costuming, makeup and hair designs which gave him a slightly disconcerting resemblance to a carnival’s bearded lady.

Lara Lynn McGill sang the demanding role of Romilda quite effectively. As she has proven on a number of occasions in this and other roles, her voice is one of great strength and beauty, and of exquisite color in both sustained fortissimo passages and the most delicate pianissimo tones. She acts with

Emily Harmon (Amastre)
Emily Harmon (Amastre)

subtle nuances that are quite effective, and in appearance presents a vision of blonde beauty that would have quite startled the inhabitants of ancient Persia. Bonnie Frauenthal, as Romilda’s sister Atalanta, sang the role’s music quite impressively, and acted the part with a charming sense of comic innocence. She, too, was an audience favorite.

Emily Harmon, as Amastre, displayed her velvety mezzo-soprano voice to its best advantage in the more sustained passages of the last act. James Eder (Elviro) was a comic delight, and his bass voice is one of ample quality and quantity. Evan Koons (Ariodate) made the most of a role that offers little opportunity until the third and final act, displaying a powerful bass and an engaging flare for comic timing.

Evan Koons (Ariodate)
Evan Koons (Ariodate)

Dancers Weylin Gomez and Mils James underlined much of the action with exotic and picturesque effectiveness. A talented ensemble, consisting of Nicolas Barilar, Richard Block, Diego Del Valle, Rodolfo Giron, Chunghee Lee, Francesca Molinaro, Hannah Shea, Emily Weaver, and Terriq White, much like the majority of the leading singers, enunciated the surprisingly good English translation with much clarity.

Xerxes will be repeated only twice, tomorrow at the 2 p.m. matinee, and July 22 at 7:30, and lovers of beautiful singing of Baroque music are highly encouraged to take advantage of this impressive production.

For tickets, a more detailed synopsis, interesting historical facts and much more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The Production Team for Xerxes –

Director, Daniel Ragazzi; Conductor, Walter Morales; Assistant Conductor, Jon Erik Schreiber; Pianists, Steven Liening and Yu-Ju Wu; Choreographer, Greer Reed; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Costume Design, Tony Sirk; Lighting Design, Bob Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Rikkilee Rose; Assistant Director, Briana Sosenheimer; Stage Manager, Emma Squire; Assistant Stage Managers, Courtney Chaplin and Lauren Wickett.

Photography: Patti Brahim

Seussical: The Musical!

19905103_10154584224746976_3001960794833566987_nApple Hill Playhouse has a hit on its hands with the Orchard Performing Arts Company’s production of Seussical.

Not to let the cat out of the bag,

Or in this case out of the hat,

Before we get through the usual stuff,

And bypass all the frivolous fluff,

Mitchell Aiello’s Cat in the Hat

At the Apple Hill Playhouse,

Is where it’s at!

Theodor Seuss Geisel began writing children’s books under the name “Dr. Seuss” back in the 1950s, so there is a pretty good chance everyone in the world is familiar with at least a couple of his stories. Seussical the Musical blends together three of his most popular books, “Horton Hears a Who!”, “Horton Hatches the Egg” and “Miss Gertrude McFuzz”, and includes other well-known characters.

Mitchell Aiello’s portrayal of the Cat in the Hat, serves as the musical’s narrator and tells the story of Horton, an elephant, who discovers a speck of dust that contains the Whos. On that speck is Jojo, a Who child that was sent off to military school for thinking too many “thinks.” Not only must Horton protect the Whos from a world of naysayers and dangers, but he also took on the responsibility to guard an abandoned egg, left in his care by its mother, the irresponsible Mayzie La Bird. As you can imagine Horton gets a lot of grief from his friends for sitting on an egg. An elephant sitting on an egg is a “sitting duck” for hunters, who capture Horton and ship him and the egg off to the circus. Horton’s dedication to the protection of the egg and the Whos cause him to have to stand trial for being a crazy elephant. Through it all, Gertrude McFuzz, a blue bird with a serious tail problem, never loses faith in him. Will the egg hatch? Will the Whos be heard? Will Horton realize that Gertrude loves him? Don’t worry, Horton’s not crazy!

seussical 4Have you been to a community theatre production? “If you never did you should. These things are fun, and fun is good.” Dr. Seuss

This production brings together a group of experienced actors playing the lead characters coupled with an ensemble of interesting new and experienced performers rounding out the large cast.

Playing the Cat in the Hat is Mitchell Aiello. He’s is a rising star with delicious physical comedy skills, wonderfully flexible facial expressions and a strong voice. He dominates the stage and your attention, easily drawing you into the silly yet serious world of Dr. Seuss. Aiello is a native of Detroit, let’s hope he stays around Pittsburgh for a while before some Broadway show snatches him up.

The cast shows off the depth of the Pittsburgh areas’ acting talent pool.  Stand outs include local Lisa Bompiani-Smith with a great singing voice as the delightfully sour Kangaroo. Jake Grantz is the loveable Horton who grows on you as the show progresses. By requirement, he is a big guy, in a big grey costume, playing a big elephant, yet his portrayal of Horton, particularly nurturing the egg, is quite touching.

Since Jojo was sent off to military school, there, of course, must be the nasty over-powering drill sergeant character, here played to comedic perfection by Timothy Tolbert. Not a lot of stage time for Tolbert, but when he is on, he’s captivating.

seussical 5Kate Kratzenberg has one of the best singing voices in the cast and gets to put it to good use as lazy Mayzie La Bird, the lovable floozy who convinces Horton to sit on her egg for a couple hours. Then she flies off to Palm Beach for a year, leaving poor Horton: “I said what I’d do and I did what I said”. At the opposite end of bird loyalty is the ever-faithful Gertrude McFuzz, who, while missing a bunch of tail feathers, has a great pair of feathered glasses and a huge crush on Horton. She has two numbers to show off her vocal chops and make Horton one happy elephant singing “All For You”.

Director Timothy Dougherty has pulled together a uniformly engaging cast of experienced veterans and newcomers and showcases their talents well. Aided by Choreographer Elisa Kosetelnik, they successfully wrangle the large cast, including a number of children, on the relatively small Apple Hill stage.

There are many up and coming children performers in Seussical that have great supporting roles.  The young man playing Jojo, Zachary Gilkey held his own amongst the productions seasoned performers. As he matures into his voice we can expect great things from him.

If you haven’t been to Apple Hill before, the theatre is an intimate space in a converted barn. It is cozy enough that body mics are not required. The set design by Jen James captures the bright colors, ambiance, and style of Geisel’s book illustrations. Kudos to the design and construction crew who made great use of the charming space, although the creakiness of the wooden platforms resonated alarmingly throughout the performance. The original costume designs of Liza Seiner and Tina Lepidi-Stewart were spot on in conveying the childish simplicity and the primary colors embodied in the original Geisel illustrations.

Seussical 1During this performance, the house was nearly at capacity with a mix of all ages from young children to grandparents. The children in the audience were totally engrossed with the performance.

If you are interested in introducing a young child to the magic of theatre, you couldn’t do better than Seussical the Musical at the Apple Hill Playhouse. It is community theater at its best.

The Orchard Performing Arts Company, Inc. production of Seussical the Musical at the Apple Hill Playhouse with performances at 7:30p.m. on July 14, 15; 20, 21, 22 and 2:00 on July 16. Located off of U.S. Route 22 at 275 Manor Rd in Delmont, PA 15626

For tickets: (724) 468-5050 or boxoffice@applehillplayhouse.org

Special thanks to Apple Hill for the complimentary ticket.

Photos courtesy of Tracey Johnson.