Sunday, February 24, 2013

Playlist: ""Classics" Sunday 24th February 2013

Alexandre Desplat-"Argo" movie score Watertower WTM 39382-excerpts w/ Desplat conducting

Mychael Danna-"Life of Pi" movie score Sony Classical 887254772152-excerpts w/ Mike Nowak, conductor

Dario Marianelli-"Anna Karenina" movie score Decca B0017596-02-excerpts w/Arjuhan Galleva and Telman Guzhevsky, singers-Marianelli, piano- Benjamin Wallfisch, conductor

John Williams-"Lincoln" movie score Sony Classical 88725446852-"The People's House" w/Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Williams conducting

Thomas Newman-"Skyfall" movie score Sony Classical-8765410402-excerpts w/Newman conducting

Danny Elfman-"Hitchcock" movie score Sony 88765417072-excerpts w/Rick Wentworth, conductor

Ludovic Bource-"The Artist" movie score Sony Classical 88697978952-excerpts w/The Brussels Philharmonic, The Orchestra of Flanders and The Brussels Jazz Orchestra-Ernst Van Tiel, conductor

Alexandre Desplat-"The King's Speech" movie score Decca B0015064.02-excerpts w/Dave Arch, piano-Desplat conducting

Dario Marianelli-"Atonement" movie score-excerpts w/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano-English Chamber Orchestra-Benjamin Wallfisch, conductor

Playlist: "The Best of Broadway" Sunday 24th February

Alan Menken: music & Glenn Slater: lyrics-"Leap of Faith" (original Broadway cast) Ghostlight 8-4465 -excerpts w/Kendra Kassebaum, Raul Esparza, Jessica Phillips, Leslie Odom Jr., Kecia Lewis-Evans, Taylon Ackerman, Kristal Joy Brown-Brent Alan Huffman, music director,

Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker: music & lyrics-"Alter Boyz" (original off-Broadway cast) Sh-K-Boom 7915586050-2-excerpts w/ David Josefberg, Andy Karl, Scott Porter, Tyler Maynard, Ryan Duncan-Lynne Shankel, music director.

Theatre review: "Chess" from Point Park Conservatory Theatre

Sitting through the two and a half hours of a Point Park Conservatory Theatre company performance of the musical Chess you might, like a player of the game, sit there wondering about your next move, sit it through to the end or leave at intermission. After all, there have been many outstanding productions of great shows over the years. But, should you choose to stay, you might consider intermission a highlight while you close your eyes and dream about better days when the Conservatory offered something worth its and your time. And then,you might return to your seat with the hope that surprises will emerge. After all, the plot has a few good things going for it. But don't expect too much.

Actually the show has become quite well known and had a good run for the money in London, 1984-87, although a Broadway version lasted for only two months. Since then, people all over the world have bought tickets to 28 other productions.

There is the potential attraction of songs created by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus 
formerly of ᗅᗺᗷᗅ the Swedish pop group behind highly successful Mamma Mia, along with lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber-collaborator Tim Rice.  Should you be among the insufficiently informed about those people, adding to your puzzlement, don’t look for clarification in the program book. There’s nothing about them in the eight pages of credits, although the assistant stage managers get half a page. 

Consider the possibility that this is good training, challenging students to make the best of it. Should they go on to professional careers, if they want to work, inevitably they’ll take on roles in junk.  

Which is to say, that in this pop opera, you may look in vain to find worthwhile melodies or clever lyrics. Once in a while a few fragments surface, suggesting going somewhere without succeeding, in pieces which sometimes sound like standard rock and sometimes resemble recitatives in third rate 18th century opera. Even a couple of  distractions, a southeast Asian production item and a brief Eastern European choral bit don't add much. Nothing the talented, capable performers do can make this thing better. Yet several of them really shine vocally and establish solid personality in not very complex roles. The book by Richard Nelson has some interesting elements, but they don't go very deep.  

There’s a romantic triangle involving two top chess 
players, an American and a Russian, in a world championship, and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other. This also involves political gamesmanship with such obvious elements as the idea that such people are pawns in the struggle. The whole thing centers on a personal contest between American chess master, Freddie Trumper, and Russian, Anatoly Sergievsky, Freddie’s coach or “second” is Hungarian born Florence Vassy, who, tired of his narcissism, falls for Anatoly and he for her. He defects, leaving behind a wife and repercussions affecting his family while she hopes to reunite with her father who may still be alive in Russia dominated Hungary. Apparently the show's plot was inspired by the antics of Bobby Fischer and contrasted with the behavior of other real life masters Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.

Director Scott Wise has done a lot to make this look interesting, filling the stage with human scenery in the constant movement of black suited, deliberately interchangeable security people from both sides of the Iron Curtain. He calls forth interesting scenic effects provided by Anne Mundell and adds the now ubiquitous device of live TV camera projections. Such stuff could make you believe that you’re watching something significant but 27 empty songs dominate the experience. In them, Wise has his solo performers avoid histrionics and just stand still delivering their numbers, a worthy choice except that this makes the shallow content even more obvious.   

Joe Pudetti stands strong amid the mostly generic characterizations by the cast, giving Anatoly compelling, sincere presence. And he sings magnificently. He has the makings of a star. Keaton Jadwin does equally well in giving Freddie specific, snotty dimension and he handles all the vocal challenges with constant skill. And Ariell Rawding has a lot of class as Anatoly's wife Svetlana.

As for what you won’t discover if you attend, here are facts missing from the program book. The show, like others by different people, began as a concept album, similar to American Idiot,
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. This emerged in 1984 created by ᗅᗺᗷᗅ, a couple of years after the group had split up following ten successful years together. They were Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Wikipedia points out that, as of 2011,Andersson was active with his own band and was executive producer for the film version of Mamma Mia. Ulvaeus co-produced the movie. Certainly there’s much more to read about them on-line, even if not one word is devoted to them in the booklet created by this educational institution. 

I can’t help wondering what will be the Conservatory’s next move. Last year there was the dreadful M33. But this fall featured a marvelous version of The Producers. Hey, kids, that’s show business. 

Chess continues through March 3rd at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412-392-8000 or


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Theatre review: "Spring Awakening" at CMU.

The CMU School of Drama offers a beautiful production of the musical Spring Awakening which has all too short a date. For me, it surpasses the national touring performance which stopped here in May of 2009 at Heinz Hall. That version seemed dark and somber, certainly justified by the story and theme, but lacking elements which could have served it better. This new one glows with style and soul, enriched by wonderful singing and expressive direction and choreography from the faculty’s Tomè Cousin, aided by Bryce Cutler’s scenic designs and Dan Efros’ lighting.

The thirteen-member student cast makes the most and best of Duncan Sheik’s music, memorably bringing out the lovely choral harmonies,or,in solos, duos, trios etc sweet where vulnerable tenderness belongs, or with the right kind of urgency in throbbing rock numbers. Meanwhile the eight member orchestra, directed by Thomas Douglas, plays everything superbly. 

The emerging artists on stage move with grace and meaning in Cousin’s many memorable ideas of how to make bodies say what words may not. He fills the stage with movement, using the large space to have his young people ebb and flow, vividly alive finding themselves, while dominating adults tellingly hover above them. This is quite a difference from how I remember what I witnessed almost four years ago, where dark confines perfectly expressed a major element of the story’s time and setting. Tomè’s take suggests a different, although valid symbolic meaning. Yet, in the first act, the presumed oppressive social environment does not come across clearly and meaningfully.

Lyricist Steven Sater wrote the script based on a play by German author Frank Wedekind about life in an adult-dominated, repressive culture of a small German town in the 1890s. There, young people are starting to burst at the seams which confine them to childhood. They urgently want to grow, their bodies metamorphosing, but not knowing why or how to do what hearts and minds urge.

The main thrust of the story becomes ultimately tragic. Evidently Wedekind wanted to criticize such a society and to show how it damaged youth, dwelling on intelligent questioning of religion and of accepted ideas through one character, teen-age Melchior Gabor. That could have led to the original play being banned as well as the fact that it showed masturbation, teen sex, suicide, violence and abortion. The musical version incorporates all that. But you wouldn’t know how serious this is, or how serious it will become, from much of the first act.  The second act brings that home. 

Taylor Jack Helmboldt conveys Melchoir perfectly in every note and every gesture while Katya Stepanov and Nick Rehberger continually make vivid and distinctive all the roles of the adults in the story. Everyone else remains convincingly dear, as if you’d want to hold them and comfort them on their way to what could be a brighter future both as characters and performers.  Continuing to display his imaginative artistry, Tomè baptizes them into such a new day.

Spring Awakening continues through March 2nd at Philip Chosky Theater, Purnell Center for the  Arts, on the CMU campus, Oakland.  412/268-2407.






Thursday, February 21, 2013

Theatre review: "American Idiot" with a road company at Heinz Hall

A traveling version of the musical American Idiot has surged into town for a few days. This ensemble has so much energy you can’t help wondering how they sustain all that song- yelling while jumping, leaping, flying, soaring all over a set which looks so solid and detail- filled that you have to wonder how the whole thing can be set up and torn down on a weekly basis.
Looking at this year-long-running 2010-11Broadway sensation you could get the idea that it is as much a spectator sport as a theatrical event. Sure there’s a slight story line, something on which to nail all the material from the same-named album by Green Day: Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Trè Cool. But the nearly dialogue-less, 90 minute-or- so item seems more about visually personifying the songs with the emphasis on feelings rather than on the meaning of the words, usually lost in high decibel volume. There are a few temporarily quiet moments with eloquent traces of simple folk-song- like melodies, backed by a string quartet represented by a live cellist in a cage. Why the cage? I guess it’s some kind of a statement, or it may be to protect his tranquility from the uncaged action throbbing all around him.  

The stage vibrates with a fascinating flow of remarkable images, Steven Hoggett’s choreography becoming constantly impressive. 
Armstrong and director Michael Mayer’s book focuses on three young men, Johnny and Tunny who escape their lives in suburbia while Will stays behind to work out a relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. The former two try to find meaning in the freedom and excitement of a big city. Tunny joins the military and comes back war-wounded. Johnny gets into an intense relationship and even more heavily into drugs, giving  up his girl friend in favor of his addictions. Most of the time none of them is happy or fulfilled, perhaps idiots ruining their lives.
At the start of the show you clearly get the idea that all these people are angry. Given that, everywhere they turn, TV screens dominate their scenery replicating and multiplying the images of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, you can understand their feelings, including the idea that their world is becoming increasingly bleak. Christine Jones’ set brings that home, dominated by pervasive technology including looming black sound equipment and bare metal scaffolds and never a hint of a green day with trees and flowers. There’s also the graffiti-surrounded toilet upstage to add to the impression. Plus Andrea Lauer’s costumes make it clear that clothes choices reflect ugliness as a style statement.

Especially witness a beautiful aerial ballet personifying Tunny’s hallucinations while sedated in his hospital bed; he and his nurse fly to and from each other yearning to hold on. And there is also a telling expression of how Johnny and his girlfriend are caught in the coils of heroin addiction, as if their tourniquets are poisonous snakes.   

You probably need to know that the production should carry a warning that it’s for “mature audiences only” given plenty of profanity plus simulated sex and drug use, even if the characters themselves are hovering on  the edge of maturity.

As for the leading roles, everyone sings and moves with all the intensity required while capably suggesting as much personality as possible. But the ensemble carries the day, even if it never transforms into something green.   

American Idiot continues through Sunday, February 24th at Heinz Hall, downtown. 412-392-4900 or


Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Best of Broadway" and "Classics" return!

“The Best of Broadway” Sunday February 24th (2-3pm) features selections from last year’s short-lived Leap of Faith w/ music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater who also wrote the songs for Sister Act, the musical.

“Classics” Sunday, February 24th (3-5pm) features film music from Academy Award- nominated scores for Anna Karenina (Dario Marinelli), Argo (Alexandre Desplat) and Life of Pi (Mychael Danna). The Oscars are awarded on this evening. 

Playlist-Massive Music Weekend-Sunday 2/17/13

Massive Music Weekend playlist for program Sunday February 17th 12:30- 1 pm. Featuring Wilkinsburg/Pittsburgh born vibraphonist Steve Nelson, born 1955. He solos on every selection.

“Steve Nelson-Sound Effect” High Note HCD 7175-“One Thin Dime”w/Mulgrew Miller, p-Peter Washington, b


“Dave Holland Quintet-Dream of the Elders” ECM CD 1572-“Equality” w/Holland, b-Eric Person, as

“Steve Nelson-Fuller Nelson” Sunnyside CD SSC 1134-“Easy to Love” w/ Kirk Lightsey, p

“Steve Davis-Portrait in Sound” Stretch CD SCD 9027-2 -“Samba D” w/ Davis, tb-David Hazeltine,p

Playlist-Massive Music Weekend-2/17/13-re Jimmy Ponder

Massive Music Weekend playlist for program Sunday February 17th-11:30- 12 pm. Featuring Belzehoover/Pittsburgh’s guitarist Jimmy Ponder born 1946. He solos on every selection.

“Jimmy Ponder-What’s New” High Note HCD 7100-“Please Send Me Someone to Love” w/ Gene Ludwig, org-Cecil Brooks III, dms

“Hank Crawford-Down on the Deuce” Milestone LPM 9129-“Survival”-
 w/Crawford, as-Cedar Walton,p 

“Jimmy Ponder-Somebody’s Child” High Note HCD 7165-Title & “Kickin’ Da Bobo” w/ Howard Alexander, p-Jeff Grubbs, b

“Jimmy McGriff-Skywalk” Milestone LP M 9126-Title w/ McGriff, org-Arnold Sterling, as

Playlist: Massive Music Weekend 2/17/13-re Joe Thomas

Massive Music Weekend playlist for program Sunday February 17th 10:30-11:00 am, Featuring Uniontown, Pa. born (1909) tenor saxophonist Joe Thomas, He solos on every selection.

Best of Jazz-The Swing Era-Jimmie Lunceford”- Best of Jazz CD 4002-Swingin’ Uptown” w/Willie Smith, as- Eddie Tompkins, tp-Rhythm is Our Business” w/Smith, voc-, Tommy Stevenson, tp-Moses Allen, b-Jimmy Crawford, dms 

Jimmy (sic) Lunceford and His Orchestra Decca LP DL 8050: “Hi Spook”

“lunceford special” (sic) Columbia LP CL 634
What’s Your Story Morning Glory?”(by Mary Lou Williams)-White Heat” -w/Smith, cl-Paul Webster, tp-Eddie Durham, tb
Same Best of Jazz CD-
Annie Laurie” w/Trummy Young,tb-Webster, tp.-
“The Lonesome Road”w/Trummy, voc.-Smith, as 

“Joe Thomas/Jay McShann-Blowin’ In from K.C” Uptown LP 27.1“Dog Food”(by Thomas)w/McShann, p-Haywood Henry, bs-Johnny Grimes, tp-
George Duvivier, b 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Theatre review: "Zanna Don't" from University of Pittsburgh Theatre

Theatre students at Pitt and Pitt director C.T. Steele romp through a delightful, charming, imaginative take on a goofy musical called Zanna Don’t! This 2002/3 off-Broadway debuter with book, music and lyrics by Tim Acito plus Alexander Dinelaris’ additions, has gone on to fame and fortune regionally and in London’s West End.

Yes, the title is a spin on Xanadu, the musical, whose roller-skating choreography inspired Acito to want to emulate. He eventually abandoned the footwork but stuck to some similar plot elements and came up with a light-hearted version of an alternative society at the center of which is heterophobic Heartsville High. A fairy, a guy named Zanna, is himself at the heart of this “Musical Fairy Tale” rather than extraterrestrials from Olympus. Zanna’s magic helps everyone be happy by conjuring up love, boys with boys and girls with girls. Eventually Zanna yearns to be mortal, willing to give up his powers.

Acito has written a gaggle of funny lines and permutations without going overboard into send-up territory, including cross-dressing legendary fairy tales. Meanwhile, given the subject, Steele has admirably made sure that these kids don’t camp, vamp, swish, or growl like butch bulldogs. The young’uns look and talk just like you’d expect in an average, innocent, expletive-free, mid-West America community circa 1950. Yet, on this far-out side of life, Steele has created a wonderful array of colorful, unique, eye-catching costumes. Whoops! Protect those orbs from the glare and possible fall-out; sequins shimmer and cascade all over the place. Scenic designer Amanda Leslie has even gussied up the nachos. Credit her, as well, with other clever prop inventions.

The ten member cast gives good vibes to Mami Tomotani’s choreography, all solidly in step with one another team-wise. A few of them even sing capably, especially as an ensemble, even though Acito didn’t give them much of musical merit. His lyrics sound a little more special and sometimes come across clearly despite hectic, high-volume delivery.

The school’s new football quarterback Steve becomes a heart-throb for local chess champion star Mike while Zanna equally pairs off academic wonder Kate with part-time waitress Roberta. But the best-laid plans start moving topsy-turvy when the students decide to explore the perils of producing a musical involving heterosexual romance. Despite the absence of closets, someone may come out.

Rocky Paterra's playing of Zanna keeps him full of appealing vitality and personality while Aric Berning’s Steve stays sturdily sincere. And Laci Mosley has it all together, voice-wise, singing Roberta’ songs.

Some of the student cast still needs training in how to avoid yelling and racing lines, as if pushing were the best way to play comedy. But as a part of something constantly engaging, their developing skills and their ages fit like a glossy glove.

Zanna Don’t! continues through March 3rd at Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, 4200 Fifth Ave. Oakland. 412/624-PLAY (412/624 7529) or

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Theatre review: "Sister Act" road company

A lively, capable, hardworking road company is doing its thing here in a few days glimpse of the musical, Sister Act, part of the Broadway Across America series. As you may know, this is a spin on the 1992 movie starring Whoopie Goldberg. There were songs in that too, but not the same as in those in the 16-month-running Broadway show.

Ah, yes, another nun show, closer to Nunsense (quite close, actually) than to the intended uplift of The Sound of Music. Won’t those poor, dedicated souls in black ever get any peace?

Alan Menken wrote the music and Glenn Slater the lyrics. They’ve turned out some pretty good stuff before and came up with a few worthy contributions this time around. Note that multi-award winner Menken has written a score of scores for Disney movies and their stage transubstantiations. The 14 numbers, with five reprises, come in variety of style, not just rock.

The show is based on Joseph Howard’s screenplay with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. Beane has written a number of good plays, often veering towards bizarreness. Here he’s more conventional while serving up some good laughs, albeit basic ones.

The two and half hours in two acts mostly look like a vehicle for singing and doing a little dancing with most lead characters getting their own down front and center special time. Yea verily, everyone sings sturdily, dances expertly when required and delivers the elemental goods as if they believe in them.

The plot has only about 20 minutes worth of substance, most of that in the first act. Night club singer, booty-shaking Deloris, witnesses her boyfriend Curtis killing someone and, needing to escape possible bump-off, gets help from one-time classmate Eddie who’s become a good cop. He’s got a crush. Eddie aids Deloris’ submerging into a convent, even though Mother Superior would prefer more order in her order. Deloris finds that the nun’s choir needs some serious help hymn-wise. She tunes them up. So much so, that their floundering church may resurrect, given that crowds come to witness the nuns’ act and start filling up the collection plates. Meanwhile Curtis hopes to send Deloris to heaven.

Ta’Rea Campbell plays Deloris with vigor, vitality and a voice to beat the band but she lacks anything special personality-wise. On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s own E. Clayton Cornelious’ take on Eddie comes loaded with charm and style. As Mother Superior, Hollis Resnik expertly avoids the obvious, neither cracking too wise or coming across as the nasty product of too many years bending knees on cold stone floors. She gives the role more subtlety, and earnestness, so much so that in the final big production number, she doesn't belong, singing and dancing amid that all-stops-out crowd.

The sets have simple integrity and the nuns costumes get glitzier and glitzier.

Don’t expect a miracle. 

Sister Act continues through February 10 at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/ 456-6666-or

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Theatre Review: "Becky's New Car" from The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

An all-Pittsburgh cast romps at Point Park U’s The Rep having fun and passing it along in a jolly play by prolific Steven Dietz. Clever, well-developed Becky’s New Car doesn’t go very far or wide, but the trip has its pleasures due to some good writing and several truly appealing performances. Director Kim Martin gets all possible mileage out of it.

Becky Foster is an office manager at a car dealership. Wealthy billboard company owner and widower Walter Flood buys nine cars through Becky with whom he is also smitten, He mistakenly believes she’s a widow, an impression she doesn’t do much to correct. Becky’s reward for the sale is her own new car. And, for her, driving means freedom. So she wanders, leaving behind her puzzled psychology majoring college student son Chris and her laid-back roofing company owner husband Joe. Also at Becky’s office is  perpetually clumsy salesman Steve Singletary, another widower who may have lost his wife by accidentally dropping her off the edge of a cliff.

Dietz adds a few original touches by making some of this resemble stand-up comedy with Becky talking to the audience and to her tech people off stage. She also invites audience members to come on stage to advise her and to help her change clothes.

Dietz wrote many funny lines and sketched in amusing characters. You can’t doubt his skill or some of his clever devices. But the ride mostly becomes worth it due to engaging performances by Tony Bingham, Michael Fuller and Kevin Daniel O’Leary. Bingham’s natural relaxed charm perfectly suits the role of unassuming Joe. Fuller’s take on Steve never ceases to be hilarious. And, as young Chris, O’Leary brims with personality. Point Park U. MFA candidate Jodi Gage plays Becky and remains convincing as someone older. She plays cuteness well.

Dietz has not covered much new territory but what he mapped out stays completely entertaining and engaging. 

Becky’s New Car continues through February 17th  at Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/392.8000 or

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Theatre review: "John Gabriel Borkman" a Quantum Theatre production

Henrik Ibsen’s next-to-last play John Gabriel Borkman doesn’t come to light nearly as often as do, for example, The Wild Duck, A Doll'a House, Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. Like them, it peers into the darkness and confusion of suppressed emotions amid the bonds of domesticity. 

This play long stays loaded with words which speak longer and louder than actions. Such heaviness could be hard to bear amid the somber shadows and ghostly drapes on a temporary stage within the seemingly unfinished Hart Building in East Liberty. Especially while winter blasts and chills just outside the doors. Such a setting validly has its own say.

However director Martin Giles and his excellent Quantum Theatre cast have imbued this rarity with so much vitality and conviction that the heat permeates every corner even though the characters lives seem trapped in ice while, outside, nature’s whiteness covers human tracks. The impressive performances make it look as if the people on stage are determined to keep every nerve pulsing, Giles stimulating compelling movement as if masterfully choreographing, as if body language has as much to say as do words. At the same time each cast member speaks the dialogue with fluent assurance.

Giles has also added a fascinating, astonishing symbolic extrapolation, wherein a young girl, playing violin wildly, sensuously dances as if unable to control herself. Although this takes that part of the play into an inconsistent place, it comes across as another example of how Giles makes this a vibrant experience.

Former bank manager John Gabriel Borkman has imprisoned himself in an upstairs room of his home, cutting himself off from connections with his wife Gunhild and his son Erhart. This follows Borkman’s disgrace and actual incarceration for illegal speculations with investors’ money. He has visitors: old friend Vilhelm Foldal and Foldal’s violinist daughter Frida.

Ella Rentheim, Gunhild’s long-estranged sister and John’s one-time lover, comes to ask that the young man’s parents permit Erhart to live with her and take her name. But Erhart has become attracted to wealthy divorée Fanny Wilton and wants to get away from the clinging older women of his family.

In time John tries to come out of his self-imposed isolation and, seeks to resuscitate his fortunes and to breathe again, embracing the fresh air and freezing whiteness engulfing his home.

Much of the first act dwells on how these people feel rather than what they do. The women gossip, quarrel, recriminate, pacing back and forth, unable to contain their inner turmoil while, above them, Borkman, confined within his own misery, in equally ceaseless footsteps, tries to reason his way out.

Were it not for how Giles and his cast move so dynamically that act could eventually seem to not go far. Fortunately the second act invigorates the visit. Part of that comes from the characters taking bigger, stronger steps.

Bridget Connors perfectly swoops and fidgets as if Gunhild can find no rest from her inner turmoil. Contrast that with the expert, subtle flowing containment that Robin Walsh gives Ella. And when Daina Michelle Griffith as Fanny marvelously comes sparkling amid them, you understand why Erhart can’t wait to warm his hands and heart in her presence. Witness too the sweet, convincing sincerity of Ken Bolden’s Vilhelm. Visiting actor Malcolm Tulip plays John. He has a great feeling for Michael Meyer’s transformation of Ibsen’s words. But strange body language. He moves stiffly, awkwardly. As if some kind of automaton. Surely this is deliberate symbolism. It does not merge with the naturalness of the other performances.

Tony Ferrieri’s set design becomes a marvel of its own. The draped furniture, the shadowy walls, tellingly say the house is nearly empty even with people in it. And then the whiteness shifts, almost as if windblown, and turns into a snowy landscape.

This much overlooked play presents a challenge for directors and actors to make it come alive. You can infer the problems; too much talk for too long before something dramatic really happens. But since it abounds in Ibsen-placed symbols, Giles embraces the concept and dynamically solves the problems, turning this into something worth coming into from out of the cold.

Quantum Theatre’s production of John Gabriel Borkman continues through February 24th at the Hart Building, 6022 Broad Street, East Liberty. 1-888/ 71-TICKETS (1-888/ 718 4253) and

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Theatre review: "1776" at Pittsburgh Public Theater

Playwright Peter Stone and composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards got it right in calling their Broadway show 1776 “a musical play.” Stone’s script carries the day. That becomes abundantly clear in the present, impressive production at Pittsburgh Public Theater thanks to superlative acting and insightful, dynamic direction by Ted Pappas.

The book and the dialogue offer so much that you might wonder why this winner of three Tony Awards including Best Musical has to have songs, especially since most of them sound more utilitarian than original. But, back in 1969 when it opened, that might have been a hard sell to get audiences to buy tickets for just a play,with such a subject as our nation’s birth, the conception of which emerged in The Declaration of Independence, with that document at the heart of it all.

The Vietnam War continued to burn for six more years while dissension and disunity tore at the guts of U.S. citizens. Some of us shredded flags to protest the tragic waste of
our young countrymen's lives. Faith in our nation was being sorely tested. And the riots at Chicago’s Democratic Party national convention seven months before still seared our collective memory.

And yet, what could be a more appropriate time to remind us of the agonies, the perils, the need for compromise and reconciliation which challenged our forefathers bringing forth a nation conceived in liberty in midst of war? How to do that without sounding like a lecture or just another respectful, yet un-nuanced documentary? Answer: make it resemble entertainment. Liven it up, freshen it with music, songs, laughter.

It worked. This musical play ran for nearly three years.

So, never mind that nearly all of Sherman Edwards’ 13 songs have undistinguished music and clumsy lyrics. Stone’s re-telling of the history lesson comes filled with distinct, memorable characters even when sketched-in simply. His dialogue crackles with provocative intelligence and, from time to time, charming humor. Stone makes those men from the colonies come alive on stage. And the cast enriches what’s there, even when briefly defined, shaded and colored by Pappas’ inventive perception. 

There are times, though, when it looks as if everyone is trying a little too hard to make the songs work, becoming more obvious than subtle and sincere. For example, in the memorable “Molasses to Rum,” a stunning peroration by South Carolina Congress delegate Edward Rutledge, he reminds his colleagues that they all profit from slavery. In Hayden Tee’s interpretation, he takes over the entire stage as if Rutledge owns it. No doubt Tee and Pappas were prompted by the brilliance of Sherman Edwards’ best contribution to the score, but it doesn’t need such pushing. And Tee’s magnificent singing becomes an object of wonder rather than an integrated element in the whole concept. Meanwhile, this personification of Rutledge looks like an arch and shallow contrast to Tee's appealing solidity as King Arthur in The Public’s 2011 production of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.

Contrast that with the only other truly special song, “Mamma Look Sharp” sung by a ragged courier from Washington’s army which is falling apart in fields not far away. Pappas and actor Eric Meyers, give it moving sorrow in solitary shadows. Pappas staging here, as elsewhere, creates superb, evocative tableaux.

Pappas has also made the final scene, despite its predictability, another moment to call forth tears, choosing simplicity over obviousness.

More than half of the 26 member cast consists of artists from Pittsburgh although only one of them has a principal role. He is Darren Eliker, with depth and definition as Pennsylvania’ s John Dickenson, the only delegate clearly opposed to the Colonies secession from the Empire. Others becoming solidly specific amid the wonderful sense of ensemble include John Allen Biles, Jeffrey Carpenter, Jeremy Czarniak, Jarrod DiGiorgi, James Fitzgerald, Tim Hartman, Daniel Krell, Jason McCune, Larry John Meyers and Scott P. Sambuco.

The other principal characters with the most emphasis are John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Steve Vinovich gives Franklin genuine warmth and a fine sense of intelligence and integrity. And Keith Hines (seen before as Lancelot in the Public’s Camelot) makes Jefferson sweetly appealing. John Adams is the most difficult role. Historically he’s been often defined as aggressively earnest and not easily likable. Stone and Sherman do what they can to lighten him up but visiting actor George Merrick hasn't found a way to get behind the surface.

Martha Bromelmeier created great costumes and F. Wade Russo’s expertly directs the not-visible seven member, 12 instrument orchestra. He didn’t get a curtain call on February 1st and should have.

Who would guess that attending a tale we think we know could become an experience to cherish and admire? And it reminds us to equally admire and cherish those real people who gave us our dynamic heritage.

1776 continues through February 24th at Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O'Reilly Theater, downtown. 412/ 316-1600 or