On Stage: Cabaret — Perfectly Marvelous

February 4, 2016

Cabaret Studio 54 Cast List: Alan Cumming Michelle Williams Danny Burstein Linda Emond Bill Heck Aaron Krohn Gayle Rankin Will Carlyon Kaleigh Cronin Caleb Damschroder Benjamin Eakeley Andrea Goss Leeds Hill Kristin Olness Kelly Paredes Jessica Pariseau Dylan Paul Jane Pfitsch Evan Siegel Stacey Sipowicz Production Credits: Sam Mendes (Direction) Rob Marshall (Direction, Choreography) Robert Brill (Set and Club Design) William Ivey Long (Costume Design) Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari (Lighting Design) Brian Ronan (Sound Design) Patrick Vaccariello (Musical Direction) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Fred Ebb Music by: John Kander Book by: Joe Masteroff

The advertising reads “Willkommen Back” and Cabaret, one of Broadway’s legendary shows, is definitely back in a big way.

New York City has been peppered with revivals over the years, resulting in a Tony category in and of itself in 1994. But a revival of a revival of a revival? Which is what the current production of Cabaret is, currently in the nascent stages of its latest national tour, actually a 50th anniversary celebration of the famed Roundabout Theatre Company in New York and one that arrived in Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center Tuesday.

A few of us may have seen the original Hal Prince production with Ron Fields’ choreography in 1966. And many still recall Liza Minnelli’s 1972 tour de force performance in Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning film. Moreover, it illustrates, perhaps more than any other show, how changing tastes and values can alter a production.

It’s as if Cabaret has been aging like a fine wine, or should we say, a fine Weill. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s original score was, of course, inspired by the famed German composer and U.S. transplant, Kurt Weill, whose career spanned two world wars. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, the play itself centers around the Kit Kat Klub in the 1930’s during pre-Nazi Germany.

Where the original Cabaret is probably remembered for its scintillating production numbers, though, co-directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall saw a darker, richer, edgier approach for a play with music. Their first Broadway revival came about in 1998 and, in a rare move, they decided to revisit it again in 2014, to even greater effect, it appears, and yet another Tony-award winner for the resilient Roundabout.

Judging from assorted performances over the years, the national tour best conveys the balance of those turbulent ’30’s, when Berlin was a like a carousel, spinning faster and faster out of control. The audience entered to find the cast, aka  the Kit Kat Klub Boys and Girls, seductively warming up onstage, a barometer of things to come.

The set was minimal, surrounded by a giant band of dressing room lights that periodically highlighted the story and song. Three doors, set on the lower level, served as exits and entrances for various scenes, with a few basic props added. The orchestra, mostly made up of the Kit Kat ensemble, was in full view on the second level.

They were representative of the current trend in musical theater, not only a triple threat (singer, actor, dancer), but a quadruple threat. They all played instruments (and very well), along with doing various parts, giving a cohesive feel to the play itself.

With the initial emphasis on choreography in previous productions, it was easy to be disappointed at first, since the choreography was constructed to convey the time period and atmosphere in Berlin. But these were people caught in a world about to explode and every detail of this Cabaret contributed to that. It wasn’t just seductive — it was lascivious. It was no-holds-barred. It was already tattered, falling apart.

The first act also seemed long, put it paid off in the end.

Cabaret Tour Andrea Goss Kit Kat Girls Gayle Rankin Kaleigh Cronin Kristin Olness Jessica Pariseau Kelly Paredes Stacey Sipowicz

Even though Randy Harrison’s emcee toiled in the shadow of Alan Cumming’s landmark performances on Broadway in 1998 and 2014, he had a large onstage personality, enough to consume the vast expanse of the Benedum and invite the large opening night audience into his world.

However, Andrea Goss, a tiny waif of a Sally Bowles, was the surprise of the evening. The Bowles role presents some difficulty because she is not Liza Minnelli. She is a singer who just doesn’t have the vocal goods and that can become an issue when the primary emphasis of a Broadway show is entertainment.

It was obvious that Goss did have the goods, though. Despite her pint-sized frame, she grew into the role as the evening progressed. And when she emerged at the end, dressed in a plain black gown, to sing the title song, she seemed like a broken bird, not sure of her decision to remain in Berlin. There was some quavering and maybe a touch of raspiness. But it was brilliantly constructed dramatically, with just enough power to be the highlight of the show.

With the spare setting, it was up to the cast to created its own rich landscape. Lee Aaron Rosen (Clifford Bradshaw) was a great foil for Bowles, a bisexual who was swept up into a doomed love affair. And Mark Nelson (Herr Schultz), who was Jewish, and Shannon Cochran (Fraulein Schneider), who was not, spotlighted the issue of religious discrimination.

Cabaret can be so many things. It can be razzamatazz entertainment. It can be a star turn. Or it can be a tautly crafted look into a vortex of uncertainty.

This time it’s a real winner.

See Listings.



Dance Beat: Teena Marie

January 20, 2016

Custer1 2015

It’s not often that you see an acknowledged hip hop artist who has a foundation in contemporary dance. But it’s even rarer that the artist is a woman.

Teena Marie Custer, trained at Ohio State University, faculty member at Slippery Rock University and battle veteran of Pittsburgh-based Get Down Gang and the all-American, all-woman Venus Fly Trap, was all that at the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) series that ended its season this past summer.

It is a series for artists defined as “seedlings.” Custer may have a longer resume than most, but she added a twist by taking a street savvy dance form and putting it on a concert stage.

That’s been done before you might say. However, Custer set out on a fresh path with My Good Side, using a dramatic thread that embraced the improvisatory nature of hip hop within a structure found in a more traditional contemporary dance. And along the way, she exposed her emotional vulnerability.

It was brave and it was bold.

Custer2 2015She’s calling it hip hop dance theater. Hip hop carries with it a certain bravado along with a disregard for rules in expressing its free style. But Custer set her “Good Side” apart by scratching underneath the surface. We saw an entourage and with it that signature attitude. But Custer also incorporated social media and its invasive nature, grounding the piece in meaningful emotions.

My favorite part was a solo where the choreography had its own taut toughness, along with corralling the hip hop vocabulary.

Moving from red top shoes to a chandelier overhead, Custer’s piece had a definite cool factor. We saw how to take it all in stride. How to take a good selfie. And how to find and hold on to your true self.

Life lessons for all.



Dance Beat: On the Road Again

January 11, 2016
In Kansas with Zeke, Hunk, Hickory, Auntie Em and storm clouds.

In Kansas with Zeke, Hunk, Hickory, Auntie Em and storm clouds.

That’s the Yellow Brick Road, Munchkins.

If you want to see the dark side of Oz, there’s the stage production of Wicked. If you want to see the funky side of Oz, there’s always The Wiz.

Actually there was an original stage version in 1902, just two years after L Frank Baum’s book, called “America’s first fairy tale.” Over the years, others tweaked the story, predating the 1936 film classic that has been part and parcel of our American lives over the years.

Over the rainbow in Munchkinland.

Over the rainbow in Munchkinland.

When the PNC Broadway Pittsburgh series took its latest trip to Oz at Heinz Hall this week, we found a warm and fuzzy and, yes, familiar production.  Of real note were a handful of new songs by Broadway heavyweight team Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), all of which nicely fit into the iconic score of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.

The Wicked Witch of the West (Shani Hadrian), sans the pointed black hat, was deservedly given Red Shoes Blues (“She’s prissy, she’s clueless and I want her shoeless.”) and Dorothy got to sing Already Home with Glinda near the end.

Strangely enough, Lloyd Webber also toyed with some of the background music, particularly the scene where the main characters are rescued with a patchwork quilt of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain amid other tunes.

The gang threatened by the Wicked Witch.

The gang threatened by the Wicked Witch.

But then, that’s the fun of classic productions, to bring a new light to them. So some production elements were put on steroids — Professor Marvel’s magic lantern wagon with its large global slides, a Kansas sky and tornado projected on a giant screen that covered the stage and a bright neon rainbow. Only — that Yellow Brick Road mostly stayed in place instead of revolving in some fashion. But that could be due to technical issues.

When looking overall, this version was its own rainbow of former productions — a few updated comments ala The Wiz, a mechanical set from the Wicked Witch’s lair in Wicked and a mostly cinematic touch from the film — a potpourri that surprisingly gave Dorothy’s journey its own charm, geared, as it was, for family entertainment.

The leading characters  were traditionally lovable themselves. Hunk/Scarecrow (Morgan Reynolds), Hickory/Tin Man (Jay McGill), Zeke/Lion (Aaron Fried) and even Professor Marvel/The Wizard — also came back at the end with Dorothy (Sarah Lasko), making for an American family portrait.

So there it was, a storybook ending, made even more so by the tiny girl who was sitting on her mother’s lap in front of me. Clad mostly in pink, she also had a coordinated surgical mask covering her mouth. But her attentive posture and spirit were engaging, adding to the evening. And when Dorothy began singing “Home,” she turned to her mother with a delighted look on her face and gave her a great big hug, giving the song and this Wizard of Oz an extra tug at my heartstrings.

Almost home.

Almost home.




On Stage: Another “Nut”-ty Holiday at PBT

December 6, 2015
Hannah Carter as Marie. Photo: Rich Sofranko

Hannah Carter as Marie. Photo: Rich Sofranko

How do I love thee? Let me count the times I’ve seen the “Nutcracker.” Over the course of 40 years, that means a lot. But I can’t say I have the same pressure as those dance professionals who have participated in countless performances. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has the best buy in the city ($30 for a multi-million dollar production). Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Diana Yohe and Corey Bourbonniere in the Snow Scene. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Diana Yohe and Corey Bourbonniere in the Snow Scene. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

On Stage: Pearlann Proliferates in Another Direction

December 6, 2015
Pearlann Porter with John Lambert and glasses.

Pearlann Porter with John Lambert and glasses.

I’ve enjoyed finding new ways of describing Pearlann Porter’s The Pillow Project. Alliteration was my “P” game some of the time, but pursuing (there it is again) her trajectory was always intriguing. She says she’s bringing the Pillow to a close and moving on with an encore performance of Paper Memory. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (I always knew there was another underlying “P” connection!)

"Paper Memory" writer Taylor Knight with inspiration.

“Paper Memory” writer Taylor Knight with inspiration.


On Stage: A Ballet Trifecta

November 8, 2015

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre just concluded its opening performance series in grand style with Balanchine, Forsythe and Kylian. Read about it at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This was as perfectly balanced a repertory program as PBT has ever presented. Something to note — while the audiences were smaller than the more marketable full-length ballets like Swan Lake, they were more enthusiastic, responding to the masterful choreography. So Pittsburgh dance fans know something good when they see it and, with similar programs, I believe Pittsburgh audiences will warm up to the concept of repertory, with a variety that will undoubtably appeal, at some point, to virtually everyone.

George Balanchine knew that, given his famous quote of having an appetizer, an entree and dessert on the program and he understood the concept of a dance “dessert” better than anyone, whipping up a batch of terrific finales like Western Symphony, Stars and Stripes and the Gershwin-inspired Who Cares?. Gradually audiences (and dancers) will graduate to the more dramatic, full-company likes of his Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C.

From this program, it seems, too, that Pittsburgh responds to the physicality of the dance — the array of leaps in Sinfonietta, the breathless slicing kicks of In the Middle, the seemingly unlimited dance landscape of Western Symphony.

Behind the scenes, and speaking of breath, corps member Caitlin Peabody, as fiery in Middle as her hair, said that there was a part in this deceptively difficult  ballet where she literally felt that she couldn’t catch her breath. As it turned out, choreographer Forsythe sent a message to “breathe.” And repetiteur Agnes Noltenius, one of the three top-notch artists who set the trio of ballets, reminded the dancers at the dress rehearsal. It worked, resulting in a satisfying breadth of movement as well as a breathable flow of movement, confident and articulate, something that is not always present with this company.

Once again, repetiteurs have transformed PBT, the last one being Shelly Washington in the Twyla Tharp program of Nine Sinatra Songs and In the Upper Room in 2013. And it would be hard to improve on this program. If anything, there could have been a newer work, maybe a commission or a ballet conceived within the past five years. Newer works build a company’s reputation — it’s more difficult to measure up to the international standard seen on YouTube and assorted films created in the classical tradition.

As a bonus, photographer Martha Rial had a free time slot and captured some of the memorable movements of Sinfonietta with her lens. If anyone would like a copy, contact her at martha@martharial.com.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial

On Stage: Going Solo With Aakash

November 6, 2015
Photo by Chris Nash

Photo by Chris Nash

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s India in Focus festival continues tonight with Aakash Odedra. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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