January 2023 Theater Guide: The Mother of All Months… for Pittsburgh Theater

Jade McLeod passionately singing in her role as Jo in the touring production of 'Jagged Little Pill.'

Jade McLeod passionately singing in her role as Jo in the touring production of ‘Jagged Little Pill.’ (Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.)

For many, having enjoyed (or, perhaps, survived) the frivolities of our extremely cold holidays, the hopes of a new year are born in the waning days of winter. It should come as no surprise that January was named for the Roman God of rebirth and new beginnings. It’s truly the mother of all winter months. And, so it’s fitting that this month––at least, in Pittsburgh––will celebrate the feminine side of hope and expectation. From the ever-popular musical romance Hairspray to the surprisingly redemptive lyrical anthology of Jagged Little Pill, women take center stage.

Beginning with PNC Broadway’s touring production of John Waters’ comic take on TV dance shows, pleasantly plump Tracy Turnblad helps to integrate American pop culture. Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, running just four nights at the August Wilson Center, delivers the inspiring story of a woman who uses gospel to ensure voting rights for all. Although titled after its male lead, Ariodante, Handel’s rare but revered opera, draws its passion from the misfortune and redemption of the fabled daughter of the King of Scotland. Heidi Schreck’s hilarious play about what the Constitution has meant to four generations of her family brings us timely insight into American politics. And, finally, Alanis Morissette’s famed 1995 album, Jagged Little Pill, is parsed into an exhilarating musical about addictions––sexual, emotional and medicinal––that weave the story of motherhood misguided. 

These are our spotlight picks for the first month of 2023. Read our previews to learn why you should get your tickets now. Productions are listed by run dates. Mike Vargo (M.V.) also contributed to this guide.

Spotlight Picks

 HAIRSPRAY (musical) by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell, and Thomas Meehan, from the John Waters film. Touring company at The Benedum. January 3 – 8. 

"You Can't Stop The Beat" is a jumpin' number from 'Hairspray.' Niki Metcalf is Tracy Turnblad and company in the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh production. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel.)

“You Can’t Stop The Beat” is a jumpin’ number from ‘Hairspray.’ Niki Metcalf is Tracy Turnblad and company in the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh production. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel.)

If all theater were Tony-Award-winning musical theater, every show would sell out. Of course it’s not that way, which gives us much more to choose from and assures that Shakespeare won’t turn over in his grave. But the blockbuster musical tradition continues here in Pittsburgh, with the new touring production of Hairspray visiting Benedum Center to kick off the new year. Nearly every seat in the show’s six-day, eight-performance run is sold out, so act fast to grab a single or try an aftermarket source for tickets. And if you are not familiar with Hairspray? You’ve been watching too much Samuel Beckett. The musical demonstrates that a teenager in 1960s Baltimore does not need to wait for Godot; she can draw upon her spunk and style to star in a local TV dance-party show and advance the cause of integration. Hairspray, adapted from John Waters’ film of the same title, is loaded with retro-rock rhythms and zany confrontations. It won the 2003 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)

FANNIE: THE MUSIC AND LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER by Cheryl L. West. August Wilson Center, City Theatre, and DEMASKUS. January 13 – 16.

Robin McGee in 'Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer' by Cheryl L. West. (Photo by Greg Mooney and courtesy of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company.)

Robin McGee in ‘Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer’ by Cheryl L. West. (Photo by Greg Mooney and courtesy of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company.)

Who was Fannie Lou Hamer? If you know American history or even if you don’t, you may want to see the new show about her. FANNIE: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer re-creates the presence of the woman who was a unique force in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Hamer, the child of a Black sharecropper family on a Mississippi plantation, grew up at a time when Blacks in the state were strongly discouraged from voting — and from doing much else to get ahead. As an adult she rebelled. Despite having only a primary education in a one-room schoolhouse, Hamer emerged as a startlingly eloquent speaker who’d also burst into gospel songs to inspire others. For her attempts to register Black voters she was arrested, savagely beaten, permanently injured, and shot at. Yet she persisted. Her powerful speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention galvanized wide attention to the cause of Southern Blacks. She went on to co-found and/or lead projects and groups including the National Women’s Political Caucus. 

 Now the August Wilson African American Cultural Center teams with City Theatre and DEMASKUS Theater Collective to present FANNIE in Pittsburgh. This play with music, by Cheryl L. West, has been staged in only a few other cities previously. Robin McGee reprises her stellar performance in the title role. The show on January 16, Martin Luther King Day, is pay-what-you-can. At the Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (M.V.)

 ARIODANTE (opera) by George Frideric Handel; librettist unknown. Pittsburgh Opera. January 21 – 29. 

If you saw Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Marriage of Figaro' then you saw the magnificent performance of Jazmine Owalia as Cherubino. Catch her this month in the title role of 'Ariodante.'

If you saw Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ then you saw the magnificent performance of Jazmine Owalia as Cherubino. Catch her this month in the title role of ‘Ariodante.’

Seasons at Pittsburgh Opera offer a 360-degree experience of the art form, mixing classics from the repertoire with contemporary operas and little-known gems of the past. The latter takes center stage this month as the company presents the Pittsburgh premiere of an opera almost 300 years old. George Frideric Handel’s Ariodante had its first run in London in 1735. Londoners of the time, eager for new Italian-style operas, gave Ariodante such a warm reception that it played again the very next year—but then a couple of years’ hiatus turned into a couple of centuries. Revivals finally began during the 1900s. Gradually, Ariodante has won modern acclaim for its dramatic beauty and soaring arias. The story, by a librettist whose name is lost, is set in medieval Scotland. Prince Ariodante is in love with the king’s daughter, and the two must fight through a web of deceit and treachery if they are to wed. Handel composed the title role for a castrato. Pittsburgh Opera has mezzo-soprano Jazmine Olwalia singing and acting the Prince, with Handel’s score played authentically by Chatham Baroque. Discover Ariodante at Pittsburgh CAPA Theater, 111 9th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME by Heidi Schreck. City Theatre. January 21 – February 12.

Peter Marks of the Los Angeles Times says, “It is an act of patriotism to see it.” Indeed, Heidi Schreck’s must-see show was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, earned two Tony nominations, and was produced for Amazon Prime Video this past October. Premiering on Broadway in the fall of 2019, its sold-out run was cut short by the pandemic, and is only now playing in regional theaters. Autobiographical in many ways, Schreck’s tale arises from the gumption of a teenage girl who once earned her entire college tuition by winning debate competitions centered on the famed document. Featuring Tami Dixon, Schreck’s character delivers funny and stinging stories of the powerful effects and disillusionments the US Constitution held for four generations of her family. City Theatre’s own production is directed by Marc Masterson. Witty, challenging, reverent and irreverent, this comic study of how America’s institutions interpret our country’s core values belies and beholds astonishment. Of course, the subject seems particularly timely, but that may be true of any year in our political history. See What the Constitution Means to Me at City Theatre 1300 Bingham Street, South Side. (C.P.O.)

Alanis Morissette’s JAGGED LITTLE PILL directed by Diane Paulus. Benedum Center. January 24 – 29.

With a Tony-winning book by Diablo Cody and a Grammy-winning score by, of course, Canadian phenom Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill takes her 1995 album by the same name and dives deeply into the cynicism of a mother’s expectations for her husband, daughter and son. Mary Jane (M.J.) Healy opens the show, writing her annual Christmas letter to friends and family, praising her family for their countless achievements. MJ even boasts about herself; despite a near-crippling car accident, she has taken only to natural remedies to ease her pain. Of course, we know better. And we learn more. Husband Steve has a different kind of addiction, daughter Frankie has a secret girlfriend, and son Nick hides a truth that will ruin his collegiate reputation at Harvard. It’s a dramatic basket of fears, woven beautifully together with and by the music of Alanis Morissette.

Receiving the most Tony nominations (15) of any Broadway show in the 2019-2020 season, Jagged Little Pill, like all other contenders, closed suddenly due to the pandemic. Now on tour, PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh presents the alt-rock musical for eight shows over just six days. Tickets may be hard to come by. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.  (C.P.O.)

Other Big Shows on the Horizon (Opening Dates)

February 1
A Midsummer Nights Dream in Harlem (Pittsburgh Public Theater)

February 10
Dracula (Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre)

February 21
Beetlejuice (PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh)

Prentiss Orr writes about theater for Entertainment Central. His latest book, The Surveyor and the Silversmith, is a history of early Euro settlements and conflicts in today’s Western Pennsylvania.