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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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