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