I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

ILUVYOU-FB-HeaderI Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change boasts the second longest off-Broadway run of a musical in history, bested only by The Fantastiks, with just over 5,000 performances from 1996-2008. Its creators, Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music), have prolific careers, with Joe DiPietro in particular going on to win Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Awards. DiPietro’s Broadway credits alone include Nice Work If You Can Get It, Tony Award-winning Memphis, All Shook Up, and Living on Love.

And yet, despite all of the cachet attached to I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and its creators, I do not like this show.

I Love You has been translated into multiple languages; it has been performed all over the world and in every state in the USA. There is a reason for this. It’s easy. It’s easy to produce, requiring a minimum of four actors, minimal sets, and minimal orchestra. It’s easy for the audience to digest, depending on well-worn tropes for every moment of storytelling. Its portrayal of the mating habits of the basic heterosexual is unimaginative, trite, even stereotypical. It says nothing new on the subject; it neither challenges nor illuminates.

Also, for a show lauded as a “celebration of…that contemporary conundrum known as ‘the relationship,’” I Love You ignores all non-cis orientations, except as a brief joke in one of the vignettes. Is LGBTQ content required for a show about modern, romantic relationships? No. Writers must be personally passionate about what they write, and not every show has to include a representation of every person. However, to not include even an acknowledgment of LGBTQ relationships seems the opposite of “contemporary” at best, and intentionally blind to the real world at worst.

So, there you have it. I don’t like this show. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand its appeal or appreciate it as a vehicle for showcasing performers. With that in mind, let’s look at Comtra Theatre’s production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which opened Friday, January 5, 2017.

All in all, this was a solid community theater production. Comtra expanded the basic cast requirement to include ten hardworking amateur performers. Some minor unevenness in skill levels in both acting and singing was noticeable among the cast, but nothing that unbalanced the production as a whole.

There were particularly strong female singers in the company, with Samantha Christou, Veronica Mortier, and Shelly Schuster leading the ensemble with that clear, bright, sharp-edged, musical-theater soprano that is so pleasing to the ear.  Veronica Mortier was particularly notable for her technical mastery and consistency. Samantha Christou had some beautiful high notes. Also of note, Joe Moeller’s quiet tenor was responsible for one of the high points of the production, with his tender, understated performance of “Shouldn’t I Be Less in Love with You” in Act II.

I had mixed feelings about the directing of this production. Director Johnny Gallagher did a good job of moving the actors around the stage and creating interesting stage pictures in a proscenium configuration. Unfortunately, the stage was set up in a three-quarter thrust configuration, not proscenium. Since the staging often did not take this into account,  the audience members on the two sides of the thrust stage often missed important moments of the show. In addition, the thrust configuration for the performance in and of itself was disappointing to me, since the theater is set up as a permanent theater-in-the-round. I wish Mr. Gallagher would have embraced the in-the-round challenge when staging this show.

Conductor Matt Brown competently helmed the musical end of the production. The singers were well supported by Mr. Brown on keyboards and Shawn Bliss on violin and mini harp. A second highlight of the production was Mr. Bliss’s violin solo moment during the entr’acte of Act II.

I had a lot of issues with the lighting and the sound. The lighting just wasn’t right. Most of the instruments focused directly down on the actors’ heads, resulting in the actors’ faces being almost constantly in shadow. Likewise, the attempt at area miking was not successful. The few times a microphone actually picked up a performer’s voice, it was disruptive and definitely not needed. The multitude of costumes used in the production seemed to have been supplied mostly by the actors themselves, so, good on you, actors. And I wish the program would have acknowledged the scenic artist for the show, since the painting on the rehearsal boxes used as primary set pieces and the stenciling on the pizza boxes used in “He Called Me”was nicely done and deserve commendation.

If I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change seems like a show for you, Comtra Theatre’s production runs weekends through January 20, 2017. You can find out more at www.comtratheatre.org.

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Winter 2017

Welcome to our annual pick of five of must-see musicals this winter. We have a diverse mix that includes two community theatre productions; Annie at Comtra and The Last Five Years by Split Stages at the Theatre Factory. From the University of Pittsburgh, there is the off-Broadway classic Little Shop of Horrors and CMU presents the Drowsy Chaperone Wrapping up our list for this post is the world premiere of Up and Away at the CLO Cabaret.

Yvonne has a separate story coming later this winter on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Ted Papas’ final musical as Producing Artistic Director at the Public Theatre.  If you yearn for a touring Broadway show, the Cultural Trust / PNC Broadway Across America has How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Wicked, Love Never Dies and, The Bodyguard this winter. Lastly, what would the holidays be without the CLO’s annual A Christmas Carol at the Byham.

But now to our winter musical picks:

annieAnnie, Miss Hannigan, Daddy Warbucks and Sandy have been making the rounds of the areas community theatres this past year and Cranberry’s Comtra Theatre has snagged them right before Christmas. Despite having been around for nearly one-hundred years since Harold Gray launched his popular comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” in 1920 they haven’t aged a bit!

In case you just arrived on earth and haven’t heard of Annie, here is the story. She is an orphan who lives in the evil Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Luckily, she gets sprung for the holidays because she has been chosen to stay over the Christmas holidays at billionaire Oliver Warbuck’s mansion. She is ever so cute and loveable and Annie wins the hearts of Warbucks and his staff.  They Honor her wish to find her parents.  Ms. Hannigan, true to form, schemes to make a buck off the deal with her brother and his “lady friend” to help.

Brent Rodgers returns to Comtra Theatre to direct Annie after last spring’s musical hit Sister Act. Brent is also the musical director at Riverside High School.   He says “You won’t want to miss the beautiful score and heartwarming story of this All-American musical.  We are bound to put everyone in the Christmas spirit!”

Recently produced by Stage 62 and the Palisade Playhouse, the Comtra Theatre features an intimate performance space with affordable tickets. It’s the perfect place to introduce young children to the live theatre experience. As an added bonus, Comtra has a nice troupe of young actors with a focus on family-friendly shows.

Annie, at the Comtra Theatre in Cranberry Township, has performances December 1st to 16th. For dates, shows times and tickets click here

upupThe CLO Cabaret Theatre is a great venue to relax have a drink, some food and enjoy a light-hearted comedy. Up and Away is the CLO’s latest offering in their mission to develop and nurture smaller-scale musicals.  Fifty different characters are played by five actors in this high-flying world-premiere comedy guaranteed to keep the suspense high and the laughs rolling!

The story features brothers Joe and Jerry Jessup who live in the not much happening, very rural hamlet of Farmtown, USA.  When Joe discovers he has superpowers, he naturally high-tails it out of town to seek fame and fortune in “Big City.” He finds trouble instead and forces his jittery brother Jerry to follow which turns their boring life upside down. Toss in an eccentric billionaire, a plucky reporter, and dastardly villains, and you’ve got the rip-roaring adventure tale of the world’s FIRST superhero.

Up and Away at the CLO Cabaret in Theatre Square has performances beginning January 25th through April 15, 2018. For tickets and times click here

l5ySplit Stage Productions wraps their season with The Last Five Years, an emotional and intimate musical with an interesting storytelling approach. Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt are two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show uses reverse storytelling; Cathy is a struggling actress, who tells her story in reverse while Jamie, a rising novelist, reveals his story chronologically from when they first met.  What is theatrically interesting here is the two characters play opposite of each other and are only together on stage once, at their wedding, in the middle of the timeline.

The Last Five Years plays January 26th to February 3rd at The Theatre Factory in Trafford. For tickets and more information click here.

lsohAs winter drags on and you long for the Spring Flower Show at the Phipps, The University of Pittsburgh’s Drama Department has just the right solution, Little Shop of Horrors, a musical about a plant! Well, it is not just any plant, but a foul-mouthed, alien R&B-singing carnivore plant. A milquetoast floral assistant, Seymour Krelborn stumbles across a new breed of a plant which, he names “Audrey II” – after his coworker crush. Audrey II promises unending fame and fortune to the down and out Krelborn as long as he keeps feeding it. It loves BLOOD. Over time, Seymour discovers Audrey II’s out of this world origins and intent towards global domination!

Reginald Douglas, the Artistic Producer at the City Theatre, directs this Off-Broadway classic by playwright Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman’s the creative geniuses behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, and Aladdin.

Little Shop of Horrors in performance at Charity Randall Theatre on Pitt’s campus from February 8th to February 18th.  For tickets call 412.624.PLAY (7529)

tdcThis university theatre season is a feast for musical theatre fans and that unique musical form, the musical within a musical. Point Park this fall produced Kiss Me Kate (to be seen on Broadway in 2019 with Kellie O’Hara) and it has the classic 42nd Street scheduled this spring. Carnegie Mellon grabs the winter slot with The Drowsy Chaperone, a loving send-up of the Jazz Age musical, it is Directed and Choreographed by Tony Award-nominated (Ragtime) Marcia Milgrom Dodge with Musical Direction by Pittsburgh’s Thomas Douglas.

When a diehard theatre fan plays his favorite cast album the recording comes to life and The Drowsy Chaperone begins as the man in the chair looks on. Mix in two lovers on the eve of their wedding, a bumbling best man, a desperate theatre producer, a not-so-bright hostess, two gangsters posing as pastry chefs, a misguided Don Juan and an intoxicated chaperone, and you have the ingredients for an evening of madcap delight that involves gangsters, show people, millionaires, servants and of course tap dancing!

The Drowsy Chaperone “does what a musical is supposed to do! It takes you to another world and it gives you a little tune to carry in your head for when you’re feeling blue…”

Carnegie Mellon’s production of Drowsy Chaperone runs February 22nd to March 3rd. For tickets click here. 

Once again, the Pittsburgh area theatre companies provide a winter filled with almost enough (Is there ever?) singing and dancing to satisfy any musical theatre nerds’ passion. For those of you still on the fence about musicals, check out this clip from Something Rotten at the 2015 Tony Awards https://vimeo.com/139792908

Schoolhouse Rock Live

21125789_1511286128917714_3482032584399113952_oFirst, there was Schoolhouse Rock, a series of short educational music videos that covered subjects ranging from history, grammar, and math, etc. The series was the brainchild of a Madison Avenue adman when he noticed his kids could remember the lyrics to rock songs but not the rules of grammar. It premiered on the ABC Television Network in 1970 and it survives today on You Tube and other streaming services.

Schoolhouse Rock Live begins with what sounds like a modern school bell, but it is actually the alarm of Tom Mizer, a young teacher about to start his first day in the classroom.

As he awakes Tom (Michael Petrucci) begins to practice his teaching technique. In an attempt to relax and calm down he turns on the TV. What would be on but Schoolhouse Rock! He gets drawn into the show and yet begins to think he’s lost his mind becoming a teacher.

Tom has several imaginary friends helping him this first morning that lead into and setup the now classic Schoolhouse Rock songs; “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing”, “Three is a Magic Number”, “Just a Bill”, “Do the Circulation”, “Conjunction Junction” and “Interplanet Janet”.

As the show moves through the songs, Tom realizes he is ready to teach, but before he heads to school he requests of his “friends” his personal favorite, “Interjections”.

You might have seen the original Schoolhouse Rock videos, or perhaps even eSchoolhouse Rock Live, or School House Rocks Live, Jr. but in all probability, you have never seen this rejiggered version as envisioned Directors by Larissa and Michael Petrucci. Their production has become more of a characterless musical revue, lacking in drama. In a sense, it comes off more as a frantic middle school dance recital.

Here at the Comtra Theatre, Tom is not seen on stage until the end of the show, he is just an off-stage voice. Any opportunity for interaction with his alter ego’s imaginary friends has been lost.  This staging affords us no ability to see Tom’s worry and angst as his first-day teaching draws near.

The imaginary friends have been reduced from five to three and renamed Lacey (Larissa Petrucci), Myah (Myah Davis) and Nikki (Nicole Uram).  There are nineteen other preteens and children who make up the rest of the cast.  This quickly fills Comtra’s fifteen by fifteen foot in-the-round stage with little room for them to act or react.

Even though we can’t see Tom, there are two TVs hung in the corners that show the original Schoolhouse videos as the kids sing along. You find yourself watching them more than the performers. Unfortunately, the live action singing doesn’t sync cohesively with the videos, they usually end before the singing does. The wireless microphones were not cooperating at this performance.

The musicians led by Conductor and Keyboardist Amy Kamp with Samuel Costanza are spot on perfect. There are so many other things that aren’t, you almost don’t notice how really good the musicians are.

This production of School House Rock was a great opportunity for children gain experience performing on stage and their parents to enjoy watching them. Yes, there is nothing cuter than seeing your kids perform at their first show. For the rest of the audience, not so much.

The Schoolhouse Rock Live is reimagined at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday Evenings from now through September 16th at the Comtra Theatre in Cranberry, PA. For tickets visit https://comtratheatre.ticketleap.com

Little Shop of Horrors

20451726_1486317781414549_2142172775752597892_oHorror and comedy mix well. Laughter and terror are base emotions, but both require a degree of nuance to actually work. A comedy with stilted rhythm is unsettling; horror without subtlety is hilarious. Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors wasn’t the first horror comedy ever produced, but it was the first to intrinsically understand that a bad horror film is often a great comedy.

The Comtra Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors, a new production based on the musical adaptation (written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken) from 1982, is an energetic wellspring of fun horror motifs. The story goes like this: Seymour (Robby Yoho), a put-upon florist who purchases an unknown breed of plant from a stranger, is surprised to find that his new ‘discovery’ is eye-catching enough to attract dozens of new customers to the floral shop where he works. He is more surprised to learn that the plant’s only source of sustenance is fresh human blood.

The larger the plant grows, the more of a local celebrity Seymour becomes, and the more human sacrifice the plant demands. Once it becomes clear the plant can no longer sustain itself on pinpricks alone, Seymour faces a difficult choice: how far will he go to maintain his sudden success?

Comtra’s production is acted, directed and produced almost entirely by students from nearby high schools. The theater has produced other high school shows in the past, including four other works helmed by Little Shop of Horror’s director, Jocelyn Kavanagh, a senior at Seneca Valley Senior High.

As someone who grew up watching almost a half dozen art programs be bled dry by lack of funding or interest, Comtra’s latest production is an easy example of how much good art programs actually do. This is a coordinated production. It’s ambitious, even, in its performances and set design. There’s this bizarre instinct out there to dismiss high school students as somehow unable to make anything resonant without extensive guidance, and Little Shop of Horror’s cast and crew – happily – have proven the sentiment ridiculous.

This musical is a particularly smart choice for a young production. Little Shop of Horrors is sharp-edged enough to feel a little dangerous, but without going beyond the pale. Characters in it possess complexity. There’s Orin, a psychotic dentist who gets high on both the pain of his patients and the extremely potent laughing gas he gives himself before operations. This character is played by Matt Kraynik, who plays many characters of interest in the play. He has a natural comedic instinct and embodies his characters easily. Audrey, who is sweet hearted and an unfortunate victim of abuse, is something of a cartoon-y damsel in distress in the source material, but Emma Hackworth takes her seriously as a human being. In this production, Audrey is not a passive victim of circumstance, but a woman who is self-destructive and desperate. That is a good choice.

I’m far from the most experienced theatergoer at PGH in the Round, but I think I’ve seen enough shows to be an authority on technical difficulties. For an audience, a play is not the script or its intent. A play is what happens in front of us, and nothing else. There was a moment during Little Shop of Horrors where Yoho’s Seymour must throw an object at some distance into the plant’s giant head. He misses, and Tyler Mortier, who plays the plant, begins heckling Yoho’s aim. I’ve seen too many shows where some important part of a character’s wardrobe is accidentally flung off in a fight scene, or an important piece of the set is shattered, or a pair of pants fall completely off of an actor without any mention from a panicked cast. All of these examples are real, and I remember them for a specific reason. Left unacknowledged, an audience leaves a show remembering these moments as funny, awkward things that happened to the people in the play. Own it, and suddenly the event is part of the play’s narrative.

This incident was a small part of the show, but it’s a nutshell moment for the cast and crew. Comtra’s Little Shop of Horrors is a showcase for young talent. Mel Welles, an actor in the original film, said that Little Shop of Horrors’ success was based in large part because it was “a love project.” The same joy in creativity is present here. The Comtra Theatre has enabled its team to stretch their creative muscles, and they will be better equipped to pursue work in and beyond theater as a result. It is good that the venue exists; spaces like it deserve celebration.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at Comtra Theatre through August 19. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Peter Pan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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