January Theater Guide: Major Musicals and Striking Solo Shows

These guys in disguise have a spooky surprise. It's 'Love Never Dies,' the sequel to 'Phantom of the Opera,' in its U.S. road-show incarnation.

These guys in disguise have a spooky surprise. It’s ‘Love Never Dies,’ the sequel to ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ in its U.S. road-show incarnation.

You never know what January will bring on the Pittsburgh theater scene. Sometimes it’s a slow month, since companies need time to reboot after the holidays, but sometimes it’s a surprise.

Case in point: January 2018. There’s a sizable schedule of notable productions. And, in a coincidence that’s been known to happen, a lot of them are the same types. The dominant categories this month are musicals and one-person shows.

Musicals include a few of the biggest-name hits imaginable. Touring companies of Wicked and Love Never Dies (the Phantom of the Opera sequel) come to town, while Pittsburgh Public Theater mounts A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Split Stage provides a cult-favorite entry, The Last Five Years.

One-person shows range from a sports bio (The Play with Rocky Bleier) to a Batman parody (One Man Dark Knight) to a couple of astounding pieces. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a genre-defying play that captivated New York audiences, and a local original—Moriah Ella Mason’s Sex Werque—explores the world of exotic dance.

In other shows of note: Modern-dance fans may not want to miss a visit from the extreme Brazilian company Grupo Corpo. Pittsburgh Opera tests the limits of modern opera with The Long Walk, adapted from the true story of a U.S. military officer returned from harrowing duty in Iraq. And barebones productions checks in with a bizarre new satire called Rules of Seconds. 

Shows are previewed in order of run dates. Christopher Maggio (CM) contributed to this Guide.

Continuing from December:

THE PLAY by Gene Collier. Dec. 28-Jan. 6, with Rocky Bleier.

Rocky Bleier shares memories of his glory days on the gridiron in his one man production, 'The Play.'

Rocky Bleier shares memories of his glory days on the gridiron in his one man production, ‘The Play.’

Of the many outstanding football players in Pittsburgh Steelers history, none has accomplished what Robert “Rocky” Bleier did. A running back from Notre Dame, Bleier was drafted almost as an afterthought (in the 16th round) by the Steelers in 1968, then was drafted again by the U.S. Army. He won medals for combat service in Vietnam; unfortunately, one was a Purple Heart. Bullets and shrapnel tore severe wounds in Bleier’s legs. Just walking became a struggle. Doctors told him playing ball again was unthinkable. Yet Bleier kept working, miraculously regained a spot on the Steelers roster in 1971—and wound up starring in the backfield with Franco Harris through the team’s run of four Super Bowl titles that decade. Sportswriter Gene Collier has made Bleier’s story into a one-man play, called simply The Play. Bleier himself performs in it, drawing on the stage presence he’s gained from his post-football career as a public speaker. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

XANADU (musical) by Jeff Lynne, John Farrar, and Douglas Carter Beane. Through Jan. 7, CLO Cabaret. 

The movie Xanadu had Olivia Newton-John, Pittsburgh’s own Gene Kelly, music by Electric Light Orchestra, and animation by Don Bluth. What could go wrong? Everything, evidently. Xanadu, which helped to inspire the Golden Raspberry Awards, flopped at the box office in 1980. The songs, which included the No. 1 “Magic,” were a hit, however. A musical adaptation opened on Broadway in 2007. It kept the music while poking fun at the cinematic version. The combination was a hit, which garnered several Tony Award nominations. The plot involves Kira, a Greek muse who falls in love with Sonny, a mortal who wants to open the first roller disco. Their love is forbidden, and Kira’s two evil sisters intervene. CLO Cabaret performs the musical Xanadu in the Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

Opening in January:

LOVE NEVER DIES (musical) by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glen Slater, Ben Elton, and Frederick Forsyth. Jan. 2-7, touring company at Benedum Center.

And now … no, wait, wait. And now … nope, sorry, wait again. And NOW—yes, finally—to the delight of many Andrew Lloyd Webber fans, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera has arrived in America. The official U.S. touring company brings Love Never Dies to Pittsburgh. Few musicals have had such a long and laborious gestation. Lloyd Webber began work on this sequel in the 1990s, with thriller novelist Frederick Forsyth writing the libretto, but a satisfactory script was not achieved. After two more librettists revised Forsyth’s draft, Love Never Dies opened in London in 2010, amid great fanfare but bad reviews. (Critical opinions ranged from “bizarrely unexciting” to “dismally implausible.”) Further rounds of rework followed. And though an anticipated Broadway production was postponed, then back-burnered indefinitely, the show is now said to be much improved. Love Never Dies is set 10 years after Phantom of the Opera. The jilted-but-undead Phantom has relocated to New York, where he is the mysterious operator of a Coney Island amusement park with carnival-type sideshow acts. Keeping his true identity secret, he invites his lost love Christine to sing there. When she comes, music, intrigue, and high drama ensue. The musical is presented here as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Ross is 'One Man Dark Knight.'

Ross is ‘One Man Dark Knight.’

ONE MAN DARK KNIGHT (Batman parody) by Charles Ross. Jan. 13 only, performed at the Byham Theater.

Master impressionist Charlie Ross, known for his deliriously spot-on parodies of famous movies, visits Pittsburgh to perform One Man Dark Knight. This one sends up the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, as Ross delivers shape-shifting renditions of multitudes of characters while acting out all three films. He’s done this sort of thing before. He Frodo-ed, Gollumed, and Aragorned his way through One Man Lord of the Rings. His One Man Star Wars drew threat of legal action from Lucasfilm, but the case was settled and Ross light-sabered onward (wielding imaginary light sabers; there are no props in his parodies). Ross developed his act by performing at fringe festivals. He now has graduated to bookings in major venues worldwide. One Man Dark Knight is part of the Cohen & Grigsby Trust Presents series. Byham Theater. 7:30 p.m. 101 6th St., Cultural District.

DANCING WITH THE STARS: LIVE! (spun off from the TV show). Jan. 16 only, special touring production at Benedum Center.

If you want to see Dancing with the Stars: Live!, better hit those ticket-resale sites or try to hit up a friend. The Pittsburgh show is sold out. This touring stage show is a customized affair, with each city’s production featuring local dancers and celebrities. At the time this article went on the web, the Pittsburgh lineup had not been announced, but some details will surely be leaked and there might be surprise appearances as well. Will the mayor dance? Will our favorite sports heroes and TV news persons dance? Will you dance merrily into the January night after watching them? 7:30 p.m. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

GRUPO CORPO (modern dance company). Jan. 17 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Grupo Corpo—Portuguese for “Body Group”—is a world-renowned dance company from Brazil. They’re based in Belo Horizonte, a major metro buzzing with avant-garde arts and culture, and Grupo Corpo embodies the city’s eclectic spirit. The company has created a host of original pieces that reflect multitudes of influences. Ballet and classical music are mixed with Brazilian and other dance forms and music of all kinds. Some dances are inspired by the work of inventive Brazilian writers, such as the very quirky Machado de Assis (author of novels including Epitaph of a Small Winner and Philosopher or Dog?). It may even be worth noting that Grupo Corpo’s hometown is known as the Brazilian hotbed of heavy metal. The company’s dancers and choreography are top-notch. They have wowed audiences from Asia to Europe. Pittsburgh Dance Council presents Grupo Corpo here. 8 p.m. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

SEX WERQUE (dance/performance) by Moriah Ella Mason. Jan. 18-21, at Carnegie Stage.

Moriah Ella Mason’s one-woman dance and performance show, Sex Werque, draws on her experiences as a former stripper. Themes include “the politics and economics of dance, and, provocatively, “how we perform eroticism and consume intimacy.” Sex Werque isn’t Mason’s first appearance at Carnegie Stage, nor her first to address exploitation. In 2016 she was in Mark C. Thompson’s Kimono, a dramatic dance/movement inquiry into predation and victimhood. Mason has acted and danced in numerous productions in and around Pittsburgh. She has also worked as a film director, producer, choreographer, and editor. “Eser HaMakot / Ten Plagues,” Mason’s installation art piece, appeared at BUNKERprojects in Pittsburgh in 2014. Sex Werque premiered last summer and it’s back by popular demand. 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie. (CM/MV)

THE LONG WALK (opera) by Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann, from Brian Castner’s memoir. Jan. 20-28, Pittsburgh Opera.

Along with classical operas, Pittsburgh Opera stages cutting-edge new works such as its first show of 2018, The Long Walk. American soldiers in the Middle East use that term for the walk that a bomb disposal specialist must take when approaching an IED to disarm it. But the phrase has a second meaning: the process of trying to readjust to life back home after a mind-bending tour of duty. This aspect is the opera’s focus, as it follows the struggles of a bomb squad officer newly returned from service in Iraq. The Long Walk Is grounded in fact. It was adapted from a memoir of the same title by U.S. military veteran Brian Castner, who witnessed the terrors of modern war as commander of a counter-IED unit, and then wrestled with the inner demons of war’s aftermath. Composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischman premiered The Long Walk at Opera Saratoga in New York in 2015. Pittsburgh Opera has baritone Benjamin Taylor and mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl in the lead roles. CAPA Theater, 111 9th St., Cultural District.

Writer and LGBTQ activist James Lecesne created 'The Absolute Brightness ...' as a non-grim take on a grim subject; actor Keith Randolph Smith performs it at City Theatre.

Writer and LGBTQ activist James Lecesne created ‘The Absolute Brightness …’ as a non-grim take on a grim subject. The City Theatre production stars actor Keith Randolph Smith.

THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY by James Lecesne. Jan. 20 – Feb. 18, City Theatre.

One-person plays are, by their nature, unusual. Typically the lone actor plays multiple roles while also narrating. The one-person play on tap at City Theatre is doubly unusual, because of its subject matter and treatment thereof. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey concerns the murder of a gay teenager. Young Leonard himself (a fictional character) never appears; he’s already dead. We learn about him from a detective who investigated the crime. Various people who knew Leonard chime in with their stories. And while his brutal end is tragic, the play has been described as the opposite of a tragedy. It’s said to come across as a portrait of a witty, high-spirited youth who lived briefly, but brilliantly. Writer/actor James Lecesne adapted the play from a novel he’d written previously, then performed it in its 2015 New York premiere. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey was an off-Broadway sensation, winning rave reviews. Actor Keith Randolph Smith plays all the parts at City Theatre. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

WICKED (musical) by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, from Gregory Maguire’s novel. Jan. 24 – Feb. 11, touring company at Benedum Center.

Despite its fan base, alternate history is a niche genre, rarely producing a household-name hit—but that’s not the case with alternate Oz. Everybody knows about Wicked, the novel-turned-musical that tells the tale of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Witch’s perspective. The touring production is booked into Benedum Center for a stupendous run of 23 performances, which still won’t be enough: Most shows were nearly sold out before Christmas. Why is Wicked so popular? In part, because what it’s an alternate of is so popular. The 1939 film The Wizard of Oz just might be the best-known movie ever, and Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch as a cackling, bad-to-the-bone hag has been seared into the mind’s eyeballs of millions. Wicked (which opened on Broadway in 2003) turns that horrid image upside down. The musical gives us a misunderstood gal who’s actually a good-hearted activist, blacklisted for her efforts to oppose the scurrilous Wizard’s mean regime. Besides, she’s pretty. She’s in love. And she can sing! Wicked has music and lyrics by Carnegie Mellon alumnus Stephen Schwartz; book by Winnie Holzman. The musical is presented here as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. 237 7th St., Cultural District.

The national touring company of 'Wicked.' Photo: Joan Marcus.

The national touring company of ‘Wicked.’ Photo: Joan Marcus.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (musical) by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart. Jan. 25 – Feb. 25, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Pittsburgh Public Theater presents a gripping saga of ancient Rome—one that has parallels to our own times, here in the modern American republic—and surprisingly it is not Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Romans, like us, loved comedies. Their comedies included music. Therefore, to celebrate the approach to the Ides of March, The Public is staging A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This winner of the 1963 Tony Award for Best Musical was inspired by the comedies of Titus Maccius Plautus, a popular playwright in Rome around 200 BCE. His formula for making ‘em laugh was “raunchy + witty,” and that mojo is channeled exuberantly in the musical, a high-energy sex-and-confusion romp. One of Plautus’ classic characters, the cunning (and punningly named) Pseudolus, even turns up as the main character in A Funny Thing. Others include Erronius, Hysterium, and Panacea. Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart; music and lyrics by a then-young Stephen Sondheim; who could ask for more? O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS (musical) by Jason Robert Brown. Jan. 26 – Feb. 3, Split Stage Productions.

Split Stage Productions has brought adventurous musicals to Westmoreland County, with recent numbers such as Spring Awakening and Side Show. Now they are presenting a musical that bends time’s arrow and once triggered a lawsuit. The Last Five Years tells the story of a failed marriage from two viewpoints: the husband relates his side in chronological order while the wife presents hers in reverse, from breakup back to first meeting. Writer/composer Jason Robert Brown based the story on his own failed marriage—perhaps too closely, for after the show premiered in 2001, Brown did some rewriting when faced with legal action from his ex. Aside from these peculiarities, music fans like The Last Five Years for its intricate, unusual songs and melodies. Split Stage is performing The Last Five Years at The Theatre Factory. 235 Cavitt Ave., Trafford.

RULES OF SECONDS by John Pollono. Jan. 26 – Feb. 17, barebones productions.

Braddock-based barebones productions returns to action with a new number by L.A.-based playwright John Pollono, who wrote the much-lauded Small Engine Repair presented at barebones a couple of years ago. The new play is Rules of Seconds. It’s a comic melodrama set in the 1850s, when men were men and they defended their honor by dueling with pistols. A stalwart but very fidgety (and hopelessly un-combative) young man is challenged when he accidentally offends a dastardly older dude. It looks like certain death, but help is on the way—along with plenty of complications and plot twists, including some that feature the young fellow’s plucky mama. Rules of Seconds premiered in March 2017 in Los Angeles, where it drew mucho laughs and critical praise: the Los Angeles Times called it a “satire … disguised as farce masquerading as a stage potboiler.” The barebones cast includes Cotter Smith, who plays FBI Unit Chief Shepard in Netflix’s Mindhunter. At the barebones black box, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock.

UP AND AWAY (musical) by Kevin Hammonds and Kristin Bair. Jan. 25 – Apr. 15, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

What does the CLO in Pittsburgh CLO stand for? Long ago the company was known as Civic Light Opera, a euphemism for “we do musicals.” And CLO continues to mount full-up productions of big Broadway musicals, while branching into a side venture that you might call Civic Light Chamber Opera: smaller, more intimate shows done cabaret-style. The newest in this vein is the world premiere of Up and Away. Like many CLO Cabaret offerings, it’s a comedy, for as every comedy-club fan knows, small spaces are conducive to big laughs. Written by a K duo—Kevin Hammonds and Kristin Bair—Up and Away has a cast of five playing over 50 characters, in a plot that revolves around two brothers leaving a small town to pursue their destiny in the big city. Their misadventures are accompanied by song and dance. Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: Love Never Dies, by Joan Marcus. The Play by Michael Henninger. One Man Dark Knight, courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. James Lecesne, courtesy of the artist and City Theatre.

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