Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mr. Joy - Terrific Acting with a Script to Match

Tangela Large stars in City Theatre's production of  "Mr. Joy" Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoove

In her opening night performance in "Mr. Joy," now getting its world premier at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre, actress, Tangela Large, got one of the best possible reviews - an enthusiastic standing ovation by the sell-out audience. In my opinion, it was a well-deserved laudation.
While one-actor plays are nothing new to the theater, even those that require the solo performer to play multiple characters, their rarity underscores the challenges faced by such a daunting task.
In her valiant effort, Ms. Large, who I’d peg to be still in her 20s, played nine different characters, both male and female, old and young and everything in between with impressively remarkable skill and stamina that went on for 80 unbroken minutes. With scant props or costume changes, she transitioned from one character to another in the blink of an eye and relied on only changes in posture, movement, voice intonation and playwright Daniel Beaty’s narrative to flesh out the nonet of vastly different personalities - everything from a homeless man and grandmother to a transsexual, a young African-American girl and a blonde bombshell in the Marilyn Monroe mode.
Not only does she have to act out the different roles, but she’s also required to sing, recite poetry and utter some voice-rasping shrieks so strenuous they would probably  give me laryngitis for a week.
Ms. Large’s palate of requisite emotions are just as rainbow-hued as the characters she plays and encompass the tenderness and sweetness of a young girl, the wizened gravity of an elderly woman, the seductiveness of a Caucasian vamp and the enflamed brutality of a young gang wannabe looking to score big on his initiation rite of. passage.
Instead of an elaborate backdrop to suggest the Harlem locale of the play, set designer, Tony Ferrieri, opts for a simple, unadorned raised dais at the back of the stage, a sort of stage atop a stage from which Ms. Large pulls out the few props she uses in her performance. The real visual evocation of the ghetto neighborhood in which the action takes place is provided by Josh Lehrer’s huge projected images that cover the entire back wall of the stage.
Ironically, the title character, Mr. Joy, does not appear in the play, although he does serve as the focal point around which the others interact in a nexus of evolving relationships.
When the play opens, young Clarissa is puzzled to find that the usually reliable Chinese-American shoemaker is not in his shop. Others in the neighborhood have their own stories to tell of the benign shoemaker’s effect on their lives, even though some consider the long-time resident an interloper on the native turf. In the telling of those stories, their interconnected relationships unfold, showing the bonds that weave them together.
One difficulty I had with the play was keeping up with the transition of characters and knowing who was speaking at what time. (The playbill does list the characters in order of their appearance, but I was unable to follow it after the lights went down).This sometimes blurred my complete comprehension of the story line leaving small but bothersome holes in the tale.
The playwright, whose way with words sometimes reminded me of the style of August Wilson, uses the play as a polemic to show how negative ambient forces in a community, particularly an urban ghetto community, can combine to produce conflict, violence and a whole array of social ills that can trap its residents in a web of hopelessness and despair.
In retrospect, I now wish that I had a chance to read the script before attending the play to let me sit back and relax and watch Ms. Large do her theatrical magic instead of having to focus so intently on comprehending the story line. Still, "Mr. Joy" was an evening of sheer enjoyment, highlighted by an enthralling performance in a provocatively-conceived work of dramatic art directed by Lou Jacob.
"Mr. Joy" is at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side through February 15. Phone 412-431-2489.

Tangela Large as Clarissa in City Theatre's production of "Mr. Joy" Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pittsburgh Opera Stages Baroque Gem

 Rodelinda and her son Flavio (Resident Artist Jasmine Muhammad, Simon Nigram) receive unexpected help from Eduige (Resident Artist Laurel Semerdjian), who once vied for the throne. Photo Credit: David Bachman

Now nearly 300 years old, George Frideric Handel’s opera, "Rodelinda" got its premiere in London’s King’s Theatre on February 13, 1725. But its roots go back even deeper to the seventh century story of a Milanese king, first told in dramatic form in 1653 by French playwright, Pierre Corneille.
Highly regarded and deeply respected when Handel first presented "Rodelinda" to his London audience, the German-born composer wrote three operas (Giulio Cesare, Tamariano and Rodelinda) within a 12 month period 17 years before finishing his most famous work, "Messiah" (1742).
While Baroque opera eventually went out of favor, interest in Baroque music (written between 1600 and 1750) brought it back into the limelight about 100 years ago Eventually, "Rodelinda" got its first American production in 1931. At the moment, Pittsburgh Opera is giving the work its second local production (the first was in 1992) in  the intimate 400-seat CAPA Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh.
With a mix of treachery, intrigue, forced marriage, exemplary marital fidelity, fierce loyalty and an odd tangle of romantic attractions, the plot traces the political machinations of the royal Milanese court following the defeat of the king and the usurpation of the crown. It’s more than enough in the way of dramatic elements to fill three hours of beautiful music, with one pause for a 15-minute intermission.
The internecine story line is sung in Italian, but the English translation is projected above the stage to help the audience understand what’s going on. Another aid to comprehension is the da capo form, of the opera in which the arias are sung in three parts that compliment one another and use the same lyrics repeatedly. The first reading of the Supertitles, therefore, allows the audience to focus mainly on the stage while the remaining two sections are repeated.
 Bertarido (Resident Artist Corrie Stallings) is in exile, but believed by his family to be dead, and he comes upon his own memorial. Photo Credit: David Bachman

Of the cast of seven, six are Pittsburgh Opera resident artists. In the title role of the disconsolate queen, soprano Jasmine Muhammad has a regal beauty that’s a match for her strong, lyrical voice that makes singing Handel’s challenging yet radiant arias seem easy. Paired with Corrie Stallings in the pants role of the deposed king, Bertarido, in the opera’s first duet (sung early in Act Two after 18 previous solo arias), the duo provides one of the evening’s most ravishing musical moments. Another to watch for is the stellar closing aria sung with hair-raising flair by the ensemble.
As the usurper, Grimoaldo, tenor Adam Bonanni packs impressive vocal clout, but his accomplice and fellow bad guy, Phillip Gay, impressed me most with his powerful bass-baritone and skillful acting in the villainous role of Garibaldo.
As Eduige, the sister of the usurped king, mezzo Laurel Semerdjian is formidable as both an actor and singer and radiant in a lavish green dress created by costumer Karen Anselm. Countertenor Zachary Wood sculpts an wonderfully heroic figure in the role of the loyal follower of the true king and adds unique admirable lyrical skills to the operatic mix of voices.
In an unspoken role as the young prince, Flavio, Simon Nigam adds emotional context to the scheming in which he’s often a pawn in the political machinations, just one of the instances that highlight stage director’s Crystal Manich’s artistic hand.
Holly O’Hara does a remarkable job with an abstract minimalist set that features two broken columns center stage to reflect the aftermath of the war of dueling monarchs with some interesting background cloth touches that resemble clouds, trees and other free flowing forms that get some excellent visual enhancements from lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller.
The Baroque orchestra featuring mostly strings and woodwinds and an antique theorbo, a plucked instrument in the lute family, is augmented by musicians from Chatham Baroque, all under the baton of Michael Beattie.
In his preview of the opera for the Post-Gazette, senior editor Robert Croan, wrote "’Rodelinda’ is rarely performed, in part for the difficulty of the music, in part because the opera seria form presents numerous challenges to modern-day performers……The vocal hurdles, theatrical expertise and scholarship requirements have kept Handel’s magnificent operas on the fringes of the standard repertory. Happily, with the current generation of singers better trained in the techniques and style, they are now getting the attention and respect they deserve."
"Rodelinda" is at the CAPA Theater, 111 Ninth Street in Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. on Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 31 and 2 p.m. on Feb. 1. Phone 412-456-6666.

 Bertarido's enemies have been dispatched, and he is again enthroned as king. L-R, Grimoaldo and Eduige (Resident Artists Adam Bonanni and Laurel Semerdjian), Rodelinda and Bertarido (Resident Artists Jasmine Muhammad and Corrie Stallings), faithful servant Unulfo (Zachary Wood) and Flavio (Simon Nigram). Photo Credit: David Bachman

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pippin - Wow-Some and Then Some

The Cast of the National Touring Company of "Pippin" Photo Credit Tony Shapiro

Imagine you’re an old Grandma singing a suggestive song intended to rouse the libido in your grandson in front of a packed theater of some 2,800 patrons. Intimidating, no? Now take it another step further by doing the same while dangling head downward from a trapeze several tens of yards above the stage.
I thought the cast of the 2006 Revival of "Company" starring Raul Esparza had the Herculean task of doing it all - singing, acting and playing musical instruments. But the cast of the Broadway touring production of "Pippin," now playing at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center through January 25, are asked to do even more - acrobatics on a Cirque du Soleil level.
You’ve probably heard the phrase "It’s a circus out there." Well, director Diane Paulus decided to make the Big Top the setting for her revival of the original 1972 version that follows the adventures of Pippin, the elder son and heir to the throne of Holy Roman Emperor, Chalemagne.
Just back from his studies in Padua, the young lad is obsessed with the idea of what to do with his life. He wants fulfillment and starts out on a journey to find it. A circus tent is the context of his adventures that touch on many things - a stint in the military, a flirtation with the lascivious life, rebellion that involves not only patricide but also regicide, the life of both an artist and a man of the cloth.
Part fairy tale, part fable, part parable - all set in the context of visual spectacle, the plot line may not hold water as to historical accuracy but the production excels in stimulating the senses. Paulus has the troupe jump through hoops, literally, dangle from trapezes and free fall head-long along poles until they stop abruptly just inches from the floor.
Another thing that enables Pippin to take wing is the score by Stephen Schwartz, who blueprinted the concept of the show years ago while a student at Carnegie-Mellon University, then went on to write the music for "Godspell," "Wicked" and more. Oh yes, then there’s the choreography rooted in the Bob Fosse’s original but with plenty of new twists by Chet Walker, who took home one of the musical’s four Tony Awards for his terpsichorean .creations.
While the plot addresses some somber subjects, book writer, Roger O. Hirson gives us plenty to chuckle about, including the show stopping number by Priscilla Lopez, who does miracles, or is it magic, as Berthe, the Granny intent on rousing the spirits of her downhearted grandson, Pippin.
John Rubinstein as Charlemagne Photo Credit Terry Shapiro
John Rubinstein throws into the mix  a good bit of madcap comedy as the zany emperor with a nasty streak. Ironically, Rubinstein played the title role in the 1972 Broadway debut and, four decades later, is now wearing the crown as the aging monarch of much of 8th century Europe.
Another standout talent with a remarkable singing voice, Sasha Allen plays the Leading Player in the play within a play with a firm grip, dominating her fellow actors like a slightly less acerbic Queen Latifa in the film version of "Chicago."
Sasha Allen as the Leading Player in "Pippin" Photo Credit Terry Shapiro
In the title role, Sam Lips is a boyish Pippin with a touch of Peter Pan whimsy on a passionate, somewhat naïve, quest for fulfillment, suffering the pratfalls of disappointment, yet reflective and thoughtful on his experiences.
Lips is a handsome and affable prince, true to fairy tale form and sure to awaken the princess in every woman’s heart. He manages to captivate without dominating the production and seems to have gotten the level of balance with the rest of the cast just about right. No alpha male swagger here to ruin the character. That comes in buckets from Pippin’s half-brother, Lewis, played energetically by Callan Bergmann.
Throw in some magic and some special effects to the overall "Pippin" experience, and you end up getting a lot of bang for your entertainment buck.
"Pippin" is at the Benedum Center in Downtown Pittsburgh through January 25. Phone 412-456-6666 or wwwtrustarts,org.
The Cast of "Pippin" Photo Credit Terry Shapiro

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Chadds Ford Winery - Unintimidated by the Heartbreak Grape

Chadds Ford Winery's 2012 Pinot Noir Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

Over the years, I’ve found that my wine preferences have vacillated from time to time. Once a confirmed Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon drinker, I flirted with Sauvignon Blanc for a while, then had a crush on Pinot Blanc (Grigio) and even found myself enraptured with some of the Virginia Viogniers.
As to red wines, my initial (and long-standing) preference for Cabs was abandoned for a while with  a foray into Merlot and Melbec. Recently, in the last year or so, I’ve come to give Pinot Noir the nod as my favorite red and put it at the top of my list.
Last month, an email from Chadds Ford Winery stoked my memory of a visit to the Chester County establishment nestled in Eastern Pennsylvania. About ten years ago, as I recall, owner Eric Miller and his son made a special trip to Oregon to check out the wine making techniques of the Pinot Noir winemakers. Miller wanted to sample the wines and research possible techniques he could adapt to his own Pinot Noir making ambitions.
While Miller is currently retired from his winemaking duties, the winery is still producing wine, including two versions of Pinot Noir, a grape known for its temperamental predisposition that’s given it the sobriquet "the heartbreak grape."
I don’t know how many other Pennsylvania wineries make Pinot Noir in a region not usually associated with the varietal. But Chadds Ford does, and, in view of my recent affinity for the grape, I decided to get my hands on a bottle and see for myself what’s being done to produce the red wine I’ve grown so fond of in my home state.
Last week, I uncorked a bottle of Chadds Ford 2012 Pinot Noir and found it to be a deep garnet red with a berry-driven, earthy bouquet. Specs identify the grapes as being 80% Pinot Noir from Appletree Farm and Vineyard in Adams County, Pa. and 20%
Chambourcin from Seven Valleys Vineyard in York County, Pa, 
In his notes, the winemaker states that, "due to the late heavy storms at harvest resulting in a lighter bodied vintage, we decided to bolster the structure of the Pinot Noir with a bit of Chambourcin from the ever reliable Seven Valleys Vineyard in York County. We also backed off slightly its time in barrel to strike a pleasant balance between the light cherry and plum forward fruit with it’s sandalwood and vanilla notes to
create a pleasant delicate finish."
The wine spent five months in two and three year old French and Hungarian oak barrels, but I found the tannins a bit too heavy for my liking. The somewhat assertive Chambourcin and oak aging obviously contributed to the wine’s full bodied, intense flavor, which makes it a great accompaniment to duck, goose, grilled salmon and chocolate and chocolate dessert.
With 0.0% residual sugar, 0.59 acidity and 12.5% alcohol, the 2012 Chadds Ford Pinot Noir sells for $24.99 a 750 ml bottle.
I’ve not yet managed to sample the Miller Estate Pinot Noir, a second option made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes harvested in 2010 at the Miller Estate in Chester County. Accompanying notes state that the growing season was hot and dry and constituted one of the best vintages in the East. The Miller Estate Pinot comes with a $34.99 price tag.

Statue of Bacchus, God of Wine, and a Faun at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Pick of the Week - Maceo Parker at the Byham

Maceo Parker by Ines Kaiser
    Revered for his impeccable pedigree and leading the world’s tightest funk orchestra, Maceo Parker, the saxophone titan has played with Funk legends James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and has collaborated with Ray Charles, Trombone Shorty, Ani Difranco, James Taylor, De La Soul, Dave Matthews and the Red Hot Chili Peppers among others.  Parker’s recurring stints in James Brown’s band, in fact, not only produced some of the most enduring entries in the vast canon of American soul music, but also sowed the seeds of the funk revolution of the 1970s.
Parker joined James Brown’s band in 1964 – originally as a baritone player. He came as part of a package deal when Brown hired his brother, drummer Melvin Parker, but the sax player quickly established himself as a valuable member of the team. The first sides he cut with Brown, “I Feel Good” and “Out of Sight,” became some of the most famous of Brown’s canon.  Parker’s first tenor outing on vinyl was Brown’s classic “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
Onstage, Parker served as the perfect foil to the Godfather of Soul – punctuating the frontman’s incendiary vocals and mesmerizing stage choreography with horn blasts that were equal parts melody and percussion.  Parker left Brown’s band in 1970 to launch his own outfit, Maceo & All the King’s Men, but reconnected with Brown three years later – switching to alto sax and laying down horn tracks for Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” “Lickin’ Stick” and “Mother Popcorn.”
Maceo Parker released his first solo record, Us People, in 1974, followed a year later by Funky Music Machine. Throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he was a featured player with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band. 
Maceo Parker’s solo career began in 1990 with his first album, Roots Revisted, which set the benchmark by remaining number one on the jazz charts for over 10 weeks. It was the seminal Life on Planet Groove in 1992 that introduced  Parker to younger audiences and to his own international acclaim.
Parker’s other solo projects include Funk Overload (1998), Made by Maceo (2003) and School’s in (2005). He joined the Heads Up International label with the 2008 release of Roots & Grooves, a two-disc set that positions him front and center with Germany’s WDR Big Band, arguably the hottest jazz orchestra on the European continent.  Roots & Grooves is equal parts Ray Charles tribute and a showcase for some of Parker’s own classic material.
Parker reunited with the WDR Big Band at the Leverkusener Jazz Festival in Leverkusener, Germany, in November 2011. The performance included fully orchestrated arrangements of soul classics by American icons like James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and more. Nine of the songs from the festival set are captured on Soul Classics, Parker’s release on Listen 2 Entertainment on September 14, 2012.
            Without question, Parker’s body of work over the past four decades stands on its own merits, yet he sees the music as part of an even greater message. “At all my concerts, I try to say ‘love’ as many times as I can,” he says. “I think if we all use that word as much as we possibly can, the idea will flourish, and all that other negative stuff will diminish.
View video of Maceo Parker’s “Make it Funky” featuring Trombone Shorty here:
For more information, visit
    The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust presents the legendary musician Maceo Parker and his funk-filled band on Friday, January 16, 2015 at 8:00pm.  This performance will take place at the Byham Theater, located at 101 Sixth Street, downtown Pittsburgh.  Tickets ($20.00 - $45.00) may be purchased in-person at the Box Office at Theater Square, 655 Penn Avenue, online at, or by calling (412) 456-6666. To purchase 10 or more group tickets, call (412) 471-6930.

Maceo Parker by Ines Kaiser