Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Theatre review: "West Side Story" national tour.

A somewhat revised version of West Side Story is here for a few days. It’s a national tour of the 2009 much-praised Broadway production which ran for 22 months. Recently- departed Arthur Laurents directed his modification of his original 1957 script.If you haven’t seen any performance recently, you may be surprised by some of its intentionally darker moments. Whether or not they’ve always been there, I’m not certain. Still the essence of original concept remains intact.

Leonard Bernstein’s exciting, dramatic, stirring and beautiful music surges and soars throughout the experience, the best reason to be there. The superb playing comes from 14 local musicians plus three touring artists conducted by John O’Neill in new arrangements created by, among others, Stephen Sondheim. Most of the singing does it justice, despite a lack of any truly memorable voices.

Sondheim’s own 1957 often brilliant lyrics sparkle with clarity as sung by the capable cast. The dancing and the action look impressive in Joey McKneely’s sturdy choreography and tour director David Saint’s vigorous staging.

I found more solid drama in this than I expected, personified in the believable nastiness of two adult policemen. One is Lieutenant Schrank whom Laurents gave some depth, including compassion. Christopher Patrick Mullen plays both sides convincingly. Mike Boland equally makes Officer Krupke another memorable example of the oppressive adult world leaning on the confused young kids of the story. And you certainly get a sense from this cast of youth and vulnerability beneath the bravado. Moreover Laurents’ tale of juvenile gangs has as much resonance today as it did 54 years ago.

To add to the sense of reality, Laurents also got Lin- Manuel Miranda (he wrote In The Heights) to transform the Puerto Ricans’ dialogue and some lyrics into Spanish. This has become somewhat controversial, given that there are many audiences with limited or non-existent knowledge of Spanish and no subtitles or supertitles are used. But this is the U.S.’s second language now and the characters who speak would naturally do so, effectively, validly, making them look like a separate culture. But here it seems most like an unnecessary embellishment diminishing the story, being meaningful only to Spanish speakers.

Laurents and Saint have also made sure that tender moments between Tony and Maria have touching truth and they get a lot out of the humor in the only non-serious part, “Officer Krupke.”

Ali Ewolt’s acting as Maria constantly conveys believable, innocent sweetness but Kyle Harris’ Tony seems less well-defined. Her singing feels wrong, as if too operatic, even though parts of Bernstein’s score resemble opera, while he sings in a voice without enough personality.

The entire experience comes across as a fine team effort, with a meaningful sense of ensemble. It needn’t be some kind of star showcase. Plus, given Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s words and Laurents’ script, this remarkable musical theatre lives on.

West Side Story continues through 6:30 pm Sunday May 22nd at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/ 456-6666 or

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Theatre review: "Louder Faster" at City Theatre

What is Louder Faster louder and faster than? And what the hell kind of a name is that for a play anyway? Who cares? Writers Eric Simonson and Jeffrey Hatcher have come up with a comic classic. The spirit of 1930s farcical stage and movie comedies lives on. Sort of like Room Service, the movie version of which starred the Marx Brothers. Sort of like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers in which they also starred on the silver screen and under the bright lights of Broadway. Hey! Hold the phone. Weren’t those last two by that bright light of Broadway, East Liberty’s,George S Kaufman? Uh, sort of. He actually wrote that stuff with some other guys. But give him credit where credit is due.

And guess who’s the star of this whole new shebang. Good old GSK. He’s not in it; he’s dead. But he lives on as the most significant character. Although this is fiction. With a Kaufman-like plot.

True, some of the acting goes a little overboard at times, as if director Tracy Brigden allowed a couple of cast members to milk it too hard, squeezing instead of letting it flow naturally. But since zippy lines keep on coming, no matter who delivers them or how, we’ve got a gem on our palm red hands in this world premiere. I'll bet my bottom dollar that this baby’ll go places.

Get this: No nudity, No profanity. No sensitive gays. An actual intermission. Way out of its time. And way into another one.

It’s 1937 and George has come back to where his family used to be…used-to-be, as you recall, is Pittsburgh to a fare-thee-well. Kaufman’s got a masterpiece in mind. Written all by himself. About his family, hence hanging around the roots to dig into the family tree. More recently the place was a hideout for a Communist cell. And one of those reds is still lurking, looking for an incriminating list. Also looking for it: G man Vic Zimmer. Standing by is distant relative young Morris Kaufman, whom George quickly wishes would get more distant. In the mix too are George’s agent, Max, and two girls Max hired by phone. One’s a secretary, the other a babe who mostly works in the dark, prone to be prone.

Confusions and misunderstandings cascade and tumble with snappy sentences flowing like the Mon flooding The Bathtub.

Brigden gets the vigorous pace nailed. And visiting artist Brian Sgambati plays George S. with winning charm and solid substance. Martin Giles and Patrick Jordan as Max and Vic expertly carry off the roles as funny extensions of their regularly recognizable personas. Meanwhile Robyn Parrish as a Betty Davis look-alike does well with the style that works best, a Veronica who comes across more like a real person than Marina Squerciati’s Betty cartoon, or Tony Bingham’s proximity to Jughead. Tony Ferrieri’s wonderfully crusty set does the trick as does the brassy, pre and post act sound of classic swing which Brad Peterson has disc-jockeyed swell.

Don’t forget to glom City Theatre’s program notes from Carlyn Aquiline. This gang knows how to do what it’s doing.

Louder Faster runs through May 29th at City Theatre at Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side. 412/431 CITY (2489) or

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Theatre review: "Shining City" at Off The Wall Theatre-Sunday 15th May 2011

Washington PA’s Off the Wall Theatre offers another well-acted, provocative play, Shining City by Ireland’s Conor McPherson. Locally two of his plays were seen here recently, The Seafarer at City Theatre in 2009 and The Dublin Carol produced by PICT in 2008. Similar to both, this largely remains a loquacious character study with thorough insights into conflicted lives. In this case parallels in behavior become revealed, creating a clever intellectual exercise to ponder once you’ve re-inserted yourself in your own city lights. An extraordinary, virtuosic performance by F. J. Hartland carries the day, making constantly interesting and clear page after page of nearly uninterrupted self-revealing monologues. Hartland never overdoes it; the result looks effortless rather than showy, perfectly suiting what McPherson wants to say about ordinary people struggling to make sense of uncertain existence.

Recently widowed John has been haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, Mari, and seeks help from Ian, a former priest turned therapist. Gradually it becomes clear that the relationship between John and Mari was increasingly strained, mostly due to John. It also turns out that Ian has serious problems in his relationship with his fiancĂ©e Neasa, where he seems most to blame. Both men search ways to be more complete than they are while McPherson’s fine perceptions show how realities keep teaching them lessons they hadn’t imagined. By contrast, a less ordinary man, streetwalker Laurence, has come to terms with who he is, another good McPherson conception.

I see potential for seriously touching moments, but the convincing portraits by Hartland and Dennis Schebetta as Ian stay inside the frame rather than grabbing you by the hand where you can feel the warmth, the sweaty palms. For me the only emotionally moving point comes when John describes getting violently angry with innocent Mari, making her a helpless victim. Odd, isn’t it? that an off-stage person could become more sympathetic than anyone onstage. Yet Hartland thoroughly conveyed that sorrowful moment even though not ever generating much sympathy for John.

He gets most of McPherson’s well-known penchant for Pinter-like fractured dialogue in rambling, always original, unpredictable stories. Alas there is constant repetition of “you know?” There may be some kind of point in having that phrase repeated so maddening excessively, but I can’t help wondering if Hartland was throwing in extra helpings. Too bad director John Shepard didn’t trim that somehow.

Shepard has kept the pacing genuine, never pushing too hard, making everything realistic, adding a few subtle touches in staging. Something else, though, puzzles me, a studied emphasis on Ian increasingly adding home-like touches to his office, bringing new pictures, lamps, flowers, plus pillows and a blanket which, oddly, never get used and just sit there on the floor. This seems rather close to Ionesco’s The New Tenant, perhaps with a similar point. I’m sure there’s a point in there somewhere.

As for the title, although the play is set in Dublin, nothing in the text talks about the city and, since it is outside the confines of these walls, the neither dark nor bright interior could be any place, making the events universal, rather than specific. So what does the title mean? Another puzzle.

Here we have thought over feeling in a well-done production which gives lots of interesting things to consider, including a surprise ending.

Shining City remains through May 21st at Off The Wall Theater, 147 N. Main Street Washington, PA. 724/ 873-3576 or

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: Cirque du Soleil's "Totem"

Another phenomenal Cirque Du Soleil production unfolds in Pittsburgh. This time it’s called Totem but the title and the underlying conception matter less than how everything comes off looking impressive on so many levels, i.e above the heads of the audience, balancing on poles, soaring and gyrating high in the air, walking on perilously thin boards, or surging forth on a vast shell-like stage, leaping, jumping, wheeling, spinning, juggling, balancing in one remarkable act after another. Meanwhile entertaining, physically virtuosic amusing clown acts pop on and off. The other artists come dressed in superb looking costumes as, all over their performance areas, platforms and spaces open close, raise and lower, ensembles colorfully parade or dance, boats and canoes float in and out and vivid images of flowing water or swirling sands of the desert, or crystal white snow cascade before your eyes. And a small percussion-based orchestra thunders, throbs and pulses as if to an accelerated heartbeat reminding us of the anxiety within the dangers these performers face should they lose their footing, stumble and fall.

The underlying visual concept suggests enduring tribal myths reaching back into pre-history, often evoking native North American people, but also stretching forward into space and into present time. You needn’t bother trying to analyze this or even think about it, since it remains more wonderfully and colorfully decorative than profoundly intellectual into which you need to read all kinds of meaning. The concept seems most pointed when a group described as business men try to reach the top of a pole and maintain their balance. But, by the time they start their climb they’ve divested themselves of business suits and briefcases dressed more like you’d expect for circus performers. One act also seems visually odd when a man and a woman dressed like North American natives twirl and gyrate on roller skates, although I’ve no doubt some real contemporary native people would skate, but not in traditional clothing. Overall then, thinking about how well the concept works, or even about what the word Totem means, is something you should leave outside the tent and allow yourself to marvel at what you see, the brilliant spectacle.

I saw the last production here in 2009, called Alegria. I find this one much more dynamic and compelling than that overly clown-dominated show which ran for only one week in the Peterson Center. There too, wretched balcony sight lines significantly diminished the experience for many people. Here, under the big tent, with no doubt fewer seats than at Peterson, it looks as if everyone gets closer to the action. And isn’t that what a circus should be, not confined within the cement walls of a sweaty sports arena?

Some info about parking. This production takes place in the Strip District, close to the Allegheny River, directly behind the Produce Terminal where there is a lot of parking space. However, the evening I was there, an attendant was bunching up cars closest to the lot entrance while the actual entrance to Cirque is about three blocks closer to downtown. So, for $10, you might have an unnecessary walk coming to and to leaving the performance and I saw many empty spaces quite close one half hour before the show started.

The program book, which is not free with admission, gives lots of information about what the acts intend, about the logistics of how the show is produced and much more, but,oddly, my copy does not name any of the performers. But I have what’s called a “Press Kit” which may have less in it than what paying customers get.

Most important, though, everyone gets a magnificent experience.

Cirque du Soleil's Totem continues through Sunday, June 5 , in the Strip District at 20th Street where Railroad Street ends

Tickets online at or by phone at 1-800-450-1480 or at the Cirque du Soleil box office located at the front of site 2 hours prior to show time.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Theatre review: "Antony and Cleopatra" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Sunday 8th May 2011

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre offers a vigorous, imaginatively staged and capably articulated version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Given that the play is widely considered difficult to render thoroughly and movingly, director James Christy and his sturdy cast have a big assignment. They get across all the surfaces convincingly, but Christy and title role performers Sam Tsoutsouvas and Helena Ruoti do not give their characters compelling heart and soul. On the other hand, James Sutorious and Leo Marks as other important characters Enobarbus and Octavius invest them with admirable dimension.

Unfortunately Shakespeare has written Cleopatra most like a spoiled, willful lover and mistress planting the seeds of comedy, weakening the potential for tragedy which lies more clearly within the more complex, vacillating Antony. The script does do well with Octavius, making him reasonable, tractable, having deeper feelings beneath his controlled exterior. Shakespeare thereby balanced well the opposing forces, making this truly interesting, showing that Antony and Cleopatra’s flaws help to bring them down.

But the play can be a challenge to audiences neither familiar with nor caring about this significant, volatile period of Roman history. This can look and feel like a well-developed documentary more than a tragedy, spending much time on the comings and goings across the Mediterranean by many characters while focusing on the whys and wherefores of the conflicts leading to the protagonists' deaths. Potential audiences, if interested in the background, might benefit from advance preparation. Plus PICT’s always informative and interesting program notes are worth reading.

Ruoti inherits the problem of making Cleopatra a strong-willed and sensual woman whom the once powerful Antony cannot help admiring and loving, yet Routi more emphasizes unqueenly petulance and pettiness. Meanwhile, looking glamorous in consistently beautiful, elegant attire, she does little more than frequently languish on pillows to suggest sexiness. Tsoutsouvas, on the other hand, comes across mostly as a big blustering baby, delivering lines with non-stop intensity and high volume, sometimes even bellowing, never looking heroic and never sadly pitiable. As Octavius, Leo Marks seems the best of the three, thoroughly suggesting the man’s interior workings, a good contrast to almost out-of-control Antony but the merit of Marks' performance may get overshadowed by appearing too contained. Enobarbus, a more marginal character in the play, more a commentator than a mover and shaker, but definitely more important in the real story, gets excellent definition by James Sutorius; he delivers his lines with a personality which makes him constantly interesting.

Director James Christy keeps all of the action vivid, colorful and convincing, while getting his actors to deliver speeches with integrity and meaning. No doubt his and PICT’ s choices of this cast make that possible, given so many local actors whose talents have been in constant development and exposure, making this kind of ensemble as close to a repertory company as we’ve ever come. They all do well, even though compromised by the unforgiving acoustics of the Charity Randall Theatre. They include such artists as Daina Michelle Griffith, Jarrod Di Giorgi, Daniel Krell, Mark D. Staley, and Shammen McCune. I do, however, question double-casting the easily recognizable Griffith as Cleopatra’s constant companion Iras as well as Antony’s new bride Octavia.

Christy or PICT’s choice of costuming doesn’t do the play justice, given its inconsistencies, equally suggesting something timeless and contemporary and period-like, although Jen Sturm’s clothing for Cleopatra looks impressive.

At the opening night, a few people in the back rows laughed out loud during the play’s final tragic conclusion. This disturbance included the recognizable sound of a prominent staff member who regularly laughs vigorously there on opening nights. If you can’t help noticing, especially if you’re unlucky to be sitting closely, you might think that this is a deliberate attempt to stimulate the audience to enthusiasm. I don’t think that’s the cause; I think it’s due to genuine appreciation for the actors’ talents. Nonetheless, doing so during an actual performance suggests an amateurishness unworthy of a company of this integrity.

Overall, though, I find reasons to admire much of how this looks and feels.

Antony and Cleopatra plays through May 21st in the Charity Randall Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue on the University of Pittsburgh campus in Oakland.

Tickets at: Pro Arts Tickets: 412/ 394.3353 or online at
More info:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: "Dialogues of the Carmelites" at Pittsburgh Opera Sunday 1st May 2011

Pittsburgh Opera offers a superbly performed version of Francis Poulenc and Emmet Lavery’s opera Dialogues of the Carmelites enriched by exceptional singing of several principal roles, nearly impeccable playing by the orchestra led by Jean-Luc Tingaud and dynamic staging by Eric Einhorn.

This work may come as a surprise to people who have never seen or heard it, among which I am one. Although generally known as a story based on true events during the French Revolution and mostly about a group of nuns sent to the guillotine, it actually focuses on a young woman from a noble family, Blanche de la Force and her fearful uncertainties about her own life and what she should do with it, seeking significance as a nun. Much of the opera, in fact, consists of dialogues between her and among women in the Carmelite order about metaphysical and philosophical concepts of spirituality and sacrifice. But it also ultimately focuses on the tragic, brutal end to the lives of those innocent women. During the French Revolution, the Catholic Church, its priests and nuns were seen as extensions of the old royal, exploitative system and therefore a threat to the political new order.

Poulenc wrote much magnificently orchestrated, gorgeous music to amplify the story, the best of it appearing in the second part rather than in the first. In fact, during the first part, which sets up later events, the score sounds almost too dramatic for developments focusing on humility and modesty. But the nuns’ exquisite a capella passages in the second act, appropriate to their unadorned existence, have supreme, everlasting beauty.

The sets from Calgary Opera also deeply add to the sense the fragility and stark simplicity of the nuns’ convent life, only occasionally brightened by slashes of light. Director Einhorn expertly keeps the stage movements consistent with such elemental settings, often clustering the nuns together in clearly isolated, vulnerable groups. And his powerful choice for how the story ends can shake you and move you to tears.

Amanda Majeski in the main role of Blanche sings with memorable beauty as do Shannon Kessler Dooley as another novice Sister Constance, and Elizabeth Bishop as Mother Marie.

Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Opera program book gives readers no background information about Francis Poulenc, whose name and work still is too under-rated and overlooked, unlike the creators of the more standard opera repertory which the company usually offers. He was born in 1899. Writing many jocular, friendly scores up to the age of 39, he then took a new direction, rediscovering the Catholic faith in which he had been born, writing a large number of sacred works, including much liturgical vocal music. At about age 58, six years before his death, Dialogues of the Carmelites made its debut, the second of his only three operas.

The program book also says nothing about co-librettist Emmet Lavery whose name is even less known. He was a French playwright born just a few years after Poulenc, sometimes writing plays about priests as well as writing scripts for movies and television programs as far back as 1942.

Consider this performance a stirring and powerful revelation.

Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Dialogues of the Carmelites continues through May 8th at Benedum Center, downtown. Info and tickets at 412/ 456-6666 or

Theatre review: "Superior Donuts" at Pittsburgh Public Theater-Sunday 1st May 2011

It takes until the second act to recognize how well and thoroughly Tracey Letts has written Superior Donuts when you see it at Pittsburgh Public Theater. But it takes only a few minutes after the performance starts to realize that director Ted Pappas and his superior cast make if truthful, engaging and frequently funny.

Much of the first act seems spent on introducing colorful, interesting and well-developed characters who say lots of things, sometimes salty, bound to make you laugh and to like them. But not much else. However when that first hour ends, you have hints that more serious and important developments lie in wait. The next hour delivers surprises, tensions, deeper meaning and warm tenderness.

It’s set in a small donut shop in an almost -transitioning Chicago neighborhood around the beginning of 2010. The shop is a family business run by one-time hippie, Polish-American Arthur Przybyzewski whose personal history includes dodging the draft during the Vietnam War and whose overall approach to life is ruled by being so laid back as to almost lie down and accept whatever falls. Such perceptive writing by Tracy Letts also sets up the possibility of affirmative action and transformation which is provoked by his new hire for the shop, 21 year black Franco Wicks. Franco has all kinds of ideas to make the shop adapt to new times and prosper. Here too Letts has solidly evoked an equally unpredictable and engaging character. As it turns out, Wicks is dangerously in debt to a potentially vicious crook, Luther Flynn. Other significant characters include Max Tarasov, a Russian who owns an adjacent store and hopes to expand it as well as regularly -appearing police woman Randy to whom Arthur is attracted.

In Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts has set up a number of self-revealing soliloquies by Arthur, well-staged by Ted Pappas, with a solo spotlight on Arthur so that other less significant action on stage does not distract. Moreover Pappas superbly paces the early scenes, never rushing things, keeping his actors genuine while saying many amusing things. But when the second act emerges, Pappas and his cast make it all dynamic and vivid. If you look thoroughly at the program book you’ll notice that there is fight direction by Randy Kovitz. And, even though you may know that a fight is coming and that it is theatre and not reality, by that time, if you are as engaged in the story and the people, as I was, you may really get anxious. I did. Credit Pappas and his cast.

CMU grad Anderson Matthews plays Arthur with wonderful naturalness and depth. As Franco, Brandon Gill marvelously conveys his charm and vitality. The Russian shopkeeper Max is equally vigorously and appealingly interpreted by Donald Corren. They stand out in a fine ensemble in which every other role gets equal definition and credibility. Pittsburgh’s Wali Jamal and Sharon Brady are among them as is thoroughly polished Daryll Heysham who has been in many recent local productions. Another out-of-town actor, David Agranov also graduated from CMU.

You can get more out of the experience by reading Margie Romero’s excellent, informative and useful program notes about Chicago and about the 1968 war resistance movement and the events at the Democratic Party’s national convention in that city.

After writing the above, I looked on-line at other reviews including some from New York, most of which, although finding the play skillful, compare it to predictable TV situation comedies. That is not my reaction. I find the whole concept and how it’s done superior in every way.

Superior Donuts continues through May 15 at Pittsburgh Public Theater, downtown. Tickets and info at 412/316.1600 or