Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Pick of the Week - "Murder for Two" - A Lethal Song and Dance Whodunit

A scene from "Murder for Two"
  In all my years, make that decades,  of theater-going, I've never encountered a musical murder mystery. In fact, I never even considered the possibility of such a thing.
  However,  the talented writing team of Joe Kinosian (music and book) and Kellen Blair (lyrics and book), did and  created "Murder for Two ,"a murder mystery musical now getting a staging at the CLO Cabaret Theater in Theater Square in Downtown Pittsburgh The show runs through Jan. 18.
 Billed as a perfect blend of music, mayhem and murder, this witty and winking homage to old-fashioned murder mysteries is performed by two performers playing 13 roles - not to mention the piano! The New York Times calls this hilarious 90-minute whodunit "INGENIOUS! A snazzy double-act that spins out a comic mystery animated by funny, deftly turned songs."
    The plot focuses on Officer Marcus Moscowicz, a small town policeman with dreams of making it to detective. One fateful night, shots ring out at the surprise birthday party of Great American Novelist Arthur Whitney and the writer is killed…fatally.
    With the nearest detective an hour away, Marcus jumps at the chance to prove his sleuthing skill - with the help of his silent partner, Lou. But whodunit? Did Dahlia Whitney, Arthur’s scene-stealing wife, give him a big finish? Is Barrette Lewis, the prima ballerina, the prime suspect? Did Dr. Griff, the overly-friendly psychiatrist, make a frenemy? Marcus has only a short amount of time to find the killer and make his name before the real detective arrives…and the ice cream melts!
    Brandon Lambert (Marcus) and John Wascavage (the Suspects) have the onerous responsibility of portraying multiple characters. Lambert is a graduate of Point Park University returning to the CLO Cabaret after last appearing in Plaid Tidings as Jinx.  Other Pittsburgh credits include Born Yesterday (Pittsburgh Public Theater) and Legally Blonde (Pittsburgh Musical Theatre).  NYC credits include Natoma (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project) and the Wall-to-Wall Cabaret (Symphony Space).
    Wascavage returns to the CLO Cabaret after appearing in A Grand Night For Singing and ‘S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical. NYC Credits: James Monroe in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Piper Theatre), George in The Wedding Singer (Secret Theatre), Ensemble in SuperSoldier by Jim Rado (Fundamental Theatre Project), Ensemble in For Goodness Sake (Musicals Tonight), Rock Henderson in FABULOUS (Richmond Shepard Theatre). Regional Credits: Candide in Candide (Quantum Theatre), Posner in The History Boys (Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre).
  I bet even the ancient Greeks never thought of staging a musical murder mystery. Take that Sophocles and Aristophanes! Now if we could only get Arthur Conan Doyle teamed up with Stephen Sondheim in a musical production of, say, "The Hound of the Baskervilles !" 
    For tickets, phone 412-456-6666.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Smart Blonde" Offers Another Kind of "Holliday" Fun

Andrea Burns as Judy Holliday in "Smart Blonde" Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

Who’d a known? Like me, anyone who remembers the film "Born Yesterday" would probably be surprised to learn that the actress who played the role of ditzy, airhead mistress of corrupt crook, Harry Brock, had an IQ of 172.
I nearly jolted in my seat at the City Theatre when I heard this factoid included in the dialogue of "Smart Blonde," a biographical drama with music about actress/songwriter, Judy Holliday, now getting its world premier on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
Obviously no slouch when it comes to gray matter, Holliday and her life’s story of ups and downs, highs and lows, is fertile ground for sprouting an energetic play, and writer Willy Holzman manages to tap into this abbondanza of fecund material to create a vivid portrait of this star of both Hollywood and Broadway.
The play opens in a Manhattan recording studio in 1964 where Holliday is getting ready to record "What’s the Rush," a tune she co-wrote with Gerry Mulligan, a jazz musician with whom she had a long relationship.
In a flashback of the actress’ life, we then see her as a young woman living with her mother, then quickly follow her uphill climb through the jungle of Hollywood cinema and the competitive world of Broadway to earn both an Oscar and a Tony Award.
Andrea Burns has the onerous duty of not only bringing the character to life in front of the audience at the intimate Hamburg Studio but singing the  series of songs that tie in thematically to the different stages of her character’s life. There’s "Let’s Fall in Love" when she meets her husband, David Oppenheimer, followed by "What’ll I Do" when she later gets a divorce.
After her appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommitte to testify about her supposed red leanings (she outwitted her interrogators by playing the dumb blonde), she bursts out into a reenergized "Lulu’s back in Town" and returns to Broadway in the musical "Bells Are Ringing." Her role as Ella Peterson in the show won her an Emmy in 1957 for Best Actress.
Fortunately, Burns gets a good bit of on-stage relief from her two fellow players, somewhat misleadingly identified in the program booklet as Elliot, a sound engineer (Adam Heller) and Bernie Leighton (Jonathan Brody). Both actors play multiple roles that run the gamut of character types, even sexes - people that played important roles in Holliday’s life such as her mother, musical theater bookwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Daryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, director Garson Kamin, even Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Swanson.
Both supporting actors have impressive theater credentials. Brody appeared in the Broadway production of "Spamalot" and "Titanic" while Elliot has a mile long list of credits in theater, film and television.
The play, commissioned by the City Theatre, is directed by Burns’ husband, Peter Flynn, who obviously has some sort of chemistry going on, not only with the wife but with the entire cast and crew.
It’s amazing to see how much emotion and biography is packed into a play that runs less than an hour and a half and includes ten songs at that. And while the glimpses of Holliday’s early family life, marriage, career, her hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes are all too brief apercu, the story line sufficient enough tolet the audience carry away from the theater a vivid impression, a fleshed out notion of what made this talented actress trick.
But what about the production, the finished product as a whole? I’ll let the spontaneous standing ovation that came at the end of the evening speak for itself. If, as the saying goes, 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, then neither can the couple hundred of Pittsburgh theater goers who saw the opening night performance.
"Smart Blonde" is at the City Theatre through December 21. Phone 412.431.CITY (2489).

Friday, November 21, 2014

"l’Hotel" - A High Brow Comedy for Lovers of the Arts

Sam Tsoutsouvas as Victor Hugo, Kati Brazda as Isadora Duncan, Tony Triano as Gioachino Rossini, Deanne Lorette as Sarah Bernhardt, Daniel Hartley as Jim Morrison, Brent Harris as Oscar Wilde, and Erika Cuenca as The Young Woman.

    What do Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Isadora Duncan, Gioachino Rossini, Jim Morrison and Sarah Bernhardt all have in common?  Besides all being recognized, make that idolized, artists, they’re all also dead. And all but Victor Hugo are buried in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery, along with a host of other deceased notables.
Playwright Ed Dixon resuscitates these spirited characters in a new play, now getting its world premiere in a staging by Pittsburgh Public Theater. Like an amalgam of earlier concepts borrowed from Steve Allen’s "Meetings of Minds," a PBS telecast that brought together re-enactors of historic figures  to discuss current events, and "Steambath," a 1970s play in which recently deceased individuals find themselves in the afterlife and only gradually learn that they’re now dead, Dixon’s play sets the action in the here-and-now with the notables’ bodies housed in coffins at Pere Lachaise but their souls inhabiting a grand, fin-de-19th century Parisian hotel.
There’s also another borrowed  element from the film "Groundhog Day," in which the characters find themselves caught up in a repetitive quotidian cycle that begins each morning with the exact same order of events. Each day, this august company is serviced by a dutiful waiter (played brilliantly by Evan Zes), who goes about fulfilling their abundant requests with fastidious energy.
Brent Harris as Oscar Wilde

With the spirit of Oscar Wilde included the menagerie, Dixon has a springboard for peppering his comedy with an abundance of wit. Brent Harris brings off the character with appropriate doses of fey hauteur, memorable aphorisms and pithy rebuffs, especially when directed at his main antagonist, a grandfatherly looking Victor Hugo, played as an elderly alpha male literary genius by Sam Tsoutsouvas.
As dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan, Kati Brazda adds a graceful touch with her breezy style of moving among the deceased and verbally interacting with them with light-on-her-feet dialogue.
Tony Trino as the Italian opera composer, Gioachino Rossini, is the target of much ridicule from his peers, holding steadfastly on to the belief in the merits of his artistic accomplishments against their scornful insinuations.
With a completely different aesthetic nurtured  in a later era and in a less cultivated society, Jim Morrison in the person of actor Daniel Hartley, plays the rock star with boorish manners and an excessive confidence in his erotic magnetism that seems to captivate the French actress, Sarah Bernhardt.
The task of portraying the overly dramatic Bernhardt falls to Deanne Lorette, who brings a lot of theatrical realism to the role and largely evades caricature. Dressed in regal sartorial splendor by costume designer, David C. Woolard, Lorette makes her character stand out from the rest, (only Harris as Wilde can compete with her charisma), and her every movement and word is riveting
The group’s daily treadmill of repetition is broken when Bernhardt discovers a ouija board with which she conjures up a spirit that tells her of a way out of her confining circumstances, a secret that soon becomes open knowledge to everyone. The vehicle for their escape is a young woman (Erika Cuenca) who, though alive, is more mysterious than the band of dead luminaries put together.
While the deceased may be tired of their daily routine, the play is far from tiresome. It sparkles with wit, clever lines, superb acting, many comic moments, steady direction by PPT’s producing artistic director, Ted Pappas, and a set by James Noone that’s worthy of  its lofty characters..
The program refers to the location of the comedy simply as "a hotel in Paris.," but a quick Google search of l’Hotel turns up the interesting tidbit that there is such a hotel in Paris, a quite good one in fact, that also happens to be the last residence of Oscar Wilde.
Noone's s hotel is a visual marvel, complete with a large crystal chandelier hanging from the rafters, golden wall scones and a massive staircase that allows the hotel guests to descend and rise with the regal aplomb that reflects their own sense of self-importance.
Dixon’s comedy is somewhat high brow, and it helps to understand the dialogue if you know a little about the characters. Wilde’s monologue about Bosey in the play, for instance, becomes clearer when you understand the historical events surrounding his disastrous affair with the lad. It also helps to know that Rossini is often accused of paraphrasing and plagiarizing his previous works, that Bernhardt had an amputated leg and that Hugo was supposedly jealous of Balzac.
And speaking of Google, I discovered two theater goers of the younger generation using their iPhones at intermission to get more information about the characters portrayed on stage. It perfectly underscored the one of the play’s themes - that greatness and fame are really fleeting and short lived.
In the end, the comedy left me wondering if the playwright didn’t subtly  plant Buddhist elements into the play as an explanation of his vision of life and the afterlife.  There’s an undeniable inclusion of the concept of reincarnation and the eventual release from the cycle of birth and death that only one of the major characters is suggested to have achieved at curtain fall.
"l’Hotel" certainly has the power to make you laugh, but it’s also a catalyst for thought and an introduction to seeing the world in novel ways.
"l’Hotel," a production of Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through December 14. Phone  412-316-1600.

 Kati Brazda as Isadora Duncan, Sam Tsoutsouvas as Victor Hugo, Tony Triano as Gioachino Rossini, Evan Zes as The Waiter

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cal U Theater Brings Heart-Warming, Christmas Tradition to Steele Hall

A Scene form Last Year's" Miracle on 34th Street" at Cal U.

Watching the film version of "Miracle on 34th Street" has become one of the nation’s most popular holiday traditions, viewed by millions each year. This December, however, fans of the film will be able to take in the musical version, performed at California University of Pennsylvania by nearly a cast of 60 and buttressed by a live, 21- piece orchestra under the baton of music director, Kathy Sacco, Ph.D., professor in the university’s music department.
Meredith Willson, of "The Music Man" fame, wrote the book, music and lyrics to the musical adaptation, which pretty much follows the story line of the original film with a few changes made to enhance the theatrical experience.
    The story takes place between Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Christmas. It centers on a white bearded gentleman who claims to be the real Santa Claus and brings about a "miracle" on 34th Street, spreading a wave of love throughout New York City. 
Patrons who catch the show should be familiar with "It’s beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," one of the songs that’s gone on to become a holiday tradition in its own right. The musical also calls for seven dance numbers, which will be choreographed for the production by Maria Gismondi, an alumnus who’s danced professionally both in the region and in New York City and now teaches at the Mon Valley Performing Arts Academy.
Michelle Pagen, Ph.D., who’ll direct the show and is the chair of the Department of Theater and Dance, said she intends to be attentive to the public’s love for the film and to honor that affection throughout the production.
For a number of years, the theater department staged productions of "The Nutcracker," but when Steele Hall reopened after a major renovation a few years back, the department decided to produce a new musical and chose "A Christmas Carol, the Musical."
Wanting to alternate each Christmas season with a second holiday musical, Pagen said she looked around and found "Miracle." Down the road, the plan is to stage the two holiday shows in alternate years.
Katey Sheehan, a senior theater arts major from Belle Vernon, is tackling the major role of  Doris Walker. In last year’s "Miracle," she served as dance captain and a member of the ensemble.
"For me, trying to create the mother figure is the most difficult aspect of the role," she said. "I’m a college student with no children of my own, but I’m trying to bring to the role the right amount of maturity."
Sheehen said she’s been involved in musical theater since the sixth grade and is undaunted by the need to sing solo in front of a large audience. "Theater is something I love to do and something I hope to do for the rest of my life," she said.
As the pivotal lawyer, Fred Gailey, Jason Capello, a senior environmental studies major from Lebanon, Pa., is reprising the role from last year. He said that, although his lines remain the same, he’s now working with a new cast of actors in a show that’s seen a few changes here and there.
When asked about the challenges of singing a major role, he said, "like everything else in theater, it’s a matter of rehearsing until you’re satisfied with your confidence level."
As, Susan,  the young girl who serves as the catalyst for the Christmas miracle, 11-year old Emily Bittner of Charleroi is no stranger to the stage. She’s already been cast in three shows at Cal. U., including the role of the Little Dutch Girl in last year’s "Miracle." She’s also performed in musicals at Charleroi High School and three shows with the Mon Valley Performing Arts Academy, where she studies theater.
"Emily was singing as a child even before she was verbal," said her mother, Gina Bittner. "Her first performance at the age of five was in front of an audience of 500 at a big travel show at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. I thought she’d have a little stage fright, but she actually sang her heart out and got a standing ovation."
One of the technical elements that should be a boon to the young actress as well as the rest of the cast is that they’ll be fitted with microphones. That should get the words and lyrics out to all parts of the 613-seat mainstage theater, equipped with state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment.
"I’ve been telling my friends about the production and hope they come to see it," Emily said. "I’m very excited to be able to do one of the show’s major roles in front of a large audience."
"The Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical" is at the Steele Hall on the campus of California University of Pennsylvania at  8 p.m. on December 4, 5 and 6 and at 2 p.m. on December 6 and 7. Tickets are $12 or 50 cents for Cal U students with a valid ID card.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Bach Choir Concert Features Rarely Performed Handel Oratorio

Click to get your tix!
The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh will kick off its 80th  season with 85 singers backed by a 15 musician orchestra performing one of George Frideric Handel’s less frequently produced works - "The Occasional Oratorio."
Handel composed the work in haste to motivate and inspire English troops threatened by an invading army from Scotland in 1746. Based on a libretto after the poetry of John Milton and Edmund Spencer, Handel wrote the piece in the first two months of that year and premiered it on February 14, 1746.
"This grand work received only six original performances and has had too few performances since," artistic director, Thomas W. Douglas said. "In addition to some familiar choruses drawn from other pieces, you will hear some wonderful new Handel in these pages. We are very excited to bring it to our western Pennsylvania audiences for the very first time."
While writing the oratorio, Handel stole from himself according to Matthew Dooley, the Bach Choir’s managing director. "The Occasional Oratorio," written on the "occasion" of the threatened invasion, could be described as a secular Messiah with the king and military success replacing the second coming.
"Handel took choruses from other works he wrote in one form or another such as ‘Israel in Egypt’ and ‘Judas Maccabeus,’ Dooley said. "The audience will also hear strains in the work that sound like a section from "The Messiah.’"
Interestingly, "Judas Maccabeus" was written to honor the victorious Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on his return from the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, which proved the decisive battle of the Scottish revolt against the House of Hanover, the event that prompted "The Occasional Oratorio."
For its Pennsylvania premier, the choir will cleverly use the entirety of the Social Hall of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church for its presentation. Two pieces of the oratorio will feature the choir’s 16 member core. Soloists will also be positioned in the balcony, and other parts of the work will solo the bass and soprano sections separately.
"Each year, the choir has about a 15 to 20 percent turnover in singers," Dooley said. "This year we’ve had a handful of new male singers, who’ve made a big difference. The way Handel wrote choral music, you need a good balance of the soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices, and we certainly have that this year."
From its title, you might expect the Bach Choir to perform only works by Bach, which is exactly what it did when it first formed in 1934. Since then, however, it’s added other composers to its programming and even had some years when no Bach works were featured at all.
"Our artistic director has a vast knowledge of the choral repertoire and loves finding new works - whether old or new - and presenting them to the public," Dooley said.
"The Occasional Oratorio," two hours of wonderful music, seems a great start to the 2015 concert season.
Handel’s "The Occasional Oratorio" is at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 116 S. Highland Avenue in Pittsburgh at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 15 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 16. Tickets are $9.95 to $30. Phone 888-718-4253. For more information, go to www.Bach

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Pick of the Week - Royal Ballet of Cambodia

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia
    From exotic Asia, the internationally renowned Royal Ballet of Cambodia is coming to Pittsburgh for a one evening performance at the Byham Theater.
Recognized by UNESCO for carrying on the 1,000-year-old Khmer classical dance style originally performed at royal events and ceremonies, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia has been deemed "sweet and seductive" by The Dance Insider. None other than Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi serves as the company’s choreographer.
    The gestures and poses of Khmer classical dance, mastered by the performers only after years of intensive training, evoke the gamut of human emotions, from fear and rage to love and joy. An orchestra accompanies the dance, and a female chorus provides a running commentary on the plot, highlighting the emotions mimed by the dancers, who were considered the kings’ messengers to the gods and to the ancestors.
    According to Wikipedia performances entail elaborately dressed dancers performing a slow and figurative set of gestures and poses meant to entrance the viewer. The repertoire includes dances of tribute or invocation and the enactment of traditional stories and epic poems such as the Ramayana. The music is played by an ensemble of xylophones,metallophones, woodwind instruments, drums, and gong chimes accompanied by a chorus.
    "I look forward to welcoming the Royal Ballet of Cambodia to Pittsburgh for the first time to expose our audiences to the beauty and elegance of classical Cambodian dance," shared Paul Organisak, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s vice president of Programming and executive director of the Pittsburgh Dance Council.             "This rare opportunity to see the authentic spectacular costumes, music and movement of this remarkable culture should not be missed. This company has done a brilliant job of preserving these traditional dances in a wonderful stage presentation."
    The Royal Ballet of Cambodia will perform at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 7, at the Byham Theater, 101 Sixth Street, Downtown Pittsburgh.
    Tickets ($20-$45) are available at, by calling 412-456-6666, or in person at Theater Square Box Office, 655 Penn Avenue.  Groups of 10 or more call 412-471-6930 or visit online