Arsenic and Old Lace

arsenic-oldlace1Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a play about how we interpret spaces. When our protagonist Mortimer Brewster (Ron Clawson) returns to his family’s home, he’s pleased to once more re-enter the womb of boyhood memory. The aunts who were so sweet to raise him, Martha (Dorothy Fallows) and Abby (Jan Gerber), are still as safe and mundane as a Norman Rockwell portrait. His brother, Teddy Brewster (Randy Berner), continues to suffer from a dissociative psychological condition that has reduced his life to the pleasant recurring fantasy that he is actually former US President Theodore Roosevelt, therefore rendering him harmless. You know, normal stuff. Life is knowable; life is good.

Life, also, can be terrifying. Mortimer does not expect to find that his aunts are more or less remorseless serial killers who lure unmarried elderly men into their home to poison them. He also does not expect to find that his other, more sociopathic brother, Jonathan Brewster (John Paul Richie), is back in town with a new face the intent to murder. Everything Mortimer thought was knowable is not, and likely never was.

And so it is with us, the audience, during McKeesport Little Theater’s production. We enter the theater to find ourselves in a lovingly hand-crafted living room in Brooklyn. It is a space designed by Edward Bostedo, who is also Arsenic’s director, and it exudes a dusty American nostalgia. The lights dim. Abby appears, and disposes of a corpse as casually one would throw away a receipt to the tune of Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” which immediately blows out the theater’s speakers. This generates static, making the otherwise comedic image immediately unsettling. Martha joins her shortly after, barely masking her enthusiasm to discuss their latest victim. The women are so plainspoken that their detachment from the murder reads as realistic.

Enter: Teddy, who storms around the stage in a larger than life performance that is all practiced caricature. His comedic physicality literally shakes the decorative plates and framed photographs hung around the apartment. Later, when Mortimer arrives and discovers the body, which is roughly half his size, it weighs him down as dramatically as a bag of bricks. Clawson’s mixture of incredulity and his ability to improvise comedy out of production bumps and scrapes – at one point a gesticulation launched the receiver of a telephone he was using clean from the chord, which he used to re-ignite his character’s sense of panic – make him a kind of self-foiling straight man, simultaneously Abbot and Costello, especially when contrasted with the other three protagonists.

A lot about McKeesport’s Arsenic and Old Lace can be excavated from its war of performative tones; it feels like several interpretations of one play. Example: Fallow and Gerber’s Arsenic is a quiet show propelled by the witticisms of two realistic women who have lost touch with reality. Clawson’s panicky Mortimor and his put-upon partner, Elaine (Elizabeth Civello), have classic comedic chemistry and transmogrify Arsenic into a dark, yet friendly improv show. The introduction of a disparate third duo, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein (Michael Ciarlone), initially feels like an attempt at narrative cohesion, considering how Jonathan is such a straightforward (re: convincing!) killer and that Ciarlone’s Einstein feels like it was pulled straight out of an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory. Unfortunately, because the play’s tone is so scattershot they actually end up feeling too menacing, and scenes in which they put bystanders in peril become such a tonal mishmash that it propels any potential comedy violently into a wall.

I will say that Arsenic and Old Lace is a play that has aged well. Our rose-colored perception of its ‘40s-set America has defanged the era enough that revealing its quaint exterior to be such a brutal space escalates an already fairly escalated farce. It’s also a play that, appropriately, has so much more thematic depth than is popularly portrayed and is therefore ripe for re-interpretation. To the credit of McKeesport’s production, its varied methods of performance do make the play read differently. These interpretations, however, are largely without cohesion. Much like Martha and Abby’s poisoned victims, we the audience need to believe Arsenic and Old Lace’s façade before we succumb to it.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through November 19, for tickets and more information, click here. 

Jekyll and Hyde

20108255_1597843823593695_7924084507636953916_nThere is something to be said for the succulent, somewhat indulgent wave of hyper-camp that is necessary to successfully execute a musical adapted from seemingly unfitting source material. Musicals like Carrie, Batboy!: The Musical, Heathers and others of that ilk must evoke and maintain a certain degree of precise ludicrousness and poignancy to be enjoyable (or even bearable). The cast and crew responsible for McKeesport Little Theater’s musical adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde—originally conceived by Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden for the stage based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous novella “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”—are certainly aware of the level of camp necessary for reproducing something as absurd as a melodramatically symphonic, at times vaudevillian, reconstruction of a story of the prototype “mad” scientist on his blind quest to reveal humanity’s dichotomous spirit. While on the whole enjoyable and self-reflexive, some of the finer points of the execution could have been strengthened in the staging.

Certainly, the musical, as is the case with the book, is heavily dependent on strong individual performances that give life to characters who are intensely caricatured. Director Edward Bostedo clearly took this to heart, making sure characters like Jekyll/Hyde, Spider, Lucy Harris, and the lecherous Minister were illuminated in extraordinarily seedy light. Eric Sciulli, responsible for playing the dangerously transcendentalist titular doctor, is very aware of the dramaturgical task he is beset with—and his impressive vocal range and power helps to give the doctor an air of unbridled passion that makes the familiar character feel unique. Additionally, Randi Walker, portraying the sex worker Lucy Harris (a character that is woefully sublimated in most iterations of the story) is an absolute scene stealer. Having seen Walker in other performances, it was by no means a surprise to be thrilled by her impassioned performance, but she truly did revitalize some of the slower moments of the play. At times, the play would rely too heavily on hackneyed or absurdist performances or quirks rather than character development or cohesion, but a great deal of credit should be given to the ensemble interactions and the expertise of the stage manager, Elizabeth Civello, and director and other crew members for guiding these interactions from behind the scenes. Set designer Edward Bostedo deserves a tremendous amount of credit for capitalizing on a very small, fairly limiting space and creating entire, compelling settings on a macro and micro scale in each scene.

Jekyll & Hyde at times falls short of the balance of consistent preposterousness and subtle poignancy that is necessary to keep the play going on all cylinders at all moments. That being said, the actors and crew impressively translate the essence of the source material while adding their distinct flair to the show that captures the audience and highlights their individual talents. The play shows promise for the ongoing caliber for the staggering 57th season of McKeesport Little Theatre.

Jekyll & Hyde runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through September 24th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Anything Goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polish Joke

16427723_1414233895288023_3891042495884003170_nQuestion: “How do you sink a Polish battleship? Answer: Put it in the water.”  Please, don’t get offended, the David Ives’ play Polish Joke is loaded with “Polish jokes” that are not meant to offend, but to explain a feeling, an emotion, an acceptance of a lifestyle. For example, “How do you get a one armed Polish person out of a tree? Wave to him.”  But this play being performed at McKeeesport Little Theater is much more than a machine-gun litany of Polish one-liners.

As the play opens, a very Polish Uncle Roman (Eric Buell) has the audience in stitches sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway with his barrage of “typical” Polish jokes while trying to indoctrinate his then 9 year old nephew Jasiu (Arjun Kumar) as to the reasons that Polish people are doomed to be at the receiving end of some pretty hefty amounts of stereotypes. Why? Because, according to Uncle Roman, the birthright of Polish descendants is to accept the public’s perception of them as lazy and basically not too bright. As he explains, Polish people are prone to sit around drinking beer with eggs and salt, eat blood sausage, and hang kielbasa in their living rooms.  “That’s what Polish people do,” he explains to young Jasiu.

However, the response of Jasiu always being a “why does this have to be” is the driving force behind this comedy. Jaisu is determined not to settle into this fate. Hence, the Polish Joke becomes, in actuality, Jasui’s quixotic journey into fighting his own windmills (in this case, his Polish heritage) to become anything but Polish, discovering, along with way, that this is an impossible task. He fools no one.

Polish Joke is a “coming of age” ritual of Jasiu’s to purge his ethnicity, at least publically, which moves him into an extremely confused adulthood. He leaves home to explore the world and chooses a variety of surnames and occupations (Jewish, WASP, Irish) hoping to settle on a “heritage” that will be more accepting.  The task of each of the other four actors in this comedy is to become “someone” or “something” different, to teach Jasiu a lesson, which, actually, works well on stage.

The real joke is not the expected, actual Polish jokes heard throughout the play, but the fact that it is the understanding toward Jasiu’s adulthood. The joke is actually on him. His “Polish cover-up” never really works.

Ives’ play, directed by David Hofmann, itself is produced into small collections of 13 scenes that follow Jasiu throughout his life, returning to the acceptance of his history, and, after (finally and accidentally) settling in Poland and marrying an authentic Polish woman, returns home to explain to his uncle that being Polish is not as bad as he was lead to believe.

Kumars angst, which he carries throughout the play, is believable, surrounded by characters of all different cultures ultimately discovering his false attempts to join the “intelligencia” of the world. This leads to soliloquies directed at the audience that beg the question of “who am I, really?”.  It’s actually up to the other characters to discover his true identity – forcing him to accept his Polish fate. The lesson Jasiu learns is that one cannot escape one’s identity presented by Uncle Roman in the first scene of the play.  Kumar’s four cast mates help move him to this reality.

Each of the five actors cast in this play take on a variety of roles: sanitation workers, doctors, priests, Irish travel agents, florists, policemen, Yentas, and more and do so convincingly in extremely quick scene changes.

Buell, Amanda Anne Leight, and Justin Koffard are asked to do almost the impossible by the continuously changing roles, action, and scenery in this work. They all do a yeoman’s job changing themselves into believable characters transforming every scene. The one aspect of this play that works is that Buell, Haggerty, and Kofford pull off the changes and, through the usual but necessary “willing suspension of disbelief” force the audience to believe that these truly are different characters.

However, the witty and eccentric Kate Haggerty very much pushes this comedy along and carries the weight of the real wit and humor throughout the variety of scenes. She portrays the foil to Kumar’s seriousness as he seeks an identity; it is Haggerty who transforms each of the scenes into almost “belly-laugh” responses from the audience.  Her portrayal of a nurse, a Yenta, and a Polish flight attendant are precious.

Haggerty captures the comic essence of the six or seven roles she plays help to add the true hilarity Hoffman is searching for in this work.  She’s a funny actress and definitely an audience grabber. It’s difficult to take your eyes off her because she is that adorable and scene grabbing.  She knows shtick. Her portrayal of an Irish travel agent and a Polish Airline stewardess (eventually Jasiu’s wife as he accidentally settles in Poland) is “tears-in-the-eyes” funny.

The cozy and inviting McKeesport Little Theater, including director Hoffman, took a chance on this at times fragmented comedy (Ives’ issue, not Hoffman’s), and, for the most part, he and his band of actors pulled it off.  No one in the audience left offended by what the title might suggest.  Polish Joke is no joke. Rather, it’s a journey toward human understanding.

Polish Joke runs weekends through March 26, for tickets and more information click here

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Spring

Pittsburgh theatregoers have a great mix of musicals to choose from this spring. Our preview features five shows that offer a mix of style, period and contemporary relevance. Two of them are new to Pittsburgh, Daddy Long Legs from the Public Theatre and Violet from Front Porch Theatricals.  The classic Cole Porter musical Anything Goes will be offered by the McKeesport Little Theatre and the contemporary hit Dream Girls from Pittsburgh Musical Theatre. Rounding out the mix and out of today’s headlines is the Duquesne Red Masquers’ production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.Layout 1

Pittsburgh Public Theatres second musical of the season is Daddy Long Legs, the story of Miss Jerusha Abbott, who is the oldest resident of a New England orphanage. When she turns eighteen, a mysterious benefactor, Jervis Pendleton, decides to pay for her college education. There is one condition, she must write him a monthly letter and not expect any reply.

During the course of her education, Jerusha begins to imagine the woman she could become which leads to critical thinking about religion, the social issues of the day, and politics.

The story is set between 1908 and 1912 and Daddy Long Legs is a story of emotional growth told in song by both characters – as she’s composing and he’s reading her letters.

Pittsburgh’s own Allan Snyder plays Jervis. Audiences will remember him from PMT’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and the CLO’s 39 Steps. Danielle Bowen plays Jerusha.

The New York Times described Daddy Long Legs as “a great treat,” and Variety called it “a wholesome tuner in tune with the times.” Daddy Long Legs has been touching hearts for more than 100 years. Ted Pappas’ new production at the Public is “guaranteed to continue the tradition.”

Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s Daddy Long Legs

Playing March 9th through April 9th at the O’Reilly Theatre

Tickets 412-316-1600 or online at https://ppt.org/calendardream girls

American music has undergone many changes from the big band sound of the forties to rhythm and blues, to the new American sound of Motown. In 1962 even though Elvis was king and we listened to the Beatles, American’s were dancing to the new beat of The Supremes and other girl groups. Dream Girls tells the story of the The Dreamettes, a hopeful Black girl group from Chicago who enter the famous Amateur Night talent competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

The musical explores the relationships between the girls, their boyfriends and managers as the chase their respective dreams.

It is also about the behind-the-scenes reality of the entertainment industry that made this cultural phenomenon possible. The subject matter of this play deals with a musical contribution to America of such importance that only now — decades later —  we are beginning to understand.

“And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and “One Night Only” are just two of the great songs from Dream Girls that have become part of the canon of modern musical theatre.

Dream Girls from Pittsburgh Musical Theatre with performances at the Byham Theater March 9th to 19th. For tickets call 412-456-666 or at https://trustarts.org/production/49516BB andrew j

Pittsburgh’s oldest amateur theatre company, The Duquesne University Red Masquers certainly had excellent foresight in picking Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as their Spring Musical. After all, our President considers himself a modern day Andrew Jackson.

The shows opening song, “Populism Yea Yea”, reflects the desire of Jackson to bring political power back to the public and away from the elite. The subject of immigration today is a topic of much discussion. In Jackson’s era it was native Indian lands. At first, the citizenry meets Jackson’s exhilarating cowboy-like governing tactics with great enthusiasm. But, as the problems grow tougher, the public begins to resent him.

Jackson decides he must take ultimate responsibility for the nation’s choices and autocratically declares that he alone will be the one to make the difficult policy decision.

At the Broadway opening in 2010, The New York Times noted “there is no show in town that more astutely reflects the state of this nation than Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Duquesne University Red Masquers playing 

March 15-19.

Tickets at http://www.duqredmasquers.com/purchase-ticketsanythign goes

Are you are looking for a lighthearted break from reality with quirky characters, great songs and fabulous dance routines?  The McKeesport Musical Theatres production of the classic Cole Porter musical comedy Anything Goes is just your ticket.

The S.S. American is sailing between New York and England with a comically colorful assemblage of passengers: Reno Sweeney, a popular nightclub singer and former evangelist, her pal Billy Crocker, a lovelorn Wall Street broker who has come aboard to try to win the favor of his beloved Hope Harcourt (who is engaged to another passenger, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh), and a second-rate conman named Moonface Martin, aka “Public Enemy #13.” Song, dance, and farcical antics ensue as Reno and Moonface try to help Billy win the love of his life.

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

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

Anything Goes at McKeesport Little Theatre May 5th to 21st. Tickets available at http://mckeesportlittletheater.com

Acclaimed Director Robyne Parish has returned to PPrintittsburgh to live after spending five seasons as the Artistic Director of the Gilbert Theater in North Carolina. Her second directorial assignment since returning is the Tony nominated Violet presented by Front Porch Theatricals.

Violet is a scarred woman who is traveling across the 1964 Deep South toward a miracle. She is looking for the healing touch of an evangelist that will make her beautiful. Though she may not succeed in being healed, Violet is able to repair those injuries that lie deeper than her skin. On the way she meets a young, African-American Soldier whose love for her reaches far past her physical “imperfections”.

I asked Robyne about her approach to the production. “One of the most interesting themes in this play, besides the complicated relationship Violet has with her Father, are the parallels between Flick and Violet. A black man in the south judged by the color of his skin and a white woman being judged by her scar. As an audience we will experience Violets growth, discovery of love, beauty, enlightenment and ultimately redemption.”

“Patrons will discover themselves in the characters in Violet. It’s the story of family, of first love, of desperation and of hope. They will identify with these folks and recognize them in an intimate way some shows may not allow. This is an intense and uplifting play about real people with real hopes, dreams and desires and real loss, failure and disappointment. This is a play about life.”

Violet from Front Porch Theatricals is in performance May 19th to 28th at the New Hazlett Center for the Performing Arts located in Pittsburgh’s historic North Side

Tickets https://www.showclix.com/events/12886

The spring of 2017 promises something for every theatregoer to enjoy.

 

 

12 Angry Men

fxgjgxfjfFew scripts are as universally lauded as Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men. A tense drama driven entirely by conversation, the plot follows white 12 jurors in 1950’s America who are preparing to sentence a non-white, formerly convicted criminal to death around a small table in the sweltering heat of summer. The vote is unanimously in favor of execution – save for one man.

It’s an easy enough setup, but the beauty here is in the details. There are no extraneous details, no clear cut metaphors in the shape of characters; moments of silence, even, are nonexistent. The script is built from pure, authentically written battles of ideology, critical thinking, and unshakable passion.

Lora Oxenreiter’s production over at McKeesport Little Theater is actually slightly sparser than even the Sidney Lumet directed film, as it’s missing a set for the bathroom. Additionally, the small room in which the deliberations take place can actually feel quite large thanks to some hawk-eyed cinematography, and characters split off into different portions of the room as their hour and a half conversation continues. The space at MLT is even tighter, and has been split into three sections: the window, the table, and the corner of the room.

This minimized version of 12 Angry Men’s sweaty anger box actually reveals some things about the script’s structure. The window, our only view to the outside world, is a space characters only inhabit to cool their anger by escaping the other 11 men. The table, obviously, is where most everyone is all the time. The corner, the deepest part of the room, is essentially the ‘let’s split up and commune privately’ section. These spaces, then, roughly equate to a space for self-reflection, a space for public conversation, and a space for private commune. It’s a neat simplification of this space that distills its (easily extrapolated) visualization of individualism versus group think, as the tenor of conversation between these spaces differs greatly.

That said, this limited space is problematic as well. The Little Theater isn’t setup as a theater-in-the-round – this means half of the cast perform the play with their backs turned towards the audience. Besides the obvious problems this odd setup creates, it ends up visually removing some of the men in a way that can minimize the drama.

There were a few performance hiccoughs the cast appeared to be working through during their debut (on November 4th) as well, specifically with actors sometimes trampling over their lines or unnecessarily hanging onto certain moments. No actor slowed the production to a halt or anything, but the play did have a certain stutter in its rhythm. 12 Angry Men is snappy and immediate, so any deviance from the fast pace can make the impassioned arguments feel structured or prepared, and removes them of their import.

Oxenreiter’s sense of direction is an important element of the play’s success. I could feel in each actor’s performance a reliance on naturalism above all else, and a dedication to both organic immediacy and faithful recreation. The script’s amazing representation of personal bias and cultural suppression is woven into these performers. You can see the hesitancy to stand alone a life of hardship can instill in a man in Juror #5 (Justin Kofford). The calm rationale of a natural-born teacher or manager in Juror #1 (Tom Sarp). The comfort in espousing intellect above all else in a dangerous situation a life of prosperity instilled in Juror #4 (Johnny Terreri).

Following the caustic nature of the 2016 election, 12 Angry Men’s themes of thoughtful response and collaboration in the face of deep polarization are more essential than they ever have been. During an interview I conducted a few months ago, producer Linda L. Baker assured me the choice to put on this socially conscious work so close to Election Day was not out of some pointed commentary, and instead the result of the theater’s tradition of mixing stone-cold theatrical classics with one remarkably unconventional work during its seasons. Still, I have very little doubt that each and every audience member will bring their political protest, fear and hope to their viewing of the work. In each heated exchange will lie a reminder of what will, for many of us, surely be the least appealing Thanksgiving dinner in history. But watch closely at how all the anger and debate between classes and culture transform anew into collaboration and strength; perhaps 12 Angry Men, for Pittsburghers at this very moment of history, is a story worth revisiting.

Special thanks to the McKeesport Little Theater for complimentary press tickets. 12 Angry Men runs through November 20th, tickets and more information can be found here. 

Beauty and the Beast

main_fit_300There is a certain uncanny valley effect to the popular theatrical adaptation. The more well-oiled productions of a play there are, the less vital the story will feel. This is not to say that a heavily retold story loses its significance; the more you see, or hear, or read, or watch something, you become better at understanding its roots. But the Perfectly Told Play – the play where every element of production and performance is measured to the smallest decimal and executed with scientific specificity – this is a space where a story can lose its meaning. What new can be discovered in a place perfectly excavated?

The robotic effect of artistic perfection puts community theater in a neat spot to be, for lack of a better phrase, the fun kind of theater, where everyone is there because they want to be, where every set piece was carved out anywhere other than an office. It’s a handwoven blanket beside a factory-sealed comforter.

McKeesport Little Theater’s adaptation (of Disney’s adaptation) of Beauty and the Beast is a production where I was reminded of why it is I have so much more fun in smaller spaces. Produced by Heather Atkinson and directed by Robert Hockenberry, this is a retelling that surely needs no introduction (but if anyone has somehow made it to this text without at any point encountering the basic plot outline of Beauty and the Beast, please send a word my way, I’d love to hear the ins and outs of cave dwelling).

We have our leads: the beast (Justin Addicott), this time hunched, growling, and perpetually furious, and Belle (Kristina Dalbo), this time more a recognizable human being than the yellow-clad mcguffin for Beast she is sometimes reduced to. The play being what it is, you’d expect the focus to be largely on the two characters’ romance, but I felt a certain shift in storytelling happen here, a redirection towards each characters’ inner motivations as opposed to the results of their motivations. I don’t know if I could effectively put my finger on it, but I found myself far more aware of Belle’s deep desire to escape village life than I did her ability to look past Beast’s…uh, beastliness.

During an interview I conducted interview with the Little Theater’s president Linda Baker, she told me a goal of Hockenberry’s was to focus on the human elements of the outlandish cast. Nowhere is this approach more evident than in the production’s portrayal of the larger cast. We always get the sense in the Disney film that the Beast’s sycophantic servants, now cursed as furniture, are literally and metaphorically window dressing, and that Gaston (here played by Ray Cygrymus, who relishes every moment of the role) is some necessary source of tension, but his constant demand for validation seemed as relevant to the plot to me as Beast’s whole thing. This is not to say that Hockenberry’s direction has unraveled some previously unsolved puzzle; it’s more that he’s perhaps leveled the playing field for the characters.

In fact, the show is at its best when its many characters are afforded as much scene to chew on as humanly possible. While some members in the cast find more comfort in their role than others, the play is at its best when its cast is huge and likable. Jezebel Zbony-DelPercio’s Lumiere, for instance, is unquestionably fun to watch. She adopts a Chaplin-type verve to her candlesticked paramour that makes her performance satisfyingly visual. Cygrymus’ straight-faced machismo bolsters any scene he’s featured in. Kaitlyn Majewski’s adorably enthusiastic Chip is surely the best Chip ever.

More than anything, it’s the spirit and energy that is the Little Theater’s greatest asset. At least in my experience, this was not a production without a few unwelcome technical surprises. Curtains were ripped. One character found themselves lodged in a door for what felt like a solid minute, lightly clunking against the door frame while other actors strained to find a through line back to the plot.

It’s a live show, folks: things happen. How these things happen is what’s more important. When a production is as committed to earnest, positive energy and communal celebration as Beauty and the Beast, it’s hard not to appreciate the energy these moments can bring in. There is a scene fairly deep in the play in which Cogsworth, with the help of Lumiere, discovers he’s grown a key in his back, indicating he’s lost that much more of his human form to his curse. The characters try desperately to remove the key, but how can they? This is their form now. It will never chance. And it’s tragic – that is, until his pendulum fell off of his body with a soft thud. After a beat, Lumiere responded “hey, at least we got one part!”

It’s just fun. To be clear, the show is no technical disaster, and in fact occasionally exceeded at production values. Rarely is lighting given its due after a show, but here it’s notable, moving quickly in and out of spotlight, creating subtle hints of melancholy and celebration when it needs to.

The choreography, too, is a step above the usual. In fact, I can’t think of a better summation of the play than the performance of “Gaston” in the tavern. The set is busy with people, the choreography is messily intricate, with dancers simultaneously leaping between one another whilst clinking these big metal mugs. In later songs, characters enter and leave through isles mid performance. It is a space filled with energy.

Beauty and the Beast is a warm-blooded, heartwarming thing. And it’s the kind of thing you only get to see in places like this. Hockenberry has kept the iconography of the Disney film, but has also snuck a little deeper into the original story than the advertising has let on. In some ways that escape from the Disney canon, I think, further enables the show to be something more than it is on the surface. It’s free to be its own kind of goofy.

It’s hard to deny the charms of a show that is, for all intents and purposes, the theatrical equivalent of a warm hug – or maybe, a hand knit blanket.

Special thanks to the McKeesport Little Theater for complimentary press tickets. Beauty and the Beast runs weekends through September 25th. For tickets or more information, click here.

Community, Celebration, and Risk Taking: McKeesport Little Theater’s Fall Season

The culture of a theater is dictated by hundreds of elements, one of the most 558587_368499533194803_1321376975_nsignificant of which is its size. Any theater worth its merit has a soul, a family, a crew, and, not insignificantly, usually a ghost. The size of a theater plays a pretty huge role in this equation; each production, each concession stand, each stage plays a greater role in establishing the spiritual nature of a place.

Perhaps no Pittsburgh theater is more actively aware of this little/big economy than the McKeesport Little Theater. I recently had the chance to sit down with MLT’s President, Linda Baker, to discuss their upcoming season, as well as the theater itself.

More than anything, MLT cares about its people: “The audience has a say,” Baker told me. “We are sensitive to what they want to see. At the same vein, we try catering towards the audiences of the future.” This concern for audience satisfaction extends from production decisions, to its community-oriented MLT Juniors Program, to travel concerns – Baker even takes care to ensure the steep road leading to the theater is clear and salted during winter productions.

The first of four main productions, MLT’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, a perennial crowd pleaser, is in some ways evidence of their approach to main_fit_300bridging the gap between friendliness and riskiness. Directed by Robert Hockenberry, a primary goal of the production is focus on the humanity of the show’s colorful cast, and by extension what humanity means exactly to each of us.

The relationship between the play’s titular lead characters promises to reexamine the contemporary fairy tale in a similar way, thanks to the casting of real-life couple Justin and Kristi Delboe.

Additionally, the production will feature “adults playing adults,” and will avoid trivializing its supporting cast. “[Robert Hockenberry] didn’t want to portray [the characters] as a cartoon. He worked with the cast to find the humanity in each object.” Audiences can see the play for themselves September 9th-25th.

fxgjgxfjfUp next is 12 Angry Men, directed by Laura Oxenreiter. Long considered one of the greatest examples of dialogue-driven storytelling, the Reginald Rose-penned classic is about a 19 year old man standing trial for the brutal murder of his father. Although it initially appears to be an open and shut case, one skeptical juror believes the young man to be innocent. Through an intense exchange of ideas, evidence, and biases, the 12 jurors debate their way towards a complicated, uncertain interpretation of truth. 12 Angry Men will be performed from November 4th-20th. Auditions for the show will be open September 18th-19th.

Polish Joke, a play by David Ives, is something of a wild card in MLT’s fall season. Directed by David Hoffman, Polish Joke follows Jasiu, a Polish-American exploring his ethnic identity in a complex culture. Acutely aware of the show’s (relative) obscurity, Baker feels the play is an opportunity to expose MLT’s audience to something fresh, and an example of the necessity of risk. “If [we’re] not willing to take a little risk, we wouldn’t be able to put on something like Polish Joke. You have to take risks.”

“I don’t think a lot of people have heard about it,” Baker continued. “I want [our audience] to have a new experience.” The play promises to have a quirky sense of humor, and is intended to be a breath of fresh air. Polish Joke will be performed from March 10th to March 26th.

This season’s final show will be Anything Goes. Directed by MLT veteran Dorothy Follows, the light-hearted classic tells the story of the inhabitants of 71the ocean liner S. S. American. Aided by nightclub singer Reno Sweeny and Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin, Billy Crocker hopes to win the heart of Hope Harcourt, who is soon to be wed to the wealthy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. With a show filled to the brim with elaborate disguises and good old fashioned hijinks, Baker looks to end this year’s season “on a big note.”

Lastly, MLT will continue its Juniors Program, which empowers young locals to try their hand at theater. When I asked her what impact the program can have on the community, Baker told me about her own children’s personal experiences.

“As a parent, I think the impact was that it gave my children the opportunity to learn about theater in a safe environment with kids that are like-minded. It made my [son] happy to have the skills to perform and learn.”

The program, primarily filled with young, aspiring actors, gives kids the chance to rehearse and put on a live show – this year, the Juniors Program will be putting on Madagascar: The Musical. Although this year’s show is still very much in the making, Baker and her team are already “having fun thinking about costuming. Do you want them to be cartoony, or human with the suggestion of an animal?”

“Do I think [MLT’s Junior Porgram] impacted how [my son] sees the world? I think it impacted his outlook. He found a niche that leads to a career,” said Baker. “Kids are here to be creative. Seeing them come out of themselves doing something different…it’s fun!”

Kids looking to get involved in the MLT Juniors Production can find more about the program at the theater’s website. Madagascar: The Musical will be performed this January.

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!

Bloody Hell

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In the 15th century, the desperate Church summons an ancient, bloodthirsty evil to transform a handsome young warrior-prince into a supernatural weapon, whose purpose is to defend their homeland from the onslaught of the Turkish hordes. They soon discover, however, that the darkness they’ve unleashed is a far greater threat.

In the distant future, a mysterious Romanian noble known as Count Dracula has begun to purchase a great deal of property in Britain in concert with the country’s militarized government–“The Great Authority.” However, their Eastern European guest has much bigger plans for this island whose skies have been darkened by the ravages of war–plans which will turn it into an abattoir.

For tickets and more information click here

Bloody Hell

13246336_10154170774881064_3147507355604777620_o

In the 15th century, the desperate Church summons an ancient, bloodthirsty evil to transform a handsome young warrior-prince into a supernatural weapon, whose purpose is to defend their homeland from the onslaught of the Turkish hordes. They soon discover, however, that the darkness they’ve unleashed is a far greater threat.

In the distant future, a mysterious Romanian noble known as Count Dracula has begun to purchase a great deal of property in Britain in concert with the country’s militarized government–“The Great Authority.” However, their Eastern European guest has much bigger plans for this island whose skies have been darkened by the ravages of war–plans which will turn it into an abattoir.

For tickets and more information click here