Theater bests of 2011

Friday, 06 January 2012 04:25 PM Written by

Call me Janus, the deity who looks foward and backward, hence January. The looking back means celebrating the best of 2011 Pittsburgh theater. We've done it twice: on Dec. 22, we listed the Top Ten shows of 2011, along with another dozen and a few more to remember.

Then on Jan. 4 we named Laurie Klatscher the Post-Gazette's 2011 Performer of the Year, along with selecting the top ten in the four acting categories, plus directors, designers, etc. If you missed those articles, take a look.

That was also the subject of my usual Thursday appearance to talk theater on KDKA-TV's Pittsburgh Today Live. Here's the 6 1/2 minute clip (prefaced by a 30 second ad -- and don't let the "Firest Destroys Forward Township Home" headline deter you. Trust me!).

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Emcee Billy Porter asked a silly question when After Hours at the Bon Soir was about to break up. “You have two choices -- one song or two?” queried the Homewood native and Broadway veteran, here to emcee the cabaret/party after Friday’s City Theatre performance of “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir.”

BillyPorter_LLWell, of course we wanted two. “Are you sure? I know Pittsburgh closes up early,” he teased. Well, we got two, a solo by Porter (right) and then a group sing-along of “The Christmas Song.”

After Hours followed a performance of “Sam Bendrix,” Luke Macfarlane’s solo hit at the Hamburg Studio Theatre, and if you haven’t seen it, shame on you, as Porter told the late-night gathering. City’s Tracy Brigden said the show, which finishes Sunday, has broken house records at the intimate Hamburg.

But back to the After Hours portion of the program, which was a showcase for local artists and anyone in the audience who wanted to sing with the talented Bon Soir band – Douglas Levine on piano, Paul Thompson on bass and R.J. Heid on percussion.

It was a parade of pros, though, who were brought up by Porter, including Daina Griffith, Bria Walker, Natalie Hatcher, Chris Laitta and Daphne Alderson. Walker, a standout in City’s “Marcus, Secret of the Sweet,” was a crowd-pleaser with “When You’re Good to Momma” from “Chicago.” Another standout was  dynamo Natalie Hatcher (who was so good in The Bald Theater Company’s “A New Brain”), who sang “We Could Do Better Than That” from Jason Robert Browns “The Last Five Years.”

Chris Laitta got the party going with portions of her TV-theme cabaret act and led a sing-along of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” while opera regular Alderson channeled Edith Piaf for a song in French.  

Macfarlane changed out of his suit and got casual to join in the fun. The TV and Broadway actor said he had never thought of himself as a singer before playwright Keith Bunin introduced him to Sam Bendrix. He mugged his way through “Try a Little Tenderness,” and near the end, Laitta and Walker reached for him from offstage like groupies.

Porter, a New Yorker now, is a busy guy who will choreograph the new musical Andy Warhol musical “Pop!” for City in May. According to the Jeff Blumenkrantz Songbook site, Porter is “gearing up to play one of the leads in the upcoming workshop of the new musical Kinky Boots, based on the film of the same name. Jerry Mitchell + Cyndi Lauper + Harvey Fierstein + Billy Porter sounds like a pretty fabulous combo! Additionally, he'll be choreographing the cool new musical Pop at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh and continuing his affiliation with the fledgling theatre company Exit Pursued By a Bear. He does like to keep a full plate!”

He sang his own composition, “Time,” a tribute to a friend who died of AIDS. He explained that the song was resurrected by a choreographer for the “So You Think You Can Dance” TV competition show and earned him his first check for a musical recording.

When After Hours was all over, around 11:30, it felt like the night was still young.

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Monday was a special treat: a seated reading at Bricolage (their “In The Raw” series, they call it) of “Second American Revolution,” a new comedy by Gab Cody, based on a famous old comedy, Moliere’s “Tartuffe.”

Two obvious observations: (1) yes, this is the same Gab Cody who is still performing in her own “Fat Beckett” at Quantum (it closes this weekend, don't miss it), and (2) wow, she sure does adapt (appropriate, parody, rip-off, you name it) only the best: Samuel Beckett one week, Moliere the next.

Not that appropriation is easy. For one thing, it sets a pretty high standard for you to match. But in both cases, Cody has adapted with a very free hand. “Fat Beckett” (in collaboration with Rita Reis) turns “Waiting for Godot” inside out, paralleling (rather than replacing) the two tramps into cheery, uninhibited female comics – it plays off “Godot,” using it for leverage in a very different journey, and this very difference is at the heart of the deliciously upbeat relationship.

In “Second American Revolution,” Cody starts by borrowing the cast of characters and basic plot of “Tartuffe,” moving it to the American present, where the Orgon character is a sort of clueless, Rick Perry-like witling conservative (couple of redundancies in there) running for governor. But she very soon starts deviating, cutting a character here, giving one a new angle there, letting them develop as they will while she lets the plot develop in new ways, as well.

You could enjoy either play without knowing the original. But I think “Fat Beckett” is ultimately more beholden to “Godot” than “Revolution” is to “Tartuffe.” If you don’t know “Godot” (or understand French, as I said in my review), you’ll miss much of the deeper point of “Fat Beckett.” But if you don’t know “Tartuffe,” it won’t hamper your enjoyment of “American Revolution” – all you’ll miss is the secondary pleasure of seeing where the idea came from and how it’s been re-shaped.

Of course, this is comparing a full production with a seated reading, which are very different things. A reading always gets the benefit of the doubt. When “Second American Revolution” gets a full production, we’ll see if it proves to be as funny as this first taste suggests it is.

Directed by Sam Turich, the gold-standard cast of Monday’s reading was Michael Fuller (the Orgon character, who couldn’t remember one-third of a list of three things, let alone two), Laurie Klatscher (his wife, randier than in Moliere), Gregory Lehane (her brother. not so reasonable), Theo Allen (the daughter, not so ditsy as she seems), Linda Haston (the tart-tongued maid, much funnier than Moliere’s), Monteze Freeland (Tartufe, not so entirely evil) and James FitzGerald (the grandmother -- a magnificently infuriating creation).

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PianoLesson_poster_330Monday saw something special at the August Wilson Center. As part of the very gradual (first Monday of every other month) readings of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, “The Piano Lesson” was read by an all-woman cast. Not only that, but one of the actors was white.

And why not? I wouldn’t support an all-female full production, and I wouldn’t support white actors claiming black roles except in special circumstances like schools, but why not give August’s great plays as many interpretations as possible?

In the event, it proved a very solid “Piano Lesson,” all three hours of it plus intermission. I wouldn’t say it revealed anything new about this great play, which I already know very well: the women just voiced the parts, and their gender receded in importance. But there were certainly some resonant ironies, as when a (female) Boy Willie lectures a (female) Berniece about feminist pride.

The centerpiece was an especially robust and joyous Boy Willie by Vanessa German, who I might almost say was born to play the part. I wish August had been there to see it. Not surprisingly, the reading was Vanessa’s idea, and she brought the rest of the cast together.

The best of the others were Bria Walker’s Wining Boy and Tami Dixon’s Lymon, but I’d better just list them all: Chrystal Bates (Berniece), Stephanie Akers (Doaker), Twanda Clark (Avery), Nia Washington (Maretha) and Naila Ansari (Grace.) You can get an idea of how much fun they had from their poster – they did the reading in play-appropriate costume, but they celebrated it as you see above.

(Caption: German is at center top, with Washington below her. Clockwise starting with German the others are Clark, Akers, Walker, Dixon and Bates. Ansari is missing.)

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This press release just arrived from Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, and it's worth sharing right away. Alan Stanford, who is in town to direct PICT's "The Mark of Moriarty," will present a special one-night-only reading of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of redemption, “A Christmas Carol,” on Sunday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m. in the Charity Randall Theatre. Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for youth under 26.

Here's what PICT had to say about the special event:

Alan Stanford as Lady Bracknell in PICT's
"The Importance of Being Earnest."
Photo credit: Michael Henninger
Stingy Ebenezer Scrooge is a greedy, uncharitable man who is startled by a Christmas Eve visit from the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s ghost warns him that he must change his ways or face a miserable afterlife. Three ghostly visitors attend on Scrooge during the night; the first, the ghost of Christmas past, allows him to revisit scenes of his youth, a time when he was happy and innocent. The second ghost, the ghost of Christmas present, shows scenes of families coming together and enjoying what they have, in spite of poverty. The Ghost of Christmas yet to come shows Scrooge dire visions of the future if he doesn’t learn from what he witnessed. The journey towards redemption for Scrooge offers hope for the future and for all mankind.

Charles Dickens, father of modern-day Christmas traditions, is coming up on his 200th birthday (Feb. 7th, 2012). The original “99%”, Dickens was a journalist and a champion for the rights of the poor, using his pen to fight for better living and working conditions and revealing to the public the abuse and mistreatment of people. He was the greatest writer of the Victorian period, the first “rock star” of writing, enjoying wider fame during his lifetime than any previous author.

Stanford’s professional association with “A Christmas Carol” goes back more than a decade, when he first staged a theatrical adaptation of the book for the Gate Theatre in Dublin. He has staged a production of the show at the Gate every two to three years since. The benefit reading which Stanford is doing for PICT will reprise the performance he gave for an invited audience at the Irish Government Guest House.

The tradition of public readings of “A Christmas Carol” go back to Dickens himself. In 1853, A Christmas Carol was chosen for his first public reading with the performance an immense success. Thereafter, he read the tale in an abbreviated version 127 times until 1870 (the year of his death) when it provided the material for his farewell performance.

The first public reading he gave of A Christmas Carol was as a benefit charitable performance for Great Ormond Street Hospital, given at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church hall. The event raised enough money to enable the hospital to purchase the neighboring house, increasing the hospital’s capacity from 20 to 75.

In the early years of the 20th century, Sir Squire Bancroft raised 20,000 pounds for the poor by reading the tale aloud publicly; and Captain Corbett-Smith read the tale to the troops in the trenches of World War I.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for youth under 26, and are available by calling ProArtsTickets at 412.394.3353 or online at www.proartstickets.org.

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Julie Taymor sues 'Spider-Man' producers

Tuesday, 08 November 2011 04:06 PM Written by

You would think that Julie Taymor would want to walk away from the controversy that ended her relationship with the Broadway production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” but nooooo. The Tony-winning director of “The Lion King” has filed a lawsuit in New York that claims the show has violated her rights by continuing to use her work without compensation, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Spider-Man,” reportedly the most expensive Broadway show ever at more than $75 million, was troubled from the start, with cast injuries and almost universally poor reviews. In the midst of dozens of stoppages during the show and a record 180-plus previews (it had to preview on Broadway in it’s home, Foxwoods Theater, which was fitted just for the massive sets and flying stunts), Taymor was replaced and a new creative team joined song writers Bono and the Edge.

Philip Wm. McKinley (“The Boy From Oz”) is now listed as “creative consultant” above Ms. Taymor in the program; her credit is “original direction.”
After seeing the show for a second time, I wrote:

“Taymor-era leftovers reveal the sort of excess that pushed the director/writer to the exit as producers tried to right a sinking ship after months and months of mostly sold-out previews. When it was apparent that people were coming as much for the chance to see a catastrophe as a Broadway spectacle, Ms. Taymor was sent packing.”

Spidey_330That’s not to say she didn’t leave behind stunning visuals (she won a second Tony on "The Lion King" for costumes). The structure and substance had been changed and pared down, numbers were cut and added, and yet ... Taymor’s artistry was still at play in many of the ways that delight audiences: the outrageous costumed villains, the giant cartoon Spidey hand catching a falling cartoon baby, the unfolding skyscrapers and bridge, the overhead battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.

The THR story says the divorce between Taymor and producers in March, before the official opening of the show, was “due to artistic differences.” Fans, however, have had their say: “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” continues to play to near capacity at the 1,900-seat theater.

“After Taymor was let go, she filed an arbitration claim against producers, saying she was owed more than $500,000 in royalties. An arbitration hearing was held earlier this month, and the outcome isn’t known," THR reports.

“But Taymor is taking a new tact in an effort to claim profits from the show, alleging in her complaint that producers have continued to make use of her creative contributions. Producer Michael Cohl’s 8 Legged Productions is the defendant.”

No question, Taymor’s artistry is still at work in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” But if reviews can be entered as evidence, well, here’s what New York Times lead theater critic Ben Brantley said the second time he saw the show:

"Adrenaline-raising acrobatics are a necessary part of the lumpy package that is “Spider-Man,” which had its long-delayed official opening on Tuesday night, after 180-some preview performances. First seen and deplored by critics several months ago — when impatient journalists (including me) broke the media embargo for reviews as the show’s opening date kept sliding into a misty future — this singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore."

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Allderdice H.S. honors Rob Marshall

Monday, 31 October 2011 04:53 PM Written by

MarshallDeppA brief in today's paper about the induction of Hollywood and Broadway director/choreographer Rob Marshall and other luminaries being inducted into the Pittsburgh Allderdice Alumni Hall of Fame on Thursday forgot to mention that the ceremony is free and open to the public. Allderdice requests a call to the RSVP line -- 412-422-4846 -- to say how many are in your party, so the planners can prep accordingly.

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The play "Pump" was the big winner at when the Pittsburgh New Works Festival announced the annual Donna Awards, named for the festival's founder, Donna Rae.

For its 21st season, the festival gave four awards to "Pump" by Kim Zelonis Dale, a Chicagoan by way of Pittsburgh. The play, a production of won Best Production and Directo for Scott P. Calhoon, plus acting awards for Joline Atkins (actress in a lead role) and Caitlyn Rose Allison (supporting role). 

pnwflogoF. J. Hartland won the $500 prize that goes with Outstanding Contribution by a Playwright, for "Funeral in the Rain." The Donna for outstanding lead actor went to Brian Edwards for his performance in that play. Charlie Wein won for his supporting rolein "Off-Color Remarks."

Also at the Sunday gala, Marci Woodruff was honored with the Pittsburgh New Works Festival’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented by Helena Ruoti. This year marks Ms. Woodruff’s 40th year in professional theater. Past winners in attendance were Bingo O’Malley, Richard Rauh, Tony Ferrari and the PG's Christopher Rawson.

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