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

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

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

But now to our winter musical picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parade

Parade-PosterPainful stories and shameful histories benefit from the illumination of dramatization. While the audience views past events in almost real time, we are required to look and perhaps to learn.

Parade is more than worthy of your attention for these reasons and the stellar performances of a largely student cast at University of Pittsburgh Stages. You’ll be part of an event that echoes many recent events, conversations, and controversies from the last century with today’s societal and political overtones. This Parade production plays all its cards handsomely to tell a difficult true story beautifully as a well-crafted tragedy should.

It’s Atlanta, 1913, just 50 years after the Civil War. The first images are a soldier coming home from that war then we see his older self as Confederate Memorial Day is observed with a parade and festivities. In this distinctly Southern setting, 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan is found murdered the following day in the Atlanta factory where Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew married to a Lucille, a Georgia native, is supervisor. Frank is deemed a most likely suspect.

Parade follows Leo’s experience from that May holiday to the terror of imprisonment through the false accusations born of community hysteria during his trial. After the eventual commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment by the Georgia governor, there is a crowning horrific irony. Local men take Frank from the jail and lynch him by hanging in nearby Marietta, Mary’s hometown. No spoilers here. The historic case shed light nationally to Anti-Semitism and fueled the founding of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). It also ignited a more active Ku Klux Klan.

Director Robert Frankenberry is known as a versatile singer-actor, conductor, arranger, and lecturer in music theater at Pitt Theatre Arts. Frankenberry stages this 1998 musical imaginatively, adroitly moving his 28 actors efficiently on Gianni Downs’ lovely two-level set and even into the audience. A high frame for projected elements–ranging from the hills of Georgia to sensationalistic trial headlines–fills the space below the proscenium arch.

Roger Zahab conducts the University Symphony Orchestra of 31 instrumentalists in Tony Award winner Don Sebesky’s full orchestration. This version of the score was heard only once before for the 2015 Manhattan Concert Production’s Parade In Concert, conducted by the composer.

Jason Robert Brown’s score is indeed American flavored with some Southern spice (even a touch of Stephen Foster), replete with some lively patriotic percussion. At the Nov. 10 preview some cellos were missing, while Frankenberry told us he filled in for the guitarist.

Alfred Uhry’s script covers the timeline of Frank’s dilemma, trial, and death. The mystery of Mary’s murder gets muddled as theories about the crime are magnified by gossip and supposition. The writers believed in Frank’s innocence, but while Parade reinforces that belief, there’s no escaping that feeling that you are in the South. With the opening and closing number “The Old Red Hills of Home”, it’s all there: post-Reconstruction pride and ancestors who fought for “The Cause”.  The odd juxtaposition of New Yorker Leo and Georgian Lucille represents the ongoing tension between the Southerns and “the other”.

Dan Mayhak as Leo and Brittany Bara as Lucille create the heart of the story, bringing nuance and chemistry to their depiction of a devoted couple who likely took one another and Frank’s position for granted prior to this disaster. Their soaring and emotional duets are highlights of the production.

Dan Mayhak shines as Leo, traversing the deep layers of Frank’s discomfiture throughout, his work ethic, and his Jewish roots. Mayhak, a fourth year Pitt student recently seen in Front Porch’s Violet and Pitt’s Hair, is capable of playing Leo’s veiled emotion and subtext. His wonderfully sung numbers include “Leo’s Statement: It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”. During the vaudevillian “Factory Girls / Come Up to My Office” we see Leo’s possible “other side” when he leaves his trial defendant’s chair to participate in the incriminating number.

Brittany Bara is alternately subtle and passionate as Leo’s wife Lucille. Devoted but eventually weary of taunts around town, Lucille is steadfast and practical. This second-year performance pedagogy MFA candidate’s performance reflects her professional scope. Bara’s vocal performance is outstanding with “You don’t know this man” beautifully poignant and complex.

Tru Verret-Fleming, a pro seen most recently in the Scottsboro Boys at the Point Park’s REP Company, turns in a superb debut performance at PItt as Jim Conley, the pencil factory janitor (aka “sweeper”) who is led to further incriminate Frank. Verret-Fleming has the charisma to sell a number or spin a yarn, particularly when depicting what’s it’s physically like to be part of a chain gang (“Blues: Feel the Rain Fall”) or sealing Frank’s fate with his accounts of assisting the supervisor in his factory interactions.

While these performances would shine in a professional production, the wonderful thing is that this is true of all the lead performers in Parade. They undoubtedly support and inspire the mainly student cast.

Stand outs in other leading roles include Rachelmae Pulliam as Mary’s mother and Sally Slayton, the governor’s wife. Her lullaby-like “My daughter will forgive you” is heart-wrenching. Mature and polished, Alex Knapp is the savvy prosecuting attorney who carves his political path as he deviously manages the case, plotting with the governor and sneering in the courtroom.

As Governor Slayton, Zev Woskoff navigates the ramifications of his character’s pursuit of both political success and the truth. Dr. William Banks brings operatic chops to the role of the factory’s nightwatchman, Newt Lee. Tyler Prah as Frankie Epps (who fancies then mourns for Mary), Emily Cooper as Mary Phagan, and Davis Weaver as the returning young soldier who opens the show all provide strong performances and moments.

The cast is authentically costumed by KJ Gilmer. Hannah Blume’s movement coaching includes same snappy tap and dance steps. Meghan Bressler employs the Randall’s lighting range, illuminating the actors wherever they go. Zach Brown’s sound is fairly balanced and will likely work out any challenges over the run.

For a closer look at the production elements, Pitt has a wonderful online collection that provides audience https://pitt.libguides.com/2017-18mainstage/parade

The deep themes and controversial history of the Frank case and lynching deserve a closer look. You can read more about the musical’s history in a 2016 Playbill story Think You Know Parade? Think Again. And The Tuskegee Institute Archives reveal the staggering number of lynching not only the South, but throughout the US, 1877-1968.

Parade is onstage at the University of Pittsburgh Stages through Nov. 19 with performances Wed.-Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets range from $12-$25.

Our Town

OurTown-Poster-WebThornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, marks the opening of the mainstage season for University of Pittsburgh Stages in the newly renovated Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Our Town is a deceptively easy play to produce, famously requiring a minimal set and easily understood dialogue. But don’t let the surface simplicity fool you; this is a production that to be fully realized requires nuanced acting, a firm control of pacing, and obsessive attention to detail.

The problem starts with the director’s note, which focused on the casting choices for the show, explaining casting was not based on “physical appearance,” but instead on “who seemed to inhabit the character in an interesting and/or compelling way.”  The director’s note went on to explain how the casting affected the interpretation of character and dialogue. All well and good, but the result of this self-conscious emphasis on the casting was to draw focus away from the play itself and onto the actors, not the story. In practice, director Ricardo Vila-Roger seems to have attempted to create a production that allowed for racial diversity and gender equity. Commendable goals, and I applaud the attempt, but he “over-corrected” sometimes from my perspective.

He was most successful at building an ethnically diverse acting company, who worked well as an ensemble, giving committed, balanced performances. In fact, I think this production was more successful at providing a racially diverse cast than most of the productions I’ve seen in Pittsburgh in recent years. Kudos for that! What I didn’t like was the inauthentic use of Spanish for some of the Webbs’ dialogue. To my admittedly limited ears, it didn’t sound like any of the actors were actually native Spanish speakers; the accents were off, and so the addition of Spanish in the play didn’t seem organic. I didn’t mind the idea, but the execution was clumsy, which took away from the performances in the end.

Mr. Vila-Roger was less successful in his decisions around gender in the casting. He did not cast traditionally with the gender of the actor matching the gender of the character in all cases. Nor did he use gender-neutral casting to fill the roles, where actors don’t necessarily play characters that match their own gender. Instead, he cast several females as male characters, and then changed all of those characters to females. (Side note: he did not cast any males as female characters.) For me, this just didn’t work. It created too many anachronistic moments that simply did not mesh with the period dialogue of the play. This was especially egregious in the case of “Editor Webb” — Mr. Webb in the original script. The decision was made to play “Editor Webb” as a female character, leaving us in the audience to reconcile the idea that an openly lesbian couple would be married and have children in 1901 small town New Hampshire. While it’s a nice thought, it stretches the bounds of verisimilitude past the breaking point. It takes you out of the play too much. Not to mention that Editor Webb’s dialogue, particularly that between him/herself and George before and during the wedding simply didn’t work with a female Editor Webb. The dialogue, written in the 1930’s about the early 1900’s, wasn’t built for that kind of a stretch.

Let me be clear, I have no problem with actors of any gender playing characters of any gender. There is a long history of this practice, and it works quite well. But this changing of the character’s gender to match the actor’s gender seems almost regressive, as though women can’t play male roles. And, ultimately it takes the audience out of the world of the play.

In the end, by focusing the audience so much on his casting, by trying to be everything to everybody, and by trying to make an early twentieth century play fit the model of a twenty-first-century ideal, the director created a tortuous framework that distracted the audience from the simple meditation on ordinary life and death that is Our Town.

Despite all of these concerns, I commend Mr. Vila-Roger on this production, because it does what good university theater should do – it experiments with the form; it reimagines traditions; it allows a space for both professional and casual theater practitioners to expand the limits of their work.

This production of Our Town was a pleasant, university level production with good production values. I especially liked the directorial/design choice made at the end of the play when Emily’s ghost returns to her past to visit her family, and we see the colors and details of the world that Emily missed in life (you’ll have to see it to understand what I mean). The show was moving, bringing several audience members to tears in the third act. And best of all, the actors were emotionally brave and committed to their performances.

Our Town is playing at The Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus, through October 15, 2017.  For tickets, call 412-624-7529 or visit www.play.pitt.edu

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Mr. Burns Image12 Peers’ production of Mr. Burns reminds me how theatre is actually a sickness: an uncontrollable urge for group chemistry to elucidate collaboration, values and to define social archetypes.   It’s a phenomenon that spans cultures for a reason; a desperate need to create Culture and expose the excitement of live spectacle, meaning, and catharsis.  Lessons come from theatre, so we see it evolve within this play from a distinct form of mythology, a past that is our present.  The shared experience is a communal and biological drug, such that trauma can be translated into release.

As this play begins, we are given traumatized strangers.  They all have stories, survivors of a looming, severe apocalypse.  Their pasts are reflected in the subtle hints and subtext; big reveals between the distractions of dialogue, really.  A great power this text imbues is its subtext.  It’s a treat actually, the guessing game, trying to figure out the lines-between of a character like Gayle Pazerski’s Jenny.  A great deal of the first act is just straight-up talking about a Simpsons episode.  But it’s so clearly a shiny, little cat toy.  Nostalgia is a bit of a painkiller, lightly treating symptoms.  You’re seeing this a bit in other actors, like Cassidy Adkins’ Maria or Joe York’s Matt.  But with Pazerski, there’s something about the other narrative that’s not revealed.  There are certain moments of stock, silent horror that comes down to looks.

The brilliance of this play is that it’s aggressively esoteric.  It won’t have the same effect 20 years from now when seasons 1-10 of the Simpsons don’t hit home to our millennial sensibilities, as they’re wont to do now.  When you are introduced to these characters, you can easily place yourself within them trying desperately to grapple the latent utopian feel when television characters’ conflicts were the brunt of thought and conversation.  It’s what people talk about these days, as if these fictional characters were their actual friends.

mr burns production photoI strongly encourage people to check out 12 Peers’ Facebook page and look at the profiles and questionnaires of each actor in the show. These actors have become aware of their characters’ pasts.  It reminds me of the research done with Uta Hagen’s process, where the character-on-stage is more fully realized by the actor making choices about said character’s necessary past.  There is a healthy amount of investigation that these actors have compiled for themselves, and the brilliance of Mr Burns is it only reveals so much.  The audience is allowed to answer for themselves what holocaust these players have gone through.

Another stand-out is Everett Lowe’s Gibson.  He powerfully exacts an exhausted person with a booming strength being tested to its limits.  We get glimpses of where he’s been.  But not so much that we know him.  He tethers the line well between imposing and comforting, setting up the dichotomy that is between architects of a new civilization coming from those who had survived the apocalypse.  Kudos to the actor for pulling off this duality.

The acts are divided between “Now”, “7 Years Later” and “75 Years Later”.  It’s the evolution of what the accumulated memories of a specific Simpsons episode come to mean culturally.

What Mr Burns epitomizes so well is the burn of claustrophobia; cabin fever.  It plays with the apocalyptic fears we obsess with as a culture and puts them into play.  Post-electric: how do we mythologize?

That Third Act, the “75 Years Later”; that’s got to be earned.  How do you even get a remote idea of what life might be like, “post-electric”, when it comes to 75 years later?

Probably the most interesting arc of the show belongs to Brittany Tague, who also shows her talent as the show’s choreographer.  Her character Colleen goes from shell-shocked stranger to company manager within a new economy built on compiling culture.  To allow this frame to materialize in what becomes a Greek tragedy/opera, built upon the vestiges of what elements from the 90’s can be remembered, allows a very grave part of the brain to be tickled.  What we illusorily imagine to be warm satire can be easily contrived as hollow or obsolete relics.  Think of the Parthenon’s white columns having the same white shade as a mausoleum.  It’s as if the culture it was created for is dead.  That’s exactly what it is: dead.  And yet we still have the relic.

What’s created 75 years later, is a testament to human need; using “The Simpsons” as a crude vehicle to get there.  I liked this production.  I would have liked it more with no stage lights and only “post-electric” scenic design; but that’s a nit-picky request, I know.  Still, I believe that the 3rd Act is earned.  It’s well-choreographed, well-sung and well-performed.  It left me with the sticky-sweet feel of a deep, non-superficial future that has its own sense of the past.  Rather than Futurama, it’s built into the new tribalism with a new set of Gods: an elegant regression.  I thought the drama of it was nauseous in the best way possible, turning my childish nostalgia into the effective tragedy of memory.  Vince Ventura did a great job as director and the singing was surprising for the limiting capabilities of the University of Pittsburgh’s black box.  Still, a stand out performance by Sara Ashley Fisher as Bart Simpson; as well as the whole ensemble.  The surprise of the sharp choreography shows a serious texture and is well-rehearsed.  It shows the intimacy this cast must have had with one another, which is important to the whole Das Boot of the entire concept.

This play plays on two very important features of today’s culture: the need for great comedy and the fear of the end.  It’s perfect in that regard, and this is a very decent, swelling performance.  Cromulent, as it needs to be.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh through August 20. For tickets and more information, click here

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Thom Pain12 Peers Theater’s production of Thom Pain (based on nothing) is prefaced by this note from director Vince Ventura:

When I first read Thom Pain, I was struck by the density of the language, the specificity of the images, and the raw emotion of the character.  While I had not experienced the exact circumstances that Thom had, this play had a way of cutting to the core of the “loss of innocence” experience.  For me, this play is a meditation on the universal experience of loss, maturing, and realizing exactly how little time we all have on this earth.

This play can be painful.  I believe Thom is trying to mythologize his own pain, with you, to help you find a way to process your own.  Thom will ask you to confront your deepest, darkest, most painful experiences; to define fear for yourself.  To see, at the end, that there was never anything to be afraid of in the first place.

This is your guide.  This, I believe, you should know going in: look for catharsis.  It’s here within the folds of this man’s narcissism.

Because it’s hard to watch a man talk about himself for an hour.  Thom Pain seems to want to investigate his past with the audience as spectator, having an impressive dedication to his own self-importance.  Does this make the show hard to watch?  Yes.  Does Ventura, then, suggest that you occupy this task as a challenge rather than a burden?  I believe so.

Thom Pain begs the challenge of the audience: Don’t say you were out watching someone be clever, a smartmouth nobody working himself into a frenzy.  Rather, say you were watching somebody trying.

18815115_1832532426760611_6123170761970490382_oMatt Henderson‘s performance as the solo man on stage grates in just the right way.  A bit of Woody Allen and a bit of Artaud.  I like the way he smiles throughout the show.  Eyes squinted and lips pulling, cheeks twined—smirking.  A madman assumes you don’t understand.  His talent in the character is that you never quite know where he’s coming from, as if his origin doesn’t even make sense to himself.  He’s lost, so you get lost with him.  But he’s a very sensible man!  He speaks in lofty phrases and riddles, allowing for laughter where it’s evident his jokes are a defense mechanism.

Henderson should be praised for holding the line between comedy and tragedy, a veritable marionettist lingering over the audience the vanity of his self-subject matter.  You are forced into the zone of his pain and his mind, which processes absurdity with the same lust for hope.  You are put into a room where a man yells at a wall.  You’re the fly on the wall.  Occasionally he’ll pluck an audience member to be his insinuation of another person.  You are also a figment of his memory, then.  So he toys with plucking your wings.

I’s more than the limp vaudeville of a sad man telling jokes.  As has been stated: it’s an investigation.  A man’s existential plight into the madness of his memory through anecdote and metaphor, cute helplessness and rage.  And it’s all about the man.  There’s very little staging.  Very little prop work.  That’s alright, though.  Feel like a psychologist for an hour.  Be silent.  Listen.  Try.

For a one man show, it implores you to be uncomfortable, to push past the boredom to feel restless.

Though, understand that this is a clever show.  It’s lovely with it’s word-play and it’s sprawl of stories and jokes.  It’s filled with distinct, classic one-liners:

I’m someone you might not hear from for a long time, then ‘Boom!’ you never hear from me again.

“you’ve changed.” she said on the night we met.

She wasn’t from here, so I had to talk to her with the international language of love: English. 

But I think it’s also important to understand this isn’t a typical theatre experience meant merely for entertainment.  It asks to invoke.  To journey.  Henderson’s animated characterization begs a question of the past and he does a great job of towing the line between charming and scary.

Of course, one-man shows are a bit of a trap of captivity for the audience.  When they’re painful, it’s as if you step into the broken elevator and the true reward is the relief that comes with finally making it out.  After all, at the end of this show your reminder is that all is ephemeral, but life moves on.

I do believe we have to understand pain better.  Everyone’s pain has value.  And to see it bleed a bit. To see a stand-up tragedian self-flagellate for the sake of expressing a question in the most charming way possible; I’d say: check it out.  Henderson’s brilliant.  He’s very much in the role.  It’s a bit of a downer, but there’s a lesson inside.

Special thanks to 12 Peers Theater for complimentary press tickets. Thom Pain (based on nothing) runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning through June 18. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photo courtesy of 12 Peers.

Hair

Slide1I shouldn’t be partisan.  Anybody can read this and as a journalistic document or review, this should appeal to all people.  Though there is something undeniably liberal about the classic 1968 musical Hair, which the University of Pittsburgh is currently staging through November 20th.  You can see it when you walk in the door, a big “Love trumps Hate” sign.  You can see it in the diversity of the cast, the hippie mentality.  You can see it in the director’s statement in the program:

Our production aims to embrace the original purpose of Hair: to protest, praise and call to action.  We wanted to put the concerns of today’s youth on stage—to show how these songs live in our world now.  While our cast members may not have experienced the pain of a nation torn apart by war, we can all recognize an electorate toxically divided, and political rhetoric coarsened and vulgarized.  We hear people argue in favor of religious intolerance, LGBTQ+ marginalization, and xenophobia.  We see a culture of sexual violence dismissed with the wave of a hand.  We march in the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed person of color. 

And to go beyond the partisan opinion to talk about this production as an entity that is representative of two times and places: I have to definitively say this is very good.  It is great.  Badass and wonderful!  It has made me proud to be alma mater at Pitt.  I didn’t know they had it in them.  I am impressed and I urge everyone who can to see this musical.

First of all, the students are so into it.  This is an essence given from the before the play.  The actors freely walk around the stage, on the balconies, through the crowd.  This seems gimmicky, but it does a fantastic job of setting up a vibe.  There is a lot of commitment in this play, which is a point I’ll come back to.  I really loved the candidness with which these actors could improvise.

The kids on the balcony yell down to the audience, encouraging play: “Hey, I like your shoes!”

A co-actress puts her barefoot up on the balcony rail, the same actor exclaims, “I like your shoes too!”

A girl with long hippie hair yells to an actor resting in anticipation on a bus-like set piece, “Eugene!  How’s the bus?”

“Groovy!” he replies, with two thumbs up.

This is corny.  I mean, Hair is a broadway musical.  It’s corny in it’s incarnation.  But this really gives the atmosphere that this was probably a really fun show to do.  This is massively important.

“Get off the rail!” A boy with a ‘Free Hugs’ signs yells at his co-star.

A fringe-vested hippie retorts, “I don’t follow rules!”

And the long-hair ‘free hugs’ kid replies, “You have to follow some rules, like gravity.  I don’t want you falling on these good people before the show begins!”

There is an air in the Charity Randall Theatre.  For a gigantic limestone castle throne room, they do their best at making it seem like it’s invaded by the sensation of kids on grass keeping on the “Don’t Step on the Grass” grass.  Signs hang which say, “At what age did you lose your compassion?” and “Hate is easy, Love takes Courage.”

At this point, I’m a third done with my review and I haven’t talked about the actual show at all yet.  There’s a reason for that.  This play is so much about atmosphere.  It’s about a time which felt imperative: 1967.

The uncertainty of the bomb has haunted the world for more than 20 years, and the apocalyptic vision of Vietnam and its draft are absolutely devastating for those just coming into their existential consciousness.  JFK’s death in ’63 and Malcolm X’s death in ’65 were signs of progressive control being lost; this dystopian reality protracted onto the visionary aesthetic qualities of drugs and music in order to create an apex of finale.  This was a time when the end felt near.  And the realizations this musical yearns towards is to make clear that life is beautiful and should be cherished with every ounce of being.

Please note: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.  Hair premiered on April 29th, the same month.

This musical is about time.  The dawning of “The Age of Aquarius” is a premonition of some transition, something key that happens amidst the cyclone of fear, hate and disaster.  This musical is medicine.  It comes at a pinpoint, right now.  Xenophobia and bigotry has saddled this country in an incredulous lurch and this play synthesizes two points of time when the future is unknown, scary and the present is startling and beautiful, i.e. 1967 and right now.

The production is stupendous.  Give credence to choreographer Amanda Olmstead, a veritable shepherd in her own right.  At any given time there are between 1-31 odd young adults bounding electrically on stage, synchronized with impeccable grace.

I’d like to also give a huge thank you to director Cindy Croot for making this production so palpable.  This was a well-felt illustration of a historically viable and so alive today, thematically.  There is so much audience interaction.  So much in this play is in your face and very active.  There are real tears on stage.  Each actor gives a genuine performance.  As I’ve said before, these kids are into it.  This is a diverse cast, racially and sexually.  I understand that’s the original casting as well, but the diversity of the cast is so representative of how I see millennials.  This is a play that celebrates blackness, queerness, free-thought and apostasy.  It tries to really go places on the astral plane, a discovery of inner-self and outer universe.  It subscribes so heavily to the meanings of Man in the big question of “Why?”  and this production seems to really live in that zone.  We are there.

There were a couple hang-ups.  The sound had some issues, but I imagine juggling thirty mics is an absurd task for a tech-person.  I felt like some of the songs could have been louder.  Perhaps that’s the acoustics of the room.  And that’s not to say that some of the singers really did go beyond their inhibiting means and project an exorcising weight towards the audience.  Particularly the songs, “Walking in Space,” “Easy to be Hard,” and “Let the Sunshine In” absolutely kill it.

I would love to point out more highlights, but there’s too many.  There are 31 actors and the musical really allows for distinct stars for nearly all of its 27 songs.

One thing I will comment on is the nakedness of the actors on the stage during intermission,  playing something outside of the musical: The Zombies’ “Time of the Season”.   The audience chatters to themselves.  Some of the other actors saunter about, but they are engaged with what’s on stage:  listening to the guitarist, the actor bongoing on the speaker and the impressive male soprano.  They are hearing this drum circle atmosphere over the disaffected small talk that creates the sound of a typical intermission.  It’s such a commitment to the feeling.  You can just tell these kids are into this show.  This epitomizes an agency for them, and thank god.  It is meaningful and spiritual in its body, which is these 31 actors who move electrically synchronized on stage.  They are comfortable and it shows in their risks and their timing.

This whole play has timing.

It is diverse and shows such an immense diversity of singers throughout, outlining a truly collective piece.

This show is medicine.  It is relevant.  It is spiritually uplifting and most importantly it is truly, truly beautiful.

Special thanks to the University of Pittsburgh for complimentary press tickets. Hair runs at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland through November 20th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Pitt Stages Creates New and Familiar Realities in Resilient Spaces

11828704_1192185537474087_3254483807827457516_nInspired by success and tradition, Pitt Stages launches a season that reflects the aspirations of the University of Pittsburgh’s diverse student body beginning on October 6. The production menu for 2016-17 showcases the performance and technical talents of both students enrolled in the Department of Theatre Arts and others who are exploring theater as part of their broader liberal arts experience. Students from more than 22 majors throughout the university take part in Pitt Stages productions.

“More students are choosing Pitt as a destination for theatre,” says Annemarie Duggan, now in her 10th year on the faculty and beginning her fourth year as chair. “We had a petition from 250 students to stage more musicals,” explaining why more musicals are showing up in the Pitt Stages performance season, complete with orchestral accompaniment through frequent collaborations with the Department of Music.

“We give the students with diverse backgrounds a foundation in theater,” says Duggan, herself a seasoned lighting designer. “Pitt students are prepared to do theater and for the world as well.” She is excited to see the practical aspects of theater showcased in students’ academic work, such as student projects for Pitt’s Honors College.

Both academic and production endeavors are literally at the heart of Pitt’s Oakland campus with classrooms, labs, shops, and Studio Theatre in the Cathedral of Learning and performances spaces in the venerable Stephen Foster Memorial. Pitt’s connected facilities boast architecture and a very presence unlike other higher education buildings in this region.

Promotional photo from last season's production of Nine
Promotional photo from last season’s production of Nine

The Department of Theatre Arts is steward of two theaters in the Foster Memorial, built in 1937. The Charity Randall Theatre was renamed and restored during Pitt’s early 21st century capital campaign after being home for Theatre Arts since the 1960s. Named for retired faculty scenic designer and costumer Henry Heymann, the lower level thrust theater provides an intimate setting for selected season events. Upgrades and maintenance is ongoing as productions require more state-of-the-art technical features (such as a new projector system, says Duggan) while the auditorium itself was built as a musical concert hall honoring Stephen Collins Foster, one of Pittsburgh’s most popular composers. Now the Randall is home for the larger Pitt Stages musical theater productions.

Appropriately, “we distinguish ourselves in a different way than a conservatory,” says Duggan of the liberal arts tradition that enables any student to audition and get involved on stage or behind the scenes at Pitt. “Student can explore their talent here. And they can see the work of their counterparts at the nearby conservatories. We show them that their talent is equal and they may use and go in different direction.”

It’s not surprising given Pitt’s history of theatrical performances actually stretch back two centuries to around 1810. Theatre Arts has carried the torch of the Commonwealth’s only Ph.D. program in theater and birthed many innovations in Pittsburgh performing arts, including the 16-year run of the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival and countless student-led endeavors. Where else could inspired students stage King Lear in the loading dock of a 42-story Gothic skyscraper or alumni take theater education into career work as ranging from television to the  FBI?

It’s about striking a balance says Duggan, “between budget and pedagogically what we are teaching in a given year, with what we are  teaching in the classrooms…Our production values to move the students forward through what we can do really well…while it might be stretch what these these young performers can do well.”

Now, Pitt Stages has another season of productions in store–open again to both campus and public theater-goers. “Our audiences are also investing in the artists of the future,” Duggan adds.

The slate, says Duggan are “diverse stories told in universal ways,” drawing on the characteristics that make Pitt’s student body so vibrant and varied. Each director brings unique specialities and experience to their work, further enriching the potential for both the student production company and audiences. She describes the program as “a really enriching experience for everyone” as the Theatre Arts strives to be an open and inclusive department within the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.Slide1(1)

Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage opens the season, October 6-16, the first of three season offerings staged in the comfortably cozy Henry Heymann Theatre. Costume professor KJ Gilmer makes “a sort of directing debut for us,” says Duggan, an appropriate assignment for a play about a seamstress performed in a space named for one of Pitt Theatre’s legendary designers. All things are not equal, however, as the central character Esther, a black seamstress makes intimate apparel for both wealthy white women and poor prostitutes. This intimate story of a woman trying to survive in 1905 in New York City echoes the timeless realities woven into society’s fabric. Pitt Stages asks: “Can Esther refashion her dreams and make them anew from the whole cloth of her life’s experiences?” Expect a lot of, well, intimate apparel, further costume-building experience for student designers.Slide1

Hair, the iconic 1960’s show subtitled “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”, takes the Charity Randall Theatre stage, November 10-20, under the direction of Cynthia Croot with musical direction by Robert Frankenberry. The counterculture and the establishment collide in this ever’ timely and hit-filled musical, premiered the peak of the Vietnam War in 1967 and revived to acclaim on Broadway in 2008. Hold on to your love beads and get ready to “Be In” as “The Age of Aquarius” is back.Spellingbee3-FIN

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee fills the Heymann Theatre, February 9-19, with the inevitable hilarity of some of the most unusual words you don’t know how to spell and unforgettably zany competitive spellers–including some very special guests with a director to be announced. Robert Frankenberry directs Rachel Sheinkin’s musical comedy, a rollicking content conceived by Rebecca Feldman. William Flinn’s music and lyrics sent the show and its spellers to a successful a three-year Broadway run. So, can you use “syzygy” in a sentence? Pitt Stages wants to know!Baltimore 8.5x5.5 2nd[2]

Baltimore brings the realities of racism on a campus home to the Heymann March 29-April 29, in this compelling drama directed by Ricardo Vila-Roger Roger. The voices of eight college students speak for many in Kirsten Greenidge’s acclaimed script as her central character, a well-intentioned resident advisor, grapples with her own perceptions about our diversity and differences. Holding a mirror to our times, Baltimore promises a conversation-provoking journey.Starcatcher_FIN

Peter and the Starcatcher directs audiences past the second star to the right and straight on to morning for a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan and his adventures in Neverland. Expect all things British and imaginative from Rick Elice’s popular adaptation of the 2006 Dave Berry-Ridley Pearson novel, told with Wayne Barker’s acclaimed music score. Meet Molly (the spunky original girl from London), see pirate Smee disguised a mermaid, and just…never never grow up. Catch Pitt Stage’s closing show (director tba) in the Charity Randall Theatre, March 30-April 9.

At Pitt, there’s always more to explore with six innovative student lab productions in the recently restored Studio Theatre, at the heart of students’  production experience. Here students try out their directing and design talents and often step on stage for the first time. Chances are, you’ve seen Pittsburgh directors, designers, and actors who stars have risen from this intimate space in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning. From October 2016 through March 2017, look for these chances to experience intriguing plays in the city’s most venerable flexible black box space:

Aglaonike’s Tiger by Claudia Brewster, directed by Shelby Brewster

Water Eyes by Leenie Baker, directed by Louis Markowitz

The Most Massive Woman Wins by Madeleine George, directed by Hayley Ulmer

Haiku by Kate Snodgrass, directed by Shiri Goldis

I Can’t Go On/I’ll Go On by Samuel Beckett, directed by Nic Barilar

Charm by Kathleen Cahill, directed by Andrea Gunoe

Pitt Stages continues to foreshadow more good things from Theatre Arts when continued faculty development and student innovation is supported by ongoing facility and production enhancement. “It’s a win for everyone,” says Duggan, who looks forward to even more surprises from students who consider theater part of their total education. Like them, she anticipates returning the classroom and the theater, “so excited to be a part of this scholarly aspects of this practice.”

And in more practical terms, Duggan reminds this Pitt Theater Arts alumna that “theater teaches you that there is a due date!”

Pitt Stages subscriptions and tickets are on sale online with discounts for University of Pittsburgh faculty and staff. The season begins on October 6 with its final performance on April 9. Follow all ongoing Theatre Arts news and events at play.pitt.edu.

Read more about how Pitt Theatre Arts and others at University of Pittsburgh explore “pracadamics” in Becoming a Pracademic, by Tom Pacio, 2010 MFA graduate.

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