On Stage: “Once” Loved…

March 14, 2014

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The festivities began early at the Benedum Center as audience members gathered on stage prior to the opening performance of Once Tuesday night.

They could sully up to the bar, surrounded by framed mirrors, just to drink in the atmosphere and have a real glass of stout.

OnceMusicians, 11 of them, filtered into the crowd, who amiably began returning to their seats. But the connection had been made…

And it continued for this intimate chamber-sized musical, a 2012 Tony Award winner with a heart big enough to fill the 2,800 seat house. Suitably the story was about love — the kind lost and found, about friendship and family, embracing community and country.

For those expecting the razzamatazz of the typical Broadway show, full of big ensemble numbers and a rock ‘em, sock ‘em happy ending, this deceptively nuanced story of a Guy (the talented and tantalizingly confused Stuart Ward) and a Girl (the sweet sounding board, Dani de Waal) might not resonate.

But Once operates on so many levels if you are willing to listen. I can’t think of another musical that is so seamless about the performers’ delicate balancing act between  acting, singing, dancing and instrumental prowess.

It perfectly symbolizes the latest trend, surpassing the triple threat artist. Now aspiring actors are groomed for additional specialties that might land them a niche job.

It would be hard to say which aspect was most important, since this gifted cast could do virtually everything. They could play an instrument one minute — violin, mandolin, accordion, percussion — then play an integral supporting character at another point in the evening.

Once

Their voices handled the Celtic-tinged score in solos, all so appropriate, and heavenly choruses. But they could be earthy as well and that’s where the dance came in.

It was sometimes hard to know where John Tiffany’s direction ended and Steven Hoggett’s movement (don’t call him a choreographer) began. Mr. Hoggett came out of Great Britain’s renowned physical theater movement, where technique is not the prime choice, but a keen eye for the human need to express itself is.

So there was pattern and structure to the “dances,” if they could be called that, with actions that emanated from a deep emotional center. There was a lyrical passage or two. And sometimes a stomp could suffice, like an explanation point.

It all remained in that Dublin bar, with mostly a few tables or chairs to change the scenes. That allowed the audience to use their own imaginations, something that doesn’t always happen in a Broadway show.

Magical.


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.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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