Schoolhouse Rock Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PSIP Continues Its Mission to Offer Fun, Accessible Theatre with Henry V

henry-v-adNo one can say Artistic Director Jennifer Tober and the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks hasn’t been busy over the past twelve seasons. The company has been producing free public performances of Shakespeare’s works in the Pittsburgh city parks since 2005. In September 2016, they celebrated 12 seasons of shows with 8 public performances of The Comedy of Errors, playing to over 1800 patrons.

Now in its 13th season, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks will offer the stirring, magnificent history play Henry V, directed by local favorite, professional storyteller and longtime PSIP member Alan Irvine each weekend in September 2017.

One of Shakespeare’s great history plays, Henry V is the final part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard IIHenry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2. It is arguably one of the more difficult Shakespeare plays to tackle and perhaps not as well-known as some of the comedies or tragedies that have been standard fare for the able company since its inception.

When asked why Henry V, Jennifer Tober offered some compelling insight. “We’ve managed to shirk the History plays for 13 years, and we’re due for one!…Alan (Irvine) has been clamoring to direct HENRY V for a while, and we decided that this year in particular, politically speaking, would be an apropos time to offer a Shakespeare piece that deals with political intrigue and the making of a great ruler, and nations vying to dominate one another, all the while showing a glimpse into the deeply personal motivations and aspirations of rulers and the pressures they face.”

DSC_7804When asked what patrons might expect of the story, Tober said that while the play is indeed a history, it is quite funny at times as well as full of drama and adventure. For those concerned that the play might be too dense for their taste, Tober assured, “Our performances are extremely accessible to all folks from all walks of life. We make choices vocally, physically and through characterization that allow our audiences to identify in a way that they may not be able to in a more rigid venue. Henry V is appropriate for all ages and has something for everyone from young kids to adults. I just love outdoor Shakespeare and our audiences agree.”

Following on the heels of the hugely successful Comedy of Errors last year, Henry will expose PSIP audiences to the story of the growth of “Prince HAL”, his struggle to leave behind his boyhood impetuousness and rise to the occasion of leading England in victory over France in the famed Battle of Agincourt. “It is interesting to look at this ruler who starts as this bratty kid and then, throughout the cycle of the plays ends up having what it takes to be a man in battle and approach difficult choices head on,” said Tober, “It is so exciting to see him come into his own and make good choices after so many not so good ones.”

Alan Irvine directed The Tempest for PSIP in 2008, and is the host for PSIP’s Bring Your Own Bard monthly reading series. Irvine’s production will use 8 actors (with an additional young company of soldiers also numbering seven), with all except the title role doubling, tripling, and in some cases, quadrupling.

Amy Dick as Princess Catherine of France and Nick Benninger as her maid Alice.
Amy Dick as Princess Catherine of France and Nick Benninger as her maid Alice.

As is common in PSIP shows, Irvine plans to blur the line between action and audience and allow the audience to become a character itself. “We plan to use the audience as members of the cast,” Irvine said, “If you attend the show, Henry may just wander into your group and include you in the action of the play. We have audience members who return year after year with their blankets, picnic baskets and beverage of choice to enjoy a day in the park and a free performance. They love being part of the show and there are many opportunities within Henry V to include them!” Audience members might find themselves playing the roles of the court – the nobles, ladies, servants; becoming the English and French armies; helping fire up Henry and his soldiers on in the famed St. Crispin’s speech. Many regular PSIP love this participatory side of the experience and it keeps them coming back. “The interactive nature of our performances is something that our audiences really enjoy,” Tober added, “We use everything that is available to us to tell the story. The environment is a big part of this and the audience does not just watch in a removed way, but participate and become part of the show, just like the trees and the grounds and the sky and everything around us.” For those newbies planning to attend, be ready to play a role!

The exciting cast includes Lamar Cheston, a New York City native who has appeared Off-Broadway in Angels Over Tuskegee, with Pittsburgh Playwrights (Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water) and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (Oedipus Rex) as HENRY; Stoney Richards (Pistol and Exeter), known for being a radio personality at  CBS (WDSY-FM and KDKA) and appearing in many films and tv shows as well as Off-Broadway and locally in Pittsburgh. Both Cheston and Richards are members of Actors Equity. Local favorites Tonya R. Lynn as the bawdy and big-hearted Mistress Quickly and Nick Benninger as Gower and French Maid Alice will provide many laughs for those looking for a picnic and a smile. Rounding out the cast are Amy Dick, Ryan Bergman, Bob Colbert, Sarah Carleton; as well as a company of young local actors playing the “Soldiers Company.” Both Tober and Irvine are thrilled with the level of talent available in the Pittsburgh market and are looking forward to presenting this incredible cast of union and non-union actors to the community with some brand-new faces as well as some regulars at PSIP. Longtime PSIP collaborator Lisa Leibering will serve as Production and Costume designer (Comedy of Errors, Supernatural Shakespeare, King Lear, As You Like It, Romeo & Juliet). Tober said that the costumes are usually a somewhat utilitarian base with a lot of fantastic pieces that come as go as the play progresses which serves the actors and the play well in the outdoor arena.

As always, audience is encouraged to bring folding chairs or blankets and a picnic.  All ages.  All shows are FREE with donations encouraged. “And the show will go on rain or shine unless there is thunder or lightening,” Tober added, “We rarely cancel a performance. Sometimes we may get a little rain but this can be fun for everyone!”

The schedule is as follows:

Saturdays and Sundays through September – all shows at 2 PM

Sept. 2 and 3 – Frick Park, Blue Slide playground, Beechwood Blvd. and Nicholson St, Squirrel Hill

Sept. 9 and 10 – Highland Park, across from the Super Playground, Reservoir Drive

Sept. 16 and 17 – Arsenal Park, 40th Street between Penn and Butler Streets

Sept. 23 and 24 – Frick Park, Blue Slide playground, Beechwood Blvd. and Nicholson St, Squirrel Hill

PSIP will celebrate the run of HENRY V with its first fundraising dinner party at MAD MEX Shadyside (220 S. Highland Ave) on Tuesday, September 26th with all proceeds going to support PSIP’s mission of free Shakespeare for all Pittsburghers. This is an awesome opportunity to meet the play makers and support local theatre while having a fantastic evening. MAD MEX will be donating the evening for this worthy cause and tickets can and should be purchased in advance. Check out their website here for more information.

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks was founded in 2005 by Artistic Director Jennifer Tober and has offered FREE Shakespeare productions to thousands of Pittsburghers since its inception.

For those who have never experienced PSIP, expect some serious fun!

Photos by Catherine Aceto

Red Hills

19679103_10154706553307997_7852742964293851959_oMultidimensional, quasi-interactive plays are gradually becoming a phenomenon in theatre, in which evocative themes and transgressive or incredibly sensitive subject matter can be portrayed and explored with more efficacy, vitriol, and immersive sensorial touches that allow for greater intimacy. Moreover, the nature of multidimensional/interactive plays challenges the talents of the actors by trying their ability to maintain an aura of performatively while committing to the realness that is created by the disassembled fourth wall.

Quantum Theatre’s recent production of Red Hills is an exercise in this sort of theatrical staging, incorporating a multitude of elements, disciplines, provocations and narratives into a story of identity, memory and representation ensconced in the Rwandan genocide. Told through multimedia flashbacks, and intensive interpersonal dialogue, Red Hills tells the story of a David (Scott Atkinson) who is confronted with a letter from an individual from his past who challenges the veracity of the book he wrote chronicling his tumultuous time as a student in the Mirama Hills, wedged between Rwanda and Uganda in the former country’s most bleak chapter. The buildup to the play is phenomenally atmospheric: half of the audience is sent to meet God’s Blessing (Patrick Ssenjovu) and understand his back story, the other half (as I was) was ushered off to meet David, giving a lecture to introduce his potentially problematic memoir. Atmospherically, the opening bifurcation of the audience is a bit misguided, as the elemental intrusions disrupt the introductory narratives provided by the characters that are necessary to connecting the purpose of the plot. That being said, speaking for Atkinson—and Ssenjovu as well, I assume, given his performance throughout the majority of the show—performed admirably and enthusiastically in spite of the unpredictable conditions in which they were besotted. As a general assessment of the piece, a tremendous amount of praise should be afforded to the Atkinson and Ssenjovu, as their performances were simultaneously unwaveringly engaged with one another, and thoroughly committed to audience interaction. Much like their contending with the elements of their outdoor stage, the two men demonstrated versatility in terms of switching between one-on-one interplay, and unique audience conversations.

There is indeed much to be lauded about the production of Red Hills. The grit and realness of the set is incomparable relative to most stagings I have seen of late. Deceptively barebones, the well-sculpted dirt mounds, the derelict vehicles, the small, subtle props thrown here and there exquisitely capture the essence of the war-threatened environment as well as evoking the landscape of memories charred by the traumas of war, conflict and loss. Additionally, the physical set and the multi-media dimensions of the play (specifically the pre-filmed “memory” dialogues) are perfectly executed to coexist and interact with each other in a way that challenges and grips the audience. And while the script was a bit awkward at times, the fluidity of the dialogue was such—and the confidence of the actors was steadfast enough—that the clunkier parts of the play could be disregarded.

That all being said, it is vexing to take part in a play centering on a cataclysmic, emotionally fraught moment in history–one which very critically examines the essence of race, violence, memory, appropriation and potential harmony—from the perspective of two men, with a distinctly masculinized tone. Before seeming too tendentious, I should say that any narrative that focuses and brings to light this type of story, this period of time, is absolutely necessary, and should be valued for the important work it is doing. I certainly do not intend to rob the show of its fantastically conveyed message. However, it is challenging to sit through a play in which women are reduced to tertiary references or digital faces. While innovative, the play’s reduction of non-patriarchal or non-masculine voices is disheartening, given the incredible paucity of female perspective in the media that centers on this period of time. This is not to say the actors and creative team did not do a phenomenal job of working with their material. It is simply to implore that as a theatrical community, given the incredibly troubling times, we want for more in our theatrical representation.

Red Hills runs at Recycling Building on the corner of 32nd Street and Smallman Street through September 10. For tickets and more information click here. 

Annie

936932-427366-14When I was given this assignment, I was greatly confused at being told that the theatre I was going to was in Greenfield. I lived on the Squirrel Hill/Greenfield edge for eleven years and have been doing theatre in Pittsburgh for fifteen, and I’ve never heard of a playhouse in Greenfield. That’s because this is a new venture, and a new company and the show I went to see is only their second theatrical production. While the Palisade Playhouse offers many services in their space including music classes, a choir, summer camp, and fitness sessions, as well as community church services, their main goal is to produce family friendly shows that can involve lots of artists in the Pittsburgh area. The theatre space is, in fact, a church that they’ve purchased and are fixing up to better suit their theatrical ambitions. Co-owner and children’s director Michelle Bellison says that plans are to eventually convert the second floor to a living space so their family can both live and work in the building. Their first musical was Clue in April, and now they’ve taken on a full cast of children and adults to do Annie.

Co-owner and director of this production, Matt Belliston had quite a challenge fitting an entire cast of kids onto the small church stage, but the actors never seemed to be stifled or lacking in space. Besides the stage area, actors used the aisle and fronts of the audience from time to time, making it feel more inclusive to the viewers sitting in the church pews watching. Given the space they had, it all seemed to fall into place nicely.

Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie
Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie

This production has two different casts for most parts, identified as the “red” cast and the “white” cast in the program. Presumably this is to give the actors (a lot of them children) breaks between shows. I saw a red cast night, and I got to see Miss Rachael Renee Parsons completely shine as the title character. Not only was her voice impressive and perfect for the role, Parsons clearly has the experience needed for her to go far in the world of drama. She had a great sense of comedic timing and tone, something I often find underdeveloped in child actors. In the red cast, Rachael Parsons is joined on stage by two of her sisters (Nicole and Danielle) who played Tessie and Molly, and her mother Tracey, who worked closely alongside her daughter onstage as Grace Farrell, Oliver Warbucks’ assistant. It’s clear where these girls get their talent from, as Tracey Parsons is an obvious veteran of the stage.

Another noteworthy performance was Jillene Stewart as the exasperated and often intoxicated orphanage manager, Miss Hannigan. Her portrayal of this woman, who could easily be frightening, is just enough of a villain to get the point across with humor while still being suitable for children. She ended up being mostly comic, which I think is generally the point of the character.

The orphans all worked together extremely well, coordinating their group dances and singing with ease. It was nice to see a group of girls of varying ages being so enthused about acting. I never caught one standing around looking out of place. They all were acting the full time they were on stage. Kudos also goes to the costumer of the show (unnamed in program) for the excellent work on the orphans’ clothes. The whole cast very much looked the part and felt like the right period, and for a fresh theatre company that’s pretty impressive. Choreographer Toni Dobransky obviously worked hard on getting everything to be on time and in place, because the dances all throughout the show were well organized and entertaining.

Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie, and Tracey Parsons as Grace Farrell.
Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie, and Tracey Parsons as Grace Farrell.

I was pleased in general with all the acting and singing, but one part of the show that really suffered was the technical end. This being the company’s second show, it’s easy to see that they simply need a bit more work at organizing the off-stage portion of things. Each scene had a full set change, which seemed very unnecessary, and that made each change go on far longer than it should have. On top of the length of each change, actors were moving things around stage very haphazardly, bumping into each other and banging set pieces on the ground. The company should consider a more rehearsed run crew in the future.

The music was played from a pre-recorded soundtrack, but the lights were designed by Aidan Setlock. Aside from a few odd color choices, the lights worked pretty well considering the space they had to play with. Although whoever was running the spotlight clearly needed a bit more practice.

All in all, this show was a well-done musical that hosts a great amount of talent. Palisade Playhouse is just getting started, and there’s always a few bumps in the road at first. From seeing this production, I can tell that they’re going to be a company to really watch for in the coming years. Best of luck to them!

Annie runs at the Palaside Playhouse through September 2. For tickets and more information, click here

Photos courtesy of Salene Mazur Kraemer

Big Fish

big fishThere is a reason we tell each other stories that go beyond a recollection of the facts. We like to think we’re our own historians, and sometimes we are, but we don’t make myths as a matter of record. The stories we make into legends capture something about who we are that our receipts never could.

Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Big Fish is about a man whose realities and fantasies may as well be one in the same. We follow Edward Bloom (Billy Hartung), a traveling salesman who lives his life like it’s the lost epilogue to Homer’s The Odyssey. He comes home after a trip to tell his son Will (Mario Williams) the story of how he taught a man how to fish via dancing – specifically, by using the fabled Alabama Stomp. We flash back to that moment, with Edward patiently hearing out a fisherman afraid for his starving family, and a song begins. The music soars as Edward tap dances entire schools of fish into the sky, and his dumbfounded companion, in awe, begins to stomp along as the waters rage around them and fish hail down onto the earth.

Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony
Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony

“If you give a man a fish,” Edward tells his son, “he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man the Alabama Stomp, you feed his soul!”

The man, the fish, and the music fade, and there is a beat of silence. Will immediately asks, “what the hell does that mean?”

This is the push and pull of Big Fish: idealism vs. realism. Decades go by, and Will (now played by Matt Calvert) is a reporter engaged to be married to a fellow journalist, Josephine (Hope Anthony). Will meets with Edward before the wedding and practically begs him not to tell any stories or give any toasts. All it takes is this conversation to give us an enormous amount of context for their relationship. For Edward, the world seems to naturally orbit him, and it puts his head in the clouds; Will’s feet are planted firmly in the ground, and he’s still waiting for his father to come down to his level. The question is: are either of these men capable of meeting in the middle?

Front Porch’s production is as emphatic in its energy as its lead character. Big Fish is a series of explosive revelries and fantastic characters, and the potential for the show to become bittersweet is swept away by its sheer joy for life.

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom

Just like the characters onstage,  we the audience are yanked into Edward’s orbit. Billy Hartung’s performance isn’t exuberant, but his ability to take in the magic of his world as a matter, of course, can be invigorating. There’s a moment in this where he is shot out of a cannon by a werewolf onto the college campus Sandra (Kristiann Menotiades), his future wife, is attending – there’s, uh, a lot going on there, but it makes sense in context, I promise – and when he lands he gets almost immediately to flirting with her. Why not?

The show is directed by Spencer Whale, who seems keen on imbuing the slice of life portions of the musical with as much character as its colorful fantasies. The cast is as effective musically as they are dramatically, and there are some memorable moments: Kristiann Monotiades leads a fun number during a dance audition that shifts suddenly into a slow-motion meet cute, and I was struck by her ability to be simultaneously intimate and energetic. Elizabeth Boyke’s Jenny Hill is, at first, a one-note object of affection for Edward, but she becomes much more return during the play’s final moments, and in just one scene is able to remind us of the difficult humanity of the narrative through her performance alone.

Big Fish is a musical with a purpose, and so it is the best kind of musical. Newcomers to the genre uniformly pose the same question after their first show: “but why did it have to be a musical?” Screenwriter John August and musician Andrew Lippa’s original work blends fantasy and musicality so easily with the juxtaposition between theater and dance, that it begs the opposite question: is there any reason why this shouldn’t be a musical?

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom

The world itself also deserves praise. Gianni Downs’ set design is rustic, yet vibrant, and complements Big Fish‘s elevated Americana really well. Even with the show’s aesthetically patchwork quality, it never descends into ‘indie-film of the moment’ design. It’s got a sense of handcrafted wonder to it, but at the same time feels like it’s built on sturdier stuff, both literally and artistically.

There are a few flies in the soup, though, especially in the larger narrative of the show. We learn almost immediately in the first act that Will is about to have a child. Considering how Edward and Will are such obvious foils for one another as father and son, the narrative instinct to make Will’s child a vessel for whatever lesson Will is going to learn is jarring in how direct it is. For as much joy the show builds, that’s just too saccharine of a plot point to hit the mark, and it’s made doubly frustrating by the fact that it already has a pretty great framing device in Edward’s penchant for skipping stones.

That said, Big Fish‘s conclusion is well earned. Will demands a certain amount of party-pooping by nature of his character, but Matt Calvert allows us to believe in his ability to change and grow. By the time we’re in the middle of one more new story from Edward, we’re already so won over that we’re willing to follow him just about anywhere.

Front Porch’s latest pulses with the heartbeat of the form, and is an easy recommendation to most any kind of audience.

Big Fish runs at the New Hazlett Theater through August 27. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Martha D. Smith

The Audience

LLTC_TheAudience-300x268There is a sort of unintentional impracticality to presenting a dramaturgical narrative that focuses on the heavily romanticized (and even fetishized, to some extent) monarchical dynasty of the United Kingdom. More specifically, a narrative focusing on the emblematically stodgy and seemingly cantankerous Queen Elizabeth II seems like an almost esoteric subject, ossified by her crusty austerity and connection to the monolithic, pristine regime. Theatrical or cinematic pieces—like, say, The King’s Speech—while masterfully crafted, bear traces of being out of touch, particularly in intensely heated socio-political climates. Chronicling and dramatizing nuances and details of a royal family so entrenched in traditions steeped in Victorian sensibilities seems superfluously fey.

Allison Cahill as Queen Elizabeth II and Eric Mathews as the Archbishop
Allison Cahill as Queen Elizabeth II and Eric Mathews as the Archbishop

And yet, in Little Lake Theatre’s recent production of The Audience—originally penned by Peter Morgan, with, appropriately, Helen Mirren as the envisioned Elizabeth II—the inherent austerity and stodginess of the British monarchical family is upstaged by the exquisitely sensitive construction of characters and plot, and artful commitments to the archetypal, historicized figures that lead the very dialogue-centric action of the play. The Audience is a play that thrives on the intimacies and intricacies of private conversations and self-introspection manifested through intensive interactions and distorted self-perceptions. Thus, the play is one which relies heavily on the elemental design of the stage and the impassioned immersion of the actors to their characters. In terms of setting, Little Lake is a theatre—that houses a company who wisely and meticulously selects productions that behoove the innovatively in-the-round structure of the company’s space—that commands attention through its circular structure and unique seating. To complement this, the actual set design for The Audience, while minimalist, is appropriate and befitting for the degree of inwardness that dictates the story.

The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Allison Cahill (seated) as Queen Elizabeth II, (standing: left to right) Rick Bryant as Tony Blair, David Hoffman as Gordon Brown, Eric Mathews as Winston Churchill, Joe Macerelli as John Major, Patricia Cena Fuchel as Margaret Thatcher, Bracken Burns as Anthony Eden, Joe Eberle as Harold Wilson, and Nate Butler as David Cameron
The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Allison Cahill (seated) as Queen Elizabeth II, (standing: left to right) Rick Bryant as Tony Blair, David Hoffman as Gordon Brown, Eric Mathews as Winston Churchill, Joe Macerelli as John Major, Patricia Cena Fuchel as Margaret Thatcher, Bracken Burns as Anthony Eden, Joe Eberle as Harold Wilson, and Nate Butler as David Cameron

As an audience, we are visually connected throughout most of the play to Queen Elizabeth II’s “office” (and/or bedchambers), which is the center of not only Elizabeth’s professional and intimate dialogues with various members of British government and parliament, but is also the externalization of her memories, fears, anguishes and need for composure. In addition to the smartly structured stage, the performance of Allison Cahill as Elizabeth is the appropriate balance of muted self-awareness, quieted rage at the anticipatory nature of her queenly demureness, and sly snarkiness. Cahill manages to fill the space and manipulate it to be an extension of her performance. More specifically, Cahill introduces the cracks in Elizabeth’s demeanor with the right amount of suddenness to convey the difficulty of Elizabeth’s aura. Additionally, the array of actors ensembled to play the various Prime Ministers and other dignitaries—like Thatcher, Blair and others—channel the proper characteristics to pique, endear or vex Elizabeth at various moments in time and personal development, all of which Cahill presents masterfully. While the stage movements and accents could be a bit clunky, the eloquence of the portrayal of the complexities of Elizabeth exceeded expectations.

Though the play is moored by the seeming irrelevance of British monarchy in a time of furious politics and international relations, Little Lakes thoughtful presentation elevates the play a well-done examination of human interactions and introspections. The Audience carries on Little Lake’s tradition of sensitively crafted theatrical pieces that defy expectations.

The Audience plays on the Little Lake stage through August 26. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of James Orr.

Go Back for Murder

gbfmThe Summer Company presents Agatha Christie’s Go Back for Murder, an unusual take on the traditional murder mystery. What could be more exciting than family secrets, intrigue, suspense, romance and seduction?

The story begins as a young English woman from Canada, Carla Crale (Rebekah Hukill), returns to England, to try and discover the truth behind her father’s death. Her mother died in prison following her conviction for poisoning her husband, Carla’s father.  When Carla turned of age, she was given a letter her mother wrote to her, proclaiming her innocence, which sent Carla on her quest to find the truth.

Carla enlists the help of a young solicitor, Justin Fogg (Grant Jones), who was at her mother’s trial, in order to help her locate some of the people who were present when her father died. This, over the objections of her boorish fiancée Jeff Rodgers (Nathaniel Yost).

In the first act, which is set in 1962, Carla meets with those present on the day of her father’s death at Alderbury House on the south coast of England. Each is asked to ‘go back’ to the day of her father’s death in order to recount their version of the events.

In the second act, the action slips seamlessly from 1948, the year in which the murder actually occurred and 1962. Justin and Carla successfully manage a semi-reconstruction at the murder scene with all the witnesses. Together they uncover the various inconsistencies in testimonies and the drama arrives at the disturbing truth.

The story is interesting in its own right as we follow the plots twists and turns on the way to discovering the real truth about Carla’s father’s murder. What really makes the Summer Company’s production of Go Back for Murder is the casting. The eleven characters are portrayed by a great group local Pittsburgh area actors young and old.  The older seasoned actors make the difference, but none of the ensemble should be discounted in terms of their abilities.

It is Susan McGregor-Laine as Mrs. Williams, the former governess for Angela, Mrs. Crale’s half-sister, that really steals the show. It’s not just her lines that draw frequent laughter but her years of experience that create a fully realized portrayal of her character. The nuances, gestures, and movements are perfectly timed with her delivery.

Phillip and Meredith Blake, two gentlemen who have known Carla since she was a youngster are perfectly played by Jay Keenan and Mark Yochum. They capture the bond of two elderly brothers who seem share everything but know nothing about each other. It was quite the pleasure to watch these two “dance” around all the shenanigans that were happening at Alderbury back in 1948.

There is an interesting production twist which was executed quite well. Grant Jones plays both the younger attorney Justin Fogg and Carla’s Crale’s father Amayas. Rebekah Hukill plays both Carla and her mother Caroline. During the first act, it’s the contemporary Justin and Carla. In the second act, they bounce back and forth from ’48 to ’62 fairly seamlessly thanks to some costume magic.  I was less impressed with their performance in Act One than Two, both seeming to be more at ease in their 1948 characters.

Nora Lee plays the physically scarred Angela Warren, the younger half sibling of Caroline. She transitions from the worldly older Angela to the bratty schoolgirl with the shift of a pony tail and a change of gait.

The cast is rounded out by Ron Silver Waruszewski as the Lurch-like butler, Juliette Mariani as Amyas’ mistress Lady Melksham and Nathaniel Yost as Carla’s briefly seen fiancée Jeff Rogers.

Jill Jeffery has secured some very elegant costumes including some fabulous fur collared coats perfect for the plays time of year and cold drafty offices and houses.

Director John Lane Jr’s., one of the founders of the Summer Company, has an extensive resume directing ensemble dramas and uses all the tricks he’s learned to create an engaging and enjoyable evening of theatre. He also does double duty as set designer finding clever ways to fit all the locales and actors on the cozy Genesius stage. Though one criticism would be Dale Hess’ lighting design which seemed to often leave actors faces just outside of their light.

The Summer Company’s production of Go Back for Murder is an entertaining evening of theatre with a company of wonderful actors in a comfortable setting that should not be missed.

Go Back for Murder with performances August 19th – 27th at the Genesius Theater on the campus of Duquesne University, adjacent to the Mary Pappert School of Music

Tickets at the door or online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3041661

Thanks to the Summer Company for the complementary tickets.

Billy Elliot

f67fb6ad296f2fb7ed2598f303489535Keystone Performing Arts Academy presents Billy Elliot the Musical based on the 2000 film by the same name. The music is by Elton John, and the book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The musical opened in 2005 in London followed by a Broadway run that won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story is set against the turbulent background of the 1984-85 miners’ strike in the northern mining village of Easington, England.  You can easily see how this story could occur in any small mining or manufacturing town in the States. Billy (Blaise Meanor) is a motherless pre-teen boy beginning to grow up and searching for his calling.

As is so often the custom in small rural communities, the son is expected to follow in his father Jackie’s (J. Alex Noble) footsteps and become a miner like his brother Tony (Chris Morris), and his father’s father before him.

In hopes for a different future for Billy, the family scrapes together 50 pence per week for him to go to the boxing class at the union hall. It becomes obvious during the lessons from miner and obnoxious boxing instructor George (Cody Sweet) that boxing is not going to be Billy’s calling.

After the boxing class, Billy is assigned to pass the hall keys on to the leader of a dance class, the exuberant and frustrated Mrs. Wilkinson (Chelsea Bartel). Billy lingers a bit and finds himself connecting with the music and its ability to cause him to “dance”.

With some persuasion from Mrs. Wilkerson, Billy decides to secretly join the class (secretly since his family would never understand) as “boxing is for lads, not ballet”. At home, his grandmother (Cynthia Dougherty) reveals her abusive relationship with her dead husband.  She too loved to dance, which was her mental escape from the abuse.

Billy confides his dance class attendance to his friend Michael (Sam O’Neill), who is happy to listen while he dresses up in his sister’s clothing , a pastime he can explain away very simply: “Me Dad does it all the time.” Free expression, is after all, Michael’s theme.

His dancing secret isn’t kept for long, and anger erupts when Billy’s father discovers that his son has been frittering away his hard won 50 pence on ballet instead of boxing. Mrs. Wilkinson believes in Billy’s innate talent and makes a secret offer of free lessons to prepare Billy  for an audition for the Royal Ballet School.

The strike, meanwhile, is getting more and more heated. There are pitched battles between the police and the miners that split friends and spur Tony Elliot to take the law into his own hands as he raids his father’s toolbox for a weapon to use against the police.

Billy’s father unexpectedly stumbles upon him dancing.  Mr. Elliot, moved by Billy’s dance heads off to see Mrs. Wilkinson and find out more about the audition for the ballet school. He is determined to create a better life for Billy outside of the mine even if means becoming a scab to earn money in order to pay for the audition and tuition.

Tony and the strikers agree to pool together what little money they have to help Billy go to London to audition. Additional money offered from the mining company itself is unwelcome but it provides the resources to send Billy and his father to the audition in London.

The principal characters in this production with the exception of Blaise Meanor’s Billy and Sam O’Neill’s Michael are not very likable. Under Chris Saunders direction, pretty much everyone else comes across as angry, almost yelling their lines. Anger is an appropriate reaction for a community struggling with the lack of food and money resulting from a long labor strike. However, anger alone does not create empathy between audience and characters. There also needs to be conveyed a sense of hopelessness and frustration amongst the villagers. There also needs to be a shared connection with the audience; “gosh this could happen to me”.

Meanor is a 14-year-old student at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School with a nice developing voice. He is not a fabulous dancer, but neither is Billy. “Both” have inherent talent that needs to be nurtured and developed.

O’Neill’s as Billy’s cross-dressing fun loving best friend offers a charming and refreshing break from the others characters’ anger. The line “Me Dad does it all the time” drew a nice tension breaking laugh from the audience. O’Neill was campy but subtle and a breath of fresh air despite his character’s struggle to fit in with the community.

Cynthia Dougherty’s revealing performance of Grandma’s Song was unfortunately marred by microphone disappearance on this night.

Credit goes to the entire cast for their efforts in trying to master the Geordie northern English dialect.

Musical Director Carolyn Violi did a nice job handling the score when the sound system cooperated. There were no visible musicians or credited players.

To be compelling this production requires that all characters and the audience feel Billy’s newly discovered passion for dance.  That passion serves to inspire his family and community and changes Billy’s life forever.

For me, this production lacks the “heart, humor and passion” that has generated a legion of fans for Billy Elliot the Musical.

Billy Elliott the Musical presented by Keystone State Music Theatre August 17th and 18th at 8:00 pm at the Rotary Amphitheater in Cranberry Township Community Park (111 Ernie Mashuda Dr., Cranberry Township, PA 16066) 

Unfortunately, Billy Elliot has already closed.

Thanks to Keystone Performing Arts Academy for the complementary tickets.

Little Shop of Horrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.