March 2023 Theater Guide: On Mainstage in March, The Power of Passion
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Pittsburgh’s plentiful theater offerings this month present passion in ways once limited, in years gone by, to the traditional (and mostly Catholic) representation of Christ’s journey to the cross. The Passion Play, performed regularly during Lent in church parish halls to captivate young and old, has largely fallen away due to exorbitant costs and diminutive returns. It’s perhaps why Pittsburgh churches offer so many great fish fry’s these six Fridays before Easter. But, hold the slaw and tartar sauce, human passion is no less a spiritual condition to be celebrated on stage this March. Pittsburgh theater-goers will find it pouring forth, preciously and powerfully, from the New Hazlett Theater to a new stage in the Hill District.
Check out City Theatre’s comedy concerning a simple dispute over a single property line that devolves into a passionate fight about plants and pride. Take a “bedside chair” in the O’Reilly Theater to experience the promise of pregnancy and the powerful bonds of love. While Pittsburgh Musical Theater stages the story of two strangers creating gentle, passionate music in Once, Lincoln Stage presents Shout!, The Mod Musical, a look back to love-hungry women (and lots of hit songs) in London of the late sixties and seventies. In dance and opera, Texture Contemporary Ballet presents three pieces of poetry in motion and Pittsburgh Opera hammers it home with Verdi’s perennial Il Trovatore. Finally, Mark Clayton Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater opens its new home with the story of a local, passionate priest who leads his people to protest for improbable opportunities. It’s a Pittsburgh story, rarely sung.
Thus, herewith are our picks for the month of March. Each is as delicious as a fried fish sandwich, yet more rewarding for its lasting impact on our mortal souls.
These shows and more are previewed below in three sections. Spotlight Picks for the month are followed by Other Shows of Interest, and then a look-ahead to Big Shows on the Horizon. Productions are listed by run dates within each category. Mike Vargo (M.V.) also contributed to this guide.
ONCE (musical) based on the film written and directed by John Carney, with stage book by Enda Walsh, and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Pittsburgh Musical Theater. March 9 – April 2.
When an Irish busker lays down his guitar on a street in Dublin, he walks away never again wanting to play the songs he once wrote for a girlfriend who has since moved on. Little does he know his last lament has been heard, stirring up empathy in the woman who runs after him. She begs the stranger to reconsider his loss, the pain of which she knows too well and, in song, they innocently bond over their passion for music. But the new relationship cannot endure; he must leave for New York in seven days.
Unusual in its evolution as a drama-with-music, John Carney’s sweet story, written and directed by him in the 2007 film of the same name, was adapted for the stage in a 2011 theater workshop and, after a popular run off Broadway, premiered on Broadway in 2012, earning eleven Tony Award nominations and winning eight––among them Best Book, Best Actor, and Best Musical. In 2013, it won a Grammy for best musical theater album.
Now Pittsburgh Musical Theater presents Once. Directed by Tim Seib, with musical direction by Dr. Francesca Tortorello and choreography by Larry Lozier, Once features David Toole and Kate Queen in its lead roles. In PMT’s Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main Street, West End. (C.P.O.)
NATIVE GARDENS by Karen Zacarias, directed by Marc Masterson. City Theatre. March 11 – April 2
In the clustered neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., residents are often divided by political leanings, social ambitions, and divergent paths to wealth and power. In Karen Zacarias’ comedy Native Gardens, two couples are divided by a property line seemingly as arbitrary as their tastes in horticulture, their anxiety over lawn care, or their preference for posies. Latine newcomers, Tania and Pablo are expecting their first child when they move into a new townhouse next door to Frank and Virginia, longtime caregivers of their prize-worthy English garden. What’s not to be expected is an all-out border dispute, complete with threatening epithets, seditious sabotage, and ineffable water torture. To suggest Native Gardens is the stuff of sitcoms is to understate its sarcasm of America’s current culture wars.
Featuring Evelyn Hernandez, Laurie Klatscher, Juan Riviera Lebron, and Cotter Smith, Native Gardens, directed by City Theatre Co-Artistic Director Marc Masterson, is presented in Pittsburgh in collaboration with Phipps Conservatory and the Pittsburgh Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Zacarias’ comedy was among the Top Ten Most Produced Plays of 2018-2019, as recognized by American Theatre magazine. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side. (C.P.O.)
SHANTYTOWN: THE BALLAD OF FR. JAMES COX (musical) by Ray Werner, with Dwayne Fulton and others. Pittsburgh Playwrights. March 17 – 26.
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company steps boldly into a new phase of artistic life by staging a new musical in the company’s new home. PPTCo—known for expert productions of the plays of August Wilson and other Pittsburgh-related artists—had been operating in various venues since its beginnings in 2003. Now, founder and Artistic Director Mark Clayton Southers has purchased the former Madison Elementary School in the Hill District. Along with an auditorium for mainstage theater, the building has other performance spaces and of course plenty of classrooms. PPTCo plans to turn the facility into a multi-purpose arts and education center, with classes for aspiring young theater artists and studios for working artists in any media.
But right now, the play’s the thing, and it’s actually a musical. Shantytown: The Ballad of Fr. James Cox re-creates the adventures of an activist Catholic priest who made waves both locally and nationally during the Great Depression, nearly a century ago. As pastor of Old St. Patrick’s Church in the Strip District, Father Cox led drives to provide food and shelter for legions of destitute Pittsburghers. In 1932 he organized “Cox’s Army,” a caravan of some 20,000 unemployed men and women, about eight miles long, who marched on Washington, D.C. to petition for public works programs. Father Cox preached on national radio and even briefly ran for president, as the Jobless Party candidate, before swinging his support to FDR in the ‘32 election. Shantytown is by longtime Pittsburgh playwright Ray Werner, with Dwayne Fulton as composer and music director, plus contributions from a host of others. See Shantytown in the Madison School, 3401 Milwaukee St., Hill District. (M.V.)
SIX (musical) by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. National touring company at Benedum Center. March 14 – 19.
“King Henry the Eighth to six wives was wedded / One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.” As the old rhyme indicates, the queen’s chair was a hot seat in the England of Henry VIII. Henry went to extreme lengths to dump Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, soon executed on adultery charges while Henry blatantly pursued wife #3. Anne of Cleves, recruited from Germany as wife #5, got shuffled aside in short order after she showed up looking insufficiently attractive. So it went, and any decent soothsayer might’ve predicted that someday there would be a musical about these women. Now there is. SIX, by British artists Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, imagines the wives as modern pop stars forming a supergroup. At first they compete in song and story to decide who was treated worst by Henry—but along the way, they discover validation as strong women in their own right. After scoring hits in London’s West End and on Broadway, SIX has been put on tour. The road-show run in Pittsburgh is officially sold out, so try alternate ticket sources. Then see and hear SIX at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)
MEN ON BOATS by Jacklyn Backhaus. Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Theatre. March 15 – 19.
Who remembers the days of old, when men were men, hearty and bold? New York-based playwright Jaclyn Backhaus read about those days as a girl growing up in Arizona, and she gives them a historically accurate but comically revisionist treatment in Men on Boats. The play is drawn from John Wesley Powell’s journal of his geographic expedition of 1869, in which he and nine others traveled down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. All were rugged, skilled outdoorsmen. Yet the trip was hair-raising, as their areas of expertise did not include steering wooden rowboats through ferocious, rock-infested rapids that the local Indigenous people knew better than to mess with. Backhaus puts a twist in history by specifying that the expedition’s madly macho men be played by “actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.” Although some modern rugged individualists have walked out of previous productions of Men on Boats, the toughest audience members stay with it and find the play a hoot. Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Theatre floats Men on Boats in the company’s Highmark Theatre, 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. (M.V.)
SHOUT! THE MOD MUSICAL (jukebox musical) by Philip George and David Lowenstein, featuring London pop classics from the early sixties and seventies. March 16 – March 19.
Five women, identified only by the color of their fashionably mod clothes (think Mike Myers in “Austin Powers” or “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”), take their respective spotlights on stage to seek advice for the lovelorn from then-popular tabloid columnist, Gwendolyn Holmes. So begins Shout! The Mod Musical. More a revue of the groovy sounds of London –– with cherished songs like “Downtown,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “To Sir, With Love,” and “These Boots Were Made for Walking” –– this tribute to Piccadilly Pop strings together a seemingly unique genre of hit tunes sung by the likes of Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, and Nancy Sinatra, among many others There is repartee, laughter and the ever solid advice from columnist Holmes who assures the London lasses that everything gets better with a new ‘do or brighter lipstick. The show gets its title, of course, from its closing number of “Shout!,” the hard-driving Isley Brothers anthem that became a UK Top 10 hit as covered by Lulu and the Luvvers in 1964. Those were the days when “Those Were the Days,” sung by Mary Hopkins, was produced for the new Apple Records label by Paul McCartney. (The tune actually derives from a Russian folk song!) Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, 1 Lincoln Park, Midland. (C.P.O.)
REDISCOVER (program of three original dance pieces). Texture Contemporary Ballet. March 17 – 19.
Texture Contemporary Ballet — the Pittsburgh company whose name says it all — creates new dance works in the spirit and form but not necessarily the style of, say, Swan Lake. Texture now wraps its 2022-23 season with a program showcasing the company’s range. Titled Rediscover, the show consists of three dances. “Flash of Red,” a new piece by Artistic Director Alan Obuzor is set to Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No.5. “Unchanging Change,” premiered by Texture in 2014, features 11 dancers with music by Max Richter, Macklemore, and spoken word poet Andrea Gibson. The closing dance, a brand-new one, “Euphoria,” is choreographed by Texture to live music by the rock-cello-and-drums band Cello Fury. Discover Rediscover at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (M.V.)
STEEL MAGNOLIAS by Robert Harling. Pittsburgh Public Theater. March 22 – April 9.
Truvy’s Hair Salon becomes the womb of all woes when Shelby Eatonton, due to wed that very day, passes out in hypoglycemic shock. She’s been advised not to have children, and her mother M’Lynn reveals she has begged her daughter to call off the marriage ceremony. In the midst of the chaos, Annelle Dupuy-Desoto, shy and recently separated from her no-good husband, Bunkie, arrives to start her first day of apprenticeship to Truvy, only to be interrogated by the circle of women who are Truvy’s most devoted customers and best friends. Like a hornet’s nest, the salon constantly buzzes with snarky innuendo, yet the women know their place in the hive, know when to mind their manners, and know when to sting. Come Christmas, the young bride announces her pregnancy, yet when the baby boy is born to great joy, complications to Shelby’s kidneys cause mortal dangers.
Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s bittersweet comedy of women passionate in their dreams (and perplexed by their disappointments) found fame as the popular film, starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, and Julia Roberts, among other stars, in 1989. Harling actually wrote the original as a short story, which he adapted to a one-set, all-women stage play within ten days in 1985. Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production reverts to that original dramatic script, under the direction of Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Downtown. (C.P.O.)
IL TROVATORE (opera) by Giuseppe Verdi, with libretto by Salvadore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare. Pittsburgh Opera. March 25 – April 2.
Pittsburgh Opera thunders onto the Benedum Center stage to perform the epitome of epic, tragic operas, Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This is a grand opera in every sense of the word, with memorable scenes such as the Anvil Chorus. Although Verdi composed Il Trovatore during a time of personal turmoil—and had to find a new writer to finish the libretto, after librettist Salvadore Cammarano died in mid-project—the opera’s score has been lauded for powerfully evoking the emotions in each twist of a complex story. That story is a tale of vengeance and ill-fated love amid strife between a warlord and a rebel army. Il Trovatore was a smashing success when it opened in Rome in 1853, and has become a fixture of the repertoire to this day. Pittsburgh Opera presents Il Trovatore with a stellar cast including soprano Alexandra Loutsion as Leonora, mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti as Azucena, baritone Lester Lynch as Conte di Luna, and tenor Jonathan Burton as the troubadour Manrico. The female leads have local connections, as Loutsion is a native of Canonsburg and Cornetti lives in Pittsburgh. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)
IS GOD IS (drama) by Aleshea Harris. barebones productions. Through March 12.
What if film directors Sergio Leonne, Quentin Tarantino, and Roger Corman could back-channel their spirits into that master Greek myth maker, Sophocles, who would then write one of the greatest revenge stories ever––including lots of body disfigurements, blood, and gore––and that script time-travelled to the American stage as the story of a modern Black family in deep, disturbing, and, yet, hilarious, despair, would you buy a ticket? Oh, yes, you should.
Braddock’s inventive barebones productions will stage Is God Is, Alesha Harris’s major award-winning play. The story begins with two twin sisters, grossly scarred after being burned in a fire that killed their mother. But when they get a letter from the very same woman (whom they called God because, after all, she brought them life,) they rush to her hospital bed in the Dirty South. Her commandment is that the twins must kill their father (otherwise known as Man) who is living in the California desert with another family of his own. God is deadly serious. And then she dies. For the twins, there can be no greater moral dilemma. It is the stuff of Greek tragedy. It’s the character Clint Eastwood played in so many Spaghetti westerns. It’s the “aha moment” that Tarantino has withheld from you for a solid two hours. But it’s also the real ghost under the costume of a cartoon ghost hunted by Scooby-Doo.
Is God Is features a cast of eight, including director Javon Johnson (who returns to barebones productions after his star performance in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity) and Pittsburgh’s prolific rock legend, Byron Nash, who will design the sound. barebones’ Artistic Director Patrick Jordan says, “I’m especially excited about Javon Johnson and… Byron brings an incredible energy and style to everything he does. The actors we’ve cast are mind-blowing. This one is going to be really special.” See our review. Is God Is is presented at barebones production’s Bingo O’Malley Stage at 1211 Braddock Avenue in Braddock. (C.P.O.)
Other Shows of Note
How I Learned What I Learned (August Wilson African American Cultural Center)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Prime Stage Theatre)
Facets (Bodiography,, Kelly Strayhorn Theatre)
DeSTIGMAtized (at Carnegie Stage)
Godspell (Strand Theatre)
Big Shows on the Horizon
The Devil is a Lie (Quantum Theatre)
Sense and Sensibility (Pittsburgh Playhouse)
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (PNC Broadway)
The Masters Program (Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre)
Etty (off the WALL Productions)
Young Americans (Pittsburgh Public Theater)
American Fast (City Theatre)
Prentiss Orr writes about theater for Entertainment Central. He has worked in theater management and has also taught theater. His latest book, The Surveyor and the Silversmith, is a history of white settlement, genocide, and land speculation in Western Pennsylvania.
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