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: Attack-ing the Pittsburgh Symphony

February 7, 2012

Family-oriented entertainment takes many forms, from Disney to Stravinsky. “Stravinsky?” you might say.” Ruler of rhythmic diversity? Terrorist with time signatures? Sultan of musical sarcasm?”

But Attack Theatre has never let musical complexities get in the way. This is a company that relishes the live aspect of it all, feeling that juicy, sink-your-teeth-into-it music, whatever the genre, rock, jazz, Baroque or classical, can go a long way towards elevating the dance experience.

Perhaps that was the reason that the Attackers once again paired with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It’s always been fruitful for both organizations, even though the PSO is more traditionally entrenched and Attack Theatre is an open artistic book. But the mutual respect was always there.

Along the way, they’ve engaged each other in a community project at the New Hazlett Theater and various Holiday Pops concerts. But one of their most successful interactions was Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), first performed in 2005 at Heinz Hall with conductor/violinist Pinchas Zukerman. The stage director then was Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s Jonathan Eaton.

Jonathan was on board once more last week, this time updating the text to include the likes of “subprime mortgages” and “FDIC-insured” in a performance at Pittsburgh Opera’s facilities in the Strip District. The event at the Pittsburgh Opera facility in the Strip District was a first look at an upcoming tour to select high schools in the area, followed by performances with the Erie and Asheville symphony orchestras.

The audience was limited to 100 lucky viewers, but the creativity was boundless. It began with recorded music, the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, a clever way to put the crowd on alert with a rockin’ prelude to a wonderfully astute morality play.

For the record, the Stravinsky work focused on a soldier (Dane Toney) who fell prey to the Devil (played by a trio of women — Liz Chang, Michele de la Reza and Ashley Williams, who did double duty as the Princess). The dramatic lines were led by narrator Peter Kope, but shared by all with clear articulation and a measured pace. (Certainly vocal coach Claire Syler was a wise investment.)

In the end, the soldier didn’t get what he wanted, the moral being that the grass is not always greener. Or in the Biblical context, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

With such a rich music and dance landscape, the production used few props, with a table (one of Attack’s favorite devices) and a couple of chairs being most prominent and Maribeth Maxa’s costumes giving everything a colorful dash of whimsy. It was all in keeping with the original intent — keeping things simple and light and portable.

Peter’s direction drove home the point without hammering it. (There isn’t an arts organization that I’ve come across that maintains such artistic integrity in an educational milieu.) This is the way art should be, able to give us a smart perspective on a composer like Stravinsky, who inches closer to the middle ground every time I hear his music. It’s nice to know how far listeners have come in accepting him (and how much he is copied in the music world, which could account for something).

Educational opportunity? Family entertainment? Yes, but I saw some real music sophisticates who were mesmerized by the hour-long performance.

That’s saying something.

Just for the record, the terrific PSO ensemble consisted of Dennis O’Boyle, violin; John Moore, bass; Ronald Samuels, clarinet; David Sogg, bassoon; Neal Berntsen, trumpet; Peter Sullivan, trombone and Jeremy Branson, percussion. And photos are by Rebecca Himberger, whose job title is a mouthful: Associate Director, Marketing & Corporate Partnerships.

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