“The Miracle Worker”: A Miraculous Production

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

Prime Stage Theatre Co. opens its 27th season with The Miracle Worker, written by William Gibson and directed by Wayne Brinda. Gibson’s play premiered on Broadway in 1959. The Miracle Worker explores the real-life story of Annie Sullivan’s arrival to the Keller home where the 20-year-old takes charge of young Helen’s education. Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880, but before the age of two, illness left her both blind and deaf.

While Sullivan and Keller’s names are now inextricably linked, this play shows that was not always the case – or even a foregone conclusion. In fact, my 11-year-old son and co-reviewer aptly described the first half as “more wrestling match than play.” The undisciplined, headstrong Keller throws tantrums and has been allowed to run rampant. In Sullivan, she encounters a will stronger than her own for the first time.

Fifth grader Kendall Knotts is riveting as young Helen. She’s comfortable making it uncomfortable to watch her. She lashes out at her environment and the people in it, hitting and battling. However, she also demonstrates both intelligence and deviousness when she locks newcomer Annie in her room and hides the key in her mouth.

Knotts was already familiar with American Sign Language as she learned and performed in ASL for another production. Her familiarity with the deaf community elevates her performance. Under Wayne Brinda’s stellar direction, Knotts never focuses her vision on the objects or people in front of her, making her blindness convincing.

Just as Keller finds her real-life match in Sullivan, Knotts finds her match in Holland Adele Taylor as Annie. The pairing is dynamic. Sullivan writes in her diary that her biggest problem with Helen will be “how to discipline her without breaking her spirit,” and Brinda makes that struggle palpable.

When Sullivan tries to get Helen to sit at the table and use a spoon to eat, Knotts hurls a series of spoons around the room. Knotts crawls under the table and tries to escape, and Taylor physically lifts her, repeatedly returning the kicking child to the table. Thus, the wrestling match. Both roles are physically demanding. Brinda keeps the focus on their struggle, providing a front-row seat to Helen’s transformation under Sullivan from feral child to civilized girl. Brinda also directs Taylor to exaggerate her expressions and head motions as she repeatedly holds Helen’s hands to her face as she nods yes or shakes no to create the groundwork for meaning.

From Left to right: Kendall Knotts (Helen Keller) and Holland Adele Taylor (Annie Sullivan) in “The Miracle Worker.” Photos by Laura Slovesko

Helen’s evolution is mirrored in Ashlynn Swauger’s costume design. When we first meet Helen, her pinafore and dress are always muddy and stained. Her metamorphosis is signified in her transition to unstained white.

Stacia Palieri captures the desperation of a mother as Kate Keller. Her turning point is when Sullivan gets Helen to keep a napkin on her lap. Palieri softly repeats that in wonder, and it’s a quintessential gentile Southern manifestation of hope and pride. Kate is an advocate for her daughter but also knows how to placate her husband (Rick Dutrow).

At one point, he rails against Sullivan as a “half-blind, inexperienced Yankee.” Dutrow captures a man caught between the ages. He’s a former Confederate captain but also resists the era’s default of relegating his blind, deaf daughter to an asylum. Dialect coach Lisa Bansavage heightens the play’s tensions by contrasting the deep southern accent of the Kellers with Sullivan’s Bostonian origins as another north/south battle plays out.

Pittsburgh loves a Pittsburgh connection. It turns out there’s one with Helen Keller. In 1893, Keller and Sullivan came to Pittsburgh where Keller attended William Wade House and Finishing School in Oakmont. Keller and Wade remained close until his passing, and Keller and Sullivan were charter members of the Oakmont Women’s Club. In fact, Keller learned to horseback ride on Wade’s 30-acre estate.

– TR, Ph.D. and TR

The Miracle Worker” runs from November 3 to November 12 at the New Hazlett Theatre,  6 Allegheny Square East Pittsburgh, PA 15212. The run includes a sensory-inclusive performance as well as a signed and live captioned performance. For more information, click here.

A Ribald Revolutionary – a review of “Meow Meow”

by Michael Buzzelli

Picture it, Germany in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, those bawdy, decadent days of Isherwood’s “I am a Camera,” which later became the framework for the Kander and Ebb musical “Cabaret.”  It’s easy to picture Meow Meow in a smoky bar* in 1933 Berlin, a slender brown cigarillo clutched between her index and forefinger, standing next to a polished, black Baby Grand, music pouring out of her throat as effortlessly as the beer and wine are dispensed throughout a dark, dank club.

* Side note: Cigarettes are verboten in the Greer Cabaret.

Meow Meow, the rechristened Melissa Madden Gray, is a vamp of the highest order.  This wild woman is part Patsy Stone (“AbFab”), part Sally Bowles(of the aforementioned “Cabaret”) part Joan Collins, mashed into the slight, pliable body of Lorene Yarnell (of the mime duo Shields and Yarnell) with a coif envied only by Roseanne Roseannadanna. 

Meow Meow sings a Berthold Brecht tune in the original German. It’s not a one-off. The sultry, sequined singer crooned mostly in German with a soupçon of English thrown in. There were no subtitles but she did provide a thick copy of the English-to-German Dictionary for those brave enough to glance at the voluminous tome.

Normally, the guttural sounds of the German language grate, as if someone with a dry cough is trying to express phlegm, but, somehow, Meow Meow made the lyrics sound melodious.

Caption TBD Harmony Nichols

The post-post-modern cabaret artist sang lyrics, though over one hundred-years-old, seemed relevant today.

Politicians are magicians
Who make swindles disappear
The bribes they are taking
The deals they are making
Never reach the public’s ear
The left betrays, the right dismays
The country’s broke – and guess who pays?
But tax each swindle in the making
Profits will be record-breaking
Everyone swindles some
So vote for who will steal for you.

Meow Meow is a ribald revolutionary reminding the country that Nationalism is on the rise. She is an impudent muse of the Kabaret der Komiker, a champion of the Dadaists.

Several farcical moments brought the audience into fits of laughter, including a brief point where she read a – let’s call it a – poem that would make Sally Albright (of “Harry and Sally”) blush.

At one point, Meow Meow summoned participants to the stage, dressed them in DIY hazmat suits (i.e. face masks, plastic gloves and Glad garbage bags) and surfed over top her ersatz backup dancers in awkward balletic gyrations.

At the tail end of the show, Meow Meow launched into a teary-eyed tribute of her friend, Barry Humphries (best known as by the stage persona of Dame Edna Everage). It was a poignant recollection of her dear friend. She closed the show belting a brilliant unpublished song from a long-dead German composer.

Hey! If the Beatles can release a song this week, anyone’s music can come back to life.

Personal note: Meow Meow is the most cabaret cabaret I’ve ever seen in the Greer Cabaret.

Meow Meow is a wonderful evening of entertainment, but it’s not a break from the bleak troubles of the outside world, but a satirical poke, a strangely effervescent warning of dark times ahead.  As Dame Shirley Bassey would say, “They say the next big thing is here, that the revolution’s near, but to me it seems quite clear – that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”

The revolution has begun. 

-MB

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Cabaret Series is at the Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.  For upcoming events, please click here

 

 

Light’s Out – a review of “Mr. Burns – a Post-Electric Play”

By Claire DeMarco

When six people come through an epic disaster one might surmise that after the initial shock of this traumatic event, they’d begin to organize and search for means of survival.  Instead, Matt (David Holderbaum), Jenny (Myah E. Davis), Maria (Johnna Lefebvre), Sam (Alex Blair), Colleen (Sarah Orbin), Gibson (Gavin Calgaro) and Quincy (Elizabeth Glyptis) reflect on what appears to be an inconsequential recollection from their pre-disastrous world.  They pull the memory of the episode Cape Fear from “The Simpsons.” It becomes a means to cope with what has just happened to them.

As time goes on the group’s oral stories and recollections about the Cape Feare episode are embellished with situations that didn’t occur. The episode morphs into something it never was originally.  Bart (Lauren Connolly), Homer (Mark Barrett), Marge (Sarah Yobbi), and Lisa (Audrey Wells), are part of this evolution as are Itchy (Eric Molina) and Scratchy (Michael Phelps). Mr. Burns (Noah Kendall), the man who caused the 2024 event plays the villain in this exaggerated opera. Over 70 years are involved in the growth and development of this grandiose idea.

A kernel from the past becomes the genesis for the development of an opera and a theater that concentrates on many of the Simpson episodes.

Out of the darkness.  And then there was light!

Left to Right: Maria/Nelson (Johnna Lefebvre), Quincy (Elizabeth Glyptis), Sam (Alex Blair) Center – Gibson (Gavin Calgaro), Matt (David Holderbaum), Colleen (Sarah Orbin) and Jenny (Myah E. Davis).

Note:  In the program Critic Laura Collins-Hughes relates her experience after seeing this play.  “It’s the kind of bold, inventive show that sends you staggering out onto the street afterward, stunned and exhilarated, not sure quite what you’ve just experienced because you’ve never seen its likes before”.

Note:  I must confess even though I did not stagger onto the street afterward, stunned and exhilarated, I also wasn’t sure at times what I had experienced.  But that’s not a problem.  It’s important that theater not only entertain but challenge us with new and exciting presentations and this production certainly meets that expectation.

Holderbaum presents his character initially at the beginning of the play as exuberant, quasi-hysterical and constantly in motion as he concentrates on memories of the Cape Feare episode of “The Simpsons”.  This is his mechanism for dealing with the tragedy that just recently occurred.  Time passes and he transitions into a calmer, more rational character as he and the group continue their concentration on “The Simpsons”.

Calgaro is excellent in portraying two sides of his character.  After the tragedy event Calgaro’s coping mechanism is a constant shaking of his legs and a hesitant, soft voice.  He has difficulty talking about those lost.  As the years pass, he appears to have more control but he occasionally reverts to shaking his legs.  At one point he has a complete breakdown.

Although Kendall is only in the last act of the play, he makes his presence known.  He’s enticing as the evil, snarky and obnoxious Mr. Burns.  His twisted facial expressions and physical movements are spot on as he prances across the stage.  He sings, he dances, he does a little rap.  He does it all!

The entire cast is well balanced!

The set is minimal.  Initially a plaid sofa, several mismatched folding chairs and a trash can suggesting a fire for warmth indicate the dire circumstances of the group.

Later the plaid sofa is replaced by an over-stuffed leather chair with a mock TV in front of it.

Costume Designers Barbara Burgess-Lefebrve and Johnna Lefebrve did a great job with the costumes.  As time changes so do the costumes colors.  Following the tragic event in 2024, costumes were dark and rather non-descript.  As the play approaches 2107 the clothing was bright, flashy and colorful.

-CED

“Mr. Burns – A Post-Electric Play” runs from November 2 until November 19 at Little Lake Theater, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15301. For more information, click here.

Paranormal Investigations – a review of “The Haunting of Hill House”

By Michael Buzzelli

Halloween may be over but it’s still spooky season. Just ask the cast of “The Haunting of Hill House,” a theatrical retelling of Shirley Jackson’s supernatural thriller.

Dr. Montague (Eric Rummel) invites a group of guests to join him at an eerie mansion located in the woods (the closest city, state, county, or province, for that matter, is irrelevant).

Eleanor Vance (Erika Krenn) is the first to arrive. She’s greeted – greeted isn’t the right word, more like tolerated – by Mrs. Dudley(Kat Bowman).

Side note: When Shirley Jackson’s novel debuted in 1959, I doubt they knew what OCD was, but Mrs. Dudley has a chronic case. The character only has a few lines – all of them personal rules – and repeats them ad infinitum throughout the play.

Theodora (Taylor Javens) is the next guest to show up at the haunted house. She’s a coquettish vixen straight out a 50s B Movie.

Soon after, Dr. Montague and Luke (AJ Gross) drop their suitcases at the door and meet the ladies.

That night, Eleanor hears strange noises coming from the walls of the house. Theodora joins her in her room and the women hold each other tight through the terrors of the night until the men reappear. They didn’t hear the haunting noises but had their own strange encounter with an animal in the woods.

Things get spookier.

Mrs. Montague (Stephanie Swift) and Arthur (AJ Wittman) appear a few days later. They are excited to begin their paranormal investigation. Though Mr. & Mrs. Montague are husband and wife, Arthur’s role in their relationship is undefined, but Mrs. Montague and Arthur, a boy’s school principal, seem to be closer than just friends.

Additional side note: In the book, Luke, Theo and Eleanor are all brothers and sisters. Here, they are not. It’s a good thing, too, because there’s oodles of sexual tension between them.

From left to right: Luke (AJ Gross), Dr. Montague (Eric Rummel), Mrs. Dudley (Kat Bowman), Mrs. Montague (Stephanie Swift), Arthur (AJ Wittman), Theodora (Taylor Javens and Nell (Erika Krenn) gather at Hill House in “The Haunting of Hill House.”

The relationships in Hill House seem very confused. Luke likes Eleanor. She thinks he’s too silly. There seems to be some simmering lesbian subtext between Eleanor and Theodora.

Meanwhile Montague and Luke always wander off together, leaving the women alone often.

Mrs. Montague spends all of her free time with Arthur and none of it with her husband. But Arthur is always talking about his boys at the school – accusing them of being soft and feminine (using the antiquated term milksop) and he’s always talking about toughening them up. There’s more subtext there, too.

None of the romantic relationships are explored because the guests of Hill House are too busy fending off their supernatural enemies.

There’s also a lot of humor in this gothic horror.

“The Haunting of Hill House” is not to be confused with the movie, “House on Haunted Hill,” wherein Vincent Price was terrorizing houseguests with plastic skeletons and vats of acid.

While the first act drags, because of a lot of unnecessary exposition about the owners of the house, things pick up steam as the psychic-powered potboiler bubbles along.

There are some stand out performances that make “The Haunting of Hill House” fun.

Krenn is marvelous as the mentally tormented Eleanor.  In the third act, when Krenn’s Eleanor is wandering around Hill House, it’s hard not to shout from the audience, “Don’t go down that passageway! Don’t go through that door!”

Javens is excellent as well. She’s a hellcat. Theo gets some great lines and Javins nails the delivery with aplomb.

Javens and Krenn get the best scenes and they utilize them to the fullest potential.

Arthur is another fun character and Wittman plays him in a delightfully goofy manner.

There’s not a lot to the character of Luke, but Gross is charming and makes the most of him.

Kelsey Pollock Rhea’s costumes, especially Javin’s outfits, are perfect for this production.

If you’re in the mood for something spooky, consult your Ouija Board. The planchette might point to yes.

-MB

“The Haunting of Hill House” runs from November 3 to November 11 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information, click here

 

No Bad News – a review of “The Wiz”

By Michael Buzzelli

Newly orphaned Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis) isn’t vibing to Kansas, but she isn’t there too long to lament. A twister picks her up, carries her off and flies her out of the arms of her Aunt Em (Melody A. Betts). The tornado dumps her and her house smack dab in the middle of the land of Oz where the townspeople are overjoyed because she crashed down on a wicked witch and smooshed her.

Addaperle (Allyson Kaye Daniel deftly delivering the snarkiest lines in the show) and her blingy sister Glinda (Deborah Cox) give Dorothy the witch’s shoes, a pair of magic silver slippers. The sorcerous sisters send her off to meet the Wiz (Alan Mingo, Jr.) to aid her on her journey home.

Just like L. Frank Baum’s original it’s not about the destination, but the journey, and the friends she meets along the way.  Dorothy eases down the Yellow Brick Road and meets the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson), the Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson) and the Lion ( Kyle Ramar Freeman).

But the wicked witch’s sister, the equally wicked Evillene (Melody A. Betts), wants those darn silver shoes and she’s willing to kill to get them. Obviously, anyone named Evillene is bound to be a little bit naughty.

The Wicked Witch, Evilene (Melody A. Betts), tells her Winkies not to bring her any bad news in “The Wiz.” Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

“The Wiz” is not only updated from the classic, “Wizard of Oz” it’s an even more updated version of “The Wiz.” It’s not a copy of a copy but an improvement on the original production. The lines are sassier, funnier.

For some reason, the Wicked Witch runs a factory, but even her factory workers, the Winkies (the ensemble), don’t know what they’re manufacturing, but let’s not talk about “The Wiz” that was. This updated version is sheer joy.

“The Wizard of Oz” is pure fantasy where the hero is an ordinary kid who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances.  It appeals to children and adults alike. With “The Wiz” we get all of that  – and representation.

Dorothy finds her agency pretty quickly and that’s a good thing. Lewis (at 24 but looking 17) commands the stage. She is charismatic and charming.

Betts is a belter of the highest order. She has a powerful vocal instrument and uses it superbly.

Wilson’s Scarecrow was phenomenal. His movements were incredible as he flopped around like he was actually made of straw.  He also gave some great line reads.

Richardson’s Tinman is amazing. The character starts off stiff and clunky but the actor is smooth and graceful and once the Tinman’s oiled up, Richardson moves fluidly, effortlessly around the stage.

Freeman did a fantastic job as the Lion. He pounced and pranced his way into the hearts of the audience.  He’s a star.

Side note: The Lion has always been my favorite character (Burt Lahr and Ted Ross).

Mingo serves up a creepy Wiz. He’s scheming and despicable, but in the most delightful way.

Cox does such a great job as Glinda, it’s the first time I don’t want to smack her when she says, “You had the power to go home all along.”

P.S. I always wanted to grab the Tinman’s axe and chase after Billie Burke (Glinda from the original 1939 “Wizard of Oz”).

The cast is, literally and figuratively, wonderful. Every Winkie, Kalidah, Ozian and Poppy (it’s an amazing ensemble of talented actors, dancers and singers).

The kaleidoscopic costumes by Sharen Davis are out of this world. Cox’s Glinda’s outfit is a dazzling disco ball of perfection, sparkling, gleaming and dazzling the audience.

Hannah Beachler’s scenic design was amazing. Projection design by Daniel Brodie was the icing on this already delicious layer cake.

Beachler and Brodie worked in unison on the transition from Black & White to Color, like in the original 1939 Movie Musical. The audience was in awe as Dorothy left the drab Kansas farm and landed in the Crayola-colored Oz.

It was such a great show, you have to wonder why Dorothy wanted to go home.

If you want to see a fantastic production on a great big stage, ease on down the road, or in this case, avenue (Penn Avenue to be exact).

-MB

“The Wiz” runs from October 31st through November 5th at the Benedum Center, Seventh Street and Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

Yinz is a Gender Neutral Pronoun – a film review of “Two Lives in Pittsburgh”

By Michael Buzzelli

Paramahansa Yogananda once said, “Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes.” That’s especially true for Bernie Evers (Brian Silverman) as he’s raising a child, Maddie( Emma Basques) while taking care of his mother, Carla (Annie O’Donnell), as she nears the end of her life in “Two Lives in Pittsburgh.”

The film premieres locally at the Three Rivers Film Festival on Thursday, November 9th at the Harris Theater in downtown Pittsburgh.

Carla is feisty. Maddie is fearless. Bernie, however, is riddled with fear and self-doubt. He’s having difficulty dealing with life after high school, especially when the boy he used to bully, Will Garcia (Mark McClain Wilson), shows up in his life as Maddie’s teacher.

Bernie doesn’t have a lot going for him. He’s a handyman with a crush on his mother’s caretaker, Theresa (Delissa Reynolds) and three Yinzer drinking buddies, Frizz (Robert John Brewer), Satch (Casey Braxton) and Jim (Sky Elobar). He lives a small, quiet life.

But Maddie is not content with the way things are.

It’s clear to Will, the school principal (Lola Noh), and Carla, that young Maddie was assigned male at birth, but does not want to follow that pre-designated trajectory.  When Maddie exposes her secret, other secrets brew up.

Bernie Evers (Brian Silverman) picks up Maddie( Emma Basques) and Carla (Annie O’Donnell) when Carla gets booted out of Maddie’s grade school for calling Maddie’s bully an obscene name.

The beauty of “Two Lives in Pittsburgh” is how a Yinzer who’s glory days were in high school has to contend with the secrets swirling around him.  Bernie handles it with his same steadfast normalcy. He’s the calm center, the eye of the storm.

“Two Lives in Pittsburgh” is a quiet film, but it’s low-key impact sneaks up on you. It packs a powerful punch in the final act. There’s a very charming center to the story.

Silverman wrote, directed and starred in this low-key masterpiece. He cast strong, capable actors in the roles. He gives his character some strong conflicts and doesn’t tidy everything up nice and neat. Like real life, doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow, but gives the audience a satisfying ending.

O’Donnell is a terrific. She gets to play a wide range of emotions. She gets a tearful speech about bravery that will doubtlessly require many audience members to whip out the tissues and dab their eyes.

Basques is spectacular as Maddie.

Reynolds is another stand out in a film with strong actors. Her character, Theresa, is reasonable and logical, but approaches everyone with compassion. The actor’s own compassion seeps out.

Scenes of the city and the suburbs zip by, but Main Street in Carnegie shows up a few times. Shot by the down-to-earth cinematography of Tiffany Murray.

Bernie’s friends are perfectly cast. Silverman captures the essence of the characters – a group of subterranean Steeler fans.

Silverman’s Bernie is a working class guy, but he has a generous heart who has to learn about compassion. He passes with flying rainbow colors.

“Two Lives in Pittsburgh” is full of heart. It’s a great representation of a family facing issues that could easily overwhelm them. It’s a perfect showcase for a Pittsburgh film festival.

-MB

“Two Lives in Pittsburgh” has it’s Pittsburgh premiere at the Harris Theater, 809 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222 as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival. For more information and additional details about the festival, click here

 

To me, you are beautiful – a review of “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk”

by Michael Buzzelli

When famous modernist artist Marc Chagall (Dan Mayhak) gets a call from a pretentious and elitist art snob (who speaks in metaphoric and bombastic gibberish), he looks back at his life with Bella Rosenfeld Chagall (Zanny Laird) in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.”

Marc and Bella reflect on their lives in words and songs. Perspectives between husband and wife flips a bit back and forth, but the audience gets a glorious glimpse into each of their souls.

They meet in Vitebsk ( or Vitsyebsk or Viciebsk), a small village in Russia (now Belarus), but their journey together takes them westward, geographically,  philosophically, idealistically.

Every time it looks like the world is ready to tear the Chagall’s to pieces, they rise up, fight or flee, surviving a multitude of perils. The tale is so lovingly told it’s hard not to fall in love with Marc and Bella despite their flaws.

Zanny Laird and Dan Mayhak recreate the iconic image from “Over the Town.”
Over the Town the 1918 painting by Marc Chagall.

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” is subtitled “The Chagall musical,” but it’s more a play with songs than an actual musical. The distinction is a slight one, but notable. The songs are interspersed into the story, but, while beautifully rendered by Douglas Levine and company, they are not integral to the plot. It’s a good thing because most of them are in another language.

Mayhak sings in Yiddish (and occasionally in English). Laird sings in Yiddish and French.  The only recognizable tune (at least for this gentle gentile) is “Bei Mir Bitsu Shein” made popular by the Andrews Sisters in the 40s (and no, I’m not THAT old).

Side note: When her now-husband, Lucas Fedele, proposed to Zanny Laird in Paris (take a moment to sigh and say, “How romantic!”), she didn’t speak a lick of French. You’d never know it. Edith Piaf would be proud.

Laird’s smile lights up the stage. Her character’s effervescent enthusiasm for life is infectious and Laird glows with charm. In the opening scenes, she bursts with joy when she details her first meeting with Chagall. Her love felt so powerfully real.

Mayhak does a remarkable job as the quixotic painter. He portrays Chagall in various stages of his life, idealistic young man, fervent artist, and despondent old codger.  In Yehuda Pen’s portrait of Chagall, Mayhak even looks like artist as a young man (in reality, Chagall looked more like Harpo Marx without the curly blond locks).

The Yiddish singing from both the actors is tremendously impressive. You don’t have to know the words to be stunned by their renditions. Their faces express the meaning of the music.

Daniel Jamieson and Ian Ross use the written word in wonderful ways (in book and lyrics). Instead of blushing, Bella describes her friend’s face as red as a freshly washed radish. The phrase seems so perfectly appropriate to spill out of the mouth of a Jewish woman from a tiny Russian village.

There’s even a meta moment when Chagall, commissioned to paint scenic backdrops for a Jewish theater company in Moscow, laments about the actors and props moving too much on stage.  Ironically, there does seem to be a little too much movement of the props under Gustavo Zajac’s direction, but his choreography of the actors is delicate and graceful. He does a fantastic job bringing this important story (at an important time) to life.

The band, Douglas Levine (keyboards), Cara Garofalo (violin) and Lenny Young (oboe, and English horn) play harmoniously, exquisitely. They also play a variety of background actors, mostly in non-speaking roles. Levine even manages to get a couple of the best laughs.

Grzegorz Labuda costumes look as if they are plucked from the Chagall closets. Bella is dressed in the frock identical to the one “Bella with White Collar,” a 1917 rendition of his wife looming large over Marc and Ida in a garden below.

Don’t let Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s stark white backgrounds fool you, they are the perfect canvas for Peter Brucker’s projection design.

Side note: This is Quantum Theatre’s 100th production and it rates high on a list of illustrious plays. This reviewer has not seen all one hundred, and it wouldn’t be fair to judge the artistic endeavors on a such a scale, but it’s another must-see show in a long line of must-see shows from Karla Boos and company.

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” is a marvelous proclamation of pain, loss and love. It’s about loving and living life to the fullest, even when faced with the most dire of circumstances, an affirmation of freedom joyously told.  Fly to the theater and see it.

-MB

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” runs from October 28 to November 26 at Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here

 

There’s Nothing Like It – a review of “Closer Than Ever”

By Michael Buzzelli

Payten Blake, Libby Lindahl, Jantz Levin, and Will Chadek get to showcase their talents in David Shire and Richard Maltby’s “Closer Than Ever.”

There is no plot, characters, or theme in “Closer Than Ever,” but it’s a joyous revue with a plethora of catchy tunes. The two men and two women play multiple characters – at one point Man 1 (Levin) is Woman 3 in the song “Three Friends.” The first act is very heteronormative, but things get more fluid in the second act.

The show has no dialogue, except for some jocular adlibbing during the transitions. Don’t look for patterns in the show, which, ironically, has a song called, “Patterns” in it.

Just sit back, relax and let the music take you.

Payten Blake, Jantz Levin, Libby Lindahl and Will Chadek sing “Closer Than Ever.” Photo by John Altdorfer, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

There are some great songs.

Levin goes big with the zany ” What Am I Doin.'” A ditty from the POV of a stalker who is aware he’s crossed a line.  Levin sparkles in the song, and he’s never as creepy as Penn Badgley in “You.”

Joy seems to be oozing out of Levin in every performance.

Lindahl gets a fine moment to shine with “Life Story.” The song, a biography of a divorcee, frequently pops up in cabaret acts. It’s iconic and Lindahl does a terrific job with it.

Blake dazzles in “Back on Base.” The song is sultry and seductive but gently undercut with some sly humor.  She has oodles of natural charisma. If anything, Blake’s immense talent seems to be underutilized in a showcase. She is a star.

There’s a lot there when Levin and Chadek sing “There,” a reverse love song, where the two men fall out of love with one another. It’s one of the heavier songs in the production, but its delivered with enormous gravitas and pathos, heavy but not heavy-handed.

The show is at its best when all four performers grace the stage. During “Dating Again” the ensemble nails it. Each performer hits the right beats, musically and comically. The frenetic scene is adroitly choreographed by Eileen Grace Reynolds.

Hayden Bingham’s scenic design is a retro 70s musical variety show blast from the past. Picture a “Sonny & Cher” or “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour” set with the world’s largest Connect Four backdrop.

The show has more props and costume changes than it really needs, but its expertly directed by Tomé Cousin with musical direction of Robert Frankenberry. Rob even gets a moment or two to shine as well, singing some transitional music.

Catch it quick. “Closer Than Ever” closes sooner than you think. It’s up for one raucous weekend.

– MB

“Closer Than Ever” runs this weekend only from Wednesday, October 18 until Sunday, October 22 at the Highmark Theatre, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

Iolanthe and Lord Chancellor – Who Knew? – a Review of “Iolanthe”

By Claire DeMarco

Iolanthe (Savannah Simeone) is a fairy who disobeyed fairyland law by falling in love with a mortal.  This was an act absolutely forbidden! A big no, no!  She was banished for her indiscretion.

Iolanthe had a son Strephon (Andrew Mours) and more than 20 years later, history repeats itself.  Strephon is half fairy, half human.  He is captivated and falls in love with mortal Phyllis (Katie Manukyan).  Like mother, like son.  Phyllis loves Strephon. The passage of time has not changed the minds or relaxed the thinking of those in charge.  In fact, a law was passed making any matches between mortals and fairies illegal.  Strephon doesn’t face banishment like his mother, but rather death.

Strephon’s situation is additionally more tenuous than Iolanthe’s since his love has a number of mortals also interested in winning her affection.  Since Phyllis is a ward of the state, the Lord Chancellor (Logan Newman) has a lot to say about her future as do Thomas, Earl of Tolloller (Paul Yeater) and George, Earl of Mountararat (Sean Lenhart).  They all want Phyllis themselves!

Queen of the Fairies (Sarah Austin) is determined to fight this law.

What happens to Phyllis and Strephon.  Do they stay together?   Does Fairyland win the day or does Lord Chancellor and his cohorts?

Manukyan is charming and gullible as a young girl in love.  As a ward of the state and underage, she confronts roadblocks to her marriage.  She is intimidated and accepting of a future she has no control over.  Manukyan develops her character into a strong, determined woman in charge of her fate.

As a young actor Simeone is convincing as Strephon’s mother, banished from Fairyland and not accepted in the mortal world.  She portrays a natural maturity in the role and her singing voice is exceptional.

Mours portrays his character as a strong man in love, determined to marry his sweetheart. He also shows his insecurity as he ponders what happens to his immortal half fairy, half mortal side when he dies. “What’s to become of my other half when I’m buried?”

Austin holds court over the fairies.  She is firm when needed but deliciously funny as she laments her own love situation in a beautiful voice with “Oh, Foolish Fay”.  She commands respect but has a comic side seen through strong facial expressions.

Newman is delightful as the Lord Chancellor.  Totally believable as an upper-class Englishman, his movements are controlled.  His submission to movement is seen through his ever-waving white handkerchief.  Newman transitions into a more energetic human with comedic gymnastics as he sings of “Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest”.

Yeater and Lenhart shine as they join the Lord Chancellor in an amusing song and dance routine of “If You Go In.”

William Carter (Grenadier Guardsman) commands attention as he continues sentry duty with a clever delivery of “When All Night Long a Chap Remains.”

So how does a production whose theme is banishment, potential death, overbearing English peers and a group of fairies successfully become a comic opera?   Surprisingly, it’s rather easy when you have a large cast of talented vocalists and actors.

Note:  A name from the 21st century popped up during the Queen of the Fairies’ song “Oh, Foolish Fay.”  Jake Gyllenhaal?  How did that happen and why?  The original lyrics have the name as Captain Shaw.   Actor Savannah Simeone (Iolanthe) indicated that “nobody knows who Shaw was and Jake’s name was adapted in his place.”  It certainly heightens the comedic effect.

Note:  Depending on the performance date, many of the actors’ roles are performed by other members of the cast.

Kudos to the Pittsburgh Savoyards Orchestra and Conductor Guy Russo.

Excellent direction by Stage Director Michael McFaden.

-CED

“Iolanthe” is a production of Pittsburgh Savoyards and is presented at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA.  Performances run from October 13th through October 22. For more information, click here.

Of Horse and Home – a review of “The Bluegrass Mile”

By Michael Buzzelli

Two jockeys, Curtis Henshaw (Kymir Cogdell-Freeman) and ABCD (Malic Maat), whose name is pronounced Ab-see-dee, compete in an important horse race, “The Bluegrass Mile” in a new play written and directed by Pittsburgh Playwright’s founder, Mark Clayton Southers (the latest installment in Southers’ 19th Century Collection).

Most of the play’s action takes place in a boarding house owned and operated by Rosa Lee Drew (Chrystal Bates). Rosa Lee spends most of her day cleaning, cooking, and tending to her guests. The rest of her time is spent squabbling with longtime border, Kermit Thomas (Charles E. Timbers, Jr.).

Henshaw arrives in a mess of trouble from the local sheriff (David Whalen).  Since the young man is carrying a saddle, the sheriff assumes he stole it and possibly a horse to go with it. Rosa Lee eases tensions by offering the sheriff a drink from her bar.  The sheriff wants more. He wants Rosa Lee to sell him the house, but she won’t give up her home or her livelihood.

Meanwhile, sparks are flying between William Pickford (Kevin Brown) and Rosa Lee.

At the fateful Bluegrass Mile race, things go horribly awry. Curtis and ABCD’s lives are in danger from an incident on the track with a horse owned by Henrietta Cogsdale (Kendra McLaughlin), a rich white woman.

Southers’ play is triumphant. It’s got plenty of humor in a taut, suspenseful drama. The second act, like the Bluegrass Mile itself, races to the end. While he drops hints throughout the show, there are still a few twists that hit with audible gasps.

The show exudes a Wilsonian tone. Because it utilizes a lot of similar elements to an August Wilson show, its easy to see the comparisons. Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theater last play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is also set in a boarding house.

Bates is marvelous as the proprietor of the boarding house. She plays Rosa Lee with motherly reverence. The character has closed herself off after her husband died, but William Pickford’s presence stirs something inside her. Bates reveals secrets with a knowing look or a furtive smile.

Whalen portrays a bully of a sheriff. While he claims to be a lawman who upholds the rights of all of his constituents, he is threatening, menacing, and at times, almost evil. Whalen exhibits a range of strong emotions, mostly anger, hatred, greed, and distrust, but the sheriff shows a softer side.

Maat gets a fair share of funny lines and delivers them expertly. He is an accomplished actor with oodles of charm.

Brown makes the most of a smaller role.

Newcomer Cogdell-Freeman is excellent. The fifteen-year-old CAPA student has a potential to be a star in the Pittsburgh theater firmament.

McLaughlin is seen all too briefly in this play, but does a fantastic job. In the manner of any genteel, Southern lady, her character issues threats with a bright, wide smile. She is dressed in an authentic-looking costume courtesy Kimberly Brown (no relation to Kevin Brown) with hair and makeup from Cheryl El Walker.

The entire plot hinges on a monologue delivered by Timbers and he does it with passion and grace. It’s a very moving moment.

The set is another masterpiece by Tony Ferrieri. The now-retired Ferrieri shows no signs of slowing down in his decades as a scenic designer for every major theatrical production company in Pittsburgh.

Deftly stage managed by Ashley Southers (this one is related, she’s Mark Clayton Southers’ daughter).

“The Bluegrass Mile” has a lot of potential. It would be easy to picture a Broadway production of the show. Kudos to the cast and crew for making a riveting evening of theater on the Hill.

“The Bluegrass Mile” runs from October 7th – 29th at the newly christened Carter Redwood Theater in the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. For more information, click here

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