June Theater Preview: New Shows from Old Times

Childhood is strange and Roald Dahl's vision of it was stranger: This photo from the Broadway production of "Matilda the Musical" may clue you to what the touring show is like.

Old school days! Roald Dahl re-visited his when he wrote “Matilda.” The touring production of “Matilda the Musical” adds song and dance.

They say you can’t repeat the past, but theater artists say they’re wrong. Shakespeare rewrote old tales from other lands for some of his best plays, Stephen Sondheim remade an old urban legend for Sweeney Todd, and so it goes.

That’s what makes our culture rich and fascinating: The creativity of the past isn’t discarded. Some of it lives on in its original form, whether it’s the “Mona Lisa” still hanging in the Louvre or Little Anthony still doing classic doo-wop, while a lot of it keeps being tweaked, sampled, or adapted into new forms.

Pittsburgh’s theater schedule for June has a fine selection of new shows made from old cloth. If you want sex, perhaps with a bit of violence, you came to the right month. Venus in Fur (at The Public) is a new play inspired by a kinky novel of the 1800s; the musical Spring Awakening (Split Stage) is adapted from a play that was too hot to even be produced in that century, and Chicago (Pittsburgh CLO) is adapted from a play based on real sex-related murder cases in the Roaring Twenties.

Elsewhere, Judgment at Nuremberg (Throughline Theatre) is a straight-up revival of Abby Mann’s drama about the Nazi war crimes trials, and The 39 Steps (Pittsburgh CLO) is a comical send-up of the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie. There are some just plain good shows as well; all are previewed here in order of run dates.

Shows running from May into June …

THE LION (one-person musical) by & with Benjamin Scheuer. Now through June 5, City Theatre.

Theater fans needing a vacation from dystopian satire and postmodern irony might do well to catch Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion. Scheuer, a singer/songwriter based in New York, has created a one-man stage musical that’s warmly humorous and unashamedly uplifting (see the video above). And before you say “For that we could stay home and watch Julie Andrews movies,” consider that the show has been a hit with avant-garde audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe festival and elsewhere. The Lion is an autobiographical piece. Scheuer sings and talks about confronting various misfortunes in his life, from his father’s untimely death to his own diagnosis with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (The performer discussed that episode—musically, of course—in a TEDx talk, and he’s currently cancer-free.) City Theatre has Scheuer and his multi-award-winning The Lion here in Pittsburgh. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

THE SPITFIRE GRILL (musical) by James Valcq and Fred Alley. May 27 – June 5, Front Porch Theatricals.

The Front Porch Theatricals company does two musicals per year and they’re always interesting choices. Past shows have included Next to Normal, the Pulitzer-winning rock musical about mental illness, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. Front Porch starts this year with The Spitfire Grill, wherein the heroine is a woman paroled from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter. Seeking a new start, she lands a job at a small-town restaurant where strange adventures await. The Spitfire Grill was adapted by off-Broadway theater artists James Valcq and Fred Alley from a 1996 movie of the same title and has been a cult favorite among regional theater companies. Front Porch is staging it at the New Hazlett Theater. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

MATILDA THE MUSICAL by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly (from Roald Dahl’s novel). May 31 – June 12, Royal Shakespeare Company touring production at Benedum Center.

Maybe the sirens aren’t wailing but a Roald Dahl alert is in effect. Matilda the Musical, based on Dahl’s novel about a 5-year-old girl with telekinetic powers, visits Pittsburgh in an acclaimed touring production. Dahl (1916-1990) ranks with Lewis Carroll and J.K. Rowling in the category called “British authors of children’s literature that adults love, too.” A mercurial man who’d had a mischievous and oft-troubled childhood himself, Dahl engaged in fierce combat as a fighter pilot during World War II, then turned to writing wild stories for kids and grown-up kids. Those made into movies include James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (twice); Danny DeVito’s 1996 film of Matilda used “Send Me on My Way” by Pittsburgh’s Rusted Root as its theme music. Playwright Dennis Kelly and comedian Tim Minchin then adapted Matilda as a full-blown stage musical, premiered in 2010 in England by none other than the Royal Shakespeare Company—which also produced the current touring show. If you’re a Dahl fan you know the plot, and if not, bring the children but leave your logic at home. Benedum Center, 237 7th Avenue, Cultural District.

Shows opening in June …

Linda Haston plays two important roles in the one-woman show "Mother Lode," her mother and herself.

Linda Haston plays two roles in the one-woman show “Mother Lode,” her mother and herself.

MOTHER LODE by Virginia Wall Gruenert. June 3-5, off the WALL Productions

Virginia Wall Gruenert has made her mark in Pittsburgh’s theater scene as the founding artistic director of off the WALL Productions, which highlights plays by and about women. She also writes a few herself, and in case you missed it the first time, the company is reprising her play Mother Lode. This one-person piece—a drama with comedy—depicts how mother-daughter relationships may be tested, and deepened, at a crucial time: when the elderly mother is near life’s end. The play is based on actor Linda Haston’s relationship with her actual mother who left the Jim Crow South and moved to Pittsburgh’s Hill District to work and raise a family. Haston plays both roles, the daughter dealing with a veritable “mother lode” of feelings and the mom slipping into dementia. Mother Lode was premiered in a short January run and will be back once more during August. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

THE CONSORTS by Tim Ruppert. June 2-12, The Summer Company.

Dark comedy? It’s everywhere. But dark historical religious comedy is rare. The Consorts, a new play by local playwright Tim Ruppert, re-imagines the very strange end to the hectic life of a famous English churchman. Thomas Cranmer was named Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 under Henry VIII, the king who married six times. Cranmer helped start the merry-go-round by annulling Henry’s first marriage and blessing his second, a move that greatly irked the Pope. This prompted the Church of England’s split from Rome and made the Archbishop answerable only to his monarch—a friendly setup until Henry died. When the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I (a.k.a. “Bloody Mary”) took the throne, Cranmer was sentenced to burn as a heretic. The Consorts depicts him before the roast, trying to wriggle out of it while visited by dueling spirits: the ghosts of Henry’s wives number one and two. The Summer Company is giving the play its world premiere. In the Genesius Theater at Duquesne University, 600 Forbes Ave., Uptown.

Whitney Maris Brown, here absent fur, plays the lead in "Venus in Fur."

Whitney Maris Brown, here absent fur, plays the lead in “Venus in Fur.”

VENUS IN FUR by David Ives. June 2-26, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

If you haven’t heard about Venus in Fur, you might be paying too much attention to politics or sports. This David Ives play has been hotly anticipated since the day it appeared on Pittsburgh Public Theater’s schedule. The play’s backstory began in the real world of 1869, when the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch signed a formal contract with his mistress, agreeing to be her slave if she would wear furs while treating him cruelly. He then published a novel with a similar theme, Venus in Furs, which over the years inspired many knockoffs including the Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs.” Eventually it inspired David Ives to write an intellectual sex comedy that’s set up as follows: A theater director is planning an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. An unusually skilled actress comes to his office to audition for the role of the mistress. And from there, to put it in intellectual-speak, the conventional male/female and director/actor patterns of dominance are called into question. Ives’ Venus in Fur premiered in 2010 in New York. The Public’s production is at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

THE THEATRE FESTIVAL IN BLACK AND WHITE (one-act festival, FREE). June 4-11, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

Many theater fans like one-act festivals because of the variety they offer—you can see several short plays in a sitting—and now there are more reasons to like the annual Theatre Festival in Black and White. This year the downtown one-act event is running in parallel with the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and it’s free to the public. At no charge, you can have your art and theater too. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company founded the Black and White festival in 2005 to encourage diversity and interaction in the local theater community. The original concept still holds: New one-acts by black playwrights are directed by white directors, and vice versa.

Judges on trial: Oswald Rothaug, a high-ranking jurist in Nazi Germany, was one of the models for key characters in "Judgment at Nuremberg."

Oswald Rothaug, a high-ranking jurist in Nazi Germany, was one of the models for key characters in “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

But last year PPTCO expanded the idea with its “Multicultural Edition,” including playwrights and directors of other ethnicities to reflect Pittsburgh’s growing diversity. The latest tweak, no admission charge, makes the Festival in Black and White literally open to all. See the PPTCO website for details on performances. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG by Abby Mann. June 10-18, Throughline Theatre Company.

A classic courtroom drama comes to the stage with Judgment at Nuremberg. Based on the Nazi war crimes trials held by the Allies after World War II, the play is a fictionalized re-telling of a little-known part: One court tried charges against German judges and prosecutors. These were men who, starting in the 1930s, had enforced the Nazi regime’s racial laws. Often they had sent German Jews to prison or death on the flimsiest grounds, and they helped set the tone for the mass atrocities that followed. When they were brought to trial themselves, at Nuremberg, their cases raised thorny issues—including arguments that the Allies were being hypocritical, since their countries didn’t have clean hands in the treatment of racial and ethnic groups, either. Screenwriter Abby Mann (who grew up in East Pittsburgh) wrote Judgment at Nuremberg as a 1961 movie, then adapted it for the stage. Throughline Theatre, which presents spring-to-fall seasons of plays themed around particular subjects, has chosen Judgment as its 2016 opener. Fittingly for an election year, this season’s theme is “Can You Trust the Government?” At the Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville.

SPRING AWAKENING (musical) by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. June 9-18, Split Stage Productions

During the 1890s, while Sigmund Freud was investigating the psychic roots of sexuality (or was it the sexual roots of the psyche?), a German playwright named Frank Wedekind couldn’t find a company willing to produce his play. Spring Awakening was about young teenagers and sex. The subject matter included masturbation, abortion, incest, rape, and teen suicide. Wedekind had written the play to criticize repressive social attitudes, by showing the problems young folks can get into when they don’t learn to deal with sex openly and sensibly, but nobody would touch it. For more than a century, Spring Awakening was rarely produced anywhere. Then two Americans, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, had the bright idea to turn it into a rock musical. Their Spring Awakening won eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in 2007 and has become a global hit. The musical, like the original, is set in 1890s Germany and follows Wedekind’s plot closely, amping it up with songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.” Split Stage Productions of Westmoreland Country presents the musical Spring Awakening in collaboration with Trafford’s Theatre Factory. 235 Cavitt Ave., Trafford.

CHICAGO (musical) by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse. June 17-26, Pittsburgh CLO.

In 1924 in Chicago, two lurid murder cases made headlines, each involving a glamorous young woman. One admitted shooting her lover and there was strong evidence that the other, a cabaret singer, had killed hers. Both had clever lawyers who played on the jurors’ sympathy, and both were acquitted. After covering the cases as a reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote a play satirizing the media-circus trials and the reckless, freewheeling atmosphere of the city itself. Her play, Chicago, did well on Broadway. Nearly 50 years later, a musical adapted from it did even better. Writers John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse mixed the crime stories with dark humor and sizzling song-and-dance to evoke the Roaring Twenties in a way that audiences loved. The Chicago musical is an enduring hit, playing and re-playing worldwide (the clip above is from a recent London production) while a movie version won the 2002 Oscar for Best Picture. Pittsburgh CLO is performing Chicago with TV’s John O’Hurley in the male lead as lawyer Billy Flynn. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

 Megan Pickrell and Allan Snyder are bound for a strange adventure in "The 39 Steps."

Megan Pickrell and Allan Snyder are bound for a strange adventure in “The 39 Steps.”

THE 39 STEPS (comic adaptation) by Patrick Barlow. Through Aug. 14, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret

The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock’s black-and-white thriller about a man pursued by sinister spies, has been remade several times but for many years hadn’t been properly parodied. In 2005 the English comedian and playwright Patrick Barlow took care of that unfinished business. His madcap play won an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony) for Best New Comedy. It has become an audience favorite on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in cities from Shanghai to Montevideo.

Barlow’s send-up of The 39 Steps is officially titled John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, after the author of the novel that Hitchcock adapted for the screen (got that?). Since the play uses only four actors for 150 roles, there’s a lot of high-speed shuffling, which helps build a comic energy that parrots the suspenseful energy of the movie. The small cast of Barlow’s John Buchan’s The 39 Steps also makes it a natural for cabaret theater, so naturally the Pittsburgh production is being done by CLO Cabaret. In the Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: Matilda the Musical, © Joan Marcus. Whitney Maris Brown, courtesy of the artist. Mother Lode, courtesy of off the WALL. Oswald Rothaug, U.S. Army photo (photographer unknown), 1946-47. The 39 Steps, by Archie Carpenter.

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