Annie

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

Nora Hoyle, Lola Armfeild
Nora Hoyle, Lola Armfeild

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

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

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

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

Nora Hoyle, Jeff Johnston
Nora Hoyle, Jeff Johnston

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

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

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

Photos by Friedman Wagner-Dobler.

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Fall: 2017 Edition

The dog days of summer are behind us and it’s time to look forward to a fall full of refreshing musicals. Our 2017 Top Five Fall Musical Theatre Preview shows feature two Tony Award winning “big” musicals Kiss Me Kate and Annie, The Good Bye Girl, Side Show and Clue round out our preview. These shows won’t bust your budget with ticket prices that hover around $20. Here they are in order of opening dates.

goodbyeNeil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl at the Theatre Factory kicks off our 2017 Fall Musicals Preview.

Egotistical actor Elliot Garfield sublets a friend’s Manhattan apartment only to discover it is still occupied by his friend’s ex-girlfriend Paula, a former dancer, and her precocious pre-teen daughter Lucy. Initially suspicious and antagonistic, Elliot and Paula arrive at an uneasy truce. Paula, fed up with being hurt by boyfriend-actors, rashly vows never to become involved again while Elliot sets down the rules for the living arrangements.

While they attempt to cohabit as peacefully as possible, despite their differences of opinion and temperament. Elliot and Paula find themselves attracted to each other. When Elliot finds a job out-of-town, Paula realizes that this is the true love she has been seeking, and they reach a happy ending

The Good Bye Girl September 14th to 24th at the Theatre Factory in Trafford PA.  For tickets please call the Box office 412 374 9200 (leave a message on voice mail) or email: theatrefactoryboxoffice@gmail.com 

sideSide Show asks the question that haunts us all: “Who will love me as I am?”

This Tony nominated Best Musical tells the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who became famous stage performers. Their extraordinary bond brings them fame but denies them, love. The story is told almost entirely in song, and follows their transition from England to America, the vaudeville circuit, and then to Hollywood on the eve of their appearance in the 1932 movie Freaks.

Rob Jessup one of Split Stages co-founders tells me this will be “the first production of the 2014 revival in this area.” The revival delves deeper into the backstory of the Hilton twins including their relationship with Harry Houdini and the concept of proposed separation surgery.  It will be interesting to see Split Stages interpretation of the characters which inhabit the side show community that support the ladies.

Side Show is Directed by Jim Scriven with Music Direction by Joy Hessand and Choreography by Laura Wurzell. Rori Mull and Victoria Buchtan play Daisy and Violet.

Split Stage’s production of Side Show is at the intimate Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont with performances October 6th to 14th. For tickets visit. https://www.showclix.com/event/side-show-ssp 

ClueClue at the Little Lake Theatre gives the audience a change to help solve this “who-done-it.”

The musical is based on the popular board game. It brings the familiar suspects of the game to life. The audience chooses the potential outcome from cards which represent the murderers, weapons, and rooms – there are 216 possible solutions! Comic antics, witty lyrics, and a seductive score carry the investigation from room to room.

This show has made the rounds of university and community theatres in our area this past year. However, Little Lake Theatre has a reputation for producing quirky off beat shows that work well in their cozy “theatre in the round” environment and the intermission desserts are top notch also. If you haven’t seen Clue yet, this is the place to see it.

Clue at the Little Lake Theatre, October 12th to 14th, 19th to 21st and  26th to 28th

for Tickets https://www.showclix.com/event/clue-the-musical4970999

WebPosterKATEThe Tony Award winning best musical Kiss Me, Kate at the Pittsburgh Playhouse features music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Point Park University with its nationally recognized musical theatre and dance programs do a great job with big musicals and over the top dance numbers, so expect a lively and fun filled production of this 1949 classic.

The story involves the production of a musical version of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the conflict on and off-stage between Fred Graham, the show’s director, producer, and star, and his leading lady, his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi. A secondary romance concerns Lois Lane, the actress playing Bianca, and her gambler boyfriend, Bill, who runs afoul of some gangsters.

Point Park University’s Head of Musical Theatre, Zeva Barzell directs and choreographs this show bringing favorite numbers like Too Darn Hot to life on the Rockwell stage with the talented students of the Conservatory. (Point Park is #8 in the number of graduates on Broadway this season, CMU is #4.)

Kiss Me, Kate runs October 20th to 29th with a preview on October 19. For Tickets visit http://www.pittsburghplayhouse.com/tickets

annie300x300Stage 62 presents Annie our second Tony Award winning Best Musical choice for the fall.

With equal measures of pluck and positivity, little orphan Annie charms everyone’s hearts despite a next-to-nothing start in 1930s New York City. She is determined to find the parents who abandoned her years ago on the doorstep of a New York City Orphanage that is run by the cruel, embittered Miss Hannigan. In adventure after adventure, Annie foils Hannigan’s evil machinations… and even befriends President Franklin Delano Roosevelt! She finds a new home and family in billionaire, Oliver Warbucks, his personal secretary, Grace Farrell, and a lovable mutt named Sandy.

This depression era show was first produced on Broadway in 1977 and is Directed by Rob James, Choreography by Devyn Brown with Musical Direction by Cynthia Dougherty. The Stage 62 troupe always seems to be having contagious fun performing, Annie should be no exception.

Annie presented by Stage 62 at the Carnegie Music Hall in Carnegie. Performances Thursday to Saturday, Nov. 9th to 11th and 16th to 18th at 8 pm, Sunday matinees on November 12th and 19th at 2 pm. Tickets at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2884426

Our top five is just a small slice of a dozen or more musicals playing this fall in our area, So check back with PITR throughout the season. There is a show for almost every taste from two with high stepping dance number to ones with almost no dancing at all and four of our five are “all about love.”

Annie

936932-427366-14When I was given this assignment, I was greatly confused at being told that the theatre I was going to was in Greenfield. I lived on the Squirrel Hill/Greenfield edge for eleven years and have been doing theatre in Pittsburgh for fifteen, and I’ve never heard of a playhouse in Greenfield. That’s because this is a new venture, and a new company and the show I went to see is only their second theatrical production. While the Palisade Playhouse offers many services in their space including music classes, a choir, summer camp, and fitness sessions, as well as community church services, their main goal is to produce family friendly shows that can involve lots of artists in the Pittsburgh area. The theatre space is, in fact, a church that they’ve purchased and are fixing up to better suit their theatrical ambitions. Co-owner and children’s director Michelle Bellison says that plans are to eventually convert the second floor to a living space so their family can both live and work in the building. Their first musical was Clue in April, and now they’ve taken on a full cast of children and adults to do Annie.

Co-owner and director of this production, Matt Belliston had quite a challenge fitting an entire cast of kids onto the small church stage, but the actors never seemed to be stifled or lacking in space. Besides the stage area, actors used the aisle and fronts of the audience from time to time, making it feel more inclusive to the viewers sitting in the church pews watching. Given the space they had, it all seemed to fall into place nicely.

Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie
Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie

This production has two different casts for most parts, identified as the “red” cast and the “white” cast in the program. Presumably this is to give the actors (a lot of them children) breaks between shows. I saw a red cast night, and I got to see Miss Rachael Renee Parsons completely shine as the title character. Not only was her voice impressive and perfect for the role, Parsons clearly has the experience needed for her to go far in the world of drama. She had a great sense of comedic timing and tone, something I often find underdeveloped in child actors. In the red cast, Rachael Parsons is joined on stage by two of her sisters (Nicole and Danielle) who played Tessie and Molly, and her mother Tracey, who worked closely alongside her daughter onstage as Grace Farrell, Oliver Warbucks’ assistant. It’s clear where these girls get their talent from, as Tracey Parsons is an obvious veteran of the stage.

Another noteworthy performance was Jillene Stewart as the exasperated and often intoxicated orphanage manager, Miss Hannigan. Her portrayal of this woman, who could easily be frightening, is just enough of a villain to get the point across with humor while still being suitable for children. She ended up being mostly comic, which I think is generally the point of the character.

The orphans all worked together extremely well, coordinating their group dances and singing with ease. It was nice to see a group of girls of varying ages being so enthused about acting. I never caught one standing around looking out of place. They all were acting the full time they were on stage. Kudos also goes to the costumer of the show (unnamed in program) for the excellent work on the orphans’ clothes. The whole cast very much looked the part and felt like the right period, and for a fresh theatre company that’s pretty impressive. Choreographer Toni Dobransky obviously worked hard on getting everything to be on time and in place, because the dances all throughout the show were well organized and entertaining.

Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie, and Tracey Parsons as Grace Farrell.
Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie, and Tracey Parsons as Grace Farrell.

I was pleased in general with all the acting and singing, but one part of the show that really suffered was the technical end. This being the company’s second show, it’s easy to see that they simply need a bit more work at organizing the off-stage portion of things. Each scene had a full set change, which seemed very unnecessary, and that made each change go on far longer than it should have. On top of the length of each change, actors were moving things around stage very haphazardly, bumping into each other and banging set pieces on the ground. The company should consider a more rehearsed run crew in the future.

The music was played from a pre-recorded soundtrack, but the lights were designed by Aidan Setlock. Aside from a few odd color choices, the lights worked pretty well considering the space they had to play with. Although whoever was running the spotlight clearly needed a bit more practice.

All in all, this show was a well-done musical that hosts a great amount of talent. Palisade Playhouse is just getting started, and there’s always a few bumps in the road at first. From seeing this production, I can tell that they’re going to be a company to really watch for in the coming years. Best of luck to them!

Annie runs at the Palaside Playhouse through September 2. For tickets and more information, click here

Photos courtesy of Salene Mazur Kraemer

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/.