On Stage: “Once” Loved…

March 14, 2014


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.


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.


On Stage: Minding the “Chickens”

June 19, 2013

CHICKENS LOGO This was the only time I knew which came first, the chicken or the egg.

It was appropriately called Chickens, the debut project for a new theatrical group called Hatch Arts Collective, and the egg didn’t appear until the end. At the final performance, the pencil-thin Fe Gallery in Lawrenceville was somehow packed with about 70 enthusiastic audience members, seated on both sides of artist/architecht Nick Liadis’ multi-level installation, one that echoed the angular outline of a house, with steps and a little yard to make it “homey.”

It was intriguing just to get past the title, one that applied to all the humans inside the Fe space and intimating that we are all chicken, or afraid, to discuss difficult life topics with our significant others.

Then there was the whole idea that the cast of four — Mallory Fuccella (Joyce Park), Maree ReMalia (John Park), Beth Glick (Tom Greene) and Rebecca Jacobson (Abby Greene) – were women or, in the vernacular, chicks. They played a mother, her son, his significant other, Tom, and Tom’s sister, Abby, plus a couple of subsidiary roles. When not talking, they pecked and strutted like chickens “outdoors.”

We came upon them in a series of crises. Tom wanted to ask John to wear his ring. Abby showed up at the house without calling ahead, lying and obviously hiding something. And the mother hen, Joyce, liked to drink and smoke (a green-glowing environmental type) and was, quite simply, aging, which led to a health emergency.

Mallory Fuccella, Beth Glick, Rebecca Jacobson and Maree ReMalia

Mallory Fuccella, Beth Glick, Rebecca Jacobson and Maree ReMalia

The crises created knots of emotion — confrontations, discussions and understanding — all delivered with a disarming directness, filtered, as it was, through Paul Kruse’s words and Adil Mansoor’s direction.

This was physical theater with an emphasis on the “physical” or movement, giving it a visual thrust. Sometimes there were a few loose threads — the “chickens” began to infiltrate the house and it was occasionally awkward for the mother to continue on after her death.

But there were some fine touches, like the actors’ commitment to their roles and wry, deconstructed snatches of You Are My Sunshine (Alaina Dopico on an untuned uke…I think). And Chickens had a confidence that will serve Hatch well as it [hopefully] continues to grow a very cool branch of Pittsburgh’s theater scene.

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On Stage: Beth’s “Remains”

June 10, 2013

Corningworks Remains cakeBeth Corning watched her life unfold around her and for New Hazlett Theater audiences. Read about her fearlessness and the drama of it all in her latest piece, the solo work Remains in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: A Life Lived and Danced

June 5, 2013

BETH CORNING CARDSBeth Corning was running on empty. Over the past several years she had stared at one loss after another — her company (Dance Alloy Theater), her mother, her friends.

But what she could still control was her work. Not just the steps, though. “I wanted to grow at a cellular level,” she explains after a rehearsal for her upcoming premiere at the New Hazlett Theater.

But at that stage of the game, after over 30 years of choreographing in Sweden, New York, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, where do you go? “I was taught that if you wanted to ski better, ski behind somebody better,” she quietly asserts.

For years she had admired Dominique Serrand, Tony Award-winning theater director of Theatre de la jeune Lune in Minneapolis and now, fortuitously, with The Moving Company there. Armed with a grant from the Heinz Foundation for choreographic process, she called up her old friend and said, “Want to play with me for a year?”

Beth recalls that she was sweating, but he didn’t hesitate. “She wanted to do it with someone she could trust,” says Dominique on the phone from Minneapolis.Then he asked what she had in mind.

BETH CORNING HEADSHOTA solo. She didn’t want to take care of anyone else — the salaries, the schedules, the egos. “I want to take care of myself,” she told him. “I just need to be filled back up.”

So they set up a performance date, like a carrot. It was as simple as that. But between the two there was a complete understanding that only if something was developing would they proceed. There was no obligation on anybody’s side.

Then they began. Would it be a dialogue from the start? Or so Beth thought. But what Dominique wanted was material from Beth’s own source of inspiration.

“I spent the first couple of months lying on the floor crying because I just didn’t know what to do or how to do it,” Beth reveals. Maybe she didn’t have to worry about anyone else, but she also didn’t have the companionship — the physical and social camaraderie that dancers tend to breed.

There was also no mirror, just four walls at the New Hazlett, which she had begun to consider her professional home. So she began to journal, writing her thoughts in a notebook. That helped.

It all began to spill out. But Beth started to offer too many competing ideas, a source of frustration for DOMINIQUE SERRANDDominique. The dialogue had begun.

Oddly enough that had taken the major part of their year together. They settled on biographical elements from Beth’s life, the Remains of her memories. What “remains” after loss? What “remains” after dinner? What “remains” after youth?

The work started to form only three months ago. Then it “really became exciting” according to Beth. She now calls Dominique her “mentor.” He calls himself a “dramaturg,” intent on developing the piece “in an honest fashion.”

Edit. Edit. Edit.

Dominique says that they “started with everything. But as you go, you get rid of unnecessary things and keep what is personal and exceptional. Make it stunning.”

They took all of her thoughts and memories and will present what is left of her memories, a personal journey, in Remains.

Now Beth can’t remember which sections have been “birthed” by whom.  “I don’t know who’s done what now. We seeded it. We sat on the egg. We hatched it together.”

Beth calls the “final” product dance theater, although Dominique firmly believes that “theater should be physical anyway.” “Already I feel sophisticated,” Beth says happily. “I feel filled up — more than I felt in years, in decades, maybe. I now get why the work he does is so good.”

He has discovered how “courageous” Beth is, noting that “after all, when you do a solo about you, you’re so exposed and I admire that.”

And they both have discovered that the Hazlett Remains will just be a next step. The journey will continue, because art, at its best, continues to breathe and to grow…


On Stage: Pittsburgh Dance Council 2013-14 Season

May 5, 2013

They say you can’t go back, but the Pittsburgh Dance Council is ignoring that with its upcoming 2013-14 season. Executive director Paul Organisak, perhaps inspired by the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts (exciting news in itself!) this fall and which he curated as well, has gone back to the adventuresome, experimental, what-the-hell-was-that programming that many of us knew and loved.

It appears that the PDC companies will include their own list of firsts: two North American premieres in partnership with the Festival, four new companies/projects out of six and seven new choreographers armed with local premieres.

Montreal’s Marie Chouinard will open both the Dance Council season and the Festival of Firsts. Gymnopedies, set to Eric Satie’s minimalist piano pieces, is the North American premiere, and will be paired with Michaux Mouvements, based on the poetry and drawings of Belgian Henri Michaux, which served as the literal jumping off point for the choreography. This will be the Quebec choreographer’s fourth visit to Pittsburgh, which has in the past produced The Rite of Spring and 24 Preludes by Chopin (a personal favorite of Organisak’s), among others (Sept. 28, Byham Theater).

Another sneak peak at the Festival line-up comes with Swiss artists Zimmermann & de Perrot, a physical theater duo, who will be literally thinking out of the box and inside it during Hans was Heiri. According to Organisak, Pittsburghers will see this event before it gets to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (Oct. 18, Byham).

On to the debut of the Brazilian group Compagnie Käfig, an international sensation that takes hip hop and puts it to samba and bossa bova. A company guaranteed to raise the spirits, it has appeared at Jacob’s Pillow and the Spoleto Festival, among others. What more can you do with plastic cups? (Feb. 1, Byham).

One of the highlights of the season is sure to be Ballet du Grand Thèâtre de Genéve and the start of a balletic finish to the season, but showing us where ballet is headed. Yes, this is the only company where George Balanchine served as artistic advisor (1970-78), but it has worked with numerous artists, including Baryshnikov, Kylian and Forsythe. Founded in 1962, the 22-member company brings two emerging artists on the international scene — Andonis Foniadakis’s Gloria, which will create a stylish new symbiosis with music by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, and Ken Ossola’s Sed Lux Permanet, with sculpted shadow play to Fauré’s Requiem. (Mar. 8, Byham)

Wendy-Whelan-Nisian-Hughes-Photographer-2aAcclaimed New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan will be bringing her Restless Creature project, set to debut at Jacob’s Pillow this summer. She will dance four duets with four emerging choreographers — Pittsburgh’s Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo, whose Lickety Split was a sensation recently at Point Park University’s annual Byham concert. This one is creating a lot of buzz in the dance community. (Mar. 22, Byham)

The final contemporary ballet event will mark the return of Wayne McGregor l Random Dance, (Apr. 26, Byham). He is the resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet in London and it is his company. He has a scientific bent on ballet — using film, music, visual art and technology —  that is truly unique (Apr. 26, Byham).

For ticket information click on Pittsburgh Dance Council.

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: Awake for ‘Sleep No More’

December 22, 2011

Photo by Thom Kaine

Well the “stage” was constructed from a warehouse in lower Manhattan to resemble the five-floor, 100-room McKittrick Hotel. It was obviously a massive undertaking, no less so than to reinvent Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Read about my immersive physical theater experience in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.