Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Theatre Review: "Time of My Life" at Pittsburgh Public Theater-2nd May 2010

Alan Ayckbourn has become quite famous indeed for inventive and imaginative premises in his plays and for exploring the whoopsie-daisies between husbands and wives. He’s also known for writing a considerable amount of scripts, of which the 44th holds forth at Pittsburgh Public Theater. It’s Time of My Life from 1992. And, yes, this revolves around marriages. Starting from the present, one remains there, a second develops in the future and it looks as if past events were leading towards a third. The slightly unusual concept of bouncing time frames and the occasional, moderately amusing dialogue within them come well-served by seven polished actors from out of town, ably directed by a man with extensive Broadway credits.

It all takes place in one restaurant. Consequently much of what’s said is stated sitting down at tables, not the most dynamic choice for staging. But extra color is provided by having several waiters and the restaurant owner walk in and out and around. Plus the same actor serves those roles, a source of further entertainment.

Ayckbourn’s main characters don’t have much depth but they do seem believable and capably articulate. They don’t get involved in intelligent discussion, remaining primarily focused on themselves and their needs.

Laura’s 58th birthday is being celebrated by her husband Gerry and their two sons Glyn and Adam. Present too are Glyn’s wife Stephanie and Adam’s girlfriend Maureen. Soon we see how Glyn and Stephanie will interact at various times after the party. And we get to witness how Adam and Maureen began their relationship.

As Adam and Maureen, the most originally-conceived of the three couples, Jeffrey Withers and Sarah Manton make them distinctively appealing. Moreover Laurie Churba Kohn’s costumes for them look imaginatively clever and right.

The rest of the performers always remain convincing within the limitations of what Ayckbourn gave them. And director John Tillinger keeps it all lively, although, given the physical confines, he could have had them on their feet more often. The experience feels like a step back into time, to a time when Broadway shows didn’t have to be substantial or remarkably original and were, essentially, just good live theater.

Had this been locally cast, it could have offered something extra, a chance to connect to artists we already know and admire, to witness their versatility and watch them keep on developing their craft. I can think of several actors here who could have done as well. Maybe even better.

Time of My Life continues through May 16th at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: "Shooting Star" at City Theatre. 2 May 2010

“Guess it’s too late to say the things to you that you needed to hear me say. Saw a shooting star tonight slip away.” Bob Dylan wrote those words quoted in Steven Dietz’s program notes for a production of his play Shooting Star at City Theatre. And Dietz glowingly pursues such a trajectory about two people who went into different directions after shining years together as lovers. Meanwhile the heavens turn white with snow binding them into a new and ultimately revealing encounter.

With such elements and wonderful writing Dietz has created a marvelously funny, insightful, very human work, expanding on the universal nature of what can happen when such separate orbits coincide. Moreover he inventively incorporates meaningful recurring motives and trenchant symbols. These two people, Reed and Elena, revisit what they did and did not do in the 1970s in their youthful, idealistic, unconventional years, while midway in visits elsewhere, stranded in a corner of a shut-down airport.

Given when Reed and Elena hung together, Dietz finds legitimate humor in evoking the naïveté of the time. You know, man, the recognition bit. And, gradually, subtly, he moves on to getting more serious about these people’s sorrows and joys, their certainties and uncertainties, evoking sincere, touching moments. Yet unpredictable reality lies inside the walls and waits outside that waiting room.

Andrew May superbly gets across Reed’s many emotional shifts, unspoken undercurrents and thoughtful intelligence. And, as Elena, Pittsburgh’s Laurie Klatscher expertly conveys the woman’s still youthful innocence and tender vulnerability. Meanwhile director Tracy Brigden has moved them, stimulated them and prompted them to make this all genuine, even though Dietz breaks the fourth wall, having them talk up close and personally to the audience.

Tony Ferrieri’s convincing, deliberately dreary set excellently reminds us of such transient environments where we hide behind magazines, distract ourselves with electronic diversions and paper bag fast food, sometimes commiserating with people we don’t expect to ever see again. You know those generic places of arrivals and departures which we reluctantly accept, looking forward moving on to where we think things will be better, even when they turn out not to be as marvelous as we had hoped.

Laugh at our foibles and foolishness and attend the truth.

Shooting Star keeps on going through May 16th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side 412/ 431 CITY (2489).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review: "Beautiful Dreamers" from PICT & Opera Theater of Pittsburgh-Sunday 18th April 2010

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh are offering a world-premiering musical with its origins right here in this city. And it looks as if it has the potential to reach out beyond our three rivers and try for national fame and fortune. It’s called Beautiful Dreamers and it features music and words by Pittsburgh native son Stephen Foster with a script by well-known local actor Martin Giles.

Giles’ highly original concept is similar to what these days are called “juke-box musicals” in which a story is woven around very popular songs. In this case, though, he has come up with wonderful revelations by including as many unfamiliar ones as he has those which many of us know and love. Moreover, as a director, he has cast performers, nearly all of them local, with the singing talent which do those songs justice. Their performances come ably aided by music director Douglas Levine who has also provided fine multi-voice arrangements.

But, of course, any musical consists, just as much, of the script. And here Giles has created something full of lively invention and imagination, with solid dialogue and interesting plot developments. Most of it seems intelligently melodramatic, certainly appropriate to Foster’s own time, the mid 19th Century. However, what is said does not become florid or forced, even though much of the second act looks more show business formulaic rather than as fresh as the first act.

The sprawling story of Beautiful Dreamers also feels appropriate to the period, focusing on adventurous Americans discovering their still young country by traveling through it. They are naïve journalist Moses Walker, older widowed Susannah Milsap and one-time black slave Caleb Jefferson. They accidently meet and decide to journey west together. Along the way they encounter a colorful array of people, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson and Samuel Clemens, plus blindly faithful optimistic settlers, a Native American chief, and several dangerous and evil persons. Giles’ dialogue for these characters most often stays unpredictable rather than clichéd. Once in a while too he provides legitimate laughs.

Joel Ripka’s take on Moses remains full of sweet, genuine charm while Stephanie Riso’s version of Susannah comes across with believable simplicity, even if she doesn’t seem as distinctive as he does. As the black man, Caleb Jefferson, Kevin Brown sings with fine sturdy voice, but his acting remains one-dimensional, mostly loud. Four other people are in the cast, taking on multiple roles. They are Michael Fuller, Daniel Krell, Daina Michelle Griffith and Allison Moody. Every one of them consistently makes the most and best of every character. Note especially Krell’s fine subtle acting in serious scenes and Moody’s wonderful singing.

As a director, Martin Giles serves his own script well, keeping the action moving and interesting even though using a non-specific utilitarian set, made dramatically viable by having his stage crew come on and off in period costumes. And he has elicited performances which do justice to the best of what he wrote. Equally laudable he does justice to Stephen Foster, especially when you discover and admire songs you may not have heard before. And, as is usually true with any production by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, program notes provide fascinating and informative background. Although parts of this script could stand revision, especially in the second act, it has the potential to improve. And the concept and the production deserve to thrive and prosper.

Beautiful Dreamers produced by PICT and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh continues through May 1st at The Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland. 412/ 394 3353 or or www.opera

Friday, April 9, 2010

Theatre review: "August: Osage County" in the Broadway series @ Benedum-Sunday 11 May 2010

You don’t have much time remaining to witness a superbly acted and directed traveling version of Tracy Letts’ award- winning play August: Osage County. It won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Some of us feel that such awards don’t automatically mean masterpieces. However, in this case, the awards seem justified including one for director Anna D. Shapiro whose work is evident here.

Given that this is a drama, one with substantial content, it remains remarkable that it had a long run on Broadway, 18 months, at a time when most big hits are musicals. It becomes easy to see why this play attracts audiences. It contains many legitimate laughs but can’t really be called a comedy. At the same time, it deals with family dynamics, something familiar in real life as well as in movies and on TV. Moreover it remains original and unpredictable. You do need to know, just in case, that, like other plays by Tracy Letts, August Osage County is full of expletives. Unlike such plays as Bug or Killer Joe, there is no nudity. Moreover this does not concern equally violent people on the economic fringes of American society. These characters are prosperous and they are intelligent and articulate, even in anger.

In a large Oklahoma country home belonging to Violet Weston and her husband Beverly their extended family gathers in August for a funeral. It focuses on their three grown daughters, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae plus two husbands, one sister’s fiancé, one adult son and one teen daughter plus a Cheyenne native housekeeper. Over several days recriminations and revelations abound while past behaviors point to bleak futures amid such themes as alcoholism, drug abuse, aging, death, infidelity, incest, pedophilia and generational gaps. Among these characters, love, insight and the ability to adapt emerge as well. People, in other words, with depth. Credit Tracy Letts for writing this so well.

In this version of August: Osage County, credit too the actors and director for making it fascinating, colorful, compelling and convincing. And the humor comes from what people inadvertently say, rather than coming up with jokes. Given that there are 13 actors in the cast I’d prefer not to cite individually so may superb performances, especially since the actors are probably not known locally. Moreover this comes across most as an ensemble experience. And, although long-time star Estelle Parsons has a leading role, it never seems a vehicle for her. Like others on stage with her, she impeccably conveys the passions, moods, vulnerabilities and variety common to human beings much like ourselves. Opening night I did feel ,however, that Jon DeVries’ take on Beverly was out of step with the truthfulness of the other important characters, as if trying too hard.

One other thing. This is supposed to be taking place in a very hot time of year for Oklahoma. Such conditions would naturally heat of up tempers and cause other weaknesses to percolate. Yet I got no clear indication of that in the dialogue, the acting and the directing.

As on Broadway, where this light shone clearly amid the glitter of so many musicals, it’s great, in what’s called "The Broadway Series", to have such a drama, alive and well in this impressive production.

The final performance of August: Osage County is at 7 pm Sunday April 11th at Benedum Center. Tickets and info at 412/ 456-6666 or

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Theatre review: "The Wizard of Oz" in the Broadway Across America series-through April 4th

A national touring company has been following the dollar-paved road in what is called the Broadway Across America series. The show is The Wizard of Oz. Note, though, that this stage version of the classic movie has never been on Broadway. It doesn’t look as if it could, especially since the cast has no members of Actors Equity and the pit contains a non-union orchestra. The performing comes across serviceable at best and certainly doesn’t look like what most of us expect to be Broadway quality.

This has been billed as the Royal Shakespeare Company version. That turns out to mean that the script is an adaptation for that company by Englishman John Kane. Not of L. Frank Baum’s book but mainly a transcription of the dialogue from the 1939 film. The plot stays the same, of course, and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s songs get sung with adequate voices. Clearly, the whole thing looks and sounds like a deliberate attempt to replicate the movie, to imitate rather than innovate, albeit with a few routine dance numbers added.

If this is how it was conceived by director Nigel West, who has major credits, then he has done nothing original, clever or creative. And the cast fits right into that predictable mold, not one actor making any role distinctive. The major trick by the man playing the Wizard of Oz’s is to try to fool you into thinking he's channeled Frank Morgan instead of being a real person. The actress in Dorothy’s pigtails remains somewhere under the radar not doing a Judy G impression instead coming across as no one. The Scarecrow and The Tin Man, despite decent costumes and distinctive movements, fall into interchangeable personalities. The guy in the Cowardly Lion costume doesn't display the courage of his convictions when he speaks. And the woman taking on The Witch looks as if she’s flying through on her way to a better role which doesn’t require so much empty cackling. Meanwhile members of the traveling company do tiny voice shtick as Munchkins even though most are taller than the original cast, while local kids, at the right height and who have genuinely miniature voices, get no lines. And cute little Dusty or Loki, whichever wagged Toto on opening night… the program didn’t say…must have it his contract that he gets an off-stage break every five minutes.

As for special effects, indeed you’ll see a few cute ones, including frequent flyers, but Glinda the Good must have lost her ticket and missed getting on board her flat wooden bubble; most of the time she has to walk. This low-budget production equally often relies on film projections rather than actual scenic devices. The sets looks OK, except that Munchkinland resembles a department store’s idea of Santa territory and The Wizard’s allegedly terrifying roaring mask, which never opens its mouth, seems borrowed from a defunct shopping mall Polynesian restaurant.

There’s no place like home. That’s where you should stay and watch the DVD. At least, amid the live comfort of real loved ones, you can sing along and not have to shell out greenbacks for an empty shell.

This production of The Wizard of Oz is at Heinz Hall through 6:30 pm Sunday April 4th.
412-392-4900; online at