February Theater Preview: Put Down the Clicker

February is a big month for TV watching, with the programming season in full swing and weather that may tempt you to make it a Netflix night instead of going out. But smart viewers will venture forth, because this is peak season for live theater as well.

In the category of “things you won’t see just anywhere,” the lineup includes a new comedy about Friedrich Nietzsche and a tragic opera set in Egypt but sung in English, not to mention the latest play from Quantum Theatre, where business as usual is always highly unusual.

The touring company of “Phantom of the Opera” has two young phenoms in the lead roles: Chris Mann (The Phantom) recently starred in a PBS concert special showcasing his voice, while Katie Travis (as Christine Daaé) won last year’s prestigious Lotte Lenya Competition for singing AND acting talent.

The touring company of “Phantom of the Opera” has two young phenoms in the lead roles: Chris Mann (The Phantom) starred in a PBS concert special showcasing his voice, while Katie Travis (playing Christine Daaé) won last year’s prestigious Lotte Lenya Competition for combined singing AND acting talent.

Fans of the tried and true can choose from a trio of musicals—My Fair Lady, Phantom of the Opera, and The Wiz—or from new adaptations of classic plays by Ibsen and Lope de Vega. There’s also the premiere of a play written by Pittsburgh-based actress Lissa Brennan, which is generating quite a buzz, plus some unique dance performances (including one with radio’s Ira Glass) …

In "Mr. Joy," Tangela Large plays everybody. Really!

In “Mr. Joy,” Tangela Large plays everybody. Not all at the same time, of course.

The point is that there’s no better time to put down the remote and go live. Shows are previewed here in order of opening date.

Opened (or opening) in late January:

MR. JOY by Daniel Beaty. Through Feb. 15, City Theatre.

This is a solo show written by the New York-based Beaty, who often draws his material from everyday life in the neighborhoods of Harlem. Mr. Joy centers on a shoe repair shop founded by a Chinese immigrant, whose value to the community becomes evident one fateful day when customers arrive to find the shop closed. Actress Tangela Large plays all the parts, ranging from a budding young shoe designer to a “gangsta granny.” The show has been workshopped in New York and elsewhere; Pittsburgh’s City Theatre is now giving Mr. Joy its full-blown world premiere. 13th and Bingham Sts., South Side.

Come in if you dare, says the laid-back stand-up hijra (Sanjiv Jhaveri), with musician David Bielewicz behind him.

Come in if you dare, says the laid-back stand-up hijra (Sanjiv Jhaveri), with musician David Bielewicz behind him.

BRAHMAN/i: A ONE-HIJRA STAND-UP COMEDY SHOW by Aditi Brennan Kapil. Jan. 30 – Feb.  22, Quantum Theatre.

Like all Quantum productions, this unorthodox play merits some explaining. “Hijra” is a Hindi word for an intersex person. Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil, an Indian-Bulgarian theater artist, grew up in Sweden and lives in Minneapolis. Brahman/i is part of her Displaced Hindu Gods trilogy, which invokes the spirits of ancient deities while exploring the lives of Indian immigrants in the West. And, as the subtitle indicates, it’s written as a show by a standup comic. For that role Quantum has Sanjiv Jhaveri, who has acted in Indian-American films. He riffs with high humor on the problems—and, interestingly, the power—that can come from being someone who doesn’t fit neatly into any one gender, nationality, or other identity. At Quantum’s “Temple of Comedy” (the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. Community Center), 113 N. Pacific Ave., Garfield.

MY FAIR LADY by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Through Feb. 22, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

There aren’t many musicals better known or loved than My Fair Lady. Nor are there heroines more captivating than Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl who learns to be a cultivated lady, then turns the tables on her teacher, Professor Henry Higgins. That’s why Pittsburgh Public Theater chose the 1956 Broadway classic as the musical entry for its 40th-anniversary “Season of Legends.” The Public’s My Fair Lady features all the songs that are classics in their own right: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and more. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Opening in February:

Why is this man not laughing? Gab Cody’s humorous play about young Nietzsche takes an uncensored look behind the mustache.

Why is this man not laughing? Gab Cody’s humorous play about young Nietzsche takes an uncensored look behind the mustache.

PRUSSIA: 1866 by Gab Cody. Feb. 6-22, Pittsburgh Playhouse REP.

Here is a play that asks: What was Friedrich Nietzsche really like? Before his troubles began, that is—before the controversies and chronic illness that dogged his career as a philosopher, before the mental breakdown that ended it. Pittsburgh playwright Gab Cody, who bills her work as “seriously funny,” has given us a wildly farcical riff on Nietzsche’s coming-of-age period. Prussia: 1866 depicts the young scholar pondering the profound questions of existence while he ponders the pleasures of a liaison with his mentor’s wife. The play explores themes of early feminism and is said to contain “brief nudity,” but whose is not specified. 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (ballet) by Lew Christensen. Feb. 6-15, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

One reason great stories are “timeless” is that they can be told many different ways. Beauty and the Beast began as an adult fantasy tale written in France in the 1700s. Over the years, this story of a monster redeemed by love has been re-done numerous times in books, plays, and films, with treatments that vary widely. (Compare Jean Cocteau’s eerie 1946 film to the Disney movie.) The story’s dramatic dance of emotions also has made it a natural subject for ballets, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theater presents a stunning but seldom-seen modern rendition. Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beastchoreographed to selections from Tchaikovsky—was a longtime audience favorite at San Francisco Ballet, then fell out of the repertoire in the 1980s. PBT’s revival is its Pittsburgh premiere. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

RONALD K. BROWN / EVIDENCE (modern dance). Feb. 7 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

The law of gravity says humans can't fly but Evidence (Brown's dance company) proves that they can.

The law of gravity says humans can’t fly but Evidence (Brown’s dance company) proves that they can.

There’s more than one brilliant modern dancer who uses his middle initial. If you are dance fan you’ve probably seen Bill T. Jones, and now the high-flying Ronald K. Brown comes to town with his company, Evidence. The troupe is booked into the Byham Theater for a show that features Brown’s distinctive mix of contemporary Western and traditional African dance. The dancing ranges from 11 out of 10 on the high-energy scale to elegant and sinuous; the music ranges from jazz to African drums to Stevie Wonder. 8 p.m. 101 6th St., Cultural District.

WAYWARDLAND by Jil Stifel and Ben Sota (modern dance + circus + who-knows-what?). Feb. 12 only, at New Hazlett Theater.

Pittsburgh’s New Hazlett Theater is a go-to venue for performing arts that are intriguing but defy classification. Case in point: WaywardLand, the Feb. 12 show by Jil Stifel and Ben Sota. Stifel is a dancer known for collaborating on experimental pieces with fellow artists of all kinds. Sota, artistic director of the globe-trotting Zany Umbrella Circus, is a master of aerial acrobatics and other breathtaking stunts. The two are teaming up as part of the New Hazlett’s CSA (Community Supported Art) series. 8 p.m. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe. Feb. 18 – Mar. 1, national touring company at Benedum Center.

What do Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Dallas Cowboys have in common? Both are pop-culture icons, with histories of glittering success and legions of devoted fans … although it’s been years since either of them won a big one. The Cowboys’ last Super Bowl title was in 1996, while no Lloyd Webber musical has become a major hit since a decade before that. But here’s the difference: Even Pittsburghers can enjoy his 1986 crowd-pleaser about the spooky genius who haunts an opera house. So put on your Lloyd Webber throwback jersey and your white one-eye mask, as this year’s road-show production of The Phantom of the Opera visits Benedum Center. 237 7th St., Cultural District.

That is indeed a dagger he sees before him. The photo shows tenor Dan Kempson as Alwan in the New York premiere of "Sumeida's Song"; Alex DeSocio has the part in Pittsburgh.

That is indeed a dagger he sees before him. The photo shows baritone Dan Kempson as Alwan in the New York premiere of “Sumeida’s Song”; Alex DeSocio has the part in Pittsburgh.

SUMEIDA’S SONG by Mohammed Fairouz (contemporary opera). Feb. 21 – Mar. 1, Pittsburgh Opera.

Operas in English are relatively rare. And rarer yet, Sumeida’s Song is, at heart, an Egyptian opera written and sung in English. Set in a small town in Egypt in the early 1900s, it has a story line involving a tense clash between emerging modernism and the ways of the past: A woman plots revenge against a man she believes murdered her husband. Her university-educated son wants to stop the scheme but is enmeshed in it, with tragic consequences. American composer Mohammed Fairouz based the opera on an Egyptian play. Sumeida’s Song premiered in New York in 2013 to strong reviews; now Pittsburgh Opera is staging it in a special, limited run at its headquarters. 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District.

DOG IN THE MANGER by Lope de Vega; new translation by David Johnson. Feb. 12-22, University of Pittsburgh Dept. of Theatre Arts

In the old saying, a “dog in the manger” is a person who cannot or will not use something but doesn’t want others to have it, either—like the dog that won’t eat the hay but keeps the horses away. Such behavior has been observed in the area of romantic and sexual relationships. Centuries ago, Lope de Vega (the “Spanish Shakespeare”) wrote a classic comedy on the subject. Pitt’s Theatre Arts department is doing a major new production of his play, which concerns a countess with a crazy but unconsummated crush on a commoner. Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

THEATER FESTIVAL IN BLACK AND WHITE: MULTICULTURAL EDITION (one-act festival). Feb. 14-28, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

PPTCo’s annual Black and White Festival has premiered a number of one-acts that were later developed into full-length plays, making it a useful launch pad for writers while giving audiences a first look at exciting new material. The festival’s name comes from its unique format, in which one-acts by African American writers have been directed by white directors, and vice versa. PPTCo devised this setup to promote cross-cultural exchange—but Pittsburgh is no longer just an Afro/Euro city. With the population becoming truly global, the company is making this year’s festival the “Multicultural Edition,” mixing plays and directors from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

THE WIZ by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, with added material by Tina Tippit. Feb. 19-28, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

When his children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, author L. Frank Baum could not have foreseen The Wiz. This is the musical adaptation that gives you the feeling we’re not in Kansas, but we might be in Motown. The movie version of the 1975 Tony Award-winner even had Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is presenting a full-blown production of The Wiz wherein you might catch one or two of tomorrow’s stars on that yellow brick road. Philip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

Local fans know Lissa Brennan as an actress (here, she's the skeptical Mrs. Bradman in PICT's "Blithe Spirit") but now she is making waves as a playwright.

Actress Lissa Brennan (here, as Mrs. Bradman in “Blithe Spirit”) turns playwright with her “For the Tree to Drop.”

FOR THE TREE TO DROP by Lissa Brennan. Feb. 19-28, PICT Classic Theatre Downtown Series.

PICT Classic Theatre has expanded its season to include a new Downtown Series, which opens with the premiere of a heralded new play. Lissa Brennan’s For the Tree to Drop is set on a plantation in the South during the Civil War. While the owners mourn the loss of a son killed in that war, a slave woman faces the grim task of trying to bury her brother with honor after he was hanged for an act of rebellion. Drawn from Sophocles’ Antigone, Brennan’s play adds layers of drama and irony to a classical story. Peirce Studio, Trust Arts Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

GHOSTS by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Virginia Wall Gruenert. Feb. 27 – Mar. 15, off the WALL productions.

For a chilling drama on a chilly winter night it is still hard to beat Ibsen, the 19th-century master of plays about personal disaster. His plays shocked audiences of the time and none was more scandalous than Ghosts. The opening has elements of a high-society farce, with some silly exchanges that involve a wealthy widow donating money to start an orphanage in memory of her late husband. Then the skeletons start rattling from the closet, as it turns out the eminent man was a philandering scoundrel whose legacy includes wrecked lives and syphilis passed on to the next generation. Off the WALL is staging its own newly adapted version of Ghosts, which stays true to Ibsen’s original but has new touches. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

THREE ACTS, TWO DANCERS, ONE RADIO HOST: AN EVENING WITH IRA GLASS AND THE MONICA BILL BARNES COMPANY. Feb. 28 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Fans of the award-winning public radio series “This American Life” may want to be at the Byham Theater for a most unusual evening. Ira Glass, longtime host of TAL, is appearing in person—along with two dancers, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass. Together the trio will use voice, movement, and perhaps other means to act out segments from the radio program as well as stories from their own lives. The spectacle is reputed to be both hilarious and touching, and no prior knowledge of TAL is required; even non-radio heads can get a charge out of the show. 8 p.m. 101 6th St., Cultural District.

ELEMENO PEA by Molly Smith Metzler. Feb. 28 – Mar. 22, City Theatre.

If there are laughs to be had from the class divisions in today’s society, this play is determined to find them. Elemeno Pea is a tale of two sisters from a working-class background, one of whom is barely scraping by, and one who has landed a deluxe job as the live-in personal assistant to the trophy wife of a tycoon. Feathers begin to fly when scraper sis visits lap-of-luxury sis in her employers’ lavish roost. City Theatre presents this comedy by Brooklyn-based Molly Smith Metzler as part of its mission to bring new and recent plays to Pittsburgh. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

Photo credits: Phantom, Matthew Murphy. Mr. Joy, courtesy of City Theatre. Brahman/i, Heather Mull. Historic photo of Nietzsche, F. Hartmann (1870s). Evidence, courtesy of the artists. Sumeida’s Song, Jill Steinberg. Brennan in “Blithe Spirit,” Suellen Fitzsimmons, courtesy of PICT.

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