February Theater Guide: A Cavalcade of Culture

Egad, what a lineup! Though appearing to exult over the rich variety of shows available in live theater during February, these actors (Helena Ruoti, John Ahlin, and Tony Bingham) are performing in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' at The Public.

Egad, what a lineup! Though appearing to exult over the rich variety of shows available in live theater during February, these actors (Helena Ruoti, John Ahlin, and Tony Bingham) are performing in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ at The Public.

February is when football season ends, baseball teams open spring training, and the gap is filled by our three major indoor sports: hockey, hoops, and live theater. There are reported to be fans who prefer live theater above all the rest, and they are lucky individuals because the month’s schedule is rich and diverse.

To begin with musicals, which have the biggest casts and draw the biggest crowds: touring productions include The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!, and Taj Express: the Bollywood Musical, while Pittsburgh Musical Theater does The Hunchback of Notre Dame and local university troupes present Ragtime and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (Which, incidentally, is infinitely more fun than your typical spelling bee.)

Shows with LGBTQ themes span an especially wide range: The Pink Unicorn is a contemporary family drama; As One is an acclaimed new chamber opera; and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II is a 16th-century classic.

Prominent African-American figures are highlighted in The Royale, a play based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson; and JH: Mechanics of a Legend, a new interpretation of the John Henry legend.

In the department called Weird (And Yes We Love Weird), two notable plays are The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and Big Love. Dance performances include Pilobolus’ Shadowland and Pittsburgh Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland, and of course there’s a play from Shakespeare land. Pittsburgh Public Theater has one that’s not-so-often seen in Twelfth Night.

Show are previewed below in order of run dates. As always, previews are full of fascinating background info, with this month’s batch including entries written by Christopher Maggio (CM) and Rick Handler (RH) as well as yours truly.

Opened in January: 

THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY by Kristoffer Diaz. Through Feb. 4, barebones productions.

Are you ready for some WRESTLING? Did you know that a play about the wacky, trumped-up world of pro wrestling was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama? The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity didn’t win the prize, but it has won a rabid fan base, and now Pittsburgh audiences can see it courtesy of barebones productions. The play features real wrestling matches (fixed, of course, like the real ones!) between real heroes and villains … who are fake, like many real ones. The title wrestler, Deity, plays an absolute top hero. The dark-skinned villain called The Fundamentalist isn’t actually an immigrant terrorist but he does have a sinister move: the “sleeper cell kick.” Other characters include a classy wrestling promoter and a professional fall guy (read: loser!) who serves as the narrator. See our review for more. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kristoffer Diaz, is presented in the gym at the Ace Hotel, 120 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty.

In 'Something Rotten!', Shakespeare's would-be rivals are given mystic foreknowledge of how to write a hit show—but will they proceed to lay an egg?

In ‘Something Rotten!’, Shakespeare’s would-be rivals are given mystic foreknowledge of how to write a hit show—but will they proceed to lay an egg?

SOMETHING ROTTEN! (musical) by John O’Farrell and Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick. Through Feb. 5, touring company at Benedum Center.

Unlike movies, Broadway musicals rarely have sequels and hardly ever have prequels. But the recent Broadway hit Something Rotten! might be the ultimate prequel: it’s a musical about the imaginary composition of the first musical. The setting is London in 1595. Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom are eager to upstage the current hot playwright, a guy named Shakespeare. Consulting a soothsayer, the brothers are amazed to learn that popular plays of the future will feature actors periodically bursting into song and dance. The soothsayer also predicts that Shakespeare’s next big hit will be about Hamlet, the Danish prince—except the info gets scrambled, so the Bottoms think it’s an omelet with Danish, and they beat the Bard to the punch with a blockbuster called Omelette: the Musical. Yes, Something Rotten! is that silly. Many references to modern musicals are slipped in, and good ol’ Shakespeare gets to strut and fret upon the stage in numbers like “Will Power.” The touring company of Something Rotten! is in town to put an exclamation point on our aesthetic sensibilities. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (musical) adapted from the Disney movie and Hugo’s novel. Through Feb. 5, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

The story we know as The Hunchback of Notre Dame began with a strange notion: Victor Hugo wanted to write a novel about architecture. During the early 1800s in Paris, historic old buildings were being lost to neglect or mangled by ham-handed repairs. Hugo, passionate about civic issues, had argued for preservation without much success. Then he tried embedding the argument in a dramatic tale and produced a double-barreled hit. His 1831 novel, titled Notre-Dame de Paris and filled with architectural digressions, helped to save and restore the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame. But what made the book popular in the first place was the story he invented—a stirring social epic centered on the tragic fates of the bell-ringer Quasimodo and the Gypsy dancer Esmeralda. Among the many adaptations over the years, an intriguing one is the 1999 stage musical that Pittsburgh Musical Theater is performing. This Hunchback of Notre Dame is based on the Disney animated film, with notable changes. The musical hews closer to Hugo’s original. It has a darker tone and a not-so-happy ending. Plus, there is more music, including songs with lyrics by Carnegie Mellon alumnus Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked, etc.). At the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

Desean Kevin Terry plays Jay Jackson, the Jack Johnson-based lead character in 'The Royale.'

Desean Kevin Terry plays Jay Jackson, the Jack Johnson-based lead character in ‘The Royale.’

THE ROYALE by Marco Ramirez. Through Feb. 12, City Theatre.

Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight championship (a title he held from 1908 to 1915), was a complex man living in difficult times. He cultivated superb skills and discipline in the ring but reveled in the high life outside it. He broke society’s color line by his romances with white women, thus further infuriating white Americans who rooted for a “great white hope” to come along and defeat him. Johnson’s tumultuous story was the basis for a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the 1960s, ironically titled The Great White Hope—and now there’s a new Johnson-inspired play. Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, which premiered in Los Angeles four years ago, is having its first Pittsburgh staging at City Theatre. Whereas The Great White Hope was a sprawling, scene-shifting production with a big cast, The Royale gives its subject a more intimate fictionalized treatment. It builds dramatic tension and reveals character through up-close personal exchanges within the boxer’s inner circle. The fight scenes are done in a stylized manner that’s quite unlike typical stage fighting, and The Royale has been generally praised for its fresh creativity. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

TWELFTH NIGHT by William Shakespeare. Through Feb. 26, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Amazing Shakespeare fact: just as The Winter’s Tale does not happen in winter, Twelfth Night is not set on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. Rather, it seems the comedy was first performed at that time of year, and Pittsburgh Public Theater is staging it to help chase away the chill of 2017. Twelfth Night is a gender-identity comedy. The heroine, fair Viola, is shipwrecked in a strange land and poses as a man to get by. This secures her a job with the local Duke but causes trouble when the Duke’s beloved, Olivia, falls in love with Viola while Viola falls for the Duke. The plot thickens with subplots involving Olivia’s rambunctious uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and the weird servant Malvolio. Which leads us to consider a perplexing scholarly question: Why do Viola, Olivia, and Malvolio have names that use the same five letters? What does it mean? At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Opening in February:

WOODY’S ORDER! By Ann Talman. Feb. 3-19, The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Upper St. Clair native Ann Talman returns home for a one-woman, autobiographical show directed by John Shepard. Woody’s Order!, which Talman wrote, takes its title from when eight-year-old Woody, who has cerebral palsy, “orders” a sibling the only way he can: by pointing “to Mom’s tummy and Dad’s … lap,” according to Talman’s website. He gets a sister, Ann, an aspiring actress and comedian, who is torn between pursuing her Broadway career playing Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter or remaining her brother’s caregiver. Woody’s Order! debuted at the fourth annual United Solo Theatre Festival in New York, an international festival promoting one-person performances. Woody’s Order! was part of the encore series for the fifth annual festival. Talman has appeared in numerous on- and off-Broadway productions and on film and television. She was one of the inaugural inductees of Upper St. Clair High School’s Hall of Fame. The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. (CM)

THE PINK UNICORN by Elise Forier Edie. Feb. 9-12, off the WALL productions.

off the WALL productions offers arguably this month’s timeliest play with The Pink Unicorn. Following her husband’s death, Trish is simply trying to get through every day in her small Texas town. She works at a hospital and attends church. Then her 14-year-old daughter disrupts this already fragile routine when she comes out as genderqueer. The daughter also plans to found a local Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school. Trish knows next to nothing about these issues, and it sounds as if she has a lot to learn: “I hate diversity. I know that sounds infantile and unevolved but I simply do not want to love them who are different from me. … Because no matter what, when I’m with one of them I feel like I’m gonna do something wrong. Or they’re gonna do something wrong. And that’s a nasty feeling,” she says, her ignorance transcending small-town Texas to encapsulate the intolerance that many people experience every day. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. (CM)

JH: MECHANICS OF A LEGEND by Anya Martin. Feb. 9-18, Hiawatha Project.

“Before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’m going to hammer myself to death, Lord, Lord, I’ll hammer my fool self to death,” Bruce Springsteen sings on his version of “John Henry.” The oft-covered ballad concerns the iconic African-American tall tale character, a real man who may have died just south of Pittsburgh in Talcott, West Virginia. Legend has it that he raced a steam-powered hammer to prove that he could drive more steel than a machine. He won—but died from the stress of the achievement, leaving his hammer to his lover, Polly Ann. His legend is rife with symbolism: of man versus mechanization and of civil rights. Who better to take on these themes than the Hiawatha Project, a Pittsburgh-based ensemble which explores social questions through movement. According to the event page, the performance will incorporate “the language of mechanics, century old ballads and primary historical records.” JH: Mechanics of a Legend is at the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (musical) by Rachel Sheinkin, Rebecca Feldman, and William Finn. Feb. 9-19, Pitt Department of Theatre Arts.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee may be one of the oddest musicals ever to appear on Broadway. The title says the plot right there. Okay, maybe there are a few clarifications: It’s one long act. Six students compete. One uses his feet to spell, although all the contestants are pretty odd. Ditto the moderators: three grown-ups, one of whom, Douglas Panch, returns after a five-year hiatus from the bee following a mysterious incident. Improv is involved. Four audience members are invited on stage to compete, so if you attend, don’t forget the silent “o” in “opossum.” The production was originally an improvisational play titled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by Rebecca Feldman. After composer William Finn saw the show, he, Feldman, and Rachel Sheinkin created the musical version. In 2005, the Broadway run was nominated for six Tony Awards and won two. Given the educational nature of spelling bees, and given the delightful goofiness of the script, this is a perfect show for college students, specifically the Pitt Department of Theatre Arts, to produce. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. (CM)

Shady forces are summoned to life in 'Shadowland.'

Shady forces are summoned to life in ‘Shadowland.’

PILOBOLUS’ SHADOWLAND (modern dance). Feb. 10-11, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Pilobolus is one of the few modern dance companies to achieve wide name recognition, and if you haven’t heard of them, the accent goes on the second syllable: PiLOBolus. Founded in 1971, at a time in the arts when weirdness was not only good but mandatory, the company has continued practicing its own particular brand. The dancers combine dance with acrobatic stunts and physical humor. They’ve gone beyond the usual dance circuit in performances like this one with Penn & Teller, featuring escape tricks. Some critics feel the company has gotten too gimmicky, but they keep coming up with new stuff and they’re always interesting to watch. Pilobolus visits Pittsburgh to perform Shadowland. This feature-length piece uses a classic technique for creating stage illusions—shadows of the performers thrown on an upright screen—to tell a story that has elements both haunting and amusing. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (ballet) by Derek Deane, from Lewis Carroll’s story. Feb. 10-19, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will take audiences down the rabbit hole. Derek Deane, a former principal dancer with England’s Royal Ballet, choreographed Alice in Wonderland to the music of Tchaikovsky with additional music by Carl Davis. The ballet is based on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, a hallmark of whimsy and wordplay. Carroll, an English mathematician, couldn’t have foreseen all the adaptations his book would beget: ballets, movies, even comic books. All the old favorites will be on stage, such as the mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and Alice herself. The costumes number over 100 and include tutus made from playing cards. The sets, which promise to shift size and include color-changing roses, will also surely dazzle. Both the design and costumes come courtesy of Sue Blane. Ballet, Lewis Carroll, and Tchaikovsky—surely enough for most everyone to find something to enjoy. And if not? “Off with their heads!” Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (CM)

TAJ EXPRESS: THE BOLLYWOOD MUSICAL REVUE. Feb. 15 only, touring company at the Byham Theater.

Here comes a really big show for lovers of Bollywood song and dance. Taj Express: The Bollywood Musical is produced, directed and choreographed by Shruti and Vaibhavi Merchant, sisters belonging to one of the dynastic Bollywood families. This musical is a showcase of Indian cultures woven together, like a beautiful silk scarf, through a journey on the Taj Express, a train which travels from from Mumbai to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The plot follows the exploits of a thief named Vasu—but that’s just part of what is in store.  The Bollywood aesthetic thrives on “more of everything!!!” and Taj Express has waves of mass musical numbers, plus of course a spectacularly romantic love affair, with the dancing and singing done in a blend of styles that range from traditional Indian genres to contemporary Mumbai rock. Taj Express started a world tour in 2013 which stops in Pittsburgh this month, for one night only. 7:30 p.m. Byham Theater, 101 6th Ave., Cultural District. (RH)

AS ONE (chamber opera) by Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed. Feb. 18-26, Pittsburgh Opera.

Along with big productions of longtime favorites from the repertoire, Pittsburgh Opera stages new and adventurous works. A highlight this year is Laura Kaminsky’s chamber opera As One, which has generated significant buzz since premiering at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014. As One traces the story of a transgender woman, Hannah, by having a male singer as “Hannah before” her transition and a female as “Hannah after.” The roles are sung here by baritone Brian Vu and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven. In the early scenes, Hannah is a small-town youth striving to be the “Perfect Boy” (the title of one aria). The opera then follows her through the tumultuous process of realizing her true identity—often, with the two singers chiming in alternately to convey Hannah’s conflicting thoughts and emotions. As One, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, is presented in the performance space at Pittsburgh Opera headquarters. 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District.

In 'The Book of Mormon,' missionaries Kevin and Arnold have a feeling they're not in Utah any more. (The photo is from the 2013 touring production.)

In ‘The Book of Mormon,’ missionaries Kevin and Arnold have a feeling they’re not in Utah any more. (The photo is from the 2013 touring production.)

THE BOOK OF MORMON (musical) by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez. Feb. 21-26, North American touring company at Benedum Center.

If you missed The Book of Mormon last time it was in town you’ll know to reserve tickets early. The show won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2011; it has been called one of the best musicals ever. In an age when few things can shock an audience, this work by the creators of the “South Park” TV series is shockingly (and hilariously) irreverent while also being surprisingly uplifting. Two naïve young Mormon missionaries are sent to win converts in a remote part of Africa where the locals are, shall we say, skeptical. It’s like The Poisonwood Bible meets the Marx Brothers but naughtier than either, and unless you want your kids to hear songs like “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” don’t bring them. The North American touring company performs The Book of Mormon at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Christopher Marlowe brought a story from the deep past to stage in 'Edward II.'

Christopher Marlowe brought a story from the deep past to stage in ‘Edward II.’

EDWARD II by Christopher Marlowe. Feb. 22-24, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

To historians, the reign of Edward II of England from 1307-27 illustrates that being a king in medieval times was no soft job. Edward was by all accounts a good-natured man who cut a dashing figure, but he struggled to cope with constant wars and violent internal intrigues, and was eventually forced to abdicate. Over 200 years later, Christopher Marlowe—a controversial character in his own right—wrote a play dealing boldly with a controversial aspect of the story: the erotic nature of Edward’s friendship with the nobleman Piers Gaveston. Marlowe was a brilliant playwright and his Edward II has earned a niche as an early classic of LGBT theater. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is staging Edward II in the Purnell Center for the Arts, on campus at 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

RAGTIME (musical) by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens, from E.L. Doctorow’s novel. Feb. 23 – Mar. 4, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

It is tempting to describe the Broadway musical Ragtime as one of those sweeping epics that throws in everything but the kitchen sink. But in fact, the show even has elements of kitchen-sink realism (i.e. the portrayal of gritty working-class family life), so here’s a sweeping synopsis. Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same title, Ragtime is set in New York during the early 1900s. The story switches back and forth among three families—wealthy upper-crusters, African Americans in Harlem, and Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side, respectively—while it works in a raft of historical figures including J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, the ill-fated showgirl Evelyn Nesbit and her murderous husband Harry Thaw (both Pittsburgh-area natives), and more. There’s also a fictional musician named Coalhouse Walker who plays that funky genre known as, well, “ragtime.” The musical won 1998 Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score. You can catch the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama production of Ragtime in the Philip Chosky Theatre at the Purnell Center for the Arts, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

BIG LOVE by Charles L. Mee. Feb. 24 – Mar. 12, Point Park Conservatory Theatre.

Oh, that Charlie Mee! In a long, wild, and maybe not-so-crazy career, American writer Charles L. Mee has, among other things: agitated for the impeachment of Richard Nixon; written critically acclaimed histories and biographies; written an autobiography titled A Nearly Normal Life, much of which he has spent in a wheelchair since contracting polio as a teenager … and authored dozens of plays, many of them freewheeling adaptations of older plays, posting his scripts on the Internet and inviting anyone to do whatever they want with them. Further tinkering is encouraged, since Mee claims there is no such thing as an “original.” Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre is doing Mee’s Big Love, an adaptation of The Suppliants by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, which concerns a horde of women fleeing a forced mass marriage to their Egyptian cousins. The Point Park version includes the helicopter ambush that Mee put in to enhance the non-original, and those attending Big Love are advised to be ready for anything. In the Rauh Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

Already open, and running for a long time:

PUMP BOYS & DINETTES (musical) by the group of the same name. Through Apr. 15, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Return with us now to those long-ago days of the early 1980s when V-8 Pontiacs prowled the roads, when a Macintosh was just an apple you could eat, and when country music and small-town country characters were still amusing novelties to us sophisticated Northern urbanites. It was during those days, in the unlikely bowels of New York City, that a cabaret musical titled Pump Boys and Dinettes was born. The plot? Shucks, who needs one? This is a singin’, pickin’, and stompin’ revue-type of show with a bunch of sketch-comedy bits worked in. And the composers? Why, a bunch of nightclub performers called none other than Pump Boys and Dinettes themselves. The setting is a place down in North Carolina where a gas station and a diner sit side-by-side. And wouldn’t you know, Pump Boys and Dinettes took off so well that the show made it to Broadway … and then across to London, England … and it remains in the repertoire today. The living evidence awaits at CLO Cabaret, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: Twelfth Night, by Michael Henninger. Something Rotten! and The Book of Mormon, © Joan Marcus. The Royale, by Kristi Jan Hoover. Pilobolus’ Shadowland, courtesy of the company. Christopher Marlowe, portrait by unknown artist, 1585, original in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.