Nos vamos a ver al coyote – a review of “Somewhere Over the Border”

By Michael Buzzelli

Metaphorically, El Salvador is far from Los Angeles as Kansas is from Oz, but Reina (Isabella Campos) is willing to give up everything to find out for sure in Brian Quijada’s “Somewhere Over the Border.”

Take L. Frank Baum’s classic fairy tale, add a harrowing journey across South America hit pulse, whip and puree.  Quijada takes his mother’s true-to-life tale about her sojourn to Tijuana to meet the El Gran Coyote to take her across the border and into the United States, and turns it into his own family fable, zhuzhing it up with the “Wizard of Oz.”

The Narrator (Arusi Santi) will tell you that things are not great in Chanmico, El Salvador in the late 70s, especially for Reina, who, at seventeen, just gave birth.

Naturally, her mother, Julia (Ariana Valdes), does not want Reina to leave the village, but she fears she has no choice if she wants a better life. She abandons her baby and gets on the bus heading to Tijuana to meet the coyote who will safely get her across the border, or so she thinks. Things aren’t as they seem, or, in other words, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

On her way, she meets some colorful characters, including Cruz (Jerreme Rodriguez), who wants an American education in Agriculture, Silvano (Bobby Plasencia) who wants to reunite with his family, and Sister Leonia (Gloria Vivica Benavides) who wants to give up the sisterhood and join a rock and roll band.

If you guessed that her fellow travelers are seeking brains, heart and courage you can figure out where it all leads. Their pilgrimage to the U.S., however, is more perilous than Dorothy’s and the threats are far more real.

The Narrator (Arusi Santi) sets up the Reina’s story. Photo credit: Kirsti Jan Hoover

Brian Quijada (“Where Did We Sit On The Bus?” in 2018) cooks up an intriguing interpretation of his family’s events.  It’s more comedy than tragedy, but there is an underlying current of danger threaded through the story. Mostly, it is a glorious treatise about the American Dream.

Deftly directed by Laura Alcalá Baker with an amazing cast.Santi does a remarkable job. Don’t let the character’s name fool you. He’s more than a simple narrator. He takes on many roles and he does it with flair.

Campos is a excellent choice for the lead. She plays Reina as level-headed, smart, kind and caring, a fully-realized human being.

Valdes gets to belt, hitting some crazy high notes in a powerful ballad. It’s one of the highlights of the show.

Benavides is a break out star of the show, even playing the comic relief. She portrays two characters who are polar opposites from one another, but you’ll want more of both.

The band really makes “Somewhere Over the Border” sparkle. Michael Meketa leads two percussionists, Hugo Cruz and Noel Quintana, and a guitarist, Daniel Santander in an array of South American music.

Scenic designer Chelsea M. Warren brought the quaint village of Chinmico to the stage, with room for the marvelous band and a rotating platform at center so the characters can ease on down the road.  Warren’s set has some pop up components that add to the whimsy of the show.

This premiere production of “Somewhere Over the Border” is a collaborative effort between the City Theatre, Pittsburgh CLO and the People’s Light, an organization out of Malvern, PA.  The collaboration, literally and figuratively, made beautiful music together.

“Somewhere Over the Border” is a great evening of entertainment, but it reminds you that each person who risks their life to come here has something worth risking their lives for. The show may also remind you that the United States, despite all of its faults, is a place people come to realize their dreams.


“Somewhere Over the Border” runs until October 15 at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here. 

We’ll always have Paris – a review of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”

Mike Buzzelli

by Michael Buzzelli

Christian (Christian Douglas) arrives in Paris and develops a fast friendship with Santiago (Danny Burgos) and the painter Toulouse-Lautrec (Nick Rashad Burroughs). The duo convinces him to write a musical and present it to the Moulin Rouge’s star performer, Satine (Gabrielle McClinton) in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”

Meanwhile, the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (Robert Petkoff) is up to his eyeballs in debt. He promises the Duke of Monroth (Andrew Brewer) a chance to be in Satine’s company (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Zidler plans to use the duke’s attraction to Satine to stave off his debt collectors.

Christian sneaks off to Satine’s dressing room, but she mistakes him for the duke and the songwriter and the star pitch woo (speaking in lines from pop songs as if they were Shakespearean sonnets).

When Zidler and the duke find Christian in Satine’s dressing room with Santiago and Lautrec, they convince the duke that they were rehearsing a play.  Shenanigans ensue until things turn deadly serious toward the end.

Spoiler alert: When someone coughs in the first act of a play, they are usually dead by the third act. It’s almost a Chekhovian rule.

All the while, everyone is speaking and signing in contemporary love songs as if it was its own language.

Harold Zidler (Robert Petkoff) introduces the Cancan Girls in “Moulin Rouge.”

The plot, if it sounds familiar, is lifted from “La Boheme,” “Rent,” and the film version of “Moulin Rouge,” all of which were based on Henri’s Murger’s 1851 novel, “Scènes de la vie de bohème.” This version strays the furthest from the other renditions, but the basic plot is unchanged.

P.S. That’s your spoiler warning. Does a work of art based on a novel from 1851 really need a spoiler?!?

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is the jukiest of jukebox musicals. Every time the beat drops, another Easter egg is uncovered. The show feels like an iPod set on Shuffle. Like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. That said, some real pop favorites pop up and they are delightfully rendered.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is both spectacular and silly. The show is filled with pomp and circumstance and the opening number elicits pure joy. Unfortunately, the show takes a slight downturn. The humor is set not to stun but to kill. At times, the show is too jokey, especially considering the darker subject matter.  There’s an issue with tone. The big dramatic death near the end of the play doesn’t carry the weight it should and that’s a shame. Satine deserves a tearful goodbye.

But there is a lot of sheer joy here. The cast is amazing.  Before meeting Satine, the duke threatens Zidler saying, “She better live up to your hyperbole.” McClinton does. She’s a lovely lead. But the entire ensemble shines. They are all diamonds.

Brewer’s Christian is, literally and figuratively, born for the role (his first name aptly matching the name of his character).

Petkoff shines as the lascivious bar owner. Most, if not all, of his jokes land strictly because of his deft delivery.

Rashad Burroughs has a great voice. While he doesn’t physically resemble Toulouse-Lautrec in any way, he’s perfect for the role. He portrays an almost exquisite pain on his face when he reveals his unrequited love for Satine. It’s probably the most tragic moment in the story.

Burgos and the ensemble do a rousing edition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” It’s another jewel in a gleaming crown of musical numbers.

This show would not have worked without Catherine Zuber’s magnificent costumes. The bright colors and bold patterns are a wonder to behold. Equally matched by Derek McLane’s masterful set design.

P.S. This show must be a bitch to tour with hundreds of set pieces and a plethora of props. The unsung heroes of this production are the many members of the crew who are building up and breaking down those glorious sets.

Update: According to Marcy Metelsky (‘Burgh Vivant Board Member and all around bon vivant); The tour travels in 11 tractor-trailers, with one advance trailer. The set load-in takes 3 days; the breakdown takes 8 hours.

The show closes with a final spectacular number that washes away the tragedy and brings an effervescent elation back to the stage. This audience member danced his way out the door.


“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” runs through Wednesday, September 27 until Sunday, October 8 at the Benedum Center, 7th Street and Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15222. For more information, click here

A Man, A Plan, A Canal, BLT! – a review of “Arsenic & Old Lace”

By Joseph Szalinski

Desperate to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life? Dying to unwind with some sandwiches and elderberry wine? Well, Butler Little Theatre has you covered with the first production of their 82nd season, Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Dennis Casey.

The classic black comedy follows a rather peculiar family and their zany exploits at their Brooklyn homestead. Abby (Nedra B. Casey) and Martha Brewster (Gail E. Suhr) typically use the property to shelter the occasional boarder and serve them some refreshments. Their nephew, Mortimer (Sam Thinnes), a recently engaged drama critic—ewww, who needs them—is made privy to what his aunts really do with their guests, which rattles him before he’s set to review a show.

While he’s away, Mortimer’s oldest brother, Boris Karl…I mean, Jonathan (Steve Kalina), pays a visit with his esteemed colleague, Dr. Einstein (Dennis Casey). The two of them then attempt to stash a stiff in the basement, unaware that Teddy (Thom Hilliard), the third Brewster brother, has been busy with a similar project, operating under the belief that he is Teddy Roosevelt, tasked with digging the Panama Canal and burying the Yellow Fever casualties.

Nedra Casey and Gail E. Suhr, the Brewster Spinsters.
Steve Kalina, Thom Hilliard, Nedra Casey

Teddy is one of the most enjoyable parts of this entire play. While he is as deranged, if not more so, as his other family members, he is far more harmless; his instability is still a bit quirky. He is an absolute riot, delighting with grand entrances and exits, and mistaking people for historical figures, like William Howard Taft. Such a silly character is certainly a lot of fun for Hilliard to portray, but his portrayal is also mixed with sincerity; a demonstrable conviction in the truth of Teddy’s delusions, which is equally enjoyable to witness.

Mortimer is another character whose comedic chops endear him to the audience. Thinnes possesses a wonderful mix of charm and ignorance that carries him through the show. Despite me relating to the oddly specific element of Mortimer being a drama critic, I feel that he (and Thinnes’ performance) resonates with a wider audience on account of the fact that everyone feels as if they are part of a weird family. Although Mortimer is a fairly cerebral person whose humor is often showcased by wit and snark, the more physical scenes of his really stand out: like when Mortimer first opens the window seat or struggles to juggle a phone call and answering the door.

Duos are a big part of this production as well, the most notable being Abby and Martha Brewster. Separately, they’re solid characters that drive the narrative. Together, however, they add another dimension to the show, with their warmth and personability; Nedra Casey and Gail Suhr are great in their respective roles. Another notable duo is the menacing Jonathan Brewster and his accomplice, Dr. Einstein. Steve Kalina, scarred with makeup, delivers an intense yet hilarious performance as Mortimer’s other older brother. Dennis Casey, meanwhile, effortlessly balances directorial duties with a gut busting rendition of the constantly drunk “medical professional.”

Aside from incredible performances, the technical aspects of the production are also very well done, set design being the most impressive. The house feels as alive as any of the other characters. It feels lived in, like the fictional history of it is slowly allowing it to seep into reality.

Butler Little Theatre is an underappreciated venue in the Greater Pittsburgh Area. The space itself is cozy, storied, and boasts a decently sized stage and ample seating despite how small BLT appears from the outside. There are also tremendous shows chosen every season, ones that aren’t typically produced by other community theaters. All straight (non-musical) plays to boot, which is an incredible feat considering the theatre’s rich history; a history that it’s thankfully still building upon.

Areas just outside of Pittsburgh’s city limits have a bunch of tremendous art and culture to experience, and BLT is home to so much of it. This show is no exception.


“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs through September 22 though September 30 at the Butler Little Theater,  One Howard Street, Butler, PA. For more information, click here.

Good Grief – a review of “Ugly Cry”

By Michael Buzzelli

​Everyone grieves differently. When actor Katie Mack lost her ex-boyfriend, Eric Anthamatten, she took to the stage and created her immersive, interactive show, “Ugly Cry.” 

“Ugly Cry” is (kinda sorta)  a one-woman show. Mack draws the audience into the theatrical event. There are QR codes, video interactions, and, at one point, a game show with contestants chosen from the audience.

She begins the show from the treadmill where Mack explains the concept, letting the audience wander around the set, scanning QR codes and playing interactive games with their iPhones before sitting down.  Then, when everyone is settled, Mack begins her tragic tale.

Her ex-boyfriend, Eric Galen Anthamatten, 43, was murdered in a dispute on the beach in Pochutla, Oaxaca, Mexico. When she’s unable to heal devastating news, she uses her iPhone to conjure him up, first via a text mail chain, and then through hundreds of photographs, articles and stories about the late Anthamatten.

Mack takes the concept as far as it can go, stretching the boundaries of the internet to keep her memories of this man at the forefront.

Katy Mack with Eric Anthamatten in the photo.

One-person shows are difficult. If you don’t like the one person in the one-person show, you’re stuck in a theatre for an eternity. Luckily, Mack exudes charisma and her tale about her ex is intriguing and engaging, and the evening goes by quickly.

The self-proclaimed millennial used a lot of millennial tricks, crafting her iPhone into a third character creating a ‘jeu a trois.’ Some of the gimmicks worked, but, for the Luddites among us, some did not.  

[Personal note: In a Dunning-Kruger Moment, this reviewer believed he was more technically proficient than he was and struggled with turning the flashlight app on his cell phone when asked – the very first assignment Mack gives the audience.]

The show, at times, seems self-indulgent, but, once again, all one-person performances have those moments. It’s the nature of the beast. Mack uses some self-effacing humor to combat those moments and keeps them to a minimum. There is an excellent bit about the DNA of white women.

Co-creator and Technical Director Janus Young does a fantastic job utilizing projections, video clips, and other technical elements gracefully into the show. Oddly, it takes a village to mount a one-woman-show. Mack and Young were aided Natalie Rose Mabry for video and projection design, Shannon Knapp for sound design and Juliette Louste for lighting design.

Director Susanne McDonald keeps the energy level set on high impact. Mack, literally and figuratively, runs through the whole show, but it sets up a unique and poignant idea about setting goals. 

There are a few profound moments in “Ugly Cry.” You will, most likely, leave the theater somewhat different than you came in, grappling with questions about your mortality.

Mack is taking the show to the Chain Theatre at the end of October.  There are a few kinks to work out before “Ugly Cry” gets a New York City debut, but it’s a thoughtful and interesting evening in Carnegie.


“Ugly Cry” runs until October 14 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information, click here.





Dying to be Heard – a Review of “Three Viewings”


Three different monologues.  Three distinct characters.  One funeral home. “Three Viewings” showcases Emil (Elliott O’Brien), Mac (Kauleen Cloutier) and Virginia (Lynne Martin-Huber) separately as they talk about their worlds at the time of some duress.  Never on stage together but casual references during their solos identify participants at the funeral home that weave and thread into the other monologues.

Tell-Tale features Emil, a mortician who has provided his services to the community for some time.  As a shrewd business man, he’s always surveying those people paying their respects, musing about who might be the next person to die.  He’s enamored with a real estate agent who attends all community funerals specifically to garner potential customers.  In the not-too-distant future, Emil will be shocked by the next corpse requiring his services.

In The Thief of Tears Mac is back in town for her grandmother’s funeral.  She makes her living stealing jewelry from corpses and this profession has kept her relatively solvent for some time. She doesn’t like her grandmother and feels no guilt about her plans to remove a ring from her corpse.  She will soon have to face situations in her past that haunt her.

Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti showcases Virginia.  Recently widowed, she now has to face challenges and make decisions about her husband’s business.  Since she has never been exposed or involved in that aspect of his life, she must come to terms with some terrifying decisions and confrontations that seem insurmountable.

Elliott O’Brien as Emil
Kauleen Coutier as Mac
Lynne Martin-Huber as Virginia

O’Brien brings out the duality of his character.   As an astute business man, he pragmatically evaluates who might soon need his services.  In his secret obsession with the real estate agent, he becomes a silly, almost teenager-like kid.  He softly and incessantly chants “I love you” at her back.  He wants her to turn around but is fearful that she will.

Cloutier delivers a range of emotions.  Brazen, bold and sometimes belligerent, she evolves from a jewelry thief with no regard for anyone into a frail human who comes face to face with her personal demons.  Her physical movements and facial expressions complement her performance.

Martin-Huber plays Virginia as a delightful ditz and her delivery is wonderful.  Her comedic timing is spot on.  Although she sits through all of her monologue, Martin-Huber is physically active during the performance using her outstretched arms and facial expressions to heighten her responses.  She’s a tease and a deadpan master.

The set is reflective of a typical funeral home with a sofa, a pulpit and the implied suggestion of where a casket would be.  Each monologue shares the same set.  A new basket of flowers placed on a shelf indicates a change in speaker and time.

Excellent direction by Joe Eberle.

Note:  Although Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Three Viewings” concentrates on death and dying, there are many funny lines in this dark comedy.  And it’s okay to laugh when you hear them!

I’m dead serious, this is a great production!


South Park Theatre, at the intersection of Corrigan Drive & Brownsville Road, South Park, PA 15301. For more information, click here



Lush Life – a review of “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For”

Mike Buzzelli

By Michael Buzzelli

When Billy Strayhorn (Darius de Haas), a poor, Black, gay man from Homewood meets his idol Duke Ellington (J.D. Mollison), his life goes from squalid to lush in  “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.”

P.S. All the spoilers for this show can be found on Billy Strayhorn’s Wikipedia page. Enter at your own risk.

Strayhorn’s relationship with Ellington is complicated. He is a father figure easily replacing Strayhorn’s abusive alcoholic bio dad, but Ellington takes the lion’s share of the credit for Strayhorn’s music.  Ellington moves him into his Sugar Hill home with his wife and daughter (unseen) and son Mercer (Richard McBride).

His new life in New York seems far from his Pittsburgh upbringing.  Strayhorn hobnobs with Lena Horne (Arielle Roberts) and Billie Holiday (Arielle Roberts in a dual role), but his life changes even more dramatically when he meets Aaron Bridgers (Charl Brown). Strayhorn and Bridgers become lovers.

In the play, we get flashbacks to his family life in Pittsburgh; his interactions with his mother Lillian (Keziah John-Paul), a brief devasting scene with his father, and a scene with his first crush, Mickey Scrima (Joseph McGranaghan) from his band days with the Mad Hatters.

Bridgers, unable to find a job in America, leaves for Paris and Strayhorn’s live implodes from the heartbreak.

His contentious relationship with Duke Ellington reaches a crescendo and Strayhorn must decide his own path.

Richard McBride and Darius de Haas in “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.” Keziah John-Paul in “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.”

Jukebox musicals have been around a long time, from 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” where the music of George M. Cohan is shoehorned into his autobiography. This might be the first Big Band musical, utilizing songs from the Strayhorn playlist. It’s a glorious compilation of the songwriter’s career.  de Haas does a marvelous job with “Lush Life,” and Keziah John-Paul’s “Take the A Train” is a wonder, even capturing the personality of Ivie Anderson, winking at the bad and scatting to, literally and figuratively, beat the band.

The whole cast is flawless. The singing, dancing and acting is pure perfection.

de Haas masterfully plays Strayhorn.

Mollison’s Ellington is a charming enough to be dangerous. He’s a likable protagonist and Brown is an affable love interest.

John-Paul is charismatic as Ivie Anderson. She is exuberant, joyous. Every moment she’s on stage is a pleasure.

Interstitial dance breaks preformed by Taylor C. Collier and Tracy Anthony Dunbar act as transitions between the scenes. They are gorgeously choreographed by Dell Howlett.

There is excellent projection work in the show by Shawn Duan.

Warning: There are some trigger words bandied about, racist and homophobic slurs.

Kent Gash and Rob Zellers do an amazing job with brining Billy Strayhorn’s story to life. There is an inherent problem in all biographical stories. All biographers struggle with what to leave in and what to take out.  There seems to be a superfluous scene with Billie Holiday (Arielle Roberts nailing the Holiday’s bluesy vocal style) that doesn’t forward the story as much as it should.

“Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For” will need some trimming before it goes to Broadway, but it will most assuredly go to Broadway. See it now while it’s here in Strayhorn’s hometown.


“Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For” runs until October 11 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here


9 to 5 or 6 to 4 – a Review of “9 to 5: The Musical”

By Joseph Szalinski

For as long as people worked, they’ve had insufferable bosses/superiors to whom they had to report. While these horrible bosses can exist in any industry or field, megalomaniacs seem to have made offices their natural habitat. I’ve met my fair share. However, I might’ve stayed longer at any former jobs if coworkers randomly busted out into song throughout the day. Nothing builds camaraderie quite like music…or kidnapping, apparently, and it’s these activities that are at the heart of the latest production at The Strand Theatre, Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s 9 to 5: The Musical, directed by Nick Navari.

Part of The Strand’s Broadway on Main series, this show is also a staged adaptation of the classic cult comedy from the 80’s that helped Dolly Parton become the superstar she is. While there are some slight deviations from the film in terms of plot and placing, and most obviously the musical aspect, the rest is very similar: a woman starts at a new job after a marriage falls through; she meets a couple of kindred spirits, including another woman who is ostracized and criticized by others; all the while the boss is being a skeevy dude, which motivates the women to formulate a means to exact revenge; ultimately culminating in wacky hijinks.

The strength of the show comes from the near-constant musical numbers throughout the story, especially in the first act. Tunes range from the lively and catchy theme song to more introspective or heartfelt ones, with each piece demonstrating the prowess of the cast. Together with physical comedy, music does a tremendous job of handling the humor’s heavy lifting, “Here for You” being a prime example. The Strand Theatre Ensemble, under the direction of keyboardist Amy Kapp, marvelously flesh out the numbers, providing a brilliant instrumental supplement.

Not only are the cast great singers, but amazing dancers and actors as well. Headed by Cait Crowley as Violet Newstead, Caroline Connell as Doralee Rhodes, and Joann Spencer as Judy Bernly, everyone gives the show a piece its heart, the trio in particular during their more turbulent scenes. They all make easy work of using humor and comedy to tackle the weighty themes and messages in the script (as well as from the source material), while maintaining a good balance between the silly and the serious. Their performances are emblematic of their respective characters’ limitless persistence tinged with wonderful elements all their own.

In the realm of comic relief, Evan Krug gives a hilarious portrayal as the slimy Franklin Hart Jr. that’s as polarizing as it is repulsive. Hannah Taylor splits sides as Roz Keith, whose own dogged ambition to bone Hart depends on her attempts to thwart the trio. Paxon Masters, who plays both Josh Newstead and Mr. Tinsworthy, is quite a delight during his appearance as the latter.

Of course, a show like this wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of those behind the scenes. Caroline Connell does double-duty as a performer and thoughtful choreographer; set (Nick Navari), lighting (Kelly Page), and sound (JP Lisella) assist in bringing the stage to life; costuming by Missy Nowakowski further evokes the office environment.

Once again, The Strand, and the company of this production, put on a terrific show. One replete with jokes, sentimentality, and plenty of jams. Check it out!


“9 to 5” runs to September 17 at the Strand Theater, 119 N Main Street, Zelienople, PA. For more information, click here.

I’ll Take S’more of That – A Review of Campfire Stories

By Joe Szalinski

For many Yinzers, Camp Guyasuta conjures fond memories of childhoods spent outdoors in the pursuit of badges or some sort of self-discovery. For others, memories of staying up late to cobble together inappropriate Mad-Libs, getting punched in the face during a game of basketball, or getting run over by a runaway toboggan. However one’s experiences are flavored, Vigilance Theater Group harvests the collective nostalgia of sitting in the woods and attempting to figure out the human condition in their immersive production, Campfire Stories.

Once parked, audience members are led by a lantern-wielding guide or chauffeured via golf cart to the cozy amphitheater that’s nestled amongst the trees. Here, refreshments are offered; a couple beverages and s’mores kits that can be roasted and assembled by one of the fire tenders.

The cast of “Campfire Stories.”

After people have a chance to get seated, Tal Kroser warms up the audience with a few songs, slyly getting folks to participate by playing a set that can best be described as “WDVE in the Wild.”

Following the well-known tunes, Charmaine Baldt dazzles with sizzling dance moves that make even the spectators sweat.

The bulk of the show consists of four stories read by a respective performer, along with some brief scenes that supplement the spoken word. Tal Kroser kicks things off with frighteningly fabulistic “I Stole a Sheep from Baba Yaga. I Have Been Punished Accordingly,” by Mike Langer.

Sydney Dubose goes up next, delivering an unsettling meditation on ghosts and relationships with her rendition of “The Unhaunting” by Kevin Nguyen.

“Are You Thirsty,” a bizarre take on a beloved beverage mascot, by Nicole Brady, is fantastically told by Elizabeth Glyptis.

Completing the quartet is gruff yet vulnerable Brett Sullivan Santry, whose gradually maddening recitation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe closes the show.

All of the performers involved do a spectacular job of delighting and/or terrifying the audience. Each storyteller is able to inject elements of their own personality and artistry into the tales. They allow the familiar to be reexamined and enjoyed in a new way while also allowing the alien and foreign to seem familiar. The dancing is both incredibly theatrical and wonderfully fits in to Vigilance’s “season of fire.” And what would a campfire be without someone with an acoustic guitar strumming some “Boomer Bangers” and a bit of more modern stuff?

This production’s conceit, although simplistic, is brilliant as an immersive piece of theatre. Not only are there the performances to enjoy, but there’s also the olfactory nirvana from the marriage of seemingly boundless nature and a controlled blaze, the delicious taste of toasty treats, the occasional water droplet from the branches above, all soundtracked by crackling of firewood and the dulled chatter of animals heckling from the shadows. It is a combination of artistic forms and styles that simultaneously innovates and harkens back to tradition.


Campfire Stories runs September 9 & 10 at Camp Guyasuta in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information, click here

Lettice & Lovage Light up South Park Theatre – a review of “Lettice & Lovage”

By Tiffany Raymond, PhD

South Park Theatre Company presents Peter Shaffer’s 1987 play, Lettice & Lovage. The play traces Lettice Douffet (Helga Terre), a tour guide who trends towards exaggeration after she is assigned to Fustian House, the “gloomiest house” she has ever seen. Shaffer originated the role of Lettice for Maggie Smith – a role that earned her a Tony. Terre is undaunted by her predecessor and is mesmerizingly energetic, seemingly born to play the flamboyant Douffet.

The play opens with Douffet giving a factual tour of Fustian House. Director Art DeConciliis has the seven gathered tourists shiver and yawn, shifting their sluggard stances. It’s infinitely relatable. We have all had our Fustian House moment. I was immediately transported back to a 45-minute walking tour of Sundance, Wyoming that stretched into two hours. A notable feat for a five-block town with a population of a thousand.

Like any performer, Douffet is not immune to the reactions of her audience. We get to witness four sequential iterations of her tour over time. Each performance ratchets up the drama. She transforms the tour from routine to riveting through both story and gesture.

Version one’s “grand staircase” becomes a “staircase of aggrandizement” by round three. Former dullard homeowner Tom Fustian is now floating “like feathered mercury” over seven stairs. He elegantly forestalls Queen Victoria from tumbling as she trips on her dress of diamonds – a dress that was made of pearls from a sultan in the prior telling. DeConciliis directs Terre to settle on the staircase by the final round, a mark of a storyteller ready to launch a long tale and one that allows her to directly channel the aggrandizement.

The transformation is not without effect. The tourists shift from bored to bravo with each iteration. On the third retelling, a gentleman asks for references to support her story. He is practically booed by fellow tourists who defiantly defend Douffet. Her unsupervised role as historical tourguide gives her carte blanche. It’s a reminder of the social acceptance of power dynamics. In the domain of Fustian House, her position of authority imbues her as an unassailable expert.

Lettice Douffet (Helga Terre) & Lottie Shoen (Joyce Miller).
Mr. Bardolph (John Reilly), Lettice (Helga Terre) & Dottie (Joyce Miller).

The final round brings in Lotte Schoen (Joyce Miller) who, like Douffet, works for the Preservation Trust. Miller captures a dour seriousness in Schoen’s character that is emphasized by her belted grey trench coat (costume design by Rob Hockenberry), a metaphor for the tightly wound and controlled Schoen. DeConciliis has Miller furtively taking notes, cataloging Douffet’s flights of fancy and factual errors.

Schoen calls Douffet into her office. While Schoen doesn’t delight in firing Douffet, she does delight in restoring a sense of order and what is correct and accurate.

Schoen represents the rigidity of left-brain logic. Douffet is the creative, free-spirited, imaginative right brain. Schoen’s world view of leading with facts is correct. After all, that is the expectation one has for a historical tour. Douffet defends her position by saying she is “dedicated to lighting up the truth.”

Douffet is also right. A story is what makes facts memorable. It’s why we may need to sing the childhood ditty, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in order to remember the start date of his voyage. Proof points and facts that aren’t tied to a narrative lack punch and memorability.

Ultimately, Shaffer shows us that neither left nor right brain can thrive in isolation. Schoen is too straitlaced, and Douffet strays too far from truth as she gets swept up in her storytelling drama. One ultimately needs both Lettice and Lotte. It is in the balance of the two where one finds harmony, and South Park’s production finds that harmony.

-TR, Ph.D.

Lettice & Lovage runs through September 9, 2023 at South Park Theatre, at the corner of Brownsville Road and, Corrigan Dr, South Park Township, PA 15129. For more information, click here



A Golden Ticket at Little Lake – a review of “Willy Wonka, Jr.”

by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD and Theron Raymond (5th grader)

Little Lake Theatre Company presents Willy Wonka Jr., the shortened musical version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Junior version is geared for ages 3+.

Kathy Hawk not only directs the ensemble cast of children, but along with assistant director, Samantha Hawk, Kathy co-costume designs the production. Wrangling a large cast of child actors is never easy. The Hawk women create order from chaos. The children are purposeful in their entrances and exits. However, some could have used microphones as the music sometimes drowns out their softer speaking and singing voices.

Hawk embraces gender-neutral casting, which enhances the play’s richness. Willy Wonka, the Candy Man, Augustus Gloop, and Charlie are all female. My 11-year old co-reviewer embraced this as well, noting that “all of the actors embraced their characters and fit.” Willy Wonka (Lila McClelland) evokes a jaunty showwoman in Hawk’s costume of a top hat and vibrant purple jacket with tails.

The Candy Man is sympathetically played by Ava Arnold. Hawk appropriately costumes her in a cheerful yellow overcoat as her entrances excite the neighborhood kids. She gifts the poverty-stricken Charlie (Ember Carmichael) with “extra” candy and surreptitiously drops a nickel for Charlie to discover so she can buy a chocolate bar. The candy man is a testimony to the power of people who are a casual part of our lives but positively influence us as they choose to lead with kindness.

Hawk continues the vibrancy with the Oompa Loompas. This diminutive workforce is well-represented by child actors and is visually united with their green hair, green heart-shaped sunglasses, and suspenders. The Oompa Loompas have long been controversial in origin. This version leans into the mythology as Charlie Bucket and family suspect them to be “zombie workers.” It’s the only reasonable origin story for Wonka’s factory employees given the doors are locked and no one enters or exits. Wonka crisply clarifies they are “refugees,” giving the candymaker an air of magnanimity.

Wonka greets a line of Oompa Loompas in “Willy Wonka, Jr.” Photo Credit: Hawk Photography and Multimedia LLC

Act two opens with the five lucky children who found the Golden Tickets (each with a guardian) gathered at Wonka’s factory. As each new ticket is found, prop designer Sylvia Sims-Linkish and lighting designer Nicole White collaborate to illuminate each child’s name over one of the four entrances and exits to this theatre in the round. Each child’s name is literally “in lights” as they find one of the five golden tickets that guarantee both a tour of Wonka’s factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Charlie finds the final ticket. Charlie’s name illuminates on the wall of the ramshackle apartment where the Bucket family of seven lives. Charlie is gifted two Wonka bars on her birthday. Hawk has her hold them in pause, eyes closed and head tilted back slightly. It evokes the gleeful mental frolics of holding a lottery ticket for a massive Powerball draw. The “what if” is a dreamy escape where one wants to linger because you know the odds are against you, so that moment of dreaming is likely as close as you’ll get.

Mirroring the book and film, each of the five children fail what is ultimately revealed by Wonka to have been a “test of character.” Charlie humbly admits failure as she departs with her Grandpa Joe (gleefully played by Dylan Lawton). Kathy Hawk directs McClelland to a perfect wide grin in response, which much of the audience sees before she spins to face Charlie and declare her the “heir” to the Wonka factory. The family-minded Charlie wants to ensure inclusion of her family before accepting the offer, earning her another gold star in the character test. Dahl’s journey of good character winning out is a beautiful reminder of core values and a counterbalance to the cynicism we sometimes slip into too easily

-TKR, Ph.D. and TR

“Willy Wonka, Jr.” runs from August 17 until August 27 at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. For more information, click here.