May Theater Guide: Two of Everything?

Can she have her prince and let them eat cake, too? Nope, the new socially conscious Cinderella champions the needy—with the help of Fairy Godmother (L)—in 'Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella.'

‘Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella’ is the new, updated version in which Cinderella gets more than her prince. With the help of Fairy Godmother (L) and friends, she’s out to reform the kingdom.

Many things come in pairs, from bedroom slippers to tag-team wrestlers. And, since it’s fun to look for patterns in the Pittsburgh live theater schedule, we find that many types of shows come in pairs during the month of May.

Consider these two plays, for instance: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and August Wilson’s King Hedley II. They are not mirror-image twins, like the slippers. But, like the wrestling partners, they are complementary entries in the same sort of theatrical game. Both are classically mind-bending tragedies.

If you enjoy absurd comedies that are also seriously provocative, the month brings us Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Taylor Mac’s Hir.

Two intriguing just-outside-the-mainstream musicals are the multiply authored Dogfight, and the William Finn-James Lapine musical A New Brain.

For acerbic commentary on current events, we have the live podcast Lovett or Leave It on the humorous side, and Robert Schenkkan’s not-so-funny dystopian play Building the Wall.

Two weird and yet widely beloved musicals are Avenue Q—known on some maps as the “Sesame Street” extension for adults only—and Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. (The latter did not start out weird, but has been nudged in that direction by the new updated version, which has Cinderella involved in a movement to reform the prince’s government.)

Meanwhile, some shows are one of a kind. Prominent here is the Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, one of the best plays about one of the worst true episodes in human history.

Spotlighted shows are previewed in order of their run dates, with “other notable productions” tagged briefly at the end.

Continuing from April:

BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder. Through May 5, off the WALL Productions.

Jim and Laurel have great expectations but they're in for an unexpected surprise. Brandon Meeks and Erika Cuenca play the young couple in 'Byhalia, Mississippi.'

Jim and Laurel have great expectations but they’re in for an unexpected surprise. Brandon Meeks and Erika Cuenca play the young couple in ‘Byhalia, Mississippi.’

One of the joys of theater is going to a small-company production of a play that most people never heard of, and having a ringside seat for something that turns out to be powerfully good. Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi, at off the WALL Productions, is that kind of ticket. Byhalia won enthusiastic reviews in its 2016 Chicago premiere and has been scoring knockouts wherever it runs. Set in the Southern town of the title, it’s a comedy/drama about a young couple who consider themselves “proud white trash.” They’ve been struggling to make ends meet. Now a baby is on the way. And the child’s birth sets off fireworks, as it’s clear that Mom has had an extramarital adventure. The baby is not white. Byhalia, Mississippi gets tensions going on multiple levels at once: over the personal issues involved, over issues of race and economic class. The play spins them all together in ways that ring so true they’ll blow you away. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

THE DRESSER by Ronald Harwood. Through May 5, Little Lake Theatre.

Ronald Harwood’s 1980 tragicomedy The Dresser, set in England during World War II, concerns an imperious old actor who travels about with his company bringing Shakespeare to folks on the home front. Assisting the star is his “dresser,” a personal aide who preps him for each show. Unfortunately, the great man is losing his marbles, and the dresser’s urgent attempts to keep him going drive the play. The Dresser was made into a 1983 movie which won multiple Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture. Little Lake Theatre kicks off its 2018 season by performing The Dresser live. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.

HAMLET by William Shakespeare. Through May 20, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Viewing one skull should be enough for Hamlet, but he keeps going until 'the rest is silence.' Tony Bingham is the gravedigger and Matthew Arendt the Danish prince in The Public's 'Hamlet.'

Dark omen or dark humor? The graveyard scene in ‘Hamlet’ is both. That’s Tony Bingham in the hole and Matthew Amendt as the Danish prince in The Public’s production.

It’s a good thing William Shakespeare didn’t have to write Hamlet for a Hollywood studio. Imagine the complaints: Too philosophical! Script needs more sex, more fight scenes. And why is this Hamlet guy so inconsistent? He can’t make up his mind! Indeed, much of the play’s greatness lies in its ambiguity. Prince Hamlet comes across to us, down through the ages, because he knows too much and yet too little: Yes, life is complex and crazy, but what should we do about it? Hamlet is furthermore Shakespeare at his most eloquent. The play has been analyzed by Sigmund Freud, quoted by Mary Baker Eddy in her textbook on Christian Science, and invoked by the economist Joseph Schumpeter to help explain his theory of creative destruction. Famous actors who’ve played the title role range from Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln’s assassin, to Ethan Hawke—who delivered the “To be or not to be” soliloquy while roaming the aisles of a Blockbuster video store, in the 2000 movie version set in New York City. And now…

Ted Pappas, retiring from his longtime post as head of Pittsburgh Public Theater, directs a production of Hamlet to close The Public’s season. Pappas will be back next season to direct Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Shows in the Entertainment Central Spotlight for May:

LOVETT OR LEAVE IT (live podcast) with Jon Lovett and guests. May 3 only, at the Byham Theater.

Mommy, why are they called podcasts? “Because people used to listen to them on iPods.” What’s an iPod? “It was a thing for playing your favorite songs.” Aw, Mom, that’s silly! Jon Lovett doesn’t sing. He just TALKS. “Yes, but he’s funny when he talks, and he does it with guests and live audiences. That’s why I’m going to the ‘Lovett or Leave It’ podcast at the Byham Theater.” Will it be weird and creepy like that ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ podcast you listen to? “Well, this is a little different. The creepy, scary stuff in ‘Night Vale’ is make-believe. Lovett talks about politics and American society, which are real.” Emily’s parents don’t think Jon Lovett is funny. They said he’s a stinky LIBERAL. “Now I see why they won’t send Emily here for a play date. But it’s fine if they skip the show, because ‘Lovett or Leave It’ is already sold out.Does that mean people have to get tickets on the free market? “The ‘aftermarket,’ dear.” 7:30 p.m. 101 6th St., Cultural District.

AVENUE Q (musical) by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty. May 3-13, Pittsburgh Musical Theatre.

Avenue Q is the puppet-show musical that’s not for children. Scenes include frantic, moaning puppet sex, while songs include “The Internet Is for Porn,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” and “The More You Love Someone (the More You Want to Kill Him).” Also, the Bad Idea Bears are not a baseball team like the Bad News Bears. They’re cute teddy bears who appear at crucial times, like a grotesque Greek chorus of Beanie Babies, to promote really bad ideas. (They starred in the Avenue Q public-service video about cell phone use in theaters.) Avenue Q won the 2004 Tony Award trifecta—Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score—and has become popular worldwide, in part because it’s more than an R-rated spoof of “Sesame Street.” The musical actually works by applying the TV show’s techniques to grown-up life, using splendidly puppetized goofiness to express the human condition. Numbers like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay (That’d Be Okay)” have resonated with audiences from São Paulo to Shanghai. Pittsburgh Musical Theatre performs Avenue Q in its Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End.

WEST SIDE STORY SUITE + IN THE NIGHT + FANCY FREE (ballet and Broadway dance) by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and Frederic Chopin. May 4-6. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, presented by UPMC.

Oh yeah: the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers love that Robbins and Bernstein.

Oh yeah: the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers love that Robbins and Bernstein.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre wraps its current season with a tribute to choreographer Jerome Robbins, who was born 100 years ago (and lived till 1998). PBT’s show, presented by UPMC, is a three-piece event titled West Side Story Suite + In the Night + Fancy Free. Robbins was a rare talent who excelled in both ballet and Broadway dance. His choreography and direction for West Side Story did much to make that 1957 musical a groundbreaking hit, and the PBT dancers will show you why, with the PBT Orchestra playing the great score by Leonard Bernstein. (Who also was born 100 years ago.) In the Night is an enchanting short ballet set to a sampling of Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. And Fancy Free, with Bernstein’s music, is a jumpin’ comic ballet about sailors on leave at a bar. Robbins rides again! Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE by Steve Martin. May 4-12, Throughline Theatre.

The actual Picasso, duded up in Paris and ready for the Lapin Agile.

The actual Picasso, duded up in Paris and ready for the Lapin Agile.

Yes, it was that Steve Martin who wrote Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The play premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1993, and it is the only play in which young Pablo Picasso meets young Albert Einstein. Which didn’t happen in real life, although there really is a Lapin Agile. The name means “nimble rabbit.” It’s a cabaret in Paris, made famous in the late 1800s and early 1900s when artists and others would gather there to debate the meaning of art, life, and so forth. Often people got laid, too, an activity prominent in the play but not acted out on stage. The year is 1904. We’re on the verge of Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis (“miraculous year”) of ’05, when he will publish scientific papers that reveal several previously unknown secrets of the universe. But right now Einstein himself is unknown, just a guy in a bar. Then in walks Picasso—and to join the fun, see Throughline Theatre’s production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. This is the first of three very bizarre comedies in Throughline’s 2018 season, themed “Make ‘Em Laugh.” 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on Anne’s memoir. May 4-13, Prime Stage Theatre.

Prime Stage Theatre, the Pittsburgh company whose mission is “bringing literature to life,” takes on a tremendously moving true story with The Diary of Anne Frank. The play is based on the now-famous diary entries that teenaged Anne wrote during World War II in Amsterdam. She and her family, along with another family and an elderly man—all Jewish—spent two years in a small apartment where courageous Dutch friends kept them hidden from Nazi forces occupying the city. Interpersonal dramas and tensions built up within the group, magnified by the constant fear of being found out. And eventually, they were. Of the eight persons in hiding, only Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived the concentration camps. The play opens with Otto’s return to postwar Amsterdam. He learns that his chief Dutch friend-and-helper had retrieved Anne’s diary from the apartment after the Nazi raid; the rest of the story then unfolds in flashback. Adapted for the stage by American wife-husband team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, The Diary of Anne Frank won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1956. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

SHEN YUN PERFORMING ARTS (Chinese classical dance company). May 8-10, at Benedum Center.

In what is becoming an annual custom, the Shen Yun Performing Arts troupe visits Pittsburgh. The company’s feature-length shows may seem, at first, like a cross between Bollywood spectacle and some odd hybrid of Western dance, but they are distinctly Chinese. The performers’ mesmerizing movements and astounding leaps are from classical Chinese dance, which evolved over the millennia to incorporate elements of martial arts, acrobatics, storytelling pantomime, and spiritual expression. Audiences will see these elements combined with modern stagecraft in ensemble pieces that evoke a wide range of emotional effects. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

DOGFIGHT (musical) by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan. May 10-20, Stage 62.

Dogfight is a throwback musical, but not the glittery good-old-Broadway kind with guys in tuxes and babes in chorus lines. The setting is San Francisco during the Vietnam War. A group of young U.S. Marines are out to paint the town before flying overseas to combat. They decide to play a game called “dogfight,” in which the object is to see who can pick up the ugliest date. One fellow lands an unglamorous gal who turns out to have a wonderful personality. From there, the questions are whether—and how—true love will conquer male stereotyping. Dogfight was adapted from a 1991 movie of the same title, and the story concept is a throwback to an older movie: the 1955 Oscar winner, Marty. In that one, a working-class New York shy guy falls for a woman his buddies write off as, well, a dog. Dogfight updates this concept in a couple of ways. The woman is a tougher, more resilient character. And the stage musical, of course, adds music. Stage 62 performs Dogfight in the Music Hall at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie.

Baaad groom! Julia Geisler gives Tim McGeever a piece of her cake in CLO’s ‘Perfect Wedding.’

Baaad groom! Julia Geisler gives Tim McGeever a piece of her cake in CLO’s ‘Perfect Wedding.’

PERFECT WEDDING by Robin Hawdon. May 10 – Aug. 12, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Starting in June, Pittsburgh CLO will mount its summer slate of Broadway musicals at Benedum Center—and meanwhile the action never stops at the company’s smaller venue, the CLO Cabaret. Next up in the 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 worthy of laughter. CLO Cabaret serves food and drinks, so please laugh safely while consuming these. 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

HIR by Taylor Mac. May 11-26, barebones productions.

Taylor Mac is the transgender theater artist who uses a self-chosen personal pronoun. The pronoun is “judy,” as in: “Taylor Mac is both a performer and playwright. Judy’s plays have been produced at major venues nationwide, and judy has received many awards for judy’s work.” Now barebones productions, the largest theater company in Braddock, is presenting Taylor Mac’s Hir. The play won rave reviews in its 2015 New York premiere. It’s a seriocomedy about a dysfunctional family made from pieces of the Great American Nightmare. The formerly domineering and abusive dad is being kept in line by extremely non-doctor-approved hormone treatments. The treatments are administered by the unstrung mom, much to the dismay of the couple’s ex-G.I. son, who suffers from PTSD after combat in Afghanistan, while the straightest shooter in the house appears to be his younger sibling, a trans teen. Hir has been compared to earlier great whacked-family plays by Sam Shepard and David Rabe. But as Taylor Mac judy’s self has written, “Comparison is violence.” At the barebones black box, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock.

Put down that gun: Fight choreographer Randy Kovitz (L) coaches Wali Jamal, as Elmore, in 'King Hedley II.'

Put down that gun: Fight choreographer Randy Kovitz (L) coaches Wali Jamal, as Elmore, in ‘King Hedley II.’

KING HEDLEY II by August Wilson. May 11 – June 3, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

August Wilson is one serious playwright, even (and sometimes especially) when he’s being outrageously funny. These Wilsonian qualities are displayed vividly in King Hedley II. Set in the Hill District during the 1980s, the play is one of Wilson’s darkest—a story about people with blasted pasts and dim futures—yet it’s amazing to see how such dark materials can light up the stage. The title character is a newly released ex-con whose plans for a better life are both dubious and desperate, such as fencing stolen refrigerators to get money for an honest business venture. Another striking character is Stool Pigeon, who got the nickname after spilling what he knew about a murder case. He considers himself a “truth-teller” and serves as the neighborhood’s Scripture-quoting, fire-breathing streetcorner prophet. Almost everyone in King Hedley II is somehow striving for validation and redemption. The play provides a great intro to Wilson’s world for newcomers, though it is far from the first of his 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle, and there’s no better time than now to see it. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is performing King Hedley II at the actual site of Wilson’s boyhood home in The Hill. 1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District.

NOMAD MOTEL by Carla Ching. May 12 – June 3, City Theatre.

Google “Nomad Motel” and you’re likely to get a bunch of entries for actual motels, including one reviewed by a visitor as “worst motel ever.” The fictional characters in the new play Nomad Motel, at City Theatre, often find themselves in similar surroundings. California-born playwright Carla Ching has focused the story on a family of so-called motel kids. They’re growing up in the bedbug underbelly of the Golden State, trying to live well as they drift with their mother from one cheap motel to the next. It seems that Mama is a rolling stone—and City Theatre is part of the play’s “rolling world premiere.” Nomad Motel opens simultaneously this month in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Kansas City. Our production is at 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

A NEW BRAIN (musical) by William Finn and James Lapine. May 18-27, Front Porch Theatricals.

Front Porch Theatricals fills an interesting niche in the Pittsburgh theater scene by performing cult musicals. They are ones that don’t win multiple Tony Awards but have earned a following, and are usually somehow unusual. So it is with A New Brain. Composer/writer William Finn is best known for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Here, teaming with longtime collaborator James Lapine, Finn wrote a musical inspired by his own near-fatal experience with brain disease. The lead character in A New Brain undergoes the same ordeal, except accompanied by music and humor. He faces a decision whether to have the surgery that could save him or kill him—it’s a tossup—while also dealing with other concerns, such as his troubled gig writing songs for the children’s TV-show host Mr. Bungee, who performs in the guise of a giant frog. Thus, musical numbers in A New Brain range from “Craniotomy” to “Frogs Have So Much Spring” to “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat.” The show premiered off-Broadway in 1998. The Front Porchers present A New Brain at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA (musical) by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, updated by Douglas Carter Beane. May 22-27, national touring company at Heinz Hall.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella opened in 1957 in living rooms across the nation. Aired by CBS, it was the duo’s only musical written for TV. Now there is new stage version with an updated plot. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane—who did the stage adaptation of Xanadu, the notoriously bad movie—was able to work with more promising material when he rewrote the book for Cinderella. But it’s still a pretty major rewrite. The new Cinderella is a social activist, persuading the prince to address injustices done to his subjects. She has acquired a friendly stepsister, in love with a rebel who wants to overthrow the government. Together they must counter the evil prime minister who’s been manipulating the prince. Good thing they’ve got a fairy godmother on their side! Somewhat amazingly, this Beane-enhanced Cinderella retains many of the original’s songs, even adding a few from the Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire. Titled Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the show premiered on Broadway in 2013. A touring production visits Heinz Hall as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

BUILDING THE WALL by Robert Schenkkan. May 24 – June 10, 12 Peers Theater.

Some books are written and produced rapidly in response to current events; here is a play that fits the category. Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall premiered in Los Angeles in March 2017, just two months after the inauguration of Donald Trump. The play is a dystopian drama set in the near future. Trump has been impeached—but not before he reacted to a terrorist attack by massively escalating his anti-immigrant agenda. Immigrants already in the country were rounded up, herded into camps, tortured, and executed. All this was done by U.S. citizens complying with orders, of course, and the play is in the form of a prison interview with a man who carried out such atrocities. 12 Peers Theater presents Building the Wall in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre. Level B, Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

ESCAPE VELOCITY (interactive “narrative circus”) by Double Blind Productions. May 31 only, at the New Hazlett Theater.

Double Blind Productions is a virtual theater collective, existing in real life but not always with everybody in the same place at once. Most members are Pittsburgh-based or Burgh-intensive, however, and Double Blind presents a very intensive performance piece titled Escape Velocity at the New Hazlett Theater. Escape Velocity is also eclectic, immersive, and billed as a “narrative circus.” (The company’s members include circus artists.) Tarot cards are featured, with the draw of the cards pointing to what may happen next. The audience participates. According to Double Blind’s website, “Escape Velocity tells the story of a soul trapped in limbo … [and] explores the many ways we are in a prison, but the door is locked from the inside.” Buy tickets online through the New Hazlett. 8 p.m. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

REDUCED SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY (ABRIDGED) by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. May 31 – July 1, company in residence at the O’Reilly Theater.

It’s high-speed parody season in Pittsburgh. Having barely caught our breath after recent touring companies gave us super-condensed spoofs of “Game of Thrones” and the Harry Potter books, we now must gird our proverbial loins for the granddaddies of all such comical condensers, the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The show is RSC’s latest, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged). It premiered in the theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in 2016, and the video above—made for that premiere—will give you a brief intro. (Don’t have 3½ minutes? All right: The Long Lost First Play is a hypothetical mashup of mixed-up first drafts of plays that Shakespeare really wrote later. E.g., Prince Hamlet meets Lady Macbeth, etc.) The Reduced Shakespeare act can look merely silly when glimpsed in small doses. But the guys are excellent actors, and the longer you watch, the funnier they get. They’re in town for a month-long run so you can even catch ‘em twice. At the O’Reilly Theatre, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Other Notable Productions …

CALIFORNIA SUITE by Neil Simon. Those who prefer Neil Simon to Paul Simon will love this comical skit-fest; those who don’t know the difference might as well start here. May 3-19, South Park Theatre. Corner of Brownsville Rd. and Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.

A FLEA IN HER EAR adapted by Greg Leaming from Georges Feydeau’s play. A classic sex-and-infidelity farce, updated from early-1900s Paris to the Swinging Sixties. May 10-26, Little Lake Theatre. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.

RUSALKA (opera) by Antonín Dvořák and Jaroslav Kvapil. A very cool and spooky Czech opera, seldom seen in our parts, concerning a water nymph and the prince who foolishly spurns her love. May 11 and 13, Resonance Works. In the Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

EQT CHILDREN’S THEATER FESTIVAL (various companies). Anyone with kids should consider this annual event that brings in top-notch children’s theater troupes from around the world. Featured companies for 2018 include Australia’s Born in a Taxi, Mermaid Theater of Nova Scotia, and more. May 17-20, multiple venues, Cultural District.

SOCIAL SECURITY by Andrew Bergman. What obsession do artsy Manhattanites share with Long Island suburbanites and dirty old men? Hint: it starts with s and it’s not “security.” May 17-26, Apple Hill Playhouse. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.

ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard. The playwright is one of the modern era’s best, and this time-travel scientific comedy/mystery is rated as perhaps his best. May 31 – June 16, Little Lake Theatre. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.

Photo credits: Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, © Carol Rosegg. Byhalia, Mississippi, by Heather Mull. Hamlet, by Michael Henninger. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, by Duane Rieder. Pablo Picasso, 1904, by Ricard Canals i Llambi. Perfect Wedding, by Archie Carpenter. King Hedley II, by Mark C. Southers.

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

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