Monday, December 27, 2010

Theatre Review: Year End 2010 Sunday 26 December 2010

(Note: You can read the entire reviews for most of the below right here on this blog except where noted as having been written for Pittsburgh City Paper. The CP reviews are retrievable on-line at the CP website)

2010 is wrapping it up. So, pausing for reflection, I’d like to call your attention to productions and performances which stood out for me.

In January The Clockmaker by Stephen Massicote clicked, meshed and ran superbly due to the always superior directing imagination and perception of City Theatre’s Tracy Brigden, one example of several throughout the year where she continued to prove her artistry. She consistently remains the best director in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s Tami Dixon, Joel Ripka and Daryll Heysham made it work perfectly. In it, Heinrich makes unusual clocks and new potential customer Frieda comes to him to have one repaired. Those two are magnetically pulled towards each other. But memory plays tricks so that yesterday’s noon looks just like today’s or maybe midnight. (Reviewed for City Paper.)

A different kind of time, in February, paced one of several wonderful productions of musicals from Point Park Conservatory Theater. It was the world premiere of Time After Time, based on a novel by Karl Alexander and transformed into a 1979 movie of the same name. It deals with fantasy and science fiction author H.G Wells, having invented a time machine, using it to go into the future to pursue his one-time dear friend Dr. John Leslie Stephenson, revealed as the Victorian era’s Jack The Ripper. Point Park University teaching artist-in-residence Jeffrey Saver wrote a lot of appealing music which, consistently, got its due from impeccable music directing of Douglas Levine. Director Gabriel Barre accomplished wonders of movement, sight, sound, and space with superb performing by the student cast including a talent worth remembering, Michael Campayno as Jack.

The following month Tracy Brigden again made everything look and feel right in Arthur Miller’s The Price at Pittsburgh Public Theater working with a fine imported cast. (Reviewed for City Paper.)

Also in March, City Theatre had a world premiere. That was When January Feels Like Summer by Cori Thomas. In it street-talkin’ homeboy Devaun gets riled up because some guy seems to wanna homosex him. He and his buddy Jeron gotta warn people in the hood about the danger. That connects them with Nirmala, a no-longer youthful Indian-American woman who runs a convenience store. Her brother Ishan, is converting himself into becoming a woman named Indira to whom Devaun is attracted. Pittsburgh’s Joshua Ellis Reese stood out Devaun and, from out of town, Debargo Sanyal brought compassion and delightful sweetness to the role of Ishan/ Indira

We had a the great opportunity in April to witness a superbly acted and directed traveling version of Tracy Letts’ award- winning play August: Osage County in the Broadway series.

That month too came another example of Tracy Brigden’s talent. She made a fairly simple script seem genuine in the City Theatre production of Shooting Star by Steven Dietz., The play glowingly pursues a trajectory about two people, who, having gone in different directions, after shining years together as lovers but newly stranded together in a closed-down airport. Pittsburgh’s Laurie Klatscher expertly conveyed the woman’s still youthful innocence and tender vulnerability. Visiting artist Andrew May gave equal dimension to the comedy and sensitivity written by Dietz.

Likewise in April another student production sparkled and shone: director Matt Gray’s take on Shakespeare’s Richard III at CMU. I’ve rarely seen a Shakespeare play in Pittsburgh so superbly realized. Gray’s conception surged with disturbing vitality and in every role, even small ones, the students did remarkable justice to the text, in such a way that it became less a focus on one evil person and more about the time, place and people among whom he moved, a fine ensemble experience. (Reviewed for City Paper.)

April remains a standout month as well due to the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre/ Opera Theater of Pittsburgh offering of a world-premiering musical with origins right here in this city. It looked as if it has the potential for national fame and fortune. It’s Beautiful Dreamers, featuring music and words by Pittsburgh native son Stephen Foster with a script by Martin Giles. The performances came ably aided by music director Douglas Levine, another example of his talent. Giles created something full of lively invention and imagination, with solid dialogue and interesting plot developments, most of it intelligently melodramatic, appropriate to Foster’s own time. By the way, PICT published a CD featuring the songs which you get from PICT when you contribute to the company.

That month too Quantum Theatre offered an extraordinary experience in German playwright Heiner Müller’s The Task. Director Jed Allen Harris, speaking of CMU, made it consistently fascinating, staging it within an unused industrial space in the Strip District with audiences led on foot through various parts of the work set in various parts of the place. It concerns events during the French Revolution, focusing on three citizens sent to one of the colonies of their British enemies, Jamaica, to foment rebellion among black slaves. Müller uses that to comment on slavery in many forms and in many different times, Larry John Meyers especially stood out as one of those citizens.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company in May presented August Wilson’s Jitney. As usual, director Mark Clayton Southers knew how to bring forth truth and substance from his performers and in his craft as a set designer.

Another world premiere in Pittsburgh was Confluence of Dreaming by Pittsburgh’s own Tammy Ryan, presented by The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse in May. She crafted a clever script about on-line chat rooms and the contrast between sexual fantasies and attempts to follow them through in real life. John Amplas directed with great imagination and Pittsburgh’s Sam Turich gave special subtle and funny dimension to his role as a seemingly romantic on-line lover.

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s version of Othello, also in May, surpassed for me any other Shakespeare play I’ve seen the company produce, equaling any other performance of that play I’ve experienced elsewhere. Moreover I’ve never been as emotionally moved as I was by Javon Jackson in the title role. Director Andrew S. Paul s came up with dynamic and perceptive staging. (Reviewed for City Paper.)

City Theatre had a great entertainment which, opening in June, ran not nearly long enough, closing in July. It was Celebrity Autobiography, a Pittsburgh version of an ongoing Off-Broadway hit. It consists of many different, talented and versatile nationally and locally well-known performers interpreting parts of autobiographies written by …duh…. celebrities. If that sounds obvious, never let it be said that what’s read aloud sounded subtle, insightful and thought-provoking. Nor, evidently, is it intended to be funny, even if it came across as a non-stop hoot. The people who wrote this stuff took it seriously.

June was likewise the month to see another famous play by seeing-through-glass-darkly Tracy Letts. It was Killer Joe, the year’s only offering by barebones productions. As with everything the company does, the acting and stagecraft left exceptional impressions, even if I can see no value in staging this ugly, pointless play. Point Park U Junior Hayley Nielsen looked and sounded perfect as the once-innocent girl Dotty and Patrick Jordan played against his character’s obvious darkness with remarkable originality.

In July Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre embarked on an outstanding two month presentation of six plays by Harold Pinter in what could be called repertory performances. That is, we had chances to marvel at the talents and versatility of a finely-tuned company of 14 actors, 8 of whom are local artists, most appearing in more than one play. It became even more remarkable because it offered the opportunity to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of Pinter’s writing and imagination in work spanning more than 40 years, a stimulating and diverse mixture of comedy, absurdity, passion, menacing situations and ambiguity. Canadian actor Rick McMillan, who’d been in other PICT productions, made magnificent No Man’s Land , shimmering with brilliant language in a compelling interpretation.

October provided another opportunity to appreciate polished fun in a Point Park Conservatory Company show. It was Thoroughly Modern Millie done with panache and style, made especially appealing in a thoroughly charming performance by Jessica Earnest in the title role. Once again Douglas Levine got great sounds out of a small orchestra, in quality equal to Broadway-origin traveling companies.

Speaking of such events and of musicals, in November we had a chance to witness the touring version of Lincoln Center’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific in the Broadway Series. It arrived sounding and looking wonderful and gave fresh revelation of how much this musical has to offer. The cast sang and acted superbly, and, as perceptively directed by Bartlett Sher, it made the best parts of the script and the score and story come truly alive

Also in November students at CMU made it clear how much they can offer in a version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As directed by the faculty’s Don Wadsworth, delightful, charming performances came enhanced by fully consistent style with a true sense of ensemble. The words and their essential meanings remained constantly clear and, at the same time, the players in comic roles bubbled with personality. The whole conception has a great sense of fun in a remarkably fresh way,

Speaking of student performances, I found that I had never seen She Loves Me by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick better sung and acted. The cast of Point Park U’s Conservatory Theatre, guided by director Jack Allison, found marvelous ways to elicit performances full of style and personality, Meanwhile, regarding music directors, the Camille Rolla-led seven member orchestra, even if small, did thorough justice to Bock’s evocation of many styles of music popular in Hungary at the time of the tale.

So for 2011, expect more great things, especially from Tracy Brigden, Douglas Levine, the students at CMU and Point Park Conservatory and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Theatre review: "She Loves Me" from Point Park Theatre's Conservatory Company

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick never wrote a better show than She Loves Me. It remains a classic, justifiably regarded as one of the best musicals of the 1960s. Bock’s music brims with non-stop, engaging melodies matched in their charm by Harnick’s clever lyrics. And I have never seen the show better sung and acted than as by the student cast of Point Park U’s Conservatory Theatre. Director Jack Allison has found marvelous ways to elicit performances full of style and personality, perfectly meshed with the sweet simplicity and gentle humor of Joe Masteroff’s script, a great way to make the season jolly and bright.

Meanwhile the Camille Rolla-directed seven member orchestra, even if small, does thorough justice to Bock’s evocation of waltzes, polkas and schottisches as well as several kinds of Hungarian music, including the czardas plus the tango, even a bolero in a brilliant score that evokes a perfect sense of the show’s time and place.

Given the rather simple plot, it remains up to the cast and director to enrich the characters and make consistently engaging what they sing, say and do. Many performances achieve all of that. Kevin O’Leary’s exceptionally skilled take on self-effacing clerk Ladislav Sipos especially stands out. Emily McVicker does wonders as vulnerable, desperate- for- romance Ilona Ritter. As young and eager Arpad Laszlo, Grant Haralson gets it all right. And, in two lead roles, Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash Justin Fortunato and Breanna Pursell consistently sing with fine voices while making the most of their lyrics. Fortunato also conveys sturdy sincerity.

Director Allison has put in superb touches, getting his cast to make the most of their songs. Moreover his handling of the frantic logistics in the “Twelve Days to Christmas” scene adds to the fun permeating the show. Contributions from scenic designer Michael Thomas Essad and choreographer Zeva Barzell provide more delight. Essad’s rotating store-front and store interiors, sometimes tripling with even more versatility, glow with imagination. Even his stage curtain fits the period. And Barzell has created a knock-out staging of a wild dance in the café.

I find this production one of the best Conservatory performances I’ve ever experienced, equal to, perhaps even better than professional ones. Alas, you don’t have much time to enjoy it. She Loves Me closes on December 19th a week from today. It’s at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. Tickets and info at 412/ 392-8000 or

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Theatre review: "Stop Kiss" @ Off the Wall Theatre Sunday 12th December 2010

Off the Wall Theatre in Washington, PA continues to justify its name and reputation by offering completely convincing performances in a thought-provoking, emotionally-laden, non-mainstream play. It’s Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, which, although it had a very short run off-Broadway in 1998, has acquired its own substantial reputation.

New York reviewers spoke of it as both comic and serious. But as ably and insightfully directed by Robyne Parrish, this production seems fundamentally serious. Considering the core of the story, that looks like a valid choice. Two young women, romantically kissing each other in pre-dawn hours in a Greenwich Village park, are brutally assaulted by an unknown man coming across them. One of the women, Sara, may never return to normal life. Newly arrived from St. Louis to teach in a Bronx public school she has become friends with Callie, a radio traffic reporter. They had been getting closer and closer before the attack. The play jumps back and forth between how the women’s relationship emerged and with the dreadful aftermath.

You might think, then, that this play focuses on lesbian love or gay bashing, but playwright Son doesn’t seem to aim for points about either issue, even though a bed at first looms on stage. The bed, indeed, does have meaning, but not what you’d assume. Rather Son writes more about the effects of random violence on two innocent, good people who had a relationship developing when it underwent changes out of their hands.

The script for one-act Stop Kiss meanders at times, especially at the beginning with trivial conversations about basic elements of New York City life. And, as the play progresses, neither Sara nor Callie seems particularly special or distinctive. Yet their very ordinariness may be the point; the longer we get to know them, the more believable they become, given that the play follows the emergence of their relationship and not much more. I think it works because Ericka Cuenca’s Callie comes across as a complete, multi-dimensional person while Theo Allyn’s take on the major role of pre-attack Sara has equal truth and appeal. I say “pre-attack” because Sara is seen pre-attack and post-attack on stage simultaneously. Allyn and Karen Baum alternate in those versions of the role.

Point Park U Theatre grad Matt Lamb plays Peter, Sara’s boyfriend from back home, with depth and sure dimension. The cast also includes F.J. Hartland, Linda Haston and Atom Pribila in supporting roles, all of them adding substance to the production. Plus singer Autumn Ayers provides vocal color between scenes. Oddly, despite evoking substantial reality from the cast, down to near nudity, director Parrish has made a puzzling choice of having some dialogue un-realistically played not face to face but rather face to audience, although it’s not narration. Even so, this does not harm the memorable effect of the entire experience.

Stop Kiss continues with Karen Baum as pre-attack Sara on Thursday and Saturday, December 16th and 18th while Theo Allyn has that major role Friday December 17th at Off the Wall Theatre, in Washington PA. Info and tickets at 724-873-3576 and

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review: "Rock of Ages" at Benedum Center-Sunday 28th November 2010

Rock of Ages has thumped into town for a short, frenzied stay. This is the road company version of the hit which has been doing its thing on Broadway since April of last year. Clearly it’s a juke box musical with no pretense of being serious theatre. More, it’s primarily known as an homage to so-called “hair” bands of the 1980s with 30 songs from such icons as Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon, Styx and Twisted Sister hooked into a simple story.

It’s also intended as a send-up of musicals, which seems marginal rather than well-developed, colored by raunchy humor in basic dialogue, sometimes decorated with profanity. Some bits also get deliberately played to the house. The songs get loud and louder but the lyrics, remarkably, often come across intelligible.

It is packaged with this advisory for parents: “Some of the costumes, dancing and language may not be appropriate for kids under the age of 14.”

Clearly audience participation is likely, even encouraged, with people jumping up in their seats, maybe singing…yelling…with cast members sometimes bopping along the aisles. On opening night lots of people in the house were having a ball. Some late arrivals, noisily bulging into seats behind me, obviously felt that this was like a fun club date, regularly exchanging verbal comments, evidently thinking that the on-stage conversation had less weight than theirs. Maybe they were right. As for the show itself, I didn’t get it.

Rock of Ages, part of the PNC Broadway Across America series runs through 6:30 pm on Sunday November 28th at Benedum Center, downtown. Tickets (412) 456-6666 or

Monday, November 22, 2010

Theatre Review: "Talley's Folly" at Pittsburgh Public Theater for Sunday 28th November, 2010

“Tender, lyrical, charming,” are all words frequently used to characterize Lanford Wilson’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning Talley’s Folly. Further, it’s often billed as a “romantic comedy.” “Uh-oh,” you may say, “another heart warmer. Give me a break.” Instead, you could find yourself agreeing with the above responses. Especially in the present production at Pittsburgh Public Theater in which actor Andrew Polk and director Pamela Berlin make it happen.

I know. I know. It’s another two-character, no intermission show and we’ve been getting a lot of them these days. So, of course, this raises questions about what makes such a seemingly simple situation so special. Answer: a lot.

You get a good idea of this production’s quality the minute you walk inside the theater and try to avoid stepping on what looks like a fragile lily pad floating by a frail wooden dock. Wilson specified this setting and Michael Schweikardt has been brought in to remarkably evoke it. Swiftly you encounter other reflections, the musings and perceptions of ironically intelligent Matt Friedman, marvelously and genuinely personified by Polk. From there he and truthful, earnest Julie Fitzpatrick as Sally Talley become engaged in what Wilson/Friedman describe as a “waltz.” Because Matt takes the lead from the outset, more verbally adept, more motivated by a goal, Sally can come across first as no one special, even though Sally has flouted small-town Missouri conventions. Fitzpatrick certainly does her justice but, inevitably, becomes overshadowed.

Berlin’s production flows naturally, stepping into all the right places, turning in many directions, but always beautifully balanced, letting each personality lead into and out of shadowy corners. Credit, too, Berlin’s perceptive physical touches, natural movements which say the right things to underscore the words being said.

I won’t tell you the premise. Matt will. Besides, it’s not all that complicated. The complications are in the characters. Wilson has evoked two people who, on the surface, look mismatched. But, as they get to know each other, as revelations and closely guarded secrets emerge, the evening’s light reveals why they belong together. Meanwhile, though the premise remains elemental, Wilson’s dialogue for Matt shimmers with eloquence. And Polk knows exactly how to deliver it, never pushing, almost gliding.

This is a waltz, remember?

Talley’s Folly continues through December 12th at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Theatre review: "Camino Real" from Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Theatre Company- to air on November 28th, 2010

Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real stomped onto Broadway in 1953 and, bewildering and alienating critics and ticket buyers, less than two months later, stumbled and fell along the Great White Way. Ever since then, theatre companies all over the map have tried to make something enduring and meaningful out of it. Point Park U’s Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Conservatory Theatre Company now takes a stab. A New York director with major credits was engaged. He’s George Ferencz, whose four-decade history includes 30 productions for La Mama E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Company). You can imagine where he was likely to head. Unquestionably he’s done a lot to get the student cast to stride vividly around a tiny playing space and make darkly colorful characters visually quirky and provocative. He chose to make the whole thing suggest the Mexican fiesta, The Day of The Dead even though, in his interpretation, characters don’t follow the tradition of celebrating lives of the departed; instead they throb with fear and anger.

You may find the underpinnings not all that clear; Ferencz’s staging emphasizes movement and caricature over clarifying a text which he has certainly cut. And many of the students, immersed in postures and big gestures, fail to deliver the essence and emphases which the remaining lines could have, shouting far more often than necessary. It sounds as if Ferencz didn’t work with them enough on the words, concentrating instead on style.

Plot-wise: in a main plaza of a poor, isolated, inescapable town somewhere south of the US border, a number of famed literary characters struggle to survive cruelty and misfortune. Principally this focuses on Casanova, Lord Byron, Marguerite Gautier (aka “Camille”) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame gypsy girl Esmeralda, plus World War II legend Kilroy (of “Kilroy was here” fame). After he arrives, he tries to fit in or to escape. Casanova courts Camille while Kilroy falls in love with Esmeralda. The play is divided into 16 “blocks” i.e: scenes, each block announced by hotel manager Gutman, one of several devices breaking down the fourth wall. As for much of what else happens, that strides into fantasy and unpredictability, closer to Theatre of the Absurd than to other Williams plays.

Clearly Williams, in his early 40s, tried to say something significant in an experimental way, rather than with his usual narrative clarity. Nonetheless Camino Real, located between The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) comes populated by typical Williams people, unhappy and unable to come to terms with the miseries of their lives, in scripts where symbolisms inevitably reside. Here the symbols look like the point. It doesn’t really matter what personal ghosts Williams was trying to lay; he always seems to have been doing that. Should such speculations interest you, you’ll find plenty on-line.

It could matter what Williams was trying to tell us. Interpretations can easily be found on-line, even if we don’t have to know his intentions. What counts is what we see and hear and this production doesn’t convey any clear, internal message. Granted that such off-center territory doesn’t come easy to explore, more could be done than this. Also Williams is known for richly worded dialogue; you get no sense of that either. It could be that Ferencz decided to cut Williams’ pretentious phrases; I remember hearing many in Open Stage’s more literal production in 2006.

Given the fact that Ferencz has his cast playing a lot of blocks/scenes broadly, several people manage to keep their portrayals sincere, not carried away by what else happens around them. Actor David A. Berry especially comes across with sincere warmth and vulnerability as Kilroy. And, as Marguerite, Zuri Washington has thoroughly convincing personality.

Interestingly, in the original 1953 production, only one famed character from literature was specifically named, Esmeralda. It would be interesting to know what Williams meant by that. She was played, by the way, by Barbara Baxley in cast full of major talents including Martin Balsam, Hurd Hatfield, Frank Silvera, Jo Van Fleet and Eli Wallach. Elia Kazan directed. Even though the play can leave you cold, being there to witness that original production would have been worth the time and price. Students at the Conservatory could legitimately feel that this is worth their time; they get good training in movement and in becoming parts of an unconventional conception.

Camino Real resumes it paces on December 2nd and continues through December 12th at
Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. Info and tickets: 412/621-4445 or

Theatre review: "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at CMU to air Sunday 28th November ,2010

Less than a year after Public Theater gave us a colorful, lively version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, CMU’s Drama School give us one even more colorful and lively. As directed by Don Wadsworth, delightful, charming performances come enhanced by fully consistent style with a true sense of ensemble. The words and their essential meanings become constantly clear and, at the same time, the players in comic roles move with panache and personality, well-coached by Catherine Moore. The whole conception has a great sense of fun in a remarkably fresh way, Moreover, Wadsworth doesn’t fool around much with the original concept, taking it out to some new, shaky limb, even though the “real” characters are played in contemporary clothes

Advance publicity says that Wadsworth made cuts and changes. The most noticeable sense of that comes from the fact that the production runs intermissionless in under two hours. Even so, the story and its three-branched developments appear to remain essentially intact. I noticed only one major transposition of the text. It was at the end of the play and in the service of Wadsworth’s intention to emphasize the idea of a dream, in this case making it all seem as if it is Bottom’s dream. Hence Bottom’s bottom is visible on stage throughout all the action, mostly body-doubled. To close the play, no longer recumbent, he says things which, originally, are in a much earlier scene. No great harm there. As for the rest of the concept, it seems immaterial rather than obvious.

Wadsworth and his student cast make the most and best of the two deliberately humorous elements in the play. One is Shakespeare’s wonderful dig at eternally inept theatre folk with Bottom and his buddies and their goofy attempts to put on a show. Wadsworth’s inventions and the cast’s playing do the whole thing hilariously right. The other element concerns the mis-matched lovers losing their way and their reason in the forest. The four students play all of this superbly, full of youthful excess, finding the potential of how the characters behave and speak. Moreover, the playing of straight roles has equal polish and sincerity. You couldn’t ask for better performances, even from professionals.

The third element has always seemed the most problematical, the root of a major plot development. Oberon’s minor dispute with Titania prompts him to have Puck enchant the lovers, which, going awry, creates much merriment. There’s also Titania’s falling in love with an ass, Bottom, a kind of flat-out joke with elemental potential. In other productions I’ve never seen anything done with Oberon, Titania and Puck to make them really interesting. They usually look colorful enough but come across as if they leapt out of a rather standard ballet. In this case Wadsworth and Moore have filled the stage with supple bodies in swirling, gymnastic evocations of ethereal creatures, many of whom come cleverly costumed to look like extensions of the forest and the trees. All of them, including Oberon, Titania and Puck, move adeptly in an intricate, imaginative set. But nothing makes those characters really special. Not an easy assignment for students. For anyone.

Incidentally, advance publicity says that this production has original music by Eric Lawson, a CMU Drama School MFA candidate. The otherwise superbly annotated program book says nothing about that.

Surely, though it be not summer, this entertainment brightens the hours.

This production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream resumes after Thanksgiving week, a lease of all too short a date, from Tuesday November 30th until Saturday December 4th at CMU’s Philip Chosky Theater. Info and tickets: 412-268-2407 or

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Theatre review: "The Morini Strad" @ City Theatre Sunday 14th November 2010

In Pittsburgh we often have world premiere plays, very few of which ever go on to fame and fortune on Broadway. The new play at City Theatre looks like one with a potential to impress New York audiences. It’s The Morini Strad written by prolific playwright Willy Holtzman. He has come up with a fascinating and revealing story about the waning days in the life of a real, famed musician. This may seem, on the surface, to be an esoteric exploration, given that it concentrates on increasingly-forgotten concert violinist Erica Morini and on the special qualities of her Stradivarius violin. But beneath that surface, Holtzman’s eloquent writing explores and reveals what it means to create art and what it means to be a celebrity. Actors Carla Belver and Pittsburgh’s David Whalen, as well as director Daniella Topol bring it to vivid life.

Holtzman came very close to the story while it was happening, steeped in it by long-time friend, violin-maker Brian Skarstad, whose actual connections with Morini became the basis for the play. Although Skarstad and Morini are the only characters, this becomes more than a documentary revelation, because it involves compelling, reflective conversation between two intelligent, creative people. Holtzman’ s portrait of Morini tellingly delves into the emotional vicissitudes of being a child prodigy and, more deeply, what goes inside the persona of a performing artist.

Essentially the play shows how and why Morini and Skarstad came together and what happened between them, her violin in the center, the violin known as the Davidoff Strad, now sometimes also called the Morini Strad. Morini lived to be 91 and, by the time she and Skarstad met, she was in the last years of her life, no longer performing, a recluse, considering selling the instrument, wanting his assistance. Both, in their own ways, exist in intense isolation, she living alone, he plying his craft in a private workshop, justifying the confined focus of the time and place of what occurs on stage.

Playwright Holtzman perceptively makes meaningful the inevitable abandoning of the fame and glory of a performing career, giving up its anchor, the instrument, and facing the equivalent facts of aging and death. This version of Morini bristles with pride and vulnerability. Actress Belver makes it all true and memorable. David Whalen as Brian invests his role with equal sincerity, as well as with depth and warmth. Director Topol always elicits the right notes from both artists, bringing out the soul of what is written adding a perceptive way to change scenes, with a stagehand dressed as a nurse converting Morini’s apartment to a hospital room, helping Belver change clothes. Speaking of that stage, Tony Ferrieri has created another one of his remarkably appropriate sets, adding to the sense of real life in real time.

This exceptional, essentially true backstage drama resonates beyond its stage confines, reaching out to all of us who are passionate about sharing the love of art.

The Morini Strad plays through December 12th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side 412/ 431 CITY (2489).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Theatre review: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" from Stage 62. Sunday 14th November 2010

Stage 62 has crowded the stage, the house and the halls with a massive, lively and capable cast in a jolly production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes. Everybody sings superbly. Plus director Carl Hunt has done quite a good job in the logistics of moving those more than 40 people in the available spaces including amid Keith Osborne’s clever sets. The performers don't do enough with the comic possibilities but, when I was present Friday, everyone had fun, people on stage and in the audience, an audience called upon to have a major role of its own.

I haven’t seen the show for many years and did not remember that it contains as much dialogue as it does songs. The talk of the play within a play consists of simple plot dialogue and attempts at equally simple humor which call for creative interpretation and style. This cast and director Hunt don’t come up with enough to get across the comic possibilities. But vocally everyone does a lot to make delightful the musical element, several attractive and charming songs.

Rupert Holmes’ book, lyrics and music attempt to re-create the essential elements of Charles Dickens' final, multi-installment, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood and blend it with a send-up of 19th Century British music hall shows, shows which became especially popular in the years following Dickens's death. Consequently each character has two names, one as a person in Dickens’ story and another as the performer in the role. This means lots of breaking any suggestion of a fourth wall, at first mingling with the audience and then regularly talking directly to it. Moreover, there’s an element which has become quite famous: the audience is asked to vote on a solution to the mystery and the cast then performs whatever ending fits that vote. The overall result inevitably has original and light-hearted charm, a charm clearly evident in this production.

FYI: This 1985 multi-Tony Award winner ran on Broadway for 17 months and was the first Broadway musical with multiple endings. It also made a name for Holmes. Alas, people who might want to know about him, his background and credits will find not one word of biographical information in the program book, a characteristic oversight of many local smaller theatre companies. Someone needs to remind their artistic directors, who invariably publish extensive credits about the performers, the staff and themselves, four pages in this case, that some print space should be devoted to the originators of their productions, even if only fractions of the audiences would be interested. You can learn about him at his website:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood continues through Saturday November 20th at Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Avenue, Carnegie, PA. Info and tickets at 412-429-6262 or

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Theatre review: "When the Rain Stops Falling" from Quantum Theatre-Sunday 7th November 2010

It may take you some time before you grasp the intent, the relationships and where everything is going in Andrew Bovell’s play When the Rain Stops Falling offered by Quantum Theatre. In fact, time becomes the fulcrum of events in the past, present and future, since time crisscrosses over spaces in a world gradually seeming doomed to drown. But as the play courses on, unbroken into pieces, you may find yourself immersed in wanting to understand, wanting to know, wanting to work out the puzzle. It looks as if Bovell, drop by drop, wants you to become part of the flow, as if it must be related to you but you have to figure that out, even as you may need time in your own life to realize who you are and where you come from. Yes, you could conclude that this relates to you, because, ultimately, this play concerns families and how families get swept away but could come back together if everyone holds on to the best of what they have. The play can make you think, but I doubt if it will make you feel and you may have to work hard to understand.

This comes across as complex from the outset. No exposition foretells what happened in the past. And those emerging details do not appear sequentially. It looks as if Bovell felt that the story he wanted to tell and the points he wanted to make were too obvious and mundane and needed added complexities. But the fine cast, comprised of some of Pittsburgh’s best actors, makes it all compelling and believable. Meanwhile director Martin Giles has planted visual clues whose meaning may not clear up until you have been thoroughly immersed in the experience. You can appreciate them retroactively but he doesn’t give enough help. He could have had titles projected to make clear in what years and what places the scenes unfold. And, in his program notes, he could have pointed in the right direction, not added to bafflement. You may get an idea of part of what he implies if you recall Australian director Peter Weir’s compelling film The Last Wave in which native people foretell the end of the world by drowning.

So, despite some of the play being set in future time, don’t expect science-fiction.

The program book for Quantum’s production of When the Rain Stops Falling does provide clues in a genealogy chart, showing family connections among all of the characters, saying as well that this takes place between 1959 and 2039 in England and in Australia. I found it useful to have the genealogy ready to read, to be able to refer to it in the semi-darkness. You might too. Nonetheless, ultimately,I find this theatrical puzzle fascinating.

Playwright Bovell doesn’t make anything easy, not only blurring spaces between time and place but also by having four characters named Gabriel. Here are some clues. As it turns out, all of the play’s nine characters are related. The next to the last in line is Gabriel York who starts the play in the year 2039. Then you see all of his antecedents at a dining table, as you will again at the close of play. Both scenes are symbolic; these people never actually come all together at one real time and in one real place. They may be ghosts. The focus remains on two families, the Laws and the Yorks. Young Gabriel Law, trying to learn how and why his father Henry disappeared in Australia, meets and falls in love with young Australian Gabrielle York. As the plays flows on, you see Elizabeth, his mother, as an older woman and as a younger one, played by Mary Rawson and Daina Michelle Griffith. Gabrielle York is also seen as an older and younger woman, played by Bridget Connors and Robin Abramson. The older, in later life, is married to Joe Ryan, played by Philip Winters, and he becomes the 2039 Gabriel York’s stepfather. Meanwhile the characters anxiously posit the future and ponder the past.

I most admired Daniel Krell’s moving interpretation of the sorrowful, tragically flawed Henry Law whose increasingly helpless behavior outside the home estranges him from his his wife Elizabeth and their son Gabriel. Bovell has also written the father well, as he has the older version of Gabrielle York the Australian girl with whom Gabriel Law has fallen in love. And, as their 2039 grandson, John Shepard also leaves a sad, touching and sympathetic impression.

Director Martin Giles has gotten many solid performances from his cast and has done a lot visually to enhance the details of the story, including calling for projections of storms on the stark, blank walls in abandoned spaces of the Iron City Brewery, where this is staged. The setting, consistent with other Quantum Theatre choices, dovetails well with the bleakness of where the story seems to head.

Yet, bear in the mind the title, because as the play concludes, a message of hope and redemption suggests sunnier times. In that, and in many ways, Bovell tells us a lot. I just wish he and Giles could have done so clearer. But you may find, as I do, that involving your mind, your thoughts, your perceptions can make being there worth the time.

Quantum Theatre’s production of When the Rain Stops Falling continues at Iron City Brewery, 3340 Liberty Avenue through November 21st. Tickets and info at 1-888-71-TICKETS
or 1-888-718 4253 or

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Theatre review: "South Pacific" at Benedum Center for 7th November 2010

A traveling version of Lincoln Center’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific has arrived sounding and looking wonderful. It gives a fresh revelation of how much this musical has to offer. The cast sings and acts superbly, and, as perceptively directed by Bartlett Sher, makes the best parts of the script and the score and story come truly alive.

Many people tend to think of this as basically about a World War Two romance between American Army nurse, Nellie Forbush and French plantation owner Emile de Becque on a remote Pacific island. But actually another equally important person inhabits the heart of South Pacific: Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable. Plus there are the colorful and often-remembered characters Tonkinese merchant/hustler Bloody Mary and the equally enterprising American sailor Luther Billis. This production reminds us that Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan’s script has believable characters in memorable situations all derived from a substantial Pulitzer Prize winning book by James Michener.

As Nellie, Carmen Cusack sings with a beautiful voice, investing Oscar Hammerstein’s remarkable lyrics with convincing meaning, also making Nellie truly charming and genuine. Anderson Davis’s performance of Joe Cable gives the Philadelphia Main Liner the right depth and personality, investing his songs with resonance and truth. As for the mostly acting role of Luther Billis, Timothy Gulan has the perfect sassy edge, never pushing the comic element overboard. David Pittsinger sings Emile magnificently but, on opening night, his portrayal looked shallow, without any of the glamour expected of the role. As Bloody Mary, Jodi Kimura’s take also seemed to lack personality, although vocally she sounded perfect.

Director Sher, his cast and set designer Michael Yeargan give the story as well as the songs memorable new life, completely overshadowing some of the outdated, more patent elements. Racism gets deep emphasis centering on Nellie’s being from 1940s Little Rock, a city known more than 10 years later as harboring rabid bigots. Sher also subtly, pointedly, shows black sailors as separate, not equal. You get a true sense of time and place, finding yourself immersed in a special environment by a shining sea gleaming in the distance, where, during World War II, a US Navy Construction Battalion, (often called “C.Bs”) create a few comforts while waiting for more urgent assignments. The war is equally brought home during scenes at Navy headquarters, making the conflict and its dangers a significant part of how everything develops.

“South Pacific” made its debut in 1949, only a few years after the end of that war and, no doubt, had special meaning to audiences back then, coming so close to the effect of that conflict on their lives. And Rodgers and Hammerstein, already known for musicals with substance and beauty, especially Carousel, came up with something admirably original, featuring eloquent sung poetry by Hammerstein and beautiful music by Rodgers. Sure, several glitzy numbers from that time now seem gratuitous. You could also wonder why there are so many reprises rather than new numbers. But the songs directly, clearly tell most of the story, getting right to it without superfluous dialogue, a virtue. As for the two love-at-first-sight themes, now they may look old-fashioned, but with so much to love in this exceptional musical, you still could fall in love with it all over again.

This Broadway Across America Series production of South Pacific continues through Sunday December 7th at 6:30 at Benedum Center: Tickets and info at 412-456-1390. or

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Theatre review: "The 39 Steps" at City Theatre-Sunday 31st October 2010

City Theatre presents a jolly take on an old thing, The 39 Steps, a famed Alfred Hitchcock movie. That, in turn, is based on a less known novel by an English chap, John Buchan. Patrick Barlow adapted the stage version.

You may have heard about this and can surmise why it’s popular given that it’s a laugh-provoking send-up of a mystery-thriller. Specifically is spins off patently- contrived events in the Hitchcock movie as well as in the book. In fact, you could have seen the BBC 2008 version of the book earlier this year here on Channel 13. Despite everyone playing that straight, the absurdities make it laughable. It doesn’t need a parody. But you don’t have to know the source; this comes across as a characteristic parody of such items. You might even think, justifiably, that it looks and sounds like parts of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Mel Brooks’ movies. Nonetheless you’ll be provoked to hearty laughter by new and generically familiar tricks, bits and shticks. In this case, the performances, live, become the reason for being, or as the Frenchies say “le raison d’etre.”

Specifically this take on The 39 Steps turns into such fun due to the physical business, through which the versatile cast, using minimal props, paces, swirls and gyrates, seemingly without raising sweat. The program book credits movement coach Trey Ledford. Credit director Tracy Brigden as well. Once again Brigden shows a true talent for comedy. Watch especially for a chase on the rooftops of a hurtling train, for a bumpy car ride over Scottish hills and for how one inanamite door multiplies before your very eyes.

Of course, credit the actors, two of whom, Tom Beckett and Evan Zes, take on heaps of roles, There’s no point in counting how many those two step into; how they do it becomes the delight. And I found Beckett’s take on a music hall mentalist especially endearing. Meanwhile Sam Redford convincingly hews to earnestness with a stiff upper lip. He plays Richard Hanney, a Hitchcockly characteristic innocent accidentally caught in bewildering, threatening events. And Rebecca Harris holds her own as several women along the ups and downs. Like Beckett and Zes, they keep their cool,

Indeed, the whole conceit is English in origin, continuing to josh and tickle English audiences as it has done for four years now. The Atlantic-crossing version went through its paces on Broadway from January 2008 to January 2010. There’s life in it yet; now it has a foothold off-Broadway.

Plant your feet at The 39 Steps through November 7th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side 412/ 431 CITY (2489).

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Theatre Review: "Thoroughly Modern Millie" @ Pittsburgh Playhouse-Sunday 31st October 2010

You can have a lot of fun at Pittsburgh Playhouse where a delightful Point Park Conservatory company performs Thoroughly Modern Millie with panache and style. The cute, amusing show becomes especially appealing due to a thoroughly charming performance by Jessica Earnest in the title role. She stays lively, sweet and convincing in a non-stop on-stage presence. Moreover the other student performers in lead roles sing and dance with the wonderful kind of polish and skill that remain a hallmark of musicals produced at the Playhouse. And, consistently, the 10-piece orchestra, led from the keyboard by Douglas Levine, sounds great, equal to musicians you could hear at the Benedum in Broadway-origin traveling companies.

Director Scott Wise gets a lot color out of it, even though that the fluffy, deliberately retro script doesn’t offer much. It’s based on the 1967 Julie Andrews-starring musical movie with a script by Richard Morris, adapted for this version by Dick Scanlan who wrote most of the lyrics to period-appropriate new songs by Jeanine Tesori. The program book doesn’t tell the audience when it’s supposed to take place but Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922. Millie is considered modern by the standards of the day, not being conventional nor timid. Out-of towner Millie moves to New York seeking to marry for money and hopes to wed her boss Trevor Graydon, but also encounters Jimmy Smith who is smitten with her. A sub-plot involves her friendship with Dorothy Brown, Millie’s roommate, at Hotel Priscilla for Women when proprietress, mysterious, sinister Mrs. Meers, posing as Chinese, kidnaps Dorothy intending to export her into slavery with the assistance of two Chinese men, Ching Ho and Bun Foo. The most original aspect of the show is to have Ching Ho and Bun Foo speak Chinese, supertitles translating, avoiding making the characters stereotypical Asians speaking fractured English.

Tesori and Scanlan wrote several appealing songs, including one called “Only In New York” sung with special snaz and class by Jaclyn McSpadden as a character named Muzzy. Other highlights include interpolations of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s title song from the movie along with a couple by Victor Herbert along with Walter Donaldson’s Jolson-hit “Mammy,” … none of these writers credited in the program book, by the way… as well as a re-working of Tchaikovsky’s music from “The Nutcracker” serving for a great tap dance sequence.

Jessica Earnest’s take on Millie has just the right exuberance to personify the rarely flappable flapper while Jaron Frand gives Jimmy equally appealing definition. Plus Sam Tanabe and Adam Soniak play Ching Ho and Bun Foo with wonderfully restrained innocence. They contrast with some other student performers who lack the subtlety and skill to give the characters good definition, a recurring impression at such shows, Perhaps director Wise couldn’t give enough attention to the acting due to concentrating on the disciplines required for singing and dancing. He or someone else connected with the theatre also should give a little more attention to better informing the audience in the program book, especially since many theatre students attend.

Add to all the good points, classy costumes by Don Difonso, clever sets by Michael Thomas Essad and choreography by Jeremy Czarniak and you’ll get a lot of high-class entertainment.

Thoroughly Modern Millie continues through November 7th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445

Monday, October 25, 2010

Theatre review: "The Royal Family" @ Pittsburgh Public Theater

At Pittsburgh Public Theater you find yourself thrust back into time, an earlier time when panache and personality gleamed on New York stages, where stars shone so much that the plays themselves didn’t necessarily matter that much. Those days become indelibly evoked in The Royal Family a genial, lively charmer from 1927 by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, It concerns people who resemble real reigning stars of that time: Ethel, Lionel and John Barrymore.

The set and costumes brim with sumptuous style. And director Ted Pappas’ lively and dynamic staging keeps the action and the dialogue swiftly flowing in this charming, lightweight entertainment where David Whalen stands out delightfully as the most deliberately colorful character. You may be expecting many laughs but actually the script has very few, more focusing on affectionate portrayals of special people in the throes of minor crises. Director Pappas has everything moving swiftly and energetically, a good choice considering the limited depth of what happens. Essentially the developments relate to three generations of successful New York theatre people. Three of the women seriously ponder abandoning their acting careers. They are the aging Fanny Cavendish who may have to retire, her daughter Julie contemplating marrying a wealthy, successful old beau and Julie’s daughter Gwen who has fallen in love with another equally successful man her age. Added to the action comes swashbuckling Fanny’s son Tony, inevitably in and out of immature, self-created scrapes. Also swirling through are two more actors, Julie’s uncle Herbert and his wife Kitty.

In the course of the three act, 2 and half hours, they thoroughly come alive. Every actor remains convincing and distinctive, although David Whalen as Tony overshadows them all in a role which certainly calls for that exuberant fun. This portrayal adds to Whalen’s already remarkable array of local performances. The cast includes Pittsburgh artists Helena Ruoti, Larry John Meyers and Daryll Heysham in important roles as well as Public Theater regular visitor Ross Bickell who wonderfully conveys Herbert’s foolish side.

Also make sure you read program book notes by Margie Romero giving fascinating and informative background. Think, then, of this not as substantial material but as a special step back into an earlier time when such material could be its own reason for being, not necessarily making profound points, not necessarily deeply moving, but just a fine evening of live, excellently -acted theatre.

The Royal Family continues through Sunday October 31st at Pittsburgh Public Theater 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600

Monday, October 18, 2010

Theatre review: "La Ronde" @ The Rep-17th October 2010

The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse has a production of a celebrated work by famed Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. The original name is Reigen but it’s more often known by the French title La Ronde despite the setting being Vienna in the year 1900. This version has been translated into English by Frank and Jacqueline Marcus.

The play has often been described as social commentary about morals and class, depicted through a round of sexual encounters between pairs of characters, while implying that they are also passing on venereal disease. 20 scenes involve 10 characters, each portrayed twice.

This production, directed by Robin Walsh, most looks like an academic exercise designed to show off the original concept while given scant creative interpretation. Certainly the behavior in the play could be relevant today, but Walsh opted to have her designers give it a period look and to have her cast play it as if it were a period piece. It does look colorful with impressive costumes and clever staging, a surface which may dovetail with Schnitzler’s take on people’s superficiality, but Walsh and her cast don’t get enough beneath the surface, even though two actors transcend the limitations, with specific, memorable personalities.

Schnitzler’s characters are given generic names even though the dialogue sometimes includes actual names. Beyond the generic, the challenge remains for a director to get variety and meaning within the dialogue and behavior. I found several actors delivering the lines as if the words and emphases were shallow, possibly justified by Schnitzler’s concept. but that diminishes the value of what they say and diminishes audience involvement. For example, many characters talk of needing avowals of love. In this production that gets played as if no emotional needs ever lie behind such talk. A more creative interpretation could have made it look as if some of the drive towards sexual fulfillment could be actual need for love. In real life promiscuity can be a search for tenderness and approval, rather than merely a bodily function. Similarly missing is these performances ,each character is shown with two different partners where behavior could legitimately vary from partner to partner but doesn’t do so. Moreover the characters seem to be eager and willing rather than ever reluctant or dubious about improvised sex. Implying hesitancy, at times. if not outright unwilling seduction, could have also made this more interesting.

Much of the cast goes through the predictable, vigorous paces with vitality and skill, although some substitute vocal volume for any other kind of intensity. Nonetheless Mallory Campbell as Sweet Young Thing comes across with individual charm and depth as does Christopher Spare, bringing subtle perception to the role of Count.

Clearly much more could be done with this play.

La Ronde continues through next Sunday October 24th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445

Monday, September 13, 2010

Theatre Review: "The Umbrella Man" at Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep 12th September 2010

In what is considered the start of this new professional theatre season, even though Quantum and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical theatres seasons are already underway, The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse offers something likewise new: the world premiere of The Umbrella Man, in a script by Edward J. Delaney based on a screenplay for a not-yet produced film by him, Michael J. and Joseph M. Grasso.

In a multi-media format, that is using voice-over narration, film projections and live performances, this comes across as multi-themed. Essentially it deals with anger and grief over fatal events, events arising from not-easily-explained causes. The script focuses on a man and wife estranged after the accidental death of their young son and, at the same time, concentrates on cult-like obsessions about Kennedy -assassination conspiracies. These themes are tied together. The grieving man, Lyle Asay, tries to escape his sorrow in aiming to be an expert about what happened in Dallas that fateful day.

I have the impression that,the writers primarily wanted to focus on the idiosyncrasies of conspiracy-cult behavior. Certainly that element of the play remains the most original and interesting, showing how people in such a cult resemble other fan groups latching on to popular culture. Yet those parts of the story look more sketchy than substantial. That may be due to following the other major theme, the family story. But to me that seems a vehicle to keep the play moving, trying to make it personal and emotional. Mostly, specific details about Lyle and his wife Deborah don’t get enough development even though the play revolves around them. The combined result resembles a movie-like, swift succession of episodic scenes rather than a play which goes deeply anywhere, although, once or twice, people behave maturely rather than predictably.

David Cabot and Dana Hardy play Lyle and Deborah entirely convincingly. In supporting, more colorful roles, Jarrod DiGiorgi shows that he’s becoming a character actor to watch and admire. He deftly plays Weston, Deborah’s former boyfriend, hot to trot all over again. And yet another heart-of-gold prostitute, this one called Jackie, Erica Cuenca conveys her usual indelible sweetness and vulnerability. And John Shepard creates a lot of creative personality in a marginal role while everyone else in this 13 member cast performs credibly.

Director Robert A. Miller has kept the focus and the story clear and well-paced which certainly dovetails with the idea that this is planned as a movie. Evidently it will be filmed in Pittsburgh, although the stage version’ s only connection is generic interior scenes. This take needs more work to become a compelling play.

The Umbrella Man continues through September 26th at Pittsburgh Playhouse on Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445 or

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Theatre review: "Almost Maine" at South Park Theatre-Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Mark Clayton Southers, the artistic director and founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, has continually made evident downtown his talents in staging plays and in getting solid performances from his casts. Now he does the same thing at South Park Theatre. He shows a great feeling for funny physical business and has elicited polished and versatile playing by eight quasi-professional actors.

The script from 2004 is by actor John Cariani and is called Almost Maine His only play so far has become much admired and produced in many many theatres considerably distant from the territory of the title. Actually, calling it a play doesn’t define it clearly. This really consists of nine character sketches where the people and events are only slightly connected to each other, if at all, even though each sketch takes place on the same winter night. Each focuses on interactions among couples. I know that that may sound quite simple, especially given that the nature of love comes across as the heart of the entire experience. But Cariani brings offbeat, loony imagination to many of the scenes, scenes full of surprises for the characters and for the audience. A few pieces go deeper than others, while a few in the second act don’t work as well as those preceding them. Admire especially those times when the underlying subject concerns how much love weighs, or how love can cause pain, or what it means to fall head over heels in love.

Director Southers make everything work credibly and with polish. And he gets his actors to play the off-the-wall stuff with the kind of sincerity that keeps it fresh. The eight performers, including locally famed Barbara Russell, take on 19 characters and they always seem well cast, even if most bring no special variety to multiple interpretations. However, Michael Shahen stands out the most interestingly versatile in three sketches, each a different variation on innocent dopiness. And Robert J. Roberts has wonderfully comic body language in the scene about love’s weight.

This emerges as a charming experience, featuring well-directed, good acting in good material.

Almost Maine continues through September 18th at South Park Theatre. Info and tickets at: 412/ 831-8552)

Theatre review: "Much Ado About Nothing" from Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks-Sunday 5th September 2010

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks this season offers a production of Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s better known comedies, although you may remember two principal characters, Beatrice and Benedick, more than the title. For people unfamiliar with the story there is a synopsis in the program book plus Alan Irvine tells the whole thing to the audience before the play begins.

I attended the opening day performance in Frick Park where the cast uniformly did well making the words heard and understood despite unexpectedly strong winds and regular overflights by airplanes. Moreover several people in major roles ably got across the essential meanings and intricacies of the text, especially Ricardo Vila-Roger as Benedick. Credit director Melissa Hill Grande for bringing that out and for making good and colorful use of the natural scenery with actors striding and gamboling purposefully amid the trees and on the grass. In this case, she staged most of the play at the bottom of a hill where much of the audience could sit quite close to the performers on self-provided chairs or blankets.

The production is essentially in contemporary clothes, as is normally the case. And, wisely, no attempt is made to speak in English accents. Characteristically as well some performers double in roles. Adam Pribila, convincingly cast as darkly tricky, mean-spirited Don John, also appears as a typical Shakespeare comic character, the malaprop-speaking Dogberry and Vila-Roger takes on Borachio, a not very nice follower of Don John. Except for changing clothes, neither of them does enough with the alternate characters to give them any distinction or meaningful development. I also saw George Hampe play Claudio, Benedick’s close friend who falls in love with the girl named Hero. Hampe played with sweet charm yesterday. But he will not continue in the role over the next weeks.

I regularly saw attentive smiles on people sitting around me, making look as if the audience was having a good time.

Next weekend the production of Much Ado About Nothing plays in West Park. The following weekend it moves to Mellon Park and then returns to Frick Park on September 25th and 26th. Admission is free and you can get more information at

Monday, August 30, 2010

Theatre review: "The Phantom of the Opera" @ Benedum Center- 29th August 2010

What is called the “farewell tour” of the musical The Phantom of the Opera has taken over the stage of Benedum Center. The show itself has by no means died. It has been on Broadway since January 1988 and has been thriving even longer in London. The music is, as I’m sure you know, by Andrew Lloyd Webber who, when he created this, had already turned lead into gold with 10 creatures before such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Evita and Cats. Needless to say, even if there are those of us who are not stunned by his melodic inventions, millions of theatre-goers have remained impressed.

As for this enduring hit, I imagine that if you’ve ever been interested in witnessing it, you’ve already done so, given its long life. So the question before the house could be: how does this visiting production stack up with others?

I’ve seen this musical several times before and, have always been impressed with how it looks. The production values of this version live up to expectations. Harold Prince’s original inventive staging remains vivid, while the sets, the costumes and the effects look as if no expense has been spared. Which may justify paying, at the high end, about $90 per ticket. As for the singing, requiring opera-quality voices, everything comes across with strength and skill, and Trista Moldovan’s as Christine vocalizes superbly. As for the interpretation of characters, almost everyone does a serviceable job, although, opening night, I found Tim Martin Gleason as The Phantom overly histrionic, as if playing melodrama, while everyone else didn’t.

I noticed several things this time which I don’t remember noticing before, which have little to with this specific production. For one thing, since I find most of the songs musically empty, I was delighted to hear, as if for the first time, that Webber wrote a wonderful septet waltz for the first act called “Prima Donna.” This cast sings it expertly. I was struck, though, by the shallowness of the orchestrations, which, if better, could have made the music sound richer. I also didn’t remember the simple-mindedness of the lyrics which could have become more interesting if trying to replicate the ornate speech of the period in which the story is set. And, while observing Webber sounding as if imitating standard bits by Verdi, Rossini, Gilbert and Sullivan etc. I was surprised to discover that Webber ventured into an appropriate, slight use of dissonance in scenes from the opera which The Phantom has written. The characters still seem underdeveloped, while too much time gets devoted to long pastiche opera scenes which move the story nowhere. You might want to know why so much happens the way it does. Or you might not care. I’d forgotten how little time and speech is given to the most interesting character of all, the Phantom. But if interested, you could pursue these lines of inquiry on-line on your own.

These are some questions which lurk in the shadows: (1) How and why is The Phantom the way he is, deformed, a brilliant creator of illusions and a long-term resident of those lower floors? (2) How and why is Madame Giry a seemingly sympathetic liaison between The Phantom and the Opera staff? (3) Who gets hanged by The Phantom and why? (4) Is The Masquerade sequence from an opera?

I imagine The Phantom of the Opera will never die. And there will always be people who find it fascinating theatre, which seems right. Too bad it gets bogged down in so many empty, pushy songs. And it is a musical after all.

It continues at Benedum Center through September 19th. 412/456-4800
Or or

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Review: PICT's Pinter Festival-Sunday 15th August

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre offers a remarkable experience: six plays by Harold Pinter in what could be called repertory performances. That is, you have chances to marvel at the talents and versatility of a finely-tuned company of 14 actors, 8 of whom are local artists, most appearing in more than one play.

Moreover, this becomes even more remarkable because it offers the opportunity to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of Pinter’s writing and imagination in work spanning more than 40 years. Evidently some people believe that his work is characteristically confounding, negative and oblique i.e not entertaining and too challenging. Certainly five of the plays presented by PICT do not seem simple or straightforward. But collectively you’ll find a stimulating and diverse mixture of comedy, absurdity, passion, menacing situations and much ambiguity, sometimes much of that in even just one performance. Equally significant, you’ll hear extraordinarily expressive language. Certainly you’ll also notice that Pinter finds fun in Monty-Python-like rambling lists of things and names and observe that Pinter favors extended monologues for a number of the characters. All of that remains fascinating, even as you watch and wonder where or how a play will evolve and end.

You can read superb program notes about all this and more, delving into backgrounds, interpretations, and deeper meanings before or after you’ve gone through the irregular permutations which characterize Pinter’s work.

Of the two longest plays No Man’s Land from 1975 shimmers with brilliant language, personified and made magnificent by Canadian actor Rick McMillan as Spooner, self-described as a failed poet. Spooner has become the spontaneous house guest of Hirst, an alcoholic upper-class, previously successful writer. Present as well are two younger, seemingly dangerous bodyguards/servants. The older men reminisce about their falling-apart lives, perhaps even inventing details. McMillan’s performance remains compelling and brilliant throughout bringing out all the man’s comic loquaciousness, his pathos and his vulnerability. Sam Tsoutsouvas plays Hirst with dynamic passion.

The other long play is The Hothouse from 1958 which could be described as a blackly comic indictment of institutional bureaucracy. It is set in a place called a “rest home” or a "sanitorium” when, at Christmastime, a child is unexpectedly born and a mysterious death is revealed,both disturbing the disordered order of running the place. You’ll find more of an obvious story than in No Man’s Land with many pointed twists and turns. Larry John Myers stands out in the seven member cast playing Roote, the institution’s director. He expertly gets across the man’s contrasting, complex blend of funny befuddlement and nasty self-absorption. However I found it difficult to hear and understand some of what was said, sitting very far on house left, given both the accuracy of the English accents and the blocking which favored house front. If you have a chance, try to sit closer to the center.

The four shorter plays are presented as two pairs, The Dumb Waiter from 1959 with Betrayal from 1978, The Room from 1957 with Celebration written 43 years later. Of these certainly The Dumb Waiter and Betrayal are best known, having been also become films. In The Dumb Waiter two hit men wait for their intended victim in a dreary basement. In the Pittsburgh and Irish Classical Theatre production, directed by Martin Giles, the emphasis remains on absurd comedy which Michael Hanrahan and Jarrod DiGiorgi play with great timing.

Betrayal tells a rather straightforward story, although it moves back in time. It concerns a long-term adulterous relationship between Jerry and Emma. She’s married to Jerry’s best friend Robert who knows and does nothing about the affair. The play starts by being very funny about the awkwardness of two former lovers trying to be sociable. But it grows in clear-cut intensity. Each of the actors gives significant definition to the characters in this uneven triangle. David Whalen’s version of Jerry portrays perfect confused innocence. As Emma, Nike Doukas impressively personifies the woman’s passionate nature. And Leo Marks superbly conveys Robert’s smug, self-satisfaction in his own ability to control his emotions.

The Room seems most like the work of Samuel Beckett, to which Pinter’s is often compared. On the surface it remains quite a puzzle, starting by seeming realistic but then taking darker and darker turns. Bernadette Quigley creates a remarkably well-defined portrait in a pivotal role. If you’re engaged enough to want to decipher symbolic meanings, program notes will do that for you.

You couldn’t get a bigger contrast than to witness the companion play Celebration, a clearly understandable, laugh-filled send up of manners and pretentions. It’s set in a restaurant where two couples celebrate an anniversary and a third couple gets drawn into their raucous behavior while the staff goes off into its own goofy tangents about the past. Tami Dixon’s portrayal of a dippy blonde nails the whole thing to its sturdy floor

Even though these six plays are staged by five different directors, collectively they perfectly unite in getting their casts to make the characters seem human and genuine even if funny, complex, disturbing and threatening.

Pinter wrote 21 other plays than these. Don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre has stimulated your appetite to discover more of the Pinter’s astounding and varied artistry. A second such festival would be equally worth a visit.

All of the plays are presented in the coming week at the two theaters of the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland. Tickets and info at 412.394.3353 or

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Theatre Review: "The Student Prince" from Pittsburgh CLO

As its closing offer for this year’s season Pittsburgh CLO offers what is considered a tried and true chestnut: Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s operetta The Student Prince. This venture demands expert singing and good orchestral playing. From that standpoint, principal artists Ed Dixon, Chad Johnson and Jacquelynne Fontaine sound superb as do members of the chorus. And the Tom Helm-led musicians providing instrumental support add to the richness of Romberg’s wonderful music.

The antiquated story certainly looks mighty thin and director James Brennan along with scenic designer Robert Bingham have done nothing to make it look special or inventive. Moreover Brennan has turned in a dreadful job with the presumably comic elements. Most especially he allows wretched overplaying by Tim Hartman, a local actor whose embellishments in this and other shows suggest that he belongs in a circus instead of the theatre. Here he often bellows like an elephant instead of speaking like a human. I found his performance an insult to the audience.

Adding to that insult, the program book contains no biographical information about the creators of the source of the performance, the people who wrote this famed show, although Executive Producer Van Kaplan gets a full page. Despite the consistent professionalism of CLO, this oversight makes CLO look like one of our local non-professional theatres which show their ignorance by saying nothing about the originators of the material which is the basis for their productions. In fact, when asked why there was nothing about the playwright, one local producer told me that there wasn’t enough print space. And I still remember another one telling me that their audiences didn’t care about such things as a justification for not even including the names of Rodgers and Hammerstein on his posters for Oklahoma.

From Wikipedia you could learn that Sigmund Romberg was born Siegmund Rosenberg to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Around age 22 he moved to the United States from Vienna and became a café pianist, founded an orchestra and wrote songs. In his late 20s he started writing music for Broadway shows and, in his early 30s, adapted music by Franz Schubert for a big hit, Blossom Time. Subsequently he wrote his best-known operettas, The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928), He also wrote Rosalie (1928) with George Gershwin. His later works, such as Up in Central Park (1945), are considered more like American musicals. Romberg also created a number of film scores and, in the late 1940s, when he was in his 60s, Columbia Records got him to conduct orchestral versions of his music. Those performances, available now on CD, are considered collectors’ items.

On-line info about less-known Dorothy Donnelly shows that she was born in 1880, seven years before Romberg, and was the daughter of the manager of New York's Grand Opera House. She began her career as an actress and was quite successful, appearing in plays by Yeats and Shaw. In 1916, pre-Romberg, she was co-librettist for a short-lived operetta called Flora Bella with music by Charles Cuvillier and Milton Schwarzwald and started working with Romberg in Blossom Time.

The plot for The Student Prince concerns a young man next in-line for the throne in the Kingdom of Karlsberg in “the late 1800s.” As a venture into independent adulthood, Prince Karl Franz becomes a student at nearby Heidelberg University, not in disguise, where he hangs out with presumably riotous classmates and falls in love with a barmaid, Kathie. But duty calls him home to be the monarch and to marry his long-betrothed cousin Princess Margaret. Credit Donnelly with making it clear that such duties are painful.

Chad Johnson acquits himself well in the somewhat stock role of the Prince, suggesting charming innocence. And Jacquelynne Fontaine shines both in singing and acting Kathie, doing so with total conviction and naturalness. As Dr. Engel, the Prince’s tutor, Ed Dixon sings magnificently. In addition to Hartman, nine other Pittsburghers are in the cast in a variety of roles, small and smaller. They include Paul Palmer, Gene A. Saraceni, Peter Matthew Smith and Myrna Paris.

Incidentally, there’s a photo in the program book from the 1954 movie version of The Student Prince. The caption says “starring Mario Lanza” which is correct, except that the picture is of Edmund Purdom in the role. He voice-synched the songs. Lanza didn’t actually appear on screen, although he pre-recorded the entire soundtrack. Various reasons have been given for the substitution, including that Lanza walked out after an argument with the film’s producer or the director. Other speculations refer to Lanza being too fat to fit the part.

In this cast most people fit their parts expertly.

The Student Prince continues through Sunday August 8th at 2 p.m. at Benedum Center, Downtown. 412-456-6666 or

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: "Hairspray" from Pittsburgh CLO.

Once again Pittsburgh CLO comes across with a polished, first-rate production. This time it’s Hairspray and the charming near-cartoon has the right style and look.

It is based on John Waters’ 1988 same- named movie, which some people feel is a camp classic, especially given that it features drag star Divine. The Broadway musical version opened in August 2002 with Harvey Fierstein starring in the stage transformation of the role Divine created. He got lots of praise as did the whole thing which ran for a six and half years and garnered eight Tonys.

Clearly it remains a lightweight show but, by not aiming for camp, instead it stays cute, friendly and sincere, well in keeping with the many simple-minded songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The show does have an underpinning theme about racism in the early 1960s, but it never pushes that too hard. And director/choreographer Barry Ivan and his skilled cast have found the way to play it.

Just to be sure you know what it’s about: in 1962 Baltimore chubby teen Tracy Turnblad wants to become a dancer on a local record-hop TV show. She learns terrific steps from black students when she and her friend Penny become pals with black kids. Penny’s racist mother Prudy does all she can to stop that. But Tracy’s proportion-challenged mother, Edna, is delighted when her daughter gets on the show. A third mother figures in this , Velma Von Tussle, another racist, who produces the TV show and does all she can to make her daughter Amber a star. Meanwhile Tracy and Penny do all they can to get their black friends on the show and into contests.

The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan keeps everything fundamental with a kind of warm charm, simple gags and gentle skimming over references to American culture of the time. Consequently this doesn’t try to get major mileage out of period nostalgia nor become a heavily pointed piece about racism. It exists on its own plane.

Undoubtedly many people expect to see Paul Vogt make the most of Edna (the Divine/Fierstein role) given the character’s outsized reputation. Vogt, in fact, has played it Broadway. Here he sometimes underplays as if trying to make Edna real, doing that well, but at other times he shifts into different voices, as if to remind everyone that he’s a guy in drag. Ivan should have reined in such shtick. Vogt, however, definitely sings better than does the grating, gravelly Fierstein on the CD of the show.

Everyone else does consistent justice to the concept. I was especially impressed with the singing of Luba Mason and Kecia Lewis-Evans as Velma and Motormouth Maybelle, a black community leader. Plus Madeline Doherty shines in three character roles, a talent she displayed before as cute, little, libidinous biddy Hold- Me, Touch-Me in CLO’s take on The Producers. By the way, five local talents have small roles in the cast including the classy Maria Becoates-Bey.

Although Shaiman and Wittman created a lot of songs sounding like early 60s pop/rock they never seem to making fun of the style but rather having fun with it. As a more musically interesting plus they also created some catchy R & B/soul numbers for the black characters.


Hairspray continues through Sunday July 31st at 2 p.m. at Benedum Center, Downtown.
412-456-6666 or

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: "S'Wonderful" at CLO Cabaret. Broadcast Sunday 8th August 2010

Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret currently offers what it bills as an “all-singing, all-dancing” show. Can a show be “all” of anything twice? Dialogue crops up too. . Moreover this slapdash revue, S’Wonderful-The New Gershwin Musical, features not one but five “mini-musicals.” Even the promotional material needs work. Think of it as a revue.

If this world-premiering item, in its present form and condition, goes to some other town it certainly won’t do much credit to CLO.

CLO did get authorization from the Gershwin estate to produce director Ray Roderick’s concept of a vehicle featuring more than 40 songs by George and Ira. Why not? That’s a nice chunk of change royalty-wise. And Roderick’s apparent intention suggests good possibilities. This claims to be “inspired by the real events occurring in and around the lives of the brothers” according to the program book. That means that they got involved with a newspaper reporter pursuing a shoplifter in New York in 1916 when the Gershwins were in the teens: mini-musical #1. Or experienced the break-up of a romance between a nightclub singer and her boyfriend in New Orleans in the 1950s when George was dead: mini-musical #4. Or that both are still alive, given that # 5 takes place in “here and now” where a young man falls in love with another young man. Yes, there were always rumors about George being gay, but there’s no rumor that he didn't die.
Still, if someone creative had written a script with substance about the brothers’ lives or verbally, perhaps with narration, tried to justify both the above claim and the premise, this could be something original and interesting. Instead it remains a relentlessly cheery, breathless rush through too many songs, presumably, though marginally related to the tiny themes of the mini-musicals.

As for the singing, the cast accurately vocalizes everything, able to seem effortless while executing Vince Pesce’s primitive choreography. As for interpretation, nearly every song is delivered uncolored and uninflected by specific interpretation. Don’t blame the cast, though, they haven’t got time to concentrate on that; they also have constant costume changes. It’s as if Roderick thought that the songs can sell themselves. Nonetheless, once or twice, Montaja Simmons exhibits genuine personality in her delivery.

To add to the misguided generic qualities of this show, the actors are given one character name each in the program book, despite that fact that they portray different characters in the mini-musicals.

Occasionally more than one person sings at the same time and that comes across really well. But after a while, with only Deana Muro at the piano, the sound of the show becomes thin. Not that that’s Muro’s fault. She plays with verse, dash, style and skill, knocking out the notes, non-stop including parts of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” She deserves accolades.

Roderick, on the other hand, should try creating a good show, instead of thinking, apparently, that the name Gershwin attached to anything will fill his and his investors pockets. Despite his evidently extensive professional theatre credits, this looks like something he amateurishly dashed off in his spare time.

S’Wonderful continues through September 5th at CLO Cabaret 655 Penn Avenue, Downtown, 412-456-6666 or

Friday, July 2, 2010

Theatre Review: "Mad Honey" from Unseam'd Shakespeare Company- 4th July 2010

Clearly Pittsburgh’s Amy Hartman has many original, varied and fascinating ideas for plays, including Mad Honey produced by Unseam’d Shakespeare Company. It has elements in common with The Chicken Snake, at Pittsburgh Playhouse in April last year and Mazel May 2007’s final production by The Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh. All three plays stay full of invention, imagination and compassion portraying the dark undercurrents of dysfunctional families. Director Robin Walsh keeps this production dynamic and human and also evokes solid, truthful performances from most of the cast.

The story has some Eugene O’Neill shadows along with suggestions of ancient Greek legends, a valid dovetail, especially given Mourning Becomes Electra which concerns another haunted family.

In 1936, in rural eastern Pennsylvania, teenage Willow prompts the murder of the man who made her pregnant, her father. Postman Tibits, an older man who loves her, is the poisoner using “mad honey,” something which real bees have accidentally created as far back as ancient Greece. Tibits arranges to have the newborn twins go to separate foster homes. One of them belongs to Myrtle Peterson who also fancies Mr. Tibits. Willow, having disguised herself as a man known as Billy, in 1952, tries to reconnect with her teen son Stewart. Meanwhile he has learned how to make “mad honey” and has used it to sicken bullies at his school. But then he gets involved with neighboring Penny Jenners and complications ensue.

The first part of the play crosses back and forth in time and may not seem completely easy to grasp. Given fairly straightforward language with only a few traces of folksy intonations, the concept acquires an interesting mysterious dimension, so that, in effect, the audience has to do some work to figure out what’s happening, although that’s not too complex.

You might have extra work, though, trying to understand Paul Ford as Tibits, if he plays it as he did on opening night. That could become a problem; he has major exposition. Tibits is supposed to be Irish and, evidently, Ford works hard at the accent. But, when I saw him, he raced through too many lines with only about one-third of his dialogue becoming clear, even though the characterization seemed genuine. On the other hand, Autumn Ayers gave an exceptionally convincing performance as Willow transformed into Billy, tough on the outside, vulnerable and sorrowful on the inside. Matt McNear’s version of Stewart also remained totally believable and definitive. Alas, Laurie Klatscher didn’t get any of the potential comedy out of Myrtle often overplaying loudly. Too bad; there seem to be a lot of possibilities for the role to be funny, a good way to lighten parts of the play and create more variety.

This is not the first production. There was one in Bloomington, Indiana about three years ago and evidently Hartman has made several revisions since. This version certainly works well and commands attention. It could become especially effective if Ford and Klatscher get perceptive guidance from director Walsh.

Mad Honey continues at the Studio Theater, the Cathedral of Learning, Oakland, through July 17th. ProArts Tickets is the source : 412/394-3353 or Website:

Friday, June 25, 2010

Theatre review: "Killer Joe" from barebones productions. For broadcast 4th July 2010

Vivid violence, full frontal female and male nudity, constant profanity. Live. Not a movie. Thus comes the in-your-face reputation of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, his first produced play, from 1993. This is the guy who gave us Bug three years later and who was given a Pulitzer for his August: Osage County in 2007, the least aggressive of those three.

barebones productions puts this to us. Like any other of barebones’ shows you can expect exceptional acting, great directing and an impressive, realistic set. This item has the added attraction of local, famed rocker Joe Grushecky singing and guitaring intermittent bluesy items to add to the color. He sounds just fine.

This comes on the kicking heels of a bb production of Bug back in 2007 right upstairs of all the Forbes Ave. heavy traffic, youthful saunter and slouch of Pitt U-ville. And here again Letts hits on white trash. You may have read or heard about Letts’ aim to depict people struggling with moral and spiritual questions, saying he was inspired by the work of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. Right. Uh-huh. But both of those writers find compassion and tenderness among lost souls. Letts ain’t into that scene here.

Full-time loser Chris, his stepmother Sharla and his dad Ansel come up with a scheme to kill off Chris’ estranged and nasty mom so that his sister Dotty can collect on the life insurance and they can split the proceeds. To do that they hire detective Joe Cooper whose part-time job is contract killing. He lusts for innocent and temporarily virginal Dotty. You witness sleazy, greedy, nasty people scheme and stumble, turn slimy and vicious. I suppose, after the ultimately violent goings-on, feeling you have to justify your admiration for how well the whole thing comes off, you may wonder what’s the fucking point? How about the old playing- with- fire bit? That’ll work OK. But of course, none of us can identify with such Texas low-life as this. So consider yourself at some kind of zoo, circus, freak show.

Given those parameters, admire especially Point Park U Junior Hayley Nielsen’s perfect take on Dotty and Patrick Jordan’s approach to playing against the obvious darkness which inhabits Joe’s soul, subtly menacing, like a gun in the pocket rather than on the table. Lissa Brennan and John Gresh always look and sound right too as Sharla and Ansel but John Steffenauer’s take on Chris doesn’t have as much definition.

This has often been called a dark comedy. Surely it has the potential to be funnier than this, given that Chris, Dotty and Ansel don't have full houses upstairs. But it can work well without provoking laughs. And it does work. Who can tell for sure just why director Kim Martin decided to stay straight and narrow? Who cares? Clearly she got it all together, pacing-wise, truth-wise. And Randy Kovitz’ astonishing fight staging certainly adds to the reality.

This play has been praised all over world maps. Beats the hell out of me why. Sure, you can appreciate how much the performers make out of it with all that visceral action grabbing you. Too bad you can’t care about the characters. Too bad it says so little. Although not an action movie, it comes close, even as it comes so close that you can smell the sweat. Wipe the popcorn grease off your hands.

Killer Joe continues through July 10th at the New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East
1-888-71TICKET i.e 1-888-718 4253

Friday, June 11, 2010

Theatre Review: "Miss Saigon" from Pittsburgh CLO-Sunday 13th June 2010

Miss Saigon has returned to the Pittsburgh CLO stage. The cast sings with plenty of strength, even beauty…..when possible… and the orchestra, led by Tom Helm, plays superbly. What a shame that they do so in the service of so many shoddy songs. Yeah, I know. This audience-magnet has drawn in hordes since first hitting London in 1989, stunning Brits for 10 years with an equally running smash in New York starting in 1991. But people often want to be there for something famous just due to the fame, not the quality. Well, this could make them think it’s major, knocking them dead almost from the get go with heavy-handed songs.

Remember that this is another epic by the guys who already who created The Miserable Ones in 1980, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. Both shows come cast from the same mold: heavy drama, a large cast, an emphasis on special effects and, musically, pretentious attempts as something like opera but lacking imagination and originality.

You may have heard that Miss Saigon is based on Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. True. And Boublil and Schöenberg’s transformation has potential, updating it all to Saigon and nearby over a three-year period involving an American Marine, Chris, (the Pinkerton role) a Vietnamese bar girl Kim (i.e Butterfly) and mixed race wheeler-dealer The Engineer (marriage broker, Goro.) Plus it’s also got a cute little kid.

The action comes across looking dramatic and colorful. Director Barry Ivan and scenic designer Michael Anania make that work really well. The first act in particular stays dynamic and lively. Except….someone transposed the big physical moment from the first act to the second. The helicopter bit. So, audiences could feel that something crucial is missing, a famed highlight of Miss Saigon. Instead it turns up as an odd flashback in the second act. No harm done, really. Maybe it’s been relocated to make up for major absences in the second act: good songs.

This, remember, is a sung-through musical. Too bad that so little is spoken. Some recitatives could stand replacement. Nonetheless the first act has a few appealing songs. And, every so often, orchestrator William D. Brohn inserts good Asiatic color, even as did Puccini. But by the time that act ends, the singing has become standard, obvious selling in which feelings are expressed by being loud and holding lots of notes. Don’t blame the cast. This is their job.

As for that cast, as Kim, Ma-Anne Dionisio stands out with a wonderful voice, heard to best advantage early on before she has to do the pushy stuff. Kevin Gray plays The Engineer, a role which, by now, he sort of owns. The further into the show he got on opening night, the more his interpretation became overdone. Sure, everybody around him was singing their guts out, but he’s done the role often enough, he should have been able to hold his own and not be influenced by so much else going over the top.

Giacomo must be writhing in his coffin.

Miss Saigon continues through Sunday, June 20th at Benedum Center, downtown. Tickets at 412/456-6666 or the Box Office at Theater Square. Or

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Theatre Review: "Celebrity Autobiogrpahy" at City Theatre-Sunday 6th June 2010

Just opened at City Theatre is Celebrity Autobiography. This is a Pittsburgh version of an ongoing Off-Broadway hit. The hilarious experience here consists of many different, talented and versatile nationally and locally well-known performers interpreting parts of autobiographies written by …duh…. celebrities. If that sounds obvious, never let it be said that what’s read aloud sounds subtle, insightful and thought-provoking. Nor, evidently, is it intended to be funny, even if it comes across as a non-stop hoot. Rather the people who wrote this stuff take it seriously as they do the minutiae of their daily lives, their interactions with other famous people and their always remarkable belief that the ins and outs of their sexual connections come loaded with fascination. i.e This is for an adult audience.

At the opening yesterday the cast consisted of Pittsburgh’s Robin Abramson, Michael Fuller and Patrick Jordan plus visiting Annie Golden, John Marshall Jones, Lee Merriwether, plus two of the people behind the concept: Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel. Among the celebrities whose brainless candor assisted in their own sendups were Loni Anderson, David Cassidy, Kenny Loggins, Joan London, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Suzanne Summers, Ivana Trump, Vanna White and Tiger Woods, plus Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor cross-referencing each other. Appropriately, the intimate Lester Hamburg Studio Theater makes this thigh-slapper up close and personal. Tony Ferrieri’s design turns it into a kind of club, so there are tables and chairs to which drinks from the bar are permitted. This show will vary in whose actual words get used, from over 300 such books and the casts will also alternate during the open-ended run.

There is no break in this 90 minute laugh fest. So, if you want to go, go soon and go often.

Celebrity Autobiography is at City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side

Tickets at 412.431.CITY (2489) or

Theatre Review: "Art" at Pittsburgh Public Theater-Sunday 6th June 2010

Yasmina Reza’ s 1994 play Art has become known and admired world-wide. But it had never been presented before now by Pittsburgh Public Theater. As directed by Ted Pappas and played expertly, the script’s wit and fascination come across with vitality and style.

Pappas has found ways to create visual and verbal analogies to the art around which the play evolves. An abstract painting. He zips in and out of fragmented scenes, when the characters take only a few seconds to ruminate. This keeps the pace swift. Impressions of what’s happening then seem believably spontaneous. They also equal the characters’ uncontrolled, unpremeditated communications which prompt unforeseen reactions. Even as the fundamental three letter title of the play, Anne Mundell’s set echoes the seeming simplicity of the painting. It baldly frames the characters rather than diverting your attention to marginal details. Meanwhile Pappas and his cast make 90 minutes race ahead, as if nearly out of control, even as the men in the play lose control. And yet the painting’s elemental nature could suggest the artist’s unflinching control.

If you don’t know the play already, you need to know that it thrives on conversation. In Art long-time friends Marc and Serge are articulate, cultivated men. Serge reveals new- found delight in the costly painting. Marc calls the work crap. Not that word really. A different word is used, as are many other similar profanities when these men speak in anger. They clash not only about their differences of perception but also about their relationships…which start to unravel. They extrapolate about each other’s values and personalities, choosing their words not at all carefully. Their less intellectual friend Yvan is drawn into this semantic whirlpool against his will. Soon everything all three say and do spirals out of control.

In Thursday’s performance anger and emotion took hold more often that potentially argumentative reason, and after a while, it sounded too much like one-dimensional shouting, even if believable. Harry Bouvy stands out most as Yvan. In fact, you may remember another impressive performance by him. He had a leading role in The Clockmaker at City Theatre in February, likewise as a vulnerable innocent, the clockmaker himself. As for the rest of the cast, Darren Elliker always makes Serge genuine including showing his pride and joy in his acquisition and as Marc, Rob Breckenridge plays the man’s supercilious nature especially well.

I suppose you could ask if there is deep meaning and significant symbolism in the play. Given that the painting can be seen and interpreted from various angles, I’m certain that, if you want to ponder it, you can come up with something potentially profound. I haven’t yet. But I don’t feel that it’s necessary. With or without such analysis, it remains good, intelligent, lively theatre.

Art continues through June 27th at Pittsburgh Public Theater, on Penn Avenue, downtown. 412-316-1600