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

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