Sunday, August 7, 2011

Theatre review: "The Importance of Being Earnest" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre-Sunday 7th August 2011

I’ve never had as much fun and found so much delight in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as I had experiencing director Conall Morrison’s version produced by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. And I’ve seen it many times before.

Morrison originally created this for Dublin, Ireland’s Abbey Theatre where actor Alan Stanford has performed the same role he interprets here. Adding to the special nature of the offering, the remarkable set also has been brought across the Atlantic.

It works so well because Morrison has found ways to make the Pittsburgh cast get the most out of its comic possibilities, full of constant vitality and broad playing rather than the more usual English restraint most people expect. Morrison has also inserted a multitude of hilarious bits of business and reactions. And it sounds as if Morrison found ways to get his actors to overcome the sonic limitations of the Charity Randall Theatre, an accomplishment in itself.

As you may have heard, this production has an all-male cast. Yet this does not camp it up nor do anything to point up that you are watching men in those roles. This is no send-up. The men in those roles make the women truly funny women.

Visiting actors Will Reynolds and Matthew Cleaver portray the two young ladies Gwendolen, with whom Jack is totally smitten, and Cecily with whom Algernon is wildly, passionately, devotedly in love. Reynolds’ Gwendolen gets just right the mirror image of her mother, Lady Bracknell, even up to towering over the men in unassailable stature and command. And Cleaver’s take on Cecily has all the dopey innocence you could wish for. Both men create marvelous portraits.

Astonishingly memorable David Whalen plays Jack gloriously full throttle, romping through every moment, playing it all to a fare thee well. As Algernon, Leo Marks brings out a lot of the smart aleck side, more restrained than Whalen but a good contrast.

In a smaller role, Martin Giles’ take on the servant Merriman serves up its own laughs.

Mr. Stanford has the inevitably plum role of Lady Bracknell which he never pushes or overdoes. He makes the zingy lines zing, his timing and inflections perfect.

Stanford also appears as Oscar Wilde in what, as you may have heard, is director Morrison’s own material to frame the whole thing in which Wilde is seen in the final downward days of his life, when his memory seems to call forth the play. Although Stanford’s performance as Wilde has sad verisimilitude, that part of this production doesn’t work. It even gets egregious when we see Wilde heading upstairs with a bare-chested young man. The add-on seems superfluous and even diminishes the effect of Earnest’s jolly conclusion when we once again see lonely, solitary, abandoned Wilde in a bar. I imagine Morrison wants to show a contrast between the broad hilarity of the play and the sad reality of Wilde’s last days. Program notes make that completely clear for anyone who doesn’t know the facts already.

Nonetheless, this element does not take away from the rest of this otherwise thoroughly entertaining, fresh approach. Seeing what can be done with what is considered a classic makes it even clearer that Wilde did indeed create a joyful treasure.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues through August 27th a The Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. Tickets at ProArtsTickets: 412/ 394-3353 or

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Theatre review: "Jesus Christ Superstar" from Pittsburgh CLO-Sunday 7th August 2011

Many people attest that Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1971 Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is some kind of a classic. I do not share such belief, but, as far as I can tell, Pittsburgh CLO’s resurrection sounds and looks faithful to the original conception. I’ve seen it only once before, in Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Ken Gargaro’s 2006 goofy take, which had almost as many laughs as Mel Brooks’ version of The Last Supper. I thought then, and continue to think, that’s it’s a bizarre. mixed-up piece of theatre. But who’s to thrice deny that producers can count on faithful followers, suffering little children and their parents to come unto them, laying out riches to witness the rite?

Certainly director Charles Repole has made tellingly graphic, disturbing and moving the final cruelties to Christ. And the large cast comes across with solid portrayals, singing and dancing in this nearly sung-through product with Doug Kreeger’s take on Jesus both sympathetic and believable. Josh Tower’s Judas, though, throughout seems an empty shell. FYI: many local performers are in the ensemble,

Verily, lest ye not know already, this deals with one week in which the Gospels tell of events leading to the Crucifixion. The book, evidently by Rice, albeit not credited, gives equal weight to the eventually equally dead- by- suspension Judas, suggesting that he too is tragic. That’s probably the most original take on the story. But there’s also the image of Christ as human rather than God-like while Pilate’s scenes make him look weak and indecisive and Herod is presented as a buffoon. There are other elements with original perspectives. So, this is no ritual telling of the story.

Musically Webber mostly favors generic rock but also gets into a couple of other styles, including music hall and something symphonic, none of it particularly interesting. Rice’s lyrics, meanwhile sound pretty obvious, sometimes so patent that they become funny. As for the overall style, howling and wailing is standard delivery. Hardly subtle.

I found quite dopey the title song delivered as if a rock act with microphones and elaborately coiffed back-up singers. Huh?

As for the title, I understand that this is sometimes staged in contemporary clothing with Christ depicted as a hippie. Here the cast wears a mixture of styles. A harmless way to make a point about universality.

The whole thing could have been much more inventive. Spinning off of “superstar” which suggests a performing icon of the genre, all that Webber and Rice have done is feature rock songs. But this could have been about Christ as a traveling rock star whose gigs consist of him preaching in song, with backstage stories dealing with how he relates to his retinue and groupies. And as for Christ’s betrayal and eventual eclipse, that could have been done by making the villains record producers with the Crucifixion symbolic rather than realistic, or have someone sabotage his sound setup to electrocute him.

But then Rice and Webber didn’t ask me what I thought. And, if you already find this show a masterpiece, you’d not care what I think either. All kinds of people come up with all kinds of interpretations of this story. Jesus Christ! Why not?

Jesus Christ Superstar continues through August 14th at Benedum Center, Downtown. Tickets at 412/456-6666 or