Thursday, December 29, 2011

Theatre review: "Memphis" through Sunday January 1st, 2012

A touring company version of the still running-strong Broadway hit Memphis has jumped into town for a few days landing at Heinz Hall in a dynamically sung, vigorously danced, snappy looking version. Joe DiPietro’s Tony Award winning book gives strong and significant substance to a story which actually most looks like a framework on which to hang a whole bunch of quasi-rock and roll songs.

That story, based on a true one, focuses on the emerging 1950s career of a Memphis, Tennessee white disc jockey and subsequent TV dance show host, here called Huey. He has an abiding love for and faith in black music of his day. He also falls in love with a black singer, Felicia, setting up antagonisms in both the white and black communities.

In Huey DiPietro has created an interesting, distinctive, unconventional character, more innocent than slick, sticking to who he wants to be and what he wants to do regardless of the consequences. In that way DiPietro’s book has a lot of intelligent integrity, neither whitewashing the negative nor coming up with feel- good resolutions. And, as Huey, Bryan Fenkart stands out with personality in fine voice.

Felicia Boswell in the role of Felicia also strongly lives up to the vocal demands as does Julie Johnson as Huey’s Mama. But neither performer conveys any special definition. In that regard they resemble the rest of the cast, remaining more generic than specific. Everyone sings with the kind of unceasing energy and volume that the big, down-front and center songs require. After a while, though, David Bryan’s music, patterned after the style and sound of the period, more and more resemble each other, even if his and DiPietro’s lyrics capably advance the story.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography has impressive energy, full of elemental vigor and some of David Gallo’s scene settings look imaginative.

You might think that this could equal last month's zinger Million Dollar Quartet. That came loaded with great, memorable, catchy songs. So, although this is set in the same city, listening to Memphis you may feel that you’ve wandered down a much less compelling street.

Memphis plays through 6:30 p.m. Sunday, New Year’s Day at Heinz Hall, downtown.
412/ 392-4900.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Theatre review: "The Mask of Moriarty" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre for Sunday, 11th December 2011

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre offers an amusing, splendid-looking entertainment for the holidays, Hugh Leonard’s 1986 send-up of tales of Sherlock Holmes The Mask of Moriarty. The director is Alan Stanford who originated the role of Dr. Watson those 25 years ago. The production looks as if he is trying to resurrect what it might have been back then, rather than create something fresh and vigorous. A heavy pace underlies Stanford’s take as does a lack of inventive style.

Leonard’s script is full of good, silly business and funny, sometimes Oscar-Wildish lines, along with imaginative situations. But, one must consider how best to deliver what’s there, since such a parody in and of itself is not rare; many writers and performers have tried this sort of thing. Actually, though, Leonard’s initial Holmes-Watson dialogue gets things off to a sluggish start with long, basically straight chatter.

Even though most of Stanford’s visual gags work well, he has David Whalen’s Holmes and Martin Giles’ Watson, as well as most other characters, played earnestly rather than comically or broadly. This looks as if Stanford thinks the lines and situations can carry it on their own. Or that the actors, left to their own devices, know what to do, which might explain why James Fitzgerald goes far overboard, milking two roles.

Leonard has created an original story wherein two people are murdered. And, at the same time, Holmes’ evil alter ego, Professor Moriarty, returns from presumed death to haunt Holmes, resurrected with a new face. In time, devilishly clever disguises are devised giving rise to mistaken identities. The rest of the plot is not a lot to be concerned with.

Among Stanford’s strange conceptions, he has the talented, versatile Edward Charles Huff initially, unjustifiably, play Moriarty resembling Frankenstein’s Monster, complete with guttural speech and stomping feet. Equally Stanford has Tony Bingham pointlessly revert to playing the wacky, bent and stumbling Mr. Herring after his real and normal underlying persona has been revealed.

On the plus side, Gianni Downs has created original and clever sets. But you can’t go home savoring the decorations. And speaking of going home, I attended the second post-opening performance in what started out as a nearly full house. But, after intermission, it was clear that some people had left. I imagine that what was happening up there on the stage wasn’t holding them. Alas, poor Sherlock. I knew him. A fellow of potentially infinite jest and most excellent fancy. Where are his jibes now?

The Mask Of Moriarty continues through December 17th in the Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. ProArtsTickets: 412/394.3353 or

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Theatre review: "The House of Yes" at Off the Wall Productions-Sunday, 4th December ,2011

Off The Wall Productions, adhering to the well-worn meaning of such a phrase, offers Wendy MacLeod’s much acclaimed , often-produced (even as a movie) The House of Yes. Evidently the 85 minute family drama, rummaging around in dysfunction, is often billed as a dark comedy and perceived as savagely satirical.

This performance, directed by Robyne Parrish, mostly seems to take itself literally and seriously, rather than as comedy, as if such absurdity could be real. That is, except for the opening which is executed, incongruously, as a stylized dance and chatter routine. I found the rest played believably but without enough interior personality to compensate for puppet-like characters.

At the Pascal home, Mom prepares to carve the Thanksgiving turkey, awaiting the return of her prodigal son Marty and not yet approved girlfriend Lesly. Marty’s twin sister, known as Jackie-O, is the fruit and nuts course. She has often fallen off the reality wagon and subsists on a diet of soap operas and channeling John F. Kennedy’s widow. While their younger brother Anthony seems to be stable, he hungers for Lesly’s thighs and breasts. Early on, we served up the info that Marty and Jackie have connected again post-umbillically and that she can’t wait for another helping. The most pungent ingredient is Jackie O’s fondness for re-creating Kennedy’s widow at the moment of assassination, complete with costume and brain-spattered bloody skirt.

The dialogue waltzes around these conditions, without much verbal originality. But, as far as other movement goes, director Parrish keeps the pace lively as if to make sure that what these people do and say becomes relentless rather than allowing pauses for reflection.

Lauren Michaels has the most challenging role, Jackie. Craziness is seldom easy to play and fortunately she never goes too far overboard, making Jackie seem hopelessly pathetic despite a constant grin. Justin Mohr’s Marty seems in no way a mirror image. And, although there are Marty’s own off-center moments, Mohr plays everything without specific definition. On the other hand, Erica Cuenca as Lesly, written as simple and not too bright, gives her neither quality and, instead, offers Cuenca’s standard, albeit appealing sweetness. John Steffenauer’s sincere interpretation of Anthony works but he makes the character not the least as comic as he could be. And Virginia Wall Gruenert rounds out the cast as Mrs. Pascal, subtly understating her as a hovering dark presence watching over her cuckoo nest.

I suspect that playwright MacLeod’s underpinning for the whole thing is the unending national obsession with the Kennedy assassination. Yes, it seems a theme worth exploring. Yes, you may be able to see what potential lurks within the concept, even if this take doesn’t get near enough.

The House of Yes remains through December 17th at Off the Wall Productions
147 N. Main Street, Washington PA 724/873 3576 or 412/394-3353.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Theatre review: "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" at Benedum Center

You might think that a show whose title and timing suggests commercial exploitation of this season would be standard and obvious. But, actually, the traveling version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, to lay out the whole cumbersome title, looks, sounds and feels like an absolute charmer.

I imagine the concept and the story have become well known by now, yet it’s fresh to me. So I can’t offer an opinion on how well it does with the original source, the book, the animated film nor the Jim Carrey movie. But with the wonderful Stefan Karl starring as the Mean One, this package comes loaded with delights, including, front and center, attractive, melodious songs by Timothy Mason, Mel Marvin, Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss himself. Moreover the clever Seuss-style costumes and sets by Robert Morgan and John Lee Beatty as well as Matt August’s snappy direction give the whole thing loads of style and personality. This is all augmented by special effects, puppets and jolly moments encouraging audience participation.

Karl’s playing of The Grinch explores a delightful range of implications, intonations and non- verbal sounds, making the creature sincerely, wildly distressed but not nasty enough to be despicable. The result comes across as something any adult will enjoy while any kid will find neither scary nor silly. Plus director August’s staging has funny little twists that reach across all age boundaries.

Seth Bazacas give the Grinch’s dog Max just the right sense of a happy, innocent companion while, on opening night, Bailey Ryon bubbled with professional aplomb as the inevitable little girl who could steal your heart. But she never overdid it. FYI: the role is double cast, Clara Young also has the role.

Interestingly, I learned from Wikipedia that some critics of Seuss’ book take issue with his criticizing the commercialization of Christmas. Most of us would applaud that. I do. Here such an observation is very brief. Quote: “Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe it means a little bit more.” Right on Doctor. Let’s cheer that and all the other things that make this a good, simple, sweet story well told.

The traveling version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical is at Benedum Center downtown through Sunday November 27th at 6: 30 p.m.
412-456-6666 or

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theatre review: "Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir" at City Theatre. For broadcast Sunday, 27th November 2011

Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir by Keith Bunin is world-premiering at City Theatre. It’s a fictional night club act dwelling on one man, Sam, a singer, who’s been struggling to have a New York career in 1958. While on-stage, detouring into drinking too much, he goes even further off –center and talks about his emotional ups and downs as a gay man at a time when coming out could risk lives and livelihoods.

20 songs, some of them pop standards, others from Broadway musicals, seem to be front and center. Bunin picked some really great ones as well as some fine others which are less known. Clearly he’s selected many to underscore the monologue. The end result looks like a musically decorated story which Bunin wanted to tell about being gay 11 years before, a few blocks away from the Bon Soir, the Stonewall Riots broke out. I’m not sure that this device works.

Certainly on the first Saturday night performance, I came away feeling sorry that whole thing didn’t work better. Luke McFarlane as Sam, having already given a late afternoon performance, didn’t sound up to the singing challenges. As everything progressed, his intonations too often went awry. His acting looked convincing though. But he didn’t get enough out of the meaning of many great lyrics; director Mark Rucker should work with him on that. McFarlane did come across, validly, first as Sam being a polished, slick performer. Later, as Sam begins to unravel, McFarlane also did well with that too.

The piece itself doesn’t hold up well if taken as being realistic, since Sam, once too much alcohol dissolves the intended act, starts doing unexpected things up there on the stage while the trio backing him always knows the songs, and is always able to play them without being coached or prompted.And, certainly Sam’s intended act did not include such items as “That’s Him” and “The Gentleman is a Dope” or other songs women usually sing about romances with men.

You could ponder the whole idea of a night club performer telling personal stories as far back as 1958. Not stand-up comedy based on their own personalities which some acts suggested (e.g Woody Allen). But rather, something serious, eventually personified by such people as Spalding Grey and John Leguizamo, taking up stages all by themselves. They’ve become famous for making their own stories unique and special with style and good writing. Sam, as written by Bunin, doesn’t have that much personality, being neither eloquent nor personally appealing. Is he supposed to be representative rather than specific?

Speaking of devices, at one point Sam brings out a cello and plays a little. But after that, he never goes back to it. Why not? McFarlane sounded good on the instrument. Credit too, Douglas Levine at the piano, suggesting an always agreeable, skillful part of the evolving act.

This new show itself is probably still evolving. And McFarlane, with good coaching and discipline, may be able to master his second Saturday performances.

I wish him and Bunin well.

Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir plays through December 18th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side. 412-431-4400 .

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Theatre review: "Red" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday 20th November 2011

Looking at the poster and the program book for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Red by John Logan, you might think it’s a holiday show. Maybe something about jolly Santa in his shiny suit sliding down an inevitably clean chimney loaded with gifts. That’s not in this package. This play says serious things, things to stimulate your thinking.

Actually you might respond to that often vibrant color in any number of ways, and many such meanings are splattered and strewn all over the floor and the walls hanging out with a somewhat fictionalized version of American modern painter Mark Rothko, dynamically portrayed by Jeff Still. Director Pamela Berlin has superbly paced, shaped and shaded this, vibrating within an impressively realistic setting devised by Michael Schweikardt.

Playwright Logan exceptionally articulates a pointed discourse about the nature of art and the nature of people who create it. The character of Rothko is the medium. But Rothko could be any self-obsessed artist working in any discipline in any time.

The discourse constantly provokes us to think about what goes into creating art and what comes out of how we perceive it. Because, as Logan points out via Rothko, the viewer, the hearer, the listener is a significant part of the equation.

So, as far as the play goes, on your side of the equation, you could find the many philosophical strokes and swipes, the esoteric ruminations, the polemical round-about, too much talk and too little action. Or you could, like me, remain fascinated and engaged.

The play doesn’t really establish emotional connections, although there is a second fictional character, essentially a Rothko sounding board, for all of the 100 minutes, a young assistant named Ken. In Ken, Logan sketches a person who moves away from being a mere recipient of Rothko’s often agitated pronouncements and becomes an intense inquisitor, goading and provoking Rothko about his faith in himself and in his own significance. The intensity of the talk and of the spiky arguments vibrate and seethe with ideas, even as we get some exposure to what kind of a person Rothko must have been.

Jack Cutmore Scott makes the most and best of Ken, a humanly vulnerable, nearly believable portrait despite interpreting a character who’s essentially a dramatic device.

The dimensions of this play frame eternal questions about our relationship to art and artists, and you may come away, as I did, with fresh perceptions about the many ideas laid out. And, should that be so, consider how well playwright Logan, with his art, has created something worth your time and attention.

Red continues through December 11 at Pittsburgh Public Theater, downtown on Penn Avenue. For tickets and info: 412/316.1600 or

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Theatre review: "Illyria" at Point Park Conservatory-Sunday 13th November 2011

Once again, students of Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company, singing superbly, do wonderful things with a musical. This time it’s Illyria, Peter Mills and Cara Reichel’s take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Company director Scott Wise has come up with a great look to the production giving it lots of style, personified in Michael Montgomery’s Maxfield Parrish-like costumes. And choreographer Jeremy Czarniak has added some very clever steps and effects.

Mills wrote the music and lyrics devising attractive melodies and, occasionally, quite clever lyrics. Despite having written them seven years ago, his songs have the sound and feel of traditional ones at the heartbeat of musical theater rather than aiming for something more contemporary. Particularly fun: note Feste yodeling Malvolio’s name.

The Shakespeare story and conception remain intact but only a few of his words are used. Although the plot and characters have become very well-known and you could have seen a great production of the play by Quantum Theatre a little over three months ago, here are reminders: Duke Orsino has a crush on Countess Olivia and engages a young woman named Viola, recently arrived on the shores of Illyria and disguised as her brother Sebastian, to court Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino and Olivia falls in love with disguised Viola. Add to this, three memorable members of Olivia’s court: her uncle Sir Toby Belch, her haughty, self-impressed steward Malvolio and her sometimes wise jester Feste. Plus she has a new suitor, foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Mills and Reichel’s script does a fresh take on Feste, making the jester actually jest, being more of a wise guy than a wise person. And L. Fox plays the role with smart personality, also singing with class. Paul Koudouris exceptionally stands out personifying Malvolio with edgy panache, never pushing it too far. On the other hand, as Sir Andrew, Connor Russell flutters and flits so often that, at on opening night, I expected him to sprout wings and fly up into those of the theatre. Plus Jaron Frand’s performance of the real Sebastian has convincing charm with his attractive singing adding to the production’s consistently appealing sound, as does the impressive voice of Jaclyn McSpadden’s Olivia.

Shakespeare’s original script opens with these words: “If music be the food of love, play on…” Although the rest of that speech suggests that Orsino is unhappy, happily this version of the story could make you love its sound, its look and its feel.

Illyria plays on through Sunday November 20th at Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Rauh Theater, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-392-8000 or

Incidentally, the Conservatory also has performances of Shakespeare’s play itself December 9th through 18th

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Theatre review: "Sweeney Todd" at University of Pittsburgh. Sunday 6th November 2011

It’s taken me some time to realize that what’s called the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre has actually, thoroughly become a training program for the University’s Theatre Arts students. Not so long ago excellent, professionally experienced actors on the faculty performed often and well enough to give some sense of an actual repertory company creating quality of potential widespread audience appeal. Clearly those days are gone. Gone too from the faculty are such talents as Elena Alexandratos, Doug Mertz and Sam Turich.

The present staff has now taken on a major project which certainly is good experience for students. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd features a wealth of magnificent music and exceptional lyrics by Sondheim set into Wheeler’s sordid melodrama like jewels scattered on dirty pavements. Making the best of this complex work, with its great songs, its dark story and its almost stock characters has always been a major challenge for even the best professional performers. Plus the score calls for a really good orchestra.

Sondheim’s melodies and intricate words don’t make things easy and, as the performance wore on during the first of the two Saturday evening productions, the singing and the orchestra’s playing continued to deteriorate while everybody did their best they could. The University Symphony Orchestra and the cast are led by music director Roger Zahab. He’s on the Pitt faculty.

Three other faculty members with professional experience interpret significant roles. One of them sings quite well, Richard Teaster as Sweeney. His acting comes across as serviceable as does that of Theo Allyn as Mrs. Lovett and Andy Narraj as Judge Turpin. The student acting looks competent as guided by director, the Theatre Arts Department’s Lisa Jackson-Schebetta who has come up with much that seems more utilitarian than insightful.

Family and friends of everyone involved in the production certainly remained a game and friendly audience. As for others, those unfamiliar with the show can get some idea of what it is supposed to be and get a glimmer of the songs’ inherent richness.

FYI: CMU students will try it themselves early next year. It will be interesting to see how they fare.

Sweeney Todd continues through November 13th at Charity Randall Theatre in The Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412-624-PLAY i.e :412 624- 7529 or

Friday, November 4, 2011

Theatre review: "Million Dollar Quartet" tour at The Benedum-Sunday 6th November 2011

There was a time when southern white guys were learning to perform rhythm and blues, harking to black singers, soul singers, and down home back country guitarists. And out of those fundamental sources, those white guys began making names for themselves bringing forth music and words that sounded like the sources even if it was their own new stuff. And, lord a mighty, out of those roots, rock and roll was born, surging forth, stirring crowds, bringing many of those newcomers fame and fortune.

In the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, some of them, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, surge forth again, not as wax replicas in a museum, not as plastic, deliberate impersonations, but as soulful, gutsy, down-home, full-blown talents, romping through 23 great songs that they made famous or that made them famous themselves. They do so in a version of that show that has hit the road and planted its feet for just a few days here at The Benedum. That trip is worth the trip.

Rock and roll history is full of milestones. In 1956 the roots had firmly planted, even if some people in the music business never thought that that new thing would survive or wanted to trim it or turn it into topiary. And, in 1956, those four stars, almost by accident, collectively moseyed on in to the small Memphis recording studio that gave birth to their careers. Sun Records. The one-time gathering was real. It became history.

That event has been re-imagined and evoked by writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux in Million Dollar Quartet. It’s fundamentally a showcase for a mighty fine bunch of songs although Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, personified by Christopher Ryan Grant, narrates background while telling his own part of the story. Most of the dialogue sounds fundamental, the acting of it sounding capable enough. But note: unlike so many other shows of the day, this one has no profanity, no nudity. You might think these rock stars were as innocent as the days they were born.

Those good old songs catchily, compellingly grab you, hold you, warm you, thanks to the talents on stage. Listen to Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins play the heck of that guitar. Watch Martin Kaye as sassy upcomer Jerry Lee Lewis delightfully pound and sound every note from every angle of the piano while his stomping feet nearly put holes into the floor. Hear Derek Keeling resonantly probe the down-to-earth lower notes as Johnny Cash. Watch Cody Slaughter make young Elvis a sincere, gentle soul who just happens to have knees that can’t help rocking and legs that can’t help stomping. And Chuck Zayas’ bass sturdily underpins the propulsion.

Great balls of fire, there’s a whole lot of great shaking going on.

Million Dollar Quartet is at Benedum Center through 6:30 pm Sunday November 6th. In the PNC Broadway Across America-Pittsburgh series : (412) 456-6666 or

Monday, October 24, 2011

Theatre review: "Time Stands Still" @ City Theatre. Sunday 23rd October 2011

City Theatre has started its new season with a remarkably well-written, well-developed thoroughly thought-provoking play. It’s Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends seen here in 2002 produced by Pittsburgh Public Theater. Both, intensely focused on just a few people, offer well-developed characters whose intelligent, articulate, natural dialogue goes beneath the surface, deep into what they feel. The totally convincing acting by the City Theatre cast and Tracey Brigden’s insightful direction make this throb on many intense levels, provoking you during the performance and after to ponder where it has all gone and why.

The primary focus is on a journalist-couple, Sarah, a photographer and James, a reporter. Both have looked closely into the bloody, shattered faces of war. And, at the core of their existence, lies the question of how, being so close to death, they can live with what they’ve seen and try to live with each other with their shared, haunted memories. They also share their feelings and thoughts with close friend and editor Richard and with Mandy, Richard’s much younger, less sophisticated girlfriend.

The relationship between Sarah and James evolves before your eyes while Mandy’s personality develops in new, surprising ways. Margulies writes far more than essential dialogue; the character development continually engages you, wondering what these people might do or say next and where they will go inside the play’s frame or outside in the rest of the world. Moreover, beneath what is seen and said, other lines of story-telling remain implied in just a few words, background you will not learn and need not learn but which fills in even more these thoroughly-developed portraits.

Time Stands Still goes into how such people as Sarah and James can deal with the horrible trauma they’ve witnessed and how they try to objectify the effect. That colors their lives not only away from the war zones but how they relate to life in their different other real world. In this respect Margulies perceptively has them rarely touch or never actually use the word “love," as if being too committed to anything emotional could shatter their well-constructed armor against what they have witnessed in other parts of the world gone mad.

Director Brigden subtly and meaningfully stages Sarah’s and James’ movements to underscore their fragmented connections. Don’t look for that or think about it. Let it stand there while, more important, you become engaged with the truthful passion and vulnerable reasonableness of Andrew May’s portrayal of James. Or watch the many levels of meaning in Angela Reed’s version of Sarah, getting you to know and feel how much goes on inside her which she need not say to make genuine.

Add to this Robin Abramson’s always believable, sweet take on Mandy, at first comic but later even more endearing. Tim McGeever’s Richard perfectly rounds out the ensemble.

Time Stands Still never stands still but moves in many directions, all of them masterful, all of them worth your time inside the theater and later outside while you ponder what Margulies tells us about real people.

It continues through November 6th at City Theatre 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side 412/ 431-4400

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Theatre review: "Electra" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday, 9th October 2011

Electra. She strides the stage. She commands your attention. Every word she says, every gesture she makes exudes passion. She’s played at Pittsburgh Public Theater by Catherine Eaton. But she does not stand alone. She is surrounded by a vibrant cast full of equal urgency, equal energy, equal depth. Ted Pappas has placed them there. Ted Pappas has them move with primal meaning, speaking forcefully, clearly, definitively in this powerful version of the Sophocles play. Frank McGuiness adapted it, tightening it into an intense microcosm, whose energy burns up not so many minutes as you’d think, watching the inexorable hands of the clock. But within that flame, within that frame, everything happens that needs to happen.

The timeless Greek tragedy seethes with meaning while evoking the ritual that gave it birth. Pappas’ staging makes it so.

Electra vows revenge on her mother Clytemnestra and on her step-father Aegisthus. They murdered Electra’s father Agamemnon. But Electra has no power in that man’s world and yearns for her brother Orestes to return and kill them. More than that you need not know now. All will be revealed under the intense lights of the stage.

The dialogue, spoken forcefully, tells it all. This cast knows how to speak the speeches. Pappas knows how to bring that out. Pappas knows how to move these people in James Noone’s starkly evocative setting. Zach Moore’s choices of music and sound underscore it all with equal fervor.

Lisa Harrow surges forth but for a few intense minutes, her Clytemnestra clearly a woman who can kill, clearly a woman who knows what she is doing. No weakness shows. She could stand toe to toe with this daughter.

But when Orestes returns Clytemnestra is no match. When Orestes returns Electra knows the joy of anticipation even if he wavers for a time. Michael Simpson perfectly makes clear those shadows of doubt. And when the brother and sister re-unite their love lights up the darkness.

Witness too Edward James Hyland’s compelling, dynamic version of Orestes’ servant.

Meanwhile, in the center, Eaton glows with fire.

Electra. The classic lives.

It continues through October 30th at Pittsburgh Public Theater. 412/316-1600 or

Friday, October 14, 2011

Theatre review: "The End of the Affair" from Quantum Theatre-Sunday 16th October 2011

Graham Greene’s novel,The End of the Affair, a somewhat personal exploration of romantic liasons in London during World War II, has been admired so much that it has been transformed into two films and an opera. Quantum Theatre’s Karla Boos has turned it into a play and it is currently world-premiering.

The underlying story seems simple enough. Writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, the wife of civil servant Henry Miles, fall in love and struggle to sort out their lives together and separately, ruminating on their feelings. With Bendrix frequently narrating, Boos encapsulates the story with just three actors in 90 minutes. One can appreciate such modest dimensions given the elemental premise. But her script lacks an essential: clarifying the various years in which things take place. They do not occur sequentially and time is frequently crossed. The program book also does not specify. Director Martin Giles could have helped audiences in that regard. He also failed to provide such essential information when staging Quantum’s production of When The Rain Stops Falling.

His excellent cast convincingly delivers all of the speeches in a sturdy pace and in intelligible accents, while, occasionally, a few vivid displays of feeling emerge. In what most looks like a case-study of emotionally constrained English people amid the dreariness of their time and place, who can readily identify with them or care about them? Not I, for one.

These aliens, conversing in civilized ways in language much like our own, dressed in drab clothes, regularly got soaked in dirty rain and ate ugly food. Certainly they also heroically endured the ravages of incessant deadly bombings and must be admired and respected for their resilience. But this play only deals with that part of their lives once. Death and destruction regularly rained from the skies tearing apart their beloved city. Yet Maurice and Sarah initially don’t even discuss it as a moderate inconvenience, until he is injured and feared dead. Which is the crux of how the affair ends. You’d think such constant danger would have intensified their initial need for love and tenderness, yet that significant, meaningful theme remains undeveloped.

Maurice, whose self-reflections become the dominant element of this version of The End of the Affair, often speaks of passion, of love and hate as if from the outside, describing feelings as abstractions, rather than being moved by them. Sarah also discourses objectively about her own behavior. Both occasionally get emotional but, more often, in their self-analyzing ways, remain as remote as their period and their culture.

Tony Bingham’s performance as Maurice reminds me of Dana Andrews uni-dimensional leading man roles in 1940s movies. A handsome face delivering lines capably but with nothing much behind them. A shadow in a world of black and white. Bingham, often a colorful actor, here sounds as if attempting to be so English that his own personality has been submerged in the gloom. Gayle Pazerski’s take on Sarah just as much lacks specific personality, despite obvious physical fragility. Neither comes across enough as special or distinct, as if Giles worked hard to make them authentic instead of having them get inside themselves and inside deeper feelings. And yet, James Fitzgerald, as the husband Henry, succeeds in the deliberately right look of a genuinely boring person, whose insecurities make him real and sad.

Giles or Karla Boos in her script call for total frontal nudity several times. You can certainly see that it makes the lovers seem vulnerable and human. Moreover Giles insightfully has them, in their oh-so-English way, carefully undress in an orderly manner never uncontrollably leaping onto the bed and onto each other. These surfaces work well as do the intentionally shabby details of Tony Ferrieri’s sets.

The performances, appropriately, take place in drab surroundings, within a back room of the former Emma Kaufmann Clinic of Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill. The address is 3028 Brereton Street. But you could find yourself confused since that address is the closed front of the building and the performances are at the back, one block away on one-lane Phalen Street on which there is no parking. You may need extra time to get oriented and to walk the distance. Directions are at Quantum’s website:

Performances of The End of the Affair continue through October 30th. Tickets are at Showclix: 1-888-71 TICKETS of 1-888-718 4253.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Theatre review: "Shaken and Stirred" at Off the Wall Productions-Sunday 9th October 2011

I’ve no doubt that you will be stirred by the performances and by the stories of Shaken and Stirred, written by Virginia Wall Gruenert and produced by her own company Washington PA’s Off the Wall Productions.

As the title certainly suggests, this has to do with drinking. Serious drinking. Alcoholism, in fact. That’s hardly a rare subject for drama, being depicted in many famous movies, but less often dealt with on stage. It is a theme clearly running through stage works, such as many Irish plays or the work of Irish-American Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill in particular explored the effect of drunkenness on families. Wall-Gruenert’s play also deals with families but goes in many meaningful, insightful and unpredictable directions, effortlessly blending interconnected themes in ways neither polemic nor melodramatic. The result left a deep, thoughtful, strong impression long after I’d departed the theater, especially since I have just been watching Ken Burns’ TV series about Prohibition.

Likewise leaving a strong impression: the phenomenal acting of Erica Cuenca and Karen Baum. These two have become regulars at Off the Wall and director Robyne Parrish could not have made a better choice than to cast them in the two principal roles. Cuenca’s natural, truthful playing comes suffused with internal beauty which makes her every moment on stage alive with meaning, from portraying a pre-teen to a maturing college girl. Watching her, for example, at one end of a phone conversation would be instructive for any actor. And Baum gives an amazingly disturbing, convincingly sorrowful performance evolving into another kind of sweet beauty.

Shaken and Stirred essentially probes the lives of two young women, Harley played by Baum and Happy, interpreted by Cuenca. Harley, raped in her teens, has become a stumbling, wanton bar girl and unwed mother, yearning as much for the daughter taken away from her as for any kind of bottle with which to nurse her addiction. By contrast, Happy has intelligent, perceptive control of her life, despite a father so perpetually drunk as to be mentally and emotionally absent even while at home.

Wall-Gruenert’s one-act 75 minute play also dwells on a woman named Roz, swiftly but thoroughly drawn, and whose life outside the bottle is as unpredictable and original as other developments in the script. Wall-Gruenert plays that role herself with the same kind of unforced truthfulness that director Parrish has capably evoked from the other women.

Oddly, though, there is one scene which goes into an incongruous non-realistic fantasy, a quiz show called “Name That Belief System,” which sidetracks the otherwise believable essence of the play. Continuing to ponder it, I still don’t get the point. Deleting it certainly would make the play about 10 minutes shorter, but since the rest never drags and always remains engaging, the question of minutes seems irrelevant; you won’t think about how long or how short this is, but rather about how much it says in whatever time it takes.

FYI: speaking of time, you may find, as I did, that driving from Pittsburgh to Washington, PA along Interstate 79 will not move swiftly. Construction projects narrowed a long stretch into one lane for several miles. I found the trip worth it.

Shaken and Stirred continues through October 22nd at Off The Wall Productions 147 N.Main Street, Washington, PA Tickets through at 12/ 394-3353 or at; phone: 724/873-3576

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Theatre review: "Lost Boy in Whole Foods" at Point Park Rep Sunday 2nd October 2011

Pittsburgh’s Tammy Ryan has come up with another highly original, provocative and evocative play and The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse makes it vividly alive thanks to director Sheila McKenna and a cast full of talent. The title is Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods which may sound as if suggesting something jocular or whimsical. But actually this is deeply serious and straightforward, far less quirky than A Confluence of Dreaming which The Rep staged in June of last year, that play full of symbolisms but deep with meaning. This 2010 work seems most to be storytelling but, within it, significant themes come forward.

Ryan here says much about a subject most of us have only slight knowledge, Sudan’s second civil war which preceded the genocide in Darfur. But this is not really a history lesson because the widespread brutality, deaths, terror-stricken migrations and escapes to refugee camps have gone on over and over in many parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world. Moreover, although Pittsburgh is the setting for the play, this too could take place elsewhere. Thus, fundamentally, Ryan deals with the vast divide between our own affluent culture and the struggle to survive in far-away third world societies. But Ryan does not lay a guilt trip on us, more into revelations than accusations. Less obvious, beneath the surface, she deals with the communality of family ties and with senses of self. She has created fine, thorough character development along with sincere and natural dialogue which speaks eloquently but directly. The result becomes a remarkable experience, given that she has gone deep into portraying the beliefs and rituals of a culture alien to average Americans.

Well-off single mother Christine encounters a young man named Gabriel working at Whole Foods. He is a refugee from Sudan and has found church and government- sponsored asylum in the U.S. She is drawn to him by his vulnerable charm and seeming joy in life, despite the hardships he has endured. She takes him into her home to share it with her rebellious, spoiled daughter Alexandria. Also in the story is Gabriel’s seemingly menacing older Sudanese tribal companion Panther. Christine wants to do all she can to help and support Gabriel. Eventually, Alexandria does too.

With Lost Boy in Whole Foods you can read internal meanings about the contrasts between Christine’s home life with Alexandria and the home life Gabriel had to flee. But Ryan does not seem to be a polemicist. She also gets engaged in telling us of the intricacies of practical complications behind making compassion turn into meaningful action and of the unpredictability of human nature which is neither black nor white. We witness the strong feelings of the characters, but from outside. Although intellectually understanding these people and what they represent, I didn’t find myself emotionally connected.

I was continually impressed with the sincere, totally believable and natural acting of the cast and how McKenna got it all to look effortless with pacing that never seemed forced or rushed or overly pointed. Everyone makes the dialogue totally real.

Laurie Klatscher gives a fine portrayal of Christine making her innocent and warm. Point Park junior David Anthony Berry’s Gabriel stays constantly appealing and truthful and his darker moments become equally genuine. I did find it hard to understand many words he said, given his convincing Sudanese accent which, nonetheless, did not detract from understanding the character. Point Park faculty member Ben Blazer also contributes solid substance to the role of Michael Dolan, an ex- Catholic Charities staff member involved in aiding Gabriel and Panther.

Steve Shapiro’s sound design stays compelling, at times intensely tribal, but appropriately becoming more American black contemporary to dovetail with looming events within the story.

Ryan and The Rep have much to tell us and they tell us extraordinarily well.

Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods continues through Sunday, Oct. 16 at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse Studio Theater. 412/ 392-8000 or

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Theatre review: "Race" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.Sunday 11th September 2011

David Mamet’s exercise in black and white, called Race, surges with all kinds of color and intensity as produced by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Given that it’s only been around for two years it seems a little early to call it a classic. But, in Mamet’s comments about it, reprinted in the excellent program book, he does call attention to the essence of classic tragedies as if some kind of inspiration.

This cast, superbly paced by director Andrew Paul, dynamically makes clear the broad, shimmering palette of Mamet’s provocative ideas.

I call it an exercise in black and white not just because, obviously, it deals with race, but with the questionable absolutes of truth and justice and, in this case, one major part of the American way. Mamet’s recurring theme concerns guilt and shame. I won’t go into what he means or why; that and much more of what he has to say become the fascinating reason for being there.

This revolves around a wealthy white man, Charles Stickland, who is accused of raping a black woman. Strickland comes to Jack Lawson and Henry Brown’s law firm hoping to have them defend him. As the play spirals and twists back and forth, Lawson, who is white and Brown, who is black, at first debate whether or not they should take the case. They also have the assistance and input of recently hired Susan. She’s black. As the play progresses her relationship with Lawson also emerges.

Fundamentally this 90 minute version of Mamet’s Race, evidently tightened compared to the two acts on Broadway, vibrates with conceptions and pre-conceptions rather than with definitions of characters. Strickland, the accused rapist, is the only person clearly defined beyond the confines of the sweaty but spartan office walls. Michael Fuller’s convincing performance makes him look vulnerable and innocent, but lacks the shadings which would seem to go with such a man of privilege and affluence. Meanwhile as the lawyers, John DeMita’s Lawson seethes with the appropriate fervor of a man with a passion for verbal combat while Alan Bomar Jones’ take on Henry Brown comes across with sturdy humor and winning personality. Caisha Felt plays Susan totally right, as a woman with attitude.

You may find some analogy here with the more recent Dominic Strauss- Kahn case, especially since part of the developments concern questionable testimony by an immigrant chamber maid. But the play was written before that case surfaced.

This reminder, should you need it, as usual, Mamet’s language is peppered with expletives. But they and all the other words serve a more intense purpose: to get us to ponder those thorny aspects of our society which still color our perceptions and our behavior concerning race.

Race continues through October 1st in the Henry Heymann Theatre in Oakland’s Stephen Foster Memorial. Tickets and info at ProArtsTickets at 412/394 -3353 or

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Theatre review: "Wicked" at Benedum Center, Sunday, 11th September, 2011

Once again, a traveling version of Wicked has landed in Pittsburgh. You can bet that seats will be packed throughout its flight, even though this hit has been running for nearly eight years on Broadway. Surely people are drawn to it more than once, like re-visiting a beloved movie. In this case, as you probably know, this musical is a spin-off of a movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Not L. Frank Baum’s book really, but rather the enduring, classic 1939 film derived from it. And, although Wicked is said to be based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of that name, the sung and danced version of it is only a shadow of its source. In fact it looks as if Winnie Holtzman’s book tries to exploit familiarity by constantly throwing in references to the movie as do some of director Joe Mantello’s effects. Nonetheless both keep the frequently comic spirit alive during the first parts.

Some of Maguire’s most original ideas clearly come through, derived from his back-story about the Wicked Witch of the West, whom Maguire named Elphaba. And when you get to witness that imaginatively conceived story, swiftly sketched-in to make room for so many peripheral songs and production numbers, you get glimpses of satirical edges about animal rights, racism and fascism. Thus, this take on what Maguire created remains interesting and colorful amid the unrelenting sparkle and flash of making everything look dynamic.

But Steven Schwartz’s generally utilitarian, uninteresting and predictable music, spiced up with a few clever lyrics, take up too much time and space. This could have made such an interesting play. Would people buy tickets for such as that? Probably. But if you want to mount a theatrical spectacle aiming for really big bucks you have to have songs.

Anyway, this production of Wicked looks great with cleverly-styled costumes and sets to suggest another off-center time and place, decorated with some very good special effects. And everyone sings with style and verve, meaning, in this case, the leads belting out their numbers in the predictable stand-and-deliver, crowd-provoking style so common to recent musicals, short on meaningful melody, long on volume. Anne Brummel does everything right as Elphaba and Natalie Daradich plays all of Glinda’s bubble-headedness with good, big comic touches. On the other hand, they don’t really evoke much specific and interesting character. I also don’t find Don Amendola’s version of the Wizard to have any interesting qualities, as if he’s walking through the part. Come to think of it, most of the performances of other specific roles, although polished, came across as likewise generic.

I was surprised too by a very chintzy effect towards the end when Dorothy, an incidental character, is portrayed in a slapped-together shadow show throwing an empty bucket of water on Elphaba. With all the money this show costs to mount, you’d think that the producers could have had some member of the chorus do this on the stage front with real water.

But my throwing cold water on this production probably doesn’t matter to anyone interested in the show. And it does have such an imaginative premise. So, even if this performance seems to be taking itself for granted, it still looks and sounds good.

Wicked is at Benedum Center through October 2nd in the PNC Broadway Across America-Pittsburgh series : 412/-471-1390 or

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Theatre review: "The Merry Wives of Windsor" from Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks-Sunday 4th September

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks offers a lively take on the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. The cast kept it amazingly energetic despite the intense heat and a few heavy -looking costumes at the Saturday afternoon opening in Frick Park. Director Tommy Costello has had his actors project everything clearly while getting the basic sense of most of the lines. Sometimes, though, they milked the words instead of allowing them to flow naturally plus a few mugged too often as if in some kind of 19th century vaudeville show instead of in an actual play. While no one came across with an interesting and specific characterization, everyone made clear the elements of the story in broad, comic spirit.

Aging, overweight, self-important Falstaff is very short on money and decides that he will court two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Meanwhile three different men are trying to win the hand of Page's daughter. The husbands learn of Falstaff’s plan and the wives agree to have fun with Falstaff by making him more of a fool than he is already.

You could learn more about the plot; Alan Irvine gives a verbal synopsis before each performance plus the program book gives all the details.

Costello has cast Joanna Getting as Falstaff and her performance stays loud and boisterous rather than specific, the most vaudevillian of all, nearly a clown act. Among the more interesting choices Jorgè Azcàrate triples in three roles which he gives clear and separate definition. And as another two characters, Adam Huff makes them nearly credible. Several other women also play men’s roles without going overboard to mimic masculinity. Characteristic of semi or non professional actors, child-like, many threw away important words at the ends of sentences, as if periods require downward inflections.

Cellist Rachel Smith adds musical color, which, unfortunately, at times competes with dialogue delivered a few feet away from her.

Costello has everyone walking through and sometime directly playing to the randomly seated audience, a friendly way to make the experience as down to earth as the story.

This reminder: you choose your own seating, meaning you might want to bring a folding chair or at least a blanket for sitting on the grass.

The free performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor are all at 2pm. The next are September 10th and 11th at West Park at Allegheny Commons, on West North Ave & Brighton Road, on the North Side

Those September 17th and 18th are in Arsenal Park , 39th and Butler St , Lawrenceville

And September 24th and 25th they return to Frick Park at Beechwood Blvd. and Nicholson St in Squirrel Hill.

Info at

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Theatre review: "The Importance of Being Earnest" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre-Sunday 7th August 2011

I’ve never had as much fun and found so much delight in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as I had experiencing director Conall Morrison’s version produced by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. And I’ve seen it many times before.

Morrison originally created this for Dublin, Ireland’s Abbey Theatre where actor Alan Stanford has performed the same role he interprets here. Adding to the special nature of the offering, the remarkable set also has been brought across the Atlantic.

It works so well because Morrison has found ways to make the Pittsburgh cast get the most out of its comic possibilities, full of constant vitality and broad playing rather than the more usual English restraint most people expect. Morrison has also inserted a multitude of hilarious bits of business and reactions. And it sounds as if Morrison found ways to get his actors to overcome the sonic limitations of the Charity Randall Theatre, an accomplishment in itself.

As you may have heard, this production has an all-male cast. Yet this does not camp it up nor do anything to point up that you are watching men in those roles. This is no send-up. The men in those roles make the women truly funny women.

Visiting actors Will Reynolds and Matthew Cleaver portray the two young ladies Gwendolen, with whom Jack is totally smitten, and Cecily with whom Algernon is wildly, passionately, devotedly in love. Reynolds’ Gwendolen gets just right the mirror image of her mother, Lady Bracknell, even up to towering over the men in unassailable stature and command. And Cleaver’s take on Cecily has all the dopey innocence you could wish for. Both men create marvelous portraits.

Astonishingly memorable David Whalen plays Jack gloriously full throttle, romping through every moment, playing it all to a fare thee well. As Algernon, Leo Marks brings out a lot of the smart aleck side, more restrained than Whalen but a good contrast.

In a smaller role, Martin Giles’ take on the servant Merriman serves up its own laughs.

Mr. Stanford has the inevitably plum role of Lady Bracknell which he never pushes or overdoes. He makes the zingy lines zing, his timing and inflections perfect.

Stanford also appears as Oscar Wilde in what, as you may have heard, is director Morrison’s own material to frame the whole thing in which Wilde is seen in the final downward days of his life, when his memory seems to call forth the play. Although Stanford’s performance as Wilde has sad verisimilitude, that part of this production doesn’t work. It even gets egregious when we see Wilde heading upstairs with a bare-chested young man. The add-on seems superfluous and even diminishes the effect of Earnest’s jolly conclusion when we once again see lonely, solitary, abandoned Wilde in a bar. I imagine Morrison wants to show a contrast between the broad hilarity of the play and the sad reality of Wilde’s last days. Program notes make that completely clear for anyone who doesn’t know the facts already.

Nonetheless, this element does not take away from the rest of this otherwise thoroughly entertaining, fresh approach. Seeing what can be done with what is considered a classic makes it even clearer that Wilde did indeed create a joyful treasure.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues through August 27th a The Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. Tickets at ProArtsTickets: 412/ 394-3353 or

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Theatre review: "Jesus Christ Superstar" from Pittsburgh CLO-Sunday 7th August 2011

Many people attest that Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1971 Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is some kind of a classic. I do not share such belief, but, as far as I can tell, Pittsburgh CLO’s resurrection sounds and looks faithful to the original conception. I’ve seen it only once before, in Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Ken Gargaro’s 2006 goofy take, which had almost as many laughs as Mel Brooks’ version of The Last Supper. I thought then, and continue to think, that’s it’s a bizarre. mixed-up piece of theatre. But who’s to thrice deny that producers can count on faithful followers, suffering little children and their parents to come unto them, laying out riches to witness the rite?

Certainly director Charles Repole has made tellingly graphic, disturbing and moving the final cruelties to Christ. And the large cast comes across with solid portrayals, singing and dancing in this nearly sung-through product with Doug Kreeger’s take on Jesus both sympathetic and believable. Josh Tower’s Judas, though, throughout seems an empty shell. FYI: many local performers are in the ensemble,

Verily, lest ye not know already, this deals with one week in which the Gospels tell of events leading to the Crucifixion. The book, evidently by Rice, albeit not credited, gives equal weight to the eventually equally dead- by- suspension Judas, suggesting that he too is tragic. That’s probably the most original take on the story. But there’s also the image of Christ as human rather than God-like while Pilate’s scenes make him look weak and indecisive and Herod is presented as a buffoon. There are other elements with original perspectives. So, this is no ritual telling of the story.

Musically Webber mostly favors generic rock but also gets into a couple of other styles, including music hall and something symphonic, none of it particularly interesting. Rice’s lyrics, meanwhile sound pretty obvious, sometimes so patent that they become funny. As for the overall style, howling and wailing is standard delivery. Hardly subtle.

I found quite dopey the title song delivered as if a rock act with microphones and elaborately coiffed back-up singers. Huh?

As for the title, I understand that this is sometimes staged in contemporary clothing with Christ depicted as a hippie. Here the cast wears a mixture of styles. A harmless way to make a point about universality.

The whole thing could have been much more inventive. Spinning off of “superstar” which suggests a performing icon of the genre, all that Webber and Rice have done is feature rock songs. But this could have been about Christ as a traveling rock star whose gigs consist of him preaching in song, with backstage stories dealing with how he relates to his retinue and groupies. And as for Christ’s betrayal and eventual eclipse, that could have been done by making the villains record producers with the Crucifixion symbolic rather than realistic, or have someone sabotage his sound setup to electrocute him.

But then Rice and Webber didn’t ask me what I thought. And, if you already find this show a masterpiece, you’d not care what I think either. All kinds of people come up with all kinds of interpretations of this story. Jesus Christ! Why not?

Jesus Christ Superstar continues through August 14th at Benedum Center, Downtown. Tickets at 412/456-6666 or

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Theatre review: "The Mistakes Madeline Made" from No Name Players. Sunday 31st July 2011

I have no idea about what playwright Elizabeth Meriwether is trying to tell us in her short play The Mistakes Madeline Made and no idea why No Name Players decided to invest time and talent to it. The only thing that becomes clear is that director Marci Woodruff and her cast perform this possibly deliberately absurd material with realistic sincerity and skill, even if I’m not sure if that’s the best or only choice. Certainly the set has a lot of substance.

Characteristically, as with so many semi-professional groups, nothing in the program says anything about the most essential person of this play, the writer. But I learned from Wikipedia that Meriwether wrote this in 2006 along with Heddatron and Oliver Parker! in 2010 as well as the screenplay for this year’s romantic comedy film No Strings Attached and has been grouped with "The Fempire" a group of female screenwriters.

The focus is on Edna, who hates her job as part of the home office staff of very wealthy family. Wilson is on the staff and, seemingly a mental case, delights in creating sound effects and incessantly babbling. Edna continually drops off into her past as a college student when her visiting brother Buddy, a war correspondent, spent much time in an empty bathtub. Since his death,Edna hasn’t bathed and gravitates to sex with writers. Also seemingly central is an obsession with Handi Wipes.

As for the title, it too seems more obscure than meaningful. It’s a reference to a short passage read aloud from a book by Dr. Joyce Brothers. I guess overall that Meriwether is trying to say something about contemporary women. And, I’m sure that, if you want to spend time and energy attending this and pondering it subsequently you might discover more merit in the experience than I did.

The Mistakes Madeline Made is at the Studio Theater in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh through August 13th. Tickets at : ShowClix 1-888-71-TICKETS which is the same as 1 -888-718-4253. Info:

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Theatre Review: "Twelfth Night" from Quantum Theatre. Sunday 31st July 2011

Quantum Theatre’s Karla Boos has come up with a delightfully charming version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Her excellent directorial concept with a nearly perfect cast carrying it out, renew the life in this thoroughly familiar comedy. Boos and her actors do not radically transform the characters or the story but make it all live again, enriching the spirit of fun without pushing or overdoing it. Here, the emphasis is on people taking themselves too seriously, never knowing that they are foolish, becoming unwittingly comic.

To make sure you remember the play, the best known people in it are Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek whose ludicrous qualities along with their names have become indelible. In the center of the plot are the highly earnest Olivia and Orsino. Orsino believes because he is so passionate about Olivia that she’s obliged to love him. She, forswearing the company of men, swiftly finds her resolve crumbling encountering a boy sent to woo her on Orsino’s behalf. That boy is really a girl, wandering and homeless Viola whose twin brother Sebastian eventually arrives. Malvolio, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are in Olivia’s circle as is Feste, most often defined a clown, although not in this instance.

Boos always keeps the touch light and the pacing lively. And Robin Abramson’s Viola brims with winning personality, most of it while Voila has assumed the guise of a boy which she never forces. Abramson makes it all truthful, simple and gentle. No wonder Olivia falls in love. Meanwhile Robin Walsh expertly makes believable Olivia’s constant disarray. I don’t think, though, that Mark Staley found the subtle comic possibilities in Orsino. John Gresh turns the perpetually soused, perpetually playful Sir Toby into a jolly delight and Tony Bingham finds clever comic possibilities in Sebastian. As Malvolio, Gregory Lehane does something quite unexpected, an excellent choice. Malvolio is often played as initially laughable, but Lehane makes him totally serious, a good counterpoint to all that happening around him where seemingly respectable people don’t know that they are fools. On the other hand, the actual fool character, Feste, is often played as wise and reasonable. A good contrast. But, in this case, young, marginally experienced Justin DeWolf does nothing at all with that role.

Boos has made a few strange choices in costuming and staging, albeit peripheral. Most of the cast comes generically attired, suggesting no period. Several people wear visible, tight black corsets, I suppose to suggest characters seeking to control themselves. On the other hand Sir Andrew’s clothes look incongruously near Elizabethan. Plus, to symbolize money, “purses” in the script, she has everyone passing along credit cards. Odd. And she needlessly uses door buzzers to summon people who could just as easily be called directly. Maybe there are symbolisms which I missed.

As is often true in a Quantum production, the setting adds a further dimension. In this case Boos borrows an abandoned building along functioning railroad tracks beneath the South Millvale Avenue Bridge, a courtyard of the former West Penn Hospital Foundation Research Facility. With seats arranged on platforms facing the courtyard it becomes a fine amphitheatre. Crickets chirp, birds twitter and, once in a while, a train chugs nearby, all making no special point but adding to the appeal.

Everything feels so fresh. And, as the moon rises above the trees, so will your spirits lift.

Twelfth Night continues through August 21st at The West Penn Hospital Foundation Research Facility, 720 Gross Street, Bloomfield
Tickets through ShowClix 1-888-71-TICKETS i.e. 1-888 718 4253 or at

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Theatre review: "The Sound of Music" from Pittsburgh CLO for Sunday 24th July 2011

Pittsburgh CLO offers a superbly sung, good looking and convincing production of The Sound of Music Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration. Although you may think you know this classic, the songs, the story, you could be surprised by its virtues. And this performance, directed by James Brennan, honors the concept, never pushing the sentimentality nor overdoing the more obvious elements.

The story is a sketchy re-working of a true one. Maria Rainer, at first a postulant at an abbey near Salzburg, Austria, becomes a governess for the seven children of widowed Captain Georg von Trapp, a celebrated navel hero of World War I. While at first very severe, he loses some of his edge when the children’s virtues become more apparent under Maria’s guidance, He plans to marry a Viennese woman, Elsa Schraeder, more to provide stability to his family than out of love. But, in fact he and Maria fall in love and marry. Meanwhile The Captain opposes the takeover of Austria by the Third Reich, Eventually the family finds a way to escape.

Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse’s book has some excellent elements, for example implying that the Captain’s initial edginess may be due to having lost his wife. Moreover they have given the Mother Abbess human wisdom and have evoked dark drama in the threats of Nazism.

The musical begins with sounds of wonderful simplicity, lovely a cappella singing by the nuns, followed by swift sung depictions of Maria’s basic character. The story moves along quite well for a while before detouring into some attractive but gratuitous songs. By now those songs have become so familiar that they are easy to appreciate even if superfluous.

Rodgers created lovely and charming melodies while Hammerstein regularly came up with good meaningful lyrics. “My Favorite Things,” I find one of their best. Also in this production “Climb Every Mountain” becomes really moving, due to compelling singing by Lisa Howard as the Mother Abbess. Note especially, too, the song “Edelweiss” as if the elemental beauty of the mountain flower has symbolic meaning.

Howard’s performance is among many which have integrity without being overdone including Robert Cuccioli’s interpretation of the Captain. He finds multiple dimensions and when he finally smiles, his genuine warmth lights up the stage. Jennifer Hope Wills’s Maria doesn’t have equal depth; she seems charmingly innocent at first but doesn’t emerge with any more character. However, she sings beautifully, flawlessly.

The children are all played by local performers. North Hills High School grad Kirsten Hoover as the oldest daughter Liesl comes across with as much polish and personality as any of the professionals. And, as you would expect, the youngest child, seven year old Madeline Dick steals the show just by being adorably tiny and a performer as skilled as anyone else on stage.

The cast includes Pittsburgh’s Terry Wickline, Gene Saraceni and Joe Jackson in minor supporting roles plus other local well-knowns Maria Becoates-Bey, Michael Campayno and Christine Laitta in the ensemble.

Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lindsay and Crouse created something quite good, even if sometimes formulaic. Pittsburgh CLO makes the best of it work on every level.

The Sound of Music continues through July 31st at Benedum Center, downtown.
412/456-6666 or

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theatre review: "Comic Potential" at Little Lake Theatre -Sunday 10th July 2011

Given that Alan Ayckbourn has written 74 full-length plays, it stands to reason that his work has gone in many directions in the 52 years since his first was produced. He’s become best-known for comic theatrical tricks and gimmicks and for often focusing on dysfunctional marriages, as in 1999’s House and Garden currently visited by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. But, at Little Lake Theatre, you’ll experience something quite different, from the year before, a really very good, well-directed version of the play called Comic Potential, with performances equal to the professionalism of PICT.

This work has no special devices and not many deliberately comic lines and situations. Rather Ayckbourn thoroughly explores the potential for satire and philosophical themes, using what could be called science fiction, often a vehicle for comment on contemporary life. Also, he briefly, successfully mimics situation comedies and takes a few convincing turns toward melodrama.

Set in what Ayckbourn calls “the foreseeable future” he also says that that is “when everything has changed except human nature.” Here he follows along the possible permutation of what could develop and what could be inferred if modern science were to develop “actoids,” androids specifically designed to be actors in low-budget soap operas. Already you can see how such a concept can poke fingers at generic actors and generic programs, and at bottom-line producers who are indifferent to talent.

Idealistic young writer Adam Trainsmith visits a set where Chandler Tate, a former director of classic comedies, makes a living directing such soap operas. But some actoids start malfunctioning. One of them, a female, JC-F31-333, unpredictably starts laughing.

Adam, calling her “Jacie,” sees in her the potential for creating a new script evoking long-gone classic comedies. He also finds himself falling in love and they run away together. Here we could see a parallel to the idea of The Stepford Wives, Jacie programmed to be anything anybody else wants her to be. Also being sent-up are such ideas as people trying to contain and control human emotions. But I leave it to you to discover the many other themes Ayckbourn wonderfully satirizes and develops.

This production of Comic Potential features two exceptionally talented actors, Kate Neubert-Lechner as Jacie and Jason Dille as Adam. She, always able to suggest someone not completely human, still finds the many possible dimensions within that role. Dille has a charming sense of youthful vitality along with a great loose-limbed way of moving suggesting Dick Van Dyke. When both of them get into a dance routine, they are a delight to watch together. Neubert-Lechner, by the way, choreographed that.

In multiple supporting roles John McGovern, Bill Bennett and Charles Grant Carey also contribute to the polish and substance of this production. Given that this is an Ayckbourn script, director Sunny Disney Fitchett seems to have required English accents. She needn’t have done so; nothing in the story or its developments need accents, and, unfortunately, a couple of other supporting cast members sometimes make their words unintelligible. Disney Fitchett does do very well keeping the pace lively and the acting convincing. However, on the second night of the production, Dale Irvin’s playing of Chandler often seemed to be floundering for his lines, leaving clumsy, empty verbal spaces. The role could be played in several inventive ways, none of which he’d found yet. But, given that the character is more marginal than central to the story and to Ayckbourn’s many clever ideas, this in no way diminishes neither the admirable accomplishments of the playwright nor those of most of the cast and the company.

Comic Potential continues through July 23rd at Little Lake Theatre Company-500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg. 724/745-6300

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Theatre review: "House" of "House and Garden" at PICT. Not yet broadcast.

Were you to visit people for the first time, initially you’d be most likely to get to know them where they live, not on the way in through the garden. As for Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden, going inside looks like the best way to orient yourself. As you can see from my review of Garden(below),it may have been difficult for Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre audience members on its opening night to easily grasp relationships. So, despite advance publicity claiming that you can start with either play, begin with House. Relationships are the core of the whole thing, clearly revealed in House, which can stand alone, rather than only as part of something divided. Meaning that this feels like one play separated into two unequal parts, Garden a supplement. House could be less decorated and Garden could be pruned.

Ayckbourn certainly wrote interesting, imaginative, clever and sometimes amusing scenes, but the combination looks as if he didn’t want to try to fit everything into a longer- than- usual script. Collectively, the total equals more than five hours of material worth about three and half.

House has substance, good exposition, perceptive and inventive parallels in personalities and developments as well as truly funny moments. And the performances in this basically serious material seem more solid and admirable than those fleetingly seen in Garden.

Here Teddy Platt explores the potential of standing for Parliament and cannot understand nor deal with his wife Trish’s acting as if he doesn’t exist. Their daughter Sally is making an effort to mature beyond her 17 years, including making a pass at Gavin Ryng-Mayne, a successful novelist with government connections; he could help Teddy become an MP. Meanwhile Jake Mace tries his earnest utmost to get closer to Sally. This part of the story also makes clear the long-time close friendship of Teddy and Giles, Jake’s father and the husband of Joanna whom Teddy has been screwing. And Teddy more clearly looks like a buffoon.

The most intentionally comic aspect is Trish’s constantly treating Teddy as if he were invisible, which actually suggests that she’s nearly as dotty as Joanna. It becomes most comic when a roomful of people ignore him, hilariously talking French to visiting movie star Lucille Cadeau, leaving Teddy on the damp other side of the English Channel.

Yet, for too long, the first act consists of long, setting-up serious but unsubstantial talk where very little actually happens. The second, more meaningful act moves better, and includes telling, insightful dialogue from Trish, Gavin and Jake.

David Bryan Jackson, whose performance as Giles is one of the highlights of Garden again brightens up the stage every moment he’s on it. Sean Mellott’s Jake perfectly comes across full of teen-age excess, quite a contrast to Anwen Darcy’s Sally, who, at times, seems much too old to be so young. The suave Gavin is played by Leo Marks, who gives a model performance of subtlety; his reactions say as much as do his words. Meanwhile Martin Giles and Helena Ruoti as Teddy and Trish do everything right and Nike Doukas makes Lucille a genuinely charming delight.

Knowing Ayckbourn’s much-publicized device behind all this can make you admire what he tries to do. That by itself can become fascinating, making you aware of Ayckbourn’s cleverness. Certainly getting to know what’s behind the intricate workings can be entertaining. In fact that may even compensate for what’s missing as the hands of the clock keeping ticking away. i.e You can have a good time, even getting a few things to think about in this occasionally meaningful entertainment. The intricacies within House move well, with such memorable performances and solid direction by Andrew S. Paul.

House continues at the Charity Randall Theatre and Garden at the Henry Heymann simultaneously through July 17th at the Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue in Oakland. Tickets at ProArtsTickets at 412/394.3353 or online at More info at

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Theatre review: "Garden" of "House and Garden" presented by PICT. Sunday 26th June 2011

England’s Alan Ayckbourn has become admired and renowned for writing clever, amusing plays using inventive, original concepts often dealing with marriages in trouble. One of those is House and Garden which occurs simultaneously in two places, hence, in effect, depicting separate moments with the same characters, events which relate to each other but cannot be seen together. These two experiences opened together but physically apart presented by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.

I’ve only seen Garden so far. But with so many interesting, incompletely understood developments taking place, inevitably, like most people, I look forward to experiencing the rest, intrigued and curious. Good trick A.A. Get em asking for more.

The question is, though, can either play stand alone? At first, I wasn’t sure about Garden.The first act looks like fragments rather than something going somewhere specific. But ultimately a lot comes together with some good character development and truly funny situations. Plus the fine PICT cast plays both the subtleties and the comedy exceptionally well, guided expertly by director Melissa Hill Grande. Hence, although, some pieces are missing, intentionally, Garden grows on one.

It helps to prepare yourself about the characters and how they relate. At opening night I saw people in the audience examining program books during the performance. My guess is that they were trying to sort out everyone on stage. Well, there are four couples, (1) Teddy and Trish Platt plus their daughter Sally (2) Giles and Joanna Mace plus their son Jake (3) Warn Coucher married to Izzie Truce who has a 30 year old daughter Pearl and (4) childless Barry and Lindy Love. This takes place during May at the Platt’s country estate to which there are also three visitors Gavin Ryng-Mayne, Lucille Cadeau and Fran Briggs. Notice the names: some seem rather patent, like something out of Restoration comedy. Maybe intentionally, come to think of it, given that those classics also dealt with morals among the upper classes.

The fulcrum of Garden concerns Teddy’s breaking off his extra-marital affair with Joanna. When Joanna’s husband, innocent Giles, learns of the liaison he has serious trouble dealing with it. That brings him closer to his son Jake who has a crush on Teddy and Trish’s daughter Sally. Meanwhile, Barry and Lindy set up a garden party during which their relationship gets clearly revealed. Along the way, Teddy gets briefly, sensuously involved with visiting movie star Lucille Cadeau, even though neither speaks the other’s language. i.e. A lot of this is about developments and characters rather than just a playful romp through flowering, deliberately funny lines. Among the best parts is a scene between the bereft Giles and his son Jake where each unburdens his insecurities and doubts, making it clear how much alike they are. David Bryan Jackson becomes a marvel to watch as Giles in a standout performance at every turn.

As the self-involved Barry Love, Michael Fuller gives a superb,subtle performance in which he and director Grande have chosen not to show him deliberately and harshly pushy, but rather as if Barry is unaware of his effect on his wife Lindy. As for other portrayals I found Beth Hylton’s take as the newly- jilted Joanna, too much over the top on opening night.

The cast includes Pittsburgh’s Helena Routi, seen only briefly in Garden, Martin Giles as Teddy, Tressa Glover as Lindy Love and Mary Rawson as the housekeeper Izzie. Plus there’s a wonderful bunch of little local kids romping through and about.

Other visiting artists include the excellent Nike Doukas as Lucille and Leo Marks as Gavin. Both of them often appear in PICT productions.

You may want to know that several varieties of English accents are used and that Lucille speaks only French which is almost never translated. Nonetheless, everything that is happening and why is it happening remains completely clear. Considering how well this is all done, I recommend you drop in. I think you’ll look forward to the entire visit, even if it takes you more time, cumulatively, than it takes the actors to do the whole thing.

House continues at the Charity Randall Theatre and Garden at the Henry Heymann simultaneously through July 17th at the Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue in Oakland. Tickets at ProArtsTickets at 412/394.3353 or online at More info at

Theatre review: "Into the Woods" from Carnivale Theatrics-Sunday, 26th June 2011

There’s a new, wonderful sounding, great-looking production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods briefly offered by the still- new local theatre company Carnivale Theatrics which, in 2009, started producing one show per year. This proves that young founders Justin Fortunato and Robert Neumeyer know how to do what they’re doing. They’ve assembled a cast of superb singers, most of whom are still students at Point Park U. That connection, by the way, assures much singing talent; Point Park Conservatory musicals always sound first class. In addition, a 13 piece orchestra led by Neumeyer plays expertly. Plus there’s a great set by inevitably inventive Tony Ferrieri and Rich Preffer created fine costumes.

But don’t forget the choice of material. Into the Woods clearly remains a marvelous show with Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeous,bright,imaginative music coupled with his consistently significant and clever lyrics. All of that thrives appealingly and charmingly.

Just in case you’ve forgotten, James Lapine created a script about story-book legends combining many of them in one place. A community. Pointedly. Familiar tales come into play. They include those about Cinderella, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel. There’s also witch and a giant as well as the more generic Baker and his Wife. All of them connect. Lapine and Sondheim also infer well-known psychological interpretations of symbolisms during a mostly amusing, somewhat satirical first act. In the second act, Lapine and Sondheim get into the darker parts of the woods and developments, offering further, more deliberately substantial insights. Together what they created ,and how well they’ve done it, has its own rewards and, of course, as in many fairy tales, offers morals to ponder.

I was particularly impressed by Jaclyn McSpadden’s sweet, innocent version of Cinderella, often played as more goofy than this, but working equally well. And, as the story progresses, Andrea Weinzierl’s performance as the Baker’s Wife keeps on, amusingly, getting better and better. Playing the Witch, Caroline Nicolian comes across with appealing elegance after being transformed out of her rags, grungy hair and crooked nose. Each of them and many other people in the cast do extremely well getting the most out of the lyrics. Credit director Fortunato for making sure that that happens

On opening night a few members of the cast went a little overboard trying to be funny or dramatic. And, unfortunately, some dialogue thudded to halts when the performers didn’t pick up their cues, leaving clumps of silence between lines where vigorous pace is needed. Director Fortunato needs to work on that. He did come up with a few clever physical bits; but some others clunked like rusty armor.

So, despite this being a production by a fledgling company featuring performers still studying and learning their craft, this keeps the justly famed musical’s best qualities alive happily ever after.

Carnivale Theatrics production of Into the Woods continues through July 3rd at New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square, North Side. 412/320 4810

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theatre review: "The Book of Liz" from No Name Players. Sunday 19th June 2011

David Sedaris has developed a considerable following for writing and reading his own wry, quirky, off-center observations about seemingly ordinary connections and events in his own life. And his sister Amy has made a name for herself as a performer. Together they’ve written several short plays bound to attract attention given their names and reputations. Included is The Book of Liz which premiered off-Broadway in 2001 to good reviews and which is now being performed in Pittsburgh by No Name Players.

I found the play, clearly resembling David’s perspective and choice of material, quite juvenile. Several performers do as well as can be expected with the script and with director Don DiGiulio’s idea of how to direct it. That’s not a criticism of his direction; there may be a way to improve on the material, but not easily.

You could see the title as a reference to the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth which concerns that woman’s wanderings around the Holy Land in that Sister Elizabeth Donderstock wanders away from a tightly-knit, Amish-like religious community. However there is no attempt to replicate scriptural language or style, which could have been quite clever, but might have meant the Sedaris would have had to work hard, instead of seeming to have dashed this off over Eight O’Clock coffee and Dunkin’ doughnuts.

A major source of income for the group is handmade cheese balls which are sold to outsiders. Pristine hands of course. Perhaps. Somewhat unconventional Liz makes them. When she is replaced by Brother Brightbee at the insistence of patriarch Reverend Tollhouse, she goes out into the world, stands in for a Mr. Peanut life-size puppet, hangs out with a Ukrainian refugee couple and then gets a job at a Pilgrim-themed restaurant staffed by recovering alcoholics. She also frets about sweating too much. Meanwhile Liz never loses her innocence, despite working with gay flamers and ex-drunks and hearing profanity everywhere she turns. She never seems to notice. Or comment.

Note the names of characters including Sister Constance Butterworth. Such imagination!

This kind of stuff could be the basis for something wild but it looks pretty tame to me, especially decorated with lame lines rather than wit. It’s as if the Sedaris s felt observing or replicating such rather marginal situations are inherently funny.

DiGiuglio has everyone but Gayle Pazerski as Elizabeth playing the whole thing broadly. Pazerski does very well keeping the performance straight and simple. But shouldn’t she be funny somehow and fit into the style? Meanwhile Jody O’Donnell gives very able character performances in several roles. On the other hand, Kelly Marie McKenna amateurishly shouts rather than projects many of her lines.

Considering the good reviews the play has gotten elsewhere, it must have worked better there. I just don’t get it. FYI: I did not hear much laughter from several people sitting near me on Friday night. But there were others clearly having a good time. Different strokes.

The Book of Liz continues through June 25th at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre 542 Penn Avenue, downtown. Tickets: ShowClix - 1-888-71-TICKETS 1-888-718-4253

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: "Midnight Radio 3-Superhero Edition" at Bricolage. -Sunday 19th June 2011

Bricolage Production Company keeps on coming up with original theatre ideas. Now, returning to the air waves and eyefuls, comes Midnight Radio 3, tuning up the tubes and tunes with Episode 1-Superhero Edition!

This boisterous experience stays right in keeping with Bricolage’s explorations of the edgy reaches of theatre space, which certainly have developed regular followings.

Clearly, the aim is for everyone to have fun with an emphasis on quirky, off-center comedy, rather than endeavoring to literally recreate the essence of bygone styles and sounds of radio when it featured live performances of soap operas, plays, serials, situation comedies and revues. Nonetheless much resembles how things were produced in the old days. A small cast takes on many roles. A remarkable array of imaginatively conceived sound effect equipment punches up everything. A multi-instrumentalist plays themes and stingers. Moreover, turning this into a variety show, interludes feature musicians.

Newer twists among the mostly original material are Bricolage script writers’ commercials for far-out fictional products and services along with a few for actual underwriters. Other items include “Fake Breaking News” in this case not a radio newscast as it might have been long ago but rather a spin on personality- driven TV newscasts of today. The performers also sing embellishments and there's an audience quiz. A grab bag punched up with gags, bits and shtick.

Elena Alexandratos, Tami Dixon, James Fitgerald, Patrick Jordan and Jason McCune, as directed by Jeffrey Carpenter, play this at high intensity, the locally well-known, talented stage actors using stage vocal technique instead of making subtle use of what microphones can do. Volume and speed of delivery take over. But, since everyone has to keep moving from microphone to microphone and shifting into different character voices while manipulating sound effect equipment, concentrating on reading the lines with useful, meaningful intonation gets lost in the ether. As if to say, the words can do the job on their own. I don' think they need to move around that much. It looks as if Carpenter did it for visual variety.

Among the more clever elements, stage manager Andrew J. Paul projects visuals, most especially clips from comic books used to point up the stories being performed.

The Ben Opie and Josh Wulf Duo takes center stage twice. Multi-reed player Opie, who’s performed with Anthony Braxton, does some remarkable things with alto sax, clarinet and contrabass clarinet while Wulf explores all kinds of possibilities with an electronically enhanced guitar. Their original conceptions, less deliberately intense than the comedy material, sound worth further hearing.

There will be further installments in the series through November. This feature, Superhero Edition! runs through June 25th at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Avenue. 412/471-0999 plus info at

Theatre review: "Jekyll & Hyde" from Pittsburgh CLO. Airing: Sunday June 19, 2011

The musical Jekyll & Hyde has had quite an interesting, enduring life. Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden wrote the score and lyrics in the late 1980s, but that version never got off the ground. A re-write with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse opened at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 1990 and went on to performances elsewhere including a national tour plus a CD in the mid-90s. It didn’t get to Broadway until 1997 where it ran for over 3 and half years, despite mixed reviews.

Certainly the famed story remains fascinating, even if incarnations in movies and plays, while keeping the original, fundamental premise, bear little resemblance to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. The musical, locally produced by Pittsburgh CLO, tells Bricusse’s version well, performed with fast-moving, believable sincerity and, in most cases, sung in fine voice. Credit director Robert Cuccioli for the result. He originated the performances of both characters on Broadway.

Kevin Gray has the title roles. His Hyde surges with dark intensity. His Jekyll begins totally without character but, later, emerges more convincingly intense when the good doctor becomes less good. Gray’s voice on opening night didn’t seem up to the demands of Wildhorn’s many sustained notes. That’s quite a contrast to first-rate singing by Brynn O’Malley as Jekyll’s fiancé Emma, and Elizabeth Stanley portraying Hyde’s doomed lover Lucy. Both women also superbly tune the acting dimensions.

As for Wildhorn’s music, it much resembles the pop opera sounds of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodramas or Schönberg and Boublil products. Every so often good melodic lines appear among the 25 songs, but too many get stretched out into down and center pushy big sells. Plus, a café scene starring Lucy features an anachronistic bluesy number which has nothing to do with the period suggested by the rest of the score. Meanwhile Bricusse’s utilitarian lyrics come across as totally obvious and unimaginative. So, despite a touch of Sweeney Todd in the night, concept-wise, neither lyrics nor music get near Sondheim’s class.

Cuccioli’s staging makes many scenes thoroughly dramatic. Especially telling, he has Jekyll’s first connection with the dreadful, transformative formula an injection in the arm rather than, as traditional, drinking it down. This graphically reminds us of the personal destructions of drug addiction. Cuccioli also gets good lighting and scenic effects, even though simple rather than spectacular, from John McLain and James Noone.

The cast, by the way, includes Pittsburghers Tim Hartman, Daniel Krell, Jeff Howell, Michael Campayno and Joe Jackson with Hartman playing a supporting role, the others being less visible.

Characteristically CLO has no background information about the creators of the material it offers, despite a full page devoted to executive producer Van Kaplan. i.e There is enough space to have included a couple of paragraphs about Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn.

London-born Bricusse is probably best known for creating songs with Anthony Newley in Stop the World - I Want to Get Off , The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd, and the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Other credits include Victor Victoria, movie and Broadway versions, plus much more. Bricusse also wrote the music in the movie Doctor Dolittle, a stage version of which became a musical that CLO produced here in 2005. It briefly, unsuccessfully toured.

In 1999 Frank Wildhorn became the first American composer in 22 years to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War. His Dracula, The Musical ran five months there starting in 2004. This year Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure, with his music, book by Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd, Murphy’s lyrics, also played on Broadway, closing in a month. Other shows produced elsewhere include musical versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, Bonnie and Clyde and a re-working of a Bizet-less Carmen.

After many years of knowing much about various takes of the story of Jekyll and Hyde, it only just occurred to me the perfect choice in the name of “Hyde.” Surely other people have also noticed this before, that is, that Hyde represents a hidden character within a seemingly virtuous person. Plus that some fierce animals have coarse hides.

I don’t think you will get emotionally involved in this tale or how it’s told, but, to CLO’s credit, you certainly can find it looking and sounding substantial.

Jekyll & Hyde continues through June 26th at Benedum Center, Downtown. 412/456-6666 or

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Theatre review: "Violet Sharp" from Terra Nova. Sunday 12th June 2010

Terra Nova Theatre Group is breaking new ground. It’s offering a play as well as play readings in Pittsburgh, starting with a script, Violet Sharp by founder/artistic director Washington & Jefferson College theatre professor William Cameron. Since 2007 productions had always been in Washington County while this play actually premiered in Los Angeles in 2009. It also won the 2007 Julie Harris Playwriting Prize.

I’d call it a significant docu-drama, one with, in this instance, thoroughly skilled, truthful acting by a mostly Pittsburgh cast.

This goes into the story of a real woman, Violet Sharp, who worked as a serving maid for the Morrow family where Anne Morrow Lindbergh was living there with her husband Charles when their baby was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. In this shocking and world-famous crime Sharp became one the suspects, especially given that her alibis were questionable. The play, much of it based on original statements, letters, police and news reports, follows Violet in and out of intense interrogations as well as in and out of fragments of her life within the household before and after the crime. A newspaper reporter named Adela provides background narration.

Cleary Cameron has done extensive research to create this script telling Violet’s story in a way to show how the confused woman became a kind of victim herself. For many of us, most of what he portrays will be a revelation; probably few people these days have even heard of Violet Sharp. Cameron as writer and director tells the story well in frequent, fast-paced intense scenes. He and actress Theo Allyn succeed in clearly conveying Violet’s several kinds of innocence along with her self assertiveness and bewilderment. A sympathetic, totally convincing portrayal.

The other characters, by comparison, look more like sketches from a dramatized TV documentary. Yet, the actors all bring something to the roles to give them personality, even if the writing gives them little. Among them, Sam Turich makes police captain Harry Walsh believably relentlessly harsh while, as Charles Lindbergh, Tyler Scherer gives him a fine sense of patrician dignity. And John Michnya makes Morrow household butler Septimus Banks convincingly snotty. Narrator/newspaper reporter Adela is played by Allison Cahill, portrayed to suggest satire, which distracts from the other more straightforward, not stylized interpretations.

This polished production does credit to everyone in it while telling us some American history most of us may have overlooked. It reminds us that innocent people accused of crimes may be exonerated but their lives can be forever damaged by those who exploit and degrade them.

Terra Nova Theatre Group’s production of Violet Sharp continues through June 25th at the Grey Box Theatre in Lawrenceville, 3595 Butler Street. There are also free play readings there June 13th to 15th and June 20th to 22nd. Tickets through Pro Arts: 412/394.3353 or and more information at