Undercroft Opera Presents Puccini’s “La Rondine.”

RondineUndercroft Opera is performing a Giacomo Puccini “rarity” this weekend at Carlow University’s Antonian Theatre – La Rondine (“The Swallow”), which hasn’t been heard locally since early 1982, when Pittsburgh Opera presented it here for the first time and the newspaper critics went to work panning it as weak operetta with few moments of importance. The work has never been considered one of the composer’s greatest efforts, in part because it is too often unfavorably compared to his Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and so on. But historical fact makes it clear that he had no intention of making it one of his “grand operas” when he was originally approached to work on a piece more in keeping with the popular “Viennese” style of operetta. It has merits that would be considered praiseworthy if they had flowed from the pen of a lesser known composer, and after the opera premiered at Monte Carlo in March 1917, while war raged in surrounding European countries, the composer made a couple of revisions to his score in an attempt to broaden its appeal. But to this day, there is no official “final” version, since Puccini died in 1924 before he could decide on which revision was the last word.

It didn’t reach the Metropolitan Opera in New York until 1928, partly due to the complications of the war, but has never played a particularly large part in that theater’s doings, and revivals there and elsewhere worldwide have been sporadic for the last century. Its comparative unpopularity is something along the lines of berating a Leonardo da Vinci painting that doesn’t measure up to the “Mona Lisa,” for while La Rondine may not be Puccini’s most shining achievement, it has musical beauties in the score that are worth more hearings than they receive. But, in fairness, to say that La Rondine is an underrated masterpiece of the composer wouldn’t be entirely true, either.

Puccini composed the music to an Italian libretto Giuseppe Adami adapted from a German version by Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert. Originally set in mid-19th century Paris, the slight plot revolves around a “kept” woman in search of true love, her circle of acquaintances; her finding true love, and her desertion of it to save the young man and his family’s reputation (even though he doesn’t want to be saved). Of course, there are small side antics and bits of action that make the story more colorful, but not so many as to make great demands on audience appreciation or tax the concentration of the listener. Despite the large cast, most of the vocal demands are made on a few characters, mainly Magda, the leading soprano role. She is the metaphorical “Swallow,” on the wing in search of happiness. Undercroft’s trimmed production moves the action of the first two acts to Prohibition-era New York, while the third takes place on the French Riviera.

There was a great deal of vocal talent on the stage last night. The young singers, colorfully costumed, performed their roles amidst minimalistic but adequately effective staging, and had a reliable and engaging conductor, Brian Gilling, to help them along when needed. While Undercroft’s orchestra produced a more consistent tone than on the one occasion I heard it play last spring, there were still a few rough spots, but Mr. Gilling smoothed them over to the best of his ability, and the players showed a decided improvement in unity and precision. A native of Boston, Mr. Gilling holds bachelors and masters degrees from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music, and hopefully will conduct again in this city in the near future. It’s easy to spot a conductor who is a thorough musician, and Mr. Gilling is just such a leader.

Because the opera tries the strength of only a few of the singers, the cast is able to remain largely intact for performances on three consecutive evenings and an afternoon. The program notes and Undercroft’s website don’t specify as much, but I suspect that the leads heard last night will perform again on Saturday evening, while Carolyn Forte (Magda), Emily Swora (Lisette), Jesse Lowry (Ruggero) and Sarah Marie Nadler (Yvette) will be heard Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

The large ensemble last night (and for the remaining performances) was for the most part handled quite successfully by Joseph Andreola (Rambaldo, Magda’s “keeper”), George Milosh (Prunier, the poet), Caryn Crozier (Bianca), Stephen Kuhn (Périchaud), Naomi Berkey (Lolette), Amanda Lewis (Georgette), Takako Petek (Gabriella) and Namy Joseph Farah (the Butler), while two members did “double duty” – Paul Yeater (Gobin and Adolfo) and Benjamin Zaksek (Crebillon and Rabonnier). They were an entertaining group, and added to the enjoyment of the performance.

Last night’s Magda, Emily Hopkins, brought to the role a strong, brilliant voice, particularly impressive in its upper register, and a smooth sense of legato that allowed her to soar to the higher flights with ease. She was becoming in appearance and made the most of the part’s slight acting opportunities. Shin-Yeong Noh was a delightful Lisette, the maid with singing aspirations. It challenged the imagination to hear such a beautiful voice sing of her failure as a singer! Everything said of Ms. Hopkins may be said in equal degree of Ms. Noh, and her role allowed for comic episodes which she handled quite amusingly. Claudia Brown, as Yvette, made the most that could be made of her role, and sang very effectively.

William Andrews, in the role of Ruggero, sang with a pure tenor voice well suited to Puccini’s music, and showed to much better advantage than he did last summer in Strauss’ The Silent Woman. One or two spots were a trifle high for him to reach with ease, but overall his interpretation was effectively sung and well acted. He was at his best, vocally and histrionically, in the heart-broken bewilderment of Ruggero in the final act.

A crucial Thursday hockey night in Pittsburgh may have had an effect on the opera’s attendance, which wasn’t very large. The opera is well presented, allows highly gifted young singers performance experience, and is well worth the reasonably priced admission. Patronage of the remaining performances is highly recommended. For tickets, please visit Undercroft Opera.

The Production Staff for La Rondine

Brian Gilling, Conductor; Seamus Ricci, Stage Director; Colin Farley, Chorus Master; Hyery Hwang, Vocal Coach; Karen Jeng Lin, Rehearsal Accompanist; Grace Lazos, Assistant Director and English surtitles; Shane Gillen, Assistant Conductor; Krista Ivan, Costumes; Michelle Engleman, Stage Manager; Garth Schafer, Lighting Design/Light Board Operator; Alexis Retcofsky, Light Board Operator; Neil Sederburg, Technical Director; Mary Beth Sederburg, Producer.

Violet

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Front Porch Theatricals’ heavenly production of Violet has a lot of baggage.

Johnmichael Bohach’s rustic, minimalist scenic design is primarily comprised of suitcases, chests, and duffel bags that the actors sit, sleep, and sing on. This concept is not only incredibly creative and whimsical, but it also artfully realizes the themes of travel and identity that are central to the musical.

This show is the explosive kickoff to Front Porch’s summer season, which is being billed as “Journeys & Tall Tales”. Despite premiering Off-Broadway a little more than 20 years ago, the musical probably didn’t register on most people’s radars until it transferred to Broadway from a one-night production at New York City Center in 2014.

Both outings received widespread acclaim including the Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical and a slew of Tony Award nominations. By bringing together an exceptional group of artists all at the tops of their game in this production (which also marks Violet’s Pittsburgh premiere) Front Porch has cemented its reputation as Pittsburgh’s finest producer of musical theatre and the show’s legacy as one of musical theatre’s purest hidden gems.

Bus Ride 4Violet, set during the late summer of 1964, takes you on a wild ride with a disfigured young woman of the same name as she journeys via Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek a life-changing miracle from a TV evangelist. Twelve years before, an incident with a wayward ax blade leaves her with a horrible scar on her face and a broken relationship with her father (Jonathan Visser).

The extended trip introduces her to a host of diverse people and places including a hilariously talkative old lady (Becki Toth) and two handsome soldiers, Flick (Lamont Walker II) and Monty (Daniel Mayhak).

Both men take a keen interest in Violet as her fiery personality and dark past unfold. As an African-American living in a difficult time in history, Flick understands the constant pain Violet suffers always being harshly judged at face value. Monty learns from Violet that he does not have to rely on his machismo and playboy antics to make real connections with people.

Magazine Beauty

When Violet finally reaches Tulsa, her steadfast faith in God is tested. She learns lessons that cannot be summed up by old clichés about beauty. Her truest journey begins at the show’s end. For the first time, it’s one entirely on her own terms with no clear destination.

I know I commended writers Jeanine Tesori (music, also responsible for Fun Home) and Brian Crawley (book/lyrics, also responsible for A Little Princess) for not saddling their skillful adaptation of Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” with tired platitudes defining the “true” meaning of beauty, but I’m going to employ a few now. Like most clichés, these are just true.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in this case, that’s director Robyne Parrish. She deftly navigates Violet through its recurring flashback scenes while ensuring that each moment has equal visual and emotional impact.

At absolutely no fault of Walker, Mayhak or their extraordinary voices, the love triangle their characters are entangled in with Violet just doesn’t work.

Parrish allows that part of the story to shine and illuminates what emerges as the heart of the piece, the resentment festering between Violet and her late father. At my performance, you could hear a pin drop during the sequence where they sing “Look at Me” and “That’s What I Could Do”.

Healing Meeting 3

Two women play Violet, one as an adult (Elizabeth Boyke) and the other at the time of the accident (Samantha Lucas). Like the many actresses before them who took on this role, including Sutton Foster, their raw and passionate performances subvert the idea of beauty being only skin deep. Without the help of complicated makeup effects, they must create the image of Violet’s mutilation in the minds of the audience as sharply as it exists in her own.

Boyke is nothing short of a force of nature seamlessly pivoting from tremendous hope to profound despair as her character’s fickle fate plays out. Lucas’ haunting presence and command over an array of complex affects prove that she is perfectly cast as a girl wise beyond her years. Violet is disgusted by her appearance and lets everyone know it, but the work of these two great talents make it impossible to look away.

Violet’s “imaginary” scar is also brought to life during the show through the reactions of the people she encounters on her trek. The hard working ensemble of Violet is more than up to the task of making themselves look good while making Violet feel bad. Erich Lascek and Gena Sims lead the gospel number “Raise Me Up”, which stopped the show multiple times over its nearly seven-minute runtime.

At the end of this Violet’s intermission-less two hour run time, you’ll find that your heart has an invisible, deep, and permanent scar that matches the one on Violet’s face. Don’t make the same mistake she does. Don’t convince yourself that your heart is now broken or ugly because, as the preacher teaches her, a scar means that you’re healed.

Violet runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Ironbound

YT17-Feature-IronboundThe waiting in life takes up a lot of our time–waiting for the next big thing, the next job, the next person. Ironbound’s Darja reconfirms out that anyone who takes public transportation is captive to waiting. Her attachment to a significant bus stop represents her own continual anticipation of the right man and better times.

City Theatre’s Pittsburgh premiere of Ironbound depicts an important slice of immigrant life in America. It reminds us that everyone on the bus has a story, a reality perhaps most magnified in the dense greater New York-New Jersey metro area. Ironbound zooms in on one woman who could be anyone, but Darja is inspired for playwright Martyna Majok by both her own Polish immigrant mother and the notable absence of working class women in contemporary plays.

Rebecca Harris, in her 10th role with the company, captivates with impeccable realism as Darja. Harris is the constant force here along with a dark, menacing bus stop. Her solid and fierce portrayal is someone like many who endure wearing commutes to whatever job they can get to make rent while avoiding any unexpected financial catastrophes. They persevere and crave, as Darja says, “even the ugly jobs they don’t have no more.”

This Polish immigrant cleans houses in an upscale community two buses away, struggles to make ends meet following the loss of her factory job. Darja’s own crises are not just about being alone; she could easily become homeless due to a bad choice or broken relationship, perhaps more recognizable in hindsight.

Rebecca Harris as Darja
Rebecca Harris as Darja

On stage for all of the 90-minute piece (intensely performed with no intermission), the actress is either alone or interacting with three male characters. Harris’ powerful performance impresses with raw and honest craft as a character who is remarkable in her stamina, resilience, and lifeforce. She weighs her options in relationships and finances, bargaining to try to somehow gain some enhanced security.

City’s Artistic Director Tracy Brigden, who was eager to program this new play, said in the production news release that  Majok’s “unique point of view as the child of Polish immigrants ripples throughout her work. Ironbound is a truly American play—raw and alive from the very first words.” And we must agree as Ironbound so deftly depicts aspects of the immigrant experience that Brigden describes as “so vital to this moment in time.”

Ironbound debuted in New York at Rattlesnake Theater in 2016 before Brigden took the wheel to direct its next production. Pittsburgh audiences will recognize the ramifications of losing an industrial economy.

Brigden places the Elizabeth, New Jersey bus stop intimately in City’s thrust configuration.The centerpiece of Anne Mundell’s compact set is a giant graffiti covered steel girder appearing to pierce the top of the theater as it towers over the action, the litter, and a ubiquitous abandoned car tire. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski flashes from above as Eric Shimelonis’ sound effects are heard by the audience upon and arrival and continue to indicate the rattling of both New Jersey transit trains and traffic above and in in the house. If you know New Jersey and I-9, you can especially conjure the traffic, potholes, and smells. The stink of the paper factory where Darja once worked may be gone in this century, but the setting evokes the industrial Jersey of the late 20th century.

JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja
JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja

We wait with Darja at this dark and dirty bus stop where a lot happens but some things never change. As time shifts among scenes, her journey of relationships always brings her back to the bus stop near her former factory job and its associated memories.

In several flashback scenes, her first husband Maks is sweetly played by JD Taylor. Darja’s backstory is built through their alternately hopeful and bittersweet encounters. In 1992, she is pregnant with their son Alex as Maks dreams of making music in Chicago.

In his one scene with her, Vic, a young man played by Erick Martin, finds a battered Darja trying to sleep at the bus stop after her second husband has abused her. Vic provides an objective listening ear and a comedic rap. He reminds her that a shelter or motel room would be safer and offers some money to help her out. Pittsburgh’s Erick Martin’s Vic is the energetic parallel to her son Alex–the absent male in this version of Darja’s story. Martin is endearing in his portrayal of a kid who’s struggling with his sexual identity.

Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic
Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic

Don Wadsworth’s exacting dialect coaching supports Darja and Mak’s Polish slant. The characters’ sometimes muddled sentence structure also adds to the authenticity of Majok’s script along with her inclusion of some Polish.

Costumes designed by Robert C.T. Steele aptly convey the look of the implied decades from Vic’s track suit and sneakers and Tommy’s geeky postman shorts.

Ironbound reminds us how lives intersect–even if only for a few minutes on our respective commutes as everyone dreams and holds on to survive a new day.

Closing City Theatre’s 41st season, Ironbound runs through June 4 with tickets starting at $15 for under 30 with generous discounts for many patrons (seniors, military, etc.) as well as a “pay-what -you-want” option for the Sat., May 27 matinee. Special audience opportunities include a post-show talkback on May 24 and another with the playwright on Thurs., May 25. Greenroom on second Fri., May 26 provides a $25 ticket that includes beverages and a post-show chance to hang out with the show’s cast and team. Click here for more information. 

Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover

Anything Goes

anything goesAre you are looking for a lighthearted break from reality with quirky characters, great songs, and dance routines? The classic Cole Porter musical comedy Anything Goes is Delightful, Delicious, and De-Lovely.

There are several versions of Anything Goes available to theater companies, with each offering a slightly different song list, running order and book (script) variations.

This McKeesport Little Theater production uses the 1962 version, there is also a 1987 version and a 2011 Roundabout Theatre version as well, so don’t think you’re crazy if this is a bit different than you may remember.

Unlike many musicals of its day, Anything Goes has a strong plot line full of twists and turns as you wonder who gets the girl and who gets the boy.  The later the version, the more fully developed the story line is. The musical is set on the S.S. American a cruise ship that is sailing between New York and England.  The voyage is packed with a comically colorful assemblage of passengers: Reno Sweeney, a popular nightclub singer and former evangelist, her pal Billy Crocker, a lovelorn Wall Street broker who has come aboard to try to win the favor of his beloved Hope Harcourt (who is engaged to another passenger, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh), and a second-rate con man named Moonface Martin, aka “Public Enemy #13.” Song, dance, and farcical antics ensue as Reno and Moonface try to help Billy win the love of his life.

Anything Goes offers a fascinating stylized glimpse at American life in the 1930’s. It’s Broadway debut in 1934 was a year after prohibition ended and roughly at the mid-point of the Great Depression. Roosevelt was just elected president in 1933 and the mood of the country has shifted towards cautious optimism.  Attitudes regarding women, class structure and foreigners have slowly begun to change. Although you might be surprised to see how little has changed between then and now.  Odd as it may sound, this retrospective is more predominant in the latter Roundabout version than the earlier ones, but this is still worth observing.

What community theater lacks in resources and experience, it often makes up for in enthusiasm. This production is no exception.

Most of the scenes take place on deck, the main highway for characters coming and going. Director Dorothy Fallows scenic design makes use of two winglets on either side of the main deck that serve as staterooms and the brig. Getting the large cast on and off the deck often seems a bit contrived as secondary characters appear as needed for big musical numbers.

The leads come to the production with various levels of experience and talent. It was interesting to see the diversity of age of the actors that embodies the true spirit of community theatre.

Riley Tate is a lovely woman and carries off the somewhat older than she Reno Sweeney quite well. She has played Reno before and it shows. While this production’s musical numbers choreography is not as lush as might be expected, Tate dances with joy and grace. She shows great promise vocally. Ron Clawson’s Billy Crocker doesn’t have the good looks of Ryan Gosling;  but he has a good voice and pleasant delivery. Tim Tolbert’s portrayal of Moonface Martin was fully realized with entertaining expressions and gestures and a good voice. Sam Minnick’s Sir Evelyn Oakley has just the right restrained British character, flummoxed often by American sayings and culture. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Reno and Evelyn just isn’t there. Emily-Ann Stephens’ Hope Harcourt never quite explains why Evelyn and why not Billy. Julia Lodge is a triple threat as the ditzy sexpot Bonnie.

Anything Goes features some of Cole Porter’s and musical theater’s most memorable standards, including “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “It’s Delovely”, “Friendship”, “You’re the Top,” and of course, the title song.

According to Linda Baker, President of MLT “This is one of the classic musicals that unfortunately not enough millennials have had the opportunity to experience.” So disconnect and go see it.

Anything Goes continues it’s run at the McKeesport Little Theatre May 19th to 21st. Tickets available at http://mckeesportlittletheater.com

Thanks to MLT for the complimentary tickets to a Broadway classic.

Peter and the Starcatcher

peterstarcatcher300x300You are correct, there has been a “boatload’ of Peter and the Starcatcher productions this summer, three in fact.  I must confess I did not see Little Lake or the University of Pittsburgh’s productions.

I did see the Broadway national tour in 2014 and the Shaw Festivals production in 2015, both left me with the feeling of “meh”.

This review of Stage 62’s charmingly clever production of Peter and the Starcatcher was for me a voyage of re-discovery.  It was as if I had never really “seen” the show before.

Starcatcher is a comedy with some music, but not a musical. There are the requisite dancing girls, in this case mermaids, played pretty much mostly by boys. The opening number to the second act is hilarious.

Without getting too much into the plot here (You can read about that in Nicole Tafe’s review of the Little Lake production in the PITR archives here) Starcatcher is the prequel to J.M. Barrie’s 1904 novel Peter Pan, about the boy who never grew up.

The story: Lord Aster (J.P. Welsh) has been assigned by the Queen of England to insure safe transport of a treasure chest full of “starstuff” known to give anyone who possesses it the ability to realize his or her dreams.  Aster devises a plan to ship two identical chests on two different ships by two different routes to insure safe delivery. He dispatches his daughter Molly (Casey Duffy), a Starcatcher-in-training, on the ship Never Land and he takes the trunk with the real starstuff on the Wasp. Unbeknownst to Lord Aster and Molly, the trunks are switched by pirates before the ships set sail and Never Land holds the goods.

The Never Land’s crew is actually pirates, led by Black Stache (Brett Goodnack) and in addition to the trunk with the real starstuff. The Pirates also have three orphan boys held prisoner in the bilge of the Never Land.  And so we set sail…..

The thing that makes this production so special is the group of actors, all of them are Pittsburgher’s or graduates from our universities’ theatre programs. A few are in the early stages of their acting careers; many are very experienced having played many roles in multiple companies. What makes it work so perfectly is Spencer Whale’s creative vision and direction. The actor’s comedic timing, gestures and expressions seamlessly integrate together creating an ensemble that is a joy to watch as they are having such fun performing together.

L-R Brett Goodnack, Nate Willey
L-R Brett Goodnack, Nate Willey

Pittsburgh’s brilliant comedic actor Brett Goodnack as the silly and sinister Black Stache leads the ensemble. His stage presence keeps your eyes riveted to him and a smile on your face.

Other standouts in the uniformly strong cast include Point Park graduate Nate Willey as the Boy who becomes Peter Pan. Cody Sweet’s portrayal of Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Brumbrake, captures the sweet caring woman with a beard and a twist who can raise a pirate’s flagpole. J.P. Walsh’s portrayal of Lord Aster conjures up the classic proper British explorer and caring father. Casey Duff’s Molly is an ageless girl full of hopes and dreams, eager to prove her worth and trustworthiness. The entire cast has double if not triple duty. The orphans, Prentiss and Ted, played by Jake Smith and Charles Buescher Rowell keep their characters in perfect sync as they switch back and forth.

Nate Willey and Cast
Nate Willey and Cast

Director Whale called on old friends and colleagues Nathan Mattingly and Ellen Pyne for the set design, reminiscent of ship sails and outfitted with a hoarder’s treasure trove of props, flotsam, and jetsam.  Costume Design also by Pyne is spot on. Where a dozen actors with strong physical characteristics play a hundred roles, the costuming helps us identify their character of the moment. Black Stash’s look reinforces his silly yet frightful pirate nature and Molly’s enhances her character as a young girl just transitioning to a strong young woman.

In the pit, percussionists Tony Tresky and Brendan Higgins work subtly; their background rhythms perfectly match the action without overpowering the actors.

L-R Nate Willey, Casey Duffy
L-R Nate Willey, Casey Duffy

As we were leaving the theatre, reflecting that this was one of the best shows we saw this season, I wondered how three companies had come to choose the same play to present this spring. Perhaps in troubling times, sitting together in a dark room watching silliness and wishing you never grew up is good therapy for us all.

If you haven’t seen Starcatcher yet, this production is the one to see. If you have seen Starcatcher before, by all means this production is worth a visit. Come prepared to smile till your jaw hurts, laugh till your head hurts and be sure listen carefully so you don’t miss any of the great lines.

Stage 62 presents Peter and the Starcatcher at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Avenue, Carnegie, PA 15106

 Performances Thursday through Saturday, May 11-13 and 18-20 at 8 pm, Sun. Matinees May 14 and 21 at 2 pm Tickets: Adults: $20, Students/Seniors: $15. Click here for more information. 

Our special thanks to Stage 62 for the complimentary tickets.

Resonance Works Presents Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

falstaff_headerResonance Works, collaborating with the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theater Arts, gave the first of two performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, last night, at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland. The ambitious project offers an opportunity to hear the famous composer’s only successful comedy, which premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1893, when Verdi was nearly 80 years old. He penned the sparkling and engaging music to a libretto that Arrigo Boïto adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” with a little of “Henry IV” added to the book as well. The story, set in Windsor, England, during the reign of Henry IV, tells the farcical tale of an aging and portly knight, Sir John Falstaff, and his thwarted attempts to relieve two married women of their husbands’ money, their revenge, mistaken identities, young love, and a mirthful ending.

Immensely popular in Italy and elsewhere shortly after the time of its premiere, the opera lost its audience appeal in a surprisingly short period of time, and fell into extended stretches of neglect. As the 20th century progressed, largely due to the efforts of the famed and influential conductor, Arturo Toscanini, Falstaff received numerous revivals, and today holds a respectable standing in the standard operatic repertory, but it never was, and probably never will be, as well known or popular as many of the composer’s more dramatic works. Various musical historians have pondered over the reasons for all this, while others have proclaimed the work as Verdi’s best. It probably isn’t his best, but it’s certainly one of his most entertaining operas, bubbling over with broad comedy set to delightfully orchestrated music that offers a number of opportunities for the display of beautiful voices.

The contemporary staging and “modern day” costumes hardly take anything away from this production, since the color and atmosphere of Verdi’s music is so naturally Italian, so masterfully “grand opera” in style and flavor, that it suggests early 15th century England about as much as his Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) fits its Colonial New England setting. It is also quite a feat that the staging and direction so successfully brings a rather large opera to a comparatively small stage, especially when the ensembles and boisterous action are considered. Happily, the text is sung in Italian (with English surtitles projected above the stage).

Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)
Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)

Unlike the better known Verdi operas in several ways, the most surprising departure comes at the very start; there’s no “overture.” The orchestra sounds several vivacious bars and it’s off to the races. And what an orchestra it was that played last night. Reduced to a little over twenty pieces, the instrumental accompaniment was more than sufficient for the size of the theater, and consisted of highly skilled instrumentalists who did themselves and Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner ample justice. From the first note to the last, they played a major role in the success of the evening. They received a generous ovation from the distressingly slim audience, and deserved it.

Vocally, the cast is one of uniform excellence. There were familiar faces on the stage, as well as a few who sang in Pittsburgh for the first time. Naturally heading the list of newcomers was Benjamin Bloomfield in the title role. He possesses a baritone voice capable of great power, but finesse and subtle nuances are at his command as well. He’s rather young to give a visual impression of the aging schemer, but his acting of the part was finely honed, funny, and in the character’s other unsavory traits, his make-up, costuming and demeanor more than negated his youth.

Brooke Larimer (Mistress Quickly), Kara Cornell (Meg Page), Natalie Polito (Nanetta), and Amelia D’Arcy (Alice Ford)
Brooke Larimer (Mistress Quickly), Kara Cornell (Meg Page), Natalie Polito (Nanetta), and Amelia D’Arcy (Alice Ford)

Joshua Jeremiah, as Ford, is a Grammy nominated baritone also making his Pittsburgh debut in these performances. His voice is one of great strength and resonance, he possesses acting skills (both comedic and dramatic) to a great degree, and his appearance is commanding and quite agreeable to the eye. As his daughter, Nanetta, soprano Natalie Polito was the third newcomer, and proved a fine addition to the cast. Her voice is captivating, as is her stage presence and acting, and she sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio,” (“Now lightly borne from near and far”), probably the best known aria from the opera, charmingly, if somewhat cautiously.

Amelia D’Arcy, as Alice Ford, gave a sterling performance. Her ringing soprano, lively acting, and facial expressions were positively delightful. Mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell, as Meg Page, seemed to “live” her role, as she always does, and was another highlight of the evening. As Mistress Quickly, mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer displayed a richly hued voice and nicely timed comedic ability. With Mr. Bloomfield, she shared the well known “Reverenza” scene, in which Quickly lures the old knight with feigned respect further into her friends’ web of revenge and comeuppance he so richly deserves.

A pleasant surprise was the young tenor, Benjamin Robinson, in the role of Bardolfo. He has gained materially since I last heard him a couple of summers ago. His voice has grown in strength and quality, he displays more confidence, and his facial byplay and acrobatic acting of the part were fun additions to an impressive vocal performance. His antics with Matthew Scollin, the reliable, versatile and powerfully voiced bass-baritone, as Pistola, were among the most entertaining highlights of the evening.Falstaff3

Tenors Christopher Lucier, as Fenton, the young man Nanetta loves, and Joseph Gaines, as Caius, the man her father wants her to love, were talented additions to the large cast, and the ensemble sang the small choruses quite effectively.

The only thing missing from the performance were bodies in seats. The theater was maybe half filled. Now, more than ever, the arts need and deserve financial support. And this operatic endeavor on the part of Resonance Works most decidedly deserves capacity patronage. Only one more performance will be given, tomorrow afternoon at 3. Take Mom, a friend, anybody  – to a musical treat that they’re not likely to forget any time soon. Visit Resonance Works for tickets, a complete synopsis, cast biographies and more.

The Production Team for Falstaff

Conductor/Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Stage Director, Stephanie Havey; Production Manager, Brennan Sellner; Stage Manager, Tina Shackleford; Scenic Designer, Gianni Downs; Lighting Designer, Kate Devlin Matz; Costume Designer, Karen Gilmer; Assistant Conductor, Jeffrey Klefstad; Chorus Master, Joel Goodloe; Rehearsal Accompanist, Uliana Kozhevnikova; Orchestra Manager, Ryan Leonard; Assistant Stage Managers, Rachel Sinagra and Cassandra Canavan;  Scenic Charge Artist & Assistant Scenic Designer, Megan Bresser.

Photography – Alisa Innocenti

 

 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

perksPrime Stage Theater’s adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a sincere, though sickly-sweet interpretation of the Young Adult Literature phenomenon. To enter the New Hazlett Theater and revisit this oft-remembered, rarely revisited story is to yet again come of age and recall that high school is, generally speaking, really crappy but also really important.

Charlie (Peter Joseph Kelly Stamerra), who is alternately stoic and desperate, is a lonely high school freshman who’s had a tough life. He divides his time between being ridiculed by his peers, struggling with his mental health, obsessing over any of the half-dozen awful tragedies he’s experienced, and generating phrases people will want to get tattooed on themselves in his journal. He is, in other words, the Alpha and the Omega of YAL protagonists. Your ability to enjoy the play will likely hinge on your capacity to enjoy Charlie.

Wallflower is not a play about journaling and wallowing, however, and the story’s pace picks up significantly once Charlie strikes up a friendship with the extroverted, scene-stealing Patrick (Logan Shiller) and Sam (Julia Zoratto), an adventurous young woman intent on pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone who Charlie immediately falls in love with to no one’s surprise.

More heavily influenced by the film than the original novel, Wallflower director Jeffrey M. Cordell’s adaptation is too direct with its drama and too flippant with its supporting cast and sub-plot to quite capture what made the original work so compelling.

Stephen Chbosky’s original script is a comprehensive course on how delicately a writer must balance a plot built on nostalgia, teen drama, and abuse. This is partially because Chbosky’s bittersweet-ness is less perfectly balanced than it is nearly imbalanced; for every awkward first kiss or pot brownie there are two ham-fisted quotes about what being alive feels like. To be fair, many would argue that’s part of the novel’s/film’s authenticity.

Prime Stage Theater’s work, which utilizes Hailey Rohn’s script, is by contrast too eager to orbit the story around the big moments (think the famous (infamous?) bridge sequence), and turn what was awkward yet complex into something melodramatic yet sincere.

To dismiss Wallflower as overdramatic would be unfair, because when it hits those heavier, more intimate moments, I did find myself consulting with my inner teenager the same way as I did watching the film. Stamerra possesses that very necessary contained desperation inherent to his character, and he really nails the whole ‘ahhhhh did I say the wrong thing???’-ness of his character. On that note, Shiller’s Patrick is full of the posi-vibed buoyancy one would expect, and Zoratto’s Sam has a palpable subdued confidence. Many quiet moments pass between these three that are as vulnerable as you’d ever want.

Unfortunately, the play’s various explosions – be they sequences where silhouettes of lost loved ones or abusers loom over the cast, or moments of sudden violence – too closely stick to the film’s aesthetic, and can feel a little bloodless. Scenes in which Charlie narrates his journal entries feel almost unnecessary the way they’re sped past, and important characters like Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend Derek (Connor Bahr) and the well-meaning English teacher Mr. Anderson (John Feightner) are played too broadly and are too peripheral to justify the stage time they do manage to get.

The supporting cast often interacts with Charlie as they adjust the objects on set, which is a fun twist, but that and the dramatic use of silhouettes in lieu of flashbacks make up most of The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s theatric adjustments. The ingredients for a great adaptation are all here, but too much focus on recapturing the magic of a less intimate medium make the play feel more like a greatest hits of its progenitor than an out and out creative success.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 14. For tickets and more information click here. 

Special thanks to Prime Stage for complimentary press tickets.

Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water

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The cast of Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water with Director Wali Jamal

I loved Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water by Michael A. Jones and directed by Wali Jamal. The opening performance performance at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company was riveting, with other critics taking notes and a photographer snapping pictures.

Jones is a native of Homewood, but I imagine that at some point in his life he passed through or knew someone in New Orleans because Hercules is a play about the devastation created by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Jones is a very clever playwright. I call Jones smart for three particular reasons. First, in a one act play with minimal set changes, Jones captures a roof top, a bar, and a Chicago apartment. Second, there’s a brilliantly designed video camera placed in the back of the apartment used to show various changes in the story (time passing, plane flights). Finally, Jones wrote a play about various serious subjects (Hurricane Katrina and the death of a child) but manages to intersperse just enough comedy in the work to not drown the audience with sadness. There are several moments in Hercules that caused the crowd to laugh out loud.

Hercules is a tale of two couples: Tupelo (Sam Lothard) is with Char (Shaun Nicole McCarthy) while Maxine (Shanita Blvins) is with Eugene (Corey Lankford). There is also Youngblood (Lamar K. Cheston) who is a co-worker of Tupelo. Each of the actors bring certain unique talents to their character: Tupelo is the rock of the play, Char is a serious but warm woman, Maxine is a character in pain, Eugene is an emotionally distant character, and Youngblood who is an ever scheming dreamer provides much needed levity to many of the most emotionally difficult scenes in Hercules.

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The play begins with Tupelo leaving to work in New Orleans to help support Char, who is pregnant and planning to become a nurse. After the death of her child, Maxine has had difficulty coping with daily life and finds support in Char. Maxine is so upset that she even has several waking nightmares on screen where she is confronted with Eugene.

While working in New Orleans, Tupelo and Youngblood learn of the impending nature of Hurricane Katrina. Although Char tries to warn Tupelo through cell phone, Tupelo cannot be reached. Ultimately, Tupelo and Youngblood end up on a roof of a house flooded by Katrina waiting for rescue from a helicopter.

At first, I was tempted to say that the only weakness of the play is that the story of Tupelo and Char does not really connect to the story of Maxine and Eugene. But as I thought about things, the two tales interconnect. Both tales are about couples that are separated by emotional or physical distance and ultimately reunite. The characters in the play are ultimately redeemed from the landscape of despair by hope; not the hope of anything grand because these are all everyday but rather the hope of a new tomorrow. The play is not just a tribute to the damage left by Hurricane Katrina, but a comedic work that breaks our hearts just a little and leaves us wondering for the thoughts of a better tomorrow.

Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water runs through May 21st and ticket information can be found here.

 

Sive

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The cut-away of an Irish cottage that serves as a set for PICT’s production of John B. Keane’s Sive (pronounced sigh-ve), looks a quaint place, if sparse and threadbare, but it will house a destructive tableau of hungry, grasping poverty.  What befalls because of it prompts Nanna Glavin’s (Sharon Brady) bitter comment, “Women must pay for all happiness.”  And it certainly is the women who must suffer the most for even the few scraps of comfort left to them.

The play takes place in County Kerry, a southern region of Ireland, in the 1950’s at the home of Mike Glavin (Michael Fuller).  He lives there with his wife, Mena (Karen Baum), his mother, Nanna, and his young niece, Sive (Cassidy Adkins).  Mike and Mena scrape together a meager living while Sive goes to school at the local convent, but they are presented with a chance to escape their poverty when the local matchmaker, Thomasheen Sean Rua (James Fitzgerald) sneaks in to tell Mena that an elderly farmer with money to burn wants to marry Sive, and will even pay to have her instead of demanding the usual dowry from the family.

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James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen and Karen Baum as Mena

To Mena’s initial credit, she scoffs at the match, but the lure of money proves too much of an enticement.  Fitzgerald as Thomasheen, under Alan Stanford’s most commanding direction, plies and plies at Mena, at first keeping his distance, letting the idea sink in, then moving in ever closer as she succumbs to his persuasion.  He even leans over to whisper in her ear, the image of a serpent charming her with temptation.  When she is finally convinced, he closes the distance to clasp her hand, and it seems the devil’s bargain is struck.  Thomasheen continues to hover about the cottage like a dirty vulture, overseeing his work in order to get his cut of the bargain.

But it is not easy work convincing the rest of the family.  Mike vehemently rejects the match when Mena first brings it up, leaping from the table and pacing the small space between the door and the table like a caged animal.  He comes around doubtfully, just as hungry for money (an image made literal as he dumps his day’s profit on his dinner plate) as his wife, although his qualms never go away.  Sive is left to flounder with the increasing pressure from her family.  She tries to protest the marriage quietly, ignoring Thomasheen and her intended fiancée, Sean Dota (Charles David Richards) when they come to call and telling Mena she cannot go through with it, but she can do little to truly defend herself.

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Michael  Fuller as Mike Glavin and James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen

In fact, though the play is named for her, it is not Sive’s play.  She stands out from the other characters in her clean, fresh appearance against their dirty and ragged clothing, but she seems a creature apart.  The satchel of books she carries instead of water or farm equipment reinforces this.  She is not often on the stage, but her name is thrown about constantly.  Really, it is Mena and Thomasheen’s play.  They dominate the stage as they plot to marry off Sive and lift themselves out of abject poverty.  It is also a play about all the events that transpired before Sive was born, including her mother giving in to youthful passion and having Sive out of wedlock.  Sive’s marriage is as much a punishment for what her mother did as it is a means to an end, even though the girl has not made any error herself.

It would be easy to hate Mena if Baum had not played her with so much humanity.  She criticizes and snaps at anyone and everyone in the house at a moment’s notice, but she is also a woman frustrated with living side by side her critical mother-in-law who wastes no chance to remind Mena how unwelcome she has been since Mike brought her home.  She has lived a life of constant labor with nothing to show for it and could not afford to wait for a better husband when she was young.  In spite of that, there is still some warmth and even poetry buried deep down inside of her.  She only wants the means to live, instead of constantly surviving.

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Karen Baum as Mena and  Sharon Brady as Nanna Glavin

Thomasheen is harder to forgive.  The roguishness that Fitzgerald brings to the role can be alluring, and he is not without his own misfortune, but his single-mindedness to sell Sive into a marriage she does not want just to save himself is appalling.  He bends and bows to seem subservient, but he is the one with all the strings in hand and he will pull them to whatever end to keep control.  Thomasheen is a man who makes his living off of the suffering of women, and yet he scorns the roving tinkers Pats Babcock and Cathalawn (Martin Giles and J. Alex Noble, respectively) as beggars.

Alan Stanford makes a timely choice in performing Sive, as we stare down a new healthcare plan that threatens millions struggling with poverty in the U.S. and a president whose policies at large target women and minorities who already have to fight daily for their very existence.  It has long been government policy that “Women must pay for all happiness,” in some way or another.  Sive may take place in 1950’s Ireland, but it could easily be set in present day America, and it is a frightening to think what may happen to our own country if we ignore the little people hurting right now.

Sive runs through May 20th at the Union Project on North Negley Avenue in Highland Park and ticket information can be found here.

Tarzan

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This week saw the announcement of the nominations for the 71st annual Tony Awards. As is the case with every year, some shows were lavished with nominations across the board—Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 with 12, the most of any production this year—while others were snubbed entirely—Amelie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Significant Other, and the revival of Sunset Boulevard, to name a few.

If you’re wondering what time might have in store for these and other shows that failed to be recognized on Broadway’s biggest night, I can assure you that receiving none or even just one or two Tony nominations doesn’t mean that a show or production can’t thrive in regional productions or in the hearts of those who did consider it award worthy.

When Tarzan premiered on Broadway in 2006, it garnered mixed reviews from critics and only one Tony nod for Natasha Katz’s lighting design. The show closed the next year due to poor box office returns. History has lumped the show in with Aida and The Little Mermaid as embarrassing black marks on Disney Theatrical Productions’ Broadway report card.

 Despite all that, Pittsburgh Musical Theater is closing out its eclectic 25th season with a well-acted, gorgeously-sung revival production of Tarzan. Under the competent direction of PMT Executive Artistic Director Colleen Doyno, a handful of the principal cast members from the original 2013 production return here. Everyone on stage is so wonderfully animated that they almost convince you that this show didn’t get a fair shot when it opened in New York 11 years ago.

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David Toole as Tarzan

I say almost only because Tarzan is undeniably plagued by one of musical theatre’s most common pitfalls, second-act trouble. The brisk and bouncy first act is followed by an anti-climactic and convoluted conclusion. I’m choosing to lay the ape’s share of the blame on the show’s architects, composer/lyricist Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins) and book writer David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), for not providing themselves a safety net for the high wire act of adapting the thrillingly realized 1999 feature length cartoon of the same name.

The show is also billed as being “adapted from the story ‘Tarzan and the Apes’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs”. I’m not sure where the influence from the latter comes in, but, if you grew up watching the Disney film or remember watching your kids watching the Disney film, there are no surprises in store with the stage version.

Tragedy strikes twice in the West African coast when an evil leopard (danced wonderfully by Nathaniel Burich) murders the parents of a human infant and kidnaps the newborn of two gorilla parents. Amid the desperate search for her child, the mother gorilla Kala discovers the crying, newly orphaned baby in a tree. She names the child Tarzan and decides to bridge the two worlds of human and gorilla and raise him as her own, much to the disgust of her husband Kerchak.

Tarzan grows up thinking he’s an ape but feels like he is different from everyone else in his family. An incident in which he inadvertently creates and brandishes a makeshift weapon at the apes confirms his suspicion and vindicates Kerchak’s deep prejudice and fear of man. Kerchak banishes Tarzan from the family, but Kala, refusing to live without her son, joins him in exile. She raises him to be a kind, strapping man but is unable to prepare him for his meet cute with English expeditioner Jane. Not even the language barrier or a near death experience with a giant man-eating spider is enough to keep the sparks from flying between these two.

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Now comes that disappointing second act. It’s an onslaught of cheesy villainy, cheesier love ballads, and predictable plot points. It’s a real slog, but the cast makes the journey worthwhile.

David Toole is one of the actors reprising his performance from PMT’s 2013 Tarzan. From his first primal yell to his last, he grabs the role of Tarzan with both hands like the vine and swings across the stage as if he was born to do it. He convincingly speaks and acts like he was raised by a pack of apes and looks like he was raised by a pack of Men’s Fitness cover models. Toole expertly milks every bit of the fish-out-of-water humor out of the script. His lovely voice never fails to reach the pop-tinged heights of the soaring score.

If you notice that he has especially great chemistry with Jane, you’ll swoon when you find out she’s charmingly played by his real-life wife Kathlene Queen.

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David Toole as Tarzan and Kathlene Queen as Jane

I don’t believe that Alysha Watson and Brad David Patsy are Toole’s parents in real life, but the love that Kala and Kerchak share for each other and for Tarzan radiates from the stage. Their deeply felt renditions of the Oscar-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart” and “No Other Way” supply the production with a surprising gravitas.

Other standouts were Allan Snyder, Benjamin Godley Fisher, and Tru Verret-Fleming. As Tarzan’s best friend Terk, Fleming scats his way to one of night’s most energetic and entertaining moments with “Trashin’ the Camp”.

Whether you leave the Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Tarzan walking upright or using your knuckles in tandem with your feet to mimic the gorilla ensemble (utilized superbly by choreographer Lisa Elliot), you will do so with a huge smile on your face. If Broadway ever decides to give the show a second chance, producers need not look any further than this gifted ensemble to elevate the material.

Tarzan plays at the Byham Theater through May 14th. For more information, click here.