The Next Stop

Next Stop Cover

I entered the dimly lit, almost cavernous Kelly Strayhorn Theater on the evening of Saturday, May 20th already in a sort of ethereal fugue state. Delirious from a cross country flight mere hours earlier, I clambered into the spacious venue with my senses disoriented, but perhaps all the more primed to be invigorated, electrified in ways I was maybe unprepared for. I had some precursor details as to what I could expect from Attack Theatre’s staging of their collaborative show, The Next Stop—an interpretative, cooperative effort that would feature the visions of visiting talents of luminous dancers and choreographers, Helen Simoneau and Norbert De La Cruz III. The Next Stop was borne from ongoing, multidimensional projects, involving several master classes and a plethora of dynamic, tireless collaboration sessions which wed the outstanding physical acumen of the established dancers of Attack Theatre and the scintillating rhythmic ideas of Simoneau and De La Cruz. As is often the case with modern dance performances, though, whatever background information I had could in no way prepare me for what I watched—or more appropriately, experienced.

The Next Stop was presented almost as a body vivisected.  It was staged in three parts: the first, an all female performance created by Simoneau, operated as the head of sorts, a challenging conceptual piece; the second, Under the Rug, choreographed by De La Cruz, featured Attack dancers Anthony Williams and Dane Tooney, functioned as the aching, pulsating heart; and the final, multimember piece that concluded the show as the appendages of the body, twitching with reflective muscle memory of past Attack shows and leaping forward to the company’s future. Typically, segregation by gender in a diverse company’s show is something I find off-putting, or, at the very least, overly simplistic. However, given the dramatically distinct essences of each segment, the gendered demarcations of Simoneau and De La Cruz’s pieces seemed far less programmatically designed to fit some sort of play on or resistance to gender stratification.  Of the two guest choreography pieces, Simoneau’s was perhaps the most compelling, and most fascinatingly teased and manipulated the implicit viewer expectations of seeing an all-female dance performance.  Featuring Attack dancers Kaitlin Dann, Sarah Zielinski, and Ashley Williams (along with the robustly talented Sonja Gable and Chelsea Neiss), Simoneau’s piece was cerebral—perhaps too much so for some viewers—and the hyper-calculated, almost inorganically methodical movements of the dancers in the piece challenged the conceptions of what dance means in a visual sense. This piece, in which the women were clad in black, hindered on a fierce sort of symbiosis, in which each movement interconnected to create a dynamic, group symmetry. Simultaneously, though, each movement was striking enough that it accentuated the individual dancers importance. There was a quality of unutterable cravenness to Simoneau’s choreography, a kind of grappling with something indiscernible that made the piece seem like a cognitive process expressed through physical motion. It left me disoriented, but not in a way that was a sensory affront. Rather, Simoneau’s direction and the dancers physical translation of it conveyed a sort of curious dislodging I hope for in watching a performance of that kind.

The transition to De La Cruz’s Under the Rug capitalized on stark visual contrast. Where Simoneau’s piece was ensconced in darkness and almost machine-like sterility in terms of set design, De La Cruz’s piece, that featured the electric talents and chemistry of Attack company dances Dane Toney and Anthony Williams, was replete with picturesque props and a stage designed to evoke a dream-like day in a park from a distant memory. This juxtaposition from the brutal, dark expressionism of Simoneau’s set design and choreography to the vivacious, joyous, longing imagery of both De La Cruz’s staging and choreography highlighted the perceivable transition from pensive, cerebral struggle to an agonized whimsy, the true “heart” of things. This odd sense of agonized whimsy, of a delight over memory but an aching over these memories being forever in the past, was exquisitely portrayed in the physical beauty enacted by Toney and Williams. The two men maintained such a riveting, palpable connection and an extraordinary relationship to each other and to the props that surrounded them, that their interactions enlivened some of the more tedious moments of the piece’s narrative.

The final, multimember portion of The Next Stop, was ambitious and enchanting in theory.  However, for audience members (like myself) who had seen previous Attack shows, the reversion to choreography and themes from previous shows was a bit stymying. This recollection was certainly successful in making the conclusion of the show be appendage-like (to finalize my harping on this body metaphor), as the many members on the stage seemed to be lunging towards or furiously surging against something in a way legs or arms may. It would have perhaps been more personally enjoyable, as the finale of a major performance, to incorporate or focus on new or experimental choreography rather than recycle moments from past shows. Regardless, the outrageous talents and visions of all individuals involved in the production of The Next Stop and Attack theatre are continually inspiring and invigorating.

Watch: A Haunting

unnamed (18)This is a review for WATCH: A Haunting.  It is a play by Molly Rice, read at Mansions on Fifth and produced by Real/Time Interventions.

But preceding the review, please excuse this small diatribe on the nature of readings:

Readings are half-baked. That’s the point.  Their final registry doesn’t exist yet; it’s being found.  They are plays in flux waiting for feedback and the perfect sounds of rhythm.  They are for actors to try things, for the writer to listen.  They are for directors to plan and cut and encourage.  But they are flawed and sometimes slow and confusing.  You’re just hearing about something you should be able to visualize.  The subtleties are lost because those choices have (for the most part) not been made.

So, it’s hard to put a finger on what was lacking in WATCH: A Haunting, and I feel that’s because of the nature of readings.

Let’s start with Mansions on Fifth, really a lovely, powerful building.  Built in 1900, and finished in 1906; it has a weight to it, a sincere grandeur that places you anachronistically through the veil and into the ghost of the past.  WATCH: A Haunting is a play about a haunted mansion.  There is a girl, Vi, who is arrested by restlessness from hearing voices through the walls.  There is a creepiness inherent, but I didn’t feel it from the space.  Maybe it was the aspect of being cramped into a room and imagining the booming.  I think the play would be able to utilize sound as a character in its final incarnation.  The Mansion provided an aesthetic, but without seeing the basement or the characters move in the space, it felt a little bland.

It’s possible that the issue, in general, was tone.  This play has comedy.  It has horror.  It has sentimentality.  It has it all!  The problem is perhaps too much.  I felt the horror plotline was subverted by something that was confusingly sentimental.  The ending, for that reason, didn’t seem to make sense.

There were also other storylines that were barely treaded on:  a suspicious, ghostly woman from another time; a psychologist who exploits the main character for his own publicity.  I was confused by their importance, though they did help to propel the questioning of the main character, Vi.

Julianne Avolio is a terrific actress, but as Vi I didn’t understand her character in this part.  I didn’t quite see the lines matching her depiction.  It was hard to tell, but I believe this play was supposed to ride on its comedy.  I believed that she was supposed to be a tragi-comic character (with a torrid burden placed upon her).  Avolio brought a wealth of desperation and anxiety to the role, but the lines felt like they could have used more goofy, childish wit.  I was confused by it because it didn’t seem to connect.

There are wondrous stage directions written, including rats scurrying across the stage, an elephant throwing Vi into the air, and flowers popping out of the ground.  One I felt immensely grand was:

One thousand bodies trickle into the room.  We can only see their eyes gleaming.

How does this happen?  I’m intrigued, but dumbfounded.  It seems awesome, but I can’t imagine.

I believe that Molly Rice is an intriguing writer.  This play has substance and is going in many places, but I feel that there was a disconnect in focus. I believe the mix of horror with comedy and an optimistic family drama could evolve well, but it’s composition didn’t seem to be complete.  C’est la vie, re: reading.

Rice does bring solid imagery and dialogue to her characters.  Her amorphous, but palpable descriptions speak of an idea that is powerfully, impossibly visceral.  Vi describes the ghost as: “like in black and white, an old movie.”  She says it smells like “old books and oranges.”

I will say too that Kimberly Parker Green as Vi’s mother Mona as well as Hazel LeRoy as Grandma truly felt within their characters.  Green’s Mona produced a depth of denial and ambivalence that, I believe, reflected a complexity upon the mother of an ailing child; as if she was dealing but couldn’t deal.  It was played with an empath’s heart but a mind for manipulation.  And LeRoy’s Grandma did a splendid job with her bits for comic relief.  I would have liked to see more.

There’s a version of this play in flux which creates a resolution tying all the sideplots together neatly.  It throws the audience into a hallucination with its stunt-fueled stage presence.  And there’s quite a bit of subtlety to exist between the pauses, but I believe it must be seen.  Perhaps the text, like a ghost, reflects a hauntedness: old and smelling of oranges.  I believe this show could be scary, sweet and deranged.  I just can’t see it yet.

For more about Real/Time Interventions and what they’re up to this season, click here. 

The Philadelphia Story

PhiladelphaStoryThe Philadelphia Story is a play with contemporary conflict encased within the sepia-toned shell of old Hollywood America. Its relatively complicated social and sexual conflicts are cracks in the veneer of old-school American repression, yet their existence within spaces only the most privileged of the privileged exist in make them seem somehow exotic.

The story goes like this: Tracy Lord (Leighann Calamera), daughter of the incredibly wealthy, unfaithful Seth (Keith Zagorski), is set to marry a man with no discernable traits whatsoever named George (Tom Kolos). Once her alcoholic ex-husband Dexter (Everett Lowe) shows up to crash her wedding alongside a charming journalist named Connor (Eric Leslie), who is doing a profile of the Lord family against their will, Tracy finds herself lost in a series of romantic foibles that threaten her engagement.

The Philadelphia Story is first and foremost a smart, insightful comedy. Although the play occasionally spins its wheels on some comedy-of-errors set pieces, the majority of Philadelphias laughs are generated by its characters.

Eric Leslie as Macaulay Connor, Mairead A. Roddy as Dinah Lord, and Carley Adams as Liz Imbrie
Eric Leslie as Macaulay Connor, Mairead A. Roddy as Dinah Lord, and Carley Adams as Liz Imbrie

Fortunately, Little Lake’s production is smartly cast. Calamera’s Tracy is bubbly when she has to be but biting when she wants to be. Many of the play’s greatest interchanges come from Calamera’s ability to subtly shift between clueless socialite and sarcastic provocateur; a favorite moment of occurs during a conversation between Tracy and Connor regarding her family, in which Tracy suddenly gazes at the sunrise and congratulates God on doing a good job with it.

According to a piece of trivia within Little Lake Theatre’s playbill, The Philadelphia Story was based on the life of an uber wealthy socialite named Helen Hope Montgomery. The film adaptation was meant to be filmed in at Montgomery’s actual estate, but the director believed it to be simply too grandiose to work. “They thought that no one would believe anyone could actually live like that, especially in 1940’s America,” says the playbill.

This little detail sat in my subconscious during Little Lake Theatre’s production. The Lords are no Bennets, and the family history of our protagonist engenders no immediate empathy. When Connor lays into Tracy about the enormous excess that is her life, he’s obviously speaking out of turn, but he’s also hard to disagree with. This is a man who gave up on his fiscally unsound dream of being a novelist to write about people who, for the most part, really don’t do anything. Tracy senses his frustration and offers to literally gift him a summer home to pay for his living expenses, which is not a solution so much as an ignorant regurgitation of the problem.

Leighann Calamera as Tracy Lord and Keith Zagorski as Seth Lord
Leighann Calamera as Tracy Lord and Keith Zagorski as Seth Lord

Still, for Tracy, her wealth is a kind of trap. She is perpetually thrust in front of men who more or less assign her a personality, and dock her points for failing to comply with an invisible personality checklist they’ve composed in their heads. The social contrast between Tracy and Connor’s partner, the eminently likable photographer Liz (Carley Adams), is an important one. Liz exudes personality even in her most polite moments, but Tracy’s predetermined courtesy leaves her with a kind of classy inscrutability. Although she indulges in her privilege, the sexual politics of the day make her life into a kind of psychological prison.

There are plenty of ways to soften the blow of the play’s surprisingly flexible take on infidelity, but director Lora Oxenreiter appears to have taken a greater interest in the most difficult questions Barry’s script seems to ask. There’s an almost sloppy feel to the various monologues and revelations in the play’s highest moments of tension – not in terms of performance, but in terms of character. The veneer of her cast is something to be punctured, torn at, and shouted through when necessary.

Little Lake Theatre’s production of The Philadelphia Story is a bright, zippy comedy that commands the play’s complex themes as easily as it does the comedic repertoire of its cast. Fans of the film, in particular, are likely to find that there are a few new things to discover within the Lord estate.

The Philadelphia Story plays at Little Lake Theatre through June 3. For tickets and more information click here. 

Special thanks to Little Lake Theatre for complimentary press tickets.

Photos courtesy of James Orr

Violet

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Front Porch Theatricals’ heavenly production of Violet has a lot of baggage.

Johnmichael Bohach’s rustic, minimalist scenic design is primarily comprised of suitcases, chests, and duffel bags that the actors sit, sleep, and sing on. This concept is not only incredibly creative and whimsical, but it also artfully realizes the themes of travel and identity that are central to the musical.

This show is the explosive kickoff to Front Porch’s summer season, which is being billed as “Journeys & Tall Tales”. Despite premiering Off-Broadway a little more than 20 years ago, the musical probably didn’t register on most people’s radars until it transferred to Broadway from a one-night production at New York City Center in 2014.

Both outings received widespread acclaim including the Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical and a slew of Tony Award nominations. By bringing together an exceptional group of artists all at the tops of their game in this production (which also marks Violet’s Pittsburgh premiere) Front Porch has cemented its reputation as Pittsburgh’s finest producer of musical theatre and the show’s legacy as one of musical theatre’s purest hidden gems.

Bus Ride 4Violet, set during the late summer of 1964, takes you on a wild ride with a disfigured young woman of the same name as she journeys via Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek a life-changing miracle from a TV evangelist. Twelve years before, an incident with a wayward ax blade leaves her with a horrible scar on her face and a broken relationship with her father (Jonathan Visser).

The extended trip introduces her to a host of diverse people and places including a hilariously talkative old lady (Becki Toth) and two handsome soldiers, Flick (Lamont Walker II) and Monty (Daniel Mayhak).

Both men take a keen interest in Violet as her fiery personality and dark past unfold. As an African-American living in a difficult time in history, Flick understands the constant pain Violet suffers always being harshly judged at face value. Monty learns from Violet that he does not have to rely on his machismo and playboy antics to make real connections with people.

Magazine Beauty

When Violet finally reaches Tulsa, her steadfast faith in God is tested. She learns lessons that cannot be summed up by old clichés about beauty. Her truest journey begins at the show’s end. For the first time, it’s one entirely on her own terms with no clear destination.

I know I commended writers Jeanine Tesori (music, also responsible for Fun Home) and Brian Crawley (book/lyrics, also responsible for A Little Princess) for not saddling their skillful adaptation of Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” with tired platitudes defining the “true” meaning of beauty, but I’m going to employ a few now. Like most clichés, these are just true.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in this case, that’s director Robyne Parrish. She deftly navigates Violet through its recurring flashback scenes while ensuring that each moment has equal visual and emotional impact.

At absolutely no fault of Walker, Mayhak or their extraordinary voices, the love triangle their characters are entangled in with Violet just doesn’t work.

Parrish allows that part of the story to shine and illuminates what emerges as the heart of the piece, the resentment festering between Violet and her late father. At my performance, you could hear a pin drop during the sequence where they sing “Look at Me” and “That’s What I Could Do”.

Healing Meeting 3

Two women play Violet, one as an adult (Elizabeth Boyke) and the other at the time of the accident (Samantha Lucas). Like the many actresses before them who took on this role, including Sutton Foster, their raw and passionate performances subvert the idea of beauty being only skin deep. Without the help of complicated makeup effects, they must create the image of Violet’s mutilation in the minds of the audience as sharply as it exists in her own.

Boyke is nothing short of a force of nature seamlessly pivoting from tremendous hope to profound despair as her character’s fickle fate plays out. Lucas’ haunting presence and command over an array of complex affects prove that she is perfectly cast as a girl wise beyond her years. Violet is disgusted by her appearance and lets everyone know it, but the work of these two great talents make it impossible to look away.

Violet’s “imaginary” scar is also brought to life during the show through the reactions of the people she encounters on her trek. The hard working ensemble of Violet is more than up to the task of making themselves look good while making Violet feel bad. Erich Lascek and Gena Sims lead the gospel number “Raise Me Up”, which stopped the show multiple times over its nearly seven-minute runtime.

At the end of this Violet’s intermission-less two hour run time, you’ll find that your heart has an invisible, deep, and permanent scar that matches the one on Violet’s face. Don’t make the same mistake she does. Don’t convince yourself that your heart is now broken or ugly because, as the preacher teaches her, a scar means that you’re healed.

Violet runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Ironbound

YT17-Feature-IronboundThe waiting in life takes up a lot of our time–waiting for the next big thing, the next job, the next person. Ironbound’s Darja reconfirms out that anyone who takes public transportation is captive to waiting. Her attachment to a significant bus stop represents her own continual anticipation of the right man and better times.

City Theatre’s Pittsburgh premiere of Ironbound depicts an important slice of immigrant life in America. It reminds us that everyone on the bus has a story, a reality perhaps most magnified in the dense greater New York-New Jersey metro area. Ironbound zooms in on one woman who could be anyone, but Darja is inspired for playwright Martyna Majok by both her own Polish immigrant mother and the notable absence of working class women in contemporary plays.

Rebecca Harris, in her 10th role with the company, captivates with impeccable realism as Darja. Harris is the constant force here along with a dark, menacing bus stop. Her solid and fierce portrayal is someone like many who endure wearing commutes to whatever job they can get to make rent while avoiding any unexpected financial catastrophes. They persevere and crave, as Darja says, “even the ugly jobs they don’t have no more.”

This Polish immigrant cleans houses in an upscale community two buses away, struggles to make ends meet following the loss of her factory job. Darja’s own crises are not just about being alone; she could easily become homeless due to a bad choice or broken relationship, perhaps more recognizable in hindsight.

Rebecca Harris as Darja
Rebecca Harris as Darja

On stage for all of the 90-minute piece (intensely performed with no intermission), the actress is either alone or interacting with three male characters. Harris’ powerful performance impresses with raw and honest craft as a character who is remarkable in her stamina, resilience, and lifeforce. She weighs her options in relationships and finances, bargaining to try to somehow gain some enhanced security.

City’s Artistic Director Tracy Brigden, who was eager to program this new play, said in the production news release that  Majok’s “unique point of view as the child of Polish immigrants ripples throughout her work. Ironbound is a truly American play—raw and alive from the very first words.” And we must agree as Ironbound so deftly depicts aspects of the immigrant experience that Brigden describes as “so vital to this moment in time.”

Ironbound debuted in New York at Rattlesnake Theater in 2016 before Brigden took the wheel to direct its next production. Pittsburgh audiences will recognize the ramifications of losing an industrial economy.

Brigden places the Elizabeth, New Jersey bus stop intimately in City’s thrust configuration.The centerpiece of Anne Mundell’s compact set is a giant graffiti covered steel girder appearing to pierce the top of the theater as it towers over the action, the litter, and a ubiquitous abandoned car tire. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski flashes from above as Eric Shimelonis’ sound effects are heard by the audience upon and arrival and continue to indicate the rattling of both New Jersey transit trains and traffic above and in in the house. If you know New Jersey and I-9, you can especially conjure the traffic, potholes, and smells. The stink of the paper factory where Darja once worked may be gone in this century, but the setting evokes the industrial Jersey of the late 20th century.

JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja
JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja

We wait with Darja at this dark and dirty bus stop where a lot happens but some things never change. As time shifts among scenes, her journey of relationships always brings her back to the bus stop near her former factory job and its associated memories.

In several flashback scenes, her first husband Maks is sweetly played by JD Taylor. Darja’s backstory is built through their alternately hopeful and bittersweet encounters. In 1992, she is pregnant with their son Alex as Maks dreams of making music in Chicago.

In his one scene with her, Vic, a young man played by Erick Martin, finds a battered Darja trying to sleep at the bus stop after her second husband has abused her. Vic provides an objective listening ear and a comedic rap. He reminds her that a shelter or motel room would be safer and offers some money to help her out. Pittsburgh’s Erick Martin’s Vic is the energetic parallel to her son Alex–the absent male in this version of Darja’s story. Martin is endearing in his portrayal of a kid who’s struggling with his sexual identity.

Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic
Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic

Don Wadsworth’s exacting dialect coaching supports Darja and Mak’s Polish slant. The characters’ sometimes muddled sentence structure also adds to the authenticity of Majok’s script along with her inclusion of some Polish.

Costumes designed by Robert C.T. Steele aptly convey the look of the implied decades from Vic’s track suit and sneakers and Tommy’s geeky postman shorts.

Ironbound reminds us how lives intersect–even if only for a few minutes on our respective commutes as everyone dreams and holds on to survive a new day.

Closing City Theatre’s 41st season, Ironbound runs through June 4 with tickets starting at $15 for under 30 with generous discounts for many patrons (seniors, military, etc.) as well as a “pay-what -you-want” option for the Sat., May 27 matinee. Special audience opportunities include a post-show talkback on May 24 and another with the playwright on Thurs., May 25. Greenroom on second Fri., May 26 provides a $25 ticket that includes beverages and a post-show chance to hang out with the show’s cast and team. Click here for more information. 

Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover

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.

Peter and the Starcatcher

peterstarcatcher300x300You are correct, there has been a “boatload’ of Peter and the Starcatcher productions this summer, three in fact.  I must confess I did not see Little Lake or the University of Pittsburgh’s productions.

I did see the Broadway national tour in 2014 and the Shaw Festivals production in 2015, both left me with the feeling of “meh”.

This review of Stage 62’s charmingly clever production of Peter and the Starcatcher was for me a voyage of re-discovery.  It was as if I had never really “seen” the show before.

Starcatcher is a comedy with some music, but not a musical. There are the requisite dancing girls, in this case mermaids, played pretty much mostly by boys. The opening number to the second act is hilarious.

Without getting too much into the plot here (You can read about that in Nicole Tafe’s review of the Little Lake production in the PITR archives here) Starcatcher is the prequel to J.M. Barrie’s 1904 novel Peter Pan, about the boy who never grew up.

The story: Lord Aster (J.P. Welsh) has been assigned by the Queen of England to insure safe transport of a treasure chest full of “starstuff” known to give anyone who possesses it the ability to realize his or her dreams.  Aster devises a plan to ship two identical chests on two different ships by two different routes to insure safe delivery. He dispatches his daughter Molly (Casey Duffy), a Starcatcher-in-training, on the ship Never Land and he takes the trunk with the real starstuff on the Wasp. Unbeknownst to Lord Aster and Molly, the trunks are switched by pirates before the ships set sail and Never Land holds the goods.

The Never Land’s crew is actually pirates, led by Black Stache (Brett Goodnack) and in addition to the trunk with the real starstuff. The Pirates also have three orphan boys held prisoner in the bilge of the Never Land.  And so we set sail…..

The thing that makes this production so special is the group of actors, all of them are Pittsburgher’s or graduates from our universities’ theatre programs. A few are in the early stages of their acting careers; many are very experienced having played many roles in multiple companies. What makes it work so perfectly is Spencer Whale’s creative vision and direction. The actor’s comedic timing, gestures and expressions seamlessly integrate together creating an ensemble that is a joy to watch as they are having such fun performing together.

L-R Brett Goodnack, Nate Willey
L-R Brett Goodnack, Nate Willey

Pittsburgh’s brilliant comedic actor Brett Goodnack as the silly and sinister Black Stache leads the ensemble. His stage presence keeps your eyes riveted to him and a smile on your face.

Other standouts in the uniformly strong cast include Point Park graduate Nate Willey as the Boy who becomes Peter Pan. Cody Sweet’s portrayal of Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Brumbrake, captures the sweet caring woman with a beard and a twist who can raise a pirate’s flagpole. J.P. Walsh’s portrayal of Lord Aster conjures up the classic proper British explorer and caring father. Casey Duff’s Molly is an ageless girl full of hopes and dreams, eager to prove her worth and trustworthiness. The entire cast has double if not triple duty. The orphans, Prentiss and Ted, played by Jake Smith and Charles Buescher Rowell keep their characters in perfect sync as they switch back and forth.

Nate Willey and Cast
Nate Willey and Cast

Director Whale called on old friends and colleagues Nathan Mattingly and Ellen Pyne for the set design, reminiscent of ship sails and outfitted with a hoarder’s treasure trove of props, flotsam, and jetsam.  Costume Design also by Pyne is spot on. Where a dozen actors with strong physical characteristics play a hundred roles, the costuming helps us identify their character of the moment. Black Stash’s look reinforces his silly yet frightful pirate nature and Molly’s enhances her character as a young girl just transitioning to a strong young woman.

In the pit, percussionists Tony Tresky and Brendan Higgins work subtly; their background rhythms perfectly match the action without overpowering the actors.

L-R Nate Willey, Casey Duffy
L-R Nate Willey, Casey Duffy

As we were leaving the theatre, reflecting that this was one of the best shows we saw this season, I wondered how three companies had come to choose the same play to present this spring. Perhaps in troubling times, sitting together in a dark room watching silliness and wishing you never grew up is good therapy for us all.

If you haven’t seen Starcatcher yet, this production is the one to see. If you have seen Starcatcher before, by all means this production is worth a visit. Come prepared to smile till your jaw hurts, laugh till your head hurts and be sure listen carefully so you don’t miss any of the great lines.

Stage 62 presents Peter and the Starcatcher at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Avenue, Carnegie, PA 15106

 Performances Thursday through Saturday, May 11-13 and 18-20 at 8 pm, Sun. Matinees May 14 and 21 at 2 pm Tickets: Adults: $20, Students/Seniors: $15. Click here for more information. 

Our special thanks to Stage 62 for the complimentary tickets.

Resonance Works Presents Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

falstaff_headerResonance Works, collaborating with the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theater Arts, gave the first of two performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, last night, at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland. The ambitious project offers an opportunity to hear the famous composer’s only successful comedy, which premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1893, when Verdi was nearly 80 years old. He penned the sparkling and engaging music to a libretto that Arrigo Boïto adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” with a little of “Henry IV” added to the book as well. The story, set in Windsor, England, during the reign of Henry IV, tells the farcical tale of an aging and portly knight, Sir John Falstaff, and his thwarted attempts to relieve two married women of their husbands’ money, their revenge, mistaken identities, young love, and a mirthful ending.

Immensely popular in Italy and elsewhere shortly after the time of its premiere, the opera lost its audience appeal in a surprisingly short period of time, and fell into extended stretches of neglect. As the 20th century progressed, largely due to the efforts of the famed and influential conductor, Arturo Toscanini, Falstaff received numerous revivals, and today holds a respectable standing in the standard operatic repertory, but it never was, and probably never will be, as well known or popular as many of the composer’s more dramatic works. Various musical historians have pondered over the reasons for all this, while others have proclaimed the work as Verdi’s best. It probably isn’t his best, but it’s certainly one of his most entertaining operas, bubbling over with broad comedy set to delightfully orchestrated music that offers a number of opportunities for the display of beautiful voices.

The contemporary staging and “modern day” costumes hardly take anything away from this production, since the color and atmosphere of Verdi’s music is so naturally Italian, so masterfully “grand opera” in style and flavor, that it suggests early 15th century England about as much as his Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) fits its Colonial New England setting. It is also quite a feat that the staging and direction so successfully brings a rather large opera to a comparatively small stage, especially when the ensembles and boisterous action are considered. Happily, the text is sung in Italian (with English surtitles projected above the stage).

Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)
Benjamin Bloomfield (Falstaff)

Unlike the better known Verdi operas in several ways, the most surprising departure comes at the very start; there’s no “overture.” The orchestra sounds several vivacious bars and it’s off to the races. And what an orchestra it was that played last night. Reduced to a little over twenty pieces, the instrumental accompaniment was more than sufficient for the size of the theater, and consisted of highly skilled instrumentalists who did themselves and Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner ample justice. From the first note to the last, they played a major role in the success of the evening. They received a generous ovation from the distressingly slim audience, and deserved it.

Vocally, the cast is one of uniform excellence. There were familiar faces on the stage, as well as a few who sang in Pittsburgh for the first time. Naturally heading the list of newcomers was Benjamin Bloomfield in the title role. He possesses a baritone voice capable of great power, but finesse and subtle nuances are at his command as well. He’s rather young to give a visual impression of the aging schemer, but his acting of the part was finely honed, funny, and in the character’s other unsavory traits, his make-up, costuming and demeanor more than negated his youth.

Brooke Larimer (Mistress Quickly), Kara Cornell (Meg Page), Natalie Polito (Nanetta), and Amelia D’Arcy (Alice Ford)
Brooke Larimer (Mistress Quickly), Kara Cornell (Meg Page), Natalie Polito (Nanetta), and Amelia D’Arcy (Alice Ford)

Joshua Jeremiah, as Ford, is a Grammy nominated baritone also making his Pittsburgh debut in these performances. His voice is one of great strength and resonance, he possesses acting skills (both comedic and dramatic) to a great degree, and his appearance is commanding and quite agreeable to the eye. As his daughter, Nanetta, soprano Natalie Polito was the third newcomer, and proved a fine addition to the cast. Her voice is captivating, as is her stage presence and acting, and she sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio,” (“Now lightly borne from near and far”), probably the best known aria from the opera, charmingly, if somewhat cautiously.

Amelia D’Arcy, as Alice Ford, gave a sterling performance. Her ringing soprano, lively acting, and facial expressions were positively delightful. Mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell, as Meg Page, seemed to “live” her role, as she always does, and was another highlight of the evening. As Mistress Quickly, mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer displayed a richly hued voice and nicely timed comedic ability. With Mr. Bloomfield, she shared the well known “Reverenza” scene, in which Quickly lures the old knight with feigned respect further into her friends’ web of revenge and comeuppance he so richly deserves.

A pleasant surprise was the young tenor, Benjamin Robinson, in the role of Bardolfo. He has gained materially since I last heard him a couple of summers ago. His voice has grown in strength and quality, he displays more confidence, and his facial byplay and acrobatic acting of the part were fun additions to an impressive vocal performance. His antics with Matthew Scollin, the reliable, versatile and powerfully voiced bass-baritone, as Pistola, were among the most entertaining highlights of the evening.Falstaff3

Tenors Christopher Lucier, as Fenton, the young man Nanetta loves, and Joseph Gaines, as Caius, the man her father wants her to love, were talented additions to the large cast, and the ensemble sang the small choruses quite effectively.

The only thing missing from the performance were bodies in seats. The theater was maybe half filled. Now, more than ever, the arts need and deserve financial support. And this operatic endeavor on the part of Resonance Works most decidedly deserves capacity patronage. Only one more performance will be given, tomorrow afternoon at 3. Take Mom, a friend, anybody  – to a musical treat that they’re not likely to forget any time soon. Visit Resonance Works for tickets, a complete synopsis, cast biographies and more.

The Production Team for Falstaff

Conductor/Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Stage Director, Stephanie Havey; Production Manager, Brennan Sellner; Stage Manager, Tina Shackleford; Scenic Designer, Gianni Downs; Lighting Designer, Kate Devlin Matz; Costume Designer, Karen Gilmer; Assistant Conductor, Jeffrey Klefstad; Chorus Master, Joel Goodloe; Rehearsal Accompanist, Uliana Kozhevnikova; Orchestra Manager, Ryan Leonard; Assistant Stage Managers, Rachel Sinagra and Cassandra Canavan;  Scenic Charge Artist & Assistant Scenic Designer, Megan Bresser.

Photography – Alisa Innocenti

 

 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

perksPrime Stage Theater’s adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a sincere, though sickly-sweet interpretation of the Young Adult Literature phenomenon. To enter the New Hazlett Theater and revisit this oft-remembered, rarely revisited story is to yet again come of age and recall that high school is, generally speaking, really crappy but also really important.

Charlie (Peter Joseph Kelly Stamerra), who is alternately stoic and desperate, is a lonely high school freshman who’s had a tough life. He divides his time between being ridiculed by his peers, struggling with his mental health, obsessing over any of the half-dozen awful tragedies he’s experienced, and generating phrases people will want to get tattooed on themselves in his journal. He is, in other words, the Alpha and the Omega of YAL protagonists. Your ability to enjoy the play will likely hinge on your capacity to enjoy Charlie.

Wallflower is not a play about journaling and wallowing, however, and the story’s pace picks up significantly once Charlie strikes up a friendship with the extroverted, scene-stealing Patrick (Logan Shiller) and Sam (Julia Zoratto), an adventurous young woman intent on pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone who Charlie immediately falls in love with to no one’s surprise.

More heavily influenced by the film than the original novel, Wallflower director Jeffrey M. Cordell’s adaptation is too direct with its drama and too flippant with its supporting cast and sub-plot to quite capture what made the original work so compelling.

Stephen Chbosky’s original script is a comprehensive course on how delicately a writer must balance a plot built on nostalgia, teen drama, and abuse. This is partially because Chbosky’s bittersweet-ness is less perfectly balanced than it is nearly imbalanced; for every awkward first kiss or pot brownie there are two ham-fisted quotes about what being alive feels like. To be fair, many would argue that’s part of the novel’s/film’s authenticity.

Prime Stage Theater’s work, which utilizes Hailey Rohn’s script, is by contrast too eager to orbit the story around the big moments (think the famous (infamous?) bridge sequence), and turn what was awkward yet complex into something melodramatic yet sincere.

To dismiss Wallflower as overdramatic would be unfair, because when it hits those heavier, more intimate moments, I did find myself consulting with my inner teenager the same way as I did watching the film. Stamerra possesses that very necessary contained desperation inherent to his character, and he really nails the whole ‘ahhhhh did I say the wrong thing???’-ness of his character. On that note, Shiller’s Patrick is full of the posi-vibed buoyancy one would expect, and Zoratto’s Sam has a palpable subdued confidence. Many quiet moments pass between these three that are as vulnerable as you’d ever want.

Unfortunately, the play’s various explosions – be they sequences where silhouettes of lost loved ones or abusers loom over the cast, or moments of sudden violence – too closely stick to the film’s aesthetic, and can feel a little bloodless. Scenes in which Charlie narrates his journal entries feel almost unnecessary the way they’re sped past, and important characters like Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend Derek (Connor Bahr) and the well-meaning English teacher Mr. Anderson (John Feightner) are played too broadly and are too peripheral to justify the stage time they do manage to get.

The supporting cast often interacts with Charlie as they adjust the objects on set, which is a fun twist, but that and the dramatic use of silhouettes in lieu of flashbacks make up most of The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s theatric adjustments. The ingredients for a great adaptation are all here, but too much focus on recapturing the magic of a less intimate medium make the play feel more like a greatest hits of its progenitor than an out and out creative success.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 14. For tickets and more information click here. 

Special thanks to Prime Stage for complimentary press tickets.

Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical

tenderly

The board of directors at the Theatre Factory in Trafford has a reputation of not shying away from challenging productions, and this group has the pluckiness, daring, and foresight to bring theater to Pittsburgh that not only entertains but teaches and inspires as well. According to this organization’s philosophy, performing plays and musicals for the sake of performance is one thing (this they do extremely well), but choosing entertaining plays and musicals to bring to the Pittsburgh cultural scene that continues to draw diverse audiences is quite another.

The Theatre Factory once again hits some pretty high notes by bringing Rosemary Clooney back to larger-than-life status with their performance of playwrights/composers Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman’s musical Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical.

This two person trip down a “memorable lane” takes the audience on a 30+ year journey of Clooney, her rise to stardom, her relationships, her very public battle with drugs, her eventual fall from grace, and then her recovery and triumphant return to perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1998.

Most of the real “meat” of the story takes place in Clooney’s psychiatrist’s office after she is committed to a sanitarium following her 1968 nervous breakdown on a Las Vegas stage caused by a plague of relationship, money, and drug problems. The musical bounces back and forth between Clooney’s issues with her mother, her sister Betty, husband Jose Ferrer, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bobby Kennedy, and Dante DiPaolo, including the music taken from the 20+ albums she recorded during her life.

Breanna Deutsch (Ariel in Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Isle in Spring Awakening), an energetic and spirited performer who hits all the right notes, portrays the troubled starlet Clooney, takes each of the singer’s indiscretions and demons, and then, in a most smooth and flawless performance, ties them into the lyrics and musical score that made her famous.

Tenderly director Katya Shaffer is able to take Vogt and Friedman’s original intent of showing the “meaning behind the music” that audiences in the 50’s and 60’s could not have imagined. In an era of jazz and pop music where performance, style, and glamour were “the thing,” Shaffer and Deutsch pull the cover off what many would have thought to be simply entertaining “songs,” which, in reality, contained the very real pain that Clooney was feeling.

In fact, Ms. Deutsch is able to turn those upbeat and romantic songs of Clooney’s into lyrics that are the script of a woman in distress. The show brings to mind the same issues that Monroe, Davis, Wood, Mansfield, and Elvis experienced.  Audiences failed to see angst and humanity, choosing rather to see a “flawless” performer with a buttery voice who rubbed elbows with the Rat Pack and the Kennedy’s. Duetsch is able to move the character of Clooney from insecurity to stardom and back again so briskly that it is no wonder Clooney experienced a meltdown. Deutsch brings this to life so realistically that even if the audience didn’t know of Rosemary Clooney, her life, and her music, will leave the theater feeling personally attached to her.

Toward the end of the play, Deutsch’s portrayal of Clooney makes you want to just put your arm around her and tell her “everything will be alright.”  She is the quintessential example of the star who has everything but experiences a deep and dark emptiness in her life.

And that’s where her co-star, multi-purpose actor extraordinaire Jeremy Kuharcik (Billy Flynn – Chicago, Jitter – Musical of Musicals, Paul – Barefoot in the Park, and Bert – Mary Poppins) falls into this psychological journey. Kuharcik plays no less than 12 roles as he transforms from Clooney’s sister Betty to her husband Jose Ferrer to her friends and lovers Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dante DiPaolo. Not only does his role require him to impersonate of all of these characters, he must sing “in character” – performing entertaining duets with Deutsch. Kuharcik’s character transformation from one to another is a credit to his commitment to his craft. At the very end of the musical, when Clooney performs at the Hollywood Bowl in her comeback performance, Kuharcik (the psychiatrist) pays her a visit as an older, tattered, and physically broken friend. This is Shaffer’s intended direction which provides the audience a timeline meant to highlight the many decades of Clooney’s relevance.

A really special treat in this musical is the trio of talented musicians, band leader Kirk Howe (keyboards), Jesse Walls (percussion), and Mike Mara (bass), who provide the soundtrack that is reminiscent of the jazz and pop beat that underscored Clooney’s songs. (As well as Crosby and Sinatra). Music director Kirk Howe and stage manager Alicia DiPaola, and their assistants, are on point in providing the audience with the authenticity that is necessary in this production.

Finally, Clooney aficionados are treated to versions of such favorites as “Mambo Italiano,” “Come-on-a-My House,” “Botcha-A-Me,” “Count Your Blessings,” “Hey There,” “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair,” “Tenderly,”  and 15 other hits that provides a refreshing walk down memory lane.

Tenderly also shows how prolific Clooney was in her heyday and how she never stopped, causing her breakdown. Her successes created her own Sisyphus character, who, without the help of friends such as Sinatra, might have steamrolled over her and ended her life.

Tenderly is a lively and entertaining musical that is a tribute to Clooney’s Phoenix-like resolve.

The show runs through May 14th and you can find ticketing information at www.thetheatrefactory.com