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: 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: Cats Forever…

July 21, 2014

Many of us have a “Memory” about Cats. An iconic musical that debuted in 1981, I was first attracted to it because of the enormous attention to movement, a predecessor of today’s dancicals.

Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera gave it another encore, but the audience — and particularly those around me who sang along and commented throughout — responded as if it were a welcome old friend.

It’s been a while since I have seen or heard bits and pieces of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit. So I had fresh eyes and ears for it, ready to make some new memories for myself.

This feline musical fantasy seemed more like a traditional musical on Friday at the Benedum Center. It traverses so many styles, from British musical hall to jazz. But even Rum Tum Tugger, a parody of Mick Jagger that was so current back in the ’80’s, would now be considered conservative.


And when you think about how about tap dancing Jennyanydots, Gus the theater cat, with his dynamic character change, and British musical hall duo of Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer, it’s clear that this is a tribute to veteran artists…cat-sized.

They were all terrific — the CLO was smart to build the cast around artists who have performed their roles before, either regionally, on national tour or on Broadway (including a powerful Ken T. Prymus, who had performed the eternally wise Deuteronomy thousands of times, and high-flying Grove City native Andrew Wilson as Mr. Mistofelees). A smart move!


They filled it in with a lot of young local talent, poised and professional. The exception to those rules was Tony Award-winning Elizabeth Stanley, who had never performed Grizabella, but, with an emotionally-laced Memory, stole the show.

This show has no easy parts. When it first came to Broadway, the cast spent weeks just learning how to move like cats. A boneless ease. Stretching and preening. Head darting on constant alert. And they can’t curl up and rest when the score is so staggeringly complex for its range and harmonies.

This Cats was remarkably stunning in so many ways, a real CLO achievement. Given the short rehearsal period, the ensemble was remarkably cohesive. The accoutrements — costuming, lighting, scenic design and orchestra were all first rate. And the Journey to the Heavyside Layer was nothing short of, well, heavenly.


For more information, click on CLO.

On Stage: CLO’s Brides/Brothers a Match Made in Heaven

June 12, 2013
George Dvorsky (Adam Pontipee) and Mamie Parris (Millie)

George Dvorsky (Adam Pontipee) and Mamie Parris (Millie)

The Civic Light Opera’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is that rarest of breeds — the truly manly musical. Mountain-brewed with a panoramic  sweep, it’s the kind of tuneful show that had the audience humming as they went out the Benedum Center doors.

Not that the tunes were not that familiar, not like Broadway’s groundbreaking role model, Oklahoma!, but they felt familiar. Of course, I grew up with movie musicals and the campy, rough-and-tumble 1954 film was one of my favorites, with some of the best male dancers of the day, including New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise, soon-to-be jazz legend Matt Mattox, the original Dream Curley from Oklahoma!, Marc Platt, and the future Riff from Jerome Robbins’ film version of West Side Story, Russ Tamblyn.

It was great to see how well the CLO’s brothers stood up against that memory. They were a bracing lot who could easily negotiate the multitude of tricks and tumbling that director/choreographer Sha Newman threw their way and handily showed how much dance technique has progressed over the years.

The newly refurbished brothers Pontipee jump for joy.

The newly refurbished brothers Ponipee jump for joy.

The steps themselves were direct and often repetitive, all deliberately designed to elicit applause — which they did in numbers like Goin’ Courtin’ and Social Dance. With a bigger budget, they could have benefitted from the prop dance specialty numbers that Susan Stroman (Crazy For You, Contact) does so well.

While dance is the driving force behind Seven, it has a folksy tale of a mountain man who sweeps a woman off her feet in a single day and the six brothers who attempt to do the same with disastrous results. Fraught with a few setbacks, including a some fights and an avalanche, it produced a friendly spirit along the way and and ended with a bracing camaraderie among all, including the audience.

It benefitted from an exhilarating score by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, with a couple of new and engaging songs by Al Kasha & Joel Hirschhorn and played with rousing brio by Tom Helm and the orchestra. Anna Louizos’ scenery boasted a great view of the mountains, which was cleverly altered from the farm to the town to a nearby mountain view by movable trees, although it was apparently created for a smaller stage. John McLain’s lighting contributed to the appropriate moods along the way.

The cast puts an exclamation point on their production numbers.

The cast puts an exclamation point on their production numbers.

Although Seven told of hardy American pioneers, it was hardly a pioneering musical. However Lawrence Kasha & David Landay tinkered with it for the 1982 Broadway version. So what started as a old-fashioned, pre-feminist production (A Woman Ought To Know Her Place), evolved into a discovery zone for male star George Dvorsky.

He brought his best Howard Keel bravado with him, portraying the leading man with unequivocal authority and a booming voice. But his sensitive portrayal of that same A Woman Ought To Know, with the support of a few new lyrics, made his Adam a three-dimensional character.

That left Mamie Parris, who was a unquestionably a modern-day Millie, taking on a bevy of brothers with charm and determination and being a role model for the brides. It was also a taxing song-and-dance role, where she took charge whether singing a lullaby to her baby in Glad That You Were Born or leading the way in Goin’ Courtin.’

No doubt this was a lucky Seven for the CLO.

FYI: A montage from the original film.



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.”

See Listings for more info.



On Stage: Underscoring a New “Line”

June 19, 2012

Photos: Matt Polk

The “line” is part and parcel of the dancer’s vocabulary in many forms.  One of the most important is a beauty of line in the movement. But dancers flirt with other lines as well. Making a bee line for class. Putting it on the line every day in the studio, at risk of injury. Kick lines. Keeping in line with other dancers in complex choreography.

And, of course, A Chorus Line, one of the treasures of the Broadway stage. This is the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the über-talented artists who are usually part of the background scenery in a show. But Michael Bennett ended that when he put them front and center in his ground-breaking 1975 production.

Now it’s back in Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center for the Civic Light Opera’s major new, must-see revival under the direction of the original Connie, Baayork Lee. It seems strange that this show, where only rehearsal clothes and a large mirror backdrop service the production can now be considered a period piece, given that dance has changed so much, from its technique to Broadway’s current choreographic direction of blending the movement seamlessly with the dramatic thread.

Certainly this was apparent in the recent revival of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, where the dancers, trained on today’s hyper-flexible standards and competition lifestyle, changed the impetus of this landmark musical with loose-limbed kicks and jumps instead of the inherent tension and explosive control to be found in the ’50’s recreation of  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Not so with this “Line,” where Ms. Lee lovingly recreated the original choreography by Mr. Bennett and Bob Avian. The cast obviously had a wealth of information about the jazz Broadway style of the ’70’s and the discipline to execute it.

At Sunday night’s performance, the now-familiar steps had a joyous spring to them. Surprisingly it became a fresh-faced look to these veteran eyes of numerous productions, from high school to Broadway.

There were a few glitches to be sure. The ballet audition sequence had overblown porte bras and Frank, the boy in the headband, wasn’t believable as he continually stared at his feet. The womens’ top register in the chorus numbers seemed a tad thin and there were still a handful of missed notes.

But those problems were, in the end, minute in a performance that mined the performers’ stories in compelling fashion and came so, so close to the award-winning standard set by the original cast nearly forty years ago.

Ms. Lee’s smart casting choices, a blend of veterans from the Broadway revival and various tours (A Chorus Line family?), paid off.  Point Park University graduate Nadine Isenegger (Cassie) led the way, exhibiting much of the unbridled passion of the original Donna McKechnie.

Bryan Knowlton’s Paul, shy and awkward, but a focal point in the finale, still grabbed the heartstrings when he went back to his beginnings, where he was bullied, quit school and joined a drag production, which his parents’ subsequently discovered. While the tale of his emerging homosexuality didn’t carry the shock value of the original, he still managed to make it meaningful.

All of the major highlights of the smashing Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban score were there — Diana’s (Gabrielle Ruiz) powerful rendition of the show’s anthem, “What I Did For Love,” Val’s (Carleigh Bettiol) sassy “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” Mike’s (Shane Rhoades) bell-like voice and pristine technique in “I Can Do That,” Kristine (Hilary Michael Thompson) and Al’s (Theo Lencicki) quick-witted repartee in “Sing!.”  And Emily Fletcher’s drip-dry Sheila folded in with Bebe (Gina Philistine) and Maggie (Emily Rice) for a sweet tribute in “At the Ballet.”

Already this cast was acting like a top-notch company, leading me to add one more phrase of note. It was hard not to fall hook, “line” and sinker in love with this production.

For more information, go to Listings.














On Stage: Sowing the Seeds of “Ruthless”

February 10, 2012

Photo by Matt Polk

Kiesha Lalama is adding one more hat to her head these days. Already mom to Jake, 13, and Jax, 11, Kiesha is an associate professor at Point Park University, education director for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, choreographer for such groups as Gus Giordano Dance Chicago, August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble and TedxPittsburgh. She also is rewriting her full-length jazz dance piece about family affairs, The Bench.

But when CLO executive director and Ruthless director Van Kaplan asked her to choreograph the latest Backstage Cabaret Show, Ruthless, she just couldn’t say no. “I’m having the time of my life,” she exults in that familiar rasp of hers, sort of like actress Kathleen Turner or, for the younger set, Miley Cyrus. It probably helps that four of the cast members are former students at Point Park, leading Kiesha to say, “I walked in and I said I was home.”

But Ruthless is also “the most challenging thing I have done so far,” adds Kiesha. She calls this musical comedy take-off on “The Bad Seed,” the story of a a little girl whose ambitions go awry (or maybe it’s more than that), “highly stylized. It’s just that everything is so intricate and the timing has to be perfect and precise or it’s just not funny.”

What with the intimacy of the Backstage Cabaret and the postage stamp stage, it means reining in the broad-based choreographic heart that generally permeates Kiesha’s movement. “I’m so used to dancing big — you know, get your legs up as high as they can go, give it everything you’ve got.”

Not here. “For me it’s finding the little details and intricate moments to make it work,” she admits. “So it’s the complete opposite of what I’m normally doing. It made me step out of my comfort zone and I love that because I’ve grown so much from this. It will enhance my choreography for the concert stage.”

She credits Van for much of it, a perfectionist of a director with a  “meticulous process” that she promises will produce a big comic payoff. “A magic is happening with this cast with Van at the helm and the information that the young actors are getting from him,“ she says. “It’s priceless!”

So look for tidbits like Marlana Dunn’s transformation from “baking cookies to Broadway stage,” a theater critic who hates musicals, 8-year old Allison Joyce, a vocal powerhouse who is about as big as Jonathan Visser’s (Sylvia St. Croix) right leg and more.

Then, too, the cast just has a great chemistry all on its own and that must account for something as well.

Evidently it does for Kiesha, who spouts, “I haven’t laughed this hard in any show!”

Ruthless will run through May 6 at the CLO Cabaret in Theater Square, Downtown. Tickets: $34.75-44.75; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.

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