Sharon Eberson's Best of Pittsburgh Theater in 2015

Wednesday, 16 December 2015 01:03 PM Written by 


Billy Porter, Tracy Brigden and Anthony Rapp at City Theatre's benefit concert "A Broadway Holiday" Dec. 14. (John Colombo)

Any talk of Pittsburgh theater in 2015 starts with Billy Porter and his triumphant return to Pittsburgh in his Tony-winning role as the drag queen Lola in "Kinky Boots." The Pittsburgh native and CMU alum left Broadway for a week at the Benedum with the touring production.

On opening night here in August, he received a five-minute standing ovation when he arrived onstage to sing "Hold Me in Your Heart."

Porter also took time to support local theater groups, appearing at Pittsburgh CLO's Guild Ball in April and this month, joining fellow Broadway star Anthony Rapp for a magical night of song at a fundraiser for their shared "artistic home," City Theatre. Rapp flew in on a red-eye from L.A. for the night, then returned the next morning to be onstage in the tour of "If/Then."

His farewell Broadway performance on Nov. 20, when he unlaced Lola's high-heeled boots for the last time and handed them to his replacement, Wayne Brady, set the stage for his next gig: the all-star Broadway show "Shuffle Along," opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald.

On the Broadway front, Pittsburgh was, as usual, well-represented at Tony time:

Michael Cerveris (OK, he's from West Virginia originally, but his father lives here) of "Fun Home" and Christian Borle of "Something Rotten!) each won their second Tonys, as best actor in a musical and best feature actor in a musical, respectively.



Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild stepped out of the ballet world onto Broadway in "An American in Paris" (Matthew Murphy)

"An American in Paris," the most nominated show of the year, co-produced by Pittsburgh CLO's Van Kaplan, won Tonys for choreography, scenic design, orchestrations and lighting.

Carnegie Mellon and Point Park universities continue to be among the nation's leaders in turning out future -- and sometimes instant -- Broadway stars. The Princeton Review named Carnegie Mellon the nation's top college theater program in a poll of 136,000 students at 380 colleges. CMU ranked high in categories including best alumni network, campus and educational experiences. The website noted: "The school's motto - 'My heart is in the work' - rings true for all."

More theater highlights from 2015:

-- The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is open for business, with programming and operational support from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and leadership from the Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments and Mellon Foundation. The August Wilson Legacy Fund was established to support efforts by organizations such as the AWC Renewal Inc., which is dedicated to mission-oriented programming and education.


Remy Zaken and and David Jackson in Pittsburgh Public Theater's "The Diary of Anne Frank." (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)

-- Pittsburgh Public Theater's moving, beautifully acted and staged revival of "The Diary of Anne Frank" Oct. 6 was a timely piece of theater about the plight of refugees from a horrific time in our history. The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, making his first visit to the O'Reilly for this production, wrote, " Judging by this 'Anne Frank,' the Public looks like one of the most accomplished resident theaters on the East Coast."

-- Bricolage's continued ventures into unchartered theatrical territory brought us "Saints Tour," a magical bus ride to a communion with Braddock that ended with a literal breaking of bread with residents. Bria Walker, who sadly for us has moved from Pittsburgh to a job as assistant professor of acting for SUNY New Paltz, was our Tour Guide to a singular experience.

-- Speaking of Braddock ... Patrick Jordan is building a home there for barebones productions. Barebones black box theater is taking shape and housed two of the company's gutsy and hard-edged offerings, "American Falls" and "Small Engine Repair."


 Julia Warner, left, and Christopher Larkin in City Theatre's "Oblivion." (Kristi Jan Hoover)

-- City Theatre's Tracy Brigden, now in her 15th season, continues to bring in smart and savvy new works such as "Oblivion" and "Elemeno Pea" and exciting voices such as Dominique Morisseau ("Sunset Baby") and Conor McPherson ("The Night Alive").

QuantumBestOf2015Left: Scott Pauley, Rebecca Belczyk and Dan Kempson in Quantum Theatre's "The Winter's Tale." (Heather Mull)

-- Quantum Theatre's Karla Boos, winner of the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award's Established Artist honor, created an operatic theatrical experience of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" with collaborators from Attack Theatre and Chatham Baroque. As an encore, she produced the first presentation by Quantum's Gerry Kay New Voices Program, the Hatch Collective's innovative "Chickens in the Yard."

--- Financial woes caused PICT Classic Theatre to cancel productions of "The Tempest" and "Saint Joan," but it had artistic triumphs in an intimate "Jacques Brel," staged Downtown and extended to play in Oakland, and "Sharon's Grave," in which James FitzGerald dug into a fierce role as a troll of a man in an Irish fable of hope and redemption -- and the karma that catches up with people of ill will.

--- A robust production of "Fences" rebooted August Wilson's 20th-century cycle of plays for Mark Clayton Southers' Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company in May. The producing artistic director suffered a life-threatening car accident just after opening night, and his miraculous comeback included directing "The Piano Lesson" at the August Wilson Center in November.


Ron Raines as Don Quixote and Greg Hildreth as Sancho in Pittsburgh CLO production of "Man of La Mancha." (Matt Polk)

 -- Pittsburgh CLO's "Man of La Mancha" starring Ron Raines and Jackie Burns brought Broadway voices to a top-notch revival. PCLO has long been making its mark as a Broadway producer and brought in the tour of "Kinky Boots" and "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" this summer. And if you didn't have fun at CLO Cabaret's "Altar Boyz," check your pulse.

-- Solo feats: How I Learned What I Learned," August Wilson's last play, performed by Eugene Lee, and the comedy "Buyer and Cellar" with Tom Lenk, were as different as can be and both riveting nights of theater at the Public. Also: Tangela Large in Daniel Beaty's Mr. Joy at City Theatre and Steelers great Rocky Bleier reliving his glory days and relating what he learned as a wounded warrior of the Vietnam War in a one-night-only performance of "The Play" by Gene Collier.

-- Behind the scene-stealers: Production designers Michael Schweikhardt and James Noone at Public Theater and City Theatre's Tony Ferrieri, who lends out his talents to Quantum, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Playwrights and others. In his review of City's Oblivion, Chris Rawson described Gianni Downs' scenic design as amazing and said, "You can lose track of the play by studying his set." And who could forget the lush costumes by Susan Tsu for Quantum's "The Winter's Tale"?

-- Off the Wall Productions' home is now called Carnegie Stages, where the company continues its run of edgy offerings and dedication to women playwrights. Carnegie Stages was hard to reach this year because of parkway construction, but adventurous theater-goers found their way there for Off the Wall and the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. No Name Players has made Carnegie its summer home while continuing to keep SWAN Days alive and forging ahead with "The Sisters Sorella" at Arcade Comedy Theater.

-- Also noteworthy: Under new leadership, Little Lake Theatre produced a crowd-pleasing season, Front Porch Theatricals had its first two-show summer with "The Last Five Years" and "The Light in the Piazza," and for family fun, it was hard to beat Pittsburgh Musical Theater's "Little Mermaid," with Larissa Overholt in the title role ...

I could go on and on, but let's hear from the wise voice of my colleague, Chris Rawson, who has compiled a Top 10 of 2015. 

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