Sunday, February 26, 2012

Theatre review: "The Elephant Man" from Prime Stage- Sunday 26th February 2012

Prime Stage has a major assignment in producing Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, given the mission of appealing to and educating students and families. The intelligent, highly original play is complex and deals with complicated themes. Most of the essentials come across clearly directed by Rich Keitel. And actor Sean Sears gives a touching, perceptive performance in the title role enhancing the best aspects of the play.

This concerns actual events during six years in late 19th Century London centering on horribly disfigured John Merrick. After being displayed in carnival freak shows, he was rescued, treated and studied by surgeon Frederick Treves. Merrick, confined to a hospital for his own well- being, became something of a celebrity, no doubt due to the fact that he was discovered to be intelligent and articulate.

Regarding student audiences, Merrick’s story could be inspiring since one point can be that that even deformed, odd-looking and handicapped people have something worth cherishing and admiring despite outward appearances. Pomerance actually says much more than that, something perhaps not readily apparent even to adults in these performances.

Visually staging The Elephant Man, as if in a circus, giving the title double meaning, Keitel has a very imaginative way to underscore Pomerance’s equal point that nearly everyone connected to Merrick seeks to exploit him as if he were a creature rather than a complete human being within such a disturbing body.

London Hospital administrator Carr Gomm and Bishop How have their own agenda regarding Merrick and, as Merrick becomes famous, members of the upper class seek to enhance their standing by meeting him. I found this aspect of the script not clear enough in Keitel’s direction.

Keitel and actor Justin Fortunato as Treves do make meaningful how Treves treats Merrick as if neither intelligent nor capable of knowing what’s best for himself. As the play progresses they also capably show that Treves himself is crippled by his own imperfections.

Sears’ performance as Merrick does a lot to make that man’s story moving and convincing while most other actors convey the basics of the rest of the characters.

Given the circus concept, Keitel sits his audience in the round. Yet almost all the playing faces downstage front rather than all around the space as it would be in real circus. Given the use of English accents and vocabulary, this could make it difficult for some audiences, especially young ones, to follow what’s being said, if seated behind most of the scenes. As another alternative to the downstage focus, Keitel could have achieved more clarity by having much of the dialogue upstage.

Pomerance’s script says a lot and says it well. Unfortunately there is nothing about him in the program book, another instance of a producing company ignoring the source of what they offer, characteristic of non-professional groups. But Prime Stage is professional and this looks especially wrong given its goal of educating young people.

According to Wikipedia, Brooklyn-born Pomerance is both a playwright and a poet. After studying at the University of Chicago,he moved to London when he was 28. His first play, High in Vietnam, Hot Damn was performed there and he co-founded a theatre company Foco Novo in 1972 for which he adapted a new version of Bertold Brecht’s A Man’s A Man. Several of Pomerance’s plays take politically weighted views of American history such as Quantrill in Lawrence and Melons. As for The Elephant Man,it was performed in repertory at Britain’s National Theatre plus several times off and on Broadway. The 1979 Broadway production won the Tony Award for best play plus two Tonys and ran for more than two years. It was also made into a film for television with the original cast.

You need to know that I auditioned for roles in this production. But I don’t take personally not being cast, given past experience as a professional actor. In fact, I’m not convinced I would have been a better choice for those roles and the First Stage performers do look right.

The Elephant Man continues through March 4th at The New Hazlett Theater at Allegheny Square on the North Side. Tickets are at ProArts 412/ 394-3353 and further information is at

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Theatre review: "Sweeney Todd" at CMU for broadcast 26th February 2011

I’ve seen many productions of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd, including the original on Broadway. Director Joe Calarco’s current one for Carnegie Mellon School of Drama’s equals the best. In some places, even surpasses many.

Calarco and musical director Thomas Douglas have exceptionally shaped the look, feel and sound of this Sondheim/Wheeler legend, giving it compelling staging, dark humor and professional quality acting, singing and orchestra playing.

Of course, they have great material to perform, but they do it so much justice that, in the second act, where this work could seem like too much repetition of previous musical themes,the performances make everything glow anew.

From the outset you see how Calarco has imaginatively staged everything from the shrill whistle causing consternation among assembled, presumably civilized people as a harsh metal cage descends containing Sweeney. Such invention endures until the bloody end when corpses rise and ghosts stare into the audience darkness.

It also quickly becomes clear that Calarco has found telling ways to have his cast find truth and depth not only in Sondheim’s words but also in unspoken reactions to what happens to them and around them.

The voices of nearly everyone in the cast soared with beauty and strength on the preview night, most admirably those of Denver Milord as Sweeney, Jessie Ryan Shelton as Joanna, Corey Cott as Toby, and Grey Henson as Beadle Bamford. Meanwhile the 13 piece orchestra, led by Douglas, came across with fine intonations and special colors in what sounded like remarkably good arrangements for such a small group.

Among so many fine performers, including those in the ensemble,Lucia Roderique stood out most with delightful warmth and charm as Mrs. Lovett, making her more innocent than edgy. Her performance of “By The Sea” gleamed with happy sunshine. And in "Have a Little Priest,” the byplay between her and Milord brimmed with appeal. They had a lot of fun.

Milord’s solid take on Sweeney, validly, looked more rational than crazy, albeit full of anger. Yet he seemed too young, especially contrasted with Roderique’s apparent maturity. That night Abdiel Vivancos did not suggest the right age for Judge Turpin. Also he lacked the appropriate sleaziness while his singing didn’t equal the rest of the cast’s impressive quality. On the other side of the age divide, Corey Cott’s Toby failed to convey the child-like,dim-wittedness right for the role.

It is important,though, to remember that these are University students. And,since so much of this worked so well, especially given Calarco’s brilliant direction, this tale deserves attending. And admiration.

And here I am at CMU, at this radio station, proud of such a connection, admiring again the University’s theatre department, long a source of many artists who’ve gone on to successful careers.

Sweeney Todd unfolds only through March 3rd at Philip Chosky Theater on the CMU campus in Oakland. 412/ 268-2407

Monday, February 20, 2012

Theatre review: "Elder Hostages" at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

Four excellent actors make the latest Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company production vital and alive. They perform Elder Hostages, two hours’ worth of worthy one-act plays by Ray Werner.

The title of the collection and the program cover art suggest something violent and dangerous, but actually the seven characters may be more considered hostages to the perils of aging. Werner looks at these people with humor, compassion and imagination.

Certainly, those of us who’ve been around so long that we’d never be asked for IDs for cigarettes, cigars, beer, wine, vodka and scotch might not want to be reminded that the storage space drawers in our brains may need oiling, that our eyes and ears need help processing sights and sounds and that the flesh below may be getting weaker. And there have already been, over the decades, plenty of movies, plays and TV shows delving into such subjects, so much so that you might think there’s nothing new in explorations of the old.

I ramble. Forgive me.

In any case, Werner has found new territory. The plays occur in three different parts of Pittsburgh. And he hails from here. But the tales told in small spaces could take place anywhere.

I found Night Song the most moving of the three due to Susan McGregor-Laine. She encapsulates Sally, deep in the mists of Alzheimer’s. Sally’s husband Tim dearly loves her but their solitary life has become so much of a burden for them both that he plans for them to go swiftly into that good night. McGregor-Laine’s Sally feels and looks beautiful and sweet every living moment. No wonder Tim cherishes her.

The third play, Wandering Angus, emerges as the most original due to the character of Angus. A vigorous walker-walker he carries bags with all sorts of unusual items, offering perceptive, provocative, off-center comments, while suggesting that he may have magic powers. He encounters Jack and Betsy, strangers to each other but who, in common, are dependant on portable oxygen. Here director Marci Woodruff has done wonders with the cast, making sure that David Crawford as Angus not overplay but rather seem rational to himself. not pushing for wild comedy. He does that well. Meanwhile Stevie Akers as Betsy brims with energy and feistiness without ever becoming cliché-like.

Werner preceded both of those one-acts with Mum’s The Word , an inventive contrast to Night Song' s Alzheimer focus. Two Irish-sounding, elderly, not very interesting brothers treasure excellently functioning long-term memories, challenging each other to remember and recite passages from famed and not so famed books. They also reminisce about their parents in younger days. This never goes much beyond blather. And, as an opener, it may not grab some people in the audience who could mistakenly opt not to stay and depart during the first intermission. That would be too bad; what follows justifies the visit.

Roger Jerome appears in all the plays, capably versatile, always convincing.

Among good touches: Sound designer Mark Whitehead's choices of a recording by Sarah Vaughan of September Song to precede Night Song (“…and the days dwindle down to a precious few…”) and The Beatles’ When I’m 64 setting up Wandering Angus. Stir your memory: the Liverpool lads laid down those tracks around 45 years ago when 64 was considered ancient. Now many of us can look forward or back to those years as leaving plenty of time to do wonderful things in good health with minds, bodies and hearts full of vitality.

This production brims with life no matter what age the actors are. They and Marci Woodruff make it all real.

Elder Hostages continues through February 26th at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave. Downtown., 412/377-7803 or

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Theatre review: "The Gammage Project" at Pitt and, later,August Wilson Center

Over several decades Attilio Favorini, founder of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theatre Arts, has constantly enriched and enlightened this community. In the course of that time he’s written quite a few plays.

Now he’s taking on a serious, significant story about actual tragic events in the community, turning that into a docudrama, The Gammage Project. The modest title defines the framework, making it suggest a documentary rather than a drama, as if a work in progress. And it does indeed look unfinished, needing more work. The canvas with which he seeks to fill the framework has so much happening in so many corners plus along the edges that the central subject gets overwhelmed by too much detail. His worthy offering still needs to realize its potential as an important work saying important things.

It’s difficult to speak of this as theatre; the story is so close to home. It looks real. Most actors don’t seem to be acting. They seem to be being. Credit director Mark Clayton Southers for keeping that tone. And, during several heartbreaking scenes, that very quality grabbed me emotionally. Most disturbing of all, fight choreographer Joseph Martinez staged Gammage’s death so graphically that, at the sudden intermission which followed, I went off and privately wept. Meanwhile other people in the lobby chatted, grinned and snacked as if this was attending entertainment. Sure, I know it’s theatre, but the representation of that young man’s tragic death didn’t strike me as art. It struck me in the heart. Another time, at the Gammage funeral, Les Howard as the minister spoke so powerfully and so movingly it was all I could do to not call out in response as if in a real service. And when Laci Mosely as Jonny’s mother broke, no longer able to speak to a reporter, how could we watching that moment not cry with her? Is this theatre? It felt like testifying to truth.

Favorini certainly did massive amounts of research, but he needs someone else’s eyes and ears to decide what not to say, what not to tell. So far, with at least 25 people on stage representing more than 40 characters, most seem to have no specific personalities, even though identified by name. And, when some of them double, they look unchanged with the same clothes, the same voices, the same inflections. Southers needs to work on that.

I see no point in describing the essence of the story. The docudrama is the story, not hard to follow, despite an overabundance of unfocused details. And Favorini has problems which would be hard for anyone to surmount: this is about real people, most of them alive today. Near us. So, although many people believe that the five officers accused of Jonny Gammage’s death were guilty, representing them on stage, doing so in such a way as to call them guilty could be walking over the edge in law-suit territory.

However, Favorini could have done more to concentrate on those officers. They are as central to the story as Jonny, who, likewise, is barely represented. Instead there are other police, attorneys, students studying to be attorneys, judges, prosecutors, witnesses, reporters, and a lot of community people. And sometimes, during trial scenes, usually a source for intense drama, defusing the impact, attorneys or other people explain what happened in court rather than some kind of staging to let the audience see what happened. When given a chance, though, to actually behave like attorneys, Ken Bolden and Larry John Meyers give courtroom drama the substance it deserves.

This cast has a lot of students in roles. Most do reasonably well delivering their lines. But, in his short and crucial final scene as Jonny, I found Pitt student Correy Talley nearly unintelligible.

There were times throughout what seemed like an overlong running time when I had the impression that several people in the cast were dealing with dialogue that still needed to be set. On opening night, talented and frequently seen local actors such as John Gresh and Michael Moats looked at times as if struggling with their lines.

Yes, this story needs to be told. And told again. So long as racism festers, burns and kills good black people, we need to hear it. And to do something about it. Attilio Favorini tells it like it is. I wish he could tell it better.

The Gammage Project continues through February 19th at the Henry Haymann Theater, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue, Oakland. And, co-produced by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, resumes March 2,3rd and 4th at August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Avenue, downtown. 412/624-7529. and

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Theatre review: "Mid-Strut" at Pittsburgh Playhouse

Of course you can never accurately predict your future based on your present actions. And you can continually second-guess what you could have done in the past. But no matter what you do or have done every action often generates a reaction you could not have anticipated.

So go the inner workings in the fascinating ebb and flow of a remarkable world-premiering play by Ambridge PA’s Eric Burns. Burns is a much-lauded journalist and author whose career leapt off from WQED-TV to NBC News to Fox News and writing acclaimed non-fiction. Given all that experience, many of his admirers could have predicted that he’d come up with such an impressive theatre debut. They would have been right. Witness the result, Mid-Strut, in a superbly acted, perceptively directed production at The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Faced with imminent death from incurable cancer 50ish Jack Allison spends his final time and energies trying to connect with the adult version of Wendy, a high school majorette for whose peppy energy and flashy thighs he hopelessly yearned in those emotionally uncertain years. As they come together, her marriage to Jack McGruder has lost its footing due to his confessed mis-step, a one-month fling with a younger woman. Tangled in between them is their college-age daughter Sarah, whose loyalties vacillate even as she tries to find her own path in her still emerging life. As to why Burns chose to call both men Jack, add that as something to ponder once you’ve gone back to your own home, where, I hope,happiness and tenderness are reaffirmed, stimulated by the beautiful moments of this play.

The premise could strike you as rather predictable and devoid of serious thought provocation. But Burns is old enough, wise enough and skilled enough to know about the complexities of human behavior and to convey them in intelligent, natural dialogue, sometimes peppered with wry humor. So, even as death looms for Jack Allison while the McGruder family seems to be painfully falling apart,there are smiles and warmth. And their lives keep changing in unexpected ways.

Visiting actor Robert Turano creates a beautifully nuanced portrait of Jack Allison, still capable of innocence, but mature and thoughtful, never maudlin, always ready to deal with what his ebbing life yet has to offer. Cary Anne Spear, another visitor, does equally well in conveying Wendy’s conventional nature, what you might expect from the girl she may have been. Spear also makes clear Wendy’s emotional vulnerabilities and her hesitant striving for inner strength. As Jack McGruder, John Shepard capably shows his many dimensions, including his transformation from sorrowful guilt to emerging self-confidence while still being edgy and not able to bend enough. Add to them the always convincing vitality and complexity of Point Park Conservatory grad Maggie Carr’s Sarah. Plus the Conservatory faculty’s Philip Winters gives warm humanness to Jack Allison’s oncologist Paul Hodges.

Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom has impressively shaded and shaped these performances to make them a fine coherent whole. At the same time he has brought out telling, reflective reactions, keeping the staging and the pace vital but sensitive.

Playwright Burns has given us memorable portraits of real people dealing with the vagaries of real life…and death. Allan-Lindblom and his fine cast likewise make it so. This play may yet have a further real life, reaching out in other cities to say something significant to people like us, like the two Jacks, like Wendy.

Mid-Strut continues through February 19th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland 412/ 392-8000

Friday, February 3, 2012

Theatre review: "Why I'm Scared of Dance" at City Theatre

Actress, theatre company founder and sometime dancer Jen Childs briefly takes over the Hamburg Studio stage at City Theatre for a charming, lightweight entertainment Why I’m Scared of Dance. She wrote it.

Her seemingly autobiographical piece resembles one of those monologues for which people like Spalding Grey and John Leguizamo became renowned, bordering on the edges of stand up comedy. Except that Childs rarely stands still. Focusing on her feelings about the glamour, artistry and hard work of being a dancer, she illustrates with just about any kind of step and routine you can imagine. And some that may never have occurred to you. She does all of this with skill, style and personality plus a few elemental costumes and props. She does that with appealing samples of many kinds of music.

Her premise is that, from childhood on, she always wanted to be a dancer, but didn’t have the nerve, the training and the aptitude. She spins off from that, good-naturedly, humorously revealing some of her more elemental feelings while increasingly adding more and more skillful routines.

Expressing the joy of dancing, she and director Harriet Power have created a friendly experience.

Why I’m Scared of Dance whirls only on February 3rd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th at City Theatre 1300 Bingham Street, South Side 412/431-2489

Theatre review: "Billy Elliot The Musical" at Benedum Center

Billy Elliott The Musical ran for more than three years on Broadway and garnered 12 Tonys. Clearly, audiences, critics and theatre people themselves found a lot to admire. I just saw a production by a national touring company. And I don’t get it.

This major hit, derived from the movie from 2000, deals with a pre-teen lad who overcomes working class origins and struggles to surmount the odds of becoming a ballet dancer over the objections of a hard-nosed father and unyielding older brother. That suggests something sensitive and heart-warming, doesn’t it? Certainly it sounds like an original premise, But this version mostly looks like a skeleton of a plot dressed up in shiny production numbers and set-piece songs without much substance underneath.

The other major premise, based on real events, concerns a Northern England community involved in a prolonged miner’s strike in the mid 1980s.

These two elements fuse and intertwine while the people, really simple people, remain simple. As simple as much of how things predictably develop involving predictable characters.

Meanwhile Elton John’s music, pastiche-like, ranges over a variety of styles usually sounding like imitations rather than something original. You’ll hear echoes of A Chorus Line, a sort of waltz, a near-boogie, suggestions of English music hall numbers, some rock and a touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

A couple of scenes in the second act look very original. There director Stephen Daldrey has staged a very clever puppet show in which the townspeople mock the Margaret Thatcher administration, which was dedicated to closing down the mines. Then, at the end of the story, Daldrey has come up with an imaginative way to show the miners disappearing into the darkness and depths, returning to work

Other parts of his staging suggest satire, but not nearly pointed enough, while some production numbers even seem strange. Those involve Peter Darling’s choreography. For example, Billy, having barely started learning basic ballet steps, executes a lively tap dance with another pre-teen, Billy’s friend Michael, during which they are joined by a ensemble of human-inhabited costumes of indeterminate sex, the dancers wearing faceless masks. In another scene police and militant strikers confront each other and tangle in the middle of a girl’s ballet class. No doubt these are supposed to be taken symbolically but I still find them weird. Easier to accept: the non-literalness of Billy going into other complex dance routines when clearly, in real life, he hasn’t developed his talent that much.

As for the performances by the cast, everyone convincingly conveys the essentials, but none stands out with memorable interpretation. On opening night Ty Forhan, one of four boys playing Billy, did all the dancing and singing with impressive skill. But he didn’t have specific personality. That made him equal to everyone else in these sketchily written roles.

Speaking of that script, in the second act, without substantial explanation, Billy’s dad suddenly turns around and does all he can to encourage the boy’s endeavor to join The Royal Ballet Company School. Billy’s brother likewise suddenly comes around. These feel good developments look designed to go along with that act’s patently obvious attempts at humor.

Bear the setting in mind; there are accents and regionalisms which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. And parents may have trouble with the constant serving up of the vocabulary of these down-to-earth people; it is flavored with repetitive profanity. So, although the cast is full of kids, parents might be a little wary about bringing youngsters. Likewise questionable for the very young, there’s cross-dressing Michael, who suggests to Billy that they could be different kinds of mates.

Lee Hall’s book occasionally attempts a few moves toward some kind of enlightenment, such as trying to dispel the widespread belief that all male ballet dancers are poofs. He even throws in a few lines about what being a dancer means and about why ballet is art.

Those few moments don’t make this a masterpiece. But clearly, based on the New York reviews when the show opened, I’m way out of step with the majority.

Billy Elliot The Musical continues through February 12th at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/456-6666.