January Theater Guide: Slow Start, Exciting Finish

Ladies and gentlemen, meet His Majesty the King. Mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl may not look like Richard I when out of costume but she is extremely ready to sing the title role in "Richard the Lionheart" at Pittsburgh Opera.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet His Highness the King. Mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl may not look like Richard I when out of costume, but she is majestically prepared to sing the title role in “Richard the Lionheart” at Pittsburgh Opera.

The word is “lacuna,” meaning an unfilled space or interval. Early January is lacuna time in Pittsburgh live theater, as the city’s resident companies use the period after the holidays to get their next productions ready. But the long view is good, with an interesting slate of shows in the latter part of the month.

And there is one real oughta-see that comes early: the national touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This tale of a very eccentric teenaged savant has won practically every best-play award for which it was eligible. Two more highly touted touring shows arrive later—the musicals Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Something Rotten!—while on January 10-11, something unorthodox comes to town in the form of a two-night visit from the British experimental troupe Forced Entertainment.

Among local companies, we find an odd coincidence. City Theatre presents an acclaimed new play about a heavyweight boxing champ (The Royale, based on a true story), while barebones productions puts on an equally acclaimed play about pro wrestling (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a social satire, as the title may suggest).

In the classics department, Pittsburgh Public Theater has the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night and Pittsburgh Musical Theater performs an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Pittsburgh Opera is mounting a rare U.S. revival of a long-neglected baroque opera, Handel’s Richard the Lionheart. 

Shows are previewed below, each with background info guaranteed to help any readers sound like they know what they’re talking about. The shows are listed pretty much in order of run dates, though one exception is The Toxic Avenger, a horror-comedy musical that’s been at CLO Cabaret since September and is now extended. It’s parked near the bottom of the stack but take note: it really will close in January!

As Christopher demonstrates, there's more than one curious incident in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

As Christopher demonstrates, there’s more than one curious incident in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Simon Stephens, from Mark Haddon’s novel. Jan. 3-8, touring company at Heinz Hall.

A few years back, the British novel called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was one of the most curious books to hit the best-seller lists. The stage play adapted from it then won major awards in both England and the United States, including the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play. Pittsburghers can start the new year with the national touring production of Curious Incident. The character at the hub of the story, 15-year-old Christopher, is an autistic savant. Or as Christopher himself puts it, he’s “a mathematician with certain behavioral difficulties.” Like many people diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, the teenager cannot relate to the routines and interactions of everyday life as others do—but he is able to see and sense the world in ways that others can’t, while thinking profoundly outside the box. And according to theater critics in London and New York, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time pulls off a rare feat. Beyond just bringing an unusual character to life, it brings his world view to life, inviting the audience into Christopher’s mind to share his experience. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

 

TOMORROW’S PARTIES and REAL MAGIC by Forced Entertainment. Jan. 10 and 11 respectively (each show 8 p.m.) at the New Hazlett.

The British theater company Forced Entertainment, a highly regarded experimental group, is visiting Pittsburgh for a pair of back-to-back one-night shows. First up is a piece called Tomorrow’s Partiesand though the title evokes the 1967 song by Velvet Underground, it’s a duet without music. The piece consists of two people trading rapid-fire speculations about the future of humankind: Will we live in a world that’s overpopulated or severely de-populated? Will we be vegetarians or cannibals? Some critics have called Tomorrow’s Parties humorous yet profoundly thought-provoking while others say essentially “WTF?”

Next comes a new show (premiered just a couple of months ago), Real Magic. This one features actors dressed in chicken costumes pretending to attempt a mind-reading trick. The company members describe Real Magic on their website as “a hallucinatory journey, creating a compelling performance about optimism, individual agency, and the desire for change.” Forced Entertainment is brought to town by the Andy Warhol Museum in conjunction with the New Hazlett Theater and Carnegie Nexus. Both shows are at the New Hazlett, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

RICHARD THE LIONHEART (opera) by George Frideric Handel. Jan. 21-29, Pittsburgh Opera.

If you have enjoyed Handel’s Messiah, try a Handel opera. Pittsburgh Opera is performing Richard the Lionheart, which dramatizes the story of Richard I of England and his princess bride amid the fighting of the Third Crusade. The production is an eyebrow-raiser on several counts. (1) It’s a chance to be among the first Americans to see this 1727 opera. Like many operas of the Baroque era, Richard faded from the repertoire as styles and times changed. Though now revived, its only previous U.S. performance was in 2015 in St. Louis. (2) King Richard is played by a woman. Per Baroque custom, Handel wrote the leading male part for a castrato, a man castrated in youth. Today such roles are usually sung by countertenors (men who can go naturally high) or by mezzo-sopranos like Leah de Gruyl, Pittsburgh Opera’s Richard. (3) Authentic Baroque accompaniment is provided. Guest musicians from Chatham Baroque join the orchestra to play harpsichord and period-style strings. Also: the prevailing view in George Frideric Handel’s day was “if it ain’t Italian, it ain’t really opera”—so Richard the Lionheart, with a libretto by Paolo Rolli, is sung in Italian. But English translation is displayed above the stage. CAPA Theater, 111 9th St., Cultural District.

At a time when "colored" people were expected to keep to their places and be deferential, Jack Johnson didn't and wasn't.

At a time when “colored” people were expected to keep to their places and be deferential, Jack Johnson didn’t and wasn’t.

THE ROYALE by Marco Ramirez. Jan. 21 – 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, gets 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. The Royale has been praised for its fresh creativity; City Theatre aims to score a knockout with the play. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (musical) by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. Jan. 24-25, touring company at Benedum Center.

There are works of theater that defy synopsis, and since we only have a paragraph, let’s start with the basics. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical. It’s about a German guy, Hansel, who had a sex change to become Hedwig, except the surgery was done wrong and left an “angry inch,” into the details of which we will not go. But anyway—skipping, for now, all the stuff about the Berlin Wall and the three sexes of humankind, and the first husband who ran off in Kansas—Hedwig is an aspiring rock star. Hedwig’s second husband, the former drag queen Yitzhak, tries to be supportive even while Hedwig is being surpassed on the quest for stardom by Tommy Gnosis, who (oh, the cruelty of it) happens to be Hedwig’s protégé … and hey, it’s time to wrap up. Hedwig and the Angry Inch began as an off-Broadway hit in 1998. The Tony-winning 2014 Broadway revival had Neil Patrick Harris (below) in the title role. Now the touring company visits Pittsburgh with Euan Morton, who played Boy George in Taboo, as Hedwig. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY by Kristoffer Diaz. Jan. 26 – 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 productionsChad Deity is reputed to be a hoot. The play features real wrestling matches (fixed, of course, exactly like the real ones!) between real heroes and villains … who are fake, like many real ones. The title wrestler, Deity himself, 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. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kristoffer Diaz, was premiered in 2009 by the Chicago theater company Victory Gardens. Are you ready for a victory party? In the gym at the Ace Hotel, 120 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (musical) adapted from the Disney movie and Hugo’s novel. Jan. 26 – 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.

TWELFTH NIGHT by William Shakespeare. Jan. 26 – 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.

I AM NOT SAM (one-person show) by Michael Phillip Edwards. Jan. 27-28 at the August Wilson Center.

I Am Not Sam may sound like a riff on Sam-I-Am from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, but it’s a one-man stage show about racial identity and race relations in America. The one man, Michael Phillip Edwards, is a Jamaican/Canadian playwright and actor recently working out of L.A. Having performed and won awards at venues including the Edinburgh Fringe festival, Edwards is bringing I Am Not Sam to Pittsburgh. The show’s fictional character Sam is an elderly black man who has a white son-in-law and a grandson from that marriage. Edwards plays all the roles, and while there’s an underlying story to the piece, it serves mainly as a platform for impassioned inquiry into the nature of being “black”—and of being human—in our society. I Am Not Sam is presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust at the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

By the pricking of their thumbs, "Something Rotten" this way comes!

By the pricking of their thumbs, “Something Rotten!” this way comes.

SOMETHING ROTTEN! (musical) by John O’Farrell and Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick. Jan. 31 – 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! intends to put an exclamation point on our aesthetic sensibilities at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

THE TOXIC AVENGER (musical) by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Extended through Jan. 15, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

It won’t go away! The Toxic Avenger—a stage musical adapted from the 1984 cult horror-comedy movie—has had its lengthy run extended by Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret. This musical mutation tells the story of a pollution-fighting nerd named Melvin Ferd the Third who is transformed to a slimy superhero after being soaked in toxic waste. Using his newfound superpowers, mutant Melvin wins the love of a blind librarian, and together they wage war on the nefarious characters responsible for corrupting the environment. The musical, which premiered off-Broadway in 2009, has a rock score with songs like “All Men Are Freaks” and “Who Will Save New Jersey?” The Toxic Avenger is being performed in the friendly confines of the Cabaret at Theater Square. 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

PUMP BOYS & DINETTES (musical) by the group of the same name. Jan. 26 – 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: Leah de Gruyl, courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Something Rotten!, both by Joan Marcus. Jack Johnson (1915), Bain News Service, photographer unknown.

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