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.

Xanadu

HomepageCarousel_740x420_XanaduThe burning question at the heart of Xanadu is simple. What is Xanadu?

Merriam-Webster defines it as “an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place”. According to Wikipedia, Xanadu is both a 1980 flop cult classic film featuring Olivia Newton-John and hit songs by Electric Light Orchestra and a 2007 Tony-nominated Broadway musical comedy that originally starred Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson. They both take their title from the Chinese province that was the capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty, originally dubbed Xanadu by a Samuel Taylor Coleridge epic poem.

But when it comes to Pittsburgh CLO’s Xanadu, I tend to agree with book writer Douglas Carter Beane’s definition of Xanadu told to us by Melpomene early in the show. Their Xanadu is “a gift so grand none of us truly knows what it is.”

If you do venture to CLO’s intimate cabaret venue to figure out what Xanadu means, you won’t leave disappointed if the answer still eludes you. Like ignorance, this show is pure bliss.

Lara Hayhurst, Olivia Vadnais, and Drew Leigh Williams
Lara Hayhurst, Olivia Vadnais, and Drew Leigh Williams

Xanadu opens with artist Sonny Malone (Reed Allen Worth) humorously lamenting his inability to create while finishing up a chalk mural of a group of muses from Ancient Greece. Eventually, having heard his cries for inspiration, they burst into reality, and we are introduced to leader of the muses Clio (Olivia Vadnais) and her eight sisters including Melpomene (Drew Leigh Williams) and Calliope (Lara Hayhurst).

Clio, initially mistakenly believing that she has arrived in Venice, Italy in 1780 as opposed to the artistic wasteland that was Venice, California in 1980, decides to inspire Sonny to reach his creative destiny. So as not to break one of the cardinal rules of musehood by revealing her true demi-goddess identity, Clio disguises herself as “Kira”, a roller skating, leg warmer-wearing, young woman with a very thick Australian accent.

Jealous of their sister’s inevitable granting of Xanadu by Zeus, Melpomene and Calliope place a spell on Clio that will make her fall in love with Sonny (another big no-no). Further threatening her secret identity and relationship with Sonny is the appearance of Danny Maguire (Tim Brady). He’s the owner of the titular theater that Sonny hopes to turn into a roller rink and the last mortal that Clio inspired.

If the plot sounds convoluted and wacky to you, then you’re in line with most movie critics in the 80’s who raked the film over the coals for its ludicrous setup.

Lara Hayhurst, Tim Brady, and Drew Leigh Williams
Lara Hayhurst, Tim Brady, and Drew Leigh Williams

But, likely by the grace of the synth-tastic tunes by ELO including “Evil Woman”, “Don’t Walk Away”, and the title song, Xanadu lived long enough to get a meta parody facelift by Beane. His script, originally written for a cast of nine, is overflowing with winning punchlines that run the gamut from groan-worthy to clever quip to laugh out loud funny to the unfortunate use of Ebonics. The score, with music and lyrics by ELO Member Jeff Lynne and Olivia Newton-John songsmith John Farrar, slightly overstays its welcome with a (spoiler alert!) post-curtain call encore medley, but every song is so joyous that you’ll feel nostalgic for the 80’s even if you weren’t alive then.

Director Kate Galvin has given the show another facelift by reducing the cast from nine to the amazing quadruple threat (singing, dancing, acting, AND roller skating) quintet of actors I named above. This innovation allows for tons of imaginative doubling and fun interactions with the cast, the audience, and the band.

Five actors may be playing upwards of double that amount of roles, but there is not an ounce of strain evident among them. Each member of the company was superlative in their own special way.

Olivia Vadnais and Reed Allen Worth
Olivia Vadnais and Reed
Allen Worth

Vadnais and Williams are the undisputed standouts of the group. Vadnais nails every musical note and comedic moment all while gliding around the cabaret on roller skates. She leads the cast just as Clio leads the muses, with an infectious twinkle in her eye. Calliope may get the joke about chewing the scenery, but it’s truly Williams’s Melpomene that is making a five course meal out of Britton Mauk’s (literally) flashy and graffiti-covered set. Whether she’s perpetrating strange magic or leading her siren daughters in mean-spirited melody, she is deliciously evil and impossible to take your eyes off of.

Reed Allen Worth fits perfectly into the goofy dude persona and tiny neon shorts (credit to Stephanie Shaw for those and all the show’s other tight and bright ensembles) that make Sonny the sweet, down to Earth romantic lead we all wish existed in real life. On their tracks as Calliope and Danny respectively, Lara Hayhurst and Tim Brady carry off the show’s broadest and most heartfelt moments with tremendous ease and skill.

Similarly, Galvin and choreographer Mark Burrell toned down some of campier aspects of the Broadway production for their Xanadu but spared none of the smile-inducing silliness inherent to the show.

Musical comedy heaven is indeed a place on Earth. And that place is the Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Xanadu plays at the CLO Cabaret through December 17. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos by Matt Polk

Million Dollar Quartet

20664445_10154837815581696_2542258192457373764_nThere are two kinds of jukebox musicals in the world.

In one type, the songs originally performed by an established musical act are incorporated into that person or group’s biography. Examples of these highly marketable, live docudramas include Jersey Boys and the upcoming Pittsburgh CLO production, On Your Feet!. The second is the jukebox musical that channels the spirit of the artist(s) whose songs it repurposes to fit a completely original and/or zany narrative. Examples of these highly marketable, unabashed spectacles include Rock of Ages and recently closed Pittsburgh CLO production, Mamma Mia!.

Pittsburgh CLO’s current production, Million Dollar Quartet, is the best of both worlds: captivating and dazzling. It doesn’t transition as smoothly into a sing-a-long encore or succeed fully at humanizing its subjects as other jukebox musicals do, but this production is remarkable because of the inhuman talents of its multi-hyphenate ensemble,

Before I get to them, though, I have to call out the stars whose names appear above the title: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Originally conceived and directed by Floyd Mutrux and co-written by Mutrux and Colin Escott, Million Dollar Quartet is a living time capsule of the fateful night of December 4, 1956 when those icons played together at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The man who brought them all there that cold evening, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, is also responsible for kick starting each of their illustrious careers and narrating this show.

Quartet opens with a thrilling rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” and, to my surprise, the two hours that follow feature real stakes, genuine conflict, and solid laughs.

Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_MILLION_DOLLAR_QUARTET._Photo_by_Matt_PolkPhillips must decide by the end of the day whether he wants to fold his independent record label into the juggernaut label RCA. If he does, he’ll get the chance to collaborate with Elvis again after selling Presley’s contract to RCA to save Sun from financial ruin, but he also risks losing the authority to take the creative risks that put him and his artists on the map. He teases the presence of Presley to coax the other members of the quartet to participate in the impromptu jam session.

One by one, the men and Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne (Zurin Villanueva, too skilled a vocalist for this show not to be titled Million Dollar Quintet) trickle in—their swaggering approaches to the studio and live musical exploits inside it are framed by Derek McLane’s intimately detailed set. Up and coming pianist and showman Lewis spars with bitter guitarist Perkins about the prospects of launching/relaunching their careers. Presley laments his status as an in-demand musician being forced to cross over into the film industry while Cash positions himself to take his music to the next level.

Whenever the going gets too tough, they break into another rip roaring standard of that era including everything from  “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Hound Dog” to “See You Later, Alligator”.

Christopher Ryan Grant prevents the clunky flashback scenes sprinkled throughout the show from stopping it cold. His Sam Phillips is a complex portrait of a person trying to survive in the recording business, blending the sharpness of a shrewd business man and the sensitivity of an earnest music lover.

Phillips’s cavalcade of stars is portrayed by another cavalcade of stars who shoot past cartoonish imitation and land on an uncanny embodiment of the quartet that can only be explained by reincarnation.

Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_MILLION_DOLLAR_QUARTET._Photo_Matt_PolkMartin Kaye may not have taken home a Tony Award for his performance as Jerry Lee Lewis, like original star Levi Kreis did, but it’s clear that Kaye has played this part around the world for over five years because there are few people on the planet who can do what he does. He is a lightning rod of energy with great balls of fire coming out his fingers and smoke coming out of his ears. James Snyder has proven his abilities as a professional dreamboat and hip swiveler in Broadway shows like Cry-Baby and If/Then, but it’s still jaw dropping to witness how effortlessly he harnesses Elvis Presley’s virility and charisma into every move he makes.

As Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins respectively, Derek Keeling and Billy Finn’s musicality shines through in their subtle renderings of the quartet’s least flashy members. Keeling’s low notes pierce through your soul even as they rumble the floor beneath you. The palpable passion in Finn’s rockabilly crooning reveal his desperation to reclaim his former glory

I credit director David Ruttura and musical director James Cunningham in equal measure for putting together a musical that I went into having no intentions on enjoying. I now have to admit that it was just about pitch perfect in every way.

I am living proof that you don’t need to know every lyric to these songs or every detail about these people’s lives to get the most out of this snapshot of rock ‘n’ roll history. You only need to marvel at how history always finds a way of repeating itself.

Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Benedum Center through August 13, for tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

Mamma Mia

20292706_10154800983161696_6800590976824145690_nAny fairly seasoned or routine theatre-goer has a certain expectation for crowd makeup at certain shows. The niche, hyper-baroque, perhaps one person piece—the crowd is replete with art majors, the wandering scraggly dude wearing overalls with nothing underneath as a form of expression. Edgy musicals, potentially featuring puppets or Andrew Jackson will have crowds stacked with the more avant-garde choir nerd who discovered themselves in college. And then, there’s the crowd that flocks to Mamma Mia!  Typically, overly giddy hordes of folks who rocked out—with various manifestations of their groove things shaking—to the sex-laced disco/pop hits of ABBA in their bedazzled prime in the 70s flock to see Mamma Mia! The Pittsburgh CLO’s recent production of Mamma Mia! was in no way an exception, as the Benedum was filled to the breaking point with ebullient, giddy beyond compare, dressed-to-the-nines,  ready to practically claw their way on stage to follow the musical journey set to ABBA’s greatest hits.

Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson
Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson

And indeed, a massive factor in the success and excitement that goes with witnessing Mamma Mia! on stage is the enthrallment of the crowd and the participatory element that feeds the actors rapture conducting their performances. The story is simple and enjoyable convoluted: Sophie, a beautiful young girl about to wed the love of her life, mails out three wedding invitations to three men, one of whom she assumes to be her father based on her pillaging her mother’s old diary. As the wedding preparations reach a frenetic pace, and her unwitting mother’s eccentric friends (and also, importantly, former band mates) descend upon the scene, the twists and turns of Sophie’s mother’s relationships with the three men—and the truth behind Sophie’s real father—is divulged and unravels, moments up to the “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”  There is nothing particularly emotionally wrenching or complex in the characters’ interactions, nor does the plot demand a great deal of attention from the audience. Thus the songs, the exquisite grandiosity of the stage direction and choreography, and the pure performative spectacle of the show can command the rapt audience’s full attention.

Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen
Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen

Resounding critical applause should be given to the all those in charge of and involved in the choreography of the show.  Beyond flawless and matching the pacing and throbbing, feverishness emotions of each song, the choreography and the supporting cast of dancers were—and this is a characterization I hesitate using—utterly transcendent. The stage motion and dance accompaniments were so spot on, so spirited, and so technically precise that they would have awed perhaps the more skeptical audience member (and there were certainly several fourteen year old boys who needed convincing). While the younger members of the cast certainly held their own—as well as the pleasantly caricatured men playing the three potential dads—the spotlight, as it is meant to, was claimed gloriously by the three women playing Donna (Sophie’s mother) and her two best friends/former band mates, Tanya and Rosie. While the characters are certainly archetypal, veteran stage and screen actresses Lori Hammel (Rosie), Sally Ann Triplett (Donna) and Michelle Dawson (Tanya) were every bit as luminescent as they could have been. And most importantly, they had the utterly wild and thrilled audience in the palms of their hand, thus making CLO’s production of Mamma Mia the ultimate, incredibly fun guilty pleasure delight that it was intended to be.

Mamma Mia has unfortunately already closed but there’s still more fun from the Pittsburgh CLO this summer, for more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.

Show Tune Saturday Night

FullSizeRenderThe last Saturday night of the month, the Pittsburgh CLO presents Show Tune Saturday Night at the Cabaret in Theatre Square. It was conceived by the Mark Fleischer, the Producing Director at the CLO, as a combination meet and greet for people in the area interested in musical theatre and as an open mic performance space for actors and singers to show off their talent. Fleischer also serves as MC.

Performances are a unique blend of amateurs, semi-professionals ad equity actors who are accompanied “Downtown” Katie Brown, an unflappable keyboardist who truly can play anything. Admission is free and there is cover or minimum. Libations are available at the bar.

If you want to come show your stuff bring your sheet music and your voice. I was pleasantly surprised, you might be as well! Every night is a different show to enjoy.Mark Fleischer

Mark Fleischer, MC , at the Cabaret in Theatre Square

 Show Tune Saturday Night at the CLO Cabaret in Theatre Square, admission is free. The fun begins a bit after 10p.m. and wraps around midnight. The next Show Tune Saturday is July 30, for more information, click here. 

Newsies

20106537_10154782789481696_7925143825675537356_nBelieve it or not, times used to be harder for those with a career in the journalism industry.   

No clear victor has emerged in this war between modern journalists and their cantankerous subjects who cry “Fake news!” in the face of all negative press. Unless you consider late night TV talk shows who need look no further than current headlines to find material for a week’s worth of broadcasts.

There’s a similar battle brewing that pits those who write the news against those who make it at the Benedum Center in Disney’s Newsies presented by Pittsburgh CLO.

Fortunately, the titular characters of this show—a ragtag group of poor young men selling newspapers on the streets of New York City—are aided in telling their underdog story (based on the actual Newsboys strike of 1899) by toe-tapping Tony-winning tunes courtesy of iconic composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman and supported by a production that literally leaps off the stage and into your heart.

Joey Barreiro and Daniel Quadrino
Joey Barreiro and Daniel Quadrino

When the illustrious publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the price that the delivery boys must pay for their daily stack of newspapers, a dreamer named Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) quickly becomes the face of a strike and leader of a newly established newsie union. What Jack desires most is to leave the closed off Big Apple for the wide open plains of Santa Fe. Still, he knows that his true responsibility is to his colorful band of fellow newsies including his handicapped best friend Crutchie (Daniel Quadrino) and a new-to-the-game brother duo, Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and Les (William Sendera).

With Jack’s heart and Davey’s brains the only thing left for the union to acquire is a voice. They find one in what was, at the time, the most unlikely of sources, a female reporter. After a series of run-ins with Jack, including one at a vaudeville theater owned and headlined by the brassy yet classy Medda Larkin (another bravura turn by Patricia Phillips, last seen and raved about by me in CLO’s In The Heights), Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) follows and shepherds the story of the strike all the way to the front page.

Cameron Anika Hill, Patricia Phillips & Carina-Kay Louchiey
Cameron Anika Hill, Patricia Phillips & Carina-Kay Louchiey

Katherine and the newsies tangle with a variety other baddies, including the shady detention center warden nicknamed Snyder “the Spider” (Connor McCanlus), but when the word “Disney” is in the billing, you know how the story is going to end.

That doesn’t make the journey to the show’s tidy, hopeful ending any less satisfying though. For that, we owe the acrobatic and hunky male ensemble our thanks and unanimous slack-jawed expressions of amazement. With only a first name and a creative variation on Dixon Reynolds’ authentic newsie ensemble, each actor distinguishes his character from the others with memorable line readings. As Spot Conlon and Race respectively, Sky Bennett and Michael James carried the banner most admirably and adorably.

Richard J. Hinds is the only member of the ensemble that we don’t see onstage, but his ebullient direction and choreography is the backbone of the production. He provides both actors and audience with a much needed breather from the gymnastic wizardry by employing dynamically stark march sequences during a few of the show’s many dance breaks.

DSC_6833-RETOUCH_1Four people who know those dance breaks all too well are Newsies veterans and lead the cast in the roles of Jack, Katherine, Crutchie, and Davey. In the show’s often-reprised signature theme “Santa Fe”, Barreiro’s transcendent final notes shoot far past New Mexico somewhere into the stratosphere and bring down the Act I curtain with the sheer force of their gravity. He is extremely well-matched by Laird who conveys a winning wit in her difficult patter “Watch What Happens”.

Bruce Brockman’s urban-industrial sets evoke West Side Story during group scenes and Romeo and Juliet during Jack and Katherine’s romantic Act II duet.

Crutchie and Davey’s characters are the closest that this show gets to tragedy, but the inner warmth they both display couldn’t be more uplifting. On one healthy leg, Quadrino stands tallest with a smile and a spirit that could light up the whole theater. While I wish that Langton sang more, it was lovely to witness Davey’s arc as living proof of the positive effects of male fraternity.

DSC_6350-RETOUCH_1Sharing the byline, as book writer, alongside Menken and Feldman is a legend in his own right, Harvey Fierstein. They originally envisioned Newsies as nothing more than a licensing opportunity for regional and amateur theaters. The original 1992 film, starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale was a massive flop, but it gained a huge cult following in the intervening years.

Everything changed when the show premiered at the Papermill Playhouse in 2011 to rave reviews. The production was fast tracked to Broadway where it ran for over two years and inspired its own fervent legion of admirers called “Fansies”.

You may feel silly counting yourself among the Fansies, but there’s no better argument for their cause than Hinds’ electric production of one of Disney Theatrical’s strongest outings. It does what every successful musical is supposed to, inspires audiences sing and dance about what the characters are singing and dancing about.

Newsies plays through July 23rd at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

Hot Metal Musicals 2017

Email-Blast-Image-c.PG-Web1-copyThe development of a new musical is a complex art. From the development of the original idea, into a workable script (book), music and lyrics, it is a consuming labor of passion, creativity, and love.

Those who attended Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh’s 2017 Hot Metal Musicals had the opportunity to preview songs from over a dozen works in development as well as four songs yet to find a book.

Twenty-one songs on subjects that run the gamut from school days to a world of robotic presidents, from the woman behind the tongue-twister “she sells seashells by the seashore” to a “farceody” (think farce crossed with parody) were presented on Monday evening at a well-attended pitch and performance at the CLO’s Cabaret in Theatre Square.

The ensemble was smartly Directed by Steve Cuden, with musical navigation by the very versatile Douglas Levine, singers Leon Zionts, Dan Mayhak, Jason Shavers, Hope Anthony, Natalie Hatcher, Paul Hambidge, Alex Manalo, and Maria Mauti presented the original songs and show synopses in a simple setting of bar chairs and music stands layered over the Cabaret’s current production’s set.

MTAP PICThere are literally hundreds of new musicals conceived every year, a dozen or so might make it into actual production after years of development work, workshops, rewrites and revisions. Fewer than a handful make it to Broadway or Off-Broadway every year. Even Broadway exposure is no guarantee of a hit as many a vanquished producer can attest.

The exciting part of Hot Metal Musicals is a chance to see, hear and meet the breadth and depth of talent that exists in the Pittsburgh region at all levels of musical theatre. There is also the added plus to be able to to see and potentially participate in the realization of a new work of musical theatre.

MTAP, the Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh, created a very informative program for the event with bios highlighting the experience of the thirty artists who wrote and composed the works as well as the aforementioned eight performers and the creative staff. Many have national and regional awards to their credit.

You may not have heard of MTAP before. It is an organization that strives to bring together local and regional artists that work in musical theater.  MTAP serves as an incubator where new works come together and are nurtured.

Some of the pitches and songs which I found of interest included: Tell ‘Em a Story from Pictures that Move by David Michael King. The story focuses on the early days of filmmaking and the director Edwin Porter (The Great Train Robbery).

A Little About Me from Class, by Bridgett Perdue and Alicia Johnson, is a soulful tune about the challenges faced by a young teacher setting out to change the world.

Traveling Salesman from Until Tomorrow tells the true story of Arie van Mansum, a young man involved in the resistance movement in WWII in Holland after the German occupation.  Book and Lyrics by Michelle Do, Music and lyrics by Ethan Crystal. Michelle is a Senior at North Hills High School with an impressive list of writing credits and awards.

Dance in the Light from the Golden Door with book by Michelle Van Doeren, lyrics by Andrew Swenson and Michelle Van Doeren, music by Scott Andersen. It is about five young immigrants from different countries arriving an Ellis Island in 1903 in search of a better life. The song was a performed as a beautiful duet.

The 2017 edition of Hot Metals Musicals was a great showcase of talent and a chance to preview what might just be the next great musical.

To receive regular emails from MTAP about meetings, special events, and opportunities, send an email to mtapgh@gmail.com or visit http://mtap.weebly.com

 Photo courtesy of Mara E. Nadolski. 

The Triumphant Return of Hot Metal Musicals

17309516_1245988655455569_2654319705563916058_nIn their ongoing commitment to diverse, vibrantly talented and symphonically-centered productions, Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh (MTAP) is putting forth its second-ever, groundbreaking Hot Metal Musicals. Coordinated and initiated by MTAP’s creative mastermind, Stephanie Riso, Hot Metal Musicals was designed to appeal to the plethora of multi-talented artists within the greater Pittsburgh community, often most ardently calling upon those individuals with minimal experience or previous limited opportunity to perform and create musicals or staging theatrical acts. Hot Metal Musicals, like MTAP, seeks to be a bastion of inclusivity within the musical/dramatic sphere in Pittsburgh, encouraging innovation, wonderful ludicrousness, provoking ideas and unique talents to join together to generate a fascinating decoupage of musical performances.

This year’s Hot Metal Musical features a bevy of blissfully irreverent and compelling original and reimagined songs from a number of different creative talents. Fantastically, this year’s Hot Metal Musicals is helmed by Steve Cuden, working as Production Director. A Pittsburgh native and Point Park graduate, Steve Cuden gained recognition and fame for co-creating the Broadway sensation Jekyll and Hyde (with Frank Wildhorn), and brings his distinct, storied perspective to the Hot Metal Musicals lineup.

19884286_1355807177807049_8221852933777404775_nAdditionally, Cuden is joined by fellow MTAP member Douglas Levine, who serves as Musical Director. The two are leading up a compelling gamut of eclectic, eccentric and intriguing works. The musicals and amalgamated songs traverse a spectrum of topics and themes, challenging the conventions of musical theatre and standards of musical expectations. One such example is Stephen Flaherty and Lyn Ahrens’ collaborative effort piece, “I Was Here,” a powerful song from their well-received, Italian renaissance-based, commedia dell’arte-centered musical The Glorious Ones.  Connected to Pittsburgh, the musical enjoyed its off-Broadway, world debut in Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 2007. Another song, posing an equally existential stance, is “Can It Be,” from  Jeanne Drennan’s recent musical Juiced! An active member of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, Drennan, a widely published playwright and librettist, has put forth several other plays and musicals, such as 12 Dogs, a post-apocalyptic play focusing on the efforts of a resilient teacher. Juiced! is an enjoyably irreverent musical highlighting the bizarre experiences of high school,  and her input in the Hot Metal Musicals adds to the complexities and multifaceted nature of the series.

MTAP and Hot Metal Musicals showcase are positioned as the pioneering vanguards of welcoming, multi-voice theatre and musical work with the realm of Pittsburgh drama. Given the wild selection of songs, spanning from WWII musicals and off-the-wall thigh-slapping comedies, MTAP and Hot Metal Musicals seem to be tremendously living up to their promise to provide audiences with the most varied selection of talents, perspectives and voices. Moreover, the newest installment of Hot Metal Musicals holds true to the MTAP mission of giving a stage and a performance space for works in progress, as well as works from individuals at massively different stages in their careers. MTAP will premier Hot Metal Musicals on July 17th, for free to the public, at Cabaret Theatre at Theatre Square. The evening portends exhilarating, multidimensional and raw works.

To reserve your tickets, click here. 

In the Heights

heightsA lot has changed since the 2007 Off-Broadway premiere of In the Heights. For the career of its creator/composer/lyricist/original star Lin-Manuel Miranda. For the landscape of musical theatre—thanks to his 2015 follow up Hamilton. For the quality of life for immigrants of all origins in a country where its president has railed so viciously against them.

Why then has this show—that might seem immature when compared to a sung-through magnum opus about America’s ten dollar founding father—survived to be mounted so exuberantly by Pittsburgh CLO?

It’s because Miranda and book writer Quiara Algería Hudes (who has picked up a Pulitzer Prize since Heights opened) have created something that is both timeless and a period piece. They made a point of not including the gang violence and hard crime that is endemic of stories about Latin-American people, but it’s hard not to speculate what these characters would endure in today’s crueler world. Instead, they make a sweet character named Usnavi—who rhymes “awning” and “Good morning” and references Cole Porter in his opening rap—the narrator. Seems strange until you count the show’s four Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and numerous regional productions.

Stepping in for Miranda to wear Usnavi’s signature hat is the luminescent Joshua Grosso. If your heart doesn’t beat faster when his charming, nerdy energy bubbles into a hilarious, high-pitched squeal, you don’t have a pulse. His rapping and singing chops are of equal measure as are his dramatic and comedic capabilities. From the start of the show, you know you’re in good hands with him.

David Del Rio, Joshua  Grosso & Marcus Paul James
David Del Rio, Joshua Grosso & Marcus Paul James

When Usnavi calls for “lights up on Washington Heights”, he isn’t just heralding the sunrise and the start of a new day of work, he is also shining a beacon on the secrets and struggles of his friends, family, and neighbors in the barrio. Anna Louizos’ Tony-nominated, incredibly intricate set gives vibrant life to the homes and businesses where he lays our scene. It also miraculously succeeds where most scenic designs fail in bringing some level of intimacy to the gargantuan Benedum Center.

To the immediate left of the corner store Usnavi runs with his wise-cracking cousin Sonny are the steps of Abuela Claudia’s home, where everyone in the neighborhood finds solace and delicious cooking. Next door is Kevin (alpha male Rick Negron) and Camila Rosario’s (fiery Blanca Camacho) eponymous taxi dispatch. They’ve sacrificed everything they have, but the business is failing anyway. Their most loyal employee, an African-American dreamer named Benny, still admires them and does his best to learn Spanish to find deeper community with them.

On the right side of Usnavi is a salon owned by gossip hound Daniela. She supervises flighty Carla and a credit-challenged bombshell named Vanessa desperate to fly the coop.

_AC29598-RETOUCHThree things throw a wrench in what was set to be a typical Fourth of July celebration: the huge revelation Nina Rosario returns from college with, a winning lottery ticket valued at $96,000, and a heat-induced natural disaster.

Still, nothing can stop the resilient citizens of the barrio from living full lives complete with romance, tragedy, and self-discovery. As immigrants or descendants of immigrants, they get the job done.

He may be Joshua Grosso’s right-hand man, but David Del Rio is also a one-man carnival del barrio in the role of Sonny. He spun what could’ve been a string of annoying one-liners into a complex characterization of a kid too clever and compassionate for his own good (but certainly not ours). If Grosso is the heart of the production, Del Rio is the brains and funny bone.

Rounding out the show’s organs are its sturdy spine and powerful lungs embodied by the epic performance of Patricia Phillips. The range of Abuela Claudia’s physicality from the frail older woman to the surefooted survivor she becomes while relaying stories of her harsh upbringing in “Paciencia Y Fe” took my breath away.

Patricia Phillips and Joshua Grosso
Patricia Phillips and Joshua Grosso

Miranda’s eclectic score is chock full of showstoppers from that solo to Benny and Nina’s soaring “When You’re Home” (given wings by Marcus Paul James and Genny Lis Padilla’s insane vocals) to act one’s aspirational anthem “96,000”.

Pinpointing the reason for Miranda’s success is as easy as recognizing how he has been able to inspire artists like Tony winners Karen Olivo and Alex Lacamoire with his singular vision and keep them coming back to his projects. Another of those artists is Michael Balderrama. After dancing for Michael Jackson, he was dance captain, fight captain, and swing for the Broadway iteration of Heights.

At the helm of this production, he maintains the high caliber of work originally executed by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. With his fluid and fresh movement, Balderrama has ensured that every member of the ensemble has a distinct identity and heritage. It’s difficult to stay in your seat when the cast is tearing it up in “The Club”.

The ubiquity of fireworks on July fourth makes it unlikely, but, if by some chance you couldn’t see a colorful, crowd-pleasing, explosive display of patriotism somewhere, you’re in luck.

Pittsburgh CLO’s heartwarming and winning In the Heights is hot enough to cause a blackout. You won’t see your fears and anxieties anymore, just what’s right in front of you: home and the people and memories that make it meaningful.

In the Heights runs through July 16th at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.

The Little Mermaid

mermaidWonder Woman screenwriter Allan Heinberg has specifically cited Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid as an influence on his script. Viewers can easily recognize the scene where Diana rescues Steve Trevor from drowning as a direct reference to the almost identical moment where Ariel first lays eyes on an unconscious Prince Eric on the beach.

I admire how Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins paid homage to the animated classic without aping everything that made it a classic in the first place. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the stage adaptation of that movie that just docked at the Benedum Center.

I certainly don’t blame Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight for producing this touring production of the popular property because they’ve assembled an outstanding and buoyant cast. I’m not sure I can entirely blame the show’s creators Alan Menken (music), the late, great Howard Ashman (lyrics), Glenn Slater (new lyrics for the stage), and Doug Wright (book). Even before the idea to bring Ariel and company to the Broadway stage crossed their desks, it was ill-conceived.

Cast_of_Disneys_THE_LITTLE_MERMAID_Photo_by_Steve_WilsonDisney Theatricals justly garnered tons of acclaim for their dazzling stage renderings of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, it seems that all the theatricality and inventiveness the company had to offer was poured into those productions with none left for subsequent mountings of Tarzan, Aida, and, yes, The Little Mermaid.

It has been a long swim for Ariel from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale to the Pittsburgh stage. After a pair of poorly received runs in Denver and New York in 2007, it was back to the drawing board for new director Glenn Casale. He incorporated wire work—in favor of the Heelys (half sneaker, half roller skate) from the original production—to more realistically simulate how mermaids and seagulls glide across the ocean and sky. The effect took my breath away at first, but it eventually wore thinner than the cables holding the actors up.

When combined with Casale’s aerial (pun very much intended) gimmick, Amy Clark and Mark Koss’ overworked costumes and Kenneth Foy’s underwhelming sets create a far too literal translation of the film. In failing to do the impossible task of putting that world on stage exactly how it was initially presented, they do their incredible craftsmanship a disservice.

Diana_Huey_in_Disneys_THE_LITTLE_MERMAID._Photo_by_Mark__Tracy_PhotographyThe one thing that the musical couldn’t corrupt about the characters are their clear-cut motivations. Ariel is a young mermaid who yearns to be “where the people are”. Her father King Triton has a deep-seated prejudice towards humans based on an assumption about his wife’s death. His disgraced, banished sister Ursula (Jennifer Allen, delicious even when saddled with the regrettable new song “Daddy’s Little Angel”) desires revenge and sets her sights on his youngest daughter.

Once Ariel crosses paths with Eric, she easily falls prey to Ursula’s trap and agrees to trade her voice for the chance to be human for three days and share true love’s kiss with her prince. Like any respectable Disney story, there are a host of wacky supporting characters to pick up the slack when our red-headed heroine’s immediate, undying love for our hero gets monotonous.

Musical theatre tropes serve the story best during the Act II opener “Positoovity”. Scuttle’s (Jamie Torcellini) attempts to get Ariel on her feet for the first time erupt into an exuberant tap dance break. Any time Torcellini was off his feet flying like a bird, I felt that I was being robbed of the best this show had to offer.

As Ariel, Diana Huey sells both descriptors in the show’s title. The petite powerhouse’s gorgeous instrument is extremely well-suited to the vocal demands of Ariel’s timeless aria “Part of Your World”. Huey is among the most graceful of the cast members that are repeatedly hoisted up by the wires. She exhibits no signs of strain while singing or maintaining the hula-esque wiggling that dominates the underwater scenes.

Originally the character of Ariel was a lightning rod for feminist critique of the Disney Princess brand. If you’re wondering why, look no further than the characters of Sebastian and Eric who seem to only value Ariel for her voice. Despite that, Melvin Abston (Sebastian) and Eric Kunze (Eric) won me over. The Academy Award-winning showstopper “Under the Sea” and new addition “Her Voice” were standout moments.

Jennifer_Allen__Brandon_Roach_and_Frederick_Hagreen_in_Disneys_THE_LITTLE_MERMAID._Photo_by_Steve_WilsonAs far as laughs go, look to the female ensemble and Dane Stokinger. Seven of the women show of their own impressive pipes doubling as Ariel’s older sisters and eligible bachelorettes vying for Eric’s affection in “The Contest” Stokinger transcends the obvious parallels between his Chef Louis and another Ashman-Menken creation, Lumiere, by making the slapstick antics of “Les Poissons” hilarious to both kids and adults.

There were dozens of little girls buzzing around the lobby clutching their Ariel plush dolls tight, hopes high for the experience of seeing her live in living color. And, while I can’t speak to all their impressions of the show, the fact that the little girl seated next to me did not return for the second act should tell you all you need to know.

The Little Mermaid plays at the Benedum Center through June 25th. For more information, click here.

Photo credits: Steve Wilson and Mark & Tracy Photography.