Monday, August 30, 2010

Theatre review: "The Phantom of the Opera" @ Benedum Center- 29th August 2010

What is called the “farewell tour” of the musical The Phantom of the Opera has taken over the stage of Benedum Center. The show itself has by no means died. It has been on Broadway since January 1988 and has been thriving even longer in London. The music is, as I’m sure you know, by Andrew Lloyd Webber who, when he created this, had already turned lead into gold with 10 creatures before such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Evita and Cats. Needless to say, even if there are those of us who are not stunned by his melodic inventions, millions of theatre-goers have remained impressed.

As for this enduring hit, I imagine that if you’ve ever been interested in witnessing it, you’ve already done so, given its long life. So the question before the house could be: how does this visiting production stack up with others?

I’ve seen this musical several times before and, have always been impressed with how it looks. The production values of this version live up to expectations. Harold Prince’s original inventive staging remains vivid, while the sets, the costumes and the effects look as if no expense has been spared. Which may justify paying, at the high end, about $90 per ticket. As for the singing, requiring opera-quality voices, everything comes across with strength and skill, and Trista Moldovan’s as Christine vocalizes superbly. As for the interpretation of characters, almost everyone does a serviceable job, although, opening night, I found Tim Martin Gleason as The Phantom overly histrionic, as if playing melodrama, while everyone else didn’t.

I noticed several things this time which I don’t remember noticing before, which have little to with this specific production. For one thing, since I find most of the songs musically empty, I was delighted to hear, as if for the first time, that Webber wrote a wonderful septet waltz for the first act called “Prima Donna.” This cast sings it expertly. I was struck, though, by the shallowness of the orchestrations, which, if better, could have made the music sound richer. I also didn’t remember the simple-mindedness of the lyrics which could have become more interesting if trying to replicate the ornate speech of the period in which the story is set. And, while observing Webber sounding as if imitating standard bits by Verdi, Rossini, Gilbert and Sullivan etc. I was surprised to discover that Webber ventured into an appropriate, slight use of dissonance in scenes from the opera which The Phantom has written. The characters still seem underdeveloped, while too much time gets devoted to long pastiche opera scenes which move the story nowhere. You might want to know why so much happens the way it does. Or you might not care. I’d forgotten how little time and speech is given to the most interesting character of all, the Phantom. But if interested, you could pursue these lines of inquiry on-line on your own.

These are some questions which lurk in the shadows: (1) How and why is The Phantom the way he is, deformed, a brilliant creator of illusions and a long-term resident of those lower floors? (2) How and why is Madame Giry a seemingly sympathetic liaison between The Phantom and the Opera staff? (3) Who gets hanged by The Phantom and why? (4) Is The Masquerade sequence from an opera?

I imagine The Phantom of the Opera will never die. And there will always be people who find it fascinating theatre, which seems right. Too bad it gets bogged down in so many empty, pushy songs. And it is a musical after all.

It continues at Benedum Center through September 19th. 412/456-4800
Or or

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Review: PICT's Pinter Festival-Sunday 15th August

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre offers a remarkable experience: six plays by Harold Pinter in what could be called repertory performances. That is, you have 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.

Moreover, this becomes even more remarkable because it offers the opportunity to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of Pinter’s writing and imagination in work spanning more than 40 years. Evidently some people believe that his work is characteristically confounding, negative and oblique i.e not entertaining and too challenging. Certainly five of the plays presented by PICT do not seem simple or straightforward. But collectively you’ll find a stimulating and diverse mixture of comedy, absurdity, passion, menacing situations and much ambiguity, sometimes much of that in even just one performance. Equally significant, you’ll hear extraordinarily expressive language. Certainly you’ll also notice that Pinter finds fun in Monty-Python-like rambling lists of things and names and observe that Pinter favors extended monologues for a number of the characters. All of that remains fascinating, even as you watch and wonder where or how a play will evolve and end.

You can read superb program notes about all this and more, delving into backgrounds, interpretations, and deeper meanings before or after you’ve gone through the irregular permutations which characterize Pinter’s work.

Of the two longest plays No Man’s Land from 1975 shimmers with brilliant language, personified and made magnificent by Canadian actor Rick McMillan as Spooner, self-described as a failed poet. Spooner has become the spontaneous house guest of Hirst, an alcoholic upper-class, previously successful writer. Present as well are two younger, seemingly dangerous bodyguards/servants. The older men reminisce about their falling-apart lives, perhaps even inventing details. McMillan’s performance remains compelling and brilliant throughout bringing out all the man’s comic loquaciousness, his pathos and his vulnerability. Sam Tsoutsouvas plays Hirst with dynamic passion.

The other long play is The Hothouse from 1958 which could be described as a blackly comic indictment of institutional bureaucracy. It is set in a place called a “rest home” or a "sanitorium” when, at Christmastime, a child is unexpectedly born and a mysterious death is revealed,both disturbing the disordered order of running the place. You’ll find more of an obvious story than in No Man’s Land with many pointed twists and turns. Larry John Myers stands out in the seven member cast playing Roote, the institution’s director. He expertly gets across the man’s contrasting, complex blend of funny befuddlement and nasty self-absorption. However I found it difficult to hear and understand some of what was said, sitting very far on house left, given both the accuracy of the English accents and the blocking which favored house front. If you have a chance, try to sit closer to the center.

The four shorter plays are presented as two pairs, The Dumb Waiter from 1959 with Betrayal from 1978, The Room from 1957 with Celebration written 43 years later. Of these certainly The Dumb Waiter and Betrayal are best known, having been also become films. In The Dumb Waiter two hit men wait for their intended victim in a dreary basement. In the Pittsburgh and Irish Classical Theatre production, directed by Martin Giles, the emphasis remains on absurd comedy which Michael Hanrahan and Jarrod DiGiorgi play with great timing.

Betrayal tells a rather straightforward story, although it moves back in time. It concerns a long-term adulterous relationship between Jerry and Emma. She’s married to Jerry’s best friend Robert who knows and does nothing about the affair. The play starts by being very funny about the awkwardness of two former lovers trying to be sociable. But it grows in clear-cut intensity. Each of the actors gives significant definition to the characters in this uneven triangle. David Whalen’s version of Jerry portrays perfect confused innocence. As Emma, Nike Doukas impressively personifies the woman’s passionate nature. And Leo Marks superbly conveys Robert’s smug, self-satisfaction in his own ability to control his emotions.

The Room seems most like the work of Samuel Beckett, to which Pinter’s is often compared. On the surface it remains quite a puzzle, starting by seeming realistic but then taking darker and darker turns. Bernadette Quigley creates a remarkably well-defined portrait in a pivotal role. If you’re engaged enough to want to decipher symbolic meanings, program notes will do that for you.

You couldn’t get a bigger contrast than to witness the companion play Celebration, a clearly understandable, laugh-filled send up of manners and pretentions. It’s set in a restaurant where two couples celebrate an anniversary and a third couple gets drawn into their raucous behavior while the staff goes off into its own goofy tangents about the past. Tami Dixon’s portrayal of a dippy blonde nails the whole thing to its sturdy floor

Even though these six plays are staged by five different directors, collectively they perfectly unite in getting their casts to make the characters seem human and genuine even if funny, complex, disturbing and threatening.

Pinter wrote 21 other plays than these. Don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre has stimulated your appetite to discover more of the Pinter’s astounding and varied artistry. A second such festival would be equally worth a visit.

All of the plays are presented in the coming week at the two theaters of the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland. Tickets and info at 412.394.3353 or

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Theatre Review: "The Student Prince" from Pittsburgh CLO

As its closing offer for this year’s season Pittsburgh CLO offers what is considered a tried and true chestnut: Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s operetta The Student Prince. This venture demands expert singing and good orchestral playing. From that standpoint, principal artists Ed Dixon, Chad Johnson and Jacquelynne Fontaine sound superb as do members of the chorus. And the Tom Helm-led musicians providing instrumental support add to the richness of Romberg’s wonderful music.

The antiquated story certainly looks mighty thin and director James Brennan along with scenic designer Robert Bingham have done nothing to make it look special or inventive. Moreover Brennan has turned in a dreadful job with the presumably comic elements. Most especially he allows wretched overplaying by Tim Hartman, a local actor whose embellishments in this and other shows suggest that he belongs in a circus instead of the theatre. Here he often bellows like an elephant instead of speaking like a human. I found his performance an insult to the audience.

Adding to that insult, the program book contains no biographical information about the creators of the source of the performance, the people who wrote this famed show, although Executive Producer Van Kaplan gets a full page. Despite the consistent professionalism of CLO, this oversight makes CLO look like one of our local non-professional theatres which show their ignorance by saying nothing about the originators of the material which is the basis for their productions. In fact, when asked why there was nothing about the playwright, one local producer told me that there wasn’t enough print space. And I still remember another one telling me that their audiences didn’t care about such things as a justification for not even including the names of Rodgers and Hammerstein on his posters for Oklahoma.

From Wikipedia you could learn that Sigmund Romberg was born Siegmund Rosenberg to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Around age 22 he moved to the United States from Vienna and became a cafĂ© pianist, founded an orchestra and wrote songs. In his late 20s he started writing music for Broadway shows and, in his early 30s, adapted music by Franz Schubert for a big hit, Blossom Time. Subsequently he wrote his best-known operettas, The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928), He also wrote Rosalie (1928) with George Gershwin. His later works, such as Up in Central Park (1945), are considered more like American musicals. Romberg also created a number of film scores and, in the late 1940s, when he was in his 60s, Columbia Records got him to conduct orchestral versions of his music. Those performances, available now on CD, are considered collectors’ items.

On-line info about less-known Dorothy Donnelly shows that she was born in 1880, seven years before Romberg, and was the daughter of the manager of New York's Grand Opera House. She began her career as an actress and was quite successful, appearing in plays by Yeats and Shaw. In 1916, pre-Romberg, she was co-librettist for a short-lived operetta called Flora Bella with music by Charles Cuvillier and Milton Schwarzwald and started working with Romberg in Blossom Time.

The plot for The Student Prince concerns a young man next in-line for the throne in the Kingdom of Karlsberg in “the late 1800s.” As a venture into independent adulthood, Prince Karl Franz becomes a student at nearby Heidelberg University, not in disguise, where he hangs out with presumably riotous classmates and falls in love with a barmaid, Kathie. But duty calls him home to be the monarch and to marry his long-betrothed cousin Princess Margaret. Credit Donnelly with making it clear that such duties are painful.

Chad Johnson acquits himself well in the somewhat stock role of the Prince, suggesting charming innocence. And Jacquelynne Fontaine shines both in singing and acting Kathie, doing so with total conviction and naturalness. As Dr. Engel, the Prince’s tutor, Ed Dixon sings magnificently. In addition to Hartman, nine other Pittsburghers are in the cast in a variety of roles, small and smaller. They include Paul Palmer, Gene A. Saraceni, Peter Matthew Smith and Myrna Paris.

Incidentally, there’s a photo in the program book from the 1954 movie version of The Student Prince. The caption says “starring Mario Lanza” which is correct, except that the picture is of Edmund Purdom in the role. He voice-synched the songs. Lanza didn’t actually appear on screen, although he pre-recorded the entire soundtrack. Various reasons have been given for the substitution, including that Lanza walked out after an argument with the film’s producer or the director. Other speculations refer to Lanza being too fat to fit the part.

In this cast most people fit their parts expertly.

The Student Prince continues through Sunday August 8th at 2 p.m. at Benedum Center, Downtown. 412-456-6666 or