On Stage: “Peter” Flies Into Town

May 21, 2014

Along the way, most of us have bumped into Peter Pan via Broadway, movie, book or television. Maybe we’ve wondered how Peter began to fly. Or how the Captain got his hook. Or where Tinker Bell first appeared.

J.M. Barrie may have created the original, but it was noted columnist Dave Barry and writing partner Ridley Pearson who created a novel, Peter and the Starcatcher, which amounts to a prequel that explains things in their own fashion.

Then Rick Elice adapted it for the stage, which arrived at Heinz Hall last night.

It was an economical production at first glance, so ripe for touring with a cast of only 12 and two musicians. But they explored Peter’s adventure with such great imagination and vision that it seemed like so much more.

So be prepared for a British music hall/vaudevillian evening in many respects. The pared-down stage was framed by burnished gold and gilt, part of Donyale Werle’s Tony Award-winning scenery. It set a low tech, almost environmental feel, with found objects covered in that gilt to create the ornamentation.

The first act took place on several sailing vessels, with the versatile cast leading the way for the audience. Be prepared to go on those trips — it’s sometimes challenging as they switch characters and scenarios, using simple ropes to create doorways and flags for the crocodile’s giant teeth. The soon-to-be Neverland was a contrast, bathed in technicolor.

Be prepared for a play with music, not a traditional musical. There was only one real production number, where the cast appeared as mermaids — facial hair and all. But be sure to check out the costume details, which also garnered Paloma Young a Tony.

Be prepared for time travel. Yes, there is that Victorian aura of the original story. But there are Michael Jackson references. There’s a Starbucks mention. And someone says, “Can you hear me now?”

Just go with the flow…or the fly, because the jokes whizzed along with the dizzying speed of a handball game.

It was a true ensemble cast, led by John Sanders’ Black Stache (pre-Captain Hook), who got a virtuosic monologue/aria about his hand near the end — a real tour de force. Joey deBettencourt took on Boy/Peter, who was on a delicious path of self-discovery. He was helped by the vivacious and brave Megan Stern as Molly. But all of them blended in when they needed to and took to the spotlight with panache.

What with co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and movement director Steven Hoggett it was easier than it should have been. It was hard to discern the dance/movement, as we saw with Hoggett’s work here in Once last March. A highly physical show, Peter and the Starcatcher, needed pinpoint timing from the cast to succeed. And therein lay the movement which permeated the entire production, making it the wind beneath their wings.


January 20, 2014
Alison Luff as Elphaba Photos: Joan Marcus

Alison Luff as Elphaba Photos: Joan Marcus

Revisionist fairytales are all the rage. No longer are they Disney-esque — sweet and so, so pretty, sometimes packed with tuneful melodies. Instead they are more Burton-esque (as in Tim), and a little more “Wicked,”

“Wicked” has only been around for about 10 years, yet it appears to have spawned a whole raft of offshoots, including television’s “Once Upon a Time,” which is sporting its own Elphaba.


Alison Luff (Elphaba) and Jenn Gambatese (Glinda)

Alison Luff (Elphaba) and Jenn Gambatese (Glinda)

She rightfully belongs to “Wicked,” though. Her story in the Land of Oz, where it isn’t easy being green and where appearances of good and evil aren’t always what they seem, has gone through several of its own revisions. It began with Gregory Maguire’s book in 1995, the inspiration for the hit musical, which shaved off a few warts and all in order to appeal to family-friendly audiences.

And now “Wicked” has come back to Pittsburgh. It’s almost as if there has been another revision. This was the sleekest and, yes, loveliest of several versions I have seen. Even the Broadway production maintained an edgier look at the Emerald City.


The Wizard

The Wizard

Like many tours these days, “Wicked” returned with much of the award-winning scenery and sumptuous costumes intact, a visually glorious feast packed with the internal workings of a giant timepiece, a Time Dragon suspended above the Benedum Center proscenium and plenty of fog, sometimes too much, for the appropriate magical atmosphere.

Alison Luff’s Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was more attractive than usual, without the unique beauty of, say, and Idina Menzel, who originated the role. But she took the audience on a journey, saving her best acting and singing for the second act. But her soaring performance of the show’s anthem, “Defying Gravity” still produced goosebumps.


The Emerald City

The Emerald City

That carried over into the rest of the cast. While Gina Beck’s Glinda was virtually note perfect, her transition into a leader and ultimately a steadfast good friend gave this Good Witch a worthy dimension.

Among the supporting cast, a petite Alison Fraser was more cute than, as her name suggests, Madame Morrible and John Davidson tapped echoes of Al Jolson in his traveling vaudevillian version of The Wizard. But Nick Adams was suitably handsome and engaging as Fiyero, while Tom Flynn was appropriately, yet humanely uppercrust as Dr. Dillamond.

The ensemble provided great vocal support in Stephen Schwartz’s by-now-familiar score, with dancers forgoing diversity, one of the overriding “Wicked” themes, in favor of an elegant technique (except for those fabulous winged monkeys).

This production gained power as it delved into a magical brew of good and evil, sprinkled with witty references to the 1939 movie, often at the oddest of moments. This “Wicked” is, in the end, worth your while, just to be transported to a world of magic and trickery, love and friendship, plus a clever twist on one of the world’s favorite fairytales.



































On Stage: Kiesha Has Her Eyes On Dance

July 14, 2013


The good news is that Kiesha Lalama’s The Bench is moving forward. We first saw the production in 2009 as part of Point Park University’s dance series. it was a family affair from the start, with cousin and composer David Lalama and tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama a part of the holiday package.

It told the story of a young man and woman who met, fell in love and married. What followed was the everyman story of an everyday family, where relationships cause both difficulty and great joy. It was something that virtually everyone in the audience could relate to in a different way as they reflected on their own lives, like “a family album come to life.”

So people warmly responded to scenes like the “crazy aunt” at the table scene and the wedding, where the daughter walked down the aisle with her dad.

But there is more good news. It evidently has legs, strong and sure, and has been renamed The Bench: A Journey Into Love. Subtitled “A New Musical Dance Spectacular.” The evening-long work falls into a family-friendly version of productions like “Movin’ Out” and “Contact,” where dance formed the thread.

There was much interest at the outset from Titus Theatricals LLC founder and CEO, Eric McCree to take it to Broadway. With his input, though, that meant that Kiesha had to reconstruct certain elements of the story.l

Now two narrators, both singers, will express the secret thoughts of the main characters in song. Scotland’s Joel Mason, lyricist, joined the team to add another dimension to David’s score.

They were going to do a staged reading, but they bypassed it in favor of a full-blown workshop, according to Kiesha. This has enabled her and David to stay “true to the values” of their work. They added about 20 minutes and got deeper into the characters. While the mother’s stage-dominating dress will remain, the dinner table, a pivotal scene in the original production, will be lengthened and will rotate on a platform to increase its visual impact.

This past week Kiesha and her team, including Point Park staffer Jason McDole and James Washington, who played the son in the original cast, traveled to Boise, Idaho. “Idaho,” you say? Sometimes called the Potato State, it also grows dance companies in the state’s largest city — the critically-acclaimed Trey MacIntyre Project and Ballet Idaho, which made a brief appearance on the reality ballet series “Breaking Pointe” when one of the dancers got dumped from Ballet West and picked up a job there.

So some of those local dancers populated the production and Broadway veteran Tituss Burgess (Jersey Boys, The Little Mermaid, Guys and Dolls) and Angela Birchett (Hairspray, national tour) joined the 15-member cast.

Kiesha met Tituss a while ago and he never left her thoughts. “You know, you meet someone along they way and you don’t know the impact they will have on your life,” explains Kiesha.

But there is more good news. A Pittsburgh group, including traveled there and several Broadway backers, who shall remain nameless for now, as well.

“In some ways, it’s been bigger than I anticipated,” says Kiesha, who is looking to go straight to New York’s Musical Theatre Festival next year.

It’s a difficult process, most likely filled with the kind of obstacles that Dorothy faced in Oz. But Kiesha appears to be determined, noting that  “I am secure with kind of artist that I am.”


On Stage: “Idiot’s” Sometime Delights

February 22, 2013
Photo: Litwin

Photo: Litwin

American Idiot got down to business right from the start as chaos reigned on the Heinz Hall stage…and it virtually never stopped. A rock opera inspired by The Who’s Tommy and based on Green Day’s own album, it was mindful of another Broadway show, Spring Awakening, displaying a stage crowded with paraphernalia, memorabilia, lights and, in keeping with the coming-of-age theme for Idiot’s trio of contemporary teenagers, a bevy of television sets.

But American Idiot slathered on numerous excesses, heading farther afield than the other shows to grab its audiences. The best effects came from the scenic design, with spectacular lighting patterns that constantly played over it.

And there was not one teenager going through a life lesson, but three separate plot lines for best friends Johnny, Will and Tunny, who ached to escape the stifling life of a modest American town.

Johnny and St. Jimmy (Photo: John Daughtry)

Johnny and St. Jimmy (Photo: John Daughtry)

The main plot followed Johnny (Alex Nee) to the big city, where he spiraled into sex. drugs and, of course, rock ‘n roll. Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) quickly escaped from the big city, this time into the army. And Will (Casey O’Farrell) never made it out of Smallville, where he remained to take care of his pregnant girlfriend.

To its credit, each life story had its own intrigue, enough to keep audience interest high. Will and Heather (Kennedy Caughell) displayed their whole deteriorating relationship, with friends, baby and all, on a couch. Their lives unfolded in great detail, even as the spotlight centered on his friends.

Tunny went off to war, where he lost a leg and descended into depression, but was saved by The Extraordinary Girl (Jenna Rubah), in both fantasy (a terrific aerial duet) and in real life.

Much of the time was spent with Johnny, who had a fling with Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma), one of a group of women with more gumption than the soft ending, and wrestled with his devilish alter-ego St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders). Alex Nee had the right combination of wholesomeness, with a dash of complexity, to shoulder the responsibility amid all the action.

It was hard to know where the movement impetus came from, Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) or Tony-nominated choreographer Steven Hoggett (Once).

Hoggett is known as the “anti-dance choreographer.” He admitted has never been a dancer and thus has no technical training, so the movement comes from a familiar, even commonplace inspiration. In Great Britain there is something called physical theater, a powerful movement that has among its proponents DV8 and Stan Won’t Dance (which brought Sinner, described as a “self-destructive solo for two men” to Pittsburgh in 2006, where it made my Top Ten list).

Hoggett has been making a lot of noise lately, though. Founder of his own physical theater company in Wales called Frantic Assembly in 1994, he made his first big splash in 2009 for Black Watch, a play based on interviews from the famed British regiment and its Iraqi war experience and produced by the National Theatre of Scotland. He and director John Tiffany also collaborated on Once.

He is regarded as a choreographer who makes directorial decisions and his thumbprint was clear in the opening sequence where core cast members confronted the audience with lashing, guitar strumming motions before the rest spilled onto the stage.

Alyssa DiPalma and the Ladies (Photo: John Daughtry)

Alyssa DiPalma and the Ladies (Photo: John Daughtry)

Hoggett latched onto the high physical audacity of youth throughout, best when the bodies slid down railings and gobbled up the set, less effective when there were synchronized arm movements. The aerial duet was highly unexpected as it escaped the gravity of the earth and Tunny’s hospital gurney.

The question is, will this lead to fewer trained dancers or add to dance’s dimensions in musicals? It took a long time for the term “choreographer” to emerge. Now Hoggett, as well as others, want to eliminate it and substitute everyday moves, albeit with a structured eye.

Speaking of eyes, keep one out for this enterprising movement director. Right now, I would opt for Bill T. Jones, who grabbed his own Tony for the dance rites of passage in Spring Awakening, but has the range to do so much more.







On Stage: Underscoring a New “Line”

June 19, 2012

Photos: Matt Polk

The “line” is part and parcel of the dancer’s vocabulary in many forms.  One of the most important is a beauty of line in the movement. But dancers flirt with other lines as well. Making a bee line for class. Putting it on the line every day in the studio, at risk of injury. Kick lines. Keeping in line with other dancers in complex choreography.

And, of course, A Chorus Line, one of the treasures of the Broadway stage. This is the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the über-talented artists who are usually part of the background scenery in a show. But Michael Bennett ended that when he put them front and center in his ground-breaking 1975 production.

Now it’s back in Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center for the Civic Light Opera’s major new, must-see revival under the direction of the original Connie, Baayork Lee. It seems strange that this show, where only rehearsal clothes and a large mirror backdrop service the production can now be considered a period piece, given that dance has changed so much, from its technique to Broadway’s current choreographic direction of blending the movement seamlessly with the dramatic thread.

Certainly this was apparent in the recent revival of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, where the dancers, trained on today’s hyper-flexible standards and competition lifestyle, changed the impetus of this landmark musical with loose-limbed kicks and jumps instead of the inherent tension and explosive control to be found in the ’50’s recreation of  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Not so with this “Line,” where Ms. Lee lovingly recreated the original choreography by Mr. Bennett and Bob Avian. The cast obviously had a wealth of information about the jazz Broadway style of the ’70’s and the discipline to execute it.

At Sunday night’s performance, the now-familiar steps had a joyous spring to them. Surprisingly it became a fresh-faced look to these veteran eyes of numerous productions, from high school to Broadway.

There were a few glitches to be sure. The ballet audition sequence had overblown porte bras and Frank, the boy in the headband, wasn’t believable as he continually stared at his feet. The womens’ top register in the chorus numbers seemed a tad thin and there were still a handful of missed notes.

But those problems were, in the end, minute in a performance that mined the performers’ stories in compelling fashion and came so, so close to the award-winning standard set by the original cast nearly forty years ago.

Ms. Lee’s smart casting choices, a blend of veterans from the Broadway revival and various tours (A Chorus Line family?), paid off.  Point Park University graduate Nadine Isenegger (Cassie) led the way, exhibiting much of the unbridled passion of the original Donna McKechnie.

Bryan Knowlton’s Paul, shy and awkward, but a focal point in the finale, still grabbed the heartstrings when he went back to his beginnings, where he was bullied, quit school and joined a drag production, which his parents’ subsequently discovered. While the tale of his emerging homosexuality didn’t carry the shock value of the original, he still managed to make it meaningful.

All of the major highlights of the smashing Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban score were there — Diana’s (Gabrielle Ruiz) powerful rendition of the show’s anthem, “What I Did For Love,” Val’s (Carleigh Bettiol) sassy “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” Mike’s (Shane Rhoades) bell-like voice and pristine technique in “I Can Do That,” Kristine (Hilary Michael Thompson) and Al’s (Theo Lencicki) quick-witted repartee in “Sing!.”  And Emily Fletcher’s drip-dry Sheila folded in with Bebe (Gina Philistine) and Maggie (Emily Rice) for a sweet tribute in “At the Ballet.”

Already this cast was acting like a top-notch company, leading me to add one more phrase of note. It was hard not to fall hook, “line” and sinker in love with this production.

For more information, go to Listings.














On Stage: On the Line at PPU

November 10, 2011

Point Park University’s recent production of “A Chorus Line” brought up a favorite topic of mine — the “musical” versus the “dancical.” In other words, which one takes precedence when the dance is such an indelible part of the show?

Think “Cats.” Or “Movin’ Out.” And, of course, “Dancin’.” All regularly called musicals, when they are, in fact, dancicals.

Maybe “West Side Story” raised the standards back in the ‘50‘s with triple threat performers who could do it all — dance, sing and act. But by the ’70’s, “A Chorus Line” took that a step further because it was all about dancers who completely carried the evening.

So how to cast a dancical? Go for the dancer who can carry a tune? Or go for the singer who can move well? In most Broadway shows and movies, the acting and singing come first. After all, the dance (so they think) can be adjusted to suit the star(s).

So it was surprising that “Footloose,” albeit not a first-rate film, went for dancers who could act in the remake, rather than the original cast, where Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer were obviously actors who moved. We’ll see if Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough can match their predecessors’ careers.

But I digress.

Given the subject matter of “A Chorus Line,” it was a little tough for the Point Park theater department to tackle this musical, especially when it had a nationally-recognized dance department on campus. But it was a worthy project for the students — after all “A Chorus Line” won the Pulitzer. So there was something juicy to be found in various niches of this now-venerable dancicalAnd since it was all about the audition for a new musical, it had a subject that was already lurking in the minds of these young performers.

But members of this cast were, at best, dance minors or singers who could move well. And therein lay the rub. Technical deficiencies were exposed at the opening audition sequence, putting the premise on, well, weak footing opening night.

Things got better as the drama and humor of the stories unfolded and director Danny Herman could adapt the choreography, therefore allowing the cast members a chance to play to their strengths.

Oddly enough, the combination of acting and singing determined the standouts. Jerreme Rodriguez took Paul’s now-familiar tale of a dancer — young, gay and hiding it from his family —  and emotionally mined the still-poignant story.

It took the performers about half way through “A Chorus Line” to really relax on opening night. But not Andrea Weizierl’s Sheila, a tired, jaded Broadway veteran. How does Andrea, only a sophomore, know how to channel Bea Arthur? And Tyler Scherer’s Zack, with full beard, gathered the authority needed for his role.

By the end, though, the cast pulled it together for the golden kickline finale, each detail meticulously rendered by a cast for whom Broadway is only a dream away and perhaps for someone on that stage, a reality.


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