Sunday, February 20, 2011

Theatre review: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" from CMU School of Drama

You wouldn’t think that a show about students competing in a spelling bee could be much fun. For such kids that kind of thing could be a cause for serious nail-biting. Spelling a word correctly can be a major problem for any of us in the privacy of our own confrontations with keyboards and monitors. However we can always use Spellcheck. (uh-oh: a red line under the preceding word tells me that Spell Check does not validate that version of its name). Imagine, then, if, in front of a large assemblage of people, some of whom, including familial companions, seek your vanquishment, in your innocent youth, you had to correctly verbalize the letters of opaque words contained in intricate phrases which could even perplex adults. If you see what I mean.

It turns out, though, that Rachel Sheinkin, Rebecca Feldman, Jay Reiss and William Finn’s musical The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee not only provides a lot of fun, it also has acute observations about such an event. And a Carnegie Mellon School of Drama cast comes up with the right responses to the challenges, guided with wit and invention by visiting director Joe Deer, who has major off-Broadway credits. Speaking of credits, this double- Tony winner from 2005 ran on Broadway for 2 years and eight months.

Fundamentally the focus is on the competition itself, during which the contest’s organizer and successful real estate agent Rona Lisa Peretti (Rona Lisa they have named you; you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile) tells the audience about the backgrounds of the kids and it’s up to Vice- Principal Douglas Panch of Lake Hemingway-Dos Passos Junior High to read the words and give follow-up definitions. Those are the sources of constant laughs. Likewise an hilarious surprise: a non-parochial school visit by Jesus Christ. Among the other added unexpected attractions: pre-show, audience members have a chance to participate up close by volunteering to be on- stage contestants

Throughout, on the serious, significant side, there are scenes flashing back into the kids’ past, seeing the roles their parents play or don’t play at this important moment in the lives of their children. Some of the adults are pushy. Some are absent. i.e This is more than a light entertainment.

Kaleigh Cronin, interpreting Rona Lisa, stands out with superb singing plus a believable characterization of a no longer young woman. She’s one of two CMU students alternating in the role. Among the kid contestants I found Darren Bluestone sweetly charming as home-schooled Leaf Coneybear who comes from a large family of former hippies and constantly is challenged to spell the names of South American rodents. Kyle Rotter likewise leaves a strong impression playing nerdy William BarfĂ©e whose allergy to peanuts and the absence of a working nostril always threatens his survival. Plus in the role of over-achiever Marcy Park, Gabriel McClinton does wonders displaying the girl’s multiple talents.

Everyone sings and dances capably, but being in good voice isn’t required considering that such characters would be transitioning into puberty. Meanwhile the songs by William Finn mostly sound more utilitarian than musically interesting although a couple of them have attractive Sondheim-like harmonies.

Dramaturg Nicholas Mudd provides interesting background notes in the program book. But he says nothing at all about Finn or Rachel Sheinkin, co-creators of this wonderful show.

Finn’s musical
Falsettos received the 1992 Tony Awards for Best Music and Lyrics and for Best Book. He’s also well-known for a musical loosely based on his near-death experience following brain surgery, A New Brain, which starred Malcolm Gets, Kristin Chenoweth and Chip Zien at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998 and won the 1999 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. Now he’s responsible for the songs in a musical version of the movie Little Miss Sunshine which just opened at California’s La Jolla Playhouse.

Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book for a musical version of Little House on the Prairie originating in 2008 at Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. It had a subsequent national tour and a production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. She’s worked on a theatre project with the rock trio GrooveLily, Striking 12. It played off-Broadway in 2006. She wrote the book for a musical called Sleeping Beauty Wakes created for L.A. acting company Deaf West plus Blood Drive a musical produced by Bridewell Theatre, London. Sheinkin is also on the faculty of New York’s Tisch School of The Arts and teaches at Yale School of Drama.

Such facts as these are frequently missing from programs of small, amateur theatre companies. In fact such absence underscores amateurishness, as if the producers are indifferent to the writers without whom they’d have no show. Often their program books contain substantial paragraphs about less significant backstage people such as assistant stage managers, word space which could be better used. In this, dramaturg Mudd used two full pages for a crossword “Brainteaser” which, although a clever idea, should not substitute for telling audience members about the creative artists whose work is the foundation for the entire enterprise. Considering that this comes from a university which is supposed to teach students about theatre, the absence discredits a highly regarded institution.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through February 26th at New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. Info and tickets: 412/ 268-2407 and

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Theatre review: "Churchill In Short(s)?" at the University of Pittsburgh

The University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre continues to go quirky this season but at least its third offering features work by a well-known playwright, Caryl Churchill. Not well known works, though. Even the title looks like emphasizing the off-beat: Churchill in Short(s)? This a collection of three one-acts ranging from 1962 to 1997. During that time she wrote major Obie winners Cloud Nine and, seen here at The Rep in 2007, Top Girls. She also got much praise later for A Number (2002) which you could have witnessed at Public Theater in 2008. All three extract the juice from reality becoming pungent provocations, defying us to come up with easy answers, forcing us to think about what she’s trying to tell us and why she’s doing it that way. Not for everyone’s taste, even if well acted.

These plays Lovesick, This is a Chair and The After Dinner Joke, feel easier to decipher than those named above because they don’t come across as constantly surreal. And the able, mostly student cast does well at conveying the obvious parts, fulfilling the requirements for versatility, capably directed by Tommy Costello who also gets interesting, imaginative visual enhancements from his tech people. But he and his cast all miss the ironic comedy beneath the surface of Lovesick and The After Dinner Joke although there’s not much anyone can do with the time-wasting, one-gag
This is a Chair.

Lovesick could be a hoot. In it Hodge is a very skilled, very-smug psychiatrist who has often relied on aversion therapy and on developing conditioned reflexes. But he falls in love with one of his patients, a woman not the least interested in him. She’s attracted to a presumably gay young man so Hodge uses all his soul-probing skills to subvert that relationship. Thereby he damages and otherwise alters the lives of several people. Although his plans go awry, he’s so self-centered that he’s indifferent to the harm he’s causing. If Hodges were played with subtlety and style, this could be a barrel of laughs, but, given a major challenge to get it right, neither student actor Fred Pelzer nor Costello had found the way to do that, at least by the time I saw this in preview. The other actors didn’t get that much out of their roles either, forced to devote time and effort to keep on moving in Churchill’s constantly accreting scenes.

As for The After Dinner Joke, if you’re expecting a punch line or some other kind of zinger, forget it. Here Churchill aims at corporate greed and ancillary issues, while taking scatter shots at exploitation masquerading as idealism. This long, meandering item could have stood a good trim. One of her potentially funnier ideas is a pacifist Robin Hood. But again, as in Lovesick, on preview night the playing and direction didn’t find the laughs beneath the surface. The nine actors did well doubling and tripling as 14 characters, giving some good color to the roles. And the enhancements of Dan Carr’s projection designs plus Sarah Ivins’ puppets really perk up things.

This is a Chair doesn’t require much of anyone, including the audience which can get the point quickly and then has to endure repetitions. This is a rapid series of vignettes in which generic characters talk aimlessly about nothing special while title slides refer to major social, political and environmental issues to which they pay no attention. Although it gives everyone further exposure to what Churchill has to say, it doesn’t do much for her reputation. You may already start feeling that you have something better to do. And then The After Dinner Joke hovers in the wings to further try your patience.

Certainly the student actors get good training in playing many multiple roles and all of them get the surfaces well.

Yet, I don’t understand why this is called “Repertory Theatre.” It doesn’t fit any standard definition of the word, which usually means a resident acting company and/or plays presented in repeatedly alternating performances. Point Park University’s Theatre Department (as above) also misuses the term (“The Rep”) although members of the faculty regularly play roles alongside various and often-admired local performers, possibly loosely considered some kind of a company. At Pitt occasionally one or two faculty members appear, but not enough to suggest consistency or any kind of company. One faculty person, Theo Allyn, is in this. So are eight students. That’s not repertory.

One day those students might be in a real repertory company. Meanwhile, as way of educating them to how things are professionally done, the Theatre Department would look brighter if it stopped employing a word which it doesn’t need.

Churchill In Short(s)? continues through February 27th at the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue, Oakland. 412/624-PLAY (7529)-

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Theatre review: "Hair" in the Pittsburgh Broadway Series

I was in New York in 1967, slightly active in Peace movements, mingling with people younger and more innocent than I. And yet then, and in the three years when I could have attended Hair either on or off Broadway, I never went. I don’t know why. I do know that ever since I’ve admired some of the songs. But, until this week, I’d never seen the show.

I tell you this because I’ve just witnessed a traveling company version of the latest Broadway production and found a lot of it endearing and some of it truly moving. So I can’t review it by comparing it to other performances.

The endearing part comes because it evokes in me tears of love and sorrow for those innocent young people more than 40 years ago, young people who thought that loving everyone, embracing each other tenderly, having all kinds of faith, could change our society and change the world, suffusing it with peace. It didn’t happen. The Viet Nam war kept on going for eight years after Hair first brought forth its message. Cry now for other young people dying in a far away war. Although peace and universal love could still call out to us wherever we turn, innocence is gone. Hair reminds us, sitting there well-dressed and well-fed in the comfort of Heinz Hall, of how we could have been better.

Whether or not you’ve seen the show before, it still has weight, a weight you may not expect seeing it get underway with so much joyous jumping and stomping and shouting in multi-colored clothes up there under the bright lights.

It bursts with energy, almost non-stop, until it arrives at its final destination. The last part is something you may not expect. I didn’t. But where it was going was already an undercurrent, if you think about it, knowing what happened in the real world of the late 60s. And the early 70s.

The members of the tribe hug each other, staying close, unabashedly generating warmth and comfort. Director Diane Paulus shows us how such people cherished their closeness. Oh yes, this is theatre. They talk to us, knowing that they are putting on a show. They prance the aisles, touching whomever is in their path. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The real kids they represent saw their joy and their message as a kind of theatre, reaching out to those others who might be swayed to join the movement, and move to shape the future. Note too how choreographer Karole Armitage creates clusters of people as if to say they/ we are all one.

At the center of the story Paris Remillard makes Claude beautifully complete, while understudy Nicholas Belton imbues the role of Berger with goofy energy. Some funny things are said. And, in case you didn’t know, there is a kind of story, not a very complicated one but heading to a point.

Pittsburgh’s Gerome Ragni along with James Rado and Galt McDermot wrote wonderful songs: “Aquarius,” “Donna,” “Manchester,England,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Where Do I Go?,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “Let the Sun Shine In.” This is not aggressive in- your- face rock. This is not dark and dirty rap extolling cruelty. This is a kind of sweetness that lives forever, even after these kids are gone. Even after other kids are gone, kids to be cherished for their sacrifices, even if they are in the wrong war.

Hair continues through February 20th at Heinz Hall, Downtown.
412/ 456-6666 &

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Theatre review: "The Lonesome West" at The Rep/Pittsburgh Playhouse

The Lonesome West may sound like a title for a play where vast sweeps of mountains frame a solitary horseback rider or tower over bent, dusty people scratching away at unforgiving soil trying to eke out a living.

This is not about that atall. No, not that atall. The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse presents something about a few souls in western Ireland, near the rugged coast. Mainly two fractious brothers Coleman and Valene Connor. Loneliness never comes up. They don’t even give it a second thought. They don’t give much of anything a thought except how to provoke each other, ready to knock down and pummel, pull a knife, fire a rifle.

Well now, you could find these encounters loads of fun, feeling immersed in a colorful alien form of life. Yet a sad, sweet, confused priest stumbles in and out bringing enough sorrow to point out that existence in this fraction of the world is not a bowl of cheery, nourishing oatmeal. Glory be, the acting gives it depth and fervor. And you get a solid sense of immersion in something memorably real.

You ask what playwright Martin McDonagh is fundamentally trying to tell us with that title? I haven’t a clue. This looks mostly comic. But as to what the dialogue was trying to say behind that, I haven’t a wisp of an idea. I had trouble stumbling through the thickness of noisy, regional accents and their dialect t’other night at Pittsburgh Playhouse. Not that I was alone in that fog. Except for a claque of eager Point Park students around me, few other people in the audience seemed to be in on the verbal fun. Not that we had to understand every wee ficking word. We could tell what was happening. Clearly this is not Bernard Shaw prodding and pushing intricately worded provocative social comment. The plot? Not that complicated.

McDonagh can amuse you greatly, but he also reminds us that such people struggle with the truths of an unrelenting environment. Don’t, then, anticipate the riotous blood and gore of his The Lieutenant of Inishmore or the movie In Bruges. Don’t expect lurking horror, casting ironic shadows on cruel, oppressive regimes as in The Pillowman. This is lighter.

Dave Droxler stands out as the most complex character, the young Father Welsh who tries to be a meaningful part of this community but remains out of place. Droxler brings out the true dimensions of vulnerability, human weakness and need. Philip Winters’ take on Coleman always looks solid and real, although perhaps not as dim-witted as you’d think the man is. Valene is played by David Cabot, looking as if he’s trying to physically and verbally establish someone more complex than what’s behind anything Valene does or says. Director Kim Martin should have tried to get Cabot to blend in more with other people’s more realistic style.

Martin keeps the whole thing moving vigorously, adding to a sense that these are not caricatures, aided by fight director Randy Kovitz and a few special effects from Steve Tolin.

I question, however, why Martin or other directors in these parts of the US feel that their casts have to do their damndest to speak accurately like people whose language and accents are so far removed from our own that we may have trouble understanding them. This happened before with The Rep’s own production of Mojo by Jez Butterworth when Cockney words and sounds remained so dense it was almost impossible to tell what was actually being said. It happens often in productions by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Burying the essence of the text in needless authenticity does not serve the playwright well. At such times, when I look at many other people in the audience and see their blank expressions, their solemnity during presumably funny moments I know I’m not alone in puzzlement. You’d think directors could see this too.

The Lonesome West continues through February 27th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445