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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Theatre review: "God Of Carnage" at Pittsburgh Public Theater-Sunday June 5th 2011

Pittsburgh Public Theater offers its third production of a play by Yasmina Reza, having presented Art last year and Life X 3 in 2007. This one is God of Carnage which certainly resembles those other two, concerning affluent, articulate people trying to be civilized while confronting issues and feelings which surface surprisingly and unexpectedly. As before, in edgy satire, Reza sends up and makes funny how these people end up doing and saying irrational things, taking themselves too seriously.

The superb cast vibrates with believable energy and personality, especially well-paced by director Ted Pappas.

Unlike those previous plays, these characters don’t know each other at the outset but get to know themselves in ways which they could not have anticipated. Anger and accusations surface and spill. This is not like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, likewise fueled by too much alcohol, because, as we stand outside, we see the foolishness of such people. They’re not really in deep pain, even if they think they are. Perhaps Reza wants to make us think we are superior, when, of course, we are not, even if we may have less sophisticated lifestyles.

Alan and Annette Raleigh have been invited into the home of Michael and Veronica Novak. The couples are concerned parents of young boys who have just had a violent after-school fight and the adults want to work things out. But, as conversations develop into arguments, producing accusations within as well as between the couples, tempers get out of hand, making it clear that, even as boys will be boys, men are still that aggressive within their well-tailored clothes and the women, equal in significant careers, are equally prone to aggression.

Reza makes good points about people like Alan and Veronica. He has an almost umbilical connection to his cell-phone, tying him to his high-powered position as a corporate lawyer and is one of those people who can’t help emphasizing his significance by making sure that people nearby overhear his importance. He also represents a pharmaceutical company which is casual about dangerous side-effects in its products. Veronica is, on the other hand, never casual about what can happen to the lives of innocent people. She is deeply committed to activities against genocide and other violence, yet becomes clearly violent herself when the issues get too close to home and her commitments there are shaken.

David Whalen and Deirdre Madigan play those roles to the hilt perceptively keeping both characters superbly, delightfully reasonable, unreasonable, predictable and unpredictable. As their mates, Annette and Michael, Susan Angelo and Ted Koch bring equal believability to all their permutations.

Pappas finds clever ways to subtly point up Alan’s self-involvement when away from the phone, yet, regarding that phone, something doesn’t work right. I don’t know if it’s in the script or if it’s a Pappas invention but every time that Alan picks up his communication device he starts talking immediately without any indication of having heard anyone on the other end. He never appears to be listening to anything being said to him. Sure, that may be a point about his character, but the way it’s done seems surreal and out of place in what otherwise looks like real people going haywire. Also Pappas’ costume design for Annette looks too tacky for such an affluent woman and it says nothing meaningful about her.

Given the main premise and theme, developed about as far as it can go, the 75 minute running time seems a little longer than necessary. And, several days after experiencing this, it seemed more clever and funny at the time than it does now.

God of Carnage continues through June 26 at Pittsburgh Public Theater, downtown. 412/ 316.1600 or

Theatre review: "King Hedley II" from Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater-Sunday June 5th 2011

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Producing Artistic Director Mark Clayton Southers has long shown an affinity for making the most and best of the work of August Wilson. And now, finally, his company is offering a new production of a Wilson play at the August Wilson Center. Southers didn’t direct this version of King Hedley II. Instead it is guided by Eileen J. Morris who has major credits staging Wilson’s work elsewhere.

Morris and her cast make it vivid, dynamic, colorful and perilously dramatic. As Christopher Rawson points out in his superior program notes, this is Wilson’s darkest play and that the layered plot may be hard going for some audiences. I briefly studied the story line before attending and that gave me a sense of the essence of the major developments. However, given that Wilson regularly evokes what he calls “black street vernacular” I did not find the dialogue easy to understand. I especially had trouble with nearly every word said by one leading performer who seemed to be constantly swallowing her words and emphases

Wilson is always trying to say more than to just depict actions, behavior and results. He’s known for writing about how and why the African-American people he represents do what they do. Those characters deeply ponder the details of their own lives. Such background is also at the heart of his writing, concerning daily struggles with love, death, spirituality and making ends meet in a culture where race relations frame and lie behind what happens or can’t happen to them.

King Hedley II is Wilson’s next to last play and is set in the 1985 Hill District. Although the title suggests some kind of long-ago classic and it could be considered a tragedy, Hedley is no king. King is his first name. Yet, trying to rule his life, produce an heir and maintain his honor, Wilson’s choice of a name has resonance. Hedley and a buddy named Mister eke out existence selling stolen refrigerators and plot a robbery to finance a new business. King spent years in prison for having killed a man who severely cut his face. Back home he lives with his mother Ruby and his wife Tonya. Ruby’s one-time lover Elmore returns to the neighborhood, intent on getting back together with Ruby. Like King, he too spent time in prison for having killed a man. Always present is a neighbor called Stool Pigeon, a half-crazy, sometimes chronicler of life and death on the streets.

Clearly violence and vengeance lurk within the grimy, trash-cluttered framework, personified by several loaded guns. Much of what is said, meanwhile, in the three hours this runs, is about what these people have done and will do next, detailed in many extended monologues. Tellingly, Wilson has both King and Elmore find empathy for the men they killed. Yet, had I not done background reading, I’m not sure how much I could have followed.

Solidly truthful performances by three leading actors always make those characters clear and memorable. Benjamin Cain’s impressive version of King seethes with believable rebellion against a society which keeps him down. As Elmore, Kevin Brown vibrates with personality and panache. Plus Tyla Abercrumbie brings sweet, genuine maturity to the role of Tonya, King’s wife. Yet I found Chrystal Bates’ as Ruby, an equally important role, constantly unintelligible, a case of style over substance. Director Morris probably knows the script so well that she may have forgotten that some of us white folks aren't all that familiar with the kind of language Wilson writes. Often, on opening night, when Ruby spoke, the only people laughing where those sitting near Morris. They got it, even if the rest of us didn't seem to. Meanwhile, Jonas Chaney never overdoes the idiosyncrasies of Stool Pigeon but he raced through too many lines which could have been more interesting and clear.

During the performance parts of recordings by Miles Davis and John Coltrane faded in and out, a distracting, pointless, embellishment, sometimes annoying when competing with dialogue.

Mark Clayton Southers also designed the set, a thing he always does superbly and which, as always, gives substance to such productions. Even though he did not stage this, the cast and director bring their own substance and truth to the urgent tale.

King Hedley II continues through Sunday, June 12th at the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Avenue downtown. Pro Arts Tickets the source :412/ 394 3353. Info at

Friday, June 3, 2011

Theatre review: "9 to 5, the Musical" presented by Pittsburgh CLO

Pittsburgh CLO has opened its new season with something somebody else produced, the national tour of 9 to 5 The Musical. That there would be a tour is surprising; the show was not a hit on Broadway in 2009, running for just four months and collecting mostly negative reviews, although the stars got praise and a few Tony nominations.

Clearly the script with its sitcom-like obviousness doesn’t have much to offer, despite a potentially meaningful premise. The cast displays a lot of energetic, sincere talent, making the most of the material. You can admire the singing and dancing skills of everyone, the sturdy playing of the score by a small orchestra led by Martyn Axe and Kenneth Foy’s clever sets. Meanwhile Dolly Parton’s songs have a lively country and/or pop feel, more simple than complex, appropriate to the show, agreeable enough, if not memorable.

This is based on the 1980 hit movie, which certainly could have resonated those 30 years ago. A new take could be a cute trip down memory lane. This version skims that, as it skims everything else. Patricia Resnick’s book looks like a paste-up with no point of view. Too bad. The underlying isues are about women in the work force being exploited, undervalued and underpaid, premises which,if well-developed, could go to interesting, creative places. Moreover the three central women have lives with potential for development. The first act keeps re-stating these themes decorated with numerous, gratuitous production numbers. The second act has a little more substance. But the whole thing relies on superficial, not particularly funny nor imaginative situations, peppered with primitive laugh lines. Certainly some of this derives from Resnick’s original screenplay, yet you’d think she, or the producers or director Jeff Calhoun would have found ways to come up with something fresh.

40-something Violet is a widow who’s been working for a long time without hope of advancement within a very large corporation. Blonde, noticeably breasted Texan Doralee Rhodes is a secretary for big boss Franklin Hart Jr. who lusts after her. And newcomer to the office naïve Judy is recently divorced. The three plot against sleazy, chauvinist Hart and eventually kidnap him and take over the office in his name, improving the working conditions for the women working there.

Doralee is evidently modeled on Dolly Parton; she had that role in the film. In this case Resnick seems to be trying to make a case that being blonde and shapely doesn’t mean Dorelee is a ditz. But, since there are several pointed references to her superstructure, milking that for all it’s worth, and Doralee never expounds on any profundities, you just have to take it on faith that inside she’s got a mind just bubbling with ideas. In this role Diana DeGarmo, one time runner-up in “American Idol,” proves she can sing and dance with professional polish equal to anybody in the cast, but doesn’t come across with any specific personality.

Like the other leads she is called upon to belt out numbers which could double as calling in livestock from across the valley. Dee Hoty as Violet also gets her turn, knocking out the notes to the back rows, countering Violet’s potential for maturity. Hoty actually conveys substance much of the time, even though the role calls for her to get stuck in shtick. Mamie Parris gets Judy’s equal shot in the spotlight but, like DeGarmo, nobody seems home inside that body. There’s another entry into the all- stops -out stuff. This is assigned to Kristine Zbornik as Roz Keith, some kind of not clearly defined special secretary to Hart. She’s an older woman with a crush on Hart, setting up another potential for patent humor.

There’s also a falling -down-drunk woman in the office staff, more juvenalia. How she’s kept her job never gets explained. Plus, unexplained,Hart never fires or puts down back-talking Violet. More, among Resnick’s other sloppy writing, it’s revealed that Hart has been cooking the books, information on the verge of being spilled to CEO Russell Tinsworthy when something else develops and the subject is dropped unexplained. By the way, I don’t know if “CEO,” back in 1980 was a term in common usage, but since anachronisms keep turning up in the dialogue, sometimes acknowledged, laugh, laugh, sometimes ignored, it can serve as another more example of why, justifiably, this show failed to wow New York critics.

Director Calhoun had major work cut out for him. He didn’t succeed. Don’t blame the performers. They earn their salaries. When you’re an actor and you want to stay in the business, sometimes you need to take what you can get.

9 to 5 The Musical continues through 2 p.m. Sunday June 5th at Benedum Center. 412-456-6666 or the Box Office at Theater Square or ,