A Musical Christmas Carol

Hero_53915When I walked into the Byham Theater to see Pittsburgh CLO’s A Musical Christmas Carol for the very first time, I let out an involuntary “Wow!”. The impact of D Martyn Bookwalter’s set is nothing short of breathtaking. Antique artifacts and various ornate furnishings cover the stage painting an incredibly authentic portrait of Dickensian London with equal shades of squalor and grandeur.

It’s like stepping into a music box. But this music box is a well-oiled machine that has been entertaining generations of families in Pittsburgh for 26 years. Like the four seasons, A Musical Christmas Carol comes around every year and ushers in a change in climate. While this production’s magical powers don’t extend to banishing the below freezing temperatures outside, it will surely fill all who see it with enough warmth and light to carry them through the many cold winter nights to come.

Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella has been adapted so many times in so many different media that the list of adaptations has its own Wikipedia page. But don’t expect to see any Muppets or Bill Murray onstage at the Byham because Pittsburgh CLO serves up the classic story straight with genuine English accents and absolutely gorgeous period costumes by Mariann Verheyen.

Original director and choreographer David H. Bell also adapts Dickens’s work here and effectively uses the myriad of tools and tricks that the theatre provides to maintain the heart and horror of the original story and to establish the town and all of its inhabitants as fleshed out characters. He incorporates a handful of (frustratingly) truncated Christmas standards that existed when the story takes place like “Silent Night”, “Good King Weneslas”, and “Deck the Halls” that function more to transition between scenes and underscore the action than to propel it forward.

DSC_4112-RETOUCHFortunately, the only thing you truly need to get you from one moment to the next in A Musical Christmas Carol is anticipation for each of its source material’s famous moments and lines. It’s of course the story of the miserable miser Ebenezer Scrooge who meets every tiding of comfort and joy extended to him with a venomous “Humbug!”.

On Christmas Eve, he berates and belittles his nephew Fred, his employee Bob Cratchit, and innocent citizens soliciting donations for the less fortunate before being visited by the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley. This specter warns Scrooge that he will soon meet three more ghosts who will show him the error of his greedy, malevolent ways.

The Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come journey through time with Scrooge present him with shadows of his past and present follies and how they put his future in mortal danger. Although in the short run it might seem that Scrooge uses money to right the wrongs he’s perpetrated, it’s clear that his heart really did grow three sizes after his time with the ghosts when he embraces and is in turn embraced by his fellow man.

And then there’s Bob Cratchit’s adorable, handicapable son Tiny Tim (even more adorably portrayed by Daniel Frontz) who ties the universal themes of the story together with four immortal words: “God bless us, everyone”.

Another wonderful thing about the time-honored tradition of A Musical Christmas Carol is the way it brings actors of all ages and experience levels together in service of spreading holiday cheer to the masses. Alongside newcomer Frontz, you’ll see Broadway veteran Patrick Page in the iconic role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

 

Patrick Page and Daniel Krell
Patrick Page and Daniel Krell

Page is no stranger to being the villain (see his dark turns in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the Christmas villain (he played the titular role in the musical adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas), or even Scrooge (this is his second year with AMCC), but he does not rest on his laurels here. His Scrooge’s pain comes from within whether he’s bearing witness to his cruelty through the memories or presently committing acts of avarice. Page does not get to sing much unfortunately, but he performs each of his monologues with a Shakespearean edge that elicits uproarious applause. In this performance, he effortlessly exudes gravitas and proves that reacting on stage can be just as compelling as acting.

 

Surrounding and supporting Page is a large ensemble with seriously big talents. Just about all of them play upwards of 2-4 roles including everything from simple carolers to frightening phantoms. When they start singing, you’ll be calling them the angels we have heard on high.

Among them, Lisa Ann Goldsmith (Mrs. Cratchitt), Erika Strasburg (Young Scrooge’s first love, Belle), and Luke Halferty (Young Scrooge himself) stand out most, but it’s clear that no one is having as much fun as Tim Hartman (Mr. Fezziwig and Ghost of Christmas Present). Hartman is a 25-year veteran of AMCC whose booming voice, towering height, and great comedic timing make it impossible to take your eyes off of him.

After 26 years, this old chestnut is still roasting and nipping at the hearts of mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons in Pittsburgh and showing no signs of stopping. Pittsburgh CLO and Bell have created a dazzling and sentimental tribute to the true reason for the season. A Musical Christmas Carol might only play in this city, but I know that, as it touches the people who see it and they go out and live their lives, that this production truly brings joy to the world.

A Musical Christmas Carol plays at the Byham Theatre through December 23rd. For more information, click here.

Photos by Matt Polk.

Dreamgirls

dream girlsIf you go to Dreamgirls expecting a biopic musical about The Supremes, you’ll be surprised: The show actually is a fictionalized tale inspired not just by the legendary female trio from the ‘60s, but other Motown-era acts including The Shirelles and James Brown.

Still, the look, feel and sound of The Supremes flavor every bit of Dreamgirls, a Pittsburgh Musical Theater production that is playing at the Byham Theater through March 19. The show’s lead trio of women – played by Delana Flowers (Lorrell), Anastasia Talley (Deena) and Adrianna M. Cleveland (Effie) – wear those legendary, sparkly, pizzazz-filled gowns for which The Supremes were known, built by costume designer Tony Sirk. The characters in this band – called The Dreamettes, then The Dreams, in the show – go through at least a half-dozen costume changes throughout the show.

One of those costumes, a dazzling sequined blue gown, had such a mirror effect that it briefly created the illusion of blue ocean waves on the walls of the Byham. And the woman wearing this gown – Effie, beautifully played by Cleveland, a Pittsburgh native – may be part of an ensemble-like cast, but she indisputably plays the part that needs the most powerful vocals, and she gets the loudest applause at the end. Cleveland’s feisty Effie can hit and hold notes for an awe-inspiring amount of time at several points throughout the play.

The real-life-inspired, but fictionalized Dreamgirls storyline takes the audience through the history and evolution of American R&B music in Detroit. The plot begins with the manipulative Curtis discovering The Dreamettes at a talent show, and claiming the young women and declaring himself their manager. Curtis – played by Monteze Freeland, who trained at Point Park University – arranges for the ladies to sing backup with R&B star Jimmy “Thunder” Early. Of course, a lot of drama ensues, with the women competing for star roles, and having ill-fated love affairs and crushes: Effie falls for Curtis, and Lorrell begins an affair with married man Jimmy.

You won’t hear the songs of The Supremes in Dreamgirls, but the show has its own energetic soundtrack with fun, original music. Memorable songs include the title tune “Dreamgirls” and “One Night Only,” sung by Effie, Deena and Lorrell; and the moving, empowering “I Am Changing” from Effie. The funniest musical moment comes when Jimmy – hilariously portrayed by LaTrea Rembert, a Point Park graduate – sings his song “I Meant You No Harm.” The song begins softly as almost a ballad, then dramatically shifts gears into a zany rap where Rembert declares “Jimmy got soul!”

Although Pittsburgh Musical Theater productions often feature students from the company’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory, the cast of Dreamgirls – almost all African-American – is a cast of professional adults. They give a delightful performance that transports the audience back to another era in pop-culture history and bring a new appreciation to this classic R&B music.

Dreamgirls continues March 17-19 at the Byham Theater. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $9.25 to $54.75. For tickets and more information about Pittsburgh Musical Theater, click here. 

A Musical Christmas Carol

Hero_50495Holiday spirit abounds at the Byham Theater! Pittsburghers greet the season with a classical tale starring a cast of captivating characters and tremendous singing. A Musical Christmas Carol is a gateway to all things Christmas. The CLO kicked off their 25th anniversary inaugural performance to a packed house on Friday December 9. Enticing a second generation of guests, the musical rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol welcomes repeat patrons and many performers who return to the stage, reviving their roles for a second, third or sixth season. The CLO honors a quarter century of performances by unveiling a handsome new set and innovative special effects that will not disappoint. All the while maintaining the charm and inspiration of characters Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come and the wise, young Tiny Tim.DSC_4500-RETOUCH

Together, Patrick Page as Ebenezer Scrooge and Jeffrey Howell cast as the gentle and hardworking Bob Cratchit, are a forceful presence, depicting both the ‘ba humbug’ attitude and the poor but contented father, with energy and conviction. Tim Hartman portrays a gregarious Mr. Fezziwig and a surprisingly frightening Ghost of Christmas Present. Terry Wickline cast as both Mrs. Dilber and the zealous Mrs. Fezziwig and Daniel Krell as the commanding Ghost of Marley help draw the audience deeper into the story. The artistic energy between Hartman and Wickline, as Mr. and Mrs. Fizziwig is perfectly timed. Their playful banter evokes warm returns of laughter from the audience. The children own their roles with polish and professionalism, especially Marco Attilio Petrucci, making his theatrical debut as Tiny Tim, the youngest Cratchit child who ultimately influences Scrooge’s change of heart.

Performance highlights include Krell, as the ghost of Jacob Marley, emerging from the floor, an aura of smoke clouding the stage. His booming voice calls out “Scrooge!” and nearly stuns the audience. It is an ominous scene that enthralled me. As the show progressed with each specter’s appearance, I was taken aback by how down right creepy the spirits are; nothing like the angelic image I anticipated from a Christmas themed story. The contrast between the hauntings, enhanced with dim lightning and lots of smoke, against the colorful and jubilant costumes of the Carolers was mesmerizing. So, what would be A Musical Christmas Carol without Carolers? The enchanting ensemble files through the theater and onto the stage dressed in authentic attire; men sporting top hats and suits and women in full skirts and capes. Their resounding voices are a glistening accoutrement next to the dark hauntings and despicable demeanor of Scrooge.

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Patrick Page (left) and Daniel Krell (right)

Since this was my first time attending A Musical Christmas Carol I have nothing to compare from previous years but in regard to the set, I found the design of Scrooge’s residence magnificent. His over-sized and stately bed and the neatly arranged parlor chairs represent his abundances in true Victorian fashion compared to the drab and sparsely decorated home of the Cratchit family. I also particularly enjoyed the London street vendors who further added color and life to the mise-en-scene.

Never mind what you already know of the plot of A Christmas Carol. This show is A Musical Christmas Carol and includes many glorious musical selections delivered alongside an all- star cast. Dickens messages of charity, humility, forgiveness and family resonate throughout making this a perfect holiday event no matter your age or creed.

A Musical Christmsa Carol runs at the Byham Theater through December 23rd. For tickets and more information click here. 

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

Grease

2015Mast-GreaseIt’s systematic. It’s hydromatic. It’s Grease the Musical!

From the original 1972 Broadway premiere, to the 2016 Grease Live TV broadcast on FOX network, the story of Rydell High seem never cease to entertain the American audience with its timeless energy and passion. As the grand finale of Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s 2016 “Magnificent Movie Musicals” season, Grease brings the long-awaited summer nights back to the Steel City with those classic ’70s tunes and exciting rock n’ roll.

Written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the show follows high school teenagers Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski as well as their boy gangs or lady squads as they navigate the realities and complexities of growing up. The stage version is a lot different from the 1978 hit film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as more songs were included and familiar songs were sung at different scenes. But overall the story and themes stay the same.

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Hayhurst and Gee

Leading the Burger Palace Boys is Point Park alumnus Mr. Ricky Gee who played Danny with a toned-down personality. The chemistry of the character didn’t really sparkle until later but Mr. Gee’s vocal and dance moves surely held the summer heat through the very last scene. His love interest Sandy was played by Ms. Lara Hayhurst who portrayed the classic “girl next door” with such a freshness and a beautiful voice. Her solo number “Hopeless Devoted to You” would make you sing “Oh Sandy” in a heart beat, and her strong spirit and “spicy” transformation in Act II is easily the momentum that drives the show upward.

But the true stars of this show are the secondary characters. Ms. Larissa Overholt played Rizzo with a sharp edge and tender emotions. Her squad, the Pink Ladies, has the best dynamics whenever they are on the stage together, and her 11 o’clock number “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was easily the most tear jerking moment of the night. Black horse of the show goes to Mr. Quinn Patrick Shannon and Ms. Audra Qualley who played Roger and Jan and stunned the audience with their shinning duet “Mooning”. Another highlight is Doody played by Mr. Adam Marino whose “Those Magic Changes” is full of magical charms. And last but not least, honorable mention Mr. Brady D. Patsy, who played Miss Lynch as the comic relief of the show and took home the most laughs of the night.

Originally inspired by writer Jim Jacobs’ own high school experience in Chicago, Illinois, Grease was much more violent and explored darker themes during some of its early productions before the 1972 Broadway premiere. But over the years the story has been sanitized many times and eventually made more family friendly for the movie version. For this production Director Trey Compton tended to bring back some of the edgy elements while keeping the overall entertaining feeling,  but because the stage version already didn’t have some of the climatic scenes in the movie, overall the plot felt bland and weightless. All of the big character moments and tense scenes eventually lost to the waiting for the next audience-familiar song.

However, because most of the songs in Grease are so well-known, every number felt like a sing-along. Music Director Dr. Brent Alexander did a great job with the orchestra; you could just feel the hype in the house whenever the music started playing again. And this energy is only amplified by Ms. Lisa Elliott’s electric choreography, integrating car tires and those good old hand jives.

Tech design of this show turned out to be my favorite memory of the night, if not the best of the season. Ms. Kim Brown once again wowed the Pittsburgh audience with costumes that stole the spotlight. Mr. Todd Nonn’s dreamy lighting proved that he’s the true “Greased Lightnin'”. Mr. Jeff Perri’s brilliantly designed backdrop made of school lockers combined with colorful patterns will make your inner teenage self feel like it’s prom night with every set change.  And finally, when all tech aspects came together in “Beauty School Dropout”, you will realize that this is the true magic change that made you fall in love with Grease in the first place.

Whether you’re a fan of the original movie, or just love wearing leather jacket, Grease is the word! It might not be your everyday high school romantic musical comedy, but a night that ends with “happily ever after” is always guaranteed, only this time it’s “a-wop-bam-a-loo mop and top bam boom”!

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Musical Theater for complimentary press tickets. Grease runs at the Byham Theater through Sunday May 1st. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photo by Rockhan Photography