On Stage: “Peter” Flies Into Town

May 21, 2014

Along the way, most of us have bumped into Peter Pan via Broadway, movie, book or television. Maybe we’ve wondered how Peter began to fly. Or how the Captain got his hook. Or where Tinker Bell first appeared.

J.M. Barrie may have created the original, but it was noted columnist Dave Barry and writing partner Ridley Pearson who created a novel, Peter and the Starcatcher, which amounts to a prequel that explains things in their own fashion.

Then Rick Elice adapted it for the stage, which arrived at Heinz Hall last night.

It was an economical production at first glance, so ripe for touring with a cast of only 12 and two musicians. But they explored Peter’s adventure with such great imagination and vision that it seemed like so much more.

So be prepared for a British music hall/vaudevillian evening in many respects. The pared-down stage was framed by burnished gold and gilt, part of Donyale Werle’s Tony Award-winning scenery. It set a low tech, almost environmental feel, with found objects covered in that gilt to create the ornamentation.

The first act took place on several sailing vessels, with the versatile cast leading the way for the audience. Be prepared to go on those trips — it’s sometimes challenging as they switch characters and scenarios, using simple ropes to create doorways and flags for the crocodile’s giant teeth. The soon-to-be Neverland was a contrast, bathed in technicolor.

Be prepared for a play with music, not a traditional musical. There was only one real production number, where the cast appeared as mermaids — facial hair and all. But be sure to check out the costume details, which also garnered Paloma Young a Tony.

Be prepared for time travel. Yes, there is that Victorian aura of the original story. But there are Michael Jackson references. There’s a Starbucks mention. And someone says, “Can you hear me now?”

Just go with the flow…or the fly, because the jokes whizzed along with the dizzying speed of a handball game.

It was a true ensemble cast, led by John Sanders’ Black Stache (pre-Captain Hook), who got a virtuosic monologue/aria about his hand near the end — a real tour de force. Joey deBettencourt took on Boy/Peter, who was on a delicious path of self-discovery. He was helped by the vivacious and brave Megan Stern as Molly. But all of them blended in when they needed to and took to the spotlight with panache.

What with co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and movement director Steven Hoggett it was easier than it should have been. It was hard to discern the dance/movement, as we saw with Hoggett’s work here in Once last March. A highly physical show, Peter and the Starcatcher, needed pinpoint timing from the cast to succeed. And therein lay the movement which permeated the entire production, making it the wind beneath their wings.


On Stage: La Vie

July 23, 2013

ImageWhen you think about it, Pittsburgh hasn’t seen anything quite like Kendra Dennard, alias Vie Boheme. While establishing her dance reputation — long legs, fierce stage persona and all — she was creating a parallel universe as songstress and performer Vie Boheme.

But unlike J Lo, who famously made the jump from contemporary dancer to pop singer and actress, Kendra/Vie has chosen another path. She has meticulously researched the history of black female singers and put together a solo performance, Viva: BLACK, that both educates and entertains.

There was never any doubt that Kendra had that innate star quality, nor that she had the ability to gather other considerable Pittsburgh talents under one roof for her performances. From The Space Upstairs to the August Wilson Center, it turns out that she has gradually been developing this tribute to the women who have played a part in her own development.

At the Kaufmann Center in the Hill District’s Hill House, she was front and center, supported by a tight eight-piece band, a couple of terrific back-up singers (Anquenique Wingfield and Jacquea Mae Olday, who each smartly and deservedly took a turn in the spotlight), a terrific trio of back-up dancers (Abigail Atkins, Ira Cambric and Annalee Traylor) and a highly receptive audience.

The Kaufmann Center is an intimate and flexible space (with plenty of parking in back, on Centre Avenue or at Ebeneezer Baptist Church), although there was still some echo in the Center, blurring lyrics despite acoustical tile adjustments.

It began with a slide and video show listing the performers who provided the rich resource material, including Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday, Eryka Badu, Nina Simone and Michael Jackson.

Josephine Baker was a given — the resemblance to her was uncanny in the video footage. And in fact, Ms. Vie began with the divine Ms. Baker and a pair of songs associated with her, J’ai Deux Amour, which explained her love of Paris, and the more familiar C’est Si Bon. And Nina Simone as well, with Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

I particularly liked the less familiar, like Hound Dog (Ruth Brown?) and They Say I’m Different, a nod to the great Betty Davis, who was once called “Sly Stone, Mick Jagger and The Jimi Hendrix Experience all rolled into one woman.” Little quotes like this and a perhaps a reference to the voluminous black wig that seemed to come from Betty’s great sense of funk-y fashion.

And therein lay the core of Viva: BLACK — an evening about women who had a sense of adventure and weren’t afraid to speak their mind, both in song and in life.

Like Betty, Vie is the whole package. Her movement has become mesmerizing, with arms that entice and legs that slice the stratosphere. The costumes by Suz Pisano in collaboration with Vie were first rate while Bob Steineck made the most of the lighting system.

I think the photos or footage could be inserted during the course of the evening to help the audience relate to these artists who have meant so much to Vie. She could do a little monologue about some of the others in the midst of it all, just to make it even more meaningful.

Then the third act, with some of her own instantly relatable songs, which sometimes meshed with Billy “Free” Pilgrim’s seductive rap (he had a great transition from a modern day Cab Calloway, bullhorn and all, in St. James Infirmary) would pop to an even greater extent.

Never anything less than glamorous, never anything less than charismatic, Vie Boheme, is on a path to destiny. What is it? That remains to be seen, but once you have seen her, you will follow her closely.


On Stage: Putting Her Own Footprint on Dance

February 8, 2012

My toes were tapping before it even began. Dance music bubbled through the intimate brick box of the Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre. Dancin’ in the Streets. Guy Lombardo (I think). Some kind of rap — I’m not sure because everyone was talking. Dance to the Music. Michael Jackson, of course.

The sound track seemed to become increasingly fractured in spots. Sometimes it was just fractured phrases.

So what was this dance writer doing at Why I’m Scared of Dance? I had just been to Billy Elliot (The Musical), who lo-o-oved to dance, the night before at the Benedum Center. And the next day I was going to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Uncommon, a very dancey mix of three ballets.

Jen Childs, the performer in this one-woman show, was about to skewer it all.

Part of the show stemmed from early childhood (don’t most of our adult anxieties?). It came right down to jealousy — of those energetic dancing cousins who stole the spotlight from Jen’s heartfelt flute solo. Of the leggy Juliet Prowse in those pantyhose commercials (we’re going wa-a-ay back).

Some of the humor was obvious. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the studio. And yeah, those over-zealous costumes, packed with super sparkles and/or shaky fringe.

As Jen put it, “Those who can, dance. Those who can’t, mock.”

The Philadelphia comedian could be ingratiating. “I could smoke like a dancer,” she said hopefully. Or insightful, as in “humans are the only animals with rhythm.”

Maybe she did a strange leap backwards from college to high school and was politically incorrect in the sketch involving her black boyfriend. But this was a middle-aged woman still trying to find the dance and “beat it into submission,” even if that meant ropes, belts and bungee chords.

Actually, Jen wasn’t as bad as she made out to be. Maybe she wasn’t a by-the-book Swan Queen, but this performer could move (and get through a ton of steps!). She finally did it “My Way,” a heartfelt little number that a lot of us probably have done in the privacy of our own living rooms.

By the end, I could see Billy in her, a little older and wiser, but caught in the same reverie.

Why I’m Scared of Dance runs at the Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre (City Theater complex on the South Side) Thurs. through Sun. at 8 p.m., Sat. and Sun. at 2 p.m. Tickets: $35-40; citytheatercompany.org or 412-431-2489.

Off Stage: An Andy Dance

September 20, 2009

Things have been so busy this summer that I only recently visited The Andy Warhol Museum to visit “Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol’s Work,” on view through September 27 (save September 24, when the museum will be closed to host an event for the G-20 Summit).

I must admit that I thought everything would fit on one level. But I was surprised to find a major exhibit, occupying four floors. Another surprise: the elevators were out of commission. So friend Ann Corrado Sahaida and I dutifully climbed up to the seventh floor to begin a dandy Andy adventure.

The museum didn’t waste any time plunging the viewer into Andy’s world. The top floor was built around a multi-media installation that immediately put the viewer on sensory overload — mirror ball, piped music and John Chamberlain’s cushy white “Couch” (1971), a place to rest after the climb and relaxing enough to savor an era. That would be a theme throughout — Warhol’s Charles Ives-ian approach to life.

Ives, an American composer, relished the juxtaposition of two bands in a parade, with overlapping rhythms, melodies and ambiance. Warhol himself played the drum set of life, with his artistic hands moving in a blur from one project to another, from one celebrity to another, from one silk-screen to another, all with an ease and grace.

We moved from no less than ten portraits of Mick Jagger down to another “MJ,” Michael Jackson, Prince and Studio 54, with competing musical selections. There were more friends’ portraits — Liza Minnelli, Debbie Harry, David Bowie and a very young Madonna (circa “Desperately Seeking Susan” 1985) with artist Keith Haring.

I seemed to detect movement in the shadows of Warhol’s diamond dust series, more so than the boldly defined lines of his more famous celebrity prints. I thought I was stretching things. But wait — thereMartha Graham Portraitwas a picture of Minnelli, Rudolf Nureyev and Martha Graham! And nearby one of Warhol and Graham and a birthday cake. Whose birthday? She was born May 11, he on August 6. But they both seemed to enjoy blowing out the candles.

As we descended deeper into the collection, the exhibit peeled away the layers of Warhol’s more-than-fifteen minutes of fame. The fifth floor featured some earlier works, like a self-portrait wallpaper lining the hallway and “Guitar Players” (1947), which was gouache on board.

His art extended an extensive record collection — yes, he worked for many major studios, adding his signature to artiMartha Graham Satyric Festival Songsts from Toscanini’s “William Tell Overture” to the famous “Sticky Fingers” cover for the Rolling Stones, complete with zipper, and The Velvet Underground and Nico banana with the delicious phrase, “Peel Slowly and See.”

There was plenty of Hollywood, including Judy Garland and multiple  repetitions of a gun-totin’ Elvis Presley. But the exhibition saved the best for last.

Any movement lover could appreciate the invitation to dance the various foot patterns in Warhol’s diagram series.  (It would be an expensive lesson — his diagrams have brought over $2 million at auction.)

Then we came upon it, “I Like Dance” from 1948, a dancing Christmas card and a cover on Dance Magazine — it seemed that Warhol was no casual dance lover. And of course, it was easy to linger over three classic poses of Martha Graham, including “Letter to the World” and a double-fisted “Satyric Festival Song” and, of course, her portrait.

Silver CloudsBut for the tried-and-true enthusiast, leave some time for Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest” (1968) at the end. A video plays footage of the original cast, including legendary contemporary artists Carolyn Brown and Gus Solomons, Jr. Running about 30 minutes in length, it’s worth your time. In fact, time has given the viewer the luxury of perspective. It unfolds like an abstraction of the era — the burgeoning environmental movement juxtaposed with the space race of the ’60’s.

The best angle? Sit on the floor while Warhol’s silver pillow clouds float overhead and enjoy.

For more information, visit The Andy Warhol Museum website.

Dance Notes: CDC Season, Zafira, Jackson Competition

August 13, 2009

CONSERVATORY DANCE COMPANY. Point Park University has announced its dance season and it has some notable programming. Faculty member Keisha Lalama-White will premiere a new work called “The Bench,” for the holiday season. It will celebrate “family and what makes us who we are” in a multi-media format with a real family affair, including an original score by David Lalama and live orchestra featuring Grammy Award-winning artist Ralph Lalama. The annual performances at the Byham have a plenty of name recognition in the line-up, with ballet choreography by The Joffrey Ballet co-founder Gerald Arpino and hot ballet commodity Trey McIntyre, plus contemporary works from Daniel Ezralow, David Parsons and Doug Varone. Pittsburgh Connections will feature Point Park alumnus Marissa Balzer, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Jeffrey Bullock, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Patrick Frantz and Kristofer Storey, alum of Point Park and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and winner of Hubbard Street 2’s 2000 National Choreographic Competition. The season opens with Student Choreography Project, Oct. 2-4, followed by Pittsburgh Connections, Nov. 13-15 and 20-22; The Bench, Dec. 11-13 and 18-20 and Conservatory Dance Company at the Byham, Feb. 11-13. It ends with Let’s Dance, featuring Point Park faculty members Doug Bentz, Judith Leifer, Peter Merz, Nicolas Petrov and Ron Tassone, Apr. 9-11. For more information, call 412-621-4445 or visit www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.

ZAFIRA. Belly-dancing apparently is attracting more and more world-wide recognition. Pittsburgh’s Zafira has plans to tour Moscow (Sept. 11-22), Australia (Sept. 22-27), Barcelona (Oct. 23-26), Ukraine (Oct. 31) and Amsterdam (Nov. 21). If you’re in the vicinity, they will be a little closer to home in Boston (Dec. 12-13) and Evergreen, Colorado (Apr. 29-May 2, 2010). Check the Zafira dance website for more information.

MOONWALK. Moriarty Consultants and Mark C. Productions will present the Michael Jackson Tribute Competition: Celebrate the King of Pops Legacy at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater August 15 at 5 p.m. The winner of the talent competition, inspired by Jackson’s music and dance, will receive $2,000. For more information, call 412-734-1067.

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