August Theater Guide: Innovative Plays, a ‘Simpsons’ Story, and a Top Quartet

A jam session scene from The 2015 Ogunquit Playhouse production of 'Million Dollar Quartet.' (l. to r.) Nat Zegree, Robert Britton, Lyons Jacob Rowley, Scott Moreau, Sam Weber photo: Jay Goldsmith.

A jam session scene from The 2015 Ogunquit Playhouse production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ The Pittsburgh CLO is staging it here this month. (l. to r.) Nat Zegree, Robert Britton, Lyons Jacob Rowley, Scott Moreau, Sam Weber photo: Jay Goldsmith.

August has some especially interesting offerings. The always innovative Quantum Theatre starts their season with Red Hills, a fictional tale set against the Rwandan genocide. Quantum is also very creative in its staging locations. Red Hills is being presented at the Recycling Building in the Strip District.

Another intriguing production is 12 Peers Theatre’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. If the name “Mr. Burns” sounds familiar it is because it is Homer Simpson’s boss’ name in FOX TV’s sitcom “The Simpsons.” Yes, the play is constructed around an episode of “The Simpsons.” The plot explores storytelling in a post-apocalyptic world and how a story can change and evolve over time. Throughline Theatre Comany’s Cloud 9 is an unconventional play set in two places in two different eras and in which the cast changes their roles in the second act.

Million Dollar Quartet at Pittsburgh CLO details the true story of an impromptu jam session at Memphis’ Sun Studios involving the legendary musicians Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. The play features several of each artist’s top hits and their shared love of gospel music.

Front Porch Musicals’ Big Fish explores the dynamic between a son and his larger than life father who is dying. Also in our August Theater Guide you will find several summer stock comedies and an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

Mike Vargo and Christopher Maggio also made major contributions to this Guide.

Continuing from July:

RUMORS by Neil Simon. Through Aug. 5, Apple Hill Playhouse.

Theater fans who are up for trying a lesser-known play by a famous playwright may wish to catch Neil Simon’s Rumors. This wacky ensemble comedy does not have the iconic status of Simon’s The Odd Couple—which spawned a movie, a sequel, and multiple TV series—nor is it a semi-serious sentimental favorite like his Brighton Beach Memoirs. What you get in Rumors is pure farce, capped by a scene that’s a comic masterpiece. The play opens with guests arriving for a fancy dinner party, where they find that mysterious problems have arisen in the home of the host and hostess. Gossipy rumors fly; personal quirks and conflicts emerge; pandemonium ensues. Eventually the cops show up, and then comes the scene you won’t forget. Rumors is being performed at Apple Hill Playhouse. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont. (MV)

TRUMBO: RED, WHITE & BLACKLISTED by Christopher Trumbo. Through Aug. 5, South Park Theatre.

Colorado screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, 1947

Colorado screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, 1947.

Fans of Bryan Cranston’s turn as Dalton Trumbo should know that Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted is not based on the 2015 film. Rather, this play stays in the family. Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo’s son, centered it around  the letters his father wrote while blacklisted. An off-Broadway production debuted in 2003, and it has toured nationally. The play contains two characters: Dalton Trumbo and a narrator. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, individuals blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about their alleged ties to the Communist Party. Trumbo, a screenwriter and novelist, continued to write while blacklisted. His Roman Holiday won the Academy Award for Writing, but Ian McLellan Hunter, fronting for Trumbo, got the Oscar. Cleo Trumbo, Dalton’s widow, accepted the award posthumously in 1993 . South Park Theatre, Corner of Brownsville Road and Corrigan Drive, South Park. (CM)

MOON OVER THE BREWERY by Bruce Graham. Through Aug. 6, Mountain Playhouse.

With coal in the news so much recently, a play set in a mining town may be in order, for art often creates empathy. Moon over the Brewery by Pennsylvania playwright Bruce Graham follows Miriam Lipsky, who waits tables for a living. However, her passion is painting.Guided by a miner’s lamp and moonlight, she paints at night. She also wants a husband, but her 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, scares away potential suitors. Amanda has an IQ of 160 and an imaginary friend, Randolph. When Miriam brings home mailman Warren Zimmerman, it appears history is going to repeat itself as Amanda aims verbal jab after jab at Zimmerman. He not only gains the upper hand but also guides Amanda back towards reality and helps bring the family together. Mountain Playhouse, 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown. (CM)

 

MAMMA MIA!  Book by Catherine Johnson. Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Thru. Aug. 6. Pittsburgh CLO.

The hit movie and play Mamma Mia! is a beautiful mashup: a story set in Greece with a Swedish dance pop score. This jukebox musical prominently features ABBA songs and follows a young bride, Sophie, on the eve of her wedding. Her mother had romantic relationships with three men, any of whom could be Sophie’s father. Sophie secretly invites all three to her wedding, unbeknownst to her mom, to try and figure out which one is her dad. The men haven’t been back there for 20 years. She wants her real father to walk her down the aisle. (Too bad tabloid TV show host Maury Povich wasn’t invited to the wedding as he could have given a paternity test and figured everything out.) Mamma Mia! is a comedy that involves family drama, laughs, fantastic dance numbers, and of course, hit pop songs. Ending a 14-year Broadway run in 2015, Mamma Mia!, with book by Catherine Johnson and music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, is the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history. Pittsburgh CLO, Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (RH)

MISS ABIGAIL’S GUIDE TO DATING, MATING AND MARRIAGE by Ken Davenport and Sarah Salzberg. Through Sept. 17, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Javier Manente and Paige Davis star in the CLO Cabaret production of 'Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.' photo: Archie Carpenter.

Javier Manente and Paige Davis star in the CLO Cabaret production of ‘Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.’ photo: Archie Carpenter.

Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage is a two character play featuring Miss Abigail (Paige Davis  from TLC’s Trading Spaces) as a relationship consultant so dismayed when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt broke up that she rededicates her life to helping couples with relationship problems. Paco is Miss Abigail’s sexy assistant and who also has a secret crush on her. The play is based on a book of the same name by Abigail Grotke. Ken Davenport (Altar Boyz) and Sarah Saltzberg (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) joined forces to create this humorous look on love and dating. Part of the fun is Miss Abigail dishes out outdated and obscure relationship advice. The play received rave reviews when it ran off-Broadway in 2010 with Eve Plumb (Jan from the “The Brady Bunch”) as Abigail. Davis performed in the national touring company of Beauty and the Beast for two and a half years and was host of TLC network’s “Trading Spaces” which is being revived. Recommended for audiences 13 years of age and older. CLO Cabaret, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (RH)

New this month in order of start date:

"Excellent" is what the animated Mr. Burns would probably say at this moment in 'The Simpsons.' The plot of the 12 Peers production 'Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play' centers around a "Simpsons" episode. photo: Madison Hack

“Excellent” is what the animated Mr. Burns would probably say at this moment in ‘The Simpsons.’ The plot of the 12 Peers production ‘Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play’ centers around a “Simpsons” episode. photo: Madison Hack

MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY by Anne Washburn. Aug. 3-20, 12 Peers Theater

What if the apocalypse comes and Western culture is kept alive mainly by a group of survivors who can re-enact, from memory, an episode of “The Simpsons”? Specifically, the “Cape Feare” episode, which parodies the remake of the 1962 movie Cape Fear? And what if the practice of re-enacting gets passed along to future generations, mutating as it grows to enlighten the post-apocalyptic world? There you have the plot of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Adding to the intrigue are these odd facts: New York playwright Anne Washburn and a team of actors devised the initial concept in an empty bank vault deep under Wall Street. And, while Mr. Burns is a comedy, critics have praised it for its levels of serious meaning, upon which they have commented at some length. The play premiered in 2012 in Washington, D.C. Locally, 12 Peers Theater is performing Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play in the Studio Theatre deep in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland. (MV)  

CAUGHT IN THE NET by Ray Cooney. Aug. 8-20, The Mountain Playhouse.

The Mountain Playhouse performed Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife in 1999. Attendees looking forward to its sequel, Caught in the Net, need no longer wait. Caught in the Net comes to The Mountain Playhouse 18 years after its prequel ran. Appropriate, as the play picks up 18 years from where Run for Your Wife left off. English taxi-driver John Smith lives in two separate homes with two different wives, Barbara and Mary, each ignorant of the other. We learn in Caught in the Net that he now has a sixteen-year-old son, Gavin, with Barbara, and a fifteen-year-old daughter, Vicki, with Mary. The children meet online. Both have fathers named John Smith. Not that surprising; it’s a common name. But the similarities (both are 43, both are taxi drivers) continue, so the children decide to meet in person. That’s when the hilarity begins. Mountain Playhouse, 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown. (CM)

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott. Aug. 8-13, Pittsburgh CLO.

Thank Jack Clement. He was an engineer at Sun Recording Studios in Memphis, Tenn., when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley started an impromptu jam session. Clement hit record, capturing what became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott wrote a musical based on the session. It premiered at Florida’s Seaside Music Theatre in 2006 and ran on Broadway from 2010 to 2011. The musicians are dramatized as is Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Studio and Sun Records. He explains between numbers how he discovered each musician. Although the session featured mostly gospel numbers, the musical includes the artists’ respective hits, such as “Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Hound Dog.” Sure to be a toe-tappin’ sing-along. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (CM)

THE AUDIENCE by Peter Morgan. Aug. 10-12, 17-20, and 24-26, Little Lake Theatre Company.

One of British politics unique customs is the weekly meeting, or “audience,” between the Queen of England and the Prime Minister. The meetings are private and are not recorded. The queen and prime minister do not share their discussions with their respective spouses. All us commoners know is that the prime minister updates the queen, who is politically neutral, on political affairs. She can privately debate her or him. Peter Morgan, who wrote the play Frost/Nixon, imagines what it might be like to be a fly on the wall throughout history in The Audience. The play omits some of the prime ministers, but expect to see Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and David Cameron. Helen Mirren played the role of Queen Elizabeth II during the play’s West End, London, premier, and she played her again on Broadway. The Broadway performance won Mirren the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. Little Lake Theatre Company, 500 Lakeside Dr., Canonsburg. (CM)

CLOUD 9 by Caryl Churchill. Aug. 11-19, Throughline Theatre Company

Caryl Churchill has been called “the David Bowie of contemporary theatre” for her constant experimenting with the art form. She’s been at it for so long that she is now more commonly called “the grande dame of British playwrights,” or some such. Throughline Theatre is presenting Churchill’s first major hit, Cloud 9, a play that never met a convention it didn’t play with. Cloud 9 is set in two places and eras—Act 1 at a British estate in colonial Africa in the late 1800s; Act 2 in London in 1979 (the year the play premiered)—and it is a seriocomic saga of how sexual and social attitudes changed, or maybe didn’t. Characters from the first act re-appear in the second—older, but not 100 years older—and the casting is rotated, so every actor has a different role than before. There are men playing women and vice versa, while black/white and gay/straight identities also get shuffled and hanky-panky reigns. The title Cloud 9 may allude to the nine circles of Hell or the nine lives of a cat; we’re not sure. In the Henry Heymann Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. (MV)   

GO BACK FOR MURDER by Agatha Christie. Aug. 17-27. The Summer Company.

For fans of murder mysteries, especially Agatha Christie murder mysteries, The Summer Company has just the play for you: Go Back for Murder The plot revolves around the central character, Carla Crale, who receives a letter from her mother, Caroline, regarding the murder of her father. Her mother was convicted of the crime and died in jail. After her mother’s death, Carla receives the letter. She sets off on an exploration for the truth and cajoles those who were present when her father was killed to return to the scene of the crime and give their recollections as to what occurred. Go Back for Murder delves into how people’s observations are influenced by the passage of time and the individual’s frame of reference. Christie wrote the play in 1960, and it was adapted, with some changes, from her book Five Little Pigs. Duquesne University Genesius Theater, 600 Forbes Ave., The Bluff. (RH)

RED HILLS by Sean Christopher Lewis. Aug.18 – Sept. 10, Quantum Theatre

Quantum Theatre opens its 2017-18 season with the world premiere of a noteworthy play. Red Hills is a fictional story grounded in a tragic true event, the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Within a few months an estimated half-million to one million people, mostly of the Tutsi ethnic minority, were killed—some by government troops but many by their own neighbors. The play, set years later, imagines a confrontational reunion of two men: an American who was in Rwanda at the time and wrote a book about what he saw, and a Rwandan he’d met who was fleeing the massacre. Red Hills has them differing as to exactly how things happened and what it all meant. New York-based playwright Sean Christopher Lewis has examined issues of violent societies in his previous one-man shows Killadelphia: Mixtape of a City, and Dogs of Rwanda, a precursor of Red Hills. Quantum is co-producing Red Hills with the New York company En Garde Arts. In the Recycling Building at 32nd and Smallman Streets, Strip District. (MV)    

BIG FISH by Andrew Lippa and John August. Aug.18-27, Front Porch Theatricals

Big Fish began as a novel by Daniel Wallace, then was made into a Tim Burton movie, and then a stage musical. The 2013 Broadway premiere (above) won critical praise but not a long run, whereupon the musical Big Fish entered the category that Pittsburgh’s Front Porch Theatricals performs extremely well: it’s an under-the-radar but not-entirely-out-of-the-mainstream cult favorite. The story is set in Alabama, where big daddy Edward once taught a fisherman to catch fish by doing a dance called the Alabama Stomp. Or so Edward says! It seems he has told many tall tales about his life, which is now coming to an end. Big Fish unfolds in a series of flashbacks and present-day scenes that blur imagination and reality, as the dying Edward and his adult son Will are joined by a singing-and-dancing cast of others in their quest for that Great American Dream, a happy ending. Front Porch presents Big Fish in the New Hazlett Theatre, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV)

THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten. Aug. 24-Sept. 2, Apple Hill Playhouse.

If one has several good friends to share the journeys of life with, that is a treasure to be cherished. The Dixie Swim Club is a story that’s centered on that theme. The play, written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, follows five remarkable women, who first met one another while members of their college swim team. They meet for a long weekend each summer at the same beach cottage on the Outer Banks. There they “catch up, laugh and meddle in each other’s lives.” The Dixie Swim Club focuses on four specific weekends over a 30-year period. The play humorously chronicles the women’s support for one another through life’s ebbs and flows. Apple Hill Playhouse, 275 Manor Rd., Delmont. (RH)

A MASTERPIECE OF COMIC…TIMING by Robert Caisley. Aug. 31-Sept.16, Little Lake Theatre.

It has been said that “Timing is everything” and “Time is Money.” Both of those sayings are front and center in A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing. Whiz-kid Nebraska Jones’s first comedy play was a big hit. New York producer Jerry Cobb was so impressed that he’s invested his life savings in the new play that Jones is writing. Cobb even flies Jones to his Arizona home. And there lies the rub as Jones has come down with a bad case of the blues. He’s not eating or writing, but he is drinking. And he has a taste for Cobb’s expensive bourbon. To get the project moving again, they hire an erratic assistant and a Hollywood starlet, both of whom ratchet up the laughs. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Cannonsburg. (RH)

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and enjoys good theater.