On Stage: Cats Forever…

July 21, 2014

Many of us have a “Memory” about Cats. An iconic musical that debuted in 1981, I was first attracted to it because of the enormous attention to movement, a predecessor of today’s dancicals.

Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera gave it another encore, but the audience — and particularly those around me who sang along and commented throughout — responded as if it were a welcome old friend.

It’s been a while since I have seen or heard bits and pieces of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit. So I had fresh eyes and ears for it, ready to make some new memories for myself.

This feline musical fantasy seemed more like a traditional musical on Friday at the Benedum Center. It traverses so many styles, from British musical hall to jazz. But even Rum Tum Tugger, a parody of Mick Jagger that was so current back in the ’80’s, would now be considered conservative.

 

And when you think about how about tap dancing Jennyanydots, Gus the theater cat, with his dynamic character change, and British musical hall duo of Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer, it’s clear that this is a tribute to veteran artists…cat-sized.

They were all terrific — the CLO was smart to build the cast around artists who have performed their roles before, either regionally, on national tour or on Broadway (including a powerful Ken T. Prymus, who had performed the eternally wise Deuteronomy thousands of times, and high-flying Grove City native Andrew Wilson as Mr. Mistofelees). A smart move!

 

They filled it in with a lot of young local talent, poised and professional. The exception to those rules was Tony Award-winning Elizabeth Stanley, who had never performed Grizabella, but, with an emotionally-laced Memory, stole the show.

This show has no easy parts. When it first came to Broadway, the cast spent weeks just learning how to move like cats. A boneless ease. Stretching and preening. Head darting on constant alert. And they can’t curl up and rest when the score is so staggeringly complex for its range and harmonies.

This Cats was remarkably stunning in so many ways, a real CLO achievement. Given the short rehearsal period, the ensemble was remarkably cohesive. The accoutrements — costuming, lighting, scenic design and orchestra were all first rate. And the Journey to the Heavyside Layer was nothing short of, well, heavenly.

Purr-fect!

For more information, click on CLO.


On Stage: More Texture

July 19, 2014
Kelsey Bartman and Alan Obuzor Photo: Katie Ging

Kelsey Bartman and Alan Obuzor Photo: Katie Ging

Dance is art for the young, able to seemingly and fearlessly leap tall buildings at a single bound. But it is most satisfying when those developing dancers start making mature artistic choices, as Texture Contemporary Ballet began doing at its latest effort, Life, Love, & Jazz, at the New Hazlett Theater.

In previous programs, both choreographers and dancers only relished movement in the moment, so big and bold that it all began to blend together and the viewer’s eyes glazed over. LLJ was still full of passion this time around, but more internalized, so that there was space to breathe. The “textures” of the dance were now noticeable and memorable, such that the audience could differentiate between the various choreographies.

Bravo! This is now a company not only to watch, but to savor.

Kelsey Bartman, who always wears her passion on her sleeve (or leotard) contributed Fun. (as she always seems to do). That might have been her only inspiration, but she also demonstrated a heightened awareness of group movement, densely social and weighted as the dancers mixed and matched. Fun. meant the tongue-in-cheek kind, a sense of happy.

But Bartman drew inward for “Stars,” where “I have faded in the dark.” It was more introspective, a curling welcome that revealed more about her as a dancer and capitalized on her use of emotion.

The program continued with three smaller works. Bartman and Obuzor created Hollowed, where they conveyed a new level of intimacy, literally scooping out each other along the way. Amanda Summers seemed to be spinning out of control in “Spinning Plates,” taking advantage of her neat, quick footwork. Gabriel Gaffney Smith said it all in his title, Detachment. Without Reason. The first segment featured a large morphing group, pulsating into the earth, where two couples “detached” themselves from the crowd. By reducing the group to a trio, the second part, in a way, “tested” how much a couple knew about each other with a touch of humor — to no avail. In the third section, so poignant, Darren McArthur tried to bring Henry Steele and Alexandra Tiso together, again to no avail. Smith’s choreography seemed to come at the title from many oblique angles, ripe with emotional details that gave it a full-bodied, pungent sense of humanity.

Alan Obuzor took the program title, Life, Love, & Jazz, and did what he does best, explored the music, this time Marty Ashby’s comfort-driven original score for the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild quartet. This was a glam jazz ballet, playing (or not playing) with black hats and Bob Steineck’s nifty geometric lighting design, which laid out alleyways and squares for a landscape.

Obuzor set the mood with a solo that was as light as a feather, toying with the rhythmic pulse (as he does so well) set by Ashby. Tiso then made a night of it in her playful number with five guys. But there was an even better connection (this company tends to the audience rather than engaging with each other) between the leggy Katie Miller and Obuzor in a duet where she was so relaxed, due to his expert partnering skills, and where they created a mesmerizing aura.

Even though this is the annual program that brings in so many dancers, encouraging the choreographers to expand their vision, it was so good to see the small things that added a malleable “texture” to Texture.


On Stage: Opera Theater and Attack Theatre

July 14, 2014
Breaking down the Wall. Photos: Patti Brahim.

Breaking down the Wall. Photos: Patti Brahim.

It seems like The Fantasticks has been around forever. And it has. Really, it is the longest-running musical in the world, having been off-Broadway for 42 years and 17,162 performances.

But I can’t say that I have seen it.

Of course, I have been deeply aware of the musical itself, historically speaking, but mainly through its score. Everyone worth their musical salt seems to have sung Try To Remember and/or Soon It’s Gonna Rain at some point in their careers.

Dads!

Dads!

 

Now I can take my place among the thousands who have enjoyed the interactions of El Gallo (Sean Cooper), Matt (Adam Hill), Luisa (Rachel Eve Holmes), Hucklebee (Brian Hupp), Bellomy (James Critchfield), Henry (Martin Giles), Mortimer (Daniel Arnaldos) and The Mute (or The Wall, if you may, Dane Toney).

It was, in a word, terrific — hence the listing of all the players (more to follow).

Yes, it was fun to engage with the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, in partnership with Attack Theatre at that wedding cake of a building, The Twentieth Century Club, in Oakland. And engaging it was, with the cast parading, dancing and singing amidst the audience at times.

A double flourish.

A double flourish.

The story line is simple. Boy meets Girl (despite the objections of their fathers, who built The Wall, ostensibly to keep them apart). Boy and Girl fall in love. Boy loses Girl when the truth comes out (that the fathers did staged it all so that their children would fall in love). Boy and Girl rediscover their love for each other.

The scenery (Marie Yokoyama) fell along those lines — a collection of scenery pieces perhaps gleaned from the backstage of a theater and affording the characters many levels on which to clamber around. Costumes (Julianne D’Errico) were mostly uncomplicated, as they should have been (watch for the vest switcheroo). And the music was appropriately intimate, with a quartet made up of piano (Walter Morales, also the musical conductor), percussion (Kevin Danchik), bass (Cory Palmer) and harp — loved the sparkling touch! (Marissa Knaub).

This musical is over 50 years old. Yet it seemed timeless (apparently with a few tweaks to the script) under Attack founder Peter Kope’s direction.

This is an young opera program on the rise, bolstered by veteran actors and singers that give it some heft. You might say it takes a village to raise an opera, with over 40 artists populating nearly 30 performances, workshops, recitals and the like.

Lovers and umbrellas.

Lovers and umbrellas.

With its off-Broadway history, The Fantasticks might seem to be a lightweight choice. But it translated to an operatic approach, with epic overtones, quite nicely.

Kope kept the cast on a taut physical rope to maximum effect, so the songs were staged so effectively and with great detail. The cast, not all of them dancers, took to it all with gusto.

Over-the-top, you might think. But this Fantasticks gathered steam as it rolled along, producing many moments to relish. Holmes’ skill at the devilish operatic leaps. Her obvious connection with Hill. Cooper’s robust presence as Narrator/El Gallo. The similarly obvious connection between the dads, Hupp and Critchfield. And who could play a Wall (et. al.) better than Toney?

This Fantasticks provides a great escape, along with some food for thought. But if you’ll otherwise preoccupied for Fantasticks, make it a point to check out the musical breezes wafting through Summerfest up to and including July 27.

Will she or won't she?

Will she or won’t she?


On Stage: Charlotte Ballet

July 12, 2014

Charlotte BalletNorth Carolina Dance Theater has made a rare switch to change its name to Charlotte Ballet, the largest city in the state of North Carolina. Right now the name may not be familiar to resident Chautauquans. But artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the staff and the dancers by and large remain the same. They were on view recently at the grand old Amphitheater. Click on Charlotte for the article and photos in The Chautauquan Daily.


On Stage: Ubiquitous!

June 17, 2014

maree ubiquitous photo

Maree ReMalia and friends put together an invigorating work, The Ubiquitous Mass of Us, at the New Hazlett Theater. It concluded the Community Supported Art series in a big way. (Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the article.) There’s more really good news, though. Next year dance will play a dominant role as well, with Moriah Ella Mason’s Untamed Myth (Oct. 11), performance artist Jennifer Myers’ Spatial Investigations (Dec. 12), Jil Stifel and Ben Sota in Contemporary Circus/Dance (Feb. 12) and Teena Marie Custer and Roberta Guido in a Double Feature (June 11). Also on the series will be composer Federico Garci-de Castro with Innovative Piano Music (Aug. 14) and Anya Martin’s Folkloric Performance (Apr. 2).


On Stage: PBTS Sneak Previews

June 11, 2014
Photos: Rich Sofranko

Photos: Rich Sofranko

Last year Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School started a ballet immersion in its annual recital. There the advanced students performed highlights from Swan Lake, one of the major upcoming productions of the season. This year it was La Bayadere, only the staff chose it as a theme for the whole school.

Set in the exotic Middle East, the Bayadere dances gave the students a chance to peruse a different culture, with more sinuous arms. Not only was it entertaining and certainly something different, they looked as if they enjoyed it and, better yet, understood it.

Marisa Grywalski and Andrew Kaczmarek

Marisa Grywalski and Andrew Kaczmarek

More importantly it gave the advanced students a head start on this iconic Russian ballet, so that when the company performs it next season, they will better complete the effect of a large ballet, especially the signature scene where the corps descends to the stage in a series of penche arabesques, so deceptively difficult.

Maine Kawashima and Masahiro Haneji

Maine Kawashima and Masahiro Haneji

The first half truly belonged to the school, with two pieces (Gust and Dovetail) created by PBTS graduate student Caroline MacDonald and choreographer and high school student and composer Jack Hawn. Not only were they lovely, they showed substantive thought. Jack provided a piano accompaniment for both works (When does he find the time?) They set up different tempi and textures for Caroline’s choreography. Then she showed a knack for developing an interesting vocabulary and provided a lovely complement to the music, a choreographer who certainly bears watching.

BAYADERE FINALE


On Stage: Alexandra

June 9, 2014

14_05_02 Alexandra-112

Dance is an art form that, more than any other, exists in the moment. So there will be changes, some minute and some large, from day to day. But let’s consider the work-in-progress. This has always existed — Twyla Tharp brought a work-in-progress, with live video cam, to the Pittsburgh Dance Council at Heinz Hall.

Even now we see works prior to their formal debut in the Big Apple, much like the previews of a Broadway musical. It has become prevalent at the local level as well within the past few years. Alexandra Bodnarchuk’s CONNOTATIONS: unknown is a case in point.

We first saw part of the piece at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s newMoves Festival last year. But that was then and this is now. The work at KST was lopsided and disjointed. What emerged at PearlArts was a classic case of the ugly duckling that was transformed into a swan.

The piece was based on Alexandra’s theatrical experience at Bricolage Production’s STRATA in 2012. She stayed in a dimly lit room, the last girl at the prom, meeting people one by one, absorbing and interacting with the emotions they allowed themselves to present. Certainly that series of brief relationships was the basis for CONNOTATIONS.

14_05_02 Alexandra-81

But you didn’t have to know the history to discern the humanity of her piece and appreciate it for its own identity, especially given the strong team that Bodnarchuk had assembled, including Steve Hudock’s evocative soundscape and the striking costuming, a gray/neutral palette with red accents.

Cut into three sections, it approached the material from three differing perspectives. The first with four women in red, might have been the facets of Bodnarchuk herself. The second, a blindfolded duet with Zek Stewart, was an intense compilation of those multiple meetings in a nameless room, ranging from tentative touching to violence. Very powerful and the strongest segment of the piece.

In the final section, she responded to what had gone before, perhaps trying to make sense of it and learn from it, wrapping up the whole experience, but not too neatly.

We appreciated that.


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