Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review:"Turandot" from Pittsburgh Opera

Pittsburgh Opera is offering a stunning-looking, superbly sung, expertly staged new production of Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, whose libretto is by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on a play by Carlo Gozzi. Puccini’s magnificent music and stunning orchestrations, often richly colored by deliberate orientalism, constantly come across as beautiful and thoroughly realized not only by the solo singers but also by the Mark Trawka-led chorus and by the orchestra conducted by Antony Walker.

I was completely impressed with the distinctive voices of NaGuanda Nobles as Liù and Hao Jiang Tian in the role of Timur. Susan Neves’ Turandot often sounded too dynamic and loud, but you could make an argument that that’s consistent with the Princess’ aggressive harshness. Regarding Calaf, before Tuesday’s curtain rose, General Director Christopher Hahn announced to the audience that Frank Porretta would still perform as the Prince but was suffering from sudden and severe allergy. Most of the time Porretta gamely sang sturdily.

Director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and set/costume designer André Barbe, both Canadians, have come up a non-stop visual spectacle making this story look like alien ritual combined with experimental effects, rather than a literal depiction of the story.. The quasi-Asian stage decorations have brilliant life of their own, including clouds which lift on a promising dawn. Doucet also brought out some good dramatic touches from his principals when, rather than ritualistically posing, they behave like humans. These choices and more compensate for the story’s questionable details.

As Puccini operas go, the basis seems much further removed from real life than La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. It’s probably better not to look too closely at the narrative defects.

FYI: Turandot, a Chinese princess, has developed a deadly contest over the years motivated by the brutal death of an ancestor during a war. Turandot has offered herself in marriage to any royal prince who can solve three riddles, with the understanding that if the contender fails, he will lose his head. You can see her motivation, men cause war, especially royal ones, and she’s found a way to extract regular revenge.

Meanwhile the constant streams of blood from the executions have become popular public entertainment, like the worst excesses of the French Revolution. Given that regular death toll, it looks as if royal houses all over that part of the world will need to become more fecund if they want to stay in power.

A visiting Prince, the almost anonymous Calaf, gazes at Turandot and falls head over heels in love…well, not actually his head; it is still attached. He decides to become a contestant, despite widespread advice not to, from the Emperor himself, from three rather comic ministers Ping, Pang and Pong as well as from Calaf’s aged father, Timur, plus Liù, who’s been with the family long enough to be in love with Calaf.

You have to ask if the riddles have always been the same or if they are new each time. If they are the same, Calaf could have had plenty of chances to study how the losers failed. But Turandot could also continually claim that she was getting the wrong answers; after all, she could make up new ones on the spot. On the other hand, coming up with original and difficult riddles every time would keep her pretty busy, Even with plenty of servants to take care of her, she might have had a lot of sleepless nights either way inventing new riddles or new answers. That could become seriously irritating, a reason for her not bursting with happiness.

Calaf solves the riddles, which certainly puts a crimp in Turandot’s eternal plan. Since she doesn’t warm up to him, he tries to light her fire by proposing his own decapitation if she can figure out his name by dawn. Consequently the seriously compromised, frustrated Princess, used to having her own way, tells everyone at court that she’ll have them killed if they don’t find out his name by the dead(so to speak)line. Moreover she authorizes torturing Liù to extract the name from her. Liù commits suicide rather than reveal what she knows.

Then, during pre-nuptial embraces, Calaf’s foreplay not overcoming Turandot’s frigidity, he tells her his name, saying she can use it and him anyway which turns her on. After a few hours, she thaws completely and marries the guy who loves her not for the cruel, nasty, dreadful, spoiled, willful person she is, but for who she might become when he’s the top guy, such as when motherhood gets her to lie down quietly for a few months. Call the Prince some kind of a masochistic nut. That’s royalty for you: in love whatever that means.

Try not to think about it. Just listen and watch and come away as much impressed by the sound and look as am I.

There are two performances remaining of Pittsburgh Opera's Turandot: Friday April 1st at 8 p.m. and Sunday April 3rd at 2pm at Benedum Center, downtown. 412-456-6666 and

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Theatre review: "Precious Little:" at City Theatre. Sunday 20th March 2011

Madeleine George has written an intelligent, thought-provoking play, Precious Little and the City Theatre cast and director Tracy Brigden impressively get to the heart of it. I call it thought-provoking because, after you’ve watched it, you may want to know what George intends to say within the confines of this 80 minute piece.

On the surface it deals with linguist Brodie, a 42-year old lesbian whose carefully planned pregnancy may develop unforeseen complications. Brodie is also doing research on communications in a vanishing foreign language by native speaker Cleva, hovered over by an overly protective daughter. And, visiting a zoo, Brodie becomes fascinated by a potentially communicative female ape.

There are ways you can tie this together into something meaningful. Brodie, who doesn’t openly commit to her clandestine lesbian relationship, seems to be motivated by intellect rather than emotion as she anxiously awaits becoming a mother. And the more often Brodie visits the ape the more she may see it as a benign, elemental force of nature. Meanwhile the older woman Cleva, revisiting her language, becomes inundated by a flood of emotional memories.

In focusing on the need to communicate, Madeleine George has written excellent dialogue revealing procedures but also pointing up that communicating is more than just words. Moreover, perceptively, her characters don’t behave predictably, making them genuinely human rather than intellectually symbolic.

Equally perceptive, the three women in Precious Little play the principal roles with total conviction. Theo Allyn impressively makes clear three quite varied personalities. Laurie Klatscher has touching, warm sweetness as Cleva. And visiting artist Kelly McAndrew gives Brodie completely truthful edginess and increasing vulnerability.

As always, one of Pittsburgh’s best directors, Tracy Brigden stages, paces, shades and develops the performances to bring out the best of what’s in the play without resorting to gimmicks or forcing the issues or implications.

As for what the words of title may mean, ponder the subtle undercurrents in what you see and hear; you’ll come up with something.

Precious Little continues through April 3rd at City Theatre 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side 412/ 431.CITY (2489) or

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Theatre review: "Shrek The Musical" at Benedum Center-for broadcast Sunday 20 March 2011

Shrek the Musical is frolicking in town for a few days. This is a road company version of what, with mixed reviews, ran a little more than a year on Broadway and was much nominated for Tonys but garnered just one: for the costumes. And, yea verily, Tim Hatley’s costumes and puppets deserve the acclaim. They look great. In fact, his wonderful Dragon nearly steals the show.

Basically this is a reprise of the concept, story and dialogue of the first Shrek movie, a very clever, funny and original cartoon feature. The stage version constantly looks delightful, has plenty of great gags and first-rate performing. It has one drawback, though, songs devoid of distinction.

Here is another conversion of hit films into the kind of spectacles which only seem to sell tickets if people are constantly singing and dancing. E.g. The Producers or Spamalot wherein Mel Brooks, Eric Idle and their collaborators, not being actual, practicing composers, only came up with imitations of stock material. Of course, they didn’t need to. Their books, the playing, the style, the direction did so much so well that nobody cared.

Here, though, given the length of show and the eventual milking of gags, the absence of good songs becomes noticeable. The music is by Jeanine Tesori. She was part of the 6-Tony team which created the bigger hit Thoroughly Modern Millie. Plus she contributed to the far deeper Caroline or Change. Each of those scores has much to admire. The lyrics come from David Lindsay-Abaire who has written such quirky, imaginative plays as Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo and A Devil Inside. It sounds like a solid team, but they don’t add anything special.

FYI, should you need to know: Shrek, an ogre, who frightens most humans and accepts that he is different, has his home turf invaded by fairy tale characters exiled by nasty, Lord Farquaard. To get back his privacy Shrek, with his friend Donkey, agrees to rescue the dragon-trapped Princess Fiona so that Lord F. can marry her. But Shrek falls in love with the Princess and that has to be worked out.

The show, as the movie, sparkles with delightful bits involving such characters as Pinocchio, Gingy The Gingerbread Man and The Pied Piper. But the spotlight stays mostly on Eric Petersen’s Shrek, Haven Burton as Fiona, Donkey played by Alan Mingo, Jr and David F. M. Vaughn’s Farquaard. Peterson gives a continuously appealing performance, full of loping charm whose body language and interpretation makes him far more human than any cartoon version could ever be. Moreover, he sings superbly. Vaughn remarkably carries off the major task of playing the height-challenged Lord, which requires astounding physical dexterity, being constantly on his knees. What a kick! Burton, though, hasn’t found a way to make Fiona consistently comic, looking as if she’s stepping outside the standard princess stereotype for broad comic moments and then stepping back in. As for Mingo, he overplays Donkey, heavily pushing the braying and horsing around.

Although this contains stuff to make adults laugh, it could also appeal to kids with its sweet charm, But one number mangles that idea: the song “I Think I Got You Beat” in which Shrek and Fiona engage in a farting and belching contest. Sure, kids may think that funny. But it harms the otherwise cute integrity of the rest of the concept.

Too many gratuitous songs and dances don’t add anything except a longer running time. Brevity could have been the soul of wit. But with Jason Moore and Rob Ashford’ s lively direction, Hatley’s great sets, costumes and puppets as well the performances by Peterson and Vaughn, plus the imaginative, original ideas from the movie, this turns out to be a lot of fun.

Shrek The Musical continues at Benedum Center, downtown through 6:30 pm Sunday, March 20. 412/456-6666. or

Monday, March 14, 2011

Theater review: "boom" at Off The Wall Theatre-Sunday 13 March 2011

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has written a very imaginative, perceptive, sometimes truly funny play called boom. And you can see and hear those qualities at Washington’s PA’s Off the Wall Theatre. But, as directed by Michael Moats, the playing doesn’t do it enough justice, especially the night I saw it when, in such an intimate venue, one performer forced almost every line and gesture as if trying to reach the top balconies of the Benedum. Plus another sometimes got sucked into matching such exaggerations. Blessedly, the third kept his integrity, more resembling a real person.

Given the premise, you could argue that the characters are not supposed to be living human beings, that this is some kind of deliberate cartoon. But if that is what Moats want to create, he didn’t succeed. And such good material needs a unified and definitive interpretation.

Marine biologist Jules, something of nerd, but with intuitive perceptions, posits, through research among tropical fish that their abnormal behavior portends a coming natural disaster which will wipe out almost all life on earth. So he’s prepared his apartment/ lab in ways to survive and posted a personal ad seeking a woman companion without making it clear that he’s thinking of plans to become the future Adam and Eve. Jo, the woman who surfaces, finds him weird and totally unappealing and wants to leave. When the disaster actually happens, it looks as if they’ll be stuck alone together for decades. Meanwhile, one of several, clever ongoing surprises emerges: a narrator named Barbara makes it clear that we are witnessing a theme park installation portraying the long-ago evident end of civilization. She has some control over what happens in the vivid exhibit, but it is not complete. As in a quasi-independent computer program, bad wiring could go haywire.

Nachtrieb planted a number of original components and gets off quite a few funny lines. Although, when actress Lauren Michaels as Jo spoke, jumped and loped around the tiny interior, her rendering exploded rather than sizzled, splattering meaning against the walls. Meanwhile Matt Henderson conveyed quiet and appealing sincerity as the more human, sympathetic and still naïve Jules, letting his laughs come from the material itself rather than from a pushing it. Rachel Downie’s Barbara sometimes capably walked the line between them, but at other moments sounded as if she wanted to vocally equal her regular pounding of two kettle-drums.

I find Nachtrieb’s use of the drums and their obvious booming one of his many delightful inventions. But, most important, despite evoking genuine laughs, he doesn’t just skim the surface. The developments in Jules and Jo’s story provoke thought-provoking conclusions about how such a situation might really evolve, looking at it over the passage of many months after the disaster outside their overly intimate, yet not truly intimate confinement. Plus, he has placed several equally confined fish in Jules’ apartment/lab, whose presence underlines discussions of evolution theory.

Paul A. Shaw’s masterful set gives fine solidity to the concept, even down to having the diaper cabinet completely provided with diapers against the eventual re-population of the world.

If this is the way the world ends, it is not with a bang or a whimper but with concise 80 minutes worth of winks and chuckles in a perspective that goes deeper than shallow comedy.

boom continues through March 19th at Off the Wall Theatre at 147 N, Main Street in Washington, PA. Tickets 412-394-3353 or 724-873-3576 or

Theatre review: "Circle,Mirror Transformation" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday 13 March 2011

It takes almost no time at all for you to be convinced that you’re watching real people and not actors in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s on-going production of Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. Her script, of course, makes that possible. But, just as significant, director Jesse Berger and his cast perform everything with convincing, abiding naturalness. This becomes all the more remarkable given that four actors in the cast have already become quite familiar in many roles locally. They are Bridget Connors, Daina Michelle Griffith, Daniel Krell and John Shepard.

It does take time to get used to the concept of the play and to grasp some of what’s happening. Moreover, because the scenes represent fragments of time in a six-week period, you may need to fill in some blanks about the premises. At first, it may seem as if not enough actually happens there on the stage. But I found the sum of the parts, the cumulative effect, makes the difference, something inventive, original, insightful and warm.

The circle is a group of five people in a small Vermont town, gathered around each other to practice acting exercises. Those exercises include seeing and hearing refractions of themselves in each other, learning how to be open to perception and transforming those perceptions in their own ways, perhaps becoming transformed themselves.

Don’t think that Baker has written something sending up amateur performers. She’s actually delving into people’s lives, so that, by the time the play ends, you know much about these people because they have let you in, just as they have let in their temporary companions. That makes this play far more than an exercise in novelty.

Baker also tells audiences about the art of being a good actor even though the characters never interpret actual scripts and dialogue but learn to improvise and to find truths. i.e To be such a meaningful artist you first have to know yourself and then thoroughly understand how other people relate to you. Not a bad lesson for life, is it? Given that most people in this play are new to each other, they are also much like actors in a new production, needing to learn how to become part of something bigger than themselves. Come to think of it, because most members of this cast do know each other already that may even add to the beauty of their ensemble, even though you may not be conscious of that.

Director Berger’s pacing adds to the a sense of reality. People pause to think, to ponder, to chose words, to react. They are not glib. Such pauses dovetail with the idea that we are getting only core samples from six weeks worth of experiences.

You may need to know that one big part of their exercises is to talk about and personify each other, taking on separate personalities. That starts almost immediately and you never get to see the first steps when class members talk about themselves. One such monologue would have established that premise clearer.

Director Berger and his fine cast do make clear other unspoken, unseen outside- the- walls-events with telling inflections and responses, making you almost a part of the group, having to listen and understand what’s not actually said but what’s beneath the surface.

I do question one element. The group’s leader Marty is married to group participant James. The other participants don’t express any reservations about that, which may make sense in a small, not urbane town. Yet an already existing relationship in such a group could undermine the dynamics, as they would in group therapy, given that husband and wife may have issues which get in the way. Plus it seems odd that either would allow the other to be there since one of them controls everything which happens in that microcosm.

This is no way interferes with appreciation for playwright Baker’s accomplishment. Add to that a wonderfully charming, multi-dimensional performance by Daina Michelle Griffith as the very outgoing, full –of- life Theresa. Interpreting Lauren, an awkward high school girl, visiting artist Lauren Blumenfeld makes her equally special and always genuinely amusing. And John Shepard’s take on James glows with appealing inner warmth.

This circle of talent, holding a mirror up to nature, doesn’t transform the script, rather, it makes it live.

Circle Mirror Transformation continues through April 3rd at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Theatre review: "In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau" at Pittsburgh Playwrights

I attended what I thought was to be the final performance of Frank Gagliano’s In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau at Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theatre. As it turns out PPT just decided to extend the run through Saturday March 12th. I imagine that that is due to renewed public interest, given praise from City Paper’s Ted Hoover and the Post-Gazette’s Christopher Rawson. I’ve read both reviews and agree with some of what they say.

Of the three Gagliano pieces offered by PPT this comes across as the most original. It’s called “An unsung voodoo chamber opera.” You can see and hear the reason for the title. Gagliano has written dialogue which calls for characters to deliver such things as arias and recitatives in speeches which have poetic, sometimes rhythmic wording. The heightened nature of what the characters do and say in this production feels less like a play and more like the exaggerated unfolding of something not to be taken literally. I question director Kim El’s choice of how to play it.

The Woman in the Mask and The Tied-Up Man in the Mask come calling on 1900 New Orleans’ voodoo priestess Marie Laveau so that her powers can assist them.

As they verbally ramble in and out of exposition about dark, sometimes lewd, painful events in their past The Woman, an unsuccessful opera singer, is most obsessed by not being able to get pregnant, even though she despises her husband, even though she’s screwed enough men to populate a parish of her own. The Man is a former newspaper music critic whose firing deprived him of prestige and power and wants revenge. He also constantly yearns to be reunited with his young step-daughter. Marie tries to put them together to work out solutions.

At times Gagliano’s script suggests some of Tennessee Williams’ more lurid, garish background stories decorated with similarly florid language and symbolic meanings. This play, as the other two works ,Congo Square and the briefly staged reading of The Commedia World of Lafcadio B, make it clear that Gagliano’s main focus is on words not on well- developed story lines, wherein the characters’ flights of fantasy take off and the solid ground beneath is hard to discern. Hence the characters' bones don’t come thoroughly covered by solid flesh, unlike most of William’s inventions.

The staging by Kim El clearly does not intend literal depictions of anyone in the play, a weak choice. Both The Woman and The Man could be real people despite their ornate language. These are ca.1900 southerners who’d naturally speak that way. She’s one of those typical loquacious belles disguising her vapidity beneath a veil of vocabulary. He’s a writer. You know how writers are, they love the sound and the look of their own choices of phrases, as so many critics are…unlike me….as much interested in how they say something as they are about the essence of the content. Consequently Kim El masks the potential for Gagliano’s script to represent actual people. Jennifer Tober and Mark C. Thompson as The Woman and The Man occasionally and capably peek through the layers of style to suggest someone in there actually exists.

But Kim El and Gagliano are hampered by another problem, Crystal Bates’ version of Marie Leveau. Her performance takes this play into the far reaches of another dimension. She most often appears to be playing sounds rather than the meaning of her words, decorating her speeches with screams, howls and growls constantly obliterating emphases and actual content. You could argue that some opera singers might do the same, more about voice than about character. But this remains a play which is trying to say something about people’s behavior using opera-like means. There is no music, even if the words are chosen partially for their tone. Moreover Bates never stops gyrating her body, like a badly controlled marionette. Given that the play runs about 100 minutes, her performance quickly becomes tedious. Perhaps Kim El got stuck with this destructive interpretation and, unable to control it, built the play’s interpretation around it.

A better director might have been able to make more out of this. But the script, with its rambling ways, certainly doesn’t make it easy and could stand major revision to become clearer as to what Gagliano really wants to say. Words aren’t enough; they have to be about something significant.

In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau continues through March 12th at
542 Penn Ave., Downtown. or 412-394-3353.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Theatre review: "Evita" from Point Park Conservatory Theatre

Once again students of Point Park U’s Conservatory Theatre Company prove their impressive singing and dancing talents. This time they enrich the sound and the look of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1979 multi-Tony Award winning hit Evita. Credit too the imagination of director John Shepard, the skill of choreographer Keisha Lalama-White and the melodies evoked by music director Camille Rolla.

As for the material which they interpret, I’d never seen this before and was never impressed by Rice and Webber’s songs and have found, underneath the shiny, vividly decorated shells of their shows, hollow interiors of inferior milk chocolate. And, having now witnessed Evita, I come away with an unaltered opinion of their work. I should point out, incidentally, that, when it opened on Broadway, the reaction to the book and the score by many New York critics was similar to my own.

Some basic information, in case you need it: the show shadows actress Evita Duarte Peron’s real-life 8 year rise to national and international fame as the activist wife of 1940s Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Mostly it follows a natural time progression with virtually every word, every fact, every revelation sung-through, conveyed by Rice’s lyrics set to Lloyd Webber’s music. Throughout, too, a character suggesting Che Guevara, a sort of counter-culture reverse mirror image of Evita, serves as narrator and critical social commentator, seeking to expose the questionable side of the woman eventually revered by her people as some kind of saint. That point of view represents one of several different historical perspectives about Evita’s real life. Meanwhile director Shepard adds his own interpretive take by having two versions of Evita…Eva and Evita…throughout the story, representing her pre and post Peron phase. Plus he has four simultaneous versions of Che.

If you already know the basic facts of Evita’s history you won’t get much further information since the musical doesn’t really do much more than present those facts. Rice's book, not credited in the program, doesn’t explore the characters’ inner workings, or delve into anything of substance in this pageant. You may get some idea of unseen background developments in Rice’s utilitarian expository lyrics, provided you can understand them.

As for Lloyd Webber’s music, he often hints at Latin-American rhythms, without actually doing much, surprisingly, to imitate the tango. I heard traces of Brazilian music in there. Occasionally he also inserts a few solid suggestions of something symphonic, and sometimes his score sounds like pop music of no particular period. A few songs sound interestingly original, including, of course, the unforgettable hit “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” In this case you won’t be allowed to forget it; it’s reprised five times.

I often found the multi-voice writing appealing so director Shepard’s choice to multi-cast Evita and Che enhances many basic vocal lines, turning lines for single voices into more interesting multiple harmonies. By the way, no one is credited in the program book for these arrangements. Perhaps it is the work of music director Rolla.

As for the other aspect of the multi-casting, it makes the shallow story more colorful and Shepard explains his intentions in informative program notes.

Regarding interpreting the roles, that’s no easy task; the performers have to bring something personal and inventive to underdeveloped characters. In this case, Kevin O’Leary’s version of Juan Peron constantly makes him interesting, as if Peron is learning on the job of how to progress from a non-entity manipulated by pushy Eva/Evita to a man who becomes stronger and more self-assured. And, as Evita, Courtney Bassett has all the right aggressiveness, although if she sang more subtly at times she would have implied more depth. And playing the role of Evita’s first husband Augustin Magaldi, Janson Lee Garrett sings magnificently.

So here is a famed, much-awarded highly successful musical by writers who went on to further success, even if they’ve always had limited critical acclaim. In this case, despite the weakness of the material, everyone on and off stage does well with what they were given. Moreover, this is excellent training for performers considering professional careers because, inevitably, they will be considered for other roles in equally flawed material and have to learn how to do their best with it if they want to earn a living. And being in a Lloyd Webber or Rice show, given such continued profitability, those performers can afford to subsidize their own efforts in less well-paying better material.

Evita presented by Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre can be seen next from March 17th to 20th at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. 412-392-8000 or at