July Theater Guide: The Midsummer Twist

Messing with the Mafia is no way to do a day at the beach, but that’s what the bowtied bad boy is up to in ‘Scapino,’ a comedy that puts a new twist on an oldie by Molière. Playwright Jeffrey Binder (L) is in town to play the title role for Kinetic Theatre’s production, along with Phillip Taratula as Sylvester. (Photo courtesy of Gulfshore Playhouse)

The Twist was a dance craze that involved rotating certain parts of the body one way while other parts go the other way. It peaked in 1960, when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were competing neck-and-neck for the presidency. Let there be no doubt: Synchronicity is real. In July 2019, as we twist past the midpoint of another contentious year, Pittsburgh’s live theater schedule includes several shows that apply a twist of some sort.

Jeffrey Binder’s Scapino remakes a 17th-century trickster comedy as a modern-day mobster tale. The touring company of Sh!t-faced Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet performs a rare feat, Shakespeare while intoxicated. (Non-Equity actors must be used to avoid the union’s rule against being drunk on stage.) In a touring musical show, The Vaudevillians, legendary drag queen Jinkx Monsoon emerges from the melting Antarctic ice sheet to prove that rock stars have been doing our favorite songs all wrong. In Winnie-the-Pooh and the 7 Deadly Sins, Christopher Robin and his friends are grown up, with surprising consequences. And there is a twist to the musical Peter Pan that first-timers may not be aware of; you can read about it in the show’s preview below.  

Although it’s unfair to call Marsha Norman a one-hit wonder, she is known mainly for one very disturbing play. Her Pulitzer Prize winner ‘night Mother has a harrowing premise with a hard-to-forget twist at the end. Elsewhere, Pittsburgh Festival Opera puts a variety of twists on the operatic experience. Productions at this year’s festival range from Wagner’s The Valkyrie to Mister Rogers’ Operas

Finally, twisting aside, let us give jukebox musicals their due. People think it’s easy to slap a story around existing songs. But the genre contains many sub-genres that each requires a special form of creativity, and this month we get to see three examples. First is a concept album turned into a show, which generates another album and a documentary about the show. It takes multi-level thinking to do this, as exemplified by Green Day’s American Idiot. 

Next is a compendium of hits from a given era or movement in rock. The trick here is minimalism. You want a plot that provides the shortest distance from song A to song B, C, and so forth, as in Rock of Ages. Then comes a sub-genre that few dare to attempt—a fully developed story, filled with bouncy Swedish meatballs of bygone Europop. This requires being British, as they created the show and were the first to go nuts over it, so you can thank them for Mamma Mia! 

Shows are previewed in order of their run dates, with Spotlighted shows first, followed by “Other Suggested Productions.” 

In the Entertainment Central Spotlight for July:

THE VAUDEVILLIANS (cabaret musical) by Jinkx Monsoon. July 11-13, touring production at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The edges are faded because it’s an old, old photo of ‘The Vaudevillians,’ before they were flash-frozen and reheated. Major Scales (L) and Jinkx Monsoon play the red-hot pair. (photo: Magnus Hastings)

Who is Jinkx Monsoon, you ask? Why, what a drag you aren’t! Jinkx was the Season 5 winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Monsoon was a member of the world’s longest drag chorus line, as certified by Guinness World Records. And now Jinkx Monsoon, one and the same person, is the creator and co-star, along with Major Scales, of The Vaudevillians. This live stage show descends on Pittsburgh for an exclusive run hosted by Pittsburgh Public Theater. The plot: Kitty Witless (Monsoon) and her husband Dr. Dan Von Dandy were old-time vaudeville stars accidentally frozen in ice while touring Antarctica. Liberated in modern times by global warming, they find that their songs have been stolen and misinterpreted by so-called pop artists. Therefore they return to the circuit to demonstrate the true meanings and correct renditions of chart-topping tunes you thought you knew but didn’t. In the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.  

SCAPINO by Jeffrey Binder, from Molière’s comedy. July 11-28, Kinetic Theatre.

Ranking comedy on a one-to-10 scale, where 10 = risk of injury from laughing, Kinetic Theatre hit the mark a couple of years ago with the David Ives play The Liar. Now the company is rumored to have another 10 in the works. Jeffrey Binder’s Scapino has some striking similarities to The Liar: Both are 17th-century French comedies redone by modern playwrights, and each has an eccentric trickster at the center of the action. Scapino is a remake of Molière’s The Deceits of Scapin, about a slippery fellow who isn’t entirely ethical or legal (“Justice and I had a falling out”), but who puts his wiles to work on behalf of two young couples in love against the wishes of powerful parents. The remake moves the action to modern-day Florida, where Scapino is a disbarred lawyer and the dads in question are Mafia dons. Kinetic’s production has a cast including Ethan Saks (star of The Liar) as one of the young lovers, Sarah Silk as his paramour, and playwright Binder himself, in town for the occasion to play Scapino. In the Henry Heymann Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 

PETER PAN (musical) by Jule Styne, Mark Charlap, Carolyn Leigh, and others, from J.M. Barrie’s play. July 12-21, Pittsburgh CLO. 

Jenn Colella has the title role in ‘Peter Pan’ at Pittsburgh CLO. (photo courtesy of the artist)

On March 7, 1955, children across America settled in eagerly to watch a TV special. NBC was airing a performance of the hit Broadway musical Peter Pan. And many who watched would later recall their astonishment at seeing Peter played by a woman. Mary Martin, a Broadway pro, nailed the songs. She had her hair done short, and she strutted and leaped like a plucky boy. Yet there was no mistaking that Martin was no boy. The casting choice was indeed unusual, and it was made to follow tradition. When J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan (a non-musical) went to production in 1904, the producer wanted actress Maude Adams as the lead. He argued practical reasons for not using a real boy but might’ve also had promotion in mind. The great Sarah Bernhardt had recently played Hamlet, to show that she could. So Barrie’s play got a female Peter and years later, so did the ‘50s musical—with unexpected consequences.

Try googling “mary martin peter pan lgbtq.” You’ll get results like a 2014 article from The Atlantic titled “Peter Pan, Queer Icon.” Writer Shannon Keating observed that “For many queer women and gender non-conforming people sprawled in front of their TV sets when they were still children, watching women like Mary Martin play Peter Pan provided visual affirmation that a genderbent lifestyle was within their realm of possibility.” Tevye the milkman had a point. Tradition matters. Pittsburgh CLO presents the musical Peter Pan with Jenn Colella as Peter and Charles Shaughnessy as Captain Hook. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. 

PITTSBURGH FESTIVAL OPERA (summer festival with various works). July 12-28, produced by the company.

Did you know that Pittsburgh has a summer opera festival? It runs from July 12 to 28 this year, staged expertly by Pittsburgh Festival Opera, a nonprofit founded in 1978. (Highlights of the 2017 festival are shown above.) The opening-night opera this summer is Richard Strauss’s late-life comic/mythic masterpiece, The Love of Danae, while a big item on the bill is Richard Wagner’s thunderous The Valkyrie, with performances on July 19, 21, and 27. Also featured are Mister Rogers’ Operas—a program of two one-acts composed by Fred Rogers, and first performed on his long-running PBS show (July 13, 14, 20, and 25)—and a children’s opera, Anna Young’s The Enchanted Forest (July 13, 20, and 27). There’s more, including a recital of Kurt Weill songs by contralto Daphne Alderson. You won’t need opera glasses, because Pittsburgh Festival Opera performs even the big shows in a mid-sized venue: the Falk Auditorium at Winchester Thurston School. Foreign-language operas have English translations projected. Check the PFO website for details and exact locations of various performances; they’re all within a very close radius. Winchester Thurston’s auditorium is at 555 Morewood Ave. with the side entrance on Ellsworth, Shadyside.

MAMMA MIA! (jukebox musical) by Catherine Johnson, with songs by ABBA. July 18-28, Stage 62.

Although we don’t keep an official count, it’s a good bet that the most-produced musical in Pittsburgh-area theaters in recent years is Mamma Mia! This seems puzzling. Many other good musicals are available, including major award winners and shows with wide audience appeal, whereas Mamma Mia! is more like a niche product—a jukebox musical that’s all ABBA. To enjoy the show, you’ve got to like disco-inflected Europop from a group defunct since 1982. But the fan base lives on, and apparently, ABBA fans are so rabid for ABBA that they can’t get enough Mamma Mia! The musical premiered to sold-out houses in London in 1999. The Broadway production whiffed on Tony Awards but ran for 14 years in New York. The 2008 movie, excerpted above, got tepid reviews but did well at the box office. Maybe playwright Catherine Johnson’s script—about a young bride wondering who her biological father is—combines with ABBA’s music to create a certain jag vet inte vad. That’s Swedish for je ne sais quoi. Stage 62, one of our region’s premier community theater companies, presents Mamma Mia! in the Music Hall at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library. 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie. 

‘NIGHT MOTHER by Marsha Norman. July 19-27, Throughline Theatre.

The jury for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama had a tough choice to make. One strong contender was Sam Shepard’s True West, a wild and provocative seriocomedy about a sibling rivalry spinning out of control. But the prize went to a much quieter play, Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother. This parlor drama has a simple yet shocking premise. A middle-aged woman is living with her mother after a failed marriage and assorted other failures. One evening she matter-of-factly tells Mom that she plans to commit suicide that night. She then putters about the house putting things in order before her departure—even making a list of Christmas presents to be bought, for Christmases yet to come—while her mother, disbelieving at first, tries to talk her out of it. The tension builds. Long-kept secrets come spilling out. And inevitably, zero hour arrives. The play is a stunning experience but seldom seen these days. Throughline Theatre presents ‘night Mother with Bri Brownfield as Jessie and Samantha A. Camp as her mother, Thelma. At the Aftershock Theatre, 115 57th St., Lawrenceville.  

SH!T-FACED® SHAKESPEARE: ROMEO AND JULIET by Magnificent Bastard Productions. July 20 only, 8 p.m., U.S. touring company at the Byham Theater.

If you had the problems Juliet has, you’d drink, too, and Friar Laurence would be your enabler. This message was approved by the makers of ‘Sh!t-faced Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet.’ (photo © Rah Petheridge Photography)

Attention, fans of drunk humor: Here’s a show that might be just your cup of 100-proof vodka. The American touring cast of U.K.-based Magnificent Bastard Productions Ltd. visits Pittsburgh to perform a play from the company’s Sh!t-faced® Shakespeare repertoire, Sh!t-faced® Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. To quote from the Magnificent Bastard website: “Each night … one carefully selected cast member is charged with drinking for 4 entire hours prior to showtime. The remaining sober cast are forced to fight their way through the show while incorporating, rectifying, justifying and generally improvising round their inebriated castmate. With foul language, partial nudity, simulated acts of a sexual nature, full contact wrestling, full nudity, actual acts of a sexual nature and involuntary ‘tongue stuff’ … What could possibly go right?” We note with dismay that the company does not use the Oxford comma. But it’s an imperfect world, and the Sh!t-faced® actors have good material to work with. Shakespeare was a funny guy. Even Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy, contains a lot of laughs when simply played the way he wrote it. 8 p.m. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Cultural District. 

ROCK OF AGES (jukebox musical) by Chris D’Arienzo, with music from many artists. July 23-28, Pittsburgh CLO. 

Multitalented singer, songwriter, and actor Ace Young, formerly one of People magazine’s Hottest Bachelors, is now married but you can catch him as Stacee Jaxx in ‘Rock of Ages.’ (photo courtesy of the artist)

Rarely does one get to attend a rock musical about architectural preservation, so fans of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation are advised to catch Pittsburgh CLO’s Rock of Ages. This is a jukebox musical, loaded with hard-driving tunes from ’80s artists such as Twisted Sister, Pat Benatar,  Styx, and many more. The plot was inspired by true events. For years, up-and-coming bands in genres from punk to glam rock got their starts in grungy-but-hospitable clubs along the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. That began to change during the 1980s when the Strip grew more dominated by established record-industry acts and venues. Rock of Ages (with a book by Chris D’Arienzo) dramatizes this.

We’ve got developers who want to clean up the Strip by demolishing places like the fictional Bourbon Room. Thus, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” becomes a preservation protest song, as angry citizens insist that “We Built This City” on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Lots more stuff happens, accompanied always by lots more rock. Pittsburgh CLO’s cast for Rock of Ages features Ace Young as the heroic but maybe too hedonistic rocker Stacee Jaxx. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. 

And, continuing a long run …

SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY (cabaret musical) by Gerard Alessandrini. Through Aug. 25, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

The men and women of ‘Spamilton’ salute you! Actors, L to R, are Tru Verret-Fleming, Erin Ramirez, T.J. Newton, Justin Lonesome, and Latrea Rembert. (photo: Matt Polk)

When it comes to musical parody, Weird Al reigns as the contemporary master, but he’s got a peer in the world of show tunes. Writer/composer Gerard Alessandrini has authored the hit 1982 revue Forbidden Broadway and its many sequels, such as Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening and Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab. Not until recently, however, did Alessandrini focus his creative energies on spoofing a single entire Broadway musical. When he did, the result was Spamilton: An American Parody. Pittsburgh CLO now blossoms forth with a long-running (through August 25) cabaret production of Spamilton. The show won the 2017 Off-Broadway Alliance Award for “Best Unique Theatrical Experience.” Lin-Manuel Miranda reportedly loved it. Spamilton takes particular aim at Hamilton’s immense popularity, with songs including “Ticket Beggar Woman,” “Book of No More Mormons,” and “The Film When It Happens.” In a nod to Avenue Q, perhaps, Spamilton also features puppets. At the Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Other Suggested Productions:

ELECTRA by Sophocles. Through July 13, Little Lake Theatre.

The backstory: Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, has returned home victorious only to be murdered by his wife and his wife’s lover. Now the deed cries out for vengeance, and in Sophocles’s tragedy Electra, the dead king’s daughter and her brother Orestes face the task. The play premiered in Athens around 400 BCE and is considered among the greatest of the extant Greek tragedies. Little Lake Theatre performs Electra with Rachel Pfenningwerth in the title role, Brendan Karras as Orestes, and a traditional Greek-style chorus to sing and chant commentary. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (musical) by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. Through July 13, South Park Theatre.

If you’re looking for hilariously edgy satire that borders on Theater of the Absurd, would you expect to find it in a musical about a middle-school spelling bee? Maybe not, but that’s what The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee delivers. With music by William Finn and a Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin, the show is aimed primarily at adult-to-teen audiences; don’t bring younger kids unless you’re OK with their hearing songs like “My Unfortunate Erection.” Other songs include “Magic Foot,” about a contestant whose foot does the spelling, and … well, you gotta see it to believe it. South Park Theatre presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the corner of Brownsville Rd. and Corrigan Dr., South Park Township. 

DON’T DRESS FOR DINNER by Marc Camoletti, adapted by Robin Hawdon. July 9-21, Mountain Playhouse. 

Should you ever want to write a French sex farce, the secret is to create a plot with overlapping adulterous affairs, then add lots more complications. In Marc Camoletti’s play Don’t Dress for Dinner, the husband invites his mistress in for the weekend because his wife will be away, but wife decides to stay because husband’s old friend will be visiting, with whom she is having an affair, so husband tries to explain the mistress’s presence by asking old friend to lie and say that she’s his mistress, but old friend mistakenly says the cook is his mistress … got it? Mountain Playhouse presents Don’t Dress for Dinner at 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown. 

AMERICAN IDIOT (jukebox musical) by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, with songs by Green Day. July 11-28, The Summer Company.

For this summer of discontent in a polarized America, The Summer Company performs a musical that has generated polarized opinions. Green Day’s American Idiot is based on the concept album of the same title. Some theater critics have called it an incisive, hard-rocking commentary on the superficiality and meaninglessness of modern life. Others find the show rather superficial and meaningless itself. A viewer on YouTube commented that the title song is “The true anthem of the United States.” In the Genesius Theater on the Duquesne University campus, 1225 Seitz St., Uptown. 

WINNIE-THE-POOH AND THE 7 DEADLY SINS by James Michael Shoberg. July 12-27, The Rage of the Stage Players.

They say it’s back by popular demand, so it must be good. Pittsburgh’s Rage of the Stage Players present Winnie-the-Pooh and the 7 Deadly Sins, updated from the company’s 2013 original. The play is a not-for-children sequel to the A.A. Milne stories. Christopher Robin, now 16, is asserting himself as a gay teen and no longer buys the old-time religion he was raised in. His friends in Hundred Acre Wood have aged, too, and badly, now embodying the so-called Deadly Sins. Winnie-the-Pooh (Gluttony) is an overweight bear with diabetes; Tigger (Lust) is a creepy sexual predator, and so forth. With Jack Hudson as Christopher, Zach Miller as Pooh, and many more. At the McKeesport Little Theater venue, 1614 Coursin St., McKeesport.

FLYING & FALLING (ballet/modern dance), multiple creators. July 18-21, Texture Contemporary Ballet.

Texture Contemporary Ballet, the company whose name says it all (see the video above), returns to action with an eclectic program of dance pieces titled Flying & FallingFirst up is a new dance choreographed to music from The Piano Guys, who play instrumental mashups combining pop rock with Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc. Kelsey Bartman and Madeline Kendall’s “Hats Off to the Greats” is inspired by movies and their soundtracks. Katie Miller’s “Molato Appassionato” is set to Mendelssohn’s music, and Alan Obuzor’s “Reshifting Time” is danced to music by Two Steps From Hell. It’s all ballet but it is contemporary ballet. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

MOM’S GIFT by Phil Olson. July 18 – Aug. 3, South Park Theatre. 

Dysfunctional-family comedies typically involve a late-middle-aged couple and their young-adult children. The characters might be brought together at, say, a holiday gathering, where Mom and Pop’s mature oddities compete with cutting-edge problems the kids are cultivating. In the Phil Olson play Mom’s Gift, we get an extra twist. Mom is dead. Her disembodied spirit crashes the party, because to earn her angel’s wings, she must return to the scene of the dysfunction and complete a mission. South Park Theatre performs the play at the corner of Brownsville Rd. and Corrigan Dr., South Park Township. 

BOEING BOEING by Marc Camoletti. July 18 – Aug. 3, Little Lake Theatre.

Boeing Boeing is a naughty French sex farce from the early 1960s. It concerns a playboy in Paris who’s romancing flight attendants from three different airlines, deftly juggling their “layovers” (pun intended) so the women will not meet—until, of course, one day they do. Filled with wacky physical comedy and outré innuendo, Boeing Boeing, by Marc Camoletti, gained a new generation of fans when a 2008 Broadway production won that year’s Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Camoletti’s plays are hot in summer stock this year. Little Lake Theatre is doing Boeing Boeing with John Herrmann as the playboy and Briana Downs, Paige Borak, and Miranda Schuck as the high-flying women. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. 

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams. July 19-28, Pittsburgh Classic Players.

There really was a streetcar named Desire. New Orleans once had a trolley that ran through the French Quarter to Desire Street, and now Pittsburgh Classic Players are staging Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in our town. Director Shannon Knapp notes that the 1948 Pulitzer Prize winner remains very relevant today, as it deals with themes of sexual abuse, socioeconomic class, and mental illness. Streetcar also remains a very good play. It’s about an abusive husband, a battered wife, and their disruptive house guest: the wife’s older sister Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle who is either a chronic liar or delusional, possibly both. Blanche, a magnetic and mysterious character, has been played by noted actresses ranging from Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh to Frances McDormand. Pittsburgh Classic Players has Alyssa Herron as Blanche, along with Brett Sullivan Santry as Stanley, Jalina McClaren as Stella, and Chris Collier as Mitch. At the Spartan Community Center, 134 E. Elizabeth St., Hazelwood.

THINGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME by Katherine DiSavino. July 23 – Aug. 4, Mountain Playhouse.  

Three years ago, Stephen Karam’s The Humans rather surprisingly won the Tony Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s an interesting-enough seriocomedy, about a young couple moving into a new apartment while the woman’s wacky parents try to help; the surprising part was that a relatively lightweight play received such high accolades. But there is an even lighter play you might call The Humans lite. Katherine DiSavino, author of Nana’s Naughty Knickers, has a comedy titled Things My Mother Taught Me. Here, the young couple are moving into an apartment in Chicago, not New York (which shouldn’t be quite so tough), and you get a warm-hearted happy ending instead of a gloomy symbolic one. See Things My Mother Taught Me at the Mountain Playhouse, 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown.

WORDPLAY (“hybrid storytelling”), multiple creators. July 19-20, organized by Bricolage Production Company.  

Storytelling is perhaps the oldest narrative art, and Pittsburgh’s Bricolage Production Company puts a new spin on the modern storytelling revival. Bricolage’s WordPlay is a “hybrid” event for which Pittsburghers are invited to submit stories in writing—as long as they’re true, because this is nonfiction, and nonfiction means “not not true.” A chosen few then tell their stories at each WordPlay, with a DJ on hand to accompany the tales by spinning music and sounds that are utterly unpredictable. Featured tellers for July are Jamie Agnello, Billy Jenkins, Alan Olifson, Maria Simbra, and TJ Young, with DJ Tracksploitation. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. 

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

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