Just 5 weeks to Broadway ShowPlane, Nov. 16-20

Friday, 14 October 2011 02:41 PM Written by

Four musicals and a clutch of stars (Bernadette Peters, Harry Connick Jr., Sutton Foster, Joel Gray and more) headline the PG's Fall Broadway ShowPlane, Nov. 16-20.

That's just five weeks ahead, but there's plenty of time to make your plans. For a full description, just click this link. Or you can click on the PG Theater Trips plaque on the left of the Theater page -- which is probably the page where you found the link to this Theater Blog. 

If you want even more info, you can read the trip brochure prepared by Gulliver's Travels, which handles the trip logistics. (I'm the one who picks the shows and talks to the group along the way -- heaven forbid I should be making plane and hotel reservations.) You'll find links to the colorful brochure and the reservation form in that same description (here). Or you can just call Gulliver's at 412-441-3131.

Hop aboard.

-- Chris Rawson

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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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Now it can be told: I’ve been aching to write about PICT’s “House & Garden,” but I couldn’t, because my wife was acting in it as Izzie, the crusty housekeeper with the unorthodox family life. Now that it’s closed, why not?

I may have had a fuller experience of the two interlocking plays than anyone not directly involved, and this is what I learned:

(1) That you really had to see both plays (“House” and “Garden”) to enjoy them properly, no matter what you heard about either of them standing alone. Sure they do, but not very tall. (2) When you see the second, it’s much fuller and, of course, funnier, because you’ve seen the first. (3) Having seen the second, a return trip to the first is also fuller and funnier, because now you know the second. (4) Having now seen the first with fuller insight, a return trip to the second is also funnier and fuller. (5) And so on.

I’m still not sure which it was better to see first. I saw “House,” but for all I know, it might have been better to start with “Garden.” I do know that, in whichever order, “House” is a better play, a more melancholy (under all that humor) insight into the instability of life, especially marriage. “Garden” is funnier or at least more farcical. Then as you get to know both plays, you see how they reverberate with parallel themes, as different marriages crumble or different women break themselves free.

The heart of “House” is Trish’s speech in Act 2, not the one to Gavin (“with a Y”!) on nobless oblige and going down with the ship, but the later one to young Jake on the Maypole as a metaphor for the dance of death. Well, no, this isn’t Strindberg: call it the dance of fearful life.

The equivalent heart of “Garden” is Teddy’s speech in Act 2 to the uncomprehending (but also comprehending) Lucille about the deadening seriousness of life and the compensatory joys of sex and laughter. Out of the mouths of fools . . . or “idiot,” as Lucille calls him in French, which means something different.

By the way, I’ve heard “H&G” called male chauvinist. If so, why is playwright Ayckbourn’s sympathy so largely with the women? Of the five couples, two women (Trish and Lindy) get to break away from stifling marriages, another (Izzie) gets what she wants, and Sally gets an education. Only Giles and Joanna are ambiguous, and you could say he’s the one who needs some freedom and finds it – maybe.

I saw each play three times, I think it was. At the closing performance I persuaded the company (Don’t Try This at Home – I Am a Professional) to let me follow Marty Giles’ track as Teddy, moving from house to garden and back again, seeing all his scenes and everything that goes with them. I’d like to have done this with several other characters, too. “H&G” is a lovely Chinese box of a play -- thanks to PICT for staging it for me!

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“The Book of Liz”: I’ve been asked if the title is a rip-off of this year’s biggest hit, everybody’s favorite, “The Book of Mormon.”

Simple answer: No. “Liz” made its debut in 1991, "Mormon" just this past year. You might even think the indebtedness runs the other way, until you recall that the “real” “Book of Mormon” dates back 180 years. And there are those other “Books of [Names]” which go back a couple of thousand.

Of course I’m sure the echo doesn’t hurt “Liz’s” name recognition factor one bit.

Most likely, both are named “Book of” for the same reason, because they adopt and then mock the idea of a holy scripture, that is, a writing that reveals the word of God. After all, there are thousands of such books, many of them considered holy by one group or another. Isn’t it the height of conceit to insist that the one you happen to believe in is the only one truely divine?

But that’s just one target of the surreal satire in “Book of Liz,” and in that way, it does have a lot in common with “Mormon” -- or rather, the other way around.

“Liz” is now at No Name Players, camped out through Saturday at Pittsburgh Playwrights, 542 Penn Ave., around the corner from Heinz Hall.


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There’s one more chance to see the all-star staged concert of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” on local movie screens, but be warned that seats may be limited. At the Cinemark Robinson on Thursday night, I arrived about an hour before the 7:30 p.m. start and bought a single ticket, but the screening was sold out soon after that. Handfuls of late arrivals were turned away. The theater box office said there were 53 tickets left for Sunday’s final screening.

Company2“Company,” filmed last month in New York City, boasts Neil Patrick Harris in the lead role of Bobby and a cast including Patti LuPone, Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer, Martha Plympton, Stephen Colbert, Craig Bierko and Katie Finneran in concert with the New York Philharmonic.

If you saw NPH's masterful turn as the emcee of the Tony Awards last week, you know he's a sweet-faced charmer -- and if you know him from "How I Met Your Mother," you know he can turn on the smarm, too. He doesn't have the power-house voice of Raul Esparza, who was Tony-nominated in the role of Bobby a few years back. What he lacks at times in vocal range he makes up for in emotion and depth.

What the camera does that you might not notice in your seat is bring you up close -- He's so pale and skinny! You can see the tears in his eyes! It's even fun to watch him watch his fellow performers.

On the other hand, the multicamera shots feel like cheating at times and just too much at others, making us privvy to things we might otherwise miss but also cutting off what's going on at stage left or right. There's a Brady Bunch-like titled screen at the opening that shows the many camera angles available to the filmmakers, and it felt like they used them all.

On the other hand, you got a real sense of how physical the Plympton-Colbert karate scene was and Patti LuPone's disdainful expressions -- priceless. Her "Ladies Who Lunch" is a favorite of critics; I enjoyed Bobby's revelatory numbers, like "Marry Me a Little." I also enjoyed the playful way maestro Paul Gemignani was occasionally brought into the proceedings, a nod to the great orchestra onstage with the performers.

Remaining screenings are tomorrow at noon at the Cinemark Robinson and Tarentum ($16-$18, www.fathomevents.com) and 2 p.m. at the Carmike Greensburg and Wynnsong, Delmont ($18, www.fandango.com).

Related note: The cast of the previously mentioned Broadway revival was directed by John Doyle with a company that had to play its own instruments. They included Elizabeth Stanley, who as ditzy flight attendant April played the oboe, tuba and sax. Elizabeth is currently starring in Pittsburgh CLO's "Jekyll & Hyde" and stopped by the PG Studio today for a videotaped interview. I asked her about the instruments and she said she played the oboe and tuba for band in high school, but the sax was a new one she had to learn just for the show.

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Cast announced for CLO's 'Love Changes Everything'

Wednesday, 15 June 2011 05:27 PM Written by

Pittsburgh CLO has announced the cast of "Love Changes Everything," a staged concert revue of Andrew Lloyd Webber music July 8-14 at the Benedum Center. The orchestra will be onstage for the production numbers featuring songs from "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Evita," "Variations and more.

The cast includes:

Tony-nominated Liz Callaway, a Broadway veteran making her Pittsburgh CLO debut.

Franc D'Ambrosio, who played the Phantom on Broadway and starred in Pittsburgh CLO's production of "Barry Manilow's Copacabana in 2000."

Kevin Kern makes his Benedum Center debut after Broadway roles including "Wicked' and "The Wedding Singer" and "Les Miserables."

Laurie Gayle Stephenson, another newcomer and "Phantom" veteran, toured the U.S. singing opposite Michael Crawford in the original "Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Concert" and has sung with symphonies across the country.

Director/choreographer Louanne Madormahas's choregraphy credits include many of Sir Andrew's works.

More info at pittsburghclo.org.

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'X-Men: First Class': My bad (spoiler alert)

Saturday, 04 June 2011 11:13 PM Written by

So, you know, when you read a character list and you write a preview based off of the list and then a movie throws a surprise at you, well, best I can say is a mea culpa. Make that a mini mea culpa.

EmmaFrost1EmmaFrost2With no preview of "X-Men: First Class" in Pittsburgh, I tried to present a primer of new characters and a short summary based on production notes, interviews, etc. I saw the movie tonight, only to find that it includes two uncredited cameos by two prominent characters, played by the original actors, from previous X-Men films. One of those cameos made a liar out of me, although it was just a two-second cameo, so ... well, I expect to hear from some people. Still, very smart cameos, guys.

Matthew Vaughn's X-Men prequel includes standout performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto. It's not giving a lot away to say that this movie shows us how Charles Xavier became paralyzed, which wrecks the timeline from another prequel, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." That film showed Patrick Stewart, bald and walking, helping rescue mutant children, including a young Emma Frost (above, right) who shined more than January Jones' Emma Frost but didn't have the "Mad Men" actress' diamond sparkle (above, left).

Still, this movie stands on its own in the Marvel movie canon. It's not as much fun as "Thor," but it's a superhero film that makes you think. I liked that it wasn't in 3D and was shot like a 1960s-era James Bond film, with a heightened realism and special effects that didn't broadcast themselves.

Oh, and if, like me, you're excited to see the scene after the credits, as there have been in previous X-Men movies, let me say, I waited, but nothing. That's what I get for anticipation without foreknowledge.

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City Theatre has named Matthew Morrow as associate artistic director. Morrow is at City now as part of the Momentum new-play festival, directing Tami Dixon's reading of "South Side Stories." He'll move here from New York Aug. 15, he said.

City artistic director Tracy Brigden announced Morrow's new position in introducing him before yesterday's performance. He has been a frequent visitor to Pittsburgh's Bricolage theater, including a workshop of "SCarrie!! The Musical" in 2006 and "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" with Dixon in 2009..

Dixon has been developing characters for "South Side Stories" for two years and Momentum was the the first chance to give them voice in front of an audience. More on "POP!" and "South Side Stories"


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