You know it’s July on the Pittsburgh theater scene when local stages blossom forth with MUSICALS. There are so many—and their existence is taken so much for granted—that an inquisitive soul may be led to ponder fundamental questions.
How did this strange art form originate? Who decided it was cool to interrupt perfectly OK plays by having the characters burst into song and dance? (Or conversely, who got the idea to break up operas with scenes where everybody talks?) Why do show tunes sound like show tunes regardless of the genre? Which will be made into a musical first, The Shape of Water or the Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie? And if you can’t get tickets for Hamilton will your life be over?
The answer to the last is maybe not. During July, Pittsburgh CLO alone presents three musicals, running the gamut from adult-themed The Full Monty to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with the Lerner and Loewe classic Brigadoon in between.
Other musicals explore the various thrills and terrors of high school. Grease takes us back to a possibly mythical time when kids from different backgrounds found ways to get along, whereas Heathers: The Musical unfolds cruelty and violence to the beat of dark-comic songs such as “Dead Girl Walking.”
There’s more, and some interesting non-musicals are on the schedule, too. They include the gripping new play Gloria and the timeless gripper A Streetcar Named Desire. Meanwhile, Chekhov fans will get to see the acclaimed modern remake of The Seagull, Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird.
Read all about it below. Shows are previewed in order of their run dates.
Continuing from June:
HAY FEVER by Noël Coward. Through July 7, Little Lake Theatre.
Little Lake Theatre segues into midsummer with an old favorite, Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy of manners Hay Fever. A play of this type is called a comedy of manners because it’s about upper-class folks who have good manners, except they lose their manners when they get flustered. Coward was a master of the form. Born in 1899 into a struggling family far below England’s upper ranks, he became a high-society favorite by virtue of his wit and theatrical talents. His comedies remain popular because they’re organically funny—that is, the humor flows naturally from the characters’ quirks and situations, instead of from laugh lines or gags jammed in merely for comic effect. In Hay Fever, four members of an eccentric family each invite a guest for the weekend. The guests turn out to be an oddly mismatched bunch and they’re not prepared for the family’s oddities. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (musical) by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman, from Robert James Waller’s novel. Through July 8, Carnivale Theatrics.
Some people think The Bridges of Madison County is about a family named the Bridges. Wrong-o. The story concerns covered bridges and adultery, which go together if you’re an Italian-immigrant farm wife in Iowa with a crush on a National Geographic photographer who’s in the area to shoot pictures of the quaint bridges. Millions of Americans have related powerfully to the tale, proving the Hollywood adage that “nobody knows anything” about what’s likely to be a hit. Robert James Waller’s mega-best-selling novel was made into a 1995 movie, then later adapted as a stage musical. In this form, The Bridges of Madison County won 2014 Tony Awards for Best Score and Orchestration (both by Jason Robert Brown), with the song “Almost Real” being particularly praised. Pittsburgh’s Carnivale Theatrics presents The Bridges of Madison County at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
THE CLEARING (“immersive encounter” theater). Through July 15, Bricolage Production Co.
Normally, theater previews should not be written by copying straight from the theater company’s promotional material. That’s lazy journalism. Sometimes, however, there comes a show that is so je ne sais quoi that you’ve got to give up and go with it. Therefore: Bricolage Production Company presents The Clearing, an “Immersive Encounter” which may conjure up “the feeling of grass underneath your feet. Cool water on your skin. A whisper from a long forgotten lover. Memories, like dreams, surface then fade away. Sink into a space of quiet thoughts. Experience an untethering—a momentary release. A clearing in the chaos.” Furthermore: “Immersive Encounters are intimate, personal, sensory-based theatrical experiences … [They] serve as a creative play space for both creators and patrons … We suggest you remain open and do not cling to any previous immersive experiences you may have had in the past.” The Clearing is at 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
New shows in the Entertainment Central spotlight for July:
THE FULL MONTY (musical) by Terrence McNally and David Yazbek, from the film. July 6 – 15, Pittsburgh CLO.
Pittsburgh CLO presents the world’s only musical about unemployed steelworkers getting naked. It’s not easy to find humor in the loss of manufacturing jobs, but The Full Monty gives it a go. “The full monty” is a British slang term meaning, roughly, “all of it.” In one sense it refers to what striptease dancers show you when they take it all off, and that’s how the guys in the story hope to make money, creating a male exotic dance act that will outstrip the Chippendales. The Full Monty began as a 1997 British movie set in Sheffield, England. Along with being a snappy working-class comedy, the film explored deeper themes—for the men, the prospect of stripping in public gets tied up with exposing their inner fears and feelings—and thus The Full Monty became a global hit, as a sort of cinematic anthem for the dispossessed. Did Broadway jump on it? Quicker than you can say “day trader.” American composer David Yazbek and playwright Terrence McNally produced a musical stage version that moves the setting to Buffalo, New York and replaces the movie’s jukebox-rock soundtrack with show tunes. CLO performs The Full Monty at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (jukebox musical) by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott. July 10-29, Mountain Playhouse.
The musical Million Dollar Quartet is set in the 1950s, when a million dollars was a lot, so ignore the fact that today it won’t buy a decent backup quarterback. The show dramatizes a day considered legendary in the annals of rock and country music. On December 4, 1956, four rather notable persons happened to show up at Sun Record Studios in Memphis: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. They met; they jammed. Tapes of the impromptu session, lost for years, were eventually found and formed a series of albums. The stage musical (with book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott) followed in 2006. Million Dollar Quartet fictionally re-creates the meeting and interaction of the four greats. It also fictionalizes much of the music they made together. Whereas the tapes caught them harmonizing mostly on country and gospel songs, the musical is heavy on jukebox hits of the period: “Hound Dog” by Presley, Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” etc. But hey, this isn’t history class; it’s show time. Mountain Playhouse presents Million Dollar Quartet at 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown.
GREASE (musical) by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. July 12-21, Apple Hill Playhouse.
Before Grease was the word, it was a shockingly gritty urban theater piece that mixed raw, raucous humor with frightening depictions of life among the tough kids at a big-city high school. The original Grease—inspired by lead writer Jim Jacobs’ own school days in Chicago—was staged by that city’s small Kingston Mines theater company in 1971. The play became an underground sensation. But Jacobs and co-writer Warren Casey were told it had to be modified to reach a wider audience, so they toned down the language and brightened up the script. They wrote new songs, turning Grease from a “play with music” into a full-blown musical. The Grease that we’ve come to know since then is much tamer, but not exactly lame. It has won generations of fans via live productions worldwide. The 1978 movie, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, was a box-office winner. Apple Hill Playhouse now invites you revisit Danny Zuko, the Pink Ladies, and their high-riding classmates at Rydell High. The company presents Grease at 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams. July 12-28, Little Lake Theatre.
There really was a streetcar named Desire. New Orleans once had a trolley line that ran through the French Quarter to Desire Street, and hence came the title of Tennessee Williams’ play. Now Little Lake Theatre is staging A Streetcar Named Desire to bring those steamy summertime blues to our town. The play is legendary. It won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Broadway production plus the 1951 film version—both with young Marlon Brando as the male lead—launched that actor’s meteoric career. The play is also gut-wrenching. It’s about an abusive husband, a battered wife, and their disruptive house guest: the wife’s older sister Blanche DuBois, a sexy-but-fading Southern belle who is either a chronic liar or delusional, possibly both. Despite the fame Brando won for his portrayal of the brutal hubby, A Streetcar Named Desire is ultimately Blanche’s story. A magnetic and mysterious character, she has been played by noted actresses ranging from Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh to Frances McDormand. Little Lake’s production can’t bring you the nameplate stars but it can bring you one of the most hair-raising dramas of American theater. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.
WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE? (jukebox musical) by Roger Bean. July 12-28, South Park Theatre.
Attention retro-rock fans: This is a Frankie Lymon alert. Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, the musical being staged at South Park Theatre, is said to be quite enjoyable—but it is not a bio-musical about Mr. Lymon, who recorded a hit song of that title. Nor is it adapted from the movie of the same title, which does trace the story of the talented-but-troubled singer who rose to fame in the 1950s at the tender age of 13 with his group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, died of a heroin overdose at 25, and left behind three widows (he married them all and divorced none) haggling over his estate. Amen! South Park’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love? is more cheerful. It is a jukebox musical scripted by Roger Bean, a veteran author of such shows. The plot revolves around young women at a bachelorette party. The music consists of old hit songs by many artists, such as “My Boy Lollipop,” “Hurt So Bad” … and, of course, Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (musical), adapted from the film. July 13-15, Kelly Simon Event Management and Stage Right.
The name says it all. Greensburg—yes, GREENsburg—was always destined to be the Emerald City. The musical stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz is happening, and it’s a totally Greensburg show: produced by Kelly Simon Event Management of Greensburg, in conjunction with the Greensburg theater company Stage Right, at The Palace Theatre in Greensburg. This production is based on the classic 1939 movie. Dorothy dons the ruby slippers. The Cowardly Lion proves that he’s not yellow. The Wicked Witch is green with envy. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg.
BRIGADOON (musical) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. July 17-22, Pittsburgh CLO.
In Groundhog Day, a man visits an enchanted town where the same day keeps repeating itself. In the Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon, something like the reverse happens: Two men visit an enchanted town that exists for just one day every hundred years—and then it will vanish until next day, a century later. The town, called Brigadoon, is in the remote Scottish Highlands. The visitors are two New Yorkers who’ve gotten lost in the hills while out hunting. When the magical day dawns, they wander into Brigadoon by chance (it’s not on any map). Unaware, at first, of the spell that the town is under, each man meets a beautiful lass who entreats him to stay. Many predicaments and surprising twists follow, as it seems that romance across the space/time barrier is not the only strange thing brewing. Brigadoon premiered on Broadway in 1947. The show is a longtime audience favorite for multiple reasons: the ingenuity of the story, the songs (“Almost Like Being in Love” is best known), and the spectacular dancing, which includes a Scottish sword dance. Pittsburgh CLO performs Brigadoon at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
UNMEASURED RHYTHM (modern ballet, various works). July 19-22, Texture Contemporary Ballet.
Texture Contemporary Ballet, a company committed to stretching the boundaries of the dance form, opens its eighth season with a program of new works titled Unmeasured Rhythm. One piece is a ballet in tap shoes, to tap beats, choreographed by Artistic Director Alan Obuzor. Another is an energetic Spanish-inspired dance created by Obuzor and Associate A.D. Kelsey Bartman. The third comes from guest choreographer Annalee Traylor, a Point Park University alumna now based in New York, and a survey of Traylor’s work to date suggests that you can expect just about anything. That’s how they do it at Texture. In the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (musical) by David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane, from the film. July 19-29, Stage 62.
When people say they’re up for some “mindless entertainment,” they don’t mean stupid stuff. Nobody likes stupid. They mean something that’s clever, funny, and engaging, but does not make them dwell upon the futility of life or whether we’re all on a fast track to Hell. Actually, the guys in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are on a fast track to Hell, but it’s their problem and it’s part of the fun. The show is a musical comedy about con men out to swindle wealthy women at a casino resort. Will the scoundrels bite off more than they can chew? As assuredly as the house always wins. And one can reasonably expect the house (meaning the audience) to win big this time around, because Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is being performed by Stage 62, a top-notch community theater company specializing in musicals. Deviously deceptive songs in Scoundrels include “Give Them What They Want,” “Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True,” and “Love Sneaks In.” It sneaks in the Music Hall at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie.
GLORIA by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. July 20-Aug. 5, Hatch Arts Collective.
Hatch Arts Collective—a group that’s made a mark in the Pittsburgh theater scene with original plays written by company member Paul Kruse (Chickens in the Yard, Driftless)—is now mounting the first Pittsburgh production of a recent Pulitzer-nominated play. Gloria, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, was a finalist for the 2016 prize in drama and has caused a buzz wherever it runs. It’s a workplace tragicomedy that starts out snarky/funny, then turns dead serious. The characters in Gloria are lower-echelon writers and editorial grubs at a high-profile New York magazine. Their office banter is barbed with worries about how they’ll ever get ahead in today’s leaner, meaner publishing industry. Then a calamity strikes—not layoffs, but an act of violence in their midst—and some are torn between coping with it and trying to profit from it. Lean and mean, indeed. Gloria opened off-Broadway, played at Chicago’s prestigious Goodman Theatre, and has drawn both praise and controversy. It fits with Hatch Arts Collective’s mission to present “socially engaging” theater. At Nova Place, 100 S. Commons, North Side.
HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. July 26-Aug. 12, The Summer Company.
America is still in its adolescence. No other country produces so many works of stage and screen with high-school students as main characters. From TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Veronica Mars,” “Pretty Little Liars,” and many more, to stage shows that won’t die such as Grease, and movies too numerous to name—all of which have adult audiences as well as teenaged fans—it’s clear that we perceive high school as a microcosm or defining metaphor of our society. Which may explain a lot of things. Including, for instance, the popularity of Heathers: The Musical. Your friendly writer once heard a teenager describe a clique at her school with ironic precision—“they’re the popular kids that nobody likes”—and kids of this type figure prominently in Heathers. It’s a dark musical. Amid the comical interplay between in-groupers and outsiders, there’s a dangerously deranged teen. Multiple deaths ensue, accompanied by songs including “My Dead Gay Son” and “I Am Damaged.” Adapted from the cult film Heathers, the show was an off-Broadway hit a few years ago. The Summer Company performs Heathers: The Musical in the Genesius Theater at Duquesne University, 1225 Seitz St., Uptown.
STUPID FUCKING BIRD by Aaron Posner. July 26-Aug.12, 12 Peers Theater.
In theater as in movies, remakes often misfire, but sometimes they work. Some great remakes have been seen on Pittsburgh stages in recent years: Kirk Lynn’s Fixing King John turned one of Shakespeare’s “meh” plays into a stirring (if bizarre) experience, and David Ives’ re-do of the 17th-century French comedy The Liar had audiences laughing their derrieres off. Now comes Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird. This one dares big, as it remakes a play that’s neither a dud nor a little-known relic: The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. The Seagull is a certified masterpiece. Though written in the 1890s, it’s modern in nature, slyly mixing absurd satire with serious stuff …. But, but, but. That sly, subtle style can make Chekhov’s plays hard to do well. Translating his Russian to English compounds the problem. Many productions of The Seagull just don’t quite take flight, and the title Stupid Fucking Bird voices this frustration. Philadelphia playwright Posner has largely kept Chekhov’s plot—a timeless tale of a trippy artist and tangled love affairs—except he’s put it in present-day America, and written scenes and dialogue to fit. LA Weekly called Stupid Fucking Bird “the best Chekhov adaptation in two decades.” 12 Peers Theater serves up the Bird in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland.
DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (musical). July 27-Aug. 5, Pittsburgh CLO.
There’s a variation of “You may be a redneck” called “You may be an intellectual.” For instance: “If your favorite version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is Jean Cocteau’s magnificently spooky black-and-white film, in French, with subtitles, you may be an intellectual.” Normal folks know that the definitive version is the Disney animated movie. And really smart normal folks know that Pittsburgh CLO is performing the musical adapted from it, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. This musical has it all. It has the servants who morph into a teapot and a candelabra—live, on stage! It deepens the complexity of the characters of Belle and the Beast, so that normal folks and their children don’t have to read Proust to get that kind of satisfaction. It even has more songs than the movie and Proust combined. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opened on Broadway in 1994 and ran for a staggering 13 years. The CLO run is shorter, so act fast. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
PERFECT WEDDING by Robin Hawdon. Through Aug. 12, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.
While Pittsburgh CLO is best known for mounting big Broadway musicals in summertime, the company also has an intimate cabaret venue with shows running year-round. Currently up in the CLO Cabaret is Robin Hawdon’s Perfect Wedding. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, though one might question how romantic it is for the groom to wake up on the morning of the wedding and find a strange woman in his bed. Complications then multiply. Perfect Wedding is neither big nor fat nor Greek but is reported to be exceptionally funny. CLO Cabaret serves food and drinks, so please laugh safely while consuming these. 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
Photo credits: Brigadoon, The Full Monty, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, by Matt Polk. The Clearing, by Handerson Gomes. Elvis Presley, Sun Records promo picture, 1954. Polly Conomos Jahn, courtesy of the artist and Little Lake Theatre. Ricardo Vila-Roger, courtesy of the artist and Hatch Arts Collective. Anton Chekhov, undated, photographer unknown.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.