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.