August Theater Guide: Seasonal Variations, Strange Bedfellows
August is always an interesting month on the Pittsburgh live theater schedule. It’s a time of transition, as the annual midsummer blitz of musicals and more musicals is tapering off, but not over. (Are musicals ever “over”?)
Meanwhile, most major companies don’t start their seasons until autumn, which leaves a host of smaller companies putting on shows that can be an odd assortment. There are adventurous small companies staging art-house-type plays, companies presenting light summer-comedy fare, and some that are somewhere in between.
The overall mixture can vary widely depending on how the cards fall, statistically speaking. One form of theater might predominate—or we might have a lineup of strange bedfellows. This year it’s both.
In a streak that was bound to happen, given how many are now made this way, every musical in August is adapted from a movie. There are two Disneys, a couple made from cult-film hits, plus Thoroughly Modern Millie, and even a rare bird. Grey Gardens: The Musical is adapted from a documentary.
As for strange bedfellows, if your tastes are eclectic, you’ll have fun. Early in the month you can see an art-house play like Stupid Fucking Bird (adapted from The Seagull), or maybe Gogol’s The Inspector General, then catch a comedy like Who’s Under Where? Later you can try August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned—in a new Pittsburgh production—paired with Funny Money or Kitchen Witches.
Best of all possibles, people, and there’s more. Spotlighted shows are previewed in order of their run dates; other notable productions are listed at the end.
Continuing from July:
GLORIA by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Through Aug. 5, Hatch Arts Collective.
Hatch Arts Collective—a group that’s made a mark in the Pittsburgh theater scene with original plays written by company member Paul Kruse (Chickens in the Yard, Driftless)—is now mounting the first Pittsburgh production of a recent Pulitzer-nominated play. Gloria, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, was a finalist for the 2016 prize in drama. It’s a workplace tragicomedy set in the offices of a high-profile New York magazine. The characters are lower-echelon writers and editorial grubs whose office banter is barbed with worries about how they’ll ever get ahead in today’s leaner, meaner publishing industry. Then a calamity strikes—not layoffs, but an act of violence in their midst—and some are torn between coping with it and trying to profit from it. Gloria has drawn both praise and controversy. It fits with Hatch Arts Collective’s mission to present “socially engaging” theater. At Nova Place, 100 S. Commons, North Side.
DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (musical). Through Aug. 5, Pittsburgh CLO.
There’s a variation of “You may be a redneck” called “You may be an intellectual.” For instance: “If your favorite version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is Jean Cocteau’s magnificently haunting black-and-white film, in French, with subtitles, you may be an intellectual.” Normal folks know that the definitive version is the Disney animated movie. And really smart normal folks know that Pittsburgh CLO is performing the musical adapted from it, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. This musical has it all. It has the servants who morph into a teapot and a candelabra—live, on stage! It deepens the complexity of the characters of Belle and the Beast, so that normal folks don’t have to read Proust to get that kind of satisfaction. It even has more songs than the movie and Proust combined. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opened on Broadway in 1994 and ran for a staggering 13 years. The CLO run is shorter, so act fast. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. Through Aug. 12, The Summer Company.
America is still in its adolescence. No other country produces so many works of stage and screen with high-school students as main characters. From TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Veronica Mars,” to stage shows that won’t die such as Grease, and movies too numerous to name—all of which have adult audiences as well as teenaged fans—it’s clear that we perceive high school as a microcosm or defining metaphor of our society. Which may explain a lot of things, including the popularity of Heathers: The Musical. It’s a dark musical. Amid comical interplay between a high school’s in-group kids and outsiders, there’s a dangerously deranged teen. He is not a mass killer, but he’s an insidious schemer, and multiple deaths ensue, accompanied by songs including “My Dead Gay Son” and “I Am Damaged.” Adapted from the cult film Heathers, the show was an off-Broadway hit a few years ago. The Summer Company performs Heathers: The Musical in the Genesius Theater at Duquesne University, 1225 Seitz St., Uptown.
STUPID FUCKING BIRD by Aaron Posner. Through Aug.12, 12 Peers Theater.
In theater as in movies, remakes often misfire, but sometimes they work. Some great remakes have been seen on Pittsburgh stages in recent years: Kirk Lynn’s Fixing King John turned one of Shakespeare’s “meh” plays into a stirring (if bizarre) experience, and David Ives’ re-do of the 17th-century French comedy The Liar had audiences laughing their derrieres off. Now comes Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird. This one dares big, as it remakes a play that’s neither a dud nor a little-known relic: The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. The Seagull is a certified masterpiece. Though written in the 1890s, it’s modern in nature, slyly mixing absurd satire with serious stuff …. But, but, but. That sly, subtle style can make Chekhov’s plays hard to do well. Translating his Russian to English compounds the problem. Stupid Fucking Bird solves the problem with a front-to-back rewrite. Playwright Posner has largely kept Chekhov’s plot—a timeless tale of trippy artists and tangled love affairs—except he’s put it in present-day America, with scenes and dialogue to fit. Critics in other cities have praised the result and so does Entertainment Central: see our review. 12 Peers Theater serves up the Bird in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland.
Shows in the Entertainment Central spotlight for August:
STEEL MAGNOLIAS by Robert Harling. Aug. 2-18, Little Lake Theatre
Playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias, a classic tragicomic tear-jerker, in memory of his sister. Susan Harling-Robinsson had died from complications of diabetes after giving birth, and the play, set in a beauty shop in a Louisiana town, depicts the interactions of a group of odd but stout-hearted women as one of them faces the same crisis. Steel Magnolias premiered in New York in 1987, quickly becoming a popular ensemble piece for all-female casts. The 1989 movie adaptation had a star-studded lineup including Julia Roberts and Dolly Parton; a 2012 Lifetime TV film re-did the story with an all-African-American cast including Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, and others. Little Lake Theatre is performing the original Steel Magnolias at 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.
THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (musical) by Jeanine Tesori, Dick Scanlan, and Richard Morris. Aug. 7-12, Pittsburgh CLO.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is a musical adapted from a movie adapted from a musical. One could ask whether that musical was adapted from a movie, but it can’t be turtles all the way down, because if you go much farther back you get to a time when movies didn’t exist. Anyhow, Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in New York in the Roaring Twenties. A poor girl from Kansas comes to the big city with a brilliant plan: She will wear short skirts and dance and drink highballs at speakeasies, while getting an office job at a big company in order to marry the boss who is filthy rich. Complications arise when Millie stumbles into a racket which involves kidnapping young women to sell them into bondage overseas. That’s a setup that makes for lots of dizzy intrigue, not to mention songs and music aplenty. The show won the 2002 Tony Award for Best Musical, and Pittsburgh CLO presents Thoroughly Modern Millie here. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
THE INSPECTOR GENERAL by Nikolai Gogol. Aug. 10-18, Throughline Theatre
Throughline Theatre closes its 2018 season, themed “Make ’Em Laugh,” with the third of three bizarre comedies. The play is by Nikolai Gogol, best known as the author of short stories like “The Nose,” about a body part that escapes its owner. It would be fascinating to see this attempted on stage but Throughline has chosen Gogol’s The Inspector General. Surreal in its own way, it’s a satirical farce set in a small Russian town run by crooked politicians. They get word that officials in the capital have sent an undercover inspector, and sure enough there’s a mysterious guest at the local inn. So the naughty boys scramble to hide their dirty laundry and they grovel before the man, assuring him the town is his to see or do anything he wants—except he’s no inspector, just a loopy guy who proceeds to see how far he can run with it.
The Inspector General follows Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Aflred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in the Throughline lineup. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
GREY GARDENS: THE MUSICAL by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie, from the Maysles brothers’ film. Aug. 17-26, Front Porch Theatricals.
Front Porch Theatricals is a company known for staging unusual musicals, and they’ve got one in Grey Gardens: The Musical. It’s adapted from a documentary film with a strange story behind it. In the early 1970s the Maysles brothers, David and Albert, were America’s foremost documentarians. They had recently released Gimme Shelter—a chronicle of the Rolling Stones tour that ended in violence at a concert where security guards from Hell’s Angels tried to control an unruly crowd—and they were looking for a subject in a different vein. Grey Gardens is a mansion on the fashionable far end of Long Island. Living in it then were two women, Edith and her daughter “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, once prominent socialites. They had abandoned the social whirl to become reclusive cat ladies.
And though neighbors were appalled that they’d also abandoned maintenance of Grey Gardens, the eccentric “two Edies” seemed to enjoy their new lifestyle. For company they had not only cats but raccoons, and they filled the days with delightful activities—such as putting on their own private cabaret shows, as both women were accomplished singers and dancers. The Maysles brothers’ 1975 film enabled them to show and tell their life stories to a wide audience. Grey Gardens: The Musical premiered in New York in 2006; the Front Porch production is at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
BALLET UNDER THE STARS (free performance by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre). Aug. 19 at Hartwood Acres Park Amphitheater.
Ballet is one of the pricier tickets in town, except on Sunday, August 19, when it’s free. Dancers and musicians of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre visit the outdoor stage at Hartwood Acres to perform pieces from the company’s repertoire in a show called Ballet Under the Stars. As the title indicates, this is an evening performance, but fans are invited to come early for a couple of pre-show events. One is a “Family Fun” festival with free children’s activities and on-site food vendors, starting at 5 p.m. Also at 5 p.m., the VIP tent opens for dinner, drinks, and a chance to meet the PBT dancers; this event requires buying tickets (see the web link above). The free performance begins at 7:30 p.m. Since that is before sunset, not many stars will be visible at first—but they’ll come out soon, and everyone is invited to dance along with the show. The program features recent works by PBT dancers JoAnna Schmidt, Yoshiaki Nakano, and Jessica McCann. The program will then conclude with Jerome Robbins’ romantic piece “In the Night.” Hartwood Acres Park Amphitheater, 4000 Middle Rd., Allison Park.
PITTSBURGH NEW WORKS FESTIVAL by various playwrights, produced by regional theater companies. Aug.19 – Sept. 23. Carnegie Stage.
Why are some people big fans of one-act festivals? Because going to one, as opposed to seeing a full-length play, is like reading short stories versus reading a novel. You get a cross-section of stories in different styles and moods, which (a) is fun in itself, and (b) helps assure that you’ll see something you really like. The Pittsburgh New Works Festival, now in its 28th year, is one of the oldest and largest of its kind. Beginning today and continuing through September 23, a total of 18 new one-acts are presented by 18 regional theater companies.This year’s entries come from playwrights living across the United States and beyond—341 plays were submitted for possible inclusion in the festival—and the pieces range from high comedy to introspective drama. See the Festival website for schedules and details. Carnegie Stage. 7 p.m. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. (MV)
DISNEY’S ALADDIN (musical) by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin, from the movie. Aug. 22 – Sept. 9, touring company at Benedum Center.
Disney animated movies provoke a range of opinions, but can we all agree they have some great songs? “Colors of the Wind,” from Pocahontas, is hard to beat, while Aladdin makes the list with “(You Ain’t Never Had a) Friend Like Me.” Sung by the late Robin Williams in the film, it’s a Cab Calloway-style strut-my-stuff song about all the cool things the lamp genie can do. The stage musical that’s adapted from the movie turns “Friend Like Me” into a major, rock-the-house production number. You can catch it, along with the show’s other tunes and antics, because the touring company of Disney’s Aladdin is visiting Benedum Center. They’re in town for a long run: 23 performances over 18 days. Hesitate not, however, for a long run bespeaks popularity. You might need a genie to get tickets if you wait. 237 7thSt., Cultural District.
MADE IN AMERICA: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED with The Second City. Aug. 24-25 hosted by Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The Second City is such a good comedy company, and such a legendary company, that journalists are tempted to write awful clichéd sentences like “The Second City is second to none.” But it’s true. Evidence can be seen here in Pittsburgh, as The Second City sends us its latest road show, Made in America: Some Assembly Required. Word has it that the show may include content of a political nature. And though it’s a sad commentary on the state of our country when political trigger warnings are required, these folks are pretty skilled at making laughs and entertainment out of just about anything. The Second City was founded in Chicago in 1959. Famous alumni include John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Steve Carell, Steven Colbert, Tina Fey, et cetera ad infinitum. The Made in America show is hosted by Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED by August Wilson. Aug. 30 – Sept. 1, Ever Forward Productions / Wali Jamal Abdullah.
Most people know that August Wilson wrote 10 major plays; fewer know about the 11th. Unlike the 10 in his famous Pittsburgh Cycle, which are fictional, How I Learned What I Learned is a one-man show full of true tales from Wilson’s life. Friends of the late playwright recall him as a world-class talker who could keep them spellbound for hours with stories of things he’d seen and done—and, after years of toying with the idea, he agreed to make an actual stage performance out of the stuff. Wilson co-wrote How I Learned with friend and dramaturg Todd Kreidler, who wisely had taken notes during some of the talkathons. Wilson himself performed the play only once, for a benefit event in 2003 in his then-hometown of Seattle. He hoped it’d become a piece to be done by an actor, but after his death in 2005 the script lay dormant until revivals began a few years ago—notably, at Pittsburgh Public Theater, with Eugene Lee as Wilson.
Now comes a new production. This indie venture is launched and performed by Wali Jamal Abdullah, no stranger to Wilson’s work. Jamal Abdullah has acted in all 10 Pittsburgh Cycle plays. With How I Learned What I Learned, he claims he’ll be the first to cover the entire Wilson oeuvre. How I Learned has gotten strong reviews in many cities, praised both as a portrait of a great artist and as just plain good theater. Since the play focuses on Wilson’s youth-to-adulthood years in Pittsburgh, there’s not a better city in which to see it. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: THE MUSICAL by William Finn and James Lapine. Aug. 30 – Sept. 15, Little Lake Theatre.
Traditional beauty contests are going out of favor, amid complaints that they objectify women and get them to compete crassly on the basis of superficial standards that don’t really matter. But doesn’t modern society do that stuff to all of us, in many aspects of life? And isn’t it maybe time to rebel? There, more or less, you have the theme of Little Miss Sunshine. The 2006 low-budget film became a hit, and Little Lake Theatre is performing the stage adaptation, Little Miss Sunshine: The Musical. It has the same story of a whacked-out family on a road trip, driving little Olive to a preteen beauty pageant she can’t hope to win. On board are the rest of the family’s non-winners—the overstressed mom, the career-chasing dad, and so forth—along with the rambunctious drug-snorting grandpa who is going to play a central role, even after he’s … wait, no spoilers. It ain’t pretty but it’s pretty funny. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.
Other notable productions:
WHO’S UNDER WHERE? by Marcia Kash and Doug Hughes. Yes, there will be underwear. Yes, the double entendre is intentional. Leave the children at home, unless they think sex and sexy lingerie are hilarious, in which case they are probably right but should stay home anyway. July 31 – Aug. 12, Mountain Playhouse. 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. This is not the Leonardo DiCaprio movie or the Broadway musical of the same title. It’s a murder mystery-slash-comedy set in the Catskills, and with so many Catch Me If You Cans running around, no wonder it’s hard to catch ’em. Aug. 2-18, South Park Theatre. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.
MAMA WON’T FLY by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten. Mama won’t fly, so she has to be driven cross-country to attend her son’s wedding. Along the way, anything that can go wrong, does. Incredibly, somehow it all works out to a happy ending. Aug. 9 -18, Apple Hill Playhouse. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.
QUEER: NEW AMERICAN TALL TALES folkLAB productions opens a world premiere performance and the second installment of “in Our Voice” series. Each production features small ensembles with each person representing an oppressed, under or misrepresented public identity. folkLAB has the ensemble members create a new performance work inspired by folklore of their choice. Each group has just a couple of weeks of rehearsals to create the play before its debut. QUEER: new American tall tales is the latest in the series and features actors and production staff who identify as queer. QUEER runs through August 26. 8:30 p.m. Aftershock Theatre, 115 57th St., Lawrenceville.
FUNNY MONEY by Ray Cooney. If you accidentally picked up a briefcase full of cash that isn’t yours, would you keep it? Are you aware you’d be inviting wild complications that have the makings of a summertime comedy? Aug. 23 – Sept. 8, South Park Theatre. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.
KITCHEN WITCHES by Caroline Smith. The concept of a play within a play has been used ever since Hamlet. Kitchen Witches is about two co-hostesses of a TV cooking show called “The Kitchen Witches.” They hate each other, and their comical attempts to not get along lead to true meta-theater. Aug. 30 – Sept. 8, Apple Hill Playhouse. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.
PERFECT WEDDING by Robin Hawdon. Through Aug. 26, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.
While Pittsburgh CLO is best known for mounting big Broadway musicals, the company also has an intimate cabaret venue with shows running year-round. Currently up in the CLO Cabaret is Robin Hawdon’s Perfect Wedding. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, though one might question how romantic it is for the groom to wake up on the morning of the wedding and find a strange woman in his bed. Perfect Wedding is neither big nor fat nor Greek but is reported to induce laughter. And since CLO Cabaret serves food and drinks, please laugh safely while consuming these. 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
Photos: Disney’s Aladdin, by Deer van Meen. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, by Matt Polk. Anton Chekhov, undated, photographer unknown. Thoroughly Modern Millie, by Dianne Sobolewski. Nikolai Gogol, 1840s, painted portrait by Fyodor Antonovich Moller. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre by Kelly Perkovich. All others, courtesy of the companies.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.