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