July Theater Guide: Early Miranda, Ballet Rock, Summer Opera, and Monty Python

A song and dance scene from 'In the Heights' performed by Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre company. The Pittsburgh CLO is staging the musical here this month. photo: Pittsburgh CLO.

A song and dance scene from ‘In the Heights’ performed by Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre company. The Pittsburgh CLO is staging the musical here this month. photo: Pittsburgh CLO.

July theater in Pittsburgh has some fine offerings. If you’re one of the many people looking forward to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, arriving here in 2018, then Pittsburgh CLO has just the ticket for you. They are staging the musical Miranda did prior to his Hamilton blockbuster, In the Heights.

Opera fans get a break from the summer lull with Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s productions of the musical about that noted British barber, Sweeney Todd, and Handel’s comic opera Xerxes. The mid-summer can be a slow time for dance offerings as well, but Texture Contemporary Ballet is actually starting their season this month with an innovative program called Resounding Sound.

There’s nothing like a good production based on actual history and that’s just what South Park Theatre is offering with Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted. Moriah Ella Mason’s one-woman autobiographical show Sex Werque details her work as a stripper and the thematic elements of said work. Let’s end this intro with a laugh: Stage 62 is producing the Monty Python and the Holy Grail-inspired Spamalot.

Mike Vargo and Christopher Maggio also made major contributions to this Guide.

Continuing from June:

AN ACT OF GOD by David Javerbaum. Through July 2, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Do you ever wonder what God thinks of us? Is he happy, sad, or understanding about how we are doing here on Earth? An Act of God is the name of a play by David Javerbaum, who’s won 13 Emmys, 11 of which he received as a writer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” The play is based on Javerbaum’s book The Last Testament: A Memoir By God. Act of God takes a satirical look at heaven, where God, who admits to having some wrath-management issues, develops a new and improved set of commandments, relates some stories about Adam and Eve, and gives his thoughts on bedtime prayers. He’s aided in his irreverent social comedy by his two “wingmen,” angels Gabriel and Michael. Marcus Stevens, a Point Park grad who has seen action on stages in New York and Pittsburgh, portrays God. This is the season finale for Pittsburgh Public Theater. An Act of God is directed by the noted Ted Pappas. God and his angels can get a little salty, so the play is recommended for audiences ages 17 and above. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Cultural District. (RH)

THE CHRISTIANS by Lucas Hnath. Through July 2, Kinetic Theatre.

Add a name to the list of hot young playwrights to watch. Lucas Hnath—silent H, long a; “naith”—turns out unusual, provocative plays about a variety of subjects, from Isaac Newton (the comedy Isaac’s Eye) to a competitive swimmer caught doping (Red Speedo). And one that really gets audiences and critics stoked is The Christians. Hnath, who grew up in a churchgoing family and served in youth ministry as a teen, has set this play in a modern megachurch. There’s a choir, and everything is arranged so that audience members feel they’re at a Sunday worship service—except the service takes a surprise turn. The pastor announces he’s had a revelation. It has led him to a new understanding of the nature of God, which is at odds with the long-held beliefs of the congregation. Objections are raised, dueling citations from Scripture are traded, and the schism unfolds from there. Reviewers in New York and Chicago have praised The Christians as a sharp, engaging play that brings up deep questions. Kinetic Theatre is staging it here at the New Hazlett, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV)

CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES IN THE LAST POTLUCK SUPPER by Greta Grosch and Drew Jansen. Through July 2, The Mountain Playhouse.

Church Basement Ladies – The Last Potluck Supper is the fourth sequel in the Church Basement Ladies musical series. All were inspired by Growing Up Lutheran, a book by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson. The book humorously reflects upon their 1950s, Midwestern, Lutheran upbringing. The musicals, meanwhile, concern Vivian, Mavis, and Karin, the church ladies in question, who cook in the church basement for various functions. In The Last Potluck Supper, the function is the Centennial of First Cornucopia Lutheran. The trio reflect on their lives and the lives of their families in relation to the church’s 100-year history. It’s sure to be poignant and, thanks to the musical numbers, joyous. A Second Helping, another installment of the series, is playing at South Park Theatre around the same time should you find yourself wanting, ahem, seconds. 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown. (CM)

THE CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES SEQUEL: A SECOND HELPING by Jim Stowell, Jessica Zuehlke, and Drew Jansen. Through July 15 South Park Theatre.

The Church Basement Ladies Sequel: A Second Helping is the follow-up to the successful first play in the series. The musical comedies were based on the book Growing Up Lutheran, by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson which takes a comical look at their 1950s, Midwestern, Lutheran upbringing. The books follow several multi-generational female characters who work in the Church basement preparing food for various events held at the church. The women have fun discussing their problems and  commenting on issues of the day. A Second Helping by Jim Stowell, Jessica Zuehlke, and Drew Jansen, is set in 1965 as people are protesting the Vietnam War and women are demanding equal pay. If you’re a fan of the series Mountain Playhouse is staging another of the sequels, The Last Potluck Supper, this month as well. South Park Theatre, Corner of Brownsville Road and Corrigan Drive, South Park. (RH)


ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS by Richard Bean. Through July 15, Little Lake Theatre Company.

One Man, Two Guvnors, by Richard Bean, is an English adaptation of Servant of Two Masters, a 1743 Commedia dell’arte style comedy play by the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. The lead character Francis finds himself unexpectedly working for two bosses. Francis is a charming man, but not the smoothest. He works hard to keep each boss from discovering he is working for the other. Set in the 1960s, the plot mines comedy from love triangles, mistaken identities, and the farcical situation of working for two bosses. James Corden played Francis when the play debuted at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre in London in 2011. Little Lake Theatre Company, 500 Lakeside Dr., Canonsburg. (RH)

MISS ABIGAIL’S GUIDE TO DATING, MATING AND MARRIAGE by Ken Davenport and Sarah Salzberg. Through Aug. 13, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Javier Manente and Paige Davis star in the CLO Cabaret production of 'Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.' photo: Archie Carpenter.

Javier Manente and Paige Davis star in the CLO Cabaret production of ‘Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.’ photo: Archie Carpenter.

Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage is a two character play featuring Miss Abigail (Paige Davis  from TLC’s Trading Spaces) as a relationship consultant so dismayed when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt broke up that she rededicates her life to helping couples with relationship problems. Paco is Miss Abigail’s sexy assistant and who also has a secret crush on her. The play is based on a book of the same name by Abigail Grotke. Ken Davenport (Altar Boyz) and Sarah Saltzberg (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) joined forces to create this humorous look on love and dating. Part of the fun is Miss Abigail dishes out outdated and obscure relationship advice. The play received rave reviews when it ran off-Broadway in 2010 with Eve Plumb (Jan from the “The Brady Bunch”) as Abigail. Davis performed in the national touring company of Beauty and the Beast for two and a half years and was host of TLC network’s “Trading Spaces” which is being revived. Recommended for audiences 13 years of age and older. CLO Cabaret, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (RH)


New this month, in order of opening:

IN THE HEIGHTS (musical) by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, July 7-16, Pittsburgh CLO.

Is it possible to tell people about In the Heights without mentioning that it’s the musical that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote before Hamilton? Probably, but we’re not fussy about such things. The important point is that In the Heights is pretty good, too. It won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, so it ain’t exactly hígado picado (Spanish for “chopped liver,” according to Google Translate). Some lines in the show are actually spoken or sung in Spanish, because the setting is Washington Heights, a New York neighborhood that’s been home to many Dominican immigrants. The music includes salsa rhythms and high-energy Latin pop, along with the obligatory Miranda warning: Yes, there will be rap. The book (by Quiara Alegría Hudes) provides a story that’s a wide-ranging slice of life in the Heights, as various characters pursue their dreams, look for love, face difficulties, and find happy endings or at least hope. Pittsburgh CLO is presenting In the Heights. Get tickets early. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (MV)

SWEENEY TODD (musical) by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, July 7-9 and 15-22, Pittsburgh Festival Opera.   

Some people like their summertime theater to be light-hearted and frothy. For the rest of us, Pittsburgh Festival Opera is doing Sweeney Todd. This is the musical in which the song “A Little Priest” does not refer to a clergyman’s height, but to the amount of his flesh needed to make a meat pie. The story takes us to London in the 1840s, a bustling city, but also a mean and hard place. For Sweeney Todd, who has suffered a tragic injustice, the city inspires these lyrics: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit / And the vermin of the world inhabit it … They all deserve to die.” Many do. Todd, a barber skilled with the straight razor, gives customers the closest (and last) shaves of their lives; the corpses are put to profitable use in Mrs. Lovett’s nearby pie shop. Calling Sweeney Todd a dark comedy sells it short, because the show does more than squeeze laughs out of gore. It’s a compelling work of theater in every sense, and if Stephen Sondheim had never written another musical, this one alone would secure his legacy. In the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston School, 555 Morewood Ave. (but enter the side door on Ellsworth), Oakland. (MV)

Bromance on the rocks: Dorante (Ethan Saks, L) is the liar who can explain everything, and he'd better, because Alcippe (Charlie Francis Murphy) has a sword and the muscle to wield it with.

Bromance on the rocks: Dorante (Ethan Saks, L) is the liar who can explain everything, and he’d better, because Alcippe (Charlie Francis Murphy) has a sword and the muscle to wield it with.

THE LIAR by David Ives. July 13-30, Kinetic Theatre

Playwright David Ives is best known for his Venus in Fur, the sizzling seriocomedy about sex and power that was staged in Pittsburgh last year. Now it’s time for more Ives. Kinetic Theatre—one of the city’s really good small companies—is performing The Liar, a farcical comedy about sex, lies, and more lies. Ives adapted The Liar from a 1644 play of the same title by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille. The new version keeps the setting in Paris during the 1600s and generally follows the original plot, concerning a young man who cannot tell the truth: he lies to impress women; he lies to cover up previous lies; he lies for no purpose just because it’s his nature. What Ives has done is trim and tweak a near-forgotten work of French humor while putting it into modern English, which he writes with a wit that few can match. Ives’ The Liar premiered in 2010 in the capital of alternative facts, Washington, D.C. Recent revivals have drawn raves nationwide and Kinetic is presenting it in the Henry Heymann Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

XERXES (comic opera) by George Frideric Handel. July 14, 16, and 22, Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Why attend an opera that bombed at its world premiere? Because that was back in 1738, and tastes have changed since Handel’s Xerxes was first produced, turning a flop into a hot item prized for its weird comic genius. The problem was that audiences of the 1730s expected high opera to be either opera seria—serious and stately—or opera buffa, done for laughs. So when George Frideric Handel came along with one that looked serious on the surface, but had bizarre and ironic flashes of comedy erupting throughout, they didn’t say, “Oh, how innovative!” They said the Baroque-era equivalent of “WTF?” Today we love that stuff, and Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s production of Xerxes bodes to be memorable. In the title role, the company has countertenor Andrey Nemzer. If you saw (and heard) Quantum Theatre’s wild 2015 operatic adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, you will recall Nemzer as the succulently naughty rogue Autolycus. Now, as the Persian emperor Xerxes I, he presides over a court riddled with romantic shenanigans, including his own. In the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston School, 555 Morewood Ave. (but enter the side door on Ellsworth), Oakland. (MV)

HOT METAL MUSICALS by Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh. July 17.

Alex Manalo is one of the actors scheduled to perform at 'Hot Metal Musicals.' photo: Stephanie Riso.

Alex Manalo is one of the actors scheduled to perform at ‘Hot Metal Musicals.’ photo: Stephanie Riso.

An interesting one-day event occurring this month is Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh’s (MTAP) Hot Metal Musicals. This year’s production will feature a cast of eight singers who will perform 21 songs by 31 artists.  The event is a showcase of members’ work with an emphasis on musical theater works-in-progress. Many of the songs being featured are from shows that are still in development. Cast members for this event have been onstage for local and regional theater companies.  The event is produced with assistance from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Pittsburgh CLO, and the Heinz Endowments. Hot Metal Musicals is free, but MTAP highly encourages online reservations. A meet and greet reception with the artists and performers will follow the showcase. This event promises to be an interesting early look at new productions that are just over the horizon. 7:15 p.m. The Cabaret Theater at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (RH)

Broadway company of "Newsies." Photo: Deen van Meer.

Broadway company of “Newsies.”
Photo: Deen van Meer.

DISNEY’S NEWSIES by Alan Menken, Jack Feldman, and Harvey Fierstein. July 18-23. Pittsburgh CLO.

Disney’s Newsies, which won Tony Awards in 2012 for Best Score and Best Choreography, is adapted from the 1992 movie, based on the 1899 newsboys’ strike in New York City. The musical follows newsboy Jack Kelly and his best friend, Crutchie, as Jack rallies fellow New York City paper boys in a strike against publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer for better wages and working conditions. Newsies features top-notch song and dance numbers including the tap dance scene “King of New York.” The CLO production features many local actors and actors with connections to Pittsburgh in the ensemble cast. Newsies has music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Harvey Fierstein. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (RH)

RESOUNDING SOUND (modern ballet) July 20-23, Texture Contemporary Ballet.

Texture Contemporary Ballet, a company that performs exactly what its name says, is opening its 2017-18 season this month with Resounding Sound. As in all Texture shows, the dances are grounded in traditional ballet techniques but adapted and enhanced in new ways. Resounding Sound features a new ballet choreographed by Associate Artistic Director Kelsey Bartman to the music of legendary icon Bob Dylan. Sacramento-based musicians Justin Keim and Vinny Randazzo will play Dylan songs, including “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Just Like A Woman.” Another new ballet on the program is by Artistic Director Alan Obuzor, who has choreographed dance numbers to live sets by Pittsburgh rock band Meeting of Important People. Additionally, other ballet sets from Texture’s repertoire of works will be performed. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV, RH)

MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT by Eric Idle and John Du Prez. July 20-30, Stage 62.

In the medieval kingdom of Camelot, they ate ham and jam and spam a lot. They also used coconut-wielding menservants instead of horses and received supreme executive power from watery tarts. Such was the quality of English history as taught by British comedy troupe Monty Python in 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These lessons and more were revived in the 2004 Spamalot. The Tony Award-winning musical was lovingly taken from the movie script by original Python cast member Eric Idle. It features singing, dancing, and no small amount of silliness. Spamalot has music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, lyrics and book by Eric Idle. While on Broadway, the cast featured legendary comedic actors Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce, and Hank Azaria in place of the now largely retired Pythons. While Stage 62’s production will be less star-studded, the hilarity lives on. Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie. (EC, RH)

WONDER OF THE WORLD by David Lindsay-Abaire, July 20-Aug. 5, Little Lake Theatre Company.

Cass should have never looked in her husband’s sweater drawer, for it is there she finds a dirty little secret that sets the plot in motion. Feeling like life is passing her by, she jaunts off to Niagara Falls with a bucket list of things she wants to do. During her journey of self-discovery, she teams up with some lively characters: a suicidal alcoholic with a barrel headed for the falls, a good-looking tour boat captain, a therapist dressed like a clown, and two bickering undercover detectives working on a case involving a large jar of peanut butter. A trip to Niagara Falls has never been so humorous. Wonder of the World, by David Lindsay-Abaire, contains some adult language. Little Lake Theatre Company, 500 Lakeside Drive South, Canonsburg. (RH)

TRUMBO: RED, WHITE & BLACKLISTED by Christopher Trumbo. July 20-Aug. 5, South Park Theatre.

Colorado screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, 1947

Colorado screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, 1947.

Fans of Bryan Cranston’s turn as Dalton Trumbo should know that Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted is not based on the 2015 film. Rather, this play stays in the family. Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo’s son, centered it around  the letters his father wrote while blacklisted. An off-Broadway production debuted in 2003, and it has toured nationally. The play contains two characters: Dalton Trumbo and a narrator. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, individuals blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about their alleged ties to the Communist Party. Trumbo, a screenwriter and novelist, continued to write while blacklisted. His Roman Holiday won the Academy Award for Writing, but Ian McLellan Hunter, fronting for Trumbo, got the Oscar. Cleo Trumbo, Dalton’s widow, accepted the award posthumously in 1993 . South Park Theatre, Corner of Brownsville Road and Corrigan Drive, South Park. (CM)

MOON OVER THE BREWERY by Bruce Graham. July 25-Aug. 6, Mountain Playhouse.

With coal in the news so much recently, a play set in a mining town may be in order, for art often creates empathy. Moon over the Brewery by Pennsylvania playwright Bruce Graham follows Miriam Lipsky, who waits tables for a living. However, her passion is painting.Guided by a miner’s lamp and moonlight, she paints at night. She also wants a husband, but her 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, scares away potential suitors. Amanda has an IQ of 160 and an imaginary friend, Randolph. When Miriam brings home mailman Warren Zimmerman, it appears history is going to repeat itself as Amanda aims verbal jab after jab at Zimmerman. He not only gains the upper hand but also guides Amanda back towards reality and helps bring the family together. Mountain Playhouse, 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown. (CM)

SEX WERQUE by Moriah Ella Mason, July 27-30, Carnegie Stage.

Moriah Ella Mason’s one-woman, autobiographical show, Sex Werque, draws upon her experience as a former stripper. Themes include “the politics and economics of dance.” The piece argues “how the human need for intimacy plays a role in the sex industry,” with Mason using the show to create and subvert intimacy itself. Sex Werque isn’t Mason’s first performance at Carnegie Stage, nor her first to address injustice. She appeared in Kimono through off the WALL Productions. Kimono’s themes included 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. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. (CM)

RUMORS by Neil Simon. July 27–Aug. 5, Apple Hill Playhouse.

Theater fans who are up for trying a lesser-known play by a famous playwright may wish to catch Neil Simon’s Rumors. This wacky ensemble comedy does not have the iconic status of Simon’s The Odd Couple—which spawned a movie, a sequel, and multiple TV series—nor is it a semi-serious sentimental favorite like his Brighton Beach Memoirs. What you get in Rumors is pure farce, capped by a scene that’s a comic masterpiece. The play opens with guests arriving for a fancy dinner party, where they find that mysterious problems have arisen in the home of the host and hostess. Gossipy rumors fly; personal quirks and conflicts emerge; pandemonium ensues. Eventually the cops show up, and then comes the scene you won’t forget. Rumors is being performed at Apple Hill Playhouse. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont. (MV)


Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and enjoys good theater.

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