June Theater Guide: Old Faves and New Raves
June is an odd month on Pittsburgh’s live theater schedule, midway between the ebb tide of the spring season and the rising tide of summertime musicals. Oddly, however, there are very few in-between choices this June: The shows are a mixture of old favorites and radically new works. Hardly anything fits the semi-adventurous category of “Oh, right, I’ve been hearing about that and might see it.” So, on a given night, you can either go to a well-known show or go out on a limb.
On the new side, City Theatre hosts its annual Momentum Festival—free staged readings of new plays still in development—while The Public does a full production of the futuristic psychodrama Marjorie Prime. June also brings several shows based in modern dance and its multi-genre hybrid forms: the first annual pearlPresents Dance Festival, the brand-new A Letter Compiled from All Letters (dance plus mixed-media and theater), and Origami, which combines dance with acrobatics and a spectacular large shape-shifting object.
Among the old favorites, Pittsburgh CLO fires up its mainstage musical season with Grease and Oklahoma!, a pair of American classics about different Americas. Productions at community theaters include a pair of musicals that demonstrate the difference between Swedish pop and hip-hop—Mamma Mia! and In the Heights—plus Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Sophocles’s gruesome golden oldie Electra.
To cap things off, we do have a semi-adventurous choice that looks interesting. Everybody knows Sherlock Holmes. Many plays, movies, and TV dramas have featured him. But few people have seen the only one adapted from a Holmes story by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Kinetic Theatre is staging Doyle’s 1910 play, The Speckled Band.
Spotlighted shows are previewed in order of run dates, with “other suggested productions” profiled more briefly at the end. Christopher Maggio (CM) contributed to this guide.
Continuing from May:
KING LEAR by William Shakespeare, adapted by James Kincaid and Julian Markels. Through June 2, Quantum Theatre.
Quantum Theatre is staging King Lear, and yes, it’s an adapted version, but Quantum’s Shakespeare adaptations can be memorable. The Winter’s Tale, done as a psychedelic baroque comic opera, was amazing. Now Lear is being performed amid the epic industrial ruins of the Carrie Furnaces site. The adaptation, by Shakespeare scholars James Kincaid and Julian Markels, mainly tightens the lengthy tragedy. The cast includes Jeffrey Carpenter as Lear, and numerous other strong Pittsburgh-based actors for the story in which Lear impetuously disowns his one faithful daughter while treacherous heirs foment rebellion and bloodshed. King Lear is sold out but try what you will. At the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark Site, Carrie Furnaces Boulevard, Swissvale. (MV)
WE ARE AMONG US by Stephen Belber. Through June 2, City Theatre.
City Theatre winds up its world-premiere run of a new play by American dramatist and screenwriter Stephen Belber. We Are Among Us is a home-from-the-war story. A woman who had served as a military contractor in Afghanistan is now peacefully settled back in U.S. civilian life, or thinks she is, until a reporter starts digging into an incident and cover-up that occurred during her time in the conflict zone. Playwright Belber has dealt previously with the theme of the past coming back to haunt someone. He wrote Match, about a man confronted by a young man claiming to be his biological son. City Theatre’s cast for We Are Among Us includes Nilanjana Bose-Ciupinska, Kyle Haden, Jo Mei, Lisa Velten Smith, and Eric Wiegand.1300 Bingham St., South Side. (MV)
MARJORIE PRIME by Jordan Harrison. May 30 – June 30, Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Can the dead come back to life? In Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime, they sort of do, with the aid of futuristic technology. Title character Marjorie is no longer in her prime. She’s over 80, living with her daughter and son-in-law, and drifting into dementia. Yet she is able to enjoy the company of her late husband, thanks to a company that creates life-sized holograms of the deceased. Better still, hubby is brought back in his prime—around age 30 and looking good. The premise sounds like the setup of a gimmicky sci-fi tale, but Marjorie Prime was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s been described as a powerfully engaging venture into the realms of memory, dreams, and desire. The 2017 film version, though not a box-office hit, was critically acclaimed. See the original live on stage. Pittsburgh Public Theater presents Marjorie Prime, directed by Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (MV)
Shows in the EC Spotlight for June:
MOMENTUM ’19 (staged readings/new play festival). May 30 – June 2, City Theatre.
Here’s an event for playwrights and anyone who wants a glimpse behind the scenes. The Momentum Festival: New Plays at Different Stages offers four days of readings, workshops, and panels designed to help plays move from the page to the stage. Audiences can watch and participate. As many of the plays later premiere at City Theatre, this is a chance to see the creative process first hand. And best of all, it’s free, but don’t forget to book a reservation. See the festival’s web page for a complete list of plays and playwrights. Also of note is a Friday happy hour with the artists and a preview of a work by David Conrad and Joe Grushecky. Former Artistic Director Tracy Brigden began the festival in 2003 and it continues under current Artistic Director Marc Masterson. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (CM)
pearlPRESENTS DANCE FESTIVAL (very modern dance) by multiple artists. June 3 – 9, produced by Staycee Pearl Dance Project and Soy Sos.
The inaugural pearlPRESENTS Dance Festival features solo dancers and companies, both local and national, over seven days. There’s even an overlap with the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. “noontime/GROOVE” occurs at 12 p.m. Fri., June 7 at the Dollar Bank Main Stage at Point State Park. It features three dance companies and is sure to get the audience itself grooving on the Point’s grass. The festival also has daily classes, all but one of which are donation-based. The classes begin Monday, June 3. The performances begin 7 p.m. Wed., June 5 with “3600 seconds of solos:” 12 dancers, each performing for five minutes. Attendees can join the artists for brunch at the Federal Gallery on the last day of the festival. Check the festival’s website for a full schedule. Unless otherwise noted, all events take place at the New Hazlett Theater. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (CM)
GREASE (musical) by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. June 7 – 16, Pittsburgh CLO.
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’s 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. Now Pittsburgh CLO invites you to revisit Danny Zuko, the Pink Ladies, and their high-riding classmates at Rydell High in a mainstage Pittsburgh production of Grease. The CLO cast includes Clay Aiken as Teen Angel, Zach Adkins as Danny Zuko, and Kristen Martin as Sandy. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (MV)
A LETTER COMPILED FROM ALL LETTERS (modern dance/multimedia) by Maree ReMalia, Gigi Gatewood, and Lillian Cho. June 13-15, the company at the New Hazlett Theater.
Does anybody still write letters? As in, on paper? Three performing and visual artists asked their friends to write them letters about what it’s like to communicate in the digital age. The responses, they say, ranged from profound to hilarious. And then, taking off from there—after a couple of years of development (part of which you can see above)—the artistic team produced A Letter Compiled from All Letters. It’s a theatrical piece that merges dance with projected video, high-tech sound, and old-school materials, including lots of wood and paper. The chief co-creators are director and choreographer Maree ReMalia, multimedia artist Gigi Gatewood, and performer Lillian Cho. They are joined by many others for both the design work and the performance. The artists’ statement says the piece explores a state in which “definitions for what is actual and virtual continue to blur … as human bodies try to resist, succumb, absorb, utilize, control, and react to them all.” This sounds radical. Bring your phone, and see if you can resist texting while the show unfolds. A Letter Compiled from All Letters is co-presented by the New Hazlett Theater at 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV)
THE SPECKLED BAND: A SHERLOCK HOLMES ADVENTURE by Arthur Conan Doyle. June 13-30, Kinetic Theatre.
The enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes is no mystery. We love him because he solves mysteries, he combines a superhuman intellect with a quirky human personality, and he’s British. Many Sherlock stories have been adapted for stage and screen, but only one by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself—and Pittsburgh’s Kinetic Theatre is staging it. The Speckled Band premiered in London in 1910. Based on The Adventure of the Speckled Band, a short story that Doyle considered perhaps his best, the play was quite successful. Then later, for reasons that remain a mystery, The Speckled Band slipped under what we modern folks call “the radar” for many years. Kinetic’s production is the Pittsburgh premiere. Memorable characters include the very creepy Dr. Rylott and a speckled snake, hence the title. Kinetic presents The Speckled Band with a star-studded cast playing the humans: David Crawford, James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Lisa Ann Goldsmith, Jessie Wray Goodman, Wali Jamal, Arjun Kumar, R. Daniel Murphy, John E. Reilly, Ethan Saks, Sam Tsoutsouvas, and David Whalen as Holmes. In the Charity Randall Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. (MV)
ORIGAMI (modern dance/performance) by Compagnie Furinkaï. June 14 – 16, Point State Park.
What is the oldest art form? Probably dance. We do not know when proto-humans began to speak, sing, draw, or sculpt, but one thing they could surely do from the time they evolved was move. Today we are still moving, and dance itself has evolved, interacting with other arts and even with large, moving objects. Which brings us to the dance/performance piece Origami. Although named after the paper-folding art, it’s a spectacular outdoor affair, in which—take a deep breath—a huge, specially prepared cargo container unfolds into various configurations, while dancer Satchie Noro clambers and swings across it in mesmerizing movements that resemble a cross between aerial butoh and slow-motion parkour. Origami was created by Noro and her colleague Silvain Ohl, under the auspices of Noro’s French-based Compagnie Furinkaï. The piece is touring worldwide and visits Pittsburgh for multiple performances, all of them free to the public. Co-presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council and the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, Origami is at Point State Park, Downtown. (MV)
OKLAHOMA! (musical) by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. June 21-30, Pittsburgh CLO.
The team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II got it right from the start with Oklahoma!, their first musical collaboration. It was a hit upon its Broadway debut in 1943 and is still staged today, including a run by the Pittsburgh CLO. The musical is based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs. Set in 1906, when Oklahoma was a territory, the musical follows Laurey Williams, a farm girl who is courted by cowboy Curly McLain (the good boy) and farmhand Jud Fry (the bad boy). A parallel love triangle involves Ado Annie, Ali Hakim, and Will Parker. The title song, with its suspended “Ohhhhhh,” is the one everyone knows, but “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” is another standout tune. Oklahoma! pioneered the book musical, in which scenes, songs, and dances intersect to create a full story. A 1955 movie version was also a hit. It marked the film debut of Southwestern Pennsylvania native Shirley Jones. Pittsburgh CLO performs Oklahoma! at Benedum Center, 237 7th St. and Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)
KAIJU BIG BATTEL (“live monster fighting spectacle”) by Studio Kaiju (Rand and David Borden). June 29 only, 8 p.m., touring company at the Byham Theater.
Kaiju is a Japanese film genre involving giant, city-wrecking monsters. Godzilla is the most recognizable example, and Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro, pays homage to the genre. Here’s your one-night chance to see some monsters not on screen but in the ring—the boxing ring, in the touring show Kaiju Big Battel. That’s right, live monsters will duke it out for—what else?—the fate of planet Earth. Contenders include Sky Deviler, Kung-Fu Chicken Noodle, Dusto Bunny, Uchu Chu the Space Bug, and Dr. Cube. The last of these isn’t some N.W.A Dr. Dre-Ice Cube hybrid, but rather a mad scientist … with a cube for a head. Because of course. There’s a boxing referee to oversee this delightful spectacle. If all of this wasn’t enough of a draw, DJ Inception will be spinning during an after party in the lobby of the Byham Theater. 101 6th St., Cultural District. (CM)
Other Suggested Productions
TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill. Through June 1, Little Lake Theatre.
British playwright Caryl Churchill, the grande dame of modern feminist theater, is 80 years old and still rocking. Little Lake Theatre rocks the stage with a revival of her best-known play, 1982’s Top Girls. The central character is a striving but struggling young career woman at the fictional Top Girls employment agency. The play’s famous scene is a raucous dinner party at which the guests include “top girls” from history and myth, such as Pope Joan, who allegedly posed as a man to serve as Pope in the Middle Ages, and the elite Japanese concubine Lady Nijo. Wild and weird? Yep, that’s Caryl Churchill. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. (MV)
FREEDA PEOPLES by Joyce Sylvester. Through June 16, New Horizon Theater.
Plays about churches and church people tend to be either dead serious or comical spoofs. But somewhere between The Crucible and Nunsense, there are plays that offer a seriocomic mix, like Freeda Peoples. It’s set in a struggling African-American church where the behind-the-scenes politicking and personal troubles have gotten pretty intense. The title character is a sassy new church lady who shows up, and her name suggests maybe Freeda Peoples really will. Playwright Joyce Sylvester’s piece has been popular in cities across the country. Pittsburgh’s New Horizon Theater presents Freeda Peoples with Paige Moody as Freeda. In the historic Homewood Carnegie Library, 7101 Hamilton Ave., Homewood. (MV)
MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS by Ron Hutchinson. June 6 – 16, Apple Hill Playhouse.
This is true: The screenplay of Gone with the Wind got an emergency rewrite after filming had started. The job was done in five days by three men eating bananas and peanuts, which producer David O. Selznick insisted was brain food. The only actual writer on the rewrite team was Ben Hecht, who had not read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, so the other two—Selznick and director Victor Fleming—sort of acted out how they thought Gone With the Wind should go. And now you can see a fictionalized re-creation of this re-creative process. Playwright Ron Hutchinson’s show-biz comedy Moonlight and Magnolias is on stage at Apple Hill Playhouse. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont. (MV)
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST by Oscar Wilde. June 6 – 22, Little Lake Theatre.
Oscar Wilde’s funniest play was also his last. The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in London in 1895, just as the controversy that ruined Wilde’s career was coming to a boil: He was in a same-sex love affair with the son of an English nobleman who objected mightily. Although Earnest is popular for its sheer silliness, it may contain sly allusions to Wilde’s real-life predicament. The central character is a man who enjoys having a secret identity, and wants to marry the—ahem—daughter of Lady Bracknell, an absurdly upper-crusty English noblewoman. Little Lake Theatre presents The Importance of Being Earnest with Kathleen Regan as Lady Bracknell and Stephen Ray as Jack (a.k.a. “Ernest”). 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. (MV)
IT HAD TO BE YOU by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna. June 6 – 22, South Park Theatre.
In real life, actress/writer Renée Taylor and actor/writer Joseph Bologna had a long and happy marriage. So happy, in fact, that they co-wrote and acted in a matrimonial play together. It Had to Be You premiered in New York in 1981. The play is a comical show-biz farce about a nutty actress meeting and seducing a big-time TV director on a wacky Christmas Eve. June is a long way from Christmas, but that doesn’t stop South Park Theatre from staging a revival of It Had to Be You. Corner of Brownsville Rd. and Corrigan Dr., South Park Township. (MV)
MAMMA MIA! (jukebox musical) by Catherine Johnson, with songs by ABBA. June 13 – 16, Actors and Artists of Fayette County.
Attention all ABBA fans! To qualify as a truly devoted member of the inner circle, you must attend every available staging and screening of Mamma Mia!—and bring a friend who’s been resisting ABBA! This popular 1999 musical mixes songs by ABBA with a story by British playwright Catherine Johnson. The story revolves around a mother and daughter and her three possible dads as they gather for the daughter’s wedding on a Greek island. Songs include “Take a Chance on Me.” Take a ride to Scottdale and catch Actors and Artists of Fayette County performing Mamma Mia! Geyer Performing Arts Center, 111 Pittsburgh St., Scottdale! (MV)
TITANIC (musical) by Peter Stone and Maury Yeston. June 14 – 22, Split Stage Productions.
The musical Titanic swept the big three Tony Awards for 1997: Best Musical, Best Score (by Maury Yeston), and Best Book (by Peter Stone). Better yet, Titanic earns social-psychology credits by capturing details and ironies that have made the 1912 sinking of that ship an endless subject of grim fascination. Unlike James Cameron’s movie, built around a fictional romance, the stage musical focuses on historical facts. The RMS Titanic, the world’s largest ship at the time, was hailed as a miracle of human achievement—yet it was undone by human errors and misjudgments that could have been avoided. The drama is conveyed in musical numbers ranging from “What a Remarkable Age This Is” to “The Blame” and “The Foundering.” Split Stage Productions performs Titanic at The Lamp Theatre, 222 Main St., Irwin. (MV)
IN THE HEIGHTS (musical) by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes. June 14 – 23, production at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center.
Before he wrote Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda teamed with playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes to create In the Heights, a pretty fair show in its own right—it won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. The setting is New York’s Washington Heights, a center for Dominican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants. Multiple story lines follow a group of young folks striving to move up in the world. The music is a high-energy blend of Latin beats and hip-hop. A Pittsburgh-area production of In the Heights is happening at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, 1 Lincoln Park, Midland. (MV)
THE IRISH… AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY (documentary musical) by Frank McCourt. June 18 – 30, Mountain Playhouse.
Irish-American writer Frank McCourt was famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes and for spinning tall tales that he presented as nonfiction. (His mother, Angela, once attended an autobiographical stage show he’d co-written, shouting from the audience that it was “all a pack of lies.”) But there’s no denying McCourt was a colorful writer, and his 1997 musical The Irish… and How They Got That Way is grounded in historical facts. Drawn from first-hand sources, the show retells grim and not-so-grim events ranging from the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s to Irish immigrants’ experiences in America. All is mixed with authentic Irish music, from “Danny Boy” to U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Now the folks at Mountain Playhouse are staging The Irish… and How They Got That Way in the green, green hills of the Laurel Highlands. 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown. (MV)
VICKI LAWRENCE & MAMA: A TWO-WOMAN SHOW by Vicki Lawrence. June 23 only, 3 p.m., at The Palace Theatre.
Every connoisseur of vintage TV comedy knows Mama, the cantankerous crone created by actress Vicki Lawrence on “The Carol Burnett Show.” In the 1980s, she had her own sitcom, “Mama’s Family”—and now she’s back, live and on stage, in the touring production titled Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show. Lawrence, no longer young but skilled as ever, plays both women but probably not at the same time. She reports that Mama has a new set of opinions to vent about the new age we now inhabit. Listen carefully, because Mama shall sermonize only once, in a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee at The Palace Theatre. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. (MV)
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (musical) by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. June 27 – 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. (MV)
ELECTRA by Sophocles. June 27 – 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. (MV)
And a long-running show:
SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY (cabaret musical) by Gerard Alessandrini. Through Aug. 25, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.
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. (MV)
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central. Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor.