Sunday, January 27, 2013

Theatre review: "Seminar" at City Theatre

Titling a play Seminar may seem risky, given the implication of an intellectual gathering. And when people learn that, in it, Teresa Rebeck has written about fiction writers discussing writing, people could conclude that this is going to be meandering talk with nowhere to go.

But experiencing it at City Theatre, you’ll soon see sparks catch fire and find yourself engaged. Rebeck delves into what motivates people into thinking that assembling words into something clearly meaningful is the height of creativity. She reminds everyone that writers can seeth with passion, that putting such urgency on a page can be a burning need not just to express oneself but also to communicate. She has created something full of vitality, capably provoking thought about what lies beneath the vulnerable surfaces of seeming innocence. Talented visiting actors do it all justice

This is promoted as a comedy and, as it begins, it feels like fluff. Rebeck seems to have found it necessary to heighten popular appeal by peppering her dialogue with non-stop profanity. Later she also stuffs the sentences with the characters’ vigorous sex-lives revealed in action and talk. These gratuitous elements do no harm, but it looks as if she wanted to make sure audiences are entertained while she delivers her trenchant observations. Maybe she needed to convince producers and backers that, to go public, it had to sell tickets.

Being in public, fame is the goal for Douglas, Martin, Kate and Izzy. They’ve hired the much-experienced Leonard to coach them, critique them and stimulate them into success, given his own triumphs in earlier days. At first, Leonard seems mostly like a soul-less prick. But as time and the play progresses, his insightful, well-conceived complex dimensions emerge. So too does Rebeck move away from slick, designed-to-be amusing dialogue to capably go deeper into what these people feel and think.

Daniel Gerroll clearly stands out as Leonard, indelibly urgent, dynamic and perceptively realized.

Heightening the experience, scenic designer Tony Ferrieri has created a remarkable double-sided set that adds to the solidity of what Rebeck says and does. And Tracy Brigden’s direction gets everything right.

In the course of the vibrant and sometimes nasty exchanges that surge through the spaces among them, Leonard tells young would-bes that most people don’t care about writers. That, to them, we writers barely exist, even as many of us live on the margins of financial security and our solitary efforts seldom take shape in actual print.

Or consider how, in other parts of our city, less-than-professional theatre companies devote many program book paragraphs to credits of actors and people behind the scenes but include nothing about the artists who created those scenes out of thin air. (“Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat,” Sondheim). Such ignorance remains wide-spread and distressing.

Like me, most writers live and breathe in shadows. What do you know about me, after all?

By the way, do you notice by-lines?

Seminar continues through February 10th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, , South Side. 412/431-CITY (2489) or

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Theatre review: "Flight from Himself" with Mark Conway Thompson @ Off The Wall Theater.

The performer Mark Conway Thompson has often appeared on local, national and international stages. His distinctive, memorable presence has added to the depth and color of many plays produced in Pittsburgh, including recently portraying a patient,loving husband in Sharr White’s The Other Place at Off The Wall.

Now he returns there in a bold and rare offering in which he displays another less-often seen aspect of his talent and training. Thompson’s expressive face and body make movement art. I hesitate to call him a mime since a standard definition of that implies wordlessly acting out a story and/or trying to suggest dealing with solid things doing so in an empty space.

I call this “bold” because Thompson’s piece, titled Flight From Himself, does not appear to be designed as entertainment, The himself you see is certainly not a clown, despite briefly donning a bulbous red nose. Nor do you see a person vibrating with happiness nor dragged down by profound solemnity. Rather you may discover someone bewildered but flexible enough to find ways into and out of puzzles, puzzles he deliberately creates.

Being present, letting go with the flow of Thompson's grace and kind of elemental beauty becomes the best way to experience this. To feel rather than think.

His program notes describe this evocative work of art as full of metaphors about existence which “invite interpretation.” And, for this semi-abstraction, he provides titles for elements which may give you clues along the way should you feel you need them.

Consider, though, the music of Rachmaninoff which sometimes underscores Thompson’s movement, or perhaps motivates it. Consider, too, the paintings of Rachmaninoff’s contemporary Wassily Kandinsky, vibrant with color yet not depicting anything precisely. Such creations are not about things; they speak without words. Thompson also seeks to communicate, to share. No words are needed. And yet, here are mine, trying to ex....…..….

Mark Conway Thompson's Flight from Himself continues only through January 26th at Off The Wall Theater 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA. 412/ 489-5840. Tickets at or 1-888-71-TICKETS (1-888/ 718 4253).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Theatre review: "Les Misérables" road company.

As you may have heard, a new traveling stage production of Les Misérables has stopped here for a few days even though the current Oscar-nominated film is causing quite a stir.

also might have learned that this 25th anniversary version has been revised physically and musically. I wasn’t aware of how it has been changed, never seeing any complete version before. A deliberate choice. Witnessing the first act during a 2005 performance at Benedum Center, I left at intermission, finding the music and lyrics nearly empty, the staging obvious and the story-telling simpleminded. With no interest in seeing it or hearing it again. But I've tried again, being perhaps overly prejudiced these past eight years.

This time I found much to admire, despite the songs. And it turns out that a lot of what impressed me is different from previous concepts, learning so from on-line reading.

This take looks great. The sets and staging, for example, have been re-conceived, as adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird modifying  their work on the initial production. The sets have character, giving depth to the story. And projections from Fifty-Nine Productions come across as remarkably inventive. Moreover, the physical elements, the picturesque tableaux, the effects, show much imagination and creativity. Credit Michael Ashcroft with that as well.

There has also been a change in how the music sounds. The new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke stay full of color, with everything played superbly by 14 live musicians doubling and tripling on as many as 25 instruments.

They make Claude-Michel Schönberg’s pseudo-operatic score seem better than I thought it could be. A few decent melodies actually crop up now and then amid the sung-through two and half hours worth of generic, repetitive melodies and recitatives. Plus superb singing by many members of the cast make much of that sound as good as it possibly can. Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics, however, remain trivial and obvious. It would be interesting to know if the original French ones by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel offer something more original.

It seems, at times, as if the directors were aiming more for melodrama than something deep and human, despite Schönberg’s attempts to suggest serious music. Peter Lockyer, for example, tends to play Jean Valjean with histrionics instead of truthfulness. But he makes up for those lapses with supreme vocal talent and range. Meanwhile, as the presumably evil Madame Thénardier, Shawna M. Hamic weighs in with heavy overplaying perhaps striving for comedy but looking as if she’s doing her own thing instead of melding with the serious playing by everyone else on stage. 

The elemental telling of the tale may not have changed, but this immense cast gives it their best, looking and sounding fine despite the limitations of the songs and script.

Les Misérables continues through Sunday, January 27 at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/456-4800 or

Monday, January 7, 2013


Hello! The next broadcasts of "The Best of Broadway" and "Classics" are scheduled for the 24th of February. January 13th to February 17th WRCT broadcasts coverage of CMU basketball games on those Sunday afternoons.

My theatre reviews will continue here on this blog during all of those weeks. Below this posting you will see details of what I plan to cover during that period. 

Playlist: "Classics" Sunday, 6th January 2013

All of the music is by Francis Poulenc, born January 7th 1899

"Poulenc: Aubade-Les Biches-etc.ONF/Roge'/Dutoit" London 289 452 937-2 -"Les Biches": Adagietto w/ Orchestre National de France-Charles Dutoit, conductor

"The Poulenc Trio" Marquis 774718 214032 6-Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon w/Vladimir Lande, oboe-Irina Kaplan Lande,piano-Bryan Young. bassoon (""The Poulenc Trio")

"Poulenc: Secheresses-George Pretre" Musical Heritage Society 515272A-"Secheresses: Les Sauterelles" w/ Choeurs de Radio France-Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France-Georges Pretre, conductor

"Poulenc-Stabat Mater-Langrange-Baudo" harmonia mundi HMC 905149-"Stabat Mater" w/Michele Lagrange, soprano-Choeurs et Orchestre National de Lyon-Serge Baudo, conductor

"Poulenc Chamber Music-Roge' Gallois-Bourgue-Portal" London D-25185-"Sonate pour flute et piano" w/Patrick Gallois, flute-Pascal Roge', piano

"Poulenc: Concerto Pour Orgue-Gloria-Quatre Motets-Pretre" EMI CDC 747723 2 -"Gloria" w/Rosanna Carteri, soprano-Choeurs de la R.T.F. -Orchestre National de l'O.R.T.F.-Georges Pretre, conductor

"Poulenc Chamber Music-Roge' Gallois-Bourgue-Portal" London D 125185-"Sonate pour clarinette et piano"; "Romanza" & Allegro con fuoco-w/Michel Portal, clarinet-Pascal Roge', piano

Playlist: "The Best of Broadway" Sunday, 6th January 2013

George Gershwin: music & Ira Gershwin: lyrics-"Nice Work If You Can Get It." (2012 original cast) Shout! Factory 826663-13740-excerpts w/Matthew Broderick, Robyn Hurder, Kelli O'Hara, Chris Sullivan-Tom Murray, music director

George Gershwin: music & Ira Gershwin, DuBose & Dorothy Hayward: libretto-
"Porgy and Bess" (2012 Broadway cast) ps classics ps 1206-excerpts w/ Nikki Renee Daniels, Joshua Henry, Natasha Yvette Williams, Audra McDonald, David Alan Grier, Norm Lewis-Constantine Kitsopoulos, music director

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Theatre review: "Flashdance, the musical" on tour

You don’t have much time to catch Flashdance the Musical, kicking off the  American debut here in the city where the story is set, heading for Broadway later this year. The show world-premiered, oddly, in the UK where it ran for two and a half years. Reading about that on-line, it’s clear that alterations to the story have been underway.

This version, derived from the 1983 movie, looks phenomenal. It arrives full of exciting, superbly choreographed and danced numbers with everyone dressed in an incredible array of impressive, constantly changing costumes, some materializing on the non-stop active bodies as if by magic. And the fascinating, constantly creative set has a life of its own making the most and best of lighting, shifting walls and ceilings and perfectly chosen projections, often calling forth images of our special city. The cast, meanwhile, performs all the vocal and physical demands with impressive energy and talent.

Robbie Roth and Robert Cary’s rock-based songs sound more generic than special with some of the lyrics coming across as inventive. But you’ve got to hand it to them, they don’t get heavily into selling their stuff with front and center pushiness as do plenty of shows these days. Cary and Tom Hedley's  fairly elemental book remains convincing and not overly obvious. For example, the final scene has no big production number as you might expect. This show has that kind of integrity.

Evidently the plot resembles the movie’s. Alex Owens is a steelworker by day and a go-go dancer at night. She yearns to enroll at a prestigious ballet school encouraged by elderly, retired dancer Hannah. A romance develops between Alex and factory executive Nick Hurley. They have their ups and downs while Alex’s long-time buddy Gloria, who dreams of becoming a dancing star, has a similarly variable relationship with would-be comic Jimmy.

The dancing by Emily Padgett as Alex glows dynamically and she sings in fine voice, always making everything look effortless and natural while Pittsburgh-born Matthew Hydzik brings warm sincerity to the role of Nick. Kelly Felthous and David R. Gordon's versions of Gloria and Jimmy stay equally believable plus Pittsburgher Rachelle Rak shines in a featured role as a show girl named Tess. Yet, none of these performance come across with anything distinctive character-wise. 

Director/choreographer Sergio Trujillo has staged the story-telling moments with natural clarity;they all flow seamlessly. And as for the dancing, wow!

You have only until the 6:30 pm performance, Sunday,January 6th to catch this before it's off and stomping in other cities. 

Flashdance the Musical is at Heinz Hall, downtown. 412/392-4900 or 412/456-1390 and