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.

Patience

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

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

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

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

Zach Wood as Archibald Grosvenor

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

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

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

Sarah McCullough as Patience
Sarah McCullough as Patience

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

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

Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane
Deborah Greenstein as Lady Jane

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

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

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

Thanks to the Pittsburgh Savoyards for the complimentary tickets.

Photos by Lauren Stanley.

Stage 62 Goes to Camelot, Neverland, and More!

stage62_logoCommunity. This is the word that best characterizes a local nonprofit theater company that traces its inception back to 1962, when it began as an adult education theater project that morphed into much more. Taking residence at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Stage 62 is an all volunteer-run company that strives to provide the community with quality theater for all ages that is affordable.    This year’s season will feature the plays, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Monty Python’s SPAMALOT” and “Anne.” The children’s musical, “Pinkalicious” was also part of the company’s season but closed in mid-February.

This year’s season will feature the plays, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Monty Python’s SPAMALOT” and “Anne.” The children’s musical, “Pinkalicious” was also part of the company’s season but closed in mid-February.

A typical season for Stage 62 usually includes a musical in November; a show for children’s audiences in February; a drama/comedy in May and a musical peterstarcatcher300x300in July, according to the company’s website. However, Stage 62’s members play a huge role in the selection of production titles.

“We are completely member-driven, so our membership actually gets to vote on the productions that we do,” Christopher Martin, president of Stage 62 said. “We look for submissions from our group and outside our group. …We take those specific shows to our playwriting committee, and they decide what they think will be best for the organization. [They choose] two shows per slot and vote from there.”

Because volunteers are the backbone of Stage 62, cost and the interest it will attract from the community also heavily influences the selection of production titles.spamalot300x300

“We have to balance what we think will make money and what will be exciting and engaging for our audiences and volunteers,” Martin said.
The members of Stage 62 also try to choose show titles that the company’s volunteers and directors have an interest in producing.

“We sometimes would have something picked but not have someone who had a passion to do the show,” Martin said. “We always try to have a core staff or director in mind for the show.”

Once a season has been narrowed down and show titles have been selected, the artistic direction and vision for the production and how it will be interpreted, is left up to the director.

annie300x300Stage 62’s upcoming production, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is based on a novel by Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson and provides the back story of the well-known children’s movie character, Peter Pan.

“One of the reasons we like the show is it is simple,” Martin said. “A lot of it is done with simple props and imagination.”

For its summer show, Stage 62 likes to put on a “fun-rousing” musical, and that’s where “Monty Python’s SPAMALOT” comes in, a musical comedy  adapted from the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Goofy comedies tend to equal success for Stage 62, according to Martin, and the Monty Python title the company selected for this season fits the bill.

For the fall, Stage 62 typically selects a classic film, and “Annie” is about as classic as it gets. With the permission of The Tribune Media Services, Inc., the musical “Annie” is based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie and will be presented through a special arrangement with Music Theatre International.
Stage 62 has a reputation of providing audiences with stage productions that are well-executed, interesting and fun and accessible to the broader public, and that’s exactly what you will get with the company’s 2017 season lineup.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” opens May 11 and runs through the 21st, followed by “Monty Python’s SPAMALOT,” which premieres July 20, and “Annie,” set for November 9.

For tickets and more information about Stage 62, visit their website, http://www.stage62.com/season/.

The Music Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Amber Smith.

Trial by Jury and Gianni Schicchi

tmp_18942-trial-01-1926570402When asked to review The Pittsburgh Savoyard’s productions of Gianni Schicchi and Trial by Jury I at first refused. Up until my attendance of these operas my experience of this art form was limited to watching Bugs Bunny in a Viking helmet in Saturday morning cartoons. Do I like admitting my cultural limits in public? Of course not! But I believe I am in good company here. I write this review not from an expert’s perspective, but as a new and excited opera audience member.

I am a Pittsburgh transplant, and every year I reside in this fine city I find more reasons to love living here. One of those reasons is the ticket price accessibility of the Pittsburgh’s cultural institutions such as the Pittsburgh Savoyards. The ticket prices are in the $20 range, which many can afford. This company is celebrating their 79th season, and I attended opening night of their latest production at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA.SCHICCHI_1794

Gianni Schicci and Trial by Jury are both one-act operas. Gianni Schicci, an Italian opera written by Puccini circa 1917-18. Though it was performed in English I was assisted in my comprehension by the supertitles projected above the stage. It is the story of the welcome death of a family patriarch and the scramble to change his will to benefit his family and not the convent he intended. Running concurrent to that narrative thread there is also a love story featuring the patriarch’s nephew and a lower class young woman. In the interest of not spoiling show for future viewers, I will not reveal the major plot twist that brings these two storylines together.14566332_884531705014864_6168818726483592190_o

There were a few standout actors in this production. I couldn’t take my eyes off Ian Greenlaw in the title character of Gianni Schicchi. To borrow a phrase from the hippies, he just had great energy. Most of the scenes in Schicchi are group scenes with characters delivering lines at each other in rapid-fire succession. I would have been overwhelmed if not for Greenlaw’s dynamism on stage. He was a grounding point for the whole production. Also of note was Katie Manukyan as Lauretta singing on “Oh, my dear papa”. Manukyan, a Notherwestern University trained singer delivered this song about not being able live without her love with a reserved sincerity that let the audience really focus on the emotionalism of the lyrics. I was truly moved by her performance.

My major qualm with this production has to do with a style choice.  Pittsburgh Savoyards producers and director James Critchfield adapted the script to reflect a modern Pittsburgh aesthetic. This means the property that is at stake in the contested will include a house in Wilkinsburg, steel mills and a Porsche. Also the stage was replete with enough Steelers paraphernalia that it looked like a cheesy storefront in the Strip.  Lastly, they brought in McFeely (in reference to Mr. Roger’s Mr. McFeely) as a deliveryman, and for reasons I can’t decipher, Hillary Clinton as an estate lawyer. I admit that at first I found the idea of an adaptation to be potentially fun, but when executed it fell flat for me. The problem was that I found myself investing more in anticipating what new Pittsburgh reference would be revealed in the plot than actually investing in the story execution. When you are on the edge of your seat to see how the actors pronounce East Liberty (Sliberty) instead of the edge of your seat to see how the conflict will be resolved, there is an issue.TBJ_DAY1_2610

The second show of the night was a Gilbert and Sullivan farce first produced in 1875 called Trial by Jury. This show was also adapted with a Pittsburgh aesthetic in mind but that was mainly interpreted in the cast’s wardrobe. I didn’t find the Pittsburgh as distracting. Trial by Jury is the story of a woman suing her former fiancé (wearing a yellow tuxedo shirt and black pants with a gold stripe down the leg) because he fell in love with another woman and broke off their engagement. The jury consisted of bridesmaids wearing black and gold gowns, McFeely again, and a few other men. The judge was outfitted in typical judge attire and the bride also appeared in standard wedding wear. There is something just really charming and campy about a courtroom musical where the feuding parties, the jury and even the judge sings.

Highlights of this performance include Aleç Donaldson’s singing as the fiancé Edwin on the songs “Is this the Court of Exchequer” and “When first my old, old love I knew”. Donaldson’s voice is rich and has a command of harmonizing. I found Donaldson’s vocals and the vocals of the learned Judge Michael Greenstein to be the strongest of the Trial by Jury’s cast. Kudos also to the set design. The warring parties were blocked center stage and behind them on both sides were stacked risers where the jury sat. The simplicity helped me focus on the quickly unfolding action whereas the cluttered stage design of Gianni Schicchi made for a scattered viewing experience.TBJ_DAY1_2617

Overall, I had a fine night attending my first opera. Bravo to Pittsburgh Savoyards for more making opera accessible and for putting on a rousing community production. Bravo to Music Director and Conductor Guy Russo for leading a fine orchestra of talented musicians. Their playing was on point. And lastly bravo to the people behind the renovation of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA; the work that has been completed is already beautiful. I can’t wait to see more productions in this space.

Please note that there were two casts alternating performances. This review is based on the October 7th performance.

Unfortunately, Gianni Schicchi and Trial by Jury closed on the 16th. For more information about the Pittsburgh Savoyards and their Spring production of Patience click here.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Savoyards for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Greg Kornides.

Pittsburgh Savoyards Serve up Three Favorites in 79th Season

662626Longevity and loyalty weave strong bonds, so as the venerable Pittsburgh Savoyards begin their 79th season, it’s clear to one of Pittsburgh’s longest running companies. When it comes to the witty light operas of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the group’s repertoire is a grand bridge between opera and contemporary musical theater, along with some fun Pittsburgh angles during 2016-17. The Savoyards continue to impress as the company is almost exclusively fueled by volunteers on all levels.

This October, Savoyard veteran director and actor James Critchfield stages both the G&S short operetta Trial by Jury, which mocks love and British law, and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (originally placed in Italy) in a familiar setting–our own fair city. The troupe’s new production of Patience (or Bunthorne’s Bride), a G&S satire on the Victorian aesthetic movement that spoofs fans of poets like Oscar Wilde, follows in March.

Guy Russo, musical director since 1998, conducts the productions, featuring the Savoyards’ full orchestra that accompanies each work at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA.

“I think the fact that our group continues to entertain enthusiastic audiences after all of these years is a testimony to the enduring quality of the authors’ work,” says Russo of the rich Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire that fulfills the Savoyards’ mission with at least two events each season.

Critchfield also knows the repertoire well, having performed in nine different Savoyards productions and directed five for the troupe over the past three decades.

The reunited artistic duo believes in the timelessness of the G&S operettas, written in the 19th century but still performed around the world today, and considers them a bridge between opera and musical theatre. Since their debuts at London’s Savoy Theater, these enduring jewels have exude charm and wit that keeps artists like Critchfield and Russo, singers, instrumentalists and audiences coming back more.

Russo agrees that while the context of the works includes the political and cultural foibles of Victorian England (seemingly everyone but the Queen), “there’s also a timelessness about much of the humor, and the music is bright, uplifting, and almost relentlessly tuneful!”

First in the season is “a nice comic pairing,” says Critchfield of this double bill last staged by the Savoyards six years ago. Now, the two works get a Yinzer twist.TRIAL-BANNER-WEBSITE-EDIT-960x250

Trial by Jury is a brilliantly written, beloved, fast-paced, witty, short one-act that bubbles with joyful energy,” says Critchfield. “Adding to the fun, we are also placing this production in present-day Pittsburgh.” Critchfield promises entertaining ‘Burgh visual tweaks and many, many lyric changes for a Pittsburgh flavor in Schicchi.

Trial By Jury (1875), the case of a jilted bride, is now set in a Pittsburgh Court with “a transplanted judge from Merry old England,” says Critchfield. “We’ll see a bridal party straight from a Pittsburgh themed wedding that went awry.” He adds some characters to the story, such as the plaintiff’s mother and the defendant’s new fiance to spice up the present-day action.

Gianni Schicchi (1918) was composed by Giacomo Puccini whose grand opera hits La Boheme and  Madama Butterfly are well-known to casual opera goers. However the Schicchi aria “O mio babbino caro” is certainly one of the most often sung arias in popular culture.

Puccini’s took inspiration from Dante’s Inferno and the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte form. In Critchfield’s staging, the title character Gianni Schicchi, patterned after the stock harlequin character, will be costumed in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey as he stirs the comic plot involving the deception and family dynamics.

“The greedy Donati family mourning the passing of their patriarch, Buoso, will be costumed to resemble a Pittsburgh Italian family,” the director shares.

As an actor and singer with a wide range of opera, theater, and solo experience, Critchfield understands the commitment of the volunteer cast and orchestra members who make these shows possible. He’s been Scrooge in no less than 18 Christmas season appearances in Dickens’ classic, among many other roles, with Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

“We have an amazingly talented collection of singers including many with advanced music/vocal degrees,” says Critchfield. In addition to enjoying the chance to collaborate with Critchfield again, Russo says, “some great young talent that has fallen in love with G&S, both in the pit and on the stage.” Double casting for many roles provides even more performance opportunities for singers, while audiences can expect to hear singers who are literally launching their careers with the troupe.

“I enjoy SO many things about it,” says Russo of wielding the conductor’s baton after starting his Savoyards’ journey as a singer as a student. “More than anything it’s getting to work with people who are there because they LOVE it! Also, I’ve met so many talented, big-hearted folks over the years.”

Guy Russo and the orchestra from a 2015 production
Guy Russo and the orchestra from a 2015 production

The Pittsburgh Savoyards was founded well before many other intrepid performance presences in the region, with Pittsburgh Opera in its 77th year, Pittsburgh CLO is now 70, and Little Lake Theater is a few years from that milestone. Granted, the Savoyards (and likely a number of other arts organizations) took a few performances off during the Second World War, but however one slices it, the Savoyards have endured and love every note of their repertoire over more than seven decades. Soon, the Savoyards will surpass the age span of Queen Victoria who lived to age 81 and reigned during the original productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations.

Once a Savoyard, the clever lyrics and eminently memorable melodies seem to infuse one’s blood. It’s often a lifetime fandom. (In the interest of transparency, this writer knows this first-hand, having sung six seasons with the troupe and always ready to hear more G&S.) So, never mind those who haven’t tried it; “Savoyards” around the world know the uninitiated are missing some of the wittiest words and wildest plot devices devised simply to entertain.

In addition to the  14 comic G&S operas (and others) that rotate through the Savoyards’ repertoire, you can count the reasons to join the Savoyards this season: three productions with probably more than several hundred singers and instrumentalists participating, affordable ticket prices, sincerely comic works performed in full productions with large casts and full orchestra, and a lovely venue that’s just right for these light classics. There’s a lot more singing and laughter ahead, including Patience, which Russo says is his favorite work from the canon.

“It was the first G&S I had ever heard, and I’ve always thought it to be the funniest, and the best score,” admits Russo as he prepares to conduct Patience again.

The Savoyards season opens with seven performances Trial by Jury and Gianni Schicchi, Oct. 6-17, with both pieces performed at each evening or matinee at the  Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Carnegie. Early bird discounts are available through Oct. 4. Patience next takes the stage for seven performances, March 3-12. Tickets starting at $25 are on sale via the website at PittsburghSavoyards.org and at the door, with an early bird discount available through Oct. 4. Nonprofits, particularly those with an educational mission, many apply for blocks of complimentary tickets. Email information@pittsburghsavoyards.org or call 412-734-8476 for details or to get involved.

Check out the rest of our 2016 Fall Preview here! Follow along with our autumn adventures with the hashtag #FallwithPITR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Jesus Christ Superstar

gfhsersrtA man, rises to power from nothing, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers along the way, whose fame and status eventually became the center of controversy for his inseparable fate with the unity and peace of his nation.

Yes, some would say this man challenges the faith of many. No, as much as it sounds alike, I’m not talking about any presidential candidate from this heated election season. And yes, this is a story we all know by heart.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar tells the journey of Jesus during his final week, from his arrival all the way to crucifixion, with a focus on the evolving relationship between him and his loyal apostle Judas Iscariot. Originally started as a concept album with a Broadway debut in 1971, this audience-favorite sung-through musical is now the newest production at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, PA, only this time the real superstar is its theatrical company, Stage62.

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Mary Johnson-Blocher as Judas

If heaven has a rock band, Duquesne graduate Jeff Way is certainly the lead singer of the gang. Playing the title role with a sensational voice, Mr. Way took the audience on a hero’s journey fueled with passion and emotion–his solo number “Gethsemane” in Act II was sincerely moving and full of halo. But you see, Jesus isn’t the only rock star you’ll meet. Musical theater powerhouse Mary Johnson-Blocher conquered the role of Judas–a role that’s traditionally played by male actors–and proved that she’s the real cherry-on-top within the first ten minutes of the show. Her portrait of Judas’s conflicted journey was the moving momentum of the story, and her final betrayal scene at the end of Act I was easily one of the spine-chilling moments of “all time’.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a show about memorable characters. And the amazing casts at Stage62 delivered these characters gloriously. Nina L. Napoleone plays the beautiful Mary Magdalene with a voice of clearance and color. Jeff Danner plays the evil High Priest Caiaphas on a rich bass tonality that will give you goosebumps every time he sings. Larissa Jantonio’s Annas, another traditionally male role, is genuinely wicked and full of sharp edges. And finally, just like all the other Stage62 productions, every single ensemble number in the show is a highlight and deserves all the applause of the night.

Jeff Way as Jesus
Jeff Way as Jesus

Behind this innovative production is the creative mind of singer and performer Seamus Ricci in a directoral debut at Stage62. Through the revolutionary casting choice of having female actors playing traditionally male roles, Mr. Ricci perfectly captured the diversity of talents that are deeply rooted in the Pittsburgh theatre community and gave this timeless musical a fresh and revitalizing look. Due to the sung-through narrative nature of the show and its vast variety of characters, at certain scenes the staging might feel a bit overwhelming if the audience is not familiar with the plot, but overall the dramatic texture is never lost. Throughout the night a recurring theme of “”emerge”, “encompass” and “contrast” will lead the audience through this constantly changing journey of power and faith on stage, and when the house suddenly becomes an extension of the stage with an atmospheric choral build-up, you can just feel the tension in the air!

Supporting the storytelling is the Orchestra, lead by Music Director Thomas Octave, playing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s electrifying rock score faithfully live on stage, and elevating the sound of the show to a heavenly level. Angela Essler’s choreography brings home the biggest surprise of the night with a dosage of great energy and star-dust–in the number “Herod’s Song” in Act II where King Herod, played by IUP student J’Quay Lamonte Gibbs, totally brought the house down with a bombshell performance that eventually became one of the biggest show-stopping moments of the night.image

But a story is never really alive without its theatrical counterpart. Jeremy Eiben’s costume design masterfully incorporates the modern clothes into the ensemble’s costumes with an abstract twist and gave this ancient account a 21st century make-over. Garth Schafer’s lighting design beautifully reflects the pulse of the story and set the base line of all the emotions. But the biggest bone-chilling and most surreal moment has to go to the end of the show, when a gigantic cross literally erects on stage and the entire scene of crucifixion, accompanied by a hauntingly realistic sound design by Soundcolor Productions, is being replayed in front of the audiences’ eyes, you just can’t help but wonder, is this still theater, or are we actually traveled back in time?

After the show I had a small chat with the director Mr. Ricci himself, and naturally we both agreed that the timing of bringing back this ALW classic now couldn’t be more perfect. With so much chaos and hatred and violence and senseless acts happening around the world everyday now, people desperately need a beam of hope and faith to keep us steady and strong. But the themes presented in Jesus Chris Superstar are more than just hope and faith. The show is also about power worship, about moral conflict, about betrayal, and mostly importantly, about abandonment and returning home.

No matter where we stand, the direction we are walking to is always the same. So why not walk together? But sometimes walking in life still feels like a shot in the dark. A wise man once said, “happiness can be found, even in the darkest of the times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”. Perhaps this time, Jesus Christ Superstar is the only guiding star we will need to get through the thunderstorm, and come home to the light.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall until July 31st. For tickets and more information, click here.

Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Image 42.

Assassins

682637-250

Assassins lays bare the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or tried to assassinate the President of the United States, in a one-act historical “revusical” that explores the dark side of the American experience. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking us on a nightmarish roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other to harrowing acts in the name of the American Dream.

For tickets and more information, click here.

Assassins

682637-250

Assassins lays bare the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or tried to assassinate the President of the United States, in a one-act historical “revusical” that explores the dark side of the American experience. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking us on a nightmarish roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other to harrowing acts in the name of the American Dream.

For tickets and more information, click here.

Assassins

682637-250

Assassins lays bare the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or tried to assassinate the President of the United States, in a one-act historical “revusical” that explores the dark side of the American experience. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking us on a nightmarish roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other to harrowing acts in the name of the American Dream.

For tickets and more information, click here.