November Theater Guide: ‘Twas the Month Before Christmas …

Your red and green can wait—'The Color Purple' is coming. The touring musical is part of a rich variety of shows on tap preceding the holiday season.

The reds and greens can wait—here comes ‘The Color Purple.’ The touring musical is part of a rich variety of shows in town preceding the holiday season.

Is it politically OK to say “Christmas”? Yes. Is it too early to mention Christmas? It’s never too early.

Well then, here we go. November is your last chance before Christmas to explore and enjoy a full, well-rounded schedule of live theater. After that, most companies either break for the holidays or put on seasonally themed productions. So now is a time to give free rein to your tastes. Before you need to contemplate the cultural implications of The Nutcracker or decide whether you’ve seen enough adaptations of A Christmas Carol, consider what Pittsburgh stages are offering this month.

In the category of hot titles and big names: The Public has the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Play, The Humans, while Quantum presents the latest play by seemingly ageless Tom Stoppard, The Hard Problem, and Pittsburgh Opera performs Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In the category of new and unusual are the Bricolage immersive epic DODO at Carnegie Museums, a rare live-theater version of All Quiet on the Western Front (Prime Stage), and PigPen Theatre’s now-for-something-completely-different The Old Man and the Old Moon (presented by City Theatre).

For musicals with serious social themes, try Parade (Pitt Department of Theatre Arts) and/or the touring production of The Color Purple. Speaking of seemingly ageless, did you know that Berry Gordy is 87? The Gordy-driven show Motown: The Musical visits town as well.

The following previews are filled with fascinating background info and commentary. Some of the opinions are Christopher Maggio’s (those marked with CM), and some are mine (Mike Vargo’s).

Continuing from October …

ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare. Through Nov. 4, PICT Classic Theatre.

PICT Classic Theatre is really good at doing Shakespeare. Last year the company produced a sensational Merchant of Venice, not by coming from deep left field with an unconventional interpretation, but just by seeing what’s in (and between) the lines of the script and making it sing. This year PICT opens its season with Romeo and Julietanother of Shakespeare’s really good ones, for reasons beyond the dramatic pull of its tale of star-crossed lovers. When played well, it’s a rollercoaster of emotional twists and tragicomic turns. Romeo and Juliet has been made into two memorable movies: Franco Zeffirelli’s colorful 1968 version, in which supporting actor John McEnery nearly stole the show as a red-hot Mercutio, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, which gave the story a modern urban-mafia setting and had Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo. But the play begs to be experienced live, in the flesh, and there might not be a better chance than PICT’s production. In the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Ave., Oakland. (MV)

EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS by Eugene Lee. Through Nov. 5, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

Two years ago, veteran actor Eugene Lee visited Pittsburgh to play the role of August Wilson in How I Learned What I Learned, the one-man show about Wilson’s life. This year the attraction is a play written by Lee himself. East Texas Hot Licks has some similarities to Wilson’s Hill District epics, but it’s shorter (about 90 minutes) and set in a small-town bar in Texas. The bar is a gathering spot for local African Americans during the Jim Crow era of the 1950s. As the play unfolds, we get to know an assortment of odd characters whose high-spirited joking devolves into tensions and, ultimately, tragedy. East Texas Hot Licks was staged at theaters across the country after its 1991 premiere, and a revival last year in the Chicago area drew rave reviews from that city’s major dailies. In another critically acclaimed production, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is presenting East Texas Hot Licks here. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (MV)

DODO by lead writer and co-creator Gab Cody and co-creators Jeffrey Carpenter, Tami Dixon, and Sam Turich. Through Nov. 19, Bricolage Production Company and Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

The Custodian (jomo ray) welcomes you to the inner recesses of the Carnegie Museums in Bricolage's 'DODO.'

The Custodian (jomo ray) welcomes you to the inner recesses of the Carnegie Museums in Bricolage’s ‘DODO.’

Bricolage Production Company and Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh have teamed up to bring you DODO, an immersive theater experience. Starting at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh parking lot, audience members will walk through the Carnegie Museums in Oakland, in some cases going behind the scenes to rooms not accessible to the public. Actors will interact with patrons, and the production promises a multi-sensory environment that bridges art and science. As for the plot, the Bricolage website describes DODO as “a story of un-natural selection. A story of extinction. The actions of humanity have set into motion events that will outlive our species. It must now be determined what will endure.” The production is part of the Carnegie Nexus initiative, a partnership between Carnegie’s four museums and other organizations. Forbes Avenue and South Craig Street. (CM)

THE HARD PROBLEM by Tom Stoppard. Through Nov. 19, Quantum Theatre.

Just when a lot of folks thought Tom Stoppard was done with playwriting, after a long and illustrious career of turning out plays that combine philosophical wit with serious issue-wrangling—his 1966 gem, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, keeps rising from the dead in periodic revivals—and after side ventures into screenwriting, too (Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; Shakespeare in Love)—Stoppard, at age 77, came out with a new play. The Hard Problem is about one of the so-called hard problems in science: explaining the nature and origin of consciousness. The action revolves around a fictional brain institute where characters debate how humans acquired the mysterious ability to not only sense and react to the world, but also think, imagine, love or hate it, etc. The Hard Problem premiered in London in 2015 to mixed reactions, with some calling it vintage Stoppard while others felt it was short of a full bottle. Judge for yourself what kind of kick it delivers in the Quantum Theatre production. Energy Innovation Center, 1435 Bedford Ave., Uptown. (MV)

New November shows in the EC spotlight …

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Robin Kingsland, from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel. Nov. 4-12, Prime Stage Theatre.

Prime Stage Theatre presents a rare adaptation of one of the previous century’s most gripping novels, All Quiet on the Western Front. The book, drawn from author Erich Maria Remarque’s own experiences in the First World War, traces the stories of a group of young Germans who are spurred to enlist by their patriotic schoolmaster. Amid the terrors of the war they find camaraderie (and sometimes, riotous good times) but also become hardened and disillusioned—and many don’t survive. Published in 1929, the novel was later banned in Germany under the emerging Nazi regime, which had little interest in making war look bad. Elsewhere, All Quiet remained widely read and was adapted into a Hollywood movie, yet for many years never made it to the stage. Prime Stage’s production is the U.S. premiere of a version by British writer Robin Kingsland, which opened in Nottingham in 2006. It’s said to be a moving ensemble piece that captures the book’s intensity. To accompany All Quiet on the Western Front, Prime Stage has created a website on “Pittsburgh’s Connections to World War I.” The play is at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV)

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO (opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Nov. 4-12, Pittsburgh Opera.

Shame, shame! Figaro and Susanna (L) are about to be married, and sneaky Count Almaviva already is: that's his Countess giving him The Glare in Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Marriage of Figaro.'

Shame, shame, Count Almaviva! Figaro and Susanna (L) are about to be married, and the sneaky Count already is: that’s the Countess giving him The Glare in Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’

You think Hollywood invented sequels? No, the tradition goes ‘way back, and Pittsburgh Opera is honoring that tradition. Last year the company performed Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which concerns the comical doings of the famous Figaro. Now they’re presenting Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, wherein Figaro gets—well, married, among other things. At its premiere in 1786, the opera was considered rather naughty: Figaro is a servant betrothed to another servant, and the couple must foil their skirt-chasing master’s plan to assert the ancient right of visiting the bridal chamber first. The Marriage of Figaro runs long, with four acts. But Mozart’s librettist, the formidable Lorenzo Da Ponte, felt he needed the length to develop the humorous hijinks and plot twists while allowing the music to blossom. It’s hard to argue with the results. The opera is considered a Mozart masterpiece and remains an audience favorite to this day. Pittsburgh Opera has bass-baritone Tyler Simpson as Figaro, soprano Joélle Harvey as his bride Susanna, and baritone Christian Bowers as that high-class lowlife Count Almaviva. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (MV)

Leo Frank, the central figure in ‘Parade,’ had a bright future but a ghastly end.

Leo Frank, the central figure in ‘Parade,’ had a bright future but met a ghastly end.

PARADE (musical) by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown. Nov. 9-19, Pitt Department of Theatre Arts.

In 1913, at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, a young woman who worked on a production line was found murdered. In a trial marked by flawed evidence and frenzied media coverage, the factory’s superintendent—Leo Frank, a transplanted Northerner and prominent member of Atlanta’s Jewish community—was convicted of the crime. After Georgia’s governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison, a group of men led by prominent non-Jewish citizens kidnapped him from the prison and lynched him. And not long after that, another group burned a cross on nearby Stone Mountain to announce the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. This story is now chronicled in a work of theater. Playwright Alfred Uhry, a Pulitzer Prize winner (for Driving Miss Daisy) and native of Atlanta, collaborated with composer Jason Robert Brown on the musical Parade, which premiered in 1998. It received Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score. It’s been staged internationally, and this month it can be seen here. Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts is performing Parade in the Charity Randall Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. (MV)

THE HUMANS by Stephen Karam. Nov. 9-Dec. 10, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Here is a chance to see the 2016 Tony Award Winner for Best Play.
The Humans begins with Deirdre and Erik Blake visiting their daughter, Brigid, and her boyfriend, Richard, for Thanksgiving. Brigid and Richard are unmarried and live in an apartment in New York City’s Chinatown; Brigid’s parents are married Catholics from Scranton. Add a demented grandma and Brigid’s lesbian sister, Aimee, and you can imagine the familial conflict and hilarity. The stakes get higher when freakish events, like loud noises and turned-off lights, occur during dinner. The play premiered in Chicago in 2014, opened Off-Broadway in 2015, and moved to Broadway in 2016, before nabbing the Tony. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

THE OLD MAN AND THE OLD MOON by PigPen Theatre Co. Nov. 11–Dec. 3, presented by City Theatre.

Calling The Old Man and The Old Moon a “musical,” or more accurately a “play with music,” is an understatement. Theater critics in New York and elsewhere have been left searching for words to describe it—and for superlatives to praise it. It’s an invented mythical story, acted out with the use of shadow puppets, weird DIY stage props, and original Irish-inflected folk-style music played and sung by the actors. It is the work of PigPen Theatre Co., a group of seven Carnegie Mellon alumni currently based in New York. They’ve won a boatload of non-mainstream theater awards and taken shows on the road across the country, while also playing music gigs and self-releasing albums with songs like this one. City Theatre has invited the PigPen crew back to town to give The Old Man and The Old Moon its Pittsburgh premiere. Chicago-based director Stuart Carden, who co-directed the play in San Diego, takes on the same role here. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. PigPen’s visit also includes concerts at nearby Club Cafe on Nov, 20 and Dec. 4. (MV)

THE COLOR PURPLE (musical) by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis, from Alice Walker’s novel. Nov. 14-19, North American touring company at Benedum Center.

The Color Purple, published in 1982, unflinchingly depicts the sexual and violent oppression of African-American women in the 1930s South. The epistolary novel became the stand-out literary work of 1983 when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Award for Fiction. A movie adaptation followed in 1985. The film was then adapted into a Broadway musical, which balances the somber story with cathartic blues, gospel, jazz, and ragtime numbers. The production ran from 2005 to 2008. It was revived in 2015. The Color Purple cast album won a Grammy, and the cast won a Daytime Emmy for a performance on NBC’s “Today.” The revival also saw Jennifer Hudson’s Broadway debut in the role of blues and jazz singer Shug Avery. The touring company stops at the Benedum Center. 237 7th St., Cultural District. (CM)

MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL adapted from Berry Gordy’s book and featuring music by many artists. Nov. 21-26, national touring company at Benedum Center.

With Motown: The Musical, The Temptations for word-play are endless. One could say it’s loaded with Miracles, or call it Supreme. Maybe you know about the show because you Heard It through the Grapevine. The national touring production brings a cast of today’s actors to the Benedum Center to play (and sing) the roles of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and other stars from Detroit’s iconic record label. Based loosely on the autobiography of Motown founder Berry Gordy, the musical received four Tony nominations in 2013. It includes over 60 songs, from “Dancing in the Street” to Edwin Starr’s 1970 chart-topper “War”—and though most are abridged versions, that’s a lotta Motown. 237 7th St., Cultural District. (MV)

Other notable productions this month …

The Capitol Steps (political musical comedy troupe)—Of all the years in the history of our nation, this is NOT the year to miss a performance by the Capitol Steps. Nov. 5 at the Byham Theater.

Annie (musical) by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan, from Harold Gray’s comic—The multi-Tony-winning musical keeps coming back with its timeless message: Fear the Redhead! Nov. 9-19, Stage 62.

Kyle Abraham / Abraham.In.Motion (modern dance)—Pittsburgh native and MacArthur “genius grant” winner Kyle Abraham brings home an evening of dance choreographed around themes of racial injustice. Nov. 10-11, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

You on the Moors Now by Jaclyn Backhaus—Why merely send up Jane Austen when you can do comedy that also spoofs Louisa May Alcott and the Bronte sisters? Nov. 10-19 and Nov. 30 – Dec. 3, Point Park Conservatory Theatre.

Love’s Labor’s Won by Scott Kaiser—And why leave Shakespeare alone when you can invent a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost? Nov. 16-18 and Nov. 28–Dec. 2, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

And running practically forever, or into December, at least …

Actors (and skaters) Olivia Vadnais and Reed Allen Worth have fun in CLO Cabaret's 'Xanadu.' photo: Archie Carpenter.

Olivia Vadnais and Reed Allen Worth just keep on rolling in CLO Cabaret’s long-running ‘Xanadu.’

XANADU (musical) by Jeff Lynne, John Farrar, and Douglas Carter Beane. Through Dec. 17, CLO Cabaret.

The movie Xanadu had Olivia Newton-John, Pittsburgh’s own Gene Kelly, music by Electric Light Orchestra, and animation by Don Bluth. What could go wrong? Everything, evidently. Xanadu, which helped to inspire the Golden Raspberry Awards, flopped at the box office in 1980. The songs, which included the No. 1 “Magic,” were a hit, however. A musical adaptation opened on Broadway in 2007. It kept the music while poking fun at the cinematic version. The combination was a hit, which garnered several Tony Award nominations. The plot involves Kira, a Greek muse who falls in love with Sonny, a mortal who wants to open the first roller disco. Their love is forbidden, and Kira’s two evil sisters intervene. CLO Cabaret performs the musical Xanadu in the Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

Photo credits:  The Color Purple, by Matthew Murphy. DODO, by Handerson Gomes. The Marriage of Figaro, David Bachman Photography. Leo Frank (circa 1910 or later), Bain News Service. Xanadu, by Archie Carpenter.

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

Christopher Maggio is Entertainment Central’s literary and cultural expert-in-residence.