“True West” at barebones productions

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Some theater thrills because it resonates with the Zeitgeist; some thrills because the performances are so juicy and riveting you’re just jazzed to be on the ride.

The barebones production of Sam Shepard’s classic True West falls into that latter category. I’m not sure what the play itself has to say about our present moment – although the role of Lee, as a character study in alpha-male narcissism, invites comparisons to a certain leader-who-shall-not-be-named – but the production is a glorious tour de force for its two main actors, Patrick Jordan and Gabriel King.

True West depicts a battle between two brothers: Lee (Jordan), the elder, is an itinerant and mentally unstable alcoholic who burgles houses for a living; Austin (King), the younger, is a milquetoasty conformist with a wife and kids, a house in the Northern California suburbs, and a budding career as a screenwriter. The conflict has already been set in motion when the play begins: Lee has dropped in unexpectedly on Austin, who is working on a career-defining spec script while housesitting for their vacationing mother at her home near Los Angeles. Lee’s resentment of his younger brother’s Ivy-league education and apparently successful career is palpable and menacing; Austin, in turn, is warily treading on eggshells in response to his volatile older brother’s unpredictability. The main conflict in the play comes when Lee manages (via a gamble on the golf course) to sell a screenplay idea to Saul (Randy Kovitz), the Hollywood producer who has been working with Austin on his film project; Lee’s unexpected success – and Saul’s insistence that Austin drop his own project and write Lee’s movie instead – leads to the unraveling of a whole new set of resentments and insecurities and to the chaotic destruction of the interior of their mother’s home.

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L to R: Gabriel King and Patrick Jordan. Photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

As a writer, Shepard made a career out of depicting the yearnings and disappointments and deep rages of a certain class and type of American male; as an actor and director, this has been Jordan’s subject of interest, too, and he seems to have been born to play the role of Lee. In Jordan’s hands, Lee’s unkemptness and lack of boundaries seem, at times, studied and deliberate – even his muttonchop of a beard hints that this is a man who crafts his menace. Jordan’s interpretation of the role perceptively captures a truth about narcissism and other personality disorders: it’s never clear whether his Lee is truly out of control or only appearing to be so as a means of manipulating others by keeping them off balance. In other words, his Lee is either crazy, or crazy like a fox (now who else have we heard that said about?), and his charismatic effect on others – Austin, in particular, but also Saul, and, in the plays’ final moments, their mother (Heidi Mueller Smith), is both bewildering and unpredictable.

In many ways, King has the tougher challenge with the character Austin, whose journey in the play is more of a reach: by play’s end, Austin has realized the emptiness of his existence and decided to test his own skills living in the desert as his brother has been doing. King skillfully builds the groundwork for that transformation by keeping their past relationship present in the action: we see little hints, throughout, that Austin once practically worshipped Lee and saw him as the kind of free-spirited rebel he couldn’t bring himself to be. Alcohol unleashes Austin’s inner Lee, and King plays the reversal in roles between the two men with hilarious and frightening abandon.

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L to R: Gabriel King and Patrick Jordan. Photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

Under Jordan’s direction, the production leans into the play’s excess to brilliant comic effect. Both Jordan and King revel in the play’s unleashing of testosterone and its descent into Bacchanalian physical abandon: much beer is drunk, sprayed, spilled, and splashed, both a typewriter and a golf club are violently destroyed, cabinets and drawers full of kitchen supplies are flung heedlessly to the floor, and obscene amounts of toast are consumed (Tony Ferrieri’s detail-rich 1970s kitchen takes a lot of abuse in this play). At the same time, the production also dives deeply and intelligently into the play’s complicated psychological and family dynamics. At one point in the play, Lee describes a chase scene in the movie he wants to write: “The one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.” That’s also an apt description for the relationship between the two brothers, each of whom is chasing after something in the other’s life, and neither of whom has any real idea of where they are going. In this acute and perceptive production, Jordan and King limn that dynamic masterfully, giving two of the best performances you’ll see on stage this year.

“Gem of the Ocean” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

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A couple of weeks ago The New Yorker featured an article by Kelefa Sanneh about the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the founder of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University.  Sanneh describes how Kendi came to realize that his embrace of the notion of black self-reliance – “a doctrine that urged black people to overcome the legacy of racism by working hard and doing well” – was itself “shamefully racist, because it blamed black people for their own failures.” Kendi argues that, in fact, “the idea of black underachievement lends support for anti-black policies, which in turn help perpetuate [racist] conditions.”

I was thinking a lot about that article while watching the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company production of Gem of the Ocean, directed by Andrea Frye. Set in 1904, Gem of the Ocean begins the history traced in the ten plays that make up August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” telling the story of African-Americans who have migrated north during Reconstruction and find themselves confronted with new forms of racism and discrimination in Pittsburgh. The play’s villain, Caesar Wilks (played with canny charisma by Wali Jamal), is the local sheriff, who has assumed to himself the right and privilege to police black behavior in the Hill District and hold his community to the strictest standards of behavior and virtue, without regard for context or extenuating circumstances. When he gets whiff of one of his neighbors stepping over the bright line of the law, he shoots first and asks questions never.

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Wali Jamal as Caesar Wilks. Photo by J.L. Martello/ 18ricco, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

One of the burning questions the play poses is: what causes a man like Caesar to antagonize and (frankly) betray his own community in such manner? An easy answer might see in Caesar a reboot of the plantation foreman in a new guise. Kendi, however, would likely see in him an “assimilationist,” a person who – like black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois – believes that the black community’s path to assimilation and equality lies in virtuous comportment and strict adherence to the letter of the law. Kendi argues that this is itself a form of racism, because it perpetuates the idea that there is something inherently wrong with people of color that must be “fixed” or “improved” in accordance with external – that is, white hegemonic – standards or expectations. As Kendi notes, however, the thing that is truly wrong is “racism, and the country’s failure to confront and defeat it.”

Jamal’s interpretation of the role opens the door to these thoughts – although Caesar could easily be played as a mustache-twirling melodramatic villain, Jamal brings conviction to his assertions of righteous law-abidance and also allows us to see how much of that conviction is due to internalized racism rather than a sycophantic desire to please the city’s white powers-that-be. Jamal’s interpretation of his role is but one of the many aspects of the play that make it feel particularly timely for our present moment. There is also its flight into magical realism, in which the shamanistic Aunt Ester (Chrystal Bates) sends Citizen Barlow (Jonathan Berry) on a hallucinatory trip to the City of Bones. That harrowing scene – in which the horrors of the Atlantic Passage are recreated for Citizen by the three former slaves Ester, Solly Two Kings (Kevin Brown), and Eli (Les Howard), along with Ester’s protegé Black Mary (Candace Walker) – connects the dots between the treatment of Africans in slavery and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans through the discriminatory legal, social, and economic framework of Reconstruction. It doesn’t take much for an audience member to do a little further dot-connecting to see how the play points forward to what Michelle Alexander has described as the “redesign” of the racial caste system in the form of the mass endangerment, incarceration, and brutalization of African-Americans at the hands of the contemporary criminal justice system.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre has sited the play at 1839 Wylie Avenue, an empty lot now and also during Wilson’s lifetime; scenic designer Diane Melchitzky has engineered an impressive structure to serve as Aunt Ester’s “sanctuary” for her community, a place where troubled individuals come to have their souls washed. While the set doesn’t quite achieve the serendipitous magic (or acoustics) that August Wilson’s childhood backyard at 1727 Bedford Avenue brought to the company’s previous productions of Seven Guitars and King Hedley II – both of which are set in similar Hill District backyards and needed little else to create that spine-shivering sense of watching art mapped onto lived history – there is something otherworldly and enchanting in seeing Wilson’s fictional house, with its historically-rich characters and conflicts, conjured into existence on the very site he dreamed it. Pittsburgh – with its mills, rivers, bridges, and  specific neighborhoods and geography – is very much a character in the play, and the view past Aunt Ester’s living room onto the Mon River and the South Side invites the audience to imagine not only how the characters’ conflicts intersect with the city’s troubled past, but also how its present continues to grapple with the legacy of slavery that Wilson so penetratingly inscribed throughout his decade-by-decade exploration of the African-American experience.

“Fun Home” at Front Porch Theatricals

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There are three knockout moments in Front Porch Theatrical’s production of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical musical Fun Home.

The first comes when “Medium Alison” (Nuala Cleary – playing Bechdel as a college student) gets seduced by Joan (Essence Stiggers) just after coming out to both herself and her family – the two actors capture the tense, sweet, and excruciatingly awkward dance of emotions between two people navigating that spark of desire and attraction deftly and with sly humor, and you can almost feel the charged chemistry between them.

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Nuala Cleary as Medium Alison Bechdel and Essence Stiggers as Joan, Photo by Greg Messmer, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The second is when “Small Alison” (the extremely talented young Livia Rocco, playing Bechdel as a pre-teen) sings “Ring of Keys,” a showstopper that conveys her dawning identification with a butch lesbian delivery driver who has just walked into a local diner. Rocco connects beautifully with the lyrics of the song, conjuring both the unseen woman who is the object of her admiration and Small Allison’s dumbstruck wonder that there is someone else in the world who is like her “in a certain way.”

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L to R: Daniel Frontz as John Bechdel, Eammon McElfresh as Christian Bechdel, Daniel Krell as Bruce Bechdel, and Livia Rocco as Small Alison Bechdel. Photo by Greg Messmer, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

And the third happens in the number “Telephone Wire,” in which Alison (Drew Leigh Williams, playing Bechdel as an adult) relives the memory of her last opportunity to have a conversation with her father, Bruce (Daniel Krell), who committed suicide shortly after that visit home from college. She had just come out to her parents and then learned from her mother that he himself was a closeted homosexual; the song is an anguished expression of loss and regret over words left unspoken, stories unshared, feelings unvoiced, and secrets taken to the grave. For those of us of a certain age who were raised by similarly silent, stoic fathers, such regret is poignantly familiar, and Williams traverses the whole range of complicated emotions their stubborn secrets provoke, from anger to bewilderment to deep yearning for a truth that will never out.

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Drew Leigh Williams as Alison Bechdel and Daniel Krell as Bruce Bechdel. Photo by Greg Messmer, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

Those three moments also form the emotional spine of Fun Home, which traces the real Alison Bechdel’s attempts to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her family history and make sense of her father’s life and death for the graphic memoir she published in 2006. The musical starts and ends at her drafting table, bouncing back and forth between the present day, her childhood, and her college years as she conjures memories of her relationship with her father and uncovers clues to the gay identity he repressed (and also regularly expressed, with a series of men represented by Tristan A. Hernandez).

The conceit here is that “Alison” is writing and illustrating the novel on which the musical was based, and the scenes that unfold are panels in her developing story. But the graphic novel’s capacity to use visual shortcuts to move quickly across time and space doesn’t translate readily to a theatrical space, where it takes time and labor to shift a scene from an elaborately furnished living room to, say, a funeral home showroom or a New York studio apartment; a major challenge presented by this musical is the logistics of scene transitions. Director Spencer Whale has proven himself adept at managing swift, strikingly choreographed transitions in the past – his production of Big Fish with the same company is a memorable example – but here he is hampered by a set that has too many ideas and too many moving parts. Scenic designer Britton Mauk seems to be working with the concept that the world of the play becomes more real the further Alison gets in her work on the memoir: in the opening scene, for example, a desk stands in for her mother’s piano, and her mother Helen (Cynthia Dougherty) mimes playing on its surface; the next time we see the interior of her childhood home, a real baby grand piano suddenly appears on stage. I found this concept more distracting than illuminating, both because it adds an additional layer of complication to an already complicated play and also because it makes for a proliferation of different degrees of non-, quasi-, and hyperrealistic furniture that must be hauled on and off by both cast members and stagehands (I can only imagine how crowded it must be backstage).

The “fun home” of the title is the Bechdel family nickname for the funeral home which is one of Bruce’s sources of income. Small Alison and her brothers Christian (Eamonn McElfresh) and John (Daniel Frontz) actually do have “fun” there, too: a comic highlight of the production is a scene in which the three siblings invent an irreverent commercial advertising their services, boasting, among other things, that their mourners are “so satisfied/ they like…our formaldehyde!” The three young cast members nail the comedy of the scene with mischievous exuberance and energetic choreography; momentarily stealing the show, they are a testament to the wisdom of the adage about the danger of sharing a stage with children or animals.

But even in its lightest moments, the secrets that Bechdel’s father took to his grave haunt the edges of this musical; Alison’s happy memories are continually juxtaposed with recollections of his volatile temper, demanding perfectionism, and verbal and emotional abuse. Fun Home is, in many ways, about the toll homophobia – and in particular, internalized homophobia – exacted on Bechdel’s father, on his marriage, and on his family; it’s about the self-hatred that closed him off to his daughter and made him into an enduring mystery to her. But it’s also – as the three emotional high points of the musical demonstrate – a musical about social and personal change over time, as the shameful “family secrets” of one generation become a point of pride and identity for the next.

“Looking for Violeta” at Quantum Theatre

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Does the name Violeta Parra ring a bell? If it does, it’s likely because of Joan Baez’s cover of her most famous song, Gracias a la vidaIf it doesn’t, well, you’re not alone – her polymathic legacy as a musician, composer, poet, lyricist, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, painter, and textile artist has largely been overshadowed by that of her more famous older brother, the Chilean “anti-poet” Nicanor Parra.

Quantum Theatre’s folk opera Looking for Violeta seeks to redress that overshadowing, through a musical “investigation” into Violeta Parra’s life and art. The investigator is Nicanor (Eugene Perry), who opens the opera in search of his sister Violeta (Carolina Loyola-Garcia) – she seems to have died, although that was a little unclear at the beginning – and who then sets the action rewinding back to their childhood and hopscotching through key episodes of her life up to the moment of her suicide by gunshot.

Quantum Theatre presents the world premiere "Looking for Violeta" August 2-25, 2019, at Frick Park Bowling Greens.

L to R: Emily Pinkerton (guitarrón), Ryan Socrates (drums), Carolina Loyola-Garcia, and Jon Bañuelos (guitar). Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The action takes place in a festive tent in Frick Park that has a small playing area in front of a multi-level stage of rough-hewn wood that has space for the band as well as the performers. The upstage tent walls are covered in curtains that feature appliquéd figures of musicians and dancers done in a naive, folk-art style; hanging above, and off to the sides, are props and costume pieces ready to be deployed in the show (scenic design is by Tucker Topel; costumes are by Marissa Miskanin). Clearly, we’re in Brechtian storytelling mode here: the design is presentationally theatrical, with no aspirations of creating the illusion that we are anywhere but in a place of showing and telling.

Would that the script were similarly Brechtian and depicted its story with his customary directness and specificity. I’d love to be able to say that I came away from Looking for Violeta with a firm grasp of who Parra was as a person and artist. But writer Maria-José Galleguillos seems to have prioritized meter and rhyme over storytelling; the script is laden with clunky, forced rhymes in the recitatives (“…houses made of tin/ to see them you’ll need a gin”) that get in the way of the narrative clarity such sections ought to provide. You get the broad outline of Parra’s life, but the details that would provide insight into her story are elusive. Moments crash up without sufficient context or build: we see her get into, and fall out of, several relationships with men (all played with smoldering intensity by Jerreme Rodriguez), but we aren’t shown why she fell in love with them or why the relationship fell apart. Ditto with her music and art: we see several episodes showing that she has begun working in a new form of art or writing – or has developed a new passion for collecting folk songs – but nothing that clues us into why or how she was inspired to pursue these interests. In short: over and over, we see the result of something in her life without understanding its cause or origin (in one extremely confusing section we even learn that her baby has died, but the previous episodes had included no mention of her having had a child).

Quantum Theatre presents the world premiere "Looking for Violeta" August 2-25, 2019, at Frick Park Bowling Greens.

L to R: Emily Pinkerton, Jerreme Rodriguez, Kesley Robinson, Carolina Loyola-Garcia, Jon Bañuelos. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

Director Karla Boos provides staging and scene titles to fill in the gaps in the narrative, but these efforts, too, are often more poetic and imagistic than narratively clear. For example, late in the play there’s a scene in which Violeta dances violently with one of the men in her life – there’s drama here, but what is it meant to represent? domestic abuse? a fight? a seduction? This dance is followed by her dropping suddenly to the floor, and we’re told (via song) that she has attempted suicide. How the dance (or the event it metaphorically represents) prompted the suicide attempt is unexplained. Equally mystifying is an earlier scene in which she seems to force one of her boyfriends to learn to play her music by repeatedly abusing and humiliating him – who he is, and why he must keep practicing the flute, and why she keeps throwing her shoe at him, are all unspecified. The fact that members of the ensemble (in addition to Rodriguez, supporting parts are played by Kelsey Robinson, Raquel Winnica Young, and Emily Pinkerton) play multiple roles doesn’t help: although scene titles establish waypoints in her life (“The People’s Music”; “Fame”), information about character identity is often buried in song lyrics that fly by too fast to fully grok, and the bits of costumes actors don and doff merely indicate that they have changed character, without making clear who the new character is.

Where Looking for Violeta shines is in its showcasing of South American and Latinx music through the work of composer/musician Emily Pinkerton. Her score is a mix of traditional South American melodies and original compositions, with styles ranging from Chilean folk music to flamenco to mariachi to Andean flute melodies, and it features prominently the twenty-five string guitarrón and the lute-like charango, two instruments rarely heard outside of South America (and both of which Pinkerton plays with gorgeous technique). The band – Jon Bañuelos on guitar, Erik Lawrence on winds, Jose Layo Puentes on acoustic bass, and Ryan Socrates on percussion – captures the style and mood of her complex rhythms and melodies with effortless fluidity (music direction is by Daniel Nesta Curtis).

While Looking for Violeta didn’t really deliver on its promise to bring Parra’s life and work into focus, it did have the salubrious effect of piquing my curiosity – there were enough tantalizing hints about Parra’s accomplishments to send me down a nice little rabbit hole of internet research over the last couple of days. She really was an amazing, multi-talented, and extraordinarily complicated human being, and definitely worthy of an artistic homage. There’s good potential in this folk opera, but for the time being audiences would be wise to bone up on her story ahead of time to get the most out of its fractured storytelling.

“Once” at Pittsburgh CLO

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I’ve been puzzling all day over how it came to be that Once won the Tony award for Best Musical in 2012. To be sure, the show features a lot of really excellent music; but music alone does not a great musical make. Or maybe it does? After seeing Rock of Ages and Once two weeks back to back I’m starting to wonder whether I actually understand the genre: both of these shows seem to use plot merely as an excuse to string a bunch of songs together, and while I enjoyed the music of Once far more than that of Rock of Ages, it too left me wondering whether what I was really watching was a concert pretending to be a musical.

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Stuart Ward and Esther Stilwell. Photo by Matt Polk courtesy Pittsburgh CLO

Where the plot of Rock of Ages is deliberately and self-consciously silly, the plot of Once is both earnest and flaccid. The setting is Dublin, city of music. A “guy” (no name – played with moody anguish by Stuart Ward) is ready to quit his dream of becoming a musician and settle into a life of quiet desperation as a vacuum cleaner repairman because the girl he loves has moved to New York and now life no longer has meaning. He’s accosted on the street by a “girl” from the Czech republic (Esther Stilwell), who hears him busking and thinks his music is amazing; she is also a musician, and she convinces him not to quit and helps him get a bank loan so that he can record his music and go to New York and be reunited with the ex-girlfriend. Along the way the guy and the girl fall in love with each other, but in that “I can’t admit it” way because besides the New York girlfriend, the girl is also married, to some Czech guy who abandoned her and her daughter in Ireland but whom she expects to return. It’s a plot, in other words, largely without conflict or obstacles or suspense: they seek money from the bank and they get it; they go to the recording studio and make a successful album; the guy calls his girlfriend in New York and she is thrilled he’s coming; the girl resists falling in love with the guy and is rewarded with the gift of a piano and the return of her husband.

The plot is not only lacking drama; it’s also somewhat incoherent. At the play’s begin, the girl comes off as decisive and strong – she’s all positive energy and take-no-prisoners carpe diem – whereas the guy is hampered by fear, “wasting his life because he’s scared of it.” By play’s end, they seem to have switched characters – he’s boldly heading to New York to supercharge his music career while she’s timidly resigned to remain behind in Dublin. I believed his journey more than hers, primarily because we can see him gaining in self-esteem as the tiles of his life fall into place, whereas we are given no explanation as to why she loses her moxie in the course of the action.

But much as I found Once dissatisfying on the level of plot and character, I also found it, for the most part, deeply engaging. That’s because what it does most successfully is to explore yearning and need in many dimensions, mainly through beautifully written songs. Ward, as the guy, croons his character’s brooding love ballads with an edgy intensity, and Stilwell has a silky alto voice that flows like liquid, particularly in the haunting and ethereal “If You Want Me.” Every member of the ensemble is a musician as well as a character, and most of the songs are beautifully arranged to swell almost imperceptibly from a solo voice or instrument into a full orchestration and then to settle back again into solo or duet, a pattern that makes the longing for connection that is the show’s overriding theme palpable in the music itself. A particularly breathtaking number is the a capella reprise of the love song “Gold,” which feels less like a celebration of love than a wistful remembrance of something long gone. That song does what the show does at its best: it invites you to sit with the feeling of wanting something just out of reach and to ache with the music, for a moment, for what has been or what cannot be.

I could have wished for a lot of things from Once –more drama, more coherence, better dialogue, less cliché – but I could not have wished for better music, or for a better musical expression of longing. So: musical, or concert? – I guess, if you’re moved by it, does it matter? Something tells me this question is going to come up again this week, as the next production on my calendar is the opening of Looking for Violeta at Quantum Theatre. Stay tuned.

“Rock of Ages” at Pittsburgh CLO

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What can I tell you about Rock of Ages, which sent a nearly-packed Benedum into howls of appreciation at the curtain?

I’m likely the least suited person in the world to write about this show. Mainly because I’ve never been a fan of rock music, and particularly of hard rock music. So although I’m the right age to have this “jukebox musical” take me on a nostalgia trip back to the eighties, I don’t really have the kind of associations with the music or culture that would evoke in me that sentimental glow (I never even watched MTV, I’m a little embarrassed to confess).

But I was clearly a minority among the two thousand plus audience members who were having a much better time than I rockin’ out to the music of bands like Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Steve Perry, Poison, and others. As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, well – this is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to like.

The rock songs are strung together into a deliberately dippy plot that involves an insecure wannabe rock star Drew (Justin Matthew Sargent) who falls in love with a newly-arrived-from-the-heartland aspiring actress Sherrie (Tess Soltau). They both work at a bar in Los Angeles where famous rocker Stacee Jaxx (Ace Young) launched his career many years ago. The bar is now threatened by a gentrification effort led by the German developer Hertz Klinemann (Jeffrey Howell) and his excitable son Franz (Nathan Salstone); bar owner Dennis Dupree (Gene Wygandt) seeks to raise the money to keep his bar afloat by bringing Jaxx back for a farewell concert. Jaxx wrecks Drew’s budding romance by hooking up with Sherrie and then getting her fired from the bar; Drew abandons Sherrie and struggles to find traction as a rock singer; Sherrie becomes a stripper to make ends meet; and the demolition of the LA strip proceeds apace, despite protest efforts by the comically named Regina (rhymes with vagina, hardeehar – played by Tiffany Tatreau). These complications all get resolved more or less how you’d expect.

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L to R: Tess Soltau and Justin Matthew Sargent. Photo by Matt Polk, courtesy Pittsburgh CLO

The tone of the musical is over-the-top cartoonish, delivering a sendup of the eighties, the world of glam rock and MTV videos, and even of the genre of musical comedy itself. The latter is mainly accomplished by the show’s narrator, Lonny (the affable be-mulletted Nick Druzbanski), who at one point even brings on stage the program for the production and comments on his own headshot (this moment of metatheatrical reference was, for me, one of the freshest bits in the show). On opening night, it took a bit of time before the cast found the appropriate level of silliness and self-awareness for the material, but by the middle of the second act the show’s goofiness was in full swing.

The large ensemble features several vocal powerhouses. Sargent has the screech and howl of a rock lead singer down pat, and he achieves a superhuman feat of physical and vocal athleticism toward the end of the musical, in the number “Oh Sherrie,” when, after running around the stage for several minutes, he holds a note longer than most of us mere mortals can hold our breath. Tess Soltau is equally fabulous as Sherrie, with the range and flexibility to deliver songs as varied as “Sister Christian” and “Here I Go Again.” As the strip club owner Justice, Aurelia Williams delivers stunning renditions of both “Harden My Heart” and “Every Rose has its Thorn,” and Salstone and Tatreau brought down the house with their energetic “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” The five-piece rock band, with Dan Peters as a charismatic lead guitarist, looks like the real deal, all tight pants, long hair, and bull’s-horn gesturing, and they sound quite authentic, too. In short, this production delivers in spades on a musical level. So if you like this sort of thing . . .

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Dan Peters in “Rock of Ages.” Photo by Matt Polk, courtesy Pittsburgh CLO.

“Scapino” at Kinetic Theatre Company

Take a bunch of commedia dell’arte conventions, run them through the genius of Molière to give them a comic plot on which to hang their zany antics, and then plop them into the world of the modern American mafia, and what do you get?

You get Jeffrey Binder’s looney tunes, funny-meets-slapstick-violent Scapino, which is playing for just another week at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

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Jeffrey Binder as Scapino and Wesley Mann as Don Jerry Geronte. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

Binder takes the frame of his plot from Molière: in the original, two patriarchs have arranged for their sons to marry women they’ve chosen for them, but the sons have fallen in love on their own and enlist the help of the scheming genius Scapin to trick their fathers out of money and help them remain with the women they’ve chosen. Binder’s adaptation of the play boots it up a notch for a modern audience. He sets his play in Naples, Florida, and makes the two fathers hardened mob rivals who seek to end a long-running and murderous feud through matrimony. Don Albert (David Whalen) has arranged for his son Octavio (Ethan Saks) to marry the daughter of Don Jerry Geronte (Wesley Mann); but Octavio has, in his father’s absence, married Chloe (Morgan Snowden), a big-haired girl who minces into this play in her tight black pants and gold stilettos straight out of the Sopranos (excellent costuming by Kim Brown plays wittily with stereotypes in a modern upgrade of the commedia convention). At the same time, Don Geronte’s hotheaded son Leo (Jack Lafferty) has gone head-over-heels for a hippy-dippy flower child named Feather (Sarah Silk), also against his father’s wishes. The two sons enlist the help of the smugly confident lawyer-fixer Scapino (Jeffrey Binder) to get them out of the mess with their fathers and avoid punishment; along the way, Scapino – with some help from Octavio’s “personal assistant” Sylvester (Phillip Taratula) – scams a bit of money for himself out of the two Dons, doles out some revenge for a past injury, and gets his own rather humiliating comeuppance.

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Sarah Silk as Feather and Morgan Snowden as Chloe. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

You’ll see the resolution of this play coming from a mile away, but the plot is really not the point here; as with traditional commedia, the story is simply a delivery vehicle for nonstop verbal wit and physical hijinks. The comedy here comes fast and furious – almost too fast, I dare say, for the jokes pile up so quickly that there’s hardly time to react. The structure of the play has a quasi-vaudevillian quality that director Andrew Paul handles with panache, shifting the playing style with ease between scripted scenes of dialogue, improvisational lazzi, dance interludes, and goofy physical comedy.

While the production is mostly a “bada-bing bada-boom” caricature of the world of mafia dons and their prickly pride, there’s an undercurrent of menace that raises the stakes and leaves you, at times, with your laughter sticking in your throat. Molière filled his plays with unsympathetic characters; Binder doubles down on that strategy, giving us a world of characters whose troubles are difficult to commiserate with and whose victories are hardly something to celebrate.

Johnmichael Bohach’s set resembles a cartoon postcard of a beach, and Alex Stevens’s lighting design makes it pop as if it were under a bright hot Florida sun (don’t worry – the theater is nicely air-conditioned, so you get the vibe but not the feel of the Florida heat). The acting style is also broad and cartoonish, at times a bit overmuch so; the play starts at an 11 out of 10 on the ostentation scale and expands from there. Paul has assembled a team of terrific actors, but not all of them manage to find the sweet spot between playfulness and sincerity that allows this style of comedy to zing. In that respect, Binder is the standout – he seems to understand the playing style in his bones and has a relaxed and grounded approach to his character that gives him fluidity, lightness, and absolute command of the stage.

Comic as the play’s energy is, Binder’s take on this story veers, in the second act, into pretty menacing territory – so menacing, in fact, that at one point Sarah Silk, as Feather, breaks character to reassure us that we’re still watching a comedy. Moreover, even though the action ends in the de rigeur wedding celebration, it’s not at all clear that what we’ve witnessed is anything like a happy ending. The more I think about it, the more that seems the right choice in our current socio-political moment: for all his scheming, Scapino has managed in the end merely to cement in place a terrifying power status quo – and as we all know, there’s really nothing funny about that.

“Spamilton: an American Parody” at Pittsburgh CLO

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It takes a deep love of a subject to parody it successfully, and Gerard Alessandrini, creator of Spamilton: an American Parody as well as the previous hit sendup Forbidden Broadway, clearly loves Broadway musicals. If you’ve seen Forbidden Broadway, Spamilton’s setup will be familiar – one piano, small cast playing multiple parts, and nonstop spoofing of the tunes, characters, and plots from current (and past) Broadway musicals. And although, as the title and visual branding make clear, the focus of the satire here is on Hamilton, as with Forbidden Broadway Alessandrini grinds the entire industry of musical theatre through his mockery machine.

The loose plot centers on the efforts of “Lin-Manuel Miranda” (T.J. Newton, oddly a dead ringer for the real guy) to shake up Broadway with his new style of musical. He recruits actors “Leslie Odom, Jr.” (Tru Verret-Fleming), “Daveed Diggs” (LaTrea Rembert), the guy who plays George Washington (Justin Lonesome), and a Leading Lady to play all three sisters (the fabulous Erin Ramirez). Dressed in signature Hamilton base costumes – tight white pants, cream-colored vests, shiny knee-high boots, a doo-rag for Washington and big hair for Diggs – the fantastically gifted ensemble busts out many of the signature dance moves from the show as well, but with enough exaggeration and comment to render them a little silly (the choreography, by director Gerry McIntyre, gets the balance between imitation and mockery just right). A prime target for Alessandrini’s satire is the crazy popularity and obscene success of Hamilton, reaching its apotheosis in the song “I wanna be in the film when it happens,” which imagines a slew of (nearly all white) Hollywood stars vying for the chance to board the Hamilton gravy train. Miranda’s success in getting a role on Mary Poppins also gets skewered, à la “Mickey Mouse has his eyes on me.” Even Hamilton’s branding gets roped into the parody, with the trademark star prominently displayed on the back pockets of the ensemble’s pants.

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L to R: T.J. Newton, Erin Ramirez, Tru Verret-Fleming, Justin Lonesome, LaTrea Rembert. Photo by Matt Polk, courtesy Pittsburgh CLO.

Music director Fred Barton has shaped the myriad styles of music from the range of shows featured with precision and clarity. Pianist Nick Stamatakis plays through the demanding score with flair, and at one point even has a surprise solo number that brings down the house (I won’t spoil it for you). The five members of the ensemble are all so good they probably ought to be cast in Hamilton itself, and they bring the right combination of sheer talent and self-aware mockery to the task of sending it up. Verret-Fleming, Lonesome, Newton, and Rembert are already familiar to Pittsburgh audiences, and they shine here as vocalists, actors, and dancers as they have in previous productions; Rembert, in particular, steps into his own in this show, with a confident and charismatic turn as “Daveed Diggs.” As the only woman in the cast – a joke in its own right, given the gender politics of Hamilton – newcomer Ramirez takes on more roles than any one else in the ensemble, and her vocal flexibility is extraordinary. In addition to switching back and forth between the vocal stylings of Renee Goldsberry, Philippa Soo, and Jasmine Jones all in the same song – with puppets, no less (“Look Around”) – she also gives credible impersonations of Bernadette Peters, Liza Minelli, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand. Yes, it’s that kind of parody.

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L to R: Justin Lonesome, Erin Ramirez, and Tru Verret-Fleming. Photo by Matt Polk, courtesy Pittsburgh CLO.

Honestly, dear Reader, I’m trying to remember the last time I laughed as exuberantly in the theatre as I did at Spamilton. Alessandrini is an astute observer of the foibles and flaws of the commercial theatre industry, and he has a genius for weaving those observations into lyrics that surprise and delight. Particularly hilarious are his criticisms of Hamilton itself, encapsulated in lines like “The lyrics go by so fast and you’re in the abyss/ Can you believe you paid eight hundred bucks for this?” or in the moment when Ramirez steps out as “Eliza” and sings, in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cries,” how she will “make you cry!…just when you think I can’t rinse more tears out of you, I’ll tell you about…the orphanage.”

Spamilton also nails a slew of other Broadway musicals, including (but in no way limited to) Book of Mormon, Wicked, The King and I, The Lion King, Willy Wonka, Harry Potter, Phantom of the Opera, Alladin, and a whole medley’s worth of Sondheim musicals (the extended dig at Sondheim’s music may have been my favorite moment in the show). It’s all a little dizzying to remember; the show clicks along about as fast as Hamilton itself, and much of the fun lies in the way it chews up and spits out new musical victims as it barrels along. At seventy minutes, it’s exactly the length it needs to be, although – and this is such a rarity – at the point where it appeared to be coming to a close with “Eliza’s” final number, I was having so much fun that I really didn’t want it to end.

“Bright Star” at Front Porch Theatricals

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The mission of Front Porch Theatricals is to present high quality productions of hidden gems from the musical theater world – shows that may not have achieved great fame or longevity on Broadway but that deliver an emotional and theatrical punch nonetheless. With Bright Star, the  top-notch artists they have engaged at every level certainly deliver on that mission, although whether or not the musical itself deserves more acclaim than it has received to date may be a matter of the viewer’s tolerance for melodramatic sentiment.

The music and story were written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; Martin wrote the book and Brickell supplied the lyrics. Their collaboration on the musical grew out of an earlier collaboration on a bluegrass album, and the music for Bright Star is squarely in that musical idiom, tightly played by a small orchestra under the direction of Douglas Levine and featuring the bluegrass trio of Marina Pendleton (fiddle), Bryce Rabideau (mandolin), and Jim Scott (banjo), each of whom gets a moment to showcase their formidable talents during a musical interlude leading into the second act.

The catchy, toe-tapping music is the show’s best feature; the songs are woven in close harmonies that eloquently capture the vibe of the early twentieth century South in which the story takes place. A cast of sixteen vocal powerhouses pulls those tight harmonies into focus with a gorgeous lushness, helmed by stellar performances from leading players Erin Lindsay Krom, Jerreme Rodriguez, Miller Kraps, and Marnie Quick as the two pairs of lovers around which the story is structured.

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Bright Star’s plot bounces back and forth between 1945, when Billy Cane (Kraps), an aspiring young writer, returns to North Carolina after serving in WWII, and 1923, when Alice Murphy (Krom), a young woman chafing under restrictive Bible Belt social norms in a small town in North Carolina, falls in love with Jimmy Ray (Rodriguez), son of the powerful and corrupt Mayor Dobbs (a menacing Darrel R. Whitney). She gets pregnant, the mayor takes the baby boy away to have it adopted out, she eventually becomes the hard-biting editor of the literary journal to which Billy submits his stories, and if you’re anything like me at this point in the plot you’ve already figured out where it’s headed. In order to get to its tidy resolution, the musical depends on all sort of coinkydinks and plot contrivances; one is best off not thinking too hard about it, as the musical’s charm relies wholly on an audience content with just going along for the ride.

Director Nick Mitchell and choreographer Mara Newberry Greer have skillfully crafted the staging such that the scene seems to be perpetually in motion; repeated patterns of movement in transitions and in the choreography link disparate moments of the play and keep the two time periods distinct. The costumes, by Anthony James Sirk, also draw a vivid distinction between the 1920s and the 1940s, and make it possible for both eras to play out on Jonmichael Bohach’s mobile and flexible scenic design. Overall, the creative team has made a lot of strong choices that serve the storytelling well; however, the decision to void the South of African-Americans (the ensemble is all-white with the exception of one Asian-American actor) is both puzzling and regrettable.

While you might expect a work by Steve Martin to have a bit more comic edge and satire – or to do more sending up of its subject – this musical demands to be played without irony, and the cast does a great job of serving up the corn straight. Kraps gives Billy an utterly believable aw-shucks-golly-gee-whillikers innocence and enthusiasm; Quick is sweet and amiable in her yearning for his affection; Whitney all but twirls a mustache in the role of the villainous mayor; Rodriguez is dashing and chivalrous as the privileged mayor’s son; and Krom adroitly limns both the prim and proper editor who would have excised that last adverb from this sentence, and the free-spirited young woman who lets down her hair with the most interesting boy in town.

Predictable as the plot of this musical is, its emotional climax still delivers a real punch, thanks largely to the genuine feeling the ensemble breathes into the action. The play’s soaring, uplifting hymn at the end, “At Long Last,” is delivered with a passionate optimism that will leave even the most cynical audience member feeling like all is right with the world.

“We Are Among Us” at City Theatre

Stephen Belber’s new play We Are Among Us pries open the lid on what one of its characters describes as “a really fucked up situation.” In other words, the US involvement in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to write much about this play without spoiling some of the reveals that make it rewarding. Khadija (Nilanjana Bose) is a 22-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who lives in La Jolla, California, and works at Whole Foods. Both of her parents were victims of the violence brought by the US invasion of her country: her mother was accidentally killed by a US tank, and her father’s body was found in an unmarked grave a few weeks after enduring a brutal interrogation at the hands of US soldiers who suspected him of having allowed the Taliban to use his property as a base from which to launch a deadly mortar attack on American troops. One of those soldiers is now running for mayor of a major US city, and Shar (Jo Mei), a freelance reporter, is investigating whether the soldiers had tortured him to death and covered it up. She contacts Laura (Lisa Velten Smith), who had been stationed with those soldiers as a private contractor and overheard the interrogation, to dig into the matter; it’s clear that Laura knows more than she has previously admitted, and her refusal to talk about the incident piques the curiosity of her son Beau (Eric Wiegand), who starts doing some investigating of his own. Meanwhile, Laura’s conscience has been pricked enough that she visits Taylor (Kyle Haden), one of the soldiers and her former lover, to try to find out what really happened behind the closed doors of the interrogation room.

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Nilanjana Bose. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

That’s the play’s set up, but as the truth about the fate of Khadija’s father’s death unspools, in both private conversation and public media, the situation doesn’t get resolved. Rather the opposite occurs: the moral quandaries become stickier, the gray areas get murkier, the difference between perpetrator and victim becomes harder and harder to distinguish, the lines between right and wrong get blurrier, in short: the entire situation becomes even more fucked up.

Under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s direction the ensemble presents the story with nuance and sensitivity. Bose, in particular, captures in her avoidance of eye contact with others the anguish and ambivalence her character feels over reliving the past – it’s an eloquent choice that not only signals her discomfort but also speaks to the vast cultural gulf she must traverse as an Afghan woman living in the US.

The strength of this play lies in the way its moral complexity implicates everyone in its world in both good and bad – while all of its characters produce compelling arguments to justify their actions, none of them has clean hands. It takes a while for the play to build the foundation on which to show that strength, however, and the drama feels a bit flat and directionless until it reaches about the halfway point. That’s about the point at which Belber lands one of the play’s best scenes, in which the hyper-eloqent Taylor confronts Shar about the value and purpose of the muck she is attempting to rake up – it’s one of those scenes in which two characters are on polar opposite sides of an issue, and yet each is convincingly in the right.

From that moment on, any notion that we might be occupying a universe in which there are clearcut choices between right and wrong quickly recedes, and suddenly the odd angles of Narelle Sissons’ scenic design, combined with Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design, which transform the color of the set seemingly at will, all start to make sense. Nothing is what it seems in Belber’s world of moral relativism, and much as we may wish for it, Belber bravely resists the temptation to provide a neat resolution to the conundrum he has concocted.