On Stage: Pippin

February 2, 2015

There was a scatterbrained tune-up before the orchestra began the familiar ’70’s pop stye introduction for “Magic To Do.”

Some in the audience immediately applauded, but then Pippin has that kind of effect on Broadway enthusiasts.

Most of it has to do with Stephen Schwarz’ smartly tuneful score, loaded with memorable songs like Corner of the Sky and Morning Glow, the kind of music that makes your heart sing.

Another large chunk of affection could be attributed to director/choreographer Bob Fosse  who once rescued an unwieldy story of King Charlemagne’s son and his coming of age and put it “on the right track” with a cast featuring an unforgettable Ben Vereen (Leading Player) and John Rubinstein (Pippin).

As it turned out in one of life’s little quirks (and a bonus for Pittsburgh), Rubinstein was part of the touring company at the Benedum Center, older and presumably wiser and robustly playing the part of Pippin’s father, Charles.

On the whole, this Pippin was one of the more experienced and interesting casts to pass through the Broadway series.

The “new” Pippin was Sam Lips, who understudied the title role on Broadway and made us distinctly aware of the boy king’s often awkward journey to manhood. Berthe was Priscilla Lopez, a Tony Award winner for A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, part of original cast in A Chorus Line, Nine, Company and much, much more. This grandmother was sexy as well as mesmerizing in her singalong tune, No Time at All, even twirling above the state in a suspended ring.

The whole cast was game in the adventuresome, derring-do staging that took place in a circus tent. I had some reservations, being brought up on Fosse’s unique body-popping style (almost to be considered a historical antecedent to hip hop) that graced movies and Broadway for so many years.

No kidding — he was The Man.

So I had to be convinced that circus tricks were in the best interests of Pippin. While there might be a few things to quibble with, undoubtedly director Diane Paulus came up with a spectacular vision.

It was a the right way to deal with the epic stories we all encounter — war, peace, lust and the like. These things form that meaty balancing act of life (symbolized by acrobats) and deserve a huge arena (peppered with mind-boggling circus acts that actually gave a suitably daring perspective to war). I mean, all I could say was “wow!”

Not that everyone had a handle on the Fosse style —  except for Molly Tynes, a long-legged Fastrada in the classic Fosse mold. As for a powerful Sasha Allen (Leading Player), an egocentric Callan Bergmann (Lewis) and those unheralded Players, that only heightened the impact.

But it didn’t matter in the end. Paulus was able to put her own satisfying stamp on this Pippin, adapting things to today’s whirlwind world without losing a sense of style and relevance — just like her predecessor did — and no easy feat.



On Stage: “Once” Loved…

March 14, 2014


The festivities began early at the Benedum Center as audience members gathered on stage prior to the opening performance of Once Tuesday night.

They could sully up to the bar, surrounded by framed mirrors, just to drink in the atmosphere and have a real glass of stout.

OnceMusicians, 11 of them, filtered into the crowd, who amiably began returning to their seats. But the connection had been made…

And it continued for this intimate chamber-sized musical, a 2012 Tony Award winner with a heart big enough to fill the 2,800 seat house. Suitably the story was about love — the kind lost and found, about friendship and family, embracing community and country.

For those expecting the razzamatazz of the typical Broadway show, full of big ensemble numbers and a rock ‘em, sock ‘em happy ending, this deceptively nuanced story of a Guy (the talented and tantalizingly confused Stuart Ward) and a Girl (the sweet sounding board, Dani de Waal) might not resonate.

But Once operates on so many levels if you are willing to listen. I can’t think of another musical that is so seamless about the performers’ delicate balancing act between  acting, singing, dancing and instrumental prowess.

It perfectly symbolizes the latest trend, surpassing the triple threat artist. Now aspiring actors are groomed for additional specialties that might land them a niche job.

It would be hard to say which aspect was most important, since this gifted cast could do virtually everything. They could play an instrument one minute — violin, mandolin, accordion, percussion — then play an integral supporting character at another point in the evening.


Their voices handled the Celtic-tinged score in solos, all so appropriate, and heavenly choruses. But they could be earthy as well and that’s where the dance came in.

It was sometimes hard to know where John Tiffany’s direction ended and Steven Hoggett’s movement (don’t call him a choreographer) began. Mr. Hoggett came out of Great Britain’s renowned physical theater movement, where technique is not the prime choice, but a keen eye for the human need to express itself is.

So there was pattern and structure to the “dances,” if they could be called that, with actions that emanated from a deep emotional center. There was a lyrical passage or two. And sometimes a stomp could suffice, like an explanation point.

It all remained in that Dublin bar, with mostly a few tables or chairs to change the scenes. That allowed the audience to use their own imaginations, something that doesn’t always happen in a Broadway show.


On Stage: An Operatic Love Affair

February 28, 2014

Porgy Hats

The title Porgy and Bess has always had a ring of familiarity for me, mostly due to several breakout songs that became standards in the American songbook, like It Ain’t Necessarily So and, in particular, the soaring Summertime.

But I had never really acquainted myself with the citizens of Catfish Row. Although there have been several different productions, the 2011 revival, which Broadway star Audra MacDonald made into a personal journey, piqued my interest. And when the national tour opened in Pittsburgh this week, with choreography by Ronald K. Brown, who taps the history of African movement like no one else, I was on my way to the Benedum Center.

Folks, this is a universal love story well worth seeing and, given the magnificent George Gershwin score, it is a production that should’t be missed, both for its historical value and just as a fine evening in the theater.

porgy and bess

The Benedum orchestra served notice, right from the opening chords, of the vibrant life that the composer gave it and how daring it must have sounded, with jazz rhythms amid contemporary harmonies, when it was first presented in 1936.

Much has been written about how the current production team trimmed the original four hour opera to make it more accessible through a Broadway musical format. The first act was leisurely as it established the characters along the fictional “Row” in Charleston, South Carolina– you could almost feel the sweltering heat of this “summer time.” Riccardo Hernandez’ spare, effective set hinted at the impoverished lifestyle, while the raised and ragged floorboards allowed for some slithering entrances and exits.

But it was the second act that had the power, the sweep, the drama that “Porgy and Bess” really deserved, beginning with so innocently with the picnic on Kittawah Island and building a stirring climb from that point. Mr. Brown’s choreography served a number of purposes, particularly seen during It Ain’t Necessarily So (led by a sassy Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life).

It treaded a fine line between weighted African movements and a certain Broadway flair. He also had to accommodate a cast that was chosen mostly for their singing abilities and, to that extent, he succeeded in conveying a casual celebratory feel without being overly structured.Porgy Sporting

This Porgy and Bess was chock-full of actors who gave their characters full measure, including the nurturing Clara (Sumayya Ali), who established it all with Summertime, the matriarch Mariah (Danielle Lee Greaves) and the looming villain Crown (Alvin Crawford).

The supporting cast gave the pair in the title roles, Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran, a rich emotional support that lifted their portrayal of an ill-fated love affair to wonderful heights in duets like I Loves You Porgy.

By the end, the audience was totally invested in the story, audibly reacting to the plot’s twists and turns, but barely clapping so as not to interrupt the flow of storytelling. They saved it for the end, rising en masse for a standing ovation that was undeniably well deserved.


On Stage: Dancing Feet

June 3, 2013
Photos: Matt Polk

Photos: Matt Polk


You’re going out there a youngster, but you have to come back a star!

Yes, it’s the dream of any current Broadway hopeful, to step on stage at the last minute and hit the equivalent of a home run with the bases loaded. That’s what gives 42nd Street, a 1933 film that morphed into a 1984 Broadway musical, a sense of currency.

42nd Street rode a wave of nostalgia onto Broadway when Gower Champion decided to  take a chance and

Ephie Aardem (Peggy Sawyer) and Tyler Hanes (Billy Lawlor)

Ephie Aardem (Peggy Sawyer) and Tyler Hanes (Billy Lawlor)

adapt the movie material for the stage. Although no one “shuffles” off to Buffalo anymore, it’s still a musical chock full of familiar standards like I Only Have Eyes For You, We’re in the Money and the title song, all framed in an iconic story about Peggy Sawyer, a starry-eyed dancer just off the bus from Allentown. She gets all the breaks — a spot in the chorus, the recipient of the star’s freak accident and the resulting role of a lifetime.

Now Civic Light Opera audiences can once again go and meet those dancing feet in a tap-happy season opener at the Benedum Center.

In fact, that’s the way it starts. The curtain rises on scads of tap dancing legs, something that lies at the core of the musical and gives it the celebrated “hip hooray and bally hoo” in several driving production numbers choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld.

Worried about the economy? There’s We’re In the Money, where the cast rat-a-tat taps on giant dimes (although that bought a lot more in those days). Can’t sleep? Listen to the Lullaby of Broadway, both soothing and passionate.

Sure it’s sentimental, dipping into minimalist Art Deco sets that combine a little Radio City Musical Hall with the lights of Broadway. But under the direction of Charles Repole, it’s still smart, tapping (in another way) the heart and soul of The Great White Way.

The cast, a fine CLO assemblage of talent, seemed to take it to heart as well. Patrick Ryan Sullivan had already played director Julian Marsh on Broadway and had the moxie to carry off his larger-than-life character. At the other end of the spectrum, Ephie Aardema played Peggy with a wide-eyed awe, while George Dvorsky was a real catalyst in bringing the two together as show star Pat Denning.

Among the supporting cast, Luba Mason, was a suitably weary Dorothy Brock, hiding a heart of gold, and Mara Newbery delivered veteran chorister Anytime Annie with a suitable punch. Former Dancing With the Stars contestant and NSYNC member Joey Fatone made the most of Bert Berry, co-writer and producer of the show in question, Pretty Lady.

Joey Fatone (Bert Barry) and Mara Newbery (Anytime Annie)

Joey Fatone (Bert Barry) and Mara Newbery (Anytime Annie)

Among this show of stars, though, the real shine came from the chorus. Yes, 42nd Street may have followed the ode to the Broadway gypsies, A Chorus Line (1975), but this production really preceded it by virtue of the movie. Although the cast was short on male dancers, they all danced up a storm.

This is one of those shows that you have to see once. In the words of Julian Marsh, think about “all those kids you’ll be throwing out of work if you” don’t attend. Think of all the songs “that will wither and die” if you don’t hear them. Think of “all the costumes that will never be seen, the scenery never seen, the orchestrations never heard.” Think of this show and “the thrill and pleasure” it can give to you. Think of “musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language. Think of Broadway, dammit.”

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On Stage: What a Feeling!

January 10, 2013

Emily Padgett in rehearsal.

It’s hard to hold onto feelings, especially the kind that are 30 years old or more — time has a way of changing them or simply sweeping them away. But it was obvious from the sell-out crowd at Heinz Hall Thursday night that there were plenty of Pittsburghers ready and willing to revisit the ’80’s style — leg warmers, ripped sweatshirts and all —  that “Flashdance” symbolized for a whole generation.

First was “The Movie.” Now it’s “The Musical.”

Actually the film was based upon an original musical by Tom Hedley, written in 1982, but skipping the Great White Way to head for the silver screen. So the new stage production, also by Mr. Hedley, actually had its world premiere in the Steel City only last week.

Why bring back a film that critics largely panned? Maybe because the public embraced it wholeheartedly, making Flashdance the third largest grossing film of 1983.

Would the public remember it? Apparently, yes. The entire five-day run sold out and Thursday night’s crowd shared its own feelings about Flashdance with a standing ovation.

So far the producers are taking advantage of the name recognition to do a six-month national tour before hitting Broadway, an unusual move.

How seriously are they taking this effort? We’ll have to see, although the creative team, including director and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, has a pedigree that includes award-winning musicals like The Jersey Boys and Memphis.

It looks like Flashdance could be headed in the same direction, to ultimately become a sleek, sharp production with a popular and connection for audiences. What they have on their hands is a production that pushes many of the right buttons already.

Although many of us probably know that dancers usually wait on tables when they aren’t teaching dance classes, this production again gives us the story of Alex, a welder who performs as an exotic dancer at Mawby’s, a local bar and grill. More than that, it’s a tale that speaks to us all, about overcoming the fear of failure in order to pursue our dreams.

Part of the fun was picking out various parts of the film. Some, like the pulse of the running steps, the street dancing, the striking (yet still implausible) steel mill episode and the reality-based Pittsburghers resonated.

However the iconic “splash” dance was watered down with spurting fountains that took away the impact. And the audition didn’t provide the needed climax. Yes, this tomboyish Alex, played by a real triple threat, Emily Padgett, didn’t have the benefit of body doubles and camera angles. Perhaps coordinated video or large photographic close-ups could enhance the first section and provide a transition for the street and ballet dancers who appear, like so many people who gave her support during her journey.

There was some real talent in the rest of the cast. Her love interest, Nick, was portrayed as the scion of a wealthy steel mill family and, like Alex, trying to find his own way. Matthew Hydzik looked younger than Michael Nouri in the film, something that benefitted the musical, and his terrific tenor voice fueled his duets with Ms. Padgett.

Her fellow flashdancers underwent some changes. Best friend Jeannie became Gloria (a pert Kelly Felthous), not an aspiring ice skater, but another dancer. That tied into the Laura Brannigan song, “Gloria” portrayed her descent into drugs. But it transitioned into a Vegas act, full of lifts and trying too hard.

The other two friends could be defined better (right now they’re a combination of singers, dancers and comedy relief). However Rachelle Rak’s (Tess) “I Love Rock and Roll” was a powerhouse number despite an awkward moving ladder.

Hannah, Alex’s mentor, was described as a former dancer, something that might have worked if Alex was shown learning a little ballet vocabulary. Then her dream to become a ballerina might have seemed more plausible.

The ensemble numbers were great, though. The hip hop looked surprisingly fresh and brief flurries of movement, showing the struggle between aristocratic ballet and streetwise breakdancing, were used to good effect.

At this point, though, Flashdance was still trying to find its rhythm. The movie reflected the onslaught of MTV and that could have been better shown in the opening video montage, which had few recognizable pop stars.

This Flashdance still needs a cinematic quality filtered through a hard-nosed MTV lens, with an industrial overlay (perhaps framing photos and videos like the windows in a warehouse). The moveable towers and panels had that atmosphere, although the floor-to-ceiling beige curtain could have been eliminated. Alex’s apartment needed a more Bohemian design and fewer Vogue magazines.

Still, the musical had the singular appeal that made the movie so popular. It was its own triple threat, with throbbing dance, a winning cast of characters and an era that carried its own distinctive personality.  And after the creative team is done tinkering, maybe they’ll bring it back to Pittsburgh.

On Stage: Flashback with Flashdance — Part I

January 1, 2013


Flashdance will be indelibly associated with Pittsburgh for eons to come, like it or not, with ever more connections being made as we speak. The popular 1983 movie put a spotlight on the city, with its bridges and streets, its steel mills, its working class people.

It somehow defined an era.

But people don’t realize that Flashdance was originally written for the stage, but never saw the light of day before it was hustled off to Hollywood. Now that stage version is being “re-imagined,” with much of the well-known movie score intact and some new songs added for good measure.

It gets its world premiere on familiar soil when it opens January 1, 2013 at Heinz Hall. Starring in the show will be Quaker Valley native Matthew Hydzik as Alex’s love interest, Nick, and Green Tree’s Rachelle Rak as Tess, veteran flashdancer and mentor to Alex, played by triple-threat performer Emily Padgett (no body doubles in this version).

But there is a bigger story behind the scenes. Ms. Rak’s mother is Rosalene Kenneth, who only retired a couple of years ago from Rosalene Kenneth’s Professional Dance Studio, one of the staples in the area. Together this mother/daughter team is celebrating 100 years “in the business,” Ms. Rak 25 years on stage and the rest by the resilient Ms. Kenneth.

Let’s start with her.

Ms. Kenneth began her training at the Mamie Barth Studio in Pittsburgh, 16 years in all, with some sojourns to New York City, where she stayed with family while studying with jazz greats like Luigi, Phil Black and Matt Maddox.

Soon she found herself opening for the stars at local nightspots like the Holiday House and Vogue Terrace with her 15 minute song-and-dance act. But that was only on weekends, so she opened a studio.

Although it was suggested that she try her hand at Broadway, Ms. Kenneth turned it down to stay here and raise a family. So she learned all she could about dancing and teaching. “If I couldn’t be on Broadway, I would give them as close to the training they would get in New York right here in Pittsburgh,” she says with a quiet determination.

She taught them all, not only those who had learning disabilities, but others who would go on to perform (choreographer Danny Herman and Broadway veterans Paul McGee and Sarrah Strimel among them). Most would do something else with their lives — nurses, anesthesiologists, accountants, even open their own studios.

Many stayed in touch. Ms. Kenneth has her own Facebook page (Rosalene Kenneth Fan Club), although she hasn’t made her way to the Internet just yet. She relies on word of mouth for all the latest news.

Over the years, the dance studio also provided babysitting services for her two daughters. Renay won her own array of competitions, but, like her mom, got married and settled down. As for daughter Rachelle, it “looked like she wanted to be in the business — she was like a ball of fire. She never wanted to get off the stage.”

Rachelle was also very independent at a young age. Even at age seven, she told her mom to “just leave” her at the Civic Light Opera. “I’ll be fine,” she asserted.

But the two never thought much beyond the studio. Rachelle led, by all accounts, a fairly normal life. Her mother encouraged her to do other things like basketball, cheerleading and the drill team.

Around the age of 15, though, Rachelle started to take her performing more seriously. So did her mom, thinking how her daughter would get to New York and where she would stay.

Their decision was made for them. By 17, Rachelle was in the national touring company of “Cats” and that sealed the deal.

Ms. Kenneth has seen all of Rachelle’s Broadway credits and liked them all. She’s even sure that she will like Flashdance, and will see it three or four times.

She’ll be surrounded by her close and extended family. “You want to see them do something with their lives through dance, not especially dance, but through the experience of meeting other children and all the other things that go with becoming a dancer,” she says. “You can use that in life and that they have done.”

With what sounds like a happy little sigh, she murmurs, “I have no regrets.”




On Stage: A New “West Side Story”

May 20, 2011

It began with just a brief outburst, almost like a musical exclamation point, from the Benedum Center orchestra to immediately jump start “West Side Story” and its ’50’s interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet.”

But just like Jerome Robbins and company updated the Shakespearean tragedy from battling families in Verona to warring street gangs in New York City in 1957, director Arthur Laurents saw fit to tinker with Robbins’ masterpiece once more.

It is considered by some to be the best musical ever written, a taut and suspenseful blend of drama, music and dance, unlike anything that had come before and since. But times, they are a-changin’ and Mr. Laurents, the playwright who wrote the original Broadway script, thought that he could bring a few new twists to the production.

The major innovation was the inclusion of the Spanish language for the Sharks, so important in the face of today’s Latino diaspora, which has grown enough to make the United States virtually a dual language country.

It was a good concept — even in the New York revival, the production was bringing in Latino audiences, a new niche with great potential. However in this touring production, set to run through Sunday, the Spanish sections were actually trimmed. Even so, they still left a few holes in the story fabric for those who didn’t understand the language and even for those who knew the gist and even quotable lines of the story.

Yet this was a production that nonetheless crackled with defiant energy, in some ways even more than that Broadway version I saw last summer. And it did justice to the iconic movie, mostly directed by Mr. Robbins himself, which set an unparalleled standard in 1961 and remains one of the top film classics ever.

The Benedum Center orchestra perfectly captured the intoxicating rhythmic underpinnings of Leonard Bernstein’s score and contributed mightily to the mounting tensions on stage. Support vocals were strong in general, particularly in the interchanging perspectives of the “Tonight Quintet.” But the romantic leads occasionally faded in and out in the pivotal duets between Maria and Tony, drawing attention to the inherent difficulties in the music.

This “West Side Story” was, however, visually arresting, primarily due to the choreography, which Joey McKneeley infused with Robbins’ spirit. That gave it an immediacy, even though it harnessed a style that has changed considerably in the ensuing years. Highlights included the opening sequence, which seemed to cover so much territory, as well as the dances at the gym, smoothly transitioning from a competitive mambo to a simple love duet (remember those soft snaps?) and back again. And the much-touted restoration of the Dream Ballet gave a balance to the second act, a brief moment of respite before launching into the final dramatic moments.

It appeared that Mr. McKneeley did not change much. Only the staging of “Officer Krupke” looked out of place, more like an over-the-top “Ace Ventura” than “West Side Story.”

But the rest looked like it belonged, a terrific effort by a young cast who never had the opportunity to observe the ’50’s — before computer and cell phone, when alienation had a whole other meaning.

On Stage: On Moving a Monster

May 6, 2010

The more dire our economy gets, the more audiences seem to crave comfort food. And that is exactly what you get with “Young Frankenstein,” currently on view at the PNC’s Broadway Across America series at the Benedum Center. Only I would say that the Mel Brooks musical is continuous dessert, much like one giant layer cake. In fact, that was probably the only thing missing on stage — having one of the characters get it right in the kisser.

“Young Frankenstein” had everything else. Mel liked to  keep the jokes coming, knowing that one of them would eventually hit the target. Okay, so it was overkill. But then Mel has always packed a big vaudevillian punch — a straight man, second and third bananas, one-liners out the wazoo and plenty of leggy babes to “fill” things out.

After all, making a film/musical/musical film out of the “The Producers” worked, so why not another of the comedian’s success stories, “Young Frankenstein?” It boasted a, pardon the expression, “killer” cast (Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman and more) and still has a strong cult following, like “Spamalot,” after  more than 30 years.

Okay, so I’ve made a lot of comparisons. But yes, there is plenty about “Young Frankenstein” that just reminds you of something else, including the dancing.

With a new score of rollicking songs, Broadway superdirector/choreographer Susan Stroman was chosen to bring Mel’s rock ’em, sock ’em style of humor to life. (Can’t you just hear the “ba-doom-boom” from the drummer?)

After all, she is prolific, creative and prop-sensitive (pick axes, ropes and gold miners’ pans in “Crazy for You” and that big keyboard in “Big”). Although her forays into abstract dance with the Martha Graham company and for New York City Ballet had mixed results, it only proved that she is more successful with theatrical thread, as when she stretched the boundaries of the Broadway musical into the dancical, “Contact.”

Well what does she have to work with here in “Young Frankenstein?” A score of nearly 20 tunes, all of them upbeat, but not especially memorable. But, as she proved in “The Producers,” Susan Stroman had the comedic chops to go toe-to-toe with Mel.

Her voyagers materialized on stage like the Transylvanian mist before boarding a ship and broke into a terpsichorean accompaniment like a ’30’s Ziegfeld musical in “Please Don’t Touch Me.”  Frau Blucher manipulated a chair like the women in Ron Field’s “Cabaret” during “He Vas My Boyfriend.”

Actually the highlight was a take-off on the iconic Fred Astaire routine, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” where the master tapper burst through mirrored doors to encounter a whole line of men dressed in top hat and tails. This choreographer imitated that feeling by expertly multiplying her monsters, all of whom were actually quite nimble in stubby platform tap shoes.

Only  “A Roll in the Hay” felt original, though, when a couple of horses had human reactions to Inga’s romp in the hay wagon behind them. Madcap and mad funny.

So this trip down memory lane had a roller coaster feel about it.  It was big and blowsy and, what was that other ” b?” Oh yes, burlesque, another distinctly American show biz form. Maybe this hybrid music and dance show was patched together like the immensely adorable Monster. But in the end, if “Young Frankenstein” was your just dessert, that meant it left that much more room for the belly laughs.

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