On Stage: Summer at the CLO

By now, most readers know that CrossCurrents focuses on all things dance, especially when the local scene tapers off, as it did this summer.

However, Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera took up the slack, with a series of musicals that had plenty to offer in differing choreographic styles. In a thumbnail, there was:

“On Your Feet!” cast.

 

On Your Feet! A musical deserving of the exclamation point. Once again it was great to hear the surging Latin music with a heavy-duty rock beat pioneered by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine and to delve into their back story. Who knew how they had to forge their own success? With bright colors so reminiscent of Miami beaches and Serge Trujillo’s equally vivacious choreography, audiences left the Benedum Center on a wave of rhythm.

“Titanic” cast.

Titanic. By comparison, this musical was a study in stillness. With the operatic underpinnings in the score, there was a rightful emphasis on vocal excellence in the cast, who delivered the score with great authority. Director David Bell choreographed the one folk dance, quite lovely and lively, but the stately presence of the stories of the doomed ship (FYI: different from the movie). Unfortunately the much-anticipated climax of it all — the sinking — didn’t live up to expectations.

“Brigadoon”

Brigadoon. We may have Chautauqua Institution a couple of hours away, where the picturesque town blooms every summer like a colorful arts bouquet. But closer to home, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera had Brigadoon, romantic fantasy of a village that comes to life once every hundred years.

Like the three-dimensional New York hamlet, the Pittsburgh musical proved to be the choreographic highlight of the season. So what follows is more than a thumbnail.  Local dance professionals turned out for opening night, including Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson and her husband, former company member Aaron Ingley, former corps member Caitlin Peabody and director of marketing and communications Aimee DiAndrea.

Aimee turned out to be the reason for their attendance. Garen Scribner (Harry Beaton) was a classmate of hers at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He went on to become a soloist at San Francisco Ballet and a member of Nederlans Dans Theater.

The role of a spurned lover is generally regarded as the catalyst for much of the drama. It has been portrayed by some of the finest male dancers, including American Ballet Theatre’s Harold Laing (1954 movie with Gene Kelly), New York City Ballet principal Edward Villella (1963), Olympic ice skating champion with extensive ballet training John Curry (1980) and NYCB principal Robert Fairchild in the 2017 staging at Lincoln Center by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Scribner held his own in that illustrious company during the Pittsburgh production’s Sword Dance and the ensuing chase scene.

Brigadoon is a dance musical with original choreography — looking so Grahamesque these days — by the inimitable Agnes DeMille. The CLO’s Mark Esposito paid homage to her interpretation of Scottish Highland dances, marked by a proud carriage, beautiful footwork and sweeping patterns.

But he updated some of it in intriguingly sophisticated and contemporary ways, particularly the funeral dance where Maggie mourned her unrequited love for Harry. Erica Wong captured the gravity of the moment — solemnly walking around him, yet with a heavenly poetic beauty to the phrasing — one of the real highlights of the show.

Where the dances left off, Lerner and Loewe’s panoramic melodies took hold, played with a real finesse and clarity by the orchestra. Although the scenery was stilted, with urban stairs and flat, although beautiful projections of the Irish countryside, director Dontee Kiehn staged the production with a sure touch and gave the chase scene the drama that it deserves.

With a cast/village capable of hitting all the high notes and moving powerfully through the gloaming, this production had the magic the Brigadoon is capable of delivering.

“Millie” cast.

Thoroughly Modern Millie. Ah, the Charleston, that flapper dance from the ’20’s. Millie was over the top (primarily due to Pittsburgh musical legends Lenora Nemetz and Leslie Uggams), but laced with Alex Sanchez’ oh-so-clever musical numbers: typing tappers, a Nuttycracker Suite, a Nelson Eddy operetta binge and, of course, the title song. This production was like the Bee’s Knees, a tasty drink with an undeniable kick, a zingy summer treat and the perfect conclusion to the CLO season.

Leslie Uggams and Lenora Nemetz.

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