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.


Dance Beat: It’s South Korea, Not North Korea

March 6, 2017

Here we go again!

Back around 2010, Pittsburgh Dance Council executive director Paul Organisak was complaining about visa problems for foreign artists from Spain and South America, forcing him to tailor several seasons around North American companies.

But that involved individual artists and was nothing compared to current surprise attacks, not only during the current travel ban, but resulting from the toxic atmosphere surrounding the Trump administration. The Dance Council, now under Randal Miller, almost didn’t get to present the Seoul-based Bereishit Dance Company this past weekend at the Byham Theater.

Apparently the group, despite having all of its papers in place and having submitted its visa requests last October, inexplicably was denied access to the United States. That forced the cancellation of the first performance of its first American tour at Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis, scheduled for last Tuesday.

Miller enlisted Senator Bob Casey and some other heavy hitters to intervene because this group is from South Korea, not North Korea. The company arrived in Pittsburgh, actually its second stop and now its first, on Friday after a long flight (around 15 hours) from Seoul. With the help of the Byham’s stellar stage crew, they were able to attend to technical issues, but didn’t get to do a complete run-through.

The Pittsburgh audience didn’t notice, given the company’s disciplined training and seamless technique, mostly martial arts that transcended the divide into contemporary dance. The result was a fresh and invigorating performance, resulting in a standing ovation.

Of note were the two arrows that flew across the front of the stage in Bow, landing with a heavy thud on a wall located on the other side of the stage. They were pinpoint symbols of the clean lines and intense focus in the work, mostly a duet, but occasionally involving a third member. Congratulations to Miller and the Falcon Archers of Canonsburg, for making it work (the only time it will be seen in the U.S.).

Also on the program was Balance and Imbalance, for the five-member troupe, three men and two women. You had to love the contrast between sharp angles and movement “locks,” similar to hip hop, with a beautiful fluidity. Although the title referred to the movement itself, you could also see that in the choreography, which used great skill in folding difficult, acrobatic moves into a lyrical mindset.

 

 

 


Dance Beat: Helen, Marianna, YAGP

February 15, 2017
Enjoying the after-preview festivities are dancers Sarah Zielinski, Sonja Gable and Chelsea Neiss. At the table are choreographer Helen Simoneau and, standing behind, Attack co-founder Michele de la Reza.

Enjoying the after-preview festivities are dancers Sarah Zielinski, Sonja Gable and Chelsea Neiss. At the table are choreographer Helen Simoneau and, standing behind, Attack co-founder Michele de la Reza.

Attack-ing Helen. Attack Theatre was full of surprises for a preview of its new work by Quebec choreographer Helen Simoneau. Former board member Todd Owens was energetically bartending with some home-cooked concoctions — tequila-based — to match Moe’s deliciosa Mexican buffet. Attack members Dane Toney and Anthony Williams were taking a break, watching Helen’s all-female cast in the tantalizing snippets that they had prepared. There were the familiar, always-welcome Ashley Williams and Kaitlin Dann, plus newbie Sarah Zielinski. Also be prepared to get acquainted with project-based additions Sonja Gable and Chelsea Neiss when the piece makes its official premiere in May at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. It was a nice stretch for the company, moving with a smooth weight and seamless connections as they explored new vocabulary and phrasing.

Photo: Kenn Duncan

Photo: Kenn Duncan

Marianna at the Museum. Wouldn’t we all like to be showcased in the Smithsonian along with Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Kermit the Frog? Well, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky is now part of an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of American History. Only three ballerinas are featured — well, their costumes — in American Ballet. French ballerina Violette Verdy inspired George Balanchine at New York City Ballet (a costume from one of her performances at the White House can be seen) and Misty Copeland is defining new standards at American Ballet Theatre (her costume from On the Town, where she spun into a limited-run leading role, is on display). Marianna’s contribution is a costume from the first act of Giselle, for which she is noted and which she performed many times with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Check it out.

Budding Ballerinas. Then there are those young talents that participated in the Youth America Grand Prix Semi-Finals at Upper St. Clair High School. Veridy Treu, 15, of Pittsburgh Ballet House captured the Senior Age Division and will move on to the finals in New York City. Also placing in the Top 12 were Alexia Norris,16, and Francesca Siudela, 17, of West Point Ballet and Alexandra Topalova, 16, Pittsburgh Ballet House, who placed second in the Contemporary Dance Category. Alan Obuzor of Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company and Kwang-Suk Choi of Pittsburgh Ballet House were given Outstanding Teacher awards. For more results, click on YAGP.

 


On Stage: Wondering About “Alice”

February 13, 2017

In that never-ending search for full-length ballets, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre decided to bring back Derek Deane’s “Alice in Wonderland” after almost ten years. A lot has happened since then, but there was a lot happening on the stage as well (click on PBT). In fact, PBT bought the colorful production hoping to rent it out to other companies. That remains to be seen. PBT had hoped to put together a national tour after the 2008 premiere, which never happened. Will “Alice” get a second chance?

Nonetheless, it is colorful as Rich Sofranko’s photos underscore…

Yoshiaki Nakano (White Rabbit) and Amanda Cochrane (Alice) interact in the Hallway of Doors.

Yoshiaki Nakano (White Rabbit) and Amanda Cochrane (Alice) interact in the Hallway of Doors.

Alice pouts as the Cooper Verona (Mad Hatter), Masahiro Haneji (March Hare) and Diana Yohe (Dormouse) cavort.

Alice pouts as the Cooper Verona (Mad Hatter), Masahiro Haneji (March Hare) and Diana Yohe (Dormouse) cavort.

The Tea Party continues...

The Tea Party continues…

Julia Erickson (Queen of Hearts) presides --

Julia Erickson (Queen of Hearts) presides —