January Theater Guide: ‘Hamilton’ and Life Beyond ‘Hamilton’

In ‘Hamilton,’ England’s King George loses the war but has a great song—‘You’ll Be Back,’ his deranged love song to the American colonies—and that’s Pittsburgh native Peter Matthew Smith playing the King on the tour that visits us. (photo © Joan Marcus)

In ‘Hamilton,’ England’s King George loses the war but has a great song—‘You’ll Be Back,’ his deranged love call to the American colonies—and that’s Pittsburgh native Peter Matthew Smith playing the King on the tour that visits us. (photo © Joan Marcus)

Holy mackerel wrapped in a pierogi, Hamilton is here! Does anything else matter on Pittsburgh’s theater schedule in January?

Actually, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s super-hit is joined by a number of other interesting shows. The Tempest has been dazzling audiences for a while—ever since Shakespeare wrote it, about 400 years ago—and a radical new production at The Public promises increased dazzlement. Nor should Charlie and the Chocolate Factory be taken lightly. The Roald Dahl tale is more than eye candy. It transcends classification, and the touring musical based on Dahl’s book will give Wonka wonks another adaptation to compare with the Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp movies.  

Also in the vein of new twists on classic works, Pittsburgh Opera premieres AfterWARds—Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined, a streamlined version of the mythic/dramatic opera set after the Trojan War. In the category of truly new stuff, a couple of heralded one-man plays visit town. Both are autobiographical: Dan Ruth’s A Life Behind Bars is a saga of bartending and drinking, while City Theatre presents Where Did We Sit on the Bus? by Brian Quijada, a play with music about growing up in the Chicago area as the son of Salvadoran immigrants. And if you want to see the musical that made Miranda’s name before he wrote Hamilton, catch In the Heights at Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

There’s more. January is never a huge month for live theater because many companies are still rebooting from the holidays, but this time the pickings look good. Spotlighted shows are previewed in order of run dates, followed by briefer notes on “other suggested productions.”

January Spotlighted Shows

HAMILTON (musical) by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Jan. 1-27, touring company at Benedum Center.

Hamilton stands alone. No other musical has captured the American public’s attention (and ticket money) to such a massive extent so quickly. Hamilton opened on Broadway in 2015. A Chicago production of equal scale opened in 2016. Both are still booking reservations months in advance, while two U.S. tours traverse the country, with a third tour launching in Puerto Rico this January. Hamilton is brought to Pittsburgh by the “Angelica” touring company, named after Alexander Hamilton’s unfortunate eldest daughter, who went mad. (The other tour is the “Philip,” named after Hamilton’s eldest son, who was killed in a duel at age 19, presaging his father’s fate.) Why such unlucky naming? Perhaps because in show biz, it’s bad luck to say “Good luck.”

And perhaps there are several explanations for the musical’s popularity. Hamilton’s life was filled with both personal and political drama. Writer/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has struck an unconventional chord by telling the story hip-hop style, and using actors of black and indigenous heritage to portray the white side of America’s heritage. Also, Hamilton is good. Tickets are scarce and expensive but an online lottery gives seats to lucky winners for $10. They’ll see Pittsburgh native Peter Matthew Smith playing England’s King George. Part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

DANCING WITH THE STARS: LIVE! (from the TV show). Jan. 3 only, 8 p.m., touring production at Heinz Hall.

Hamilton isn’t the only stage show generating high demand for tickets this month. Try the annual one-night-only visit of Dancing with the Stars: Live! Try quickly, though, or try the aftermarket, as the Pittsburgh show was nearly sold out when this story went to the web.  Why such a rush for seats? Perhaps because “Dancing with the Stars” is insanely popular on TV to begin with, and the touring production features a live smorgasbord of every style of ballroom, club, or street dancing seen on the screen, and you just might see local celebrities dancing up there, too. Besides, the whole thing is a spinoff from BBC-TV’s “Strictly Come Dancing”—a series that has been cloned in about 40 countries, from Sweden to Vietnam to our ABC-aired version here in the United States—and if it’s British, it’s high culture, right? 8 p.m. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District. 

TWELFTH NIGHT by William Shakespeare. Jan. 5-27, Pittsburgh Classic Players.

Good comedies age well. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night remains a hoot after more than 400 years. It’s also a highly accessible play—the language is easy to follow—and Pittsburgh Classic Players, one of the city’s emerging theater companies, kicks off its first full season with Twelfth Night. The PCPlayers are based in Hazelwood, a re-emerging neighborhood. Cofounded by theater artists Brett Sullivan Santry, Katie Crandol, and Harper York, they plan to present modern classics as well as older ones: David Auburn’s Proof is on the agenda, for instance. But meanwhile we have Twelfth Night. Characters include the hard-partying Sir Toby Belch, who poses the famous question to a puritanical buzzkill: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” The plot concerns a young woman shipwrecked in a strange country, where she poses as a man to get ahead, which causes Sir Toby’s love-starved niece to think the newcomer is the man of her dreams. And that’s not the half of it. At the Spartan Community Center of Hazelwood, 134 E. Elizabeth St., Hazelwood.

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: CORTEO. Jan. 16-20, touring company at PPG Paints Arena.

In what’s becoming an annual tradition, Cirque du Soleil makes another January visit to Pittsburgh. Last year we were among the first cities to see Crystal, the company’s first show performed on ice. This year brings us a revival of the popular 2005 production Corteo. Like all Cirque du Soleil shows, it’s in the nouveau cirque form of acrobatics and skits woven around a story line. Corteo’s story may sound grim: a circus clown has a dream in which he imagines his own funeral. But the “funeral” turns out to be a pretext for re-enacting and celebrating high points of the clown’s life. Corteo is said to be spectacular in a stately way, and satisfyingly surreal. PPG Paints Arena, 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown.

MOON SHOT by Theater Unspeakable. Jan. 18-19, touring production at the Byham Theater.

The Chicago company called Theater Unspeakable has nothing to do with depicting explicit sex, or gore, or heinously offensive behavior. Sorry to disappoint you in that regard. Theater Unspeakable is devoted to physical theater—to the use of movement and body language to tell stories. And though the actors do speak (this isn’t mime), they get unusually physical while telling unusual stories. Their Pittsburgh show is Moon Shot. In one hour, on a tiny platform, seven performers re-create humankind’s journey to the 1969 moon landing. The show includes side trips into the basics of flight and astronomy, simulation of zero gravity, and re-enactments of both the Soviet and U.S. space programs, with forays into the politics thereof. Like other Theater Unspeakable pieces, Moon Shot is classified as TYA: theater for young audiences. But many adults enjoy the spectacle and the content is too complex for small children; it isn’t “Teletubbies,” either. Presented as part of the EQT Bridge Theater Series at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

WHERE DID WE SIT ON THE BUS? by Brian Quijada. Jan. 19 – Feb. 24, City Theatre.

It's a long way from a foreign land to Chicagoland, and Brian Quijada does highlights of the trip in City Theatre's 'Where Did We Sit on the Bus?' (photo courtesy of the artist)

It’s a long way from a foreign land to Chicagoland, and Brian Quijada does highlights of the trip in City Theatre’s ‘Where Did We Sit on the Bus?’ (photo courtesy of the artist)

Twenty-odd years ago, when Brian Quijada was in grade school, the teacher gave a history lesson that puzzled him. It was about civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who challenged the old Southern rule that made black people sit separate from whites on buses. Little Brian wanted to know What about us Latinos? Where did we sit? Today, Quijada is a theater artist. He’s won rave reviews in Chicago and New York for a one-man play inspired, he says, by that long-ago question. City Theatre brings Quijada to town for the Pittsburgh premiere of Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, an energetic mixture of seriocomic storytelling and live music. Quijada’s stories cover subjects ranging from his parents’ chaotic immigration from El Salvador, during the country’s civil war, to his own wrangling with issues of both ethnic and personal identity.  He is also a one-man hip-hop band, skilled at live-looping, beatboxing, rapping, and singing—all of which figure prominently in Where Did We Sit on the Bus? Chicago’s Teatro Vista gave the show its world premiere in 2016. City Theatre presents it at the Lester Hamburg Studio, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.  

IN THE HEIGHTS (musical) by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Jan. 24 – Feb. 3, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

Pittsburgh Musical Theater, known for youth programs and family-friendly musicals, has branched into more adventurous fare with its West End Series. PMT’s latest is In the Heights, the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first hit. This ensemble piece follows the adventures of young strivers in New York’s Washington Heights, a center for immigrants from the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking countries. As in many immigrant neighborhoods, what a lot of folks strive for is to move on and up in the world—but the path isn’t always clear, and, as the show depicts, there’s plenty of drama right at home. Miranda (who’s not from the Heights but grew up in the New York metro area) wrote the first iteration of In the Heights while a student at Wesleyan University. After a student production scored well, he kept developing it. The Broadway version has major contributions from Quiara Alegria Hudes—credited as the book writer, and later a Pulitzer-winning playwright for Water by the Spoonful—and from New York director Thomas Kail. In PMT’s Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End.

THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare, adapted by Marya Sea Kaminski. Jan 24 – Feb. 24, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Tamara Tunie plays the lead role in The Public's transformed edition of 'The Tempest.' (photo: Francis Hills)

Tamara Tunie plays the lead role in The Public’s transformed edition of ‘The Tempest.’ (photo: Francis Hills)

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s strangest plays, and a new production at Pittsburgh Public Theater adds a further dimension. Shakespeare’s story in brief: Prospero, an exiled duke, lives on a remote island, where he has acquired magical powers and dominion over enchanted creatures. He conjures a storm that drives ashore a ship carrying his disloyal brother—who had usurped him, to claim the dukedom—along with the brother’s posse. Prospero magically teases and torments them until they’ve had enough. Then, magnanimously, he forgives all who have wronged him. The Tempest mixes bizarre comedy with serious themes and exotic characters, creating a stew of sensations open to many interpretations. The version opening at The Public is adapted and directed by new artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski, who gives the play multiple twists.

Whereas the original has nearly all male characters, Kaminski’s cast is all female, with Pittsburgh native and noted TV actress Tamara Tunie as Prospero. The play begins in a modern-day hospital, where she is a cancer patient facing a grim prognosis. Worse, she’s distraught that her family has abandoned her at such a time. Then she slips into a dream, becoming Prospero on the island, and The Tempest unfolds from there. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

JESSICA LANG DANCE (modern dance). Jan. 26 only, 8 p.m., presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Some dance companies outlive their founders—Martha Graham died in 1991, at the age of 96; her company is now in its 93rd year—while some are like rock groups that flourish for a time and then disband. Pittsburgh is one of the cities getting a final chance to catch a supergroup, as the acclaimed company Jessica Lang Dance visits here on its farewell tour. Since 2012, New York-based JLD (oft known by just its acronym) has been a main vehicle for dances created by the formidable Lang, who is moving on to other choreographic work. JLD’s Pittsburgh show includes six dances that span a range of her styles. “The Calling” is a sinuous solo piece, performed to the eerie sounds of Norwegian chamber vocalists Trio Mediæval. “Glow” is a bouncy ensemble number danced to electronic music, and there are pieces set to classical and jazz/pop music, too. Jessica Lang Dance is presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St, Cultural District.   

AFTERWARDS—MOZART’S IDOMENEO REIMAGINED (opera), adapted and directed by David Paul. Jan. 26 – Feb. 3, Pittsburgh Opera.

She's not Helen of Troy but she is a Trojan princess, the source of high drama in Pittsburgh Opera's 'AfterWARds—Mozart's Idomeneo Reimagined.'

She’s not Helen of Troy but she is a Trojan princess, the source of high drama in Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘AfterWARds—Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined.’

Pittsburgh Opera premieres a streamlined version of an old epic with AfterWARds — Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined. First staged in 1781, Idomeneo was a major success for Mozart, richly displaying his musical brilliance. But it has become a problem child in the opera world. The libretto (by Giambattista Varesco) is long and clunky, and even with cuts that Mozart himself made, a full production can run about four hours. So Brooklyn-based opera director David Paul has done a “director’s cut” that hones the rambling saga down to an 80-minute psychodrama. Paul’s AfterWARds focuses on the passions and conflicts among the story’s four key characters, keeping all of Mozart’s music for the portions used.

The situation: Idomeneo, king of Crete, returns victorious from the bloody Trojan War—only to find, unhappily, that his son has rescued and loves a Trojan princess. Ominously nearby is Electra, the star-crossed woman of Greek mythology, who wants the young man for her own. Performing AfterWARds for Pittsburgh Opera are tenor Terrence Chin-Loy, mezzo-soprano Antonia Botti-Lodovico (in a trousers role as Idamante, the king’s son), and sopranos Ashley Fabian and Caitlin Gotimer. In Italian with English supertitles at the CAPA Theater, 111 9th St., Cultural District.

FRIENDS! THE MUSICAL PARODY by Bob and Tobly McSmith and Assaf Gleizner, from the TV show. Jan. 29 only, 8 p.m., touring company at the Byham Theater.

Writing a stage musical that’s a parody of a TV sitcom may sound like a risky proposition. The audience is limited to those who know the TV series, and if the series itself is comical, why poke fun at something that’s already funny? But none of that seems to be a problem with Friends! The Musical Parody. NBC’s “Friends” had (and still has) a huge following. Besides, the ten-year (1994-2004) series became iconic, for reasons such as how it captured the zeitgeist of young adults making lives for themselves, together, in the big city—and when anything’s iconic, it begs to be parodied. Friends! The Musical Parody premiered off-Broadway in 2017. Now there’s a touring production, which makes a one-night stand in Pittsburgh. The show reportedly does a nice job of spoofing while also honoring the TV series. Scripted by the veteran parody duo Bob and Tobly McSmith, with songs like “495 Grove Street” by composer Assaf Gleizner, the musical plays here as part of the Cohen & Grigsby Trust Presents Series. 8 p.m. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.  

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (musical) by David Greig, Mark Shaiman, and Scott Wittman, from Roald Dahl’s book. Jan. 29 – Feb. 3, U.S. touring company at Benedum Center.

Roald Dahl was a tough cookie with a soft heart for children and chocolate. (photo: Carl Van Vechten, 1954)

Roald Dahl was a tough cookie with a soft heart for children and chocolate. (photo: Carl Van Vechten, 1954)

Who says the age of mythology is dead? There are modern stories that acquire the status of myths or fables, one of them being Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This spooky 1964 children’s book was written by a man of Norse descent, born in Wales, who’d been a heroic British fighter pilot in World War II—a fitting background for the author of a saga. Adults and youngsters alike have relished his dark-comic story of a supernatural candy maker, Willy Wonka, who rewards virtuous Charlie while naughty kiddos get mangled in the factory’s magical machinery. The story has been interpreted as a morality tale, a satire of our consumer culture, and more, and it has been re-told in various ways. The 1971 movie had Gene Wilder as a quirky, philosophical Wonka quoting Shakespeare. The 2005 movie had Johnny Depp as a creepy Wonka. And now there’s a stage musical

The musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which visits Pittsburgh on its U.S. tour, is an American-adapted version of the show that premiered to enthusiastic acclaim in London in 2013. Heartwarming songs include “Auf Wiedersehen, Augustus Gloop” and some from the ’71 movie, notably “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination.” Presented as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.    

A LIFE BEHIND BARS (one-man show) by Dan Ruth. Jan. 31 – Feb. 2 at Carnegie Stage.

A Life Behind Bars is not a prison drama. Theater artist Dan Ruth created this one-man play about his previous life tending bars and drinking in them. The real-life scenes that he re-enacts transpired over a couple of decades in New York City, where Ruth premiered the show in 2015, winning praise (and various awards) for both its dark-comic tales and how deftly he presents them. His subjects range from the surreal patrons he has served to the social evolution of Brooklyn, once an affordable haven in the pre-man-bun era and now Gentrification Central. In a sense, A Life Behind Bars is a panorama of New York life from the saloon perspective—but it’s also a story of altered consciousness gone wrong, as Ruth relates his own tainted love affair with intoxicating beverages. He’s been in recovery for a while and intends to show up sharp as a straight-edge razor when he performs A Life Behind Bars at Carnegie Stage. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

RUN THE RABBIT PATH by Ray Werner. Jan. 31 – Feb. 16, PICT Classic Theatre.

Young Pittsburghers may not know that Ray Werner was once a leading figure in the city’s advertising industry. After co-heading his own agency for a number of years, Werner returned to his lifelong interest in theater and is now one of the area’s best-known playwrights. His latest, Run the Rabbit Path, premieres at PICT Classic Theatre. It’s an Irish-American family drama in which two brothers and a sister are preparing to hold a wake. The deceased is their father, and the play’s title refers to “the mystery of the rabbit path”—which cannot be revealed or explained here, since nobody knows what it is except for Werner and those associated with the play. In the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Ave., Oakland.   

Other Suggested Productions

ONE ACTS FESTIVAL (three new short plays). Jan. 11-13, presented by Actors and Artists of Fayette County. The Scottdale-based Actors and Artists, prominent in developing live theater in a more rural part of the Pittsburgh region, host their second annual One Acts Festival. Featured plays are “Harper Goes Rollerskating” by Jared Pascoe, “Love Locks on Clemente” by Evan W. Saunders, and “Reframing Frances” by Andy Wertner. Geyer Performing Arts Center, 111 Pittsburgh St., Scottdale.

JUICED! (musical) by Jeanne Drennan. Jan. 20 only, 7 p.m., staged reading at Pittsburgh CLO Academy. Live theater is good, and free live theater is a deal. Staged readings of new works are often free, and the group Musical Theater Artists of Pittsburgh (MTAP) is having an “incubator reading” for a musical called Juiced!, by Jeanne Drennan. The show features a pop/rock score and a comic-satiric plot related to juicing, i.e., the use of foreign substances (such as anabolic steroids) to alter one’s physique, and, unfortunately, one’s mind. There’s no charge but MTAP suggests online reservations for Juiced! 7 p.m. in the Charles Gray Auditorium at Pittsburgh CLO Academy, 130 CLO Academy Way, Cultural District.

PRISM: FULL SPECTRUM CULTURE (folk music and dance) by The Tamburitzans. Jan. 27 only, 2 p.m., the company at The Palace Theatre.

The Tamburitzans are Pittsburgh’s signature performers of ethnic folk music and dance, specializing in forms that are traditional in Central and Eastern Europe. The group began in the 1930s—1937 is considered the official founding date—and they have toured internationally. For many years The Tamburitzans were affiliated with Duquesne University, where promising young folk artists would apply to study and become part of the ensemble. Independent since 2014, The Tamburitzans now recruit widely, billing themselves as “the longest running live stage show in the United States.” They visit The Palace Theatre to perform a program titled Prism: Full Spectrum Culture, consisting of music and dance from many lands. 2 p.m. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg.

GAME ON (cabaret musical) by Marcus Stevens and David Dabbon. Through Jan. 27, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Hey Pittsburghers: There’s still time to catch the world-premiere run of an amusing new musical. Game On was inspired by TV game shows and tunefully simulates one. The musical stars three contestants playing for a $10 million jackpot during a live taping in front of a studio audience. Marcus Stevens—who acted in Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret’s inaugural production, Forever Plaid—wrote the book and lyrics. David Dabbon, who arranged the dancing for the new Beetlejuice Broadway musical, wrote the music and came up with the concept. Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret performs Game On in the Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

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