On Stage: Introducing Peter

October 20, 2016

In a way, Finding Neverland is the prequel to the numerous films and stage productions of J.M. Barrie’s celebrated story, describing the boy who became Peter Pan. Except, perhaps, that this Broadway musical focuses on the author himself, a man who didn’t want to grow up.

Now on display at the Benedum Center as part of PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh, Finding Neverland is also the musical translation of the delicately nuanced and intimate film that starred Johnny Depp. However, Broadway musicals would seem to be the antithesis of that, boldly drawing in audiences of several thousand.

And so this Neverland is. It borrows from the film in unfolding the creative process and imagination that went into the formation of the original play, telling the story of Barrie, who was suffering from writer’s block when a chance encounter with a young widow and her four sons in London’s Kensington Park changes his life.

The boys help to unlock his sense of invention. Like a jigsaw puzzle, they assemble the pieces of the story from real life while we watch. Tick tock. A large furry dog. That vaguely familiar bedroom for the children, with a large double window through which dreams come true.

The stage story only hits a snag when it toggles between reality and the imagination. In the film, it easily faded from a scene into Barrie’s mind. But at first, a man dressed in a bear suit had to suffice in the stage version. Aside from a Dali-esque carousel inside Barrie’s mind and a rousing recreation of a ship, the musical had to wait until the end, when the young widow, gravely ill, makes her final trip to Neverland amid a breathtaking whirlwind of glittering fairy dust.

Magical, indeed, in just the right dose. That was the signal to hit all the right buttons, making the segue into a Disney-esque finale.

Some of the problems came from director Diane Paulus, who won a Tony Award for Pippin, for forcing the story beyond its borders. Choreographer Mia Michaels, best known for So You Think You Can Dance, resorted to typical Broadway vocabulary, rather than surrounding the characters with some period choreography that tapped the Barrie imagination.

The talented cast does a lot to offset this assertive interpretation. Kevin Kern (J.M. Barrie) and Christine Dwyer (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies) were the perfect match — he romping about the stage and she a partner in constant invention. Their voices did great justice to a rather familiar-sounding musical score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, particularly in terrific duet, Neverland.

Peter, played hauntingly, then warmly by Ben Krieger had a similar moment in When Your Feet don’t Touch the Ground with Kern. Krieger was joined by three boisterously lovable brothers who added plenty of grit and spirit to the production.

And you can’t forget Captain Hook, one of theater’s oddly adorable villains, here rendered in a double role by Tom Hewitt (also playing theater impresario Charles Frohman).

So what should we take from Neverland? While it pushed and pulled the Barrie story, sometimes stretching its limits and occasionally tapping its inherent fantastical effects, there was a Tinker Bell effect.

Despite the flaws, the audience seemed to float out the door, ready to follow the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.




Projections fill in the changing location from a turbulent see to a London park.

depends on those iconic flights of imagination


glossy reimagining, if you will, of an intimate and nuanced film

Take the second star to the right and onward ’til morning

shades of Michael Jackson if you don’t look too closely

2015-15 over 500 performance

On Stage: Head Over Heels for “Kinky Boots”

September 22, 2016


One famous quote about dancer Ginger Rogers smirked that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

Well, ladies, the shoe company/drag queen musical Kinky Boots is putting its own stamp on that, in fact, elevating it to a new level with platform shoes and six-inch heels.

kinky_boots_tour-lolaThis heartwarming look at diversity and mutual respect, now at the Benedum Center, goes above and beyond any chorus line musicals we’ve ever seen. It tells the tale of a young Brit named Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan) who inherits a failing men’s shoe company. He accidentally bumps into Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), star of a drag show, and thinks that he could save her from some ruffians.

But Lola doesn’t need help in a lot of ways. In fact, she could give Ginger and any other woman a run for her money. But not with a broken heel. As a result, the intrepid drag queen turns herself into a fashion consultant who knows a niche market when she sees one. And the men’s shoe company transforms itself into a custom boot corporation, making “a range of shoes for a range of men”  like Lola. Along the way, everyone involved, from the employees to Lola and Charlie themselves undergo personal transformations.

This musical was the perfect vehicle for hometown favorite Billy Porter, who won a Tony Award as Lola last year. But would it stand on its own without him? Kinky Boots is, in many ways, an old-fashioned, uplifting evening of musical theater. It sports a rousing score by Cyndi Lauper, a versatile industrial scenic design by David Rockwell.

But most of all, it is yet another working class British musical (Billy Elliot, The Full Monty) that is able to make the leap across the pond to America because it strikes a universal emotional chord.

In this production, sans Porter, I sensed a new-found danger, though. Kudos to the Angels, Lola’s back-up singers and dancers. Full of unquenchable energy, the six performer/athletes zipped up and down stairs in their eye-catching platforms, could high kick and split with the best, and, most daringly, danced along moving conveyor belts as well.


I don’t know ladies — I can’t imagine Ginger keeping up, even in her heyday.









Dance Beat: Patricia, Matt, Brazzies, Charrette, Attack

August 30, 2016
Patricia Wilde with Savion Glover

Patricia Wilde with Savion Glover

A Wilde Award. Former Pittsburgh artistic director Patricia Wilde added yet another award to her treasure chest. She was honored by the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga, New York, along with famed tap dancer Gregory Hines, whose award was accepted by tapper extraordinaire Savion Glover, who was mentored by Hines. She was surrounded by her family, including children Anya Davis and Yuri Bardyguine, plus a sizable contingent who worked with her at PBT, including Terrence Orr, Harris Ferris, Janet Campbell with David and Roberto Munoz.

Fresh Addition. He has popped up in performances with Attack Theatre ever since he and husband Rubén Garcia, head of the dance department at Point Park University, moved to Pittsburgh two or so years ago. Dance Europe Magazine selected him as one of the “Top 100 Dancers in World” for 2010/2011 and he is a former dancer with Lucinda Childs. But he gave Pittsburgh a sweet surprise this spring at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, simply titled Matt Pardo: An Evening of New Works. It was actually the culmination of a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and showcased a subtle blend of jazz, which had a certain weight, and contemporary dance, which gave it a liquidity. That clarity and balance in Pardo’s choreography were easiest to see in Matt’s solo and another for Point Park dancer, the talented Justus Whitfield. There were two group dances for Point Park College dancers which further demonstrated a transparency in thought and execution to be found in Pardo’s style. Most exciting, though, was a trio he created with Childs dancers Caitlin Scranton and Sharon Milanese, beautifully interacting in various formations. It was a preview, though, because Pardo and  Scranton have designs on establishing a professional company in Pittsburgh.

BETH CORNING HEADSHOTThe Brazzies. The latest edition of the Brazzy Awards, named after former ballerina and inspirational teacher Leslie Anderson Braswell went to two veterans of the local dance scene. Congratulations to Beth Corning, who always offers deep, thoughtful performances for dancers over 50 (!), this time taking on avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett in Beckett and Beyond, and Christopher Budzynski, principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, who has contributed so much to an array of leading roles, including Swan Lake,  Don Quixote and Le Corsaire.

Christopher Budzynski with wife Alexandra Kochis in "Cinderella."

Christopher Budzynski with wife Alexandra Kochis in “Cinderella.”

Fresh Choreography. This is the must-see project developed at PearlArts Studios. Take a choreographer, give him or her the opportunity to develop work and present it in a  atmosphere, complete with expert feedback (in this instance dance artists Mark Taylor — who seamlessly coordinates things — Michele de la Reza, Jasmine Hearn and visual artist Maritza Mosquera). Do yourself a favor and take in the soft glow of changing light at the Studios, complete with intelligent, nurturing conversation and support for the likes of Jean Paul Weaver, Ella Moriah Mason and Slowdanger duo Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

Real Attack. One of my favorite activities, rain or shine. No real dance, just connecting with real dancers (and friends) who proclaim “We’re On a Boat.” The Attackers had a real presence this year, with co-founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, of course, the inimitable executive director Rebecca Himberger, Dane Toney, Ashley Williams, all at Lock Wall One Marina at 23rd Street in the Strip District



On Stage: Dance Africa

July 21, 2016

Dance Africa 01

Dance Africa’s Erin Perry and staff have put together a  rich look at traditional ethnic dance and more. It’s also a great opportunity for artists to immerse themselves in the sophisticated and alluring rhythms of West African and Caribbean drumming. And the marketplace — you can’t forget about that! Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Inside Women

July 9, 2016

ELISA MARIE FACESWe all know that women wear many faces while they perform many things — nurture children, run a home, hold down a job and create new and wonderful things. But it’s great to see younger women realizing this, as in Elisa-Marie Alaio’s feminist-inspired Eff.Ul.Gents. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Cirque’s “TORUK” Flies Over Pittsburgh

June 25, 2016

Expectations can sometimes produce limitations. For those who have enjoyed  visiting Cirque du Soleil’s numerous flights of fancy, the Montreal organization has built its audiences through an emphasis on “cirque” or circus acts. However, they have increasingly improved those acts to harbor a real artistic flair in the choreography and obviously wanted to keep growing physically and aesthetically.

The group’s latest production that flew into Pittsburgh, an arena show called TORUK — The First Flight, indicated a new path. Yes, there were spectacular aerial and acrobatic performances, but it was easy to see that TORUK was another breed of performance animal.

Photo: Errisson Lawrence

Photo: Errisson Lawrence

Unlike previous arena shows such as the mega-rock Delirium (2006), the “joy”-ful Alegria (2009) and Fellini-esque Quidam (2011), all in the traditional mold, this show emphasized a new direction, a stretching, if you will, of Cirque’s fertile imagination. It was no longer a show loosely built around a series of standalone acts. There was an obvious emphasis on a cohesive concept show that integrated acrobatics in a far more sophisticated way.

Yes, folks, the acts were still there. A giant webbed loom was crawling with performers and served to “catch” aerial jumpers. The huge skeleton of a reptilian Thanator was the basis for a brilliant group balancing act. A warrior dance used large poles that not only hinged in two but lifted some of the performers high into the air. Yes, it often wasn’t business at usual. And TORUK demanded more of the audience because it didn’t always indicate noticeable endings to draw applause. In some instances, the audience might not be sure if something was finished. (Don’t worry — just settle back and allow yourself the luxury of multiple choices because there is never a single focal point. There is always something else to catch the eye.)


TORUK LEADAlthough the Na’vi Storyteller could not always be understood, the story itself was simple enough, a tale of life-long friends, Ralu and Entu, who, just on the brink of manhood, join forces with a new friend, Tsyal, to save the sacred Tree of Souls and thus the Na’vis themselves. It supposedly took place 3,000 years before the film. One note: audiences must get past the fact that these Na’vis aren’t the tall, lithe characters found in James Cameron’s award-winning movie, AVATAR. They are shorter, more muscular characters, but with a lightness and elegant physicality of their own as they prowl and play on a versatile set by Carl Fillion.

Unlike the afore-mentioned arena shows, this wasn’t a set that seemed separated from the audience. Those productions would use oh-so-clever clowns to lure audience members into the fabric of the show through skits. TORUK did it in a different way. Expert, multi-focal direction from Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon made great use of a three-dimensional landscape that had an island at the center and was ringed with rocks and soft tumbling platforms. It brought the action even closer and  better yet, sent cast members scampering up and down the steps radiating into the nearly 20,000 seat arena’s rafters.TORUK EMUSThe technology, however, was not as simple as the story. It was, if anything the star of the show —  cutting-edge and verging on the spectacle of the opening ceremonies in an Olympic event. This was epic movie-making in the flesh — a true 3-D rendering of its own, inspired by Cameron’s film. It bathed the seats in shades of blue, almost transforming the audience into Na’vis and the special effects included a flood, an earthquake, a volcano and so much more.


Some of it may have seemed vaguely familiar, like the play on Lion King puppetry, so artistic and with AVATAR-like Viperwolves and Direhorses (six legs!), and newly formed Austrapedes (ostrich/pink flamingo/dinosaur) and a Turapede (turtle/shark) added to the mix. There was also a projection at the back that might have been gigantic Na’vi eyes from the movie and the whole story once again circled around a fantastical tree and its environment.

Not only did the familiarity draw people in, but audience members could be part of the production in a new way, by downloading an app onto their iPhones. So when a starlit night appeared, it was enhanced by dozens of tiny screens that twinkled on their own.

TORUK FANSAfter all those dazzling effects, the ending actually topped it all with thousands of LED lights. It was a huge magical message, much like the spaceship that came to rescue ET.

This is a production that filled the vast Consol Energy Center, scene of exciting hockey contests (including this year’s Stanley Cup series and ultimate win), driving rock ‘n roll shows and Monster Jams, none of which can match Cirque du Soleil. TORUK brought something new — a welcome sense of wonder, which is no easy feat.

The city of Pittsburgh even took its cue from TORUK. When the audience left , they were greeted by buildings set against the onset of a night sky, yes, in shades of blue, yet another award, this time from nature itself.








On Stage: Dance Recitals 2016

June 22, 2016
Wexford Dance Academy

Wexford Dance Academy

Congratulations to all the dance studios in the Pittsburgh area for another stellar year. Dance Showcase made its recital Destination Dance, while West Point Ballet followed the yellow brick road to its own destination with a new production of The Wizard of Oz.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, meanwhile, performed an encore of one of my favorites, George Balanchine’s Serenade, and created a selection of dances for the various class levels around the music from The Sleeping Beauty. And Movements in Dance took a Step Right Up, along with guest artist Sophie Silnicki, a student at San Francisco Ballet.
Carnegie Performing Arts Center may have named its recital Sugar and Spice. That could also apply to graduates Megan Blackwell, who will attend Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh for Business, and Adrienne Elion, who will go to Shenandoah University in Virginia for Dance. Wonder which is which?
And Wexford Dance Academy had a versatile recital with not only the signature classic, Paquita, but a Rhinoceros Tap. The graduating seniors are versatile as well: Haley Raphael, Hamilton College, Biochemistry, Dance minor; Natalie Gardinier, Ohio State University, Biology (pre-med), Dance minor; Morgan Beaver, Case Western, Business Management; Kyra Launcher, Butler University academic scholarship in the Butler Honors Program, Dance Performance & Ballet, Art & Design and French minors.

April 30-May 1: Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh, Independence Middle School in Bethel Park, 412-343-9333. or http://www.balletacademypgh.com.

May 12-14: Chartiers Valley High School Performing Arts Department, Chartiers Valley High School, 412-429-3712 or http://www.showcase.cvsdtheatre.com.

May 13-15: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Pre-Professional Showcase, George Roland White Performance Studio at Point Park University, 412-281-6727 or http://www.pbt.org.

May 14: Dancing Classrooms, Pittsburgh Allderdice High School,

May 21: Sandra Lynn’s School of Dance, Franklin Regional High School, 412-287-0515 or http://www.sandralynnsdance.com.

May 22: The Dance Company for the Performing Arts, West Mifflin Area High School, 412-672-2200 or http://dancecoperformingarts.com.

May 21-22: The Thomas Studio of Performing Arts, West Allegheny High School, 412-257-2000 or http://www.thomasdance.com.

May 17: Dance Showcase (Jeffrey and Reserve), Shaler Area High School, 412-860-7764 or http://www.danceshowcasell.com.

May 20-21: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Byham Theater, 412-456-6666 or http:// http://www.pbt.org.

May 21: Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Byham Theater, 724-969-6000 or http://www.pybco.com

May 21: Sandra Lynn’s School of Dance,Franklin Regional High School, 412-287-0515 or http://sandralynnsdance.com

May 22: Movements in Dance, East Fairmont High School, West Virginia, 304-288-3081.

May 26-27: West Point Ballet, Pittsburgh Masonic Center, 412-872-8325 or http://www.westpointballet.com.

May 29-30: Dance Showcase (Jeffrey), Shaler High School, 412-512-1187 or http://www.danceshowcasell.com.

May 28: Allegro Ballet, Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center, 412-973-5500, allegroballetpa@gmail.com or http://www.allegroballetpa.org.

May 29: The Dance Conservatory of Pittsburgh, Shady Side Academy, 412-344-3900 or http://www.dcpdance.com.

Wexford Dance Academy

Wexford Dance Academy


June 4: Larry Cervi School of Performing Arts, Norwin High School, 412-856-7713 or http://www.cervi-school.com.

June 4-5: Carnegie Performing Arts Center, Carnegie Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, 412-279-8887 or http://www.carnegieperformingartscenter.com.

June 4-5: Dance Workshop By Shari, Upper St. Clair High School, 412-884-5099 or http://www.danceworkshopbyshari.com.

June 4-5: Karen Prunzik’s Broadway Performing Arts, Carlynton High School Auditorium, 412-920-1841 or http://www.prunziksbroadwaydancestudio.com.

June 4-5: The Thomas Studio of Performing Arts Petite Performer Recital, Chartiers Valley Intermediate School, 412-257-2000 or http://www.thomasdance.com.

June 5: Wexford Dance Academy, Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel, 724-934-9233 or http://www.wexforddance.com.

June 6: Lisa DiGorio School of Dance, Pleasant Hills Presbyterian Church, 412-650-9986 or http://www.dance4lisa.com.

June 10: Dance Factory, Jeannette Senior High School, 724-527-6190 or dancefactorydancers@yahoo.com.

June 11: Laurel Ballet, The Palace Theater in Greensburg, 724-837-7776 or http://thepalacetheatre.org.

June 11-12: Arena’s Performing Arts Centre, Moon Area High School, 412-264-9925 or http://www.arenaspac.com.

June 11-12: Ken and Jean Dance Studio, Norwin High School, 412-823-2753 or http://www.kenandjean.com.

June 17-18: Kickline Dance Center, Baldwin High School, 724-941-9839 or

June 17-18: Starlight Dance Academy, Deer Lakes High School, 412-767-0400 or http://www.starlightdanceacademy.net.

June 18-19: Michele’s Dance Center, North Catholic High School, 412-366-4134 or http://www.michelesdancecenter.com.

June 25: Mary Ann & Company Dance Studio, West Mifflin Area High School, 412-461-7229 or http://www.maryannandcodance.com.

June 26: Cynthia’s School of Dance and Music, Carson Middle School, 412-418-7498 or http://www.cynthiasschoolofdance.com