Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Theatre review: "Three Sisters" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre has another remarkable project, presenting two major plays and five others by Anton Chekhov as well as two by Brian Friel inspired by the Russian master. If the subsequent offerings equal the quality, the look, the feel of the first, Three Sisters, this could turn out to be one of PICT’s finest festivals.

Moreover, with Three Sisters continuing through August 26th, the performances could deepen and become even more impressive.

Harriet Power’s direction of Paul Schmidt’s translation comes full of vitality, depth and meaning brought out by how her actors play with superb pace while making the characters memorable and distinctive. They create a wonderful ensemble.

Inevitably, some people shy away from Chekhov plays, thinking them too full of talk and too devoid of developments and action. This, indeed, has much talk, including obvious philosophizing (as it is often described) but the interpretations give the text admirable  definition. No one rambles. No one declaims. Everyone lives.

There is also a frequent public perception that characters in Chekhov’s play are dark and melancholy, for whom we cannot feel sympathy of empathy. This production makes clear Chekhov's art in making them real and understandable. And it makes equally clear Chekhov’s symbolisms without ever pushing them.

However it could be difficult at first to understand the relationships. The program book does not clarify, although, in time, most should becomes clear.

In a provincial town in Russia, it starts with the birthday of Irína, the youngest sister. Her middle sister, Másha, is married to Kulýgin, a high school teacher. The oldest sister is the unmarried Ólga. They have a young brother Andréi who seems to have promise as a professor in Moscow until he is sidetracked by marrying Natasha, a local, lower -class woman. Their family friend Dr. Chebutýkin is a frequent visitor. The dynamics alter with the arrival of a group of soldiers newly stationed there. They include married commanding officer Vershínin, a lieutenant, Baron Tuzenbach and quirky, aggressive Captain Solyóny. Tuzenbach and Solyóny fall in love with Irína. Vershínin and Másha begin an affair.

Clearly Chekhov intended to portray how these self-involved people are sustained by illusions and show the weaknesses of such a social class. Given that the play premiered in 1901, you could also read into it an inference that the underpinnings of Russian society are increasingly shaky, especially in how Natasha eventually becomes the household’s controlling force.

Among the six visiting artists, all with leading roles,Leo Marks stands out brilliantly as Tuzenbach, with sunny, lively innocence and a charm which would brighten any somber Russian night. Megan McDermott creates a dynamic, perceptive portrait of the variable Natásha and Christian Conn’s version of Andréi brings forth all of the young man’s pitiable weaknesses. Of the four Pittsburgh actors with significant roles, David Whalen’s performance of Vershínin makes clear all of the man’s passionate, complex soul while Jonathan Visser’s playing of Solyóny has  perfect dangerous volatility. And, as Kulýgin, Joseph Domencic makes completely convincing the man’s foolishness and how his words disguise what, inside, his heart really holds.

This production superbly gets into the essence and truth of what these people feel and equally reveals what makes Chekhov’s work classic theatre at its best.

Three Sisters continues through August 26th at the Henry Heymann Theatre at Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412/394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Theatre review: "Sunset Boulevard" from Pittsburgh CLO.

Pittsburgh CLO offers an impressive-looking, well-played and sung short run of a musical version of film classic Sunset Boulevard.

Billy Wilder’s 1950 script about Hollywood has always left a strong impression with its dark, edgy and compelling tale about a silent film star who, no longer part of the dream factory, out of the spotlights due to time and inevitable change, still feasts on fantasy.

This comes full of melodies by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics and book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Webber has written several appealing themes, even though much of his score sounds more standard than special, especially in pushy, big front-and -center numbers. Other notes support rather than enrich the story-telling songs while his best music comes burdened with trite and obvious lyrics. Yet, every so often, something worth hearing emerges, including an instrumental tango.

The book works exceptionally well, replicating much of the on-screen source, despite the songs, not exceeding it by more than half an hour. If the plot is new to you, you can certainly get fascinated; a lot of what Wilder put there gets its due. Even some of the screenplay’s better lines are incorporated. On the other hand, if the film still lives in your memory, you could conclude that it is more a replica rather than a fresh remake.

Newly dead screen-writer Joe Gillis flashbacks a tale of how he got enmeshed in the cobwebs of Norma Desmond’s fading life. In 1949, former silent film star Desmond inhabits a museum-like mansion whose flickering shadows keep her alive, supported by her solitary butler, ex-movie- director Max von Mayerling. Desmond cherishes a belief that she’ll make a comeback in her own script in which she stars as teen-age Salome, luring Joe into helping her, sucking the life out of him.

Such a plot comes rich with possibilities, especially since Norma has sad, tragic dimensions. Moreover, cynical Joe has internal vulnerabilities while Max has his own sorrows. And there’s the subsidiary thread of Joe’s romantic relationship with Betty, an evenly-balanced woman his own age. Director Barry Ivan has capably staged many dramatic moments, interpreted convincingly by his cast.

I feel that Liz Callaway’s version of Norma looks most like a caricature, as if she were channeling Gloria Swanson’s performance rather than making this her own. And Swanson's over-the-top acting doesn't look all that right for film. The role has deeper possibilities. Certainly Norma’s visual art depended on significant body language, but the person off-screen could have been more real than that. Showing that human side underneath the make-up, away from camera lenses, could be a stage triumph.

Callaway always sings impeccably. So does Pittsburgh-born and CMU-trained Matthew Scott interpreting Joe. His excellently finds sweeter, more complex qualities underneath Joe’s acerbic surface. And Walter Charles gives Max as much dignity and distinction that the script allows, magnificently singing one of the best songs “Greatest Star of All,” the vocal highlight of the performances.

This production always looks phenomenal due to Norma’s constantly varying costumes and eye-catching sets, all of that rented, but proving that CLO has a good feel for what works best.

Newcomers to this fable, musical or otherwise, can find a lot to engage them. For those with more familiarity with it,this could either seem like a colorful revisit or prompt a hope for a more original interpretation.

Sunset Boulevard runs through July 29th at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/456-6666 or pittsburghCLO.org.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Theatre review: "Suddenly Last Summer" from The Summer Company. Sunday, 22nd July 2012

The Summer Company has taken on Tennessee Williams fascinating, dark tale Suddenly Last Summer, giving it a thorough sense of reality with convincing performances despite a script which has few actual developments. Fundamentally this loquaciously dwells on one subject, yet the actors keep it so alive that you may not mind such weakness nor the play’s other flaws including a clumsily constructed ending. 

This is another of Williams’ ventures into the cruelty and despair which haunted his soul, and director John E. Lane Jr. does his audience an admirable service by writing about such background in his program notes. 

The long one act spends most of its time focusing on one absent person, recently deceased 40 year old Sebastian Venable. At his bizarrely decorated home, his mother Violet tries to bribe youngish surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz into lobotomizing her niece Catherine. Violet wants the operation to cut away the throbbing essence of the young woman’s description of witnessing Sebastian’s gruesome death the previous summer. Violet refuses to accept the story; it disrupts her belief that Sebastian was some kind of a saint.

The entire play builds up to fleshing out that story while Violet’s character also becomes clearly revealed.

Williams has both women separately tell of Sebastian’s life-and-death-defining moments and how they encompass his vision of God. 
As in classic Greek tragedies, the most searing moments are described rather than seen, although this Sebastian is no tragic hero. Hints of wanton homosexuality course through the narratives, the mother’s boy clearly, intensely interested in other boys. Echoes of wild Dionysian rites lurk in the shadows. So too does the image of martyred Saint Sebastian, his body pierced by bloody barbs. 

In addition to evoking the Sebastian legend, Williams has laid on other pungent, obvious symbols, starting with a well-fed Venus flytrap and winding up with details of horrible events at a place named Cabeza de Lobo. 

Remarkably Lane and his cast have found ways to keep all the talk vivid despite minimal stage movement during long speeches, in which this play abounds. From start to finish Susan McGregor-Laine’s adept and skillful portrayal of Violet makes her every self-revealing speech clearly believable. Most of the time, though, she misses conveying Violet’s poisonous similarities to her dead son. Teresa Madden Harrold as Catherine gives her the right sweetness mixed with justified self-assertiveness, but, when she launches into telling about what brought on Sebastian’s death, she doesn’t seem as terrified as you’d think she’d be. Meanwhile John Feightner’s version of Dr. Cukrowicz remains believably sturdy and sympathetic.

Opening night there were odd, seemingly random, distracting insertions of bird calls and short music passages which served no evident purpose. And, if you’re wondering how these characters could be seriously talking of lobotomy in this day and age you might want to know that the play takes place in 1936 New Orleans, neither fact stated in the program.

Here Williams’ flowing language comes across as less florid than in some other plays, as if caught up in forcefully telling Sebastian’s tale clearly rather than decorating it excessively. That may be because Williams wants to make a major point. You will find it. This summer.

Suddenly Last Summer continues through July 28th at Peter Mills Theater in Duquesne University’s Rockwell Hall, 600 Forbes Avenue. Tickets through Gemini Theater Company’s box office: 412/24-5201. Info at 412/243-6464.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Theatre review: "Fiddler On The Roof" from Pittsburgh CLO. Sunday, 15th July 2012

Another production of Fiddler on The Roof? It sounds crazy, no? Well, not actually. Since the musical’s award-winning, critics-and-audience- delighting debut in 1964, productions have flourished and multiplied around the globe. Cleary it has a lot going for it: great songs, an admirable book, colorful characters and a specific ethnicity. No wonder Pittsburgh CLO decided to give it another try. Yet, this version, directed by Jack Allison, looks based on a belief that the show can carry itself instead of becoming a fresh take. And Allison has had outstanding results in Point Park Conservatory productions of She Loves Me (also by Fiddler’s Bock and Harnick) Carousel, Assassins, On the Town and more. Here he doesn’t do equally well.

Joseph Stein’s book has exceptional, imaginative ideas. Moreover Jerry Bock wrote wonderful music, reaching even beyond predicable ethnic harmonies. And Sheldon Harnick created many very adept lyrics. But any production needs heart and soul; that seems missing.

At the center is Lewis J. Stadlen as Tevye. The versatile, talented actor, with a string of impressive credits, makes the character a thing of shreds and patches rather than somebody specific. Tevye could be charmingly simple, or loveable, or goofily comic. Stadlen gets none of that. And, as if influenced by his lack of definition, performers in other significant roles seem to be going through the motions, although with skill and polish. Since many of us know this show well enough to not only recognize the plot but even some of the lines, this becomes more like a visit to a museum than encountering engaging theatre. Emblematic: expressionless Lucas Fedele, frequently visible as the Fiddler, never moves his fingers over the strings. Almost an automaton.

The ensemble superbly dances Mark Esposito’s recreation of Jerome Robbins’ choreography. Moreover, Lauren Worsham sings beautifully as Hodel as does Nick Verina in the role of Perchik, the student from Kiev who comes to love her. As for acting, David Perlman makes the tailor Motel Kamzoil appealing and believable. So does C.M.U. grad Hunter Ryan Herdlicka portraying the Russian Fyedka who courts Hodel’s younger sister Chava. Plus Pittsburgh's Tim Hartman convincingly conveys the Russian Constable’s conflicting emotions.

That conflict dovetails with the many significant, dramatic dimensions which Stein put into his book, including an astonishing ending which goes against most musicals’ traditions. It reinforces the sad underpinnings of the life of such Jews in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the last century. Stein also tellingly touches on the stirrings of revolt at that time and place. And he reminds us of other changes threatening the status quo even among such tightly knit communities as Anatevka. What he wrote makes this much more than standard fare.

Not surprisingly, the original production got the 1965 Tonys for best book, musical and score. That makes it worth trying again, even if Allison and his cast don’t make the best of what’s there.

Fiddler on the Roof continues through July 22nd at Benedum Center. 412/456-6666 or pittsburghCLO.org.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Theatre review: "Candide" and more from Opera Theatre Pittsburgh-Sunday, 8th July 2012

Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh gives us all something to cheer and admire. It also presents something to lament: the summer lease has all too short a date, just three weeks, with only one remaining. The ongoing Summer Fest makes the most of the congeniality of Hillman Center for the Arts at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel. As you may have learned, three fully-staged operas and six miniatures are at the center of the activities. To learn more, your best option is to connect to http://www.otsummerfest/.

One of the big three is superbly-sung, cleverly played and staged Candide, often called “ an operetta.” This spins off from a 1974 version of 1956’s ill-fated Broadway premiere and features music by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by various people over the years, here including some of the originals by Richard Wilbur along with more by brilliants Stephen Sondheim and John Latouche. With Hugh Wheeler’s revised, funnier book closer to Voltaire’s satire, it ran 22 months on Broadway and won five Tonys, in contrast to the first production’s awardless two months.

You’ll hear and see what justifies the acclaim and reputation accorded this, given uniformly magnificent singing, several wonderful character interpretations, filling out plenty of zippy business directed by consistently locally admired Scott Wise and remarkably adept playing by a 12-member orchestra led by Brent McMunn.

This means yet another opportunity to marvel at the richness and variety of Bernstein’s score, with its beauty, its fun and its sometimes send-up of others by such as Gounod, Rossini and Offenbach. And the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow” remains a beautiful, moving experience, realized to its fullest by this cast, including a great chorus.

On the opening night the orchestra, with only four string instruments, interestingly, came across in the Overture with an almost edgy tone, appropriate to the tale rather than as a more lush sound people might expect. At all times it remained equal to the tonal challenges.

Abigail Dueppen sparkled and shone as Cunegonde, her every note a gem, her every gesture and attitude just right for role of a vacuous bubble-head who triumphs adversity by not understanding what that word means. Joseph Gaines matched her with his adept singing and playing as Cunegonde’s equally superficial and sexually exploited brother Maximilian. Candide is played by Daniel Teadt. His singing left a marvelous impression, both tonally and in how he made the most of the lyrics, but he didn’t come across with much definition of the young man’s simple-minded innocence. Cross-dressing, counter tenor Andrey Nemzer has the big comic role of the old lady. Vocally, he hit all the right notes extremely well, but when he had dialogue the performer’s thick Russian accent muddied up almost every word, emphasizing the dragging quality of the second act, with a long tedious monologue, fewer memorable songs and a more plodding narrative. Center to the story is the foolish Dr. Pangloss, more an acting than a singing role. James Fitzgerald interpreted it capably but had none of the inherently funny, cartoonish qualities which would be consistent with how other characters are played and which director Wise’s conception calls for.

Wise came up with several imaginative touches, including strewing the stage with books which become furniture or weapons. And, when the main characters set sail across the ocean, their small ship lists to starboard when the fat Old Lady shifts her position.

Part of the Opera Theatre experiences includes six mini operas staged in a smaller adjacent venue. Each is by a different composer, each taking place in the same hotel room. I saw Bridal Suite featuring Dwayne Fulton’s music and a cast of 13 in a goofy gathering of women lamenting a bride’s being stood up at the alter. Fulton wrote gospel-like and opera sounding music, all sung with style and verve, Denise Sheffey-Powell made the most and best of the bride’s every note. Bridal Suite will be repeated next Sunday at 5 pm together with all of the other minis and a seven-piece orchestra.

It is preceded by the final performance of Candide, one of only two chances to catch it, the other is Friday July 13th. The Magic Flute and what’s called Carmen-The Gypsy, both wrap up on Saturday, July 14th.

What I’ve seen makes with me fervently hope that Opera Theatre’s Summer Fest thrives and endures, as a welcome part of our city’s performing arts scene.

More information is at http://www.otsummerfest.org/ and 412/326-9687

Theatre review: "Orange Flower Water" from No Name Players-Sunday 8th July 2012

Intense, truthful acting and perceptive directing vivify No Name Players’ production of Craig Wright’s domestic drama Orange Flower Water. The dark intimacy of Pitt’s Studio Theatre makes the experience truly up close and personal, diving into intimacy as two couples alternately dive onto a bed, the centerpiece of this experience, while they seek to alter their relationships.

Wright has written TV scripts for Six Feet Under, United States of Tara and Dirty Sexy Money. You can see such orientation in this short exploration of marriages gone awry, as if it were a one hour episode, rather than something complete. Which is not to say that it is either shallow or slick. Wright deals in shades of gray, not black and white, showing four people trying to work out their own imperfections, not realizing exactly what or who they are.

Given that, an excellent cast perfectly exposes those conflicting qualities, director Steven Wilson evoking the right pace.

The premise seems simple. David, married to Cathy, yearns to merge with neighboring Beth, married to Brad. Beth appears interested, wanting to move on and escape Brad’s dull crudeness, despite 15 years of living together, even begetting children. Both Cathy and Brad try to hold to what they think they had before.

Wright’s insightful script makes it clear that David is more clueless than the other three about what he is doing with his life. Cathy provokes David into intense sex trying to hold him home. Beth, a traditional wife and mother, appears to think that another relationship is the only escape. Expletive-dependant, seemingly violent Brad hasn’t the power to prevent losing Beth, but certainly knows he loves her. Wright also makes it clear that the course of new love never does run smooth.

Mike Mihm’s version of Brad impressively seethes with raw anger while, at the same time, revealing the hurt little boy inside and Tressa Glover convincingly makes clear Beth’s emotional confusion. Robin Abramson’s Cathy seems believably vulnerable, the most sympathetic of the quartet and, as David, Ricardo Vila-Roger always comes across as genuine, even while keeping David’s inner self opaque.

Director Wilson adds a good subtle touch by having the four protagonists seated in individual corners, as if a tag team of combatants ready to slug it out under glaring spotlights. Yet, I found he didn’t go far enough in staging Cathy and David’s quite explicit sex. Since so much else of these performances stays realistic and truthful, this calls for, at least, unzipping a fly and lifting a skirt, rather than keeping the couple too clothed. I’ve read on-line that productions elsewhere actually include nudity.

I think you will notice, then, if you need such an advisory, that this is a play for mature audiences. Mature enough to also understand what Wright is trying to tell us, recognizing his expert portrayal of human nature and the imperfections of relationships.

As for the title, it seems almost peripheral, but you might find some small, symbolic significance.

Orange Flower Water continues through July 14th at PITT Studio Theater, Cathedral of Learning, Oakland.

412/207-7111 or www.nonameplayers.org

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Theatre review: "Annie" from Pittsburgh CLO-Sunday 1st July 2012

Pittsburgh CLO puts lots of delightful color into the 1977 Broadway mega-hit Annie with director Charles Repole breathing fresh life into it thanks to a good cast, a dandy dancing and singing ensemble full of local talent, supplemented by Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography, especially in the bigger numbers, plus great sets by nationally famed Kenneth Foy and a lively orchestra led by Tom Helm.

Sally Struthers gets wonderfully cartoonish as nasty orphanage overseer Miss Hannigan. Conrad John Schuck’s take on Daddy Warbucks does well, giving him a heart of gold under a gruff exterior and he sings with sturdy earnestness. St. Bede Elementary School’s Johanna Loughran plays Annie. Opening night I felt that she displayed no special personality and, though singing capably, sounded more like a brat than a sweet kid. And an out of town dog named Macy reprised her role of Sandy looking bored.

Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin wrote really good songs for this show, including Strouse’s tuneful “Little Girls,” “I Think I’m Going to Like It Here,” and “Easy Street, ” Charnin turning in especially clever lyrics a number of times.

The production reminds us of the ingenuity and invention of Thomas Meehan’s book including an evocation of the days of the Depression with street people temporarily sheltering Annie and a sleazy plot by Hannigan’s brother Rooster trying to profit by posing as Annie’s long-missing father. Moreover Meehan, Strouse and Charnin came up with ways to insert jolly production numbers along with goofy takes on old radio programs or showing how Warbucks has influence and pals around with political big wigs including president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

By the way, have you ever thought about Warbucks’ name and what creator Harold Gray might have intended? An armaments profiteer, perhaps? According to Wikipedia the comic strip attracted adult readers with political commentary targeting, among other things, organized labor, the New Deal and communism. T
his show, as you may recall, doesn’t get satirical but does have fun evoking the period.

The cast includes Pittsburgh’s Tim Hartman as FDR, along with local talents Jeff Howell and Paul Palmer in smaller roles. And CMU music theatre major Denée Benton sings superbly, briefly seen in the song “NYC” as a character called “Star-to-be.” 27 students from the Pittsburgh CLO Academy of Musical Theater are in this. Especially note redheaded Chelsea Calfo as Pepper, one of Annie’s roommates at the orphanage; she exudes professional style and personality.

Also worth praise: the program book has thorough biographies of Meehan, Strouse and Charnin.

They created a charmer and Pittsburgh CLO gets it right.

Annie continues through July 8th at Benedum Center downtown. 412/456-6666 or pittsburghclo.org

Theatre review: "Lettice and Lovage" from Terra Nova Theatre Group: Sunday 1st July 2012

Terra Nova Theatre Group is exploring historic ground rather than something new, Peter Shaffer’s 1987 much-admired comedy Lettice and Lovage. In doing so the company ably reveals the originality and appeal that lies in this jolly entertainment, at the same time providing a wonderful discovery for many of us, namely Susan Martinelli. In the role of Lettice, her wonderful performance makes a visit something not to be missed.

The play does not seem complicated, so a great deal depends on the playing and direction. Director Mark Stevenson makes all the staging stride and flow with natural ease in Grey Box Theatre’s small, store-front playing space while Martinelli evokes the grandeur of an Oscar Wilde-like person in dialogue to match. Her every speech, her every gesture amuses and charms.

At first Lettice Douffet, who has family history in Theatre, is a tour guide in Fustian House, cleverly named by Shaffer (“fustian” meaning among other things, pompous), a 16th Century building of evident marginal significance. Lettice has been adding spurious background and details which are not in the specifications of her narrative. Lotte Schoen, who works for the owner of Fustian House relieves her of her post. But eventually they become friends, sharing a disgust with modern architecture and a vivid fascination with the details of executions of bygone royal personages.

The third act becomes the most engaging, not only because it deals with a conundrum, but also because actor Mark Yochum comes on stage to capably and amusingly play a lawyer named Bardolph, supplementing Martinelli and actress Allison Cahill as Lotte, the other major role. Director Stevenson and Cahill have also done really well in transforming Lotte from a contained civil servant into someone more lively and alive.

Re lovage: it’s an herb, in this case one added to a drink Lettice has invented, a drink which loosens up Lotte into revealing much about herself.

You can see why this play has delighted many audiences in the past. And playwright Shaffer has likewise written other celebrated works, alas, not mentioned in the program book. Most famous include, sequentially, Five Finger Exercise, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Black Comedy, Equus and Amadeus. By the way, he was a coal miner during World War II.

Advice: to hear and understand the production best, sit facing the stage, not on the side. But you might want to arrive early. There aren’t a lot of seats and the night I attended the cast played to a full house, a delighted house.

Lettice & Lovage plays through July 7th The Grey Box Theatre is at 3595 Butler Street, Lawrenceville. ProArts Tickets: 412/394.3353 or www.proartstickets.org. Info at www.terranovatheatregroup.org