On Stage: Follow the Bouncing Dancers`

August 18, 2017

These guys were here a while back at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Dance Alloy Studios, but I never forgot them. This seemingly nonsensical piece seems particularly necessary in today’s social and political climate. Yes, that’s actually liquid refreshment with which they imbibe. Enjoy this tasty tidbit, along with an accompanying description…

The British/Hungarian pair walked out from behind three giant white scrims onto a white floor, certainly one of the most impressive restylings of the main studio at Dance Alloy. They stood out, in a way, even though they just wore tee shirts, jeans and tennis shoes.

Their eyes roamed. Slyly? I thought I caught a flicker of a smile.

Igor (Urzelai)and Moreno (Solinas) started to sing, maybe in Hungarian (actually Sardinian/Basque), was pleasant enough, but unfortunately had no translation.

Gradually they started “feeling” it, this Idiot-Syncracy, tapping their feet, moving in response to the music. Bouncing!?!  The music faded and that’s all we heard.

I think I had a flicker of a smile.

They unzipped their pants and took them off to reveal their underwear, daring us to react.

There was a leap and then shoes and socks came off. The bouncing became barefoot and quieter. We were left with one pile of clothes neatly folded and the other, well, sloppy. Which didn’t matter because the two piles soon disappeared behind a scrim.

So there the two men were, softly jumping, jumping, jumping, etc. And there they went, sometimes behind a scrim, always perfectly synchronized, gradually developing patterns, rarely taking a break.

One popped out waving a Terrible Towel…jumping.

Then they eventually brought out samples of Tennessee Whiskey for the audience to sample. Puzzled looks here.

A low bass ostinato emerge as we started to hear some heavy breathing. Complexity began to take over the seeming simplicity of the jumping vocabulary.

It became mesmerizing and never wavered. A brief thought — how do they do it? No matter — we all were smiling…

 


On Stage: Water Dance

August 16, 2017

Dance icon Lucinda Childs is flanked by Blanket founders Matt Pardo and Caitlin Scranton. Photo: Ben Viatori

The Monongahela. It was an impossibly perfect night on a Saturday night in Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River where viewers could take in the debut of the city’s newest dance company, The Blanket. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Friday night may have been rained out, but a healthy group of party goers gathered at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District to celebrate the inimitable choreographer herself, Lucinda Childs.

The Blanket: Georgia Bray, Matt Pardo, Sara Spizzichini, Eric Lobenberg, Lucinda Childs, John DeNeff, Caitlin Scranton, Jil Stifel, Sierra Barnett, Lindsay Fisher, Bianca Melidor. Photo: Ben Viatori

The Lake. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre returned to Chautauqua Institution in western New York State along the shores of the lake from which it got its name. From the time the bus pulled up to the brand new Amphitheater, the dancers were taken with the Victorian beauty of the gated community.

PBT alights from the bus at the back of the new Amphitheater.

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz

Emily Simpson and Jake Unger.

The atmosphere was enthralling, all the way through the performance that night. Still, the dancers got a few minutes to take in the vintage scenery.

 

Jason Zubovic, aka Thea Trix, welcomed one and all to Pittsburgh Luxury Cruises’ Fantasy.

The Allegheny. Attack Theatre has this fun idea called We’re on a Boat. It’s a great way to warp up the season, taking in the beauty of Pittsburgh from the three rivers, rain or shine. It happened to be a great night (my third time and probably my favorite). Michele de la Reza, Peter Kope and fellow Attackers mixed and mingled with

 

 

 


On Stage: Extra! Extra! Dance All Around It!

July 19, 2017

 

Katherine and the Newsies tap through King of New York.

As the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera continues its summer of excellence, it turned to yet another Disney production, the second such this year (The Little Mermaid) at the Benedum Center.  But where Mermaid swam with bubbly tunes over and under the sea, Newsies tackled a more serious matter, the newspaper boys’ strike of 1899 in New York City and laced it with powerful, athletic choreography.

While all Disney productions have messages embedded within them, this production spotlights the problems of child labor during the late 19th century. In a way it’s the flip side of Annie, with its perky, determined cast of girls.

While Newsies doesn’t have the familiarity of Annie, its cast of boys sets it apart as well, although the various roles can be played by young adults who just happen to look like teenagers. That means the choreography can be more complicated and physical.

And it is. The boys have numerous show stopping routines courtesy of director/choreographer Richard Hines (who has a connection to the original Broadway musical). It exploded with Carrying the Banner, spiked by strong jazz moves, and included King of New York, an electrifying tap routine (although you had to wonder where the Newsies got their shiny new shoes). You could tell the audience was waiting for the Newsies to conquer the stage each time as they swaggered up and down the fire escapes in the urban setting.

They are led by a charismatic Jack Kelly, played by Joey Barreiro, who recently finished the national tour (and one of several actors that made the jump to CLO). He’s an actor who knows the value of stillness, one of those people who light up a room (or a theater) with his presence. He also knew how to pace himself, saving his full-throated voice for a forceful rendition of Santa Fe at the end of the first act. Best friend Crutchie (a touching Daniel Quadrino) set the stage when he performed the song as a duet with Jack at the top of the show.

Jack’s love interest, Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) had an equally riveting moment in Watch What Happens and could hold her own, much like a budding feminist, with the guys. The production skimmed over shards of history with Joseph Pulitzer (a suitably authoritative Edward Watts) and Governor Teddie Roosevelt (CLO stalwart Gavan Pamer), less so with Bower burlesque hall owner Medda Larkin (a robust Patricia Phillips).

So maybe adults now deliver the “papes” and, on closer inspection, this musical a piece of revisionist history. But at its heart, Newsies is about persistence and courage, qualities that we need even today and it delivers.

 

 

 


On Stage: Under the Sea With the CLO

June 16, 2017

Diana Huey as Ariel. Photo: Mark Tracy.

Just call the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s splashy version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid simply bubblelicious. Yes, there are bubbles everywhere — filling the opening scrim, floating in a tower across the stage, defining the beach where Ariel covets a whole new world.

They set the scene for a frothy musical with deeper layers, all designed to pull at the heartstrings. The central theme might focus on Ariel’s journey, one where she struggles to make her dreams come true. And Diana Huey, blessed with a clarion voice so essential for Ariel, keeps everyone tuned into that journey.

Along the way, however, there are plenty of characters to help her, delivering jokes that, in lesser hands, would warrant groans. “Ariel’s acting fishy.” “Dating outside her species.” “Musn’t get cold fins.” “Squid pro quo.” But hey, they all lure the audience into, well, some finny fun.

 

They are clad in outrageously creative costume designs by Amy Clark and Mark Ross. Chief among them are Sebastian, the calypso-singing crab (Melvin Abston), who expertly maneuvered himself not only sideways, but front and center for a rollicking production number, Under the Sea.

Sebastian (Melvin Abston) leads a rollicking version of “Under the Sea.”

Then there is Scuttle (Jamie Torcillini), head sea gull, who fractured the English language in Positoovity, with three other gulls in a nifty vaudevillian tap routine. And of course, Prince Eric (Eric Kunze), who “captured” her heart with his own soaring tenor voice, fit the part of sensitive hero perfectly.

Scuttle (Jamie Torcillini) and friends tap away in “Positivity.” Photo: Mark Tracy.

But what would a Disney story be without villains? And this musical has a trio of memorable miscreants. Flotsam (Brandon Roach) and Jetsam (Frederick Hagreen), an eel-like duo create their own electricity as they slither around the stage, rocking Sweet Child as they roll on shoes with heel wheels.

That leaves the larger-than-life Ursula (Jennifer Allen), aunt of Ariel. She is Goth octopus goddess who may have stolen Ariel’s voice, but had a powerhouse instrument of her own in songs like Poor Unfortunate Souls. Allen dominated the stage, tentacles on alert, whenever she was part of the action.

Ursula (Jennifer Allen) with pals Flotsam (Brandon Roach) and Jetsam (Frederick Hagreen). Photo: Steve Wilson.

Being Disney, you know The Little Mermaid will have a happy ending. Still this story has enough twists and turns amid the currents of the story to satisfy just about everyone and especially the mini-Ariels who attended the performance…tiara, fins and all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


On Stage: Bringing “Paris” Home

June 5, 2017

Paris is (or should be) on everyone’s bucket list, whether it is the City of Light itself or the original movie starring Gene Kelly. Now An American in Paris can come calling to a city nearby. That is, in this case, Pittsburgh, where the Civic Light Opera was instrumental in bringing the Tony Award-winning production to life and is presenting it on its first national tour.

Original Cast members Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. Photo: Angela Sterling

So Paris recently made its way to the Benedum Center where it became one of the few productions to truly fill this 2,800-seat house, maybe even better than on Broadway. The star, of course, is the sweeping score, with so many George Gershwin favorites setting a blend of engagement and sophistication that inspires the rest of the production.

If you are looking for a remake of the Kelly movie, don’t bother. For director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon et. al. have used the story of an American soldier with a talent for art and filled it with so much more.

Instead of Kelly’s Jerry waking up to the sounds of Paris, the audience finds a piano center stage, signaling the importance of the music. The musical Paris virtually billows from there, beginning with the Arc de Triomphe hovering in the background and a huge French flag that covers the stage.

The spectacle continues with the art, so Parisian. It virtually draws the various buildings with charcoal lines as Jerry might have, along with such references as Monet’s light on the Seine and abstract modern art on display. There is a huge production number, ala the Art Deco design of Radio City Music Hall, and the climactic ballet sequence has a touch of Mondrian, with primary colors in geometric shapes.

There is much to bedazzle the viewer. Wheeldon’s vision is epic, where everything seems to be choreographed, even Bob Crowley’s Tony Award-winning set pieces that create a gliding jigsaw puzzle across the stage and drift down and up like clouds. When it’s all over, the audience has been on its own effortless Parisian tour.

And if the set dances on its own, the talented performers, culled from major companies in New York, Chicago, Miami and such, take the ballet style and give it an elegance and purity of line that has never been seen in a Broadway musical up until now, an achievement in itself. (And, by the way, they can sing and act up a storm as well.)

If there is a glitch, it’s that Craig Lucas’ book, taut as it is, builds up the secondary characters. It’s  a great idea on paper, but something that diminishes the relationship between Lise (the vocally superb Sara Esty) and Jerry (National Ballet of Canada principal McGee Maddox). Composer Adam, Etai Benson with a superb dry wit, gets the theatrical emphasis at the start. And Henri, a booming Nick Spangler, gets the benefit of the Radio City Music Hall mega-production.

A word to the wise: with so much to absorb and the huge vision of it all, this delicious Parisian truffle probably would be best to see seated at a distance, the better to savor it. And just like you need time to appreciate Paris itself, maybe it would be good to return for an encore, because this production builds its own stairway to paradise.

Original cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

 


On Stage: Baby’s Back!

May 25, 2017

It’s almost like a perfect storm. Dirty Dancing is on its second national tour. But ABC unveiled its own version starring Abigail Breslin and Debra Messing, which revealed a post-Kellerman life for Baby and Johnny. And if you bought the original on DVD, you could have the time of your life this week.

But that’s neither nor there. Dirty Dancing opened at Heinz Hall Tuesday evening in true encore form, taking the audience back to the ’60’s, mostly via a musical score filled with magic moments.

Good news, folks. Fo those of you who are Dirty Dancing buffs, this particular tour has changed since the original musical version hit Pittsburgh in 2015…for the better.

Of course, it is fiercely loyal to the original script, except perhaps for fleshing out a troubled relationship between Baby’s parents. Oh, and there’s not a Mrs. Schumacher and a few other bits and pieces.

Actually this hybrid version strikes a nice balance between what you expect to see and the abstract theatricality of a stage production.

It moves along with the speed of today’s lifestyle, particularly in a well-staged opening that used rapid-fire dramatic threads as it depicted the start of the Kellerman mountain resort season. The set design kept the window shutters and scenic projections from the last production, but with more sophistication to accommodate the various settings, from a golf course to Johnny’s studio.

The band, very small, with only humans on trumpet, guitar and sax in addition to keyboards and a mostly electronic score, sat above all the action — sometimes a good notion, sometimes not.

So you have to be willing to forgive a few things along the way — the cast is also smallish and, for the most part, very young and exceptionally good dancers who wouldn’t need any lessons from Johnny and Penny. (Choreographer Michele Lynch, however, took full advantage of their abilities.) They are also very talented, with supporting players who have terrific vocal chops of their own. Chante Carmel (Elizabeth) and Jordan Edwin André (Billy Kostecki) wove in and out of their characters to take a deserved center spotlight on some of the most familiar songs.

And Max and Neil Kellerman (Gary Lynch and Matt Surges) didn’t resemble their movie counterparts, but had a great rhythm to their delivery. Could it be that we are slowly becoming willing to accept others in those iconic roles? In this case, the leggy Penny (Jennifer Mealani Jones) gets a “yes,” but the equally leggy and beautiful Marjorie Houseman (Hannah Jane McMurray) gets a “no.”

Which brings us to Baby and Johnny. This couple (Rachel Boone and Christopher Tierney) came the closest of any I’ve seen. Sporting the curly Baby wig, Boone really resembled Jennifer Grey, with Tierney less so, although he had a great, thick, tossable head of hair. What really set them apart, though, was their physicality. She had Grey’s tiny body and awkwardly endearing style down pat, while he had Swayze’s muscularity and deep vocal resonance. It was uncanny how they so closely resembled the film’s dance moves (even the log scene and the practice lifts in the lake), but left room for their own interpretation.

From The Watermelons to The Lift to The Dance that took Baby out of The Corner, they helped to breathe a new vitality to a treasured story and allow the audience to revisit a treasured time in their own lives…

 

 

 

 


On Stage: Missing?

March 30, 2017

 

Beth Corning’s latest piece for The Glue Factory, What’s Missing?, was a puzzlement. Performed with noted choreographer and writer Donald Byrd, Missing (as the title indicates) asked more questions than it answered, leaving it up to the viewer to provide a personal solution.

Here Corning still seems to be basking in the dramatic shadows of her 2015 foray into the writings of playwright Samuel Beckett (Act Without Words II and ROCKABY ) and his absurdist world. She found a willing partner in Byrd, who it seems was living in a parallel universe.

Missing was filled with things that were not present. The set was minimal, relying on the New Hazlett Theater’s handsome barebones setting, a single, movable white bench and Iain Court’s lighting, where he once again proved that he can masterfully enhance a performance with subtle underpinnings of emotion and not overwhelm it.

Byrd provided the text, presumably culled from his former theatrical meditations on things like the Israel/Palestinian conflict and the Iraqi war. The textural phrases themselves were minimal and returned often, sometimes in variation. “You are right. You are wrong.” “Nothing will be resolved.”

“This piece is about nothing.” Shades of “Seinfeld?”

Then — “this piece is about everything.” No, Beckett.

Given Corning’s opinionated history, however, the two artists became a tasty combination, as she added her own humanistic touch. It all began with “I am flawed. My body isn’t perfect. The concept of the piece is flawed.”

Dressed all in black, perhaps in mourning, she sat on a bench and tried to link arms with Byrd, lean on him, connect, then move to the floor and spoon as if in bed. Dressed in neutrals (a figment of her imagination?), he was distant and then simply walked away.

Was there a death, or was he simply missing in life?

They performed the bench “ritual” multiple times for the audience, which was seated on three sides, and then with their backs to the people, a hard task for any artist. He learned common card tricks.

She performed a solo with the bench, trying to balance. He did “whirlygigs” and “waterfalls,” faster at her command, then returned to the stringent vocabulary in a speech to conclude it all.

There were many definitions of Missing to be seen and heard, some of which will only come to the surface in the hours and days after this confusing, yet compelling performance.

The contradictory words, written so long ago by Byrd, oddly presage the current political world in Washington, D.C., where the truth switches direction like quicksilver. Fears. Doubt. Rampant contradiction.

As Byrd put it, “A resolution exists only in my imagination.”

Missing continues through Apr. 2. See Listings.


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