May Theater Guide: Adventure Time

Quantum Theatre's industrial-strength 'King Lear,' staged at the Carrie Furnaces, is one highlight of an adventurous month in Pittsburgh theater. Jeffrey Carpenter roars as Lear. (photo; Heather Mull Photography)

Quantum Theatre’s industrial-strength ‘King Lear,’ staged at the Carrie Furnaces, is one highlight of an adventurous month in Pittsburgh theater. Jeffrey Carpenter roars as Lear. (photo: Heather Mull Photography)

If you are new to live theater in Pittsburgh—or to live theater, period—here is a tip for maximizing enjoyment: Look beyond the obvious. Don’t limit yourself to the latest hot shows and longtime audience favorites.

The world of theater is vast. Beyond the best-seller list there are many, many plays and musicals you might like even better, from recent ones to oldies in revival. The month of May offers a nice selection of both—and by all means, visit the smaller companies. Of the shows that’ve gotten rave reviews on Entertainment Central in the past year, a high percentage were small-house professional productions of plays that aren’t household names. They included a couple of riotous but moving dark comedies, Taylor Mac’s Hir and Sarah Kosar’s Mumburger, plus a gripping gangster tale, Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, and Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, a brilliant remake of Chekhov’s The Seagull. If by sad chance you missed all four, try a little more adventure this time around.  

The town of Carnegie alone has two promising shows in May. Johnna Adams’s World Builders—about psychiatric patients taking a medication meant to pull them out of their fantasy worlds—is at off the WALL productions, while Stage 62 puts on an exceedingly funny and under-appreciated musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  

Do you like improv comedy? Try improv seriocomedy: 12 Peers Theater stages Blank, a work of “immediate theater” (it’s scripted to be improvised) by Nassim Soleimanpour, author of the global cult hit White Rabbit Red Rabbit. Fans of bluegrass may enjoy the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical Bright Star at Front Porch Theatricals. And if you dug Hamilton, try a different take on American history. Throughline Theatre presents a rare revival of André, a 1798 play about the British officer involved in Benedict Arnold’s failed scheme.    

The city’s larger companies offer adventurous choices, too. City Theatre is mounting the world premiere of a home-from-the-war drama, We Are Among Us. Quantum Theatre is staging a honed-and-tightened King Lear amid the industrial ruins of the Carrie Furnaces. Pittsburgh Public Theater segues from late May into June with Marjorie Prime, a sci-fi play about creating avatar companions for elderly folks in dementia.  

There’s more. Shows are previewed in order of their run dates, with “other suggested productions” profiled more briefly at the end.    

Continuing from April:

DON PASQUALE (comic opera) by Gaetano Donizetti. Through May 5, Pittsburgh Opera.

Don Pasquale (bass Kevin Glavin, rear) has been tricked, but he winds up making two young lovers very happy, as soprano Lisette Oropesa and tenor Javier Abreu demonstrate in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Don Pasquale.' (photo: David Bachman Photography)

Don Pasquale (bass Kevin Glavin, rear) has been tricked, but he winds up making two young lovers very happy, as soprano Lisette Oropesa and tenor Javier Abreu demonstrate in Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘Don Pasquale.’ (photo: David Bachman Photography)

There’s no opera like comic opera, and Pittsburgh Opera segues into springtime with a classic about a loopy old man who attempts a winter-spring marriage. He never suspects that the young woman is tricking him into doing what’s right. Don Pasquale, by Gaetano Donizetti and librettist Giovanni Ruffini, has been delivering the hijinks since its 1843 premiere in Paris. The mastermind behind the plot to trick the aging Pasquale is his physician, Dr. Malatesta, which translates roughly as “Dr. Headache.” Beautiful Norina actually wants to marry Pasquale’s earnest young nephew, Ernesto, but Uncle Pasquale won’t allow it. So the only recourse is to make him holler uncle, and hoo boy, does that happen, to the tune of more comical music than you can shake a conductor’s baton at. Not to worry, though. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow will keep the orchestra in tune, and Pittsburgh Opera has soprano Lisette Oropesa singing Norina, with bass Kevin Glavin as Don Pasquale, tenor Javier Abreu as Ernesto, and baritone Joshua Hopkins as Malatesta. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.     

THE BURDENS by Matt Schatz. Through May 12, City Theatre.

Ben Rosenblatt plays a scheming digital dude in City Theatre's 'The Burdens.' (photo courtesy of the artist)

Ben Rosenblatt plays a scheming digital dude in City Theatre’s ‘The Burdens.’ (photo courtesy of the artist)

City Theatre’s play The Burdens received a good deal of buzz even before its official premiere here. The two-person dark comedy had been in development at staged readings around the country, drawing attention consistently. The characters are a pair of millennial siblings who conspire to rid their aging mother of the burden of their very aged and cantankerous grandfather. As to how they might remove him from the scene, one permanent solution comes to mind. Much of the conspiring is done by text, which presumably adds relevance and authenticity: The Burdens is billed as a comedy “for the digital age.” L.A.-based playwright Matt Schatz is a graduate of the MFA program at Carnegie Mellon but not a Pittsburgh native; he’s from Jersey. Catherine LeFrere and Ben Rosenblatt play the siblings. Directing The Burdens is Marc Masterson, City Theatre’s former artistic director who has recently returned to the post. In the Lester Hamburg Studio, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

INDECENT by Paula Vogel. Through May 19, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

There are somber scenes in Paula Vogel's 'Indecent,' at The Public, but the show also has plenty like this one. (photo: Michael Henninger)

There are somber scenes in Paula Vogel’s ‘Indecent,’ at The Public, but the show also has plenty like this one. (photo: Michael Henninger)

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, a modern play about a controversial play of the early 1900s, has been called theater at its best. The true events began in Poland in 1906. Writer Sholem Asch, very popular among the country’s Jewish population for his stories and poems in Yiddish, wrote a play that stirred up a storm as soon as friends saw the script. Even the title was ominous: God of Vengeance. Set in a Jewish brothel, it included a scene in which a Torah is thrown across the room—and featured a lesbian love affair. This seemed entirely too much for most of Asch’s fellow Jews, who also worried about stoking the era’s anti-Semitism. But he got the play produced in Berlin and elsewhere, to responses that ranged from “Loved it” to “Immoral, garbage, indecent!” The controversy crested in 1923 when the cast of an English-language production on Broadway were busted for obscenity. Vogel’s Indecent relates the whole saga in a manner that audiences and critics have loved—and hasn’t yet been shut down by the police. Pittsburgh Public Theater presents Indecent at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

New shows in the EC spotlight for May:

NEWSIES THE MUSICAL by Alan Menken, Jack Feldman, and Harvey Fierstein. May 2 – 12, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

Hot off the press: Boys strike for fair terms and wages in 'Newsies the Musical'! (photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Musical Theater)

Hot off the press: Boys strike for fair terms and wages in ‘Newsies the Musical’! (photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Musical Theater)

Is there a better place than Pittsburgh to see a musical about labor history? Newsies The Musical (aka Disney’s Newsies) is drawn from the 1992 movie, which in turn was based on the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899. Afternoon dailies back then were sold mainly by young folks—including girls—who paid up front for a bundle of papers, then had to peddle them on the streets till they cleared a profit. When a couple of big publishers made this tough job tougher by raising the cost to the newsies, the newsies struck for better terms. And won. The Newsies musical, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, has fictional elements but is said to stay closer to how things actually went down than the film did. Characters include Joseph Pulitzer, Theodore Roosevelt, and of course the big heroes, the teenaged strike leaders. Pittsburgh Musical Theater is well equipped to perform the show, having a pipeline of young talent from its associated school. PMT presents Newsies The Musical at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.   

BLANK by Nassim Soleimanpour. May 2 – 19, 12 Peers Theater.

By tradition, we can’t say what Blank is about, but here’s the backstory. Several years ago a quirky Iranian playwright was barred from traveling outside Iran, so he sent out the script of a one-person play written in his own voice. The playwright is Nassim Soleimanpour, and the play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, came with odd instructions. Each performance had to be by a different actor, who wouldn’t see the script until showtime. Then it was to be followed strictly, but with allowances for improv and audience participation. Rabbit became a global cult hit. In Germany, groups of Rabbit-head fans attended every night. In New York, White Rabbit Red Rabbit was performed by actors including Nathan Lane, Billy Porter, Darren Criss, and Whoopi Goldberg. Pittsburgh’s 12 Peers Theater presented the show with a lineup of local stars in 2016. This year 12 Peers is staging Blank, Soleimanpour’s more extreme follow-up. The script of Blank is riddled with blanks to be filled in by actor and audience. Actors for various nights include Daina Michelle Griffith, Martin Giles, and a host of others. At the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theater in the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland.   

TWELFTH NIGHT by William Shakespeare. May 3 – 12, Prime Stage Theatre.

'Twelfth Night' is a Shakespearean hoot, and Prime Stage actors Carolyn Jerz, Malcolm MacKenzie, and Dana Babal have their hootin' duds on. (photo courtesy of Prime Stage Theatre)

‘Twelfth Night’ is a Shakespearean hoot, and Prime Stage actors Carolyn Jerz, Malcolm MacKenzie, and Dana Babal have their hootin’ duds on. (photo courtesy of Prime Stage Theatre)

Why is Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night enjoying a new wave of popularity? Perhaps real life has become so bizarre that no contemporary comedy can match it, so we have to go back 417 years to find one. Anyhow, the play has been turning up on schedules regularly, and now Pittsburgh’s Prime Stage Theatre is doing Twelfth Night. This comedy has it all: shipwrecked twins, Sir Toby Belch (“Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”), a woman posing as a man, a woman lusting for the man she thinks the woman is, social satire, wacky naughty humor, and fools of every type, from professional to unaware that they are. Prime Stage says its Twelfth Night is “set in the colorful world of Portugal,” which is not where Shakespeare put it. But Portugal is indeed colorful—think California before the high prices kicked in—and the cast includes Carolyn Jerz, Matt Henderson, John Feightner, Alison Weisgall, Art DeConcillis, Dana Babal, and more. There’s original music by Monica Stephenson and Gil Teixeira. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

WORLD BUILDERS by Johnna Adams. May 3 – 18, off the WALL productions.

Alec Silberblatt and Erika Cuenca play a delusional but determined pair in ‘World Builders’ at off the WALL. (photo: Heather Mull)

Alec Silberblatt and Erika Cuenca play a delusional but determined pair in ‘World Builders’ at off the WALL. (photo: Heather Mull)

Off the WALL productions, having recently scored big with Sarah Kosar’s Mumburger, presents another intriguing new two-person play. World Builders, by American playwright Johnna Adams, is billed as a “dark romantic comedy”—but more than romance is at stake. A young man and woman meet as psychiatric patients in a clinical trial. Each suffers from a disorder that has led them to withdraw into inner fantasy worlds they’ve constructed. Now they are testing a drug that could bring them back to reality. The question is, do they really want to go there? Actors Alec Silberblatt and Erika Cuenca play the young “world builders”; Linda Haston directs. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.   

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (musical) by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. May 9 – 19, Stage 62.

Don’t let the title dissuade you from seeing one of the funniest modern musicals. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is neither corny nor childish. It’s more like a parody of a dysfunctional society (ours)—and though it’s about a spelling bee, it is not a musical for children. Although you might bring your older kids if you are OK with exposing them to songs like “My Unfortunate Erection,” and a pronouncer whose word definitions include “Aioli: mayonnaise for assholes.” The musical flirts with being classified as Theater of the Absurd. One contestant, William Morris Barfée, spells words with his foot. Composer William Finn gave him a song celebrating his rare gift, “Magic Foot,” and writer Rachel Sheinkin’s book won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. The show includes audience participation so be prepared to spell. Stage 62, a top-tier community theater company specializing in musicals, presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in the Music Hall at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library. 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie.

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY (ballet). May 10 -12, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Alexandra Kochis and Luca Sbrizzi make an eye-opening couple in 'The Sleeping Beauty' at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. (photo: Duane Rieder)

Alexandra Kochis and Luca Sbrizzi make an eye-opening couple in ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. (photo: Duane Rieder)

Long before Walt Disney’s animated film—and more than a century before the Disney Company stirred controversy by filing for a trademark on the name “Princess Aurora”—the princess was delighting Russian theater fans of all ages as the title character in the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The now-classical ballet premiered in Saint Petersburg in 1890. With music by Tchaikovsky and choreography by the grandmaster Marius Petipa, its artistic credentials are impeccable. And The Sleeping Beauty is one of those spectacular, big-production-number ballets that has a little bit of everything— from a wicked fairy’s curse to a dramatic reawakening scene (when the princess is revived from her hundred-year slumber by a lover’s kiss), and a climactic wedding scene in which the dancing guests include fairytale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and her prince, and Puss in Boots. Pittsburghers can see this internationally known ballet performed by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre under the direction of Terrence Orr with music by the PBT Orchestra. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

ANDRÉ by William Dunlap. May 10 – 18, Throughline Theatre.

John André sketched this self-portrait on the night before his hanging. Throughline Theatre’s ‘André’ traces the events and debates that led to that fate. (image: Yale University Gallery)

John André sketched this self-portrait on the night before his hanging. Throughline Theatre’s ‘André’ traces the events and debates that led to that fate. (image: Yale University Gallery)

When the British occupied New York City during the American Revolution, one young British officer was well-liked even among the staunchest rebels. Major John André won hearts by being gracious and witty, respectful and honorable—but a dishonorable mission did him in. Riding a warship up the Hudson to West Point, an American stronghold, André slipped ashore at night to meet the commander: Benedict Arnold. Arnold had offered to intentionally lose the fort in a fixed battle. Young André’s job was negotiating terms and details. André wore his redcoat uniform so that, if caught, he wouldn’t be hanged as a spy.  But the talks ran long, the ship left him stranded, and he let Arnold give him civilian clothes and a horse for getting back to British lines. Didn’t work. André was stopped, carrying papers that revealed the plan. Much later, in 1798, American playwright William Dunlap premiered his drama André. This finely written play focused on André’s military trial, where American officers agonized over what to do with the popular fellow: treat him as a POW—or execute him, which they did.

The play bombed. Patriotic U.S. audiences of 1798, no longer attuned to kindly feelings toward André, thought it portrayed him as too much the heroic martyr. You be the judge. Pittsburgh’s Throughline Theatre opens its new season with a revival of André. At the Aftershock Theatre, 115 57th St., Lawrenceville.   

KING LEAR by William Shakespeare, adapted by James Kincaid and Julian Markels. May 10 – June 2, Quantum Theatre.

Everyone knows that Shakespeare’s King Lear is a masterpiece but not so many have actually seen it. This may be the time to remedy the situation. 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, Tami Dixon as his Fool, 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. Carrie Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark, straddles Swissvale and Rankin. The address is Carrie Furnaces Boulevard, Swissvale.

Playwright Stephen Belber’s ‘We Are Among Us’ deals in dark secrets. (photo courtesy of Mr. Belber)

Playwright Stephen Belber’s ‘We Are Among Us’ deals in dark secrets. (photo courtesy of Mr. Belber)

WE ARE AMONG US by Stephen Belber. May 11 – June 2, City Theatre.

City Theatre, continuing its tradition of staging new plays and plays not yet seen in Pittsburgh, premieres the latest 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 Berber 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. Berber was also an actor/writer on The Laramie Project and has worked extensively in film and TV. 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.  

EQT CHILDREN’S THEATER FESTIVAL. May 16 – 19, at multiple venues in the Cultural District.

This is called 'Fly' and don't ask why! One of the featured international shows at the EQT Children's Theater Festival, it's from Teater Patrasket of Denmark. (photo: Sõren Meisner)

This is called ‘Fly’ and don’t ask why! One of the featured international shows at the EQT Children’s Theater Festival, it’s from Teater Patrasket of Denmark. (photo: Sõren Meisner)

Some people say you’re never too old to enjoy children’s books, and maybe the same is true of theater for children. If you are young at heart, or have kids who are, the big event of the year in Pittsburgh is the EQT Children’s Theater Festival. This four-day festival brings in shows by leading TYA (theater for young audiences) companies from around the world. Featured attractions in 2019 include: an amazing puppet play, Fly, by Teater Patrasket of Denmark. A musical adaptation of the book Emily Brown and the Thing, by the renowned London company Tall Stories. An interactive fantasy for babies and toddlers, Sky and Stone, by the Mexican/Argentine company Teatro al Vacio. AND—at the other end of spectrum—fans of the adult fiction writer Haruki Murakami may wish to catch Murakamification. The author’s surreal stories, such as Kafka on the Shore and The Elephant Vanishes, have inspired the Dutch company Arch 8 to create a “moving” theater piece that will wander through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, with all sorts of surreality along the way. Check the Festival website for schedules and venues of the various shows. Multiple locations, Cultural District.  

BRIGHT STAR (musical) by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. May 17 – 26, Front Porch Theatricals.

There have been great sports teams that never won a championship, because they had the misfortune to play at the same time as powerhouses like the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers or Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Which is what happened to the Broadway musical Bright Star. Written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the show was a Tony Award finalist in 2016—the same year as Hamilton. But now the formidable Front Porch Theatricals troupe is performing Bright Star in Pittsburgh. The musical has Brickell’s soulful songs and lyrics coupled with Martin’s brand of bluegrass. And naturally, since this is a Martin thing, the story features bizarre love affairs and frustrated hopes for stardom. Take heart, though; a happy ending is provided. The setting is North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in the early-to-mid 1900s. The Front Porch cast of over a dozen includes Erin Lindsay Krom, Jerreme Rodriguez, Miller Jay Kraps, and others. Bright Star is at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.   

DEAR EVAN HANSEN (musical) by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson. May 21 – 26, touring company at Heinz Hall.

The touring production is here, and it’s sold out, but there are options. Just please don’t use deceitful means of getting tickets—although deceit is a central theme of the musical Dear Evan Hansen. Evan is a high-school student with severe social anxiety and a crush on a girl in his class. When the girl’s brother commits suicide, Evan falsely claims to have been the young man’s close friend, even launching a memorial project to honor the deceased. This wins Evan the attention he has craved, at a price that includes moral dilemmas and an ultimate reckoning. Dear Evan Hansen won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s still playing on Broadway. Audiences love it, as do most but not all critics. Positive reviews praise the musical’s emotional power and intricacy; the dissenters feel it goes for emotional effect while glossing over some major issues. The songs (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are pop rock; book by Steven Levenson. If you’re shut out of the touring show, try entering the ticket lottery. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.   

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.  

HER HOLINESS, THE WINTER DOG (chamber opera) by Curtis Rumrill and Zachary Webber. May 30-31, Community Supported Art series at the New Hazlett.

Simply copying the promo material for an event is lazy journalism, but sometimes an exception must be made. The following is for Her Holiness, The Winter Dog: “In a dystopian future, humans cause the extinction of all animals. Now they must use humans to replace their sacred pets. To protect their status and religious values, three sisters hire a guardian of faith who dresses and lives as a dog. As their spiritual leader, The Winter Dog incites change—but not in the way they expect.” Her Holiness, The Winter Dog is a chamber opera by composer Curtis Rumrill and librettist Zachary Webber. It was commissioned by Kamratōn, a Pittsburgh-based all-female chamber ensemble. The group is performing the opera along with the Quince Ensemble (new-music vocalists) and Shana Simmons Dance, with Daniel Curtis as musical director. Her Holiness, The Winter Dog is presented as part of Pittsburgh’s Community Supported Art series at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

Long-running:

SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY (cabaret musical) by Gerard Alessandrini. May 16 – 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.  

Other Suggested Productions:

SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (musical/song cycle) by Jason Robert Brown. May 2 – 4, Greensburg Civic Theatre.

Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown is best known for the musical version of The Bridges of Madison County and for his unusual, semi-autobiographical musical The Last Five Years, which tells the story of the breakup of a marriage in reverse chronological order. Greensburg Civic Theatre is performing Brown’s earliest work, the beautiful Songs for a New World. The show is actually not so much a musical as a song cycle—a feature-length series of songs around related themes. In this case the themes include discovery, struggle, and maintaining one’s highest visions in the face of everyday life. If you’ve never seen (and heard) a song cycle, Songs for a New World is a great one to start with. The Palace Theatre, 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg.  

THE SOUND OF MUSIC (musical) by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse. May 5 only, 7:30 p.m., touring company at The Palace Theatre.

Some Broadway musicals become so strongly identified with their movie versions that it’s hard to even think of them as live stage shows. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music won a Tony Award for Best Musical as well as an Oscar for Best Picture—yet in the minds of millions, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer are Maria and Captain von Trapp. But the story is a dramatization of true events. There really were a Maria and Captain who escaped from Austria when the Nazis took over. And songs like “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” sound even better live, so you may want to see the touring production of The Sound of Music that visits The Palace Theatre. 7:30 p.m. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (musical) by Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, Bob Martin, and Don McKellar. Continuing through May 11, Little Lake Theatre.

Little Lake Theatre, one of the region’s bigger “little theater” companies, opens its season with The Drowsy Chaperone. This 2006 winner of five Tony Awards is both a parody of old musicals and a tribute to them. The central character is a shy fellow who sits at home alone listening to vintage recordings of Broadway tunes from the 1920s. When he puts his favorite onto the turntable—the soundtrack of an exuberantly hokey fictional show called, well, The Drowsy Chaperone—the cast members magically appear and start performing the show. Songs and music are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison; book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.

PERFECT WEDDING by Robin Hawdon. Through May 11, South Park Theatre.

Currently up at South Park Theatre 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 funny. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS by Robert Harling. May 10 – 19, McKeesport Little Theatre.

Playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias, a classic tragicomic tear-jerker, in memory of his sister. Susan Harling Robinson had died from complications of diabetes after giving birth, and the play, set in a beauty shop in a Louisiana town, depicts the interactions of a group of odd but stout-hearted women as one of them faces the same crisis. Steel Magnolias premiered in New York in 1987, quickly becoming a popular ensemble piece for all-female casts. McKeesport Little Theatre, 1614 Coursin St., McKeesport.

MORNING’S AT SEVEN by Paul Osborn. May 15 – June 1, South Park Theatre.

The Gibb sisters are both married and live in the same neighborhood. Set in the 1950s, the play about them revolves around family secrets and plots. Myrtle, who’s been the girlfriend of Ida Gibb’s son Homer for far too long, has a plan to spur him to propose. Morning’s at Seven is a touching drama of family ties. It is by playwright Paul Osborn and is being staged by South Park Theatre. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.

THE TAFFETAS (musical/revue) conceived by Rick Lewis. May 16-26, Apple Hill Playhouse.

The Taffetas, a musical tribute to 1950s girl groups, follows four fictional singing sisters from Muncie, Indiana who call themselves (of course) The Taffetas. They are set to make their debut on the DuMont TV network’s “Spotlight on Music!” The Tafettas sing the songs of The McGuire Sisters, The Fontane Sisters, and The Chordettes. They are accompanied by a three-piece band. Apple Hill Playhouse performs The Taffetas at a location precisely midway between Muncie and the DuMont Building in New York: It’s at 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.

TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill. May 16 – 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.  

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