October Theater Preview: Time to Double Down

Live theater moves into high gear this month as City Theatre, the university theaters, Pittsburgh Opera, and Pittsburgh Ballet open their seasons, joining companies that are already under way. With some top touring attractions coming to town as well, it’s an ideal time of year to see more than one show. In fact, if particular genres or types of theater appeal to you, it could be interesting to see how they’re treated in different productions. Here are some possible “double features” that one could choose during October.

Two ways to do opera: Quantum Theatre’s operatic version of The Winter’s Tale is hallucinogenic, while Verdi’s Nabucco (at Pittsburgh Opera) is titanic. A gritty new dark comedy from Ireland and one from the Bronx: Both Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive (at City Theatre) and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful (Pitt Theatre Arts) involve characters wrestling with their personal demons while trying to escape the lower rungs of society. Naughty boys in town for one-night stands: Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight (Oct. 15 only) re-creates a performance by the wicked humorist of the late 1800s; Richard Maxwell’s The Evening (Oct. 23 only) delivers a wicked dose of modern experimental theater. Gospel vs. pop: Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gripping Choir Boy (Pittsburgh Playhouse REP) and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (national touring company) are both alive with the sound of music, though they strike rather different notes.

Even in dance, good things come in pairs. A duo from the famed Nrityagram center brings Indian classical dance to Pittsburgh, then later in the month come two contemporary shows: an evening of short modern ballets by Pittsburgh Ballet and a visit by Philly's modern dance troupe PHILADANCO.

Even in dance, good things come in pairs. A duo from the famed Nrityagram center brings Indian classical dance to Pittsburgh, then later in the month come two contemporary shows: an evening of short modern ballets by Pittsburgh Ballet and a visit by Philly’s modern dance troupe PHILADANCO.

… And of course there’s no need to stay on theme, either. Shakespeare’s snappy comedy Much Ado About Nothing (Carnegie Mellon School of Drama) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (Prime Stage) have very little in common, other than being plays in the so-called canon. They are in there because they’re good.

Shows are previewed here in order of their run dates.

THE WINTER’S TALE (operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by Karla Boos, Andres Cladera, and others). Through Oct. 3, Quantum Theatre.

See Entertainment Central’s review for the inside scoop on Quantum Theatre’s spectacular, mind-altering version of one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic plays. The Winter’s Tale has nothing to do with winter. It’s a tragedy-slash-comedy with supernatural twists and a happy ending, and the script includes Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, sending off one unhappy fellow with “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The Winter’s Tale is so weird that few companies attempt it today. Quantum has turned it into a baroque opera—enlisting music director Andres Cladera, singers in all the roles, musicians from Chatham Baroque, and a dance troupe from Attack Theatre. Will the bear dance? Find out in the Music Hall at the Union Trust Building, 501 Grant St., Downtown.

SAMYOGA: AN ODE TO LOVE (classical Indian dance) by Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. Oct. 3 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

On the outskirts of Bangalore, the bustling hub of India’s high-tech industries, a rustic enclave called Nrityagram has become a center for keeping a dazzling art form alive. Nrityagram is a residential school where students are dedicated to learning and practicing classical Indian dance. The center’s dancers and musicians tour worldwide, and a highly acclaimed Nritygram ensemble visits Pittsburgh to perform a feature-length piece called Samyoga: An Ode to Love. Dancers Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy are masters of Odissi, a sacred and traditional style of dance; they’re accompanied by four musicians.

Note: The Nrityagram show is presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council as part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s ongoing India in Focus festival, a series of performances and art exhibits at various venues extending into November. Nrityagram’s Samyoga is at Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

 

JERSEY BOYS (musical) by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by The Four Seasons. Through Oct. 4, national touring company at Benedum Center.

There were people who couldn’t stand the sound, but millions more who loved it. The sound was the otherworldly, phenomenally high falsetto of lead singer Frankie Valli. It was the centerpiece of The Four Seasons’ distinctive musical style, helping to drive the group to fame and fortune in the 1960s from the members’ rough-and-tumble beginnings in the blue-collar world of Newark, N.J.—a climb so colorful that it inspired the musical Jersey Boys. The touring-company show that’s visiting Pittsburgh has been a hot ticket, which isn’t surprising. The Broadway original won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006 and was recently made into a movie. Unlike the stage show and the group itself, the Jersey Boys film didn’t chart, but it was directed by none other than Clint Eastwood. And if tough-guy Clint is enthralled by songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man,” who can resist? Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING by William Shakespeare. Oct. 8-17, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

If you ask theater fans to name their favorite Shakespeare comedies, two come up repeatedly: As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Along with having great comic scenes and characters, they are written in a straightforward style that allows modern audiences to easily follow the language and action. Lately it’s Much Ado that has gotten more buzz, thanks to Joss Whedon’s fine 2012 film adaptation, which won a big following among Whedonites despite its complete lack of superheroes, vampires, or slayers thereof. Now Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is performing Much Ado About Nothing, a play wherein high-society villains are pursued by clueless cops while a couple of wisecracking cynics find true love in each other’s arms—but only after much ado. At the Philip Chosky Theater in Purnell Center for the Arts on the Carnegie Mellon campus, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

 

PHILADANCO (modern dance). Oct. 9 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

PHILADANCO is short for Philadelphia Dance Company, one of the companies that has come to define modern dance in the African-American tradition since its founding in 1970. If there’s anything you have seen done or even imagined being done in that general department, PHILADANCO has done it, plus a few things you probably couldn’t have imagined. The company’s styles range from exuberant to sensuous, from comical to mystical, and the music includes everything from drums to old piano-bar torch songs to weird new stuff. The brief video above is from the company’s 2009 visit to Pittsburgh. PHILADANCO is back, and dance fans can be there or risk being square. August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

 

NABUCCO (opera) by Giuseppe Verdi. Oct 10-18, Pittsburgh Opera.

Pittsburgh Opera launches its new season with the opera that vaulted Giuseppe Verdi into the foremost ranks of composers. Nabucco (“Nebuchadnezzar”) is based on the ancient story of the conquest of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. The subject matter begs for an opera of epic proportions, which Verdi and librettist Temistocle Solera delivered. The historical saga is overlaid with a tense fictional tale—when the conquering king suffers a bout of madness, a usurper plots to execute the Jewish captives—and it’s all set to powerful music. Nabucco opened in Milan in 1842, drawing thunderous applause and turn-away crowds. “Va, pensiero” (a.k.a the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”; see video above from a Royal Opera House production) has become a choral classic. Pittsburgh Opera’s Nabucco has bass-baritone Mark Delavan in the title role. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

THE NIGHT ALIVE by Conor McPherson. Oct. 10 – Nov. 1, City Theatre.

There is a theater genre that doesn’t officially have a name, so let’s describe it: “spooky, dark-humor Irish tales of suspense and existential terror, played out among members of the struggling classes.” Playwright Conor McPherson is a master of the genre, and City Theatre is presenting his latest, The Night Alive. The central character is a disorganized young man who works odd jobs while living in an apartment full of odd junk that reflects his fragmented sense of the world. Stumbling across a young woman who has been violently attacked, he brings her to his home, and strange and perilous adventures await. The Night Alive opened in London in 2013 and already has been picked up by such major U.S. companies as Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre; City’s production is the Pittsburgh premiere. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

CHOIR BOY by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Through Oct. 11, Pittsburgh Playhouse REP.

Maybe it’s a cliché to say that a play “rocks” the audience. That, however, is just what Tarell McCraney’s Choir Boy has been doing to audiences across the country since it opened in New York in 2013. The video clip above comes from the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., which presented the play earlier this year. Locally, the REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse is performing Choir Boy, and seat belts should be fastened—unless you are moved to stand up and rock along. Though filled with music, this isn’t a musical but a drama about a boys’ gospel choir at an African American prep school. Much of the drama revolves around the fact that one boy is gay. Themes of repression, rebellion, and liberation abound, shot through with wicked humor. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

DULCY by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Through Oct. 11, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

Best known for its knockout performances of August Wilson’s Hill District dramas, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is going for another kind of knockout with Dulcy. The zany comedy is a throwback classic from 1921, co-written by Pittsburgh native George S. Kaufman and McKeesport native Marc Connelly when they were rising stars in New York. Both later won Pulitzer Prizes; Kaufman won another brand of fame as a writer for the Marx Brothers, and Dulcy has the Marxian spirit—except with a female flavor. The title character is a wild-witted woman who wades boldly into the world of the big-money elites and big business, raising havoc all around. PPTCO’s production updates the setting from the Roaring Twenties to 2015 but keeps the roar factor intact. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

"Ain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority?"—Mark Twain (in "Huckleberry Finn").

“Ain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority?”—Mark Twain (in “Huckleberry Finn”).

MARK TWAIN TONIGHT by Hal Holbrook, adapted from Twain’s writing and speeches. Oct. 15 only at the Byham Theater.

The rumors that Hal Holbrook has sold his soul to the Devil are not true. Yet one must excuse the rumors, as there certainly are grounds for suspicion. Here is Holbrook at the age of 90—that’s nine-zero, ninety—still touring and performing his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight, which he originated 60 years ago to re-create Twain’s actual speaking engagements. How does he keep going?

Sources close to the situation insist that no diabolical bargain has been struck. They note that Holbrook might be following Mark Twain’s own precepts for health and longevity, such as the author’s strenuous avoidance of exercise and his famous principle of moderation: “I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.” Thus we are assured the only diabolical element of Holbrook’s performance will be the humor. The show he’s bringing to Pittsburgh includes new material from the vast repertoire of Twain’s writing and speeches, so whether you have wanted to see Holbrook for the first time or see him again, the question is: Why wait? Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

INTO THE WOODS by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Oct. 16-25, Point Park Conservatory Theatre Co.

Whether you saw the movie or missed it, here’s a chance to get your dark fairy tales live on stage. Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre is performing Into the Woods, the spooky Stephen Sondheim musical that was released last year as a film starring Meryl Streep as The Witch. More than a few Sondheim aficionados consider Into the Woods their favorite. The musical’s book, by James Lapine, mashes up a variety of fairy tales (“Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel,” etc.) into a chilling saga of what can happen when people get what they wish for. Into the Woods opened on Broadway in 1987 and has become a cult classic, oft produced elsewhere. With musical theater being a specialty at Point Park, one can expect the Conservatory Theatre—the school’s student company—to make quite a good show of it. At Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

Lisa Ann Goldsmith (L) is freewheelin' while Elizabeth Ruelas gets all tied up in seriousness in "Tunnel Vision." (photo: Heather Mull)

Lisa Ann Goldsmith (L) is freewheelin’ while Elizabeth Ruelas gets all tied up in seriousness in “Tunnel Vision.”

TUNNEL VISION by Andrea Lepcio. Oct. 16-31, off the WALL Productions.

Is Andrea Lepcio a “feminist” playwright? Lepcio doesn’t use the term in her own promo materials, so let’s just say that this theater artist based in Bar Harbor, Maine writes plays about topics and issues particular to women. Off the WALL Productions is staging the world premiere of her latest, Tunnel Vision. Fans of off the Wall may recall the 2013 production of Looking for the Pony, also by Lepcio; her new play takes a seriocomic look at how women may perceive themselves as they try to juggle a career, motherhood, and other demands while finding a place in the world. Tunnel Vision is a two-person piece acted by Lisa Ann Goldsmith and Elizabeth Ruelas, with direction by Melissa Maxwell. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Oct. 22 – Nov. 1, University of Pittsburgh Theatre Arts.

One would be hard pressed to think of a more socially relevant play than Water by the Spoonful. It also happens to be very good—having received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012—and Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts is giving Water its premiere production in Pittsburgh. The characters include a hard-luck veteran of the Iraq war, his upwardly mobile but frazzled sister, and their mother, a recovering crack addict—plus a motley crew in various locations who frequent a recovery-oriented Internet chat room organized by HaikuMom, as she calls herself online. So you might say it’s all there in Water by the Spoonful: the human tragicomedy in its many modern manifestations, as it is lived in urban America and in cyberspace. At the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

THE EVENING by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Oct. 23 only, presented by The Warhol and the New Hazlett Theater, at the New Hazlett.

Playwright/director Richard Maxwell is from North Dakota, which may help explain why the experimental theater pieces he creates with his current outfit—the New York City Players—have a spirit that’s a cross between far-out and down-home. Heard the one about two guys in a bar? Actually, two bozos and a broad (she’s the bartender), with electric guitars thrumming seemingly at random, and with soliloquies and confrontations that induce a state of aesthetic excitement tempered by confusion and dread? That is Maxwell’s The Evening, presented in Pittsburgh by the Andy Warhol Museum and the New Hazlett Theater. The video review at the beginning of this piece should help illuminate the experience. At the New Hazlett, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

WESTERN SYMPHONY, IN THE MIDDLE SOMEWHAT ELEVATED, & SINFONIETTA (three ballets). Oct. 23-25, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

The season opener for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is one of the company’s specialties: an eclectic evening of short modern ballets, put together to give audiences a sampling of the state of the art. This time the three ballets—Western Symphony, In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, and Sinfonietta—are the works of choreographers George Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Jiří Kylián, respectively. The late Balanchine, born in Russia, immigrated to the United States and became more American (and more creative) than apple pie; his Western Symphony is an homage to the West where cowboys roamed. Forsythe and Kylián are still alive and working. Their ballets are more avant-garde and unlikely to send you home hummin’ and hoppin’ to a buckaroo tune. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

 BRAINPEOPLE by José Rivera. Oct. 23-31, Throughline Theatre Company.

Here’s how it works in theater journalism. Companies put out promotional blurbs about their plays, and even if the blurbs are good, you can’t just reprint them, because that’s being lazy. But once in a blue moon you get one that defies you to top it. Here is Throughline Theatre Company’s description of Brainpeople:

“Breaking curfew and defying a nameless, faceless authority in the outside world, Mayannah has invited Ani and Rosemary to a peculiar dinner party. With the host promising her guests each a large sum of money if they can stay for the entire meal, the three women partake in a lavish feast of Tiger in observance of a mysterious anniversary. As the party progresses, their reality unravels, their sanity fractures, and their futures are irreversibly altered.”

Got it? Throughline is doing Brainpeople at Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St. Lawrenceville.

Remy Zaken was in the Broadway cast of the dark musical "Spring Awakening"; here she is Anne Frank.

Remy Zaken was in the original Broadway cast of the dark musical “Spring Awakening”; here she is Anne Frank.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Through Oct. 25, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Many have read the book but few in recent years have seen the stage play based on it, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1956. Pittsburgh Public Theater is providing a fresh look with its revival of The Diary of Anne Frank. The story is, of course, one of the enduring true stories of the past century, drawn from the diary of a young teenager hunted and eventually caught by Nazi occupation forces in The Netherlands during World War II. Anne Frank died of illness at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp early in 1945—only a few months before V-E day. She was 15. Her diary, left behind in Amsterdam, was found and first published in Dutch in 1947. The rest is history. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

 

BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL by Douglas McGrath, with songs by King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and others. Oct. 27 – Nov. 1, national touring company at Benedum Center.

In Broadway language, a “jukebox musical” is one that uses existing songs while a “bio-musical” tells the story of a real person or persons, and usually a show is not both. Example: Mamma Mia! uses the songs of ABBA but does not tell the story of ABBA, since that much ABBA might be too much ABBA. Ah, but Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is both. It traces the renowned pop artist’s rise from hit songwriter to performer of hits that she wrote, cowrote, or had written for her. The performance features more than two dozen signature Carole King songs, including “So Far Away,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” “One Fine Day” (video above, which she cowrote for The Chiffons), and more. The show is still playing on Broadway; last year it was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won two (including Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Jessie Mueller as King), and a national touring company brings Beautiful to Pittsburgh. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller. Oct. 30 – Nov. 8, Prime Stage Theatre.

Prime Stage Theatre is kicking off Halloween weekend with a play about witches, and everyone familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible knows that witches are not the scary part. This is a play about the Salem witch trials of 1692-93 that sent 20 innocent people to their deaths. The Crucible shouldn’t be taken as a precise historical account of the trials. Miller invented scenes and dialogue to help move the story along; he also altered some key facts regarding certain people and their roles in the events. Yet it’s true that figures such as John Proctor (the central character) were hanged on the basis of “evidence” that seems absurd today—and even seemed absurd to many horrified onlookers of that time. Miller was moved to write the play by the inquests into suspected Communist activity in the United States during the early 1950s; The Crucible won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1953. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

ALTAR BOYZ (musical) by Gary Adler, Michael Patrick Walker, and Kevin Del Aguila. Through Dec. 20, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

One of the more interesting venues in town is Pittsburgh CLO’s Cabaret theater, an intimate space where the group presents comical musical fare in extended runs. Up currently is Altar Boyz, a cheerfully irreverent send-up of two popular trends: boy bands and Christian-themed music. The fictional Altar Boyz of the title are a group with members named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham (he’s Jewish). Song-and-dance bits like “Church Rulez” and the hip-hop “Miracle Song” stop short of the outrageousness seen in The Book of Mormon but are quite rousing. The original off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz ran for five years, from 2005-10, and it has become a staple of regional theaters and fringe festivals worldwide. CLO Cabaret, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, by Nan Melville. Mark Twain (1871), by Matthew Brady. Remy Zaken in The Diary of Anne Frank, courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater, Tunnel Vision by Heather Mull.

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