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