February 2024 Theater Guide: Pursue Your Passions

(L. to R.) Trinity Posey, Sam McLellan, and Sam Nackman in 'The Book of Norman' North American tour, onstage at the Benedum this month. (Photo: Julieta Cervante)

(L. to R.) Trinity Posey, Sam McLellan, and Sam Nackman in ‘The Book of Norman’ North American tour, onstage at the Benedum this month. (Photo: Julieta Cervante)

February is one of those months from which we expect little. Heck, it offers us fewer days than any other month. Perhaps that’s why February is rarely targeted for big projects, major reorganization or great accomplishments. As such, why not take a few of these days to pursue some of your more personal interests? Funny thing, Pittsburgh’s theater scene this month encourages that very opportunity.  Whether the story concerns a sea captain pursuing a whale (Moby Dick), an American woman searching her Filipino past (Dragon Lady), a young lady taming her fears (Beauty and the Beast), missionaries proselytizing Africans (The Book of Mormon), a blue-collar work team in crisis (Skeleton Crew), or poor homesteaders securing their statehood (Proving Up), there’s much to pursue on stage this February. Of course, it’s a month, too, for launching arrows that reap romance. Why not seek your ideal love match (The Perfect Mate), entice a fine fiancé (Intimate Apparel) or earn your claim to fame (Blues Is the Roots)? Maybe men in tutus (Les Ballets Trockadero) make you merry? Indeed, your choices are plentiful this propitious month. (C.P.O.)

The Theater Guide outline is created by the theater writers and theater editors of Entertainment Central. Mike Vargo (M.V.) also contributed to this guide.

Spotlight Picks

MOBY DICK (theater, effects, big puppetry) created by Yngvild Aspeli, from Herman Melville’s novel. Touring company at The Byham. February 2 – 3. 

Only about 2,600 lucky Pittsburghers will see the stunning new stage version of Moby Dick, given the capacity of the Byham Theater and the touring show’s two-night run here. Of course the rest of us aren’t exactly left high and dry, since we can read the book, which remains the only way to get the full impact of this saga. Melville’s 1851 novel is much more than a tale of Ahab and the whale. It’s a kaleidoscope of the human comedy-slash-tragedy, weaving many tales together while it rambles wondrously through realms from biology to pre-existential philosophy, all of which defies being “captured” on stage or screen. But Norwegian theater artist Yngvild Aspeli has done what good adapters do. She created a work that takes flight on its own—drawn from passages in the book, infused with her childhood memories of the sea, and presented in a striking form. Aspeli’s Moby Dick uses eerie life-sized puppets, actors in death masks, and thunder-and-lightning stage effects combined with rock music and resonant chanting to conjure up a moving theater experience. The show comes to Pittsburgh as part of the Dentons Cohen & Grigsby TRUST PRESENTS Series. 101 Sixth St., Cultural District. (M.V.) 

THE PERFECT MATE (musical) by Dan Lipton and David Rossmer. Pittsburgh CLO. February 2 – March 17. 

The year is 2063 and Joan Sweete, a young single woman with the archaic belief that true love can only be shared and nurtured one soulmate at a time, challenges her values (and libido) by entering a love-match contest. Of course, she wins the grand prize: a robot programmed with human emotion. Turns out, Miss Sweete may have found her forever lover. Yet, can a robotic Romeo deliver that which Juliet claimed “is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man?” The Perfect Mate was developed by David Rossmer and Dan Lipton as part of CLO’s inaugural SPARK festival, launched in 2018, to encourage the creation of new musical theater. The Perfect Mate features two alumnae of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, Gena Sims and Olivia Vadnais, and is directed by Off Broadway’s seemingly ubiquitous Carolyn Cantor. Mature audience advisory. At the newly redesigned Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District, Downtown. (C.P.O.)

DRAGON LADY (one-person musical) by Sara Porkalob, directed by Andrew Russell. Pittsburgh Public Theater. February 7 – 25.

If memories of old Buck Rogers serials or Milton Caniff’s “Yellow Peril” comicstrips have you wondering how a contemporary musical can get away with the sexually-charged, racist trope “Dragon Lady” as its title, then your outrage will be assuaged by Sara Porkalob’s funny, solo musical about her Filipino grandmother. A Seattle artist, actor and writer, Porkalob created waves recently when criticizing the very same Broadway production of 1776 in which she was appearing. Moving on from that media scandal, Porkalob developed her own musical––make that plural—because Dragon Lady is actually the first of a trilogy she will soon complete. And it’s a sweet, sometimes soft, but often raucous tribute to her immigrant matriarch. Through dozens of characters she manifests in this musical ode, Porkalob tells the story of Maria, once a Manila nightclub singer whose lilting voice leads her to Washington State, where, along with five children, she struggles to bring joy and wisdom to those she loves. (Mature audience advisory.) Dragon Lady takes the O’Reilly stage at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)

BLUES IS THE ROOTS (jukebox musical) by Charles Dumas, directed by Herb Newsome. New Horizon Theater. Feb. 8 – 18.

A bass player, guitarist, and blues singer with more than 500 songs to his name, Willie Dixon can’t truly be labeled an unsung hero. But his name is rarely recalled in the pantheon of blues greats whose contributions to this truly American genre include those who made his songs famous: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry. A boxer in his early days (having moved to Chicago from his Mississippi roots), Dixon was a conscientious objector during World War II and served ten months in jail protesting racial injustice. After the war, he signed with Chess Records and from there climbed the charts with dozens of other Chicago blues icons. Blues is the Roots is a musical tribute to the man who earned immortality with his induction in the Blues Hall of Fame, as well as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But for all his hundreds of songs covered by The Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and many other rock groups of the ‘60s, he earned just one Grammy. Charles Dumas, Penn State’s first Black professor emeritus of its School of Theatre, has written this tribute to a blues hero about whom (if never before) you will sing aloud. Blues is the Roots is staged by New Horizon Theater at the Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall, at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)

LES BALLETS TROCKADERO DE MONTE CARLO (comical gender-crossing ballet). Presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council. February 10 only, 8 p.m.

The zany, and talented Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo hit the boards of the Byham Theater. (Photo: courtesy of the artist.)

The zany, and talented Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will hit the boards of the Byham Theater. (Photo: courtesy of the artist.)

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo do not come from Monte Carlo. The dance/parody troupe began, in New York City, as an offshoot from Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Pittsburgh theater fans who are senior citizens may remember Ludlam well. He famously performed Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler here in 1984—playing Hedda in drag, while managing to be seriously dramatic and only somewhat ridiculous. The Trocks, as they’re called, are seriously ridiculous. They are accomplished male dancers who wear tutus and have mastered the ballerina’s art of dancing en pointe, along with the fine art of physical comedy. They’ve been spoofing classical ballet and modern dance on international tours since the 1970s. Pittsburgh Dance Council presents the Trocks at the Byham Theater for a one-night stand. 8 p.m. 101 6th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (ballet) by Lew Christensen, to music by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.  Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. February 16 – 25. 

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is performing the classic tale of 'Beauty and the Beast.' Pictured here are Colin McCaslin and Marisa Grywalski. (Photo: Rieder Photography)

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is performing the classic tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Pictured here are Colin McCaslin and Marisa Grywalski. (Photo: Rieder Photography)

The “Beauty and the Beast” fantasy tale has been dramatized in various forms, and opinions are divided on which version is best. Many with high-art tastes prefer Jean Cocteau’s haunting black and white film of 1946, in French with English subtitles, while many more go for the Disney animated movie. And, unbeknownst to most, a smaller but enthusiastic third party has emerged. They are dance fans who love the Beauty and the Beast ballet. The ballet is a modern one—created and choreographed in 1958 by Lew Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet, where he was the director, and set to arrangements from Tchaikovsky’s music. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dances Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast at Benedum Center this month. It’s a thrill ride for the senses, as the story lends itself to dance. Powerful scenes in the Cocteau film were built around the actors’ entrancing, dance-like movements, with little or no dialogue. Christensen took the concept all the way and then some, adding scenes that include enchanted forest animals and a rousing wedding dance at the end. 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)

PROVING UP  (opera) by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, based on a short story by Karen Russell. Pittsburgh Opera. February 17, 20, 23 & 25.

Pittsburgh Opera's 'Proving Up' features The Zegner family (l. to r.) Pa (Brandon Bell), Miles (Fran Daniel Laucerica), and Ma (Emily Richter). (Photo: David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera)

Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘Proving Up’ features The Zegner family (l. to r.) Pa (Brandon Bell), Miles (Fran Daniel Laucerica), and Ma (Emily Richter). (Photo: David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera)

In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, encouraging families who had “the gumption” to travel west and claim raw land. If those same pioneers could prove, after five years of hard labor, a steady and stable harvest, as well as a habitable domicile, up to 160 acres of land was theirs for mere pennies. In Nebraska, for some odd reason, the law required pioneer homes to include at least one pane of glass, a rare material in the western wilds. Proving Up is a contemporary opera that tells the story of the Zegner family who, upon learning the government inspector is coming soon to approve their claim, offer to share their glass window with neighbors so each can satisfy the inspector on his rounds.  Written by acclaimed composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, Proving Up has earned accolades in Omaha, Washington, and New York, expressing its tragic take on achieving the American dream with simplicity, honesty and palpable compassion. The opera runs about 80 minutes. Pittsburgh Opera’s production has four performances at the Bitz Opera Factory, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District. (C.P.O.)

INTIMATE APPAREL by Lynn Nottage. Conservatory Theatre Company at Pittsburgh Playhouse. February 21 – 25.

The show’s title makes it sound like a racy, risque revue, when in fact it is a stirring drama by a great contemporary playwright. Intimate Apparel springs from the creative mind of Lynn Nottage, known for writing powerful works and giving them cryptically brief names. Ruined and Sweat each received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama—making Nottage the only woman (so far) to win the award twice—and her rambunctious Clyde’s played in Pittsburgh recently. Intimate Apparel is a history play set in New York City in 1905. The lead character is a seamstress who makes sexy undergarments, often to be worn by women on their wedding nights. Meanwhile, Esther herself seems fated to be always the provocatrice but never the bride: She has a crush that can’t be pursued because she is Black and he’s Jewish. Then, when a dashing gent from out of town begins to court her by mail, comical complications lead to very unsettling results. Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company stages Intimate Apparel in the Highmark Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse. 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. (M.V.) 

SKELETON CREW by Dominique Morisseau. Barebones productions. February 23 – March 10. 

Karmic convergence is real. Here’s a strong theater company in a dramatic location doing a play that fits the scene. Barebones productions, known for its staging of cutting-edge modern shows, performs just east of Pittsburgh in Braddock—once a boomtown of 20,000 people, now a town on the rebound that’s home to fewer than 2,000. The company’s theater is at the edge of Braddock, directly across from U.S. Steel’s fabled Edgar Thomson Works. Built in 1875 by Andrew Carnegie, the mill is now modernized and still running—but with vastly fewer workers than it once employed. And the first play of this year at barebones is Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew. Set in an automotive sheet-metal plant near Detroit, it’s a seriocomic gripper about four workers dealing with the fact that their jobs may soon be downsized out of existence. Skeleton Crew premiered off-Broadway in 2016; a 2022 Broadway production was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. Like the other plays in Morisseau’s “Detroit Project”—a venture inspired, in part, by August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle—this one draws raves for how it interweaves colorful characters and their stories. Barebones has Tomé Cousin directing a formidable cast including actor/singer Etta Cox. See Skeleton Crew in the barebones black box, 1211 Braddock Ave, Braddock. (M.V.)

THE BOOK OF MORMON (musical) by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Touring company at Benedum Center. February 27 – March 3.

If you missed The Book of Mormon last time it played 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 Key & Peele, but naughtier than either: 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 here as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh Series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)


MY FAIR LADY (musical) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh. Through February 4.

Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical about the linguistics professor who attempts to make a Cockney flower girl into a woman of society comes to Benedum Center. Based on the stage play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady premiered on Broadway in 1956 and then was made into the Oscar-winning movie in 1964. The show includes many tunes considered to be part of the American songbook. “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” are but a few. This PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh presentation comes from Lincoln Center Theater with a cast of 28, featuring Anette Barrios-Torres as Eliza Doolittle and Jonathan Grunert as Professor Henry Higgins. Entertainment Weekly has claimed this production is “a masterpiece of entertainment; a sumptuous, thrilling new revival of the most perfect musical of all time.” My Fair Lady runs through February 4 at Benedum Center. 237 7th Ave., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)

SOUTH SIDE STORIES REVISITED (one-person show) by Tami Dixon. City Theatre. Through February 18.

Tami Dixon has updated her landmark work 'South Side Stories.' See it onstage at City Theatre. (Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Tami Dixon has updated her landmark work ‘South Side Stories.’ See it onstage at City Theatre. (Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Sequels are rare in live theater—Waiting for Godot wasn’t followed by Still Waiting—but they do occur: Shakespeare kept a good thing going through his Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. Now you can see the sequel to a good Pittsburgh thing. City Theatre presents the new one-woman show by Tami Dixon, South Side Stories Revisited. Dixon’s original South Side Stories scored a hit in 2012 with its rousing, oral-history-based portrayal of a unique city neighborhood. The South Side has been a cultural melting pot ever since the days when it was a major industrial district, a home to blue-collar immigrants, and one of the few places in the U.S. to have a polka named after it. As the region’s steel industry wound down, the South Side became a budding haven for artists and artistic venues. Gentrification added heady mixtures of white-collar affluence and angst. Throughout the changes, many longtime South Siders stayed put. For the first edition of Stories, theater artist Dixon interviewed an assortment of these—a retired steelworker, a cat lady, various local characters, and more—and then re-enacted their tales in a series of funny but touching onstage vignettes. 

To create Revisited, Dixon talked with a new selection of folks, gathering fresh views on the ever-evolving dramas of South Side life. South Side Stories Revisited plays until February 18 in City Theatre’s Lillie Theatre. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (M.V.) 

Big Shows on the Horizon
(Opening Dates)

March 2
Fat Ham (City Theatre)

March 7
Grease (Pittsburgh Musical Theater)

March 16
La Traviata (Pittsburgh Opera)

March 26
Mama Mia! (PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh)

March 27
The Importance of Being Ernest (Pittsburgh Public Theatre)

C. Prentiss Orr writes about theater for Entertainment Central. He has worked in theater management and has also taught theater.

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