'Wicked' is a must but small local companies are no-brainers, too

Friday, 23 September 2011 02:09 PM Written by 

It feels like fall when there’s so much theater going on in and around Pittsburgh and the grand family musical of the 21st century, “Wicked,” is packing of seats at the Benedum Center once again, a somewhat magical feat of endurance in these hard economic times.

Merry_350On a much smaller scale, local theater companies are gearing up for the season or gearing down from summer. Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, for instance, is giving its final performance of the run of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (left) at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Frick Park’s Blue Slide playground, Beechwood Boulevard and Nicholson Street, Squirrel Hill. For you Mac Miller fans, that’s the same place the Pittsburgh rapper has chosen to honor for his first record-label album.

Here’s something to watch for the next time around: The night after attending “Wicked’s” press night Sept. 8, I went to another musical Friday night, at a considerably smaller venue, the 150-seat Grey Box Theatre in Lawrenceville, where the Bald Theatre Company was performing William Finn’s “A New Brain.”

It’s a storefront theater without a lobby and curtains separating the seats from the bathroom area. Seats are first-come, first-with-a-good-view of the proceedings, or (if you’re relatively short, like I am) you might be seated behind a 6-foot-plus giant or two (as I was).

I craned my neck a lot and caught the well-cast group led by Justin Zeno as Gordon Schwinn, the down-on-his-luck composer who collapses because of “trouble in the brain.” The play follows his brush with death as he navigates through illness and hallucinations; a kiddy show host’s career demands; and his mother, lover and various hospital attendants (such as Rob James’ jaunty Good Nurse). Arlene Merryman was thoroughly believable as the doting and determined mother Mimi Schwinn and Natalie Hatcher as A Homeless Lady had a pleasant, clear voice. Jason Shavers, who has appeared with Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, was a stand out with the gentle pop score as Gordon’s understanding lover who loves to go sailing.

If I had a gripe it was that sitting in the back and to the side of the elongated space, as I was, the capable five-piece ensemble sometimes drowned out the actors. But all-in-all, it was a pleasant evening with talented local actors and a chance to see a show that I had known only from the soundtrack, recommended to me by the original off-Broadway star, Malcolm Gets, when he was here last year for the Pittsburgh CLO’s “Curtains.”

Another local company, The Hiawatha Project, made its debut this month with “Camino,” reviewed today by Chris Rawson. The new company’s mission statement says it “creates original performances exploring specific social questions through myth, free association and movement. The company connects true stories and divergent communities through impactful and amusing theatrical works.” The site lists as its upcoming production “Helicopter Parents Anonymous,” planned for 2013.

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