Dance Beat: Following a Tune

June 5, 2016

Tommy-Tune_in redI’ve never had a true Bucket List — I tend to live in the present, which is all that matters for the dance that I have watched for 40-plus years. But when I was in my 20’s, living without Internet and with Pittsburgh dance still in its infancy, I frequently had to turn to movies and Broadway to satisfy my thirst for movement.

Along the way, I discovered Tommy Tune, a lanky Ambrose Kemper in Gene Kelly’s Hello Dolly film in 1969. Subsequently I started hearing about him and seeing his work in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1980, director and choreographer), then A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine (1980, director and choreographer) and Nine (1982, director).

By then I was smitten with his talent and used to periodically joke that one day I’d like to dance with Tommy Tune — I had learned that he was 6’6″ and I was nearly 6′ myself. When I saw him in My One and Only (1983, performer and choreographer), that sealed the deal.

He went on to become a Broadway legend and I enjoyed seeing his productions and catching glimpses of him over the years, being that he was a director, song-and-dance-man and author as well.

Then I saw that he was coming to Pittsburgh as part of the Cultural Trust’s Cabaret series, a solo evening he called — so appropriately — Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales.

It was a dream come true. He emerged, looking fabulous in a royal blue suit, silver tap shoes, silverish hair perfectly coiffed and a sincere, Texas-style grin that  could make anyone feel warm and fuzzy. Yes, it was “Too Darned Hot.”

Like most cabaret shows, this was an intimate look inside the life of a truly talented and influential Broadway performer. It took a while for his voice to warm-up, but the authentic power of his personality was the prime reason for coming and he delivered that.

There was an ease and an elegance to the song selections, symbolized by Let’s Take It Nice and Easy to You’ve Gotta Have Heart and I’m Old Fashioned.

Tommy could do a ton of name-dropping. Fred Astaire. Salvador Dali. The sophisticated Honi Coles, probably my favorite segment of the show.

And there was a list of leading ladies, from Chita Rivera and Barbra Streisand to Drew Barrymore and Twiggy (The Boyfriend and My One and Only). One leading lady was in the audience, Niki Harris, the former Barbara Harris of West Mifflin and best known for her work in Tommy’s A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine as those outstanding dancing legs.

Among other shows, she went on to perform in and more in Tommy’s My One and Only (1983 – Dance Captain); Grand Hotel (1989 – Assistant Choreographer, Dance Captain); The Best Little Whorehouse goes Public (1994 – Swing, Dance Captain, Associate Choreographer).

They had a few private moments backstage, but I waited around for his Meet and Greet in the Backstage Bar. Sure enough, I got to meet Tommy and tell my story. And like a perfect gentleman that he is, we did a spontaneous little routine.

Sigh…and thank you.

 


On Stage: Waltzing “Matilda”? No Way!

June 4, 2016

 

MatildaTour0234r birthday

 

Matilda the Musical might be based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, but its transformation to the stage, a co-presentation of the Pittsburgh CLO summer series and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh, is just as smart as the title character. Woven with darkly-drawn character critters like school headmistress Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents, it nonetheless is balanced by a sharp, biting sense of humor that really defines this Tony Award-winning production.

Right off the bat, the cast launches into a gigantic birthday celebration for children-at-large, fostered by overbearing parents and led by a terrific battalion of kids who belt out Miracle around a large movable table. “My mummy says I’m a miracle.” Soon after: “My daddy says I’m his special little soldier…has my daddy told you, one day when I’m older, I can be a soldier, and shoot you in face?”

It sets the tone for the uncanny wit that that merrily oozes itself into every pore of this production. The cast’s delicious playground is Bob Howell’s set, a gaggle of assorted-sized, Scrabble-like tiles that are given ever-changing splashes of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, mostly in Crayola’s palette of primary colors. Tim Minchin’s score is angular and pointed for the most part, the kind of music that you get when you watch bird documentaries, full of darting movement.

Which brings us to the dance, particularly important in Matilda because, unless you already know the lyrics beforehand, you will have trouble understanding the words. Peter Darling’s choreography and Matthew Warchus’ staging punctuate this visual feast in so many ways.

Who knows where direction ends and choreography begins? The students reveal hidden horrors in School Song while they cleverly insert building blocks into the giant gate. And the swing number is simply soaring. As for the Hammer Song, filled with eye-popping gymnastic tricks, well…

But getting back to the basics of Matilda, centered on a little genius who won’t be cowered by clueless parents who prefer television over reading — mom so ballroom-obsessed (Darcy Stewart) and dad a cheap used car salesman (Brandon McGibbon) —  and a towering Miss Trunchbull, played by David Abeles and bolstered by a tight topknot bun and ample bosom. All were excellent.

But the whole cast is, from the adults who can also don a mean school uniform to the children themselves, who shoulder most of the production, even to moving set pieces and particularly Bruce, the cake eater with a great voice (Ryan Christopher Dever).

You had to love this production as it joins a growing list of musicals that center on girls’ empowerment. Hmm, I’d like to see Matilda go toe-to-toe with Annie and Elphaba.


On Stage: Stephen Petronio Brings RainForest Home

May 7, 2016

The Pittsburgh Dance Council season comes to a close with a performance of Merce Cunningham’s historic work, RainForest. For those of you who think that there are a lot of silver clouds just floating around, the Petronio company has to apply formally to use the exhibit that is usually on display at the Andy Warhol Museum. Read more in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Dance Beat: Tripping on Cuba

May 1, 2016

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With Cuba opening up its relations with the United States, we’ll certainly be hearing more about its storied dance companies. Here is an article from Huffington Post featuring photographer Omar Robies following his passion for dance in Havana.


On Stage: Cabaret — Perfectly Marvelous

February 4, 2016

Cabaret Studio 54 Cast List: Alan Cumming Michelle Williams Danny Burstein Linda Emond Bill Heck Aaron Krohn Gayle Rankin Will Carlyon Kaleigh Cronin Caleb Damschroder Benjamin Eakeley Andrea Goss Leeds Hill Kristin Olness Kelly Paredes Jessica Pariseau Dylan Paul Jane Pfitsch Evan Siegel Stacey Sipowicz Production Credits: Sam Mendes (Direction) Rob Marshall (Direction, Choreography) Robert Brill (Set and Club Design) William Ivey Long (Costume Design) Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari (Lighting Design) Brian Ronan (Sound Design) Patrick Vaccariello (Musical Direction) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Fred Ebb Music by: John Kander Book by: Joe Masteroff

The advertising reads “Willkommen Back” and Cabaret, one of Broadway’s legendary shows, is definitely back in a big way.

New York City has been peppered with revivals over the years, resulting in a Tony category in and of itself in 1994. But a revival of a revival of a revival? Which is what the current production of Cabaret is, currently in the nascent stages of its latest national tour, actually a 50th anniversary celebration of the famed Roundabout Theatre Company in New York and one that arrived in Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center Tuesday.

A few of us may have seen the original Hal Prince production with Ron Fields’ choreography in 1966. And many still recall Liza Minnelli’s 1972 tour de force performance in Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning film. Moreover, it illustrates, perhaps more than any other show, how changing tastes and values can alter a production.

It’s as if Cabaret has been aging like a fine wine, or should we say, a fine Weill. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s original score was, of course, inspired by the famed German composer and U.S. transplant, Kurt Weill, whose career spanned two world wars. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, the play itself centers around the Kit Kat Klub in the 1930’s during pre-Nazi Germany.

Where the original Cabaret is probably remembered for its scintillating production numbers, though, co-directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall saw a darker, richer, edgier approach for a play with music. Their first Broadway revival came about in 1998 and, in a rare move, they decided to revisit it again in 2014, to even greater effect, it appears, and yet another Tony-award winner for the resilient Roundabout.

Judging from assorted performances over the years, the national tour best conveys the balance of those turbulent ’30’s, when Berlin was a like a carousel, spinning faster and faster out of control. The audience entered to find the cast, aka  the Kit Kat Klub Boys and Girls, seductively warming up onstage, a barometer of things to come.

The set was minimal, surrounded by a giant band of dressing room lights that periodically highlighted the story and song. Three doors, set on the lower level, served as exits and entrances for various scenes, with a few basic props added. The orchestra, mostly made up of the Kit Kat ensemble, was in full view on the second level.

They were representative of the current trend in musical theater, not only a triple threat (singer, actor, dancer), but a quadruple threat. They all played instruments (and very well), along with doing various parts, giving a cohesive feel to the play itself.

With the initial emphasis on choreography in previous productions, it was easy to be disappointed at first, since the choreography was constructed to convey the time period and atmosphere in Berlin. But these were people caught in a world about to explode and every detail of this Cabaret contributed to that. It wasn’t just seductive — it was lascivious. It was no-holds-barred. It was already tattered, falling apart.

The first act also seemed long, put it paid off in the end.

Cabaret Tour Andrea Goss Kit Kat Girls Gayle Rankin Kaleigh Cronin Kristin Olness Jessica Pariseau Kelly Paredes Stacey Sipowicz

Even though Randy Harrison’s emcee toiled in the shadow of Alan Cumming’s landmark performances on Broadway in 1998 and 2014, he had a large onstage personality, enough to consume the vast expanse of the Benedum and invite the large opening night audience into his world.

However, Andrea Goss, a tiny waif of a Sally Bowles, was the surprise of the evening. The Bowles role presents some difficulty because she is not Liza Minnelli. She is a singer who just doesn’t have the vocal goods and that can become an issue when the primary emphasis of a Broadway show is entertainment.

It was obvious that Goss did have the goods, though. Despite her pint-sized frame, she grew into the role as the evening progressed. And when she emerged at the end, dressed in a plain black gown, to sing the title song, she seemed like a broken bird, not sure of her decision to remain in Berlin. There was some quavering and maybe a touch of raspiness. But it was brilliantly constructed dramatically, with just enough power to be the highlight of the show.

With the spare setting, it was up to the cast to created its own rich landscape. Lee Aaron Rosen (Clifford Bradshaw) was a great foil for Bowles, a bisexual who was swept up into a doomed love affair. And Mark Nelson (Herr Schultz), who was Jewish, and Shannon Cochran (Fraulein Schneider), who was not, spotlighted the issue of religious discrimination.

Cabaret can be so many things. It can be razzamatazz entertainment. It can be a star turn. Or it can be a tautly crafted look into a vortex of uncertainty.

This time it’s a real winner.

See Listings.

 

 


Dance Beat: Teena Marie

January 20, 2016

Custer1 2015

It’s not often that you see an acknowledged hip hop artist who has a foundation in contemporary dance. But it’s even rarer that the artist is a woman.

Teena Marie Custer, trained at Ohio State University, faculty member at Slippery Rock University and battle veteran of Pittsburgh-based Get Down Gang and the all-American, all-woman Venus Fly Trap, was all that at the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) series that ended its season this past summer.

It is a series for artists defined as “seedlings.” Custer may have a longer resume than most, but she added a twist by taking a street savvy dance form and putting it on a concert stage.

That’s been done before you might say. However, Custer set out on a fresh path with My Good Side, using a dramatic thread that embraced the improvisatory nature of hip hop within a structure found in a more traditional contemporary dance. And along the way, she exposed her emotional vulnerability.

It was brave and it was bold.

Custer2 2015She’s calling it hip hop dance theater. Hip hop carries with it a certain bravado along with a disregard for rules in expressing its free style. But Custer set her “Good Side” apart by scratching underneath the surface. We saw an entourage and with it that signature attitude. But Custer also incorporated social media and its invasive nature, grounding the piece in meaningful emotions.

My favorite part was a solo where the choreography had its own taut toughness, along with corralling the hip hop vocabulary.

Moving from red top shoes to a chandelier overhead, Custer’s piece had a definite cool factor. We saw how to take it all in stride. How to take a good selfie. And how to find and hold on to your true self.

Life lessons for all.

 

 


Dance Beat: On the Road Again

January 11, 2016
In Kansas with Zeke, Hunk, Hickory, Auntie Em and storm clouds.

In Kansas with Zeke, Hunk, Hickory, Auntie Em and storm clouds.

That’s the Yellow Brick Road, Munchkins.

If you want to see the dark side of Oz, there’s the stage production of Wicked. If you want to see the funky side of Oz, there’s always The Wiz.

Actually there was an original stage version in 1902, just two years after L Frank Baum’s book, called “America’s first fairy tale.” Over the years, others tweaked the story, predating the 1936 film classic that has been part and parcel of our American lives over the years.

Over the rainbow in Munchkinland.

Over the rainbow in Munchkinland.

When the PNC Broadway Pittsburgh series took its latest trip to Oz at Heinz Hall this week, we found a warm and fuzzy and, yes, familiar production.  Of real note were a handful of new songs by Broadway heavyweight team Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), all of which nicely fit into the iconic score of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.

The Wicked Witch of the West (Shani Hadrian), sans the pointed black hat, was deservedly given Red Shoes Blues (“She’s prissy, she’s clueless and I want her shoeless.”) and Dorothy got to sing Already Home with Glinda near the end.

Strangely enough, Lloyd Webber also toyed with some of the background music, particularly the scene where the main characters are rescued with a patchwork quilt of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain amid other tunes.

The gang threatened by the Wicked Witch.

The gang threatened by the Wicked Witch.

But then, that’s the fun of classic productions, to bring a new light to them. So some production elements were put on steroids — Professor Marvel’s magic lantern wagon with its large global slides, a Kansas sky and tornado projected on a giant screen that covered the stage and a bright neon rainbow. Only — that Yellow Brick Road mostly stayed in place instead of revolving in some fashion. But that could be due to technical issues.

When looking overall, this version was its own rainbow of former productions — a few updated comments ala The Wiz, a mechanical set from the Wicked Witch’s lair in Wicked and a mostly cinematic touch from the film — a potpourri that surprisingly gave Dorothy’s journey its own charm, geared, as it was, for family entertainment.

The leading characters  were traditionally lovable themselves. Hunk/Scarecrow (Morgan Reynolds), Hickory/Tin Man (Jay McGill), Zeke/Lion (Aaron Fried) and even Professor Marvel/The Wizard — also came back at the end with Dorothy (Sarah Lasko), making for an American family portrait.

So there it was, a storybook ending, made even more so by the tiny girl who was sitting on her mother’s lap in front of me. Clad mostly in pink, she also had a coordinated surgical mask covering her mouth. But her attentive posture and spirit were engaging, adding to the evening. And when Dorothy began singing “Home,” she turned to her mother with a delighted look on her face and gave her a great big hug, giving the song and this Wizard of Oz an extra tug at my heartstrings.

Almost home.

Almost home.