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: 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.


Dance Beat: PBT, Hines, Pillow, PP, Bandy

March 29, 2011

IT’S BA-A-ACK. Cheers to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “unnamed benefactor” for his or her generous contribution that will restore the orchestra to the opening season performance of “Peter Pan” in October at the Benedum Center. The score will include music by Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Benjamin Britten, Eric Coates, Ron Goodwin and Montague Phillips, which Royal Winnipeg Ballet choreographer Jorden Morris feels will convey the period of the classic J.M. Barrie story.

HINES UPDATE. It’s week two on “Dancing With the Stars” and Hines Ward continued to impress, this time with a fox trot. So he can not only move and groove, but has the goods to tackle the intricate, more elegant dances.

SUMMERDANCE. Speaking of seasons, Jacob’s Pillow has announced its 2011 series in the wooded glens of the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Many are familiar to Pittsburgh through the Dance Council, including Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, David Dorfman Dance, Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM and our own Kyle Abraham. Check it out at http://jacobspillow.org/Virtual-Pillow/. But there is even better news because the Pillow has launched a new Dance Interactive Project, which is a performance video collection from 1937 through today. See dance evolve before your very eyes at http://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/.

SHOWING OFF. What a great opportunity for seniors at Point Park University to take class and perform for artistic directors around the country in the annual school showcase. This year’s guest list included Desmond Richardson (Complexions), Julie Nakagawa (Dance Works Chicago), Arlene Sugano (Ballet Arkansas), Malana Walsh-Doyle (Houston Metropolitan), Melissa Young (Dallas Black Dance), Nan Giordano (Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago), Stephanie Pizzo (Eisenhower Dance Ensemble) and our own Greer Reed Jones (Dance Alloy Theater/August Wilson Dance Ensemble). What a stepping stone!

BANDY-ING ABOUT. Former PBT dancer Christopher Bandy is up to a new toymaking adventure. Check it out at his website: http://www.etsy.com/shop/bandywoodworks.

RAUH ON GERSHWIN. PBT paid tribute to long-time supporter Richard Rauh at its Friday performance of “Shall We Dance.” It turned out that he is a dedicated fan of George Gershwin and shared some personal stories with the audience just before a compilation of Gershwin movies. He then joined the audience in the Byham lobby for a toast afterwards and moved on to party with the company at the Renaissance Hotel.



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