On Stage: Extra! Extra! Dance All Around It!

July 19, 2017


Katherine and the Newsies tap through King of New York.

As the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera continues its summer of excellence, it turned to yet another Disney production, the second such this year (The Little Mermaid) at the Benedum Center.  But where Mermaid swam with bubbly tunes over and under the sea, Newsies tackled a more serious matter, the newspaper boys’ strike of 1899 in New York City and laced it with powerful, athletic choreography.

While all Disney productions have messages embedded within them, this production spotlights the problems of child labor during the late 19th century. In a way it’s the flip side of Annie, with its perky, determined cast of girls.

While Newsies doesn’t have the familiarity of Annie, its cast of boys sets it apart as well, although the various roles can be played by young adults who just happen to look like teenagers. That means the choreography can be more complicated and physical.

And it is. The boys have numerous show stopping routines courtesy of director/choreographer Richard Hines (who has a connection to the original Broadway musical). It exploded with Carrying the Banner, spiked by strong jazz moves, and included King of New York, an electrifying tap routine (although you had to wonder where the Newsies got their shiny new shoes). You could tell the audience was waiting for the Newsies to conquer the stage each time as they swaggered up and down the fire escapes in the urban setting.

They are led by a charismatic Jack Kelly, played by Joey Barreiro, who recently finished the national tour (and one of several actors that made the jump to CLO). He’s an actor who knows the value of stillness, one of those people who light up a room (or a theater) with his presence. He also knew how to pace himself, saving his full-throated voice for a forceful rendition of Santa Fe at the end of the first act. Best friend Crutchie (a touching Daniel Quadrino) set the stage when he performed the song as a duet with Jack at the top of the show.

Jack’s love interest, Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) had an equally riveting moment in Watch What Happens and could hold her own, much like a budding feminist, with the guys. The production skimmed over shards of history with Joseph Pulitzer (a suitably authoritative Edward Watts) and Governor Teddie Roosevelt (CLO stalwart Gavan Pamer), less so with Bower burlesque hall owner Medda Larkin (a robust Patricia Phillips).

So maybe adults now deliver the “papes” and, on closer inspection, this musical a piece of revisionist history. But at its heart, Newsies is about persistence and courage, qualities that we need even today and it delivers.




On Stage: Baby’s Back!

May 25, 2017

It’s almost like a perfect storm. Dirty Dancing is on its second national tour. But ABC unveiled its own version starring Abigail Breslin and Debra Messing, which revealed a post-Kellerman life for Baby and Johnny. And if you bought the original on DVD, you could have the time of your life this week.

But that’s neither nor there. Dirty Dancing opened at Heinz Hall Tuesday evening in true encore form, taking the audience back to the ’60’s, mostly via a musical score filled with magic moments.

Good news, folks. Fo those of you who are Dirty Dancing buffs, this particular tour has changed since the original musical version hit Pittsburgh in 2015…for the better.

Of course, it is fiercely loyal to the original script, except perhaps for fleshing out a troubled relationship between Baby’s parents. Oh, and there’s not a Mrs. Schumacher and a few other bits and pieces.

Actually this hybrid version strikes a nice balance between what you expect to see and the abstract theatricality of a stage production.

It moves along with the speed of today’s lifestyle, particularly in a well-staged opening that used rapid-fire dramatic threads as it depicted the start of the Kellerman mountain resort season. The set design kept the window shutters and scenic projections from the last production, but with more sophistication to accommodate the various settings, from a golf course to Johnny’s studio.

The band, very small, with only humans on trumpet, guitar and sax in addition to keyboards and a mostly electronic score, sat above all the action — sometimes a good notion, sometimes not.

So you have to be willing to forgive a few things along the way — the cast is also smallish and, for the most part, very young and exceptionally good dancers who wouldn’t need any lessons from Johnny and Penny. (Choreographer Michele Lynch, however, took full advantage of their abilities.) They are also very talented, with supporting players who have terrific vocal chops of their own. Chante Carmel (Elizabeth) and Jordan Edwin André (Billy Kostecki) wove in and out of their characters to take a deserved center spotlight on some of the most familiar songs.

And Max and Neil Kellerman (Gary Lynch and Matt Surges) didn’t resemble their movie counterparts, but had a great rhythm to their delivery. Could it be that we are slowly becoming willing to accept others in those iconic roles? In this case, the leggy Penny (Jennifer Mealani Jones) gets a “yes,” but the equally leggy and beautiful Marjorie Houseman (Hannah Jane McMurray) gets a “no.”

Which brings us to Baby and Johnny. This couple (Rachel Boone and Christopher Tierney) came the closest of any I’ve seen. Sporting the curly Baby wig, Boone really resembled Jennifer Grey, with Tierney less so, although he had a great, thick, tossable head of hair. What really set them apart, though, was their physicality. She had Grey’s tiny body and awkwardly endearing style down pat, while he had Swayze’s muscularity and deep vocal resonance. It was uncanny how they so closely resembled the film’s dance moves (even the log scene and the practice lifts in the lake), but left room for their own interpretation.

From The Watermelons to The Lift to The Dance that took Baby out of The Corner, they helped to breathe a new vitality to a treasured story and allow the audience to revisit a treasured time in their own lives…





On Stage: Head Over Heels for “Kinky Boots”

September 22, 2016


One famous quote about dancer Ginger Rogers smirked that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

Well, ladies, the shoe company/drag queen musical Kinky Boots is putting its own stamp on that, in fact, elevating it to a new level with platform shoes and six-inch heels.

kinky_boots_tour-lolaThis heartwarming look at diversity and mutual respect, now at the Benedum Center, goes above and beyond any chorus line musicals we’ve ever seen. It tells the tale of a young Brit named Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan) who inherits a failing men’s shoe company. He accidentally bumps into Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), star of a drag show, and thinks that he could save her from some ruffians.

But Lola doesn’t need help in a lot of ways. In fact, she could give Ginger and any other woman a run for her money. But not with a broken heel. As a result, the intrepid drag queen turns herself into a fashion consultant who knows a niche market when she sees one. And the men’s shoe company transforms itself into a custom boot corporation, making “a range of shoes for a range of men”  like Lola. Along the way, everyone involved, from the employees to Lola and Charlie themselves undergo personal transformations.

This musical was the perfect vehicle for hometown favorite Billy Porter, who won a Tony Award as Lola last year. But would it stand on its own without him? Kinky Boots is, in many ways, an old-fashioned, uplifting evening of musical theater. It sports a rousing score by Cyndi Lauper, a versatile industrial scenic design by David Rockwell.

But most of all, it is yet another working class British musical (Billy Elliot, The Full Monty) that is able to make the leap across the pond to America because it strikes a universal emotional chord.

In this production, sans Porter, I sensed a new-found danger, though. Kudos to the Angels, Lola’s back-up singers and dancers. Full of unquenchable energy, the six performer/athletes zipped up and down stairs in their eye-catching platforms, could high kick and split with the best, and, most daringly, danced along moving conveyor belts as well.


I don’t know ladies — I can’t imagine Ginger keeping up, even in her heyday.









Dance Beat: On the Road Again

January 11, 2016
In Kansas with Zeke, Hunk, Hickory, Auntie Em and storm clouds.

In Kansas with Zeke, Hunk, Hickory, Auntie Em and storm clouds.

That’s the Yellow Brick Road, Munchkins.

If you want to see the dark side of Oz, there’s the stage production of Wicked. If you want to see the funky side of Oz, there’s always The Wiz.

Actually there was an original stage version in 1902, just two years after L Frank Baum’s book, called “America’s first fairy tale.” Over the years, others tweaked the story, predating the 1936 film classic that has been part and parcel of our American lives over the years.

Over the rainbow in Munchkinland.

Over the rainbow in Munchkinland.

When the PNC Broadway Pittsburgh series took its latest trip to Oz at Heinz Hall this week, we found a warm and fuzzy and, yes, familiar production.  Of real note were a handful of new songs by Broadway heavyweight team Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), all of which nicely fit into the iconic score of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.

The Wicked Witch of the West (Shani Hadrian), sans the pointed black hat, was deservedly given Red Shoes Blues (“She’s prissy, she’s clueless and I want her shoeless.”) and Dorothy got to sing Already Home with Glinda near the end.

Strangely enough, Lloyd Webber also toyed with some of the background music, particularly the scene where the main characters are rescued with a patchwork quilt of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain amid other tunes.

The gang threatened by the Wicked Witch.

The gang threatened by the Wicked Witch.

But then, that’s the fun of classic productions, to bring a new light to them. So some production elements were put on steroids — Professor Marvel’s magic lantern wagon with its large global slides, a Kansas sky and tornado projected on a giant screen that covered the stage and a bright neon rainbow. Only — that Yellow Brick Road mostly stayed in place instead of revolving in some fashion. But that could be due to technical issues.

When looking overall, this version was its own rainbow of former productions — a few updated comments ala The Wiz, a mechanical set from the Wicked Witch’s lair in Wicked and a mostly cinematic touch from the film — a potpourri that surprisingly gave Dorothy’s journey its own charm, geared, as it was, for family entertainment.

The leading characters  were traditionally lovable themselves. Hunk/Scarecrow (Morgan Reynolds), Hickory/Tin Man (Jay McGill), Zeke/Lion (Aaron Fried) and even Professor Marvel/The Wizard — also came back at the end with Dorothy (Sarah Lasko), making for an American family portrait.

So there it was, a storybook ending, made even more so by the tiny girl who was sitting on her mother’s lap in front of me. Clad mostly in pink, she also had a coordinated surgical mask covering her mouth. But her attentive posture and spirit were engaging, adding to the evening. And when Dorothy began singing “Home,” she turned to her mother with a delighted look on her face and gave her a great big hug, giving the song and this Wizard of Oz an extra tug at my heartstrings.

Almost home.

Almost home.




On Stage: Beautiful Carole King

October 29, 2015
Abby Mueller as Carole King

Abby Mueller as Carole King

I feel the earth move under my feet…

I’ve felt that way for lo so many years when I listen to Carole King’s songs, which I thought were mostly limited to her solo album, Tapestry, released in 1971. But the Tony Award-winning musical inspired by her career, Beautiful, now playing at the Benedum Center and starring a dynamic Abby Muller, proves that there was much more to this pop icon.

This is a glossy rendering of her life from a smart, talented teenager who skipped two grades and left college to become a songwriter to the self-assured artist who produced Tapestry. Along the way she married Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), her first love, husband and lyricist. It gives the musical a dramatic edge, alluding to his affairs and drug use.

It also follows the influential New York music publishing house run by Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), along with another successful partnership there in the entertaining duo of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.

The Don Kirshner studio.

The Don Kirshner studio.


But this is jukebox musical, similar to The Jersey Boys. It produces a back story around the surprising number of hits as it educates the public about King’s importance. She was ahead of her time, able to be an understanding wife, a mother to two children and a successful, but in some ways humble artist who follows her dream.

While some of the facts might have been surprising to the public at large, so were the tunes. Who knew that she and Goffin wrote their first big hit, Some Kind of Wonderful, for The Drifters? And Will You Love Me Tomorrow took The Shirelles to the top of the pop charts, the first black female singing group to do so?

The Drifters.

The Drifters.

It didn’t end there, with The Locomotion (Little Eva) and One Fine Day (Janelle Woods) adding to their mix of hits. The chirping Weil (Gulsvig) and and hypochondriac Mann (Ben Fankhauser) were able to mount challenges like You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling (The Righteous Brothers) to give balance and comedy to the production.

And that was just the first act.

Kudos to the entire cast, 24 in all, that loomed larger with its versatility, similar in the that respect to another Tony-winning musical, Once. Not only did they execute great covers of so many familiar songs in the style of the time, but they danced and played a number of extra instruments. It’s all in the current trend of the quadruple-threat (and maybe more) performer.

The production saves some surprises for the end, including (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, the Aretha Franklin anthem that King and Goffen wrote for her. All along I felt the earth was moving and grooving, but there is a shortened version of “Earth” to add an exclamation point to it all.

This is a juicy musical chunk of rock and roll history, one to be savored. Some audience members will have lived and cherished it, others were probably just being introduced. But there is no doubt that Carole King’s legacy is both timeless and “beautiful.”





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.


January 20, 2014
Alison Luff as Elphaba Photos: Joan Marcus

Alison Luff as Elphaba Photos: Joan Marcus

Revisionist fairytales are all the rage. No longer are they Disney-esque — sweet and so, so pretty, sometimes packed with tuneful melodies. Instead they are more Burton-esque (as in Tim), and a little more “Wicked,”

“Wicked” has only been around for about 10 years, yet it appears to have spawned a whole raft of offshoots, including television’s “Once Upon a Time,” which is sporting its own Elphaba.


Alison Luff (Elphaba) and Jenn Gambatese (Glinda)

Alison Luff (Elphaba) and Jenn Gambatese (Glinda)

She rightfully belongs to “Wicked,” though. Her story in the Land of Oz, where it isn’t easy being green and where appearances of good and evil aren’t always what they seem, has gone through several of its own revisions. It began with Gregory Maguire’s book in 1995, the inspiration for the hit musical, which shaved off a few warts and all in order to appeal to family-friendly audiences.

And now “Wicked” has come back to Pittsburgh. It’s almost as if there has been another revision. This was the sleekest and, yes, loveliest of several versions I have seen. Even the Broadway production maintained an edgier look at the Emerald City.


The Wizard

The Wizard

Like many tours these days, “Wicked” returned with much of the award-winning scenery and sumptuous costumes intact, a visually glorious feast packed with the internal workings of a giant timepiece, a Time Dragon suspended above the Benedum Center proscenium and plenty of fog, sometimes too much, for the appropriate magical atmosphere.

Alison Luff’s Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was more attractive than usual, without the unique beauty of, say, and Idina Menzel, who originated the role. But she took the audience on a journey, saving her best acting and singing for the second act. But her soaring performance of the show’s anthem, “Defying Gravity” still produced goosebumps.


The Emerald City

The Emerald City

That carried over into the rest of the cast. While Gina Beck’s Glinda was virtually note perfect, her transition into a leader and ultimately a steadfast good friend gave this Good Witch a worthy dimension.

Among the supporting cast, a petite Alison Fraser was more cute than, as her name suggests, Madame Morrible and John Davidson tapped echoes of Al Jolson in his traveling vaudevillian version of The Wizard. But Nick Adams was suitably handsome and engaging as Fiyero, while Tom Flynn was appropriately, yet humanely uppercrust as Dr. Dillamond.

The ensemble provided great vocal support in Stephen Schwartz’s by-now-familiar score, with dancers forgoing diversity, one of the overriding “Wicked” themes, in favor of an elegant technique (except for those fabulous winged monkeys).

This production gained power as it delved into a magical brew of good and evil, sprinkled with witty references to the 1939 movie, often at the oddest of moments. This “Wicked” is, in the end, worth your while, just to be transported to a world of magic and trickery, love and friendship, plus a clever twist on one of the world’s favorite fairytales.



































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