May 2023 Theater Guide: Look Out for What’s Inside (Onstage) This Month
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Whether tragedy or comedy, dramatic theater often presents us with characters who strut and fret to reveal their inner souls. Hamlet, of course, is a classic example. More often, what makes a character tick is defined by the person’s choices and actions. But sometimes it’s not the central characters who do the self-revealing. What become dramatic are the supporting characters, as they bring out the inner workings of those in their midst. Through conflict or situation, the deep core of a character is defined by external forces. Ok, class over. But here’s your homework. This May onstage in Pittsburgh are ten powerful productions that give us insight from an outward perspective.
Take, for example, the opera Denis & Katya which “turns the camera inward” to focus on two teenagers we never see, but come to understand tragically through the observations of outsiders. Likewise, Every Brilliant Thing is a one-actor comedy in which the audience asserts its direction of the central character. Another May opera, We Shall Not Be Moved, studies the tragic events of members of MOVE who die when the police bomb their house. Again, the audience never sees the event nor the tragic souls lost to it, but learns the meaning of their commitment and convictions from teenagers who experience their ghosts. Or, in a lighter vein, Madagascar The Musical Live! takes a “fish out of water” approach to understanding the joys and terror of freedom. Even Dear Evan Hansen, or Falsettos, both wildly popular musicals, derive incredible insight by exploring one’s own identity through the reflective eyes of others.
Also not to be missed this merry month are Jersey Boys and The 39 Steps. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons fulfill their unlikely dreams only through the fame bestowed upon them by their adoring fans. And Alfred Hitchock’s film classic is reimagined by a cast of just four actors who lead us through dozens of suspenseful environments to reveal, in very comic fashion, the inner workings of a notorious spy ring. Top this month off with an evening of ballet or modern dance. The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky’s acclaimed composition, awakens us with a single kiss. And Alvin Ailey’s world-class dance company projects a new world vision that just might change your perspective on what is truly meaningful and deeply fulfilling.
Thus, we are pleased to recommend our Top Picks for what’s onstage this May. Pittsburgh has so much to offer just as the great outdoors open up for one and all. 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.) and Rick Handler (R.H.) also contributed to this guide.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN (musical) by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson. Touring company at Benedum Center. May 2 – 7.
Good tickets are selling out, so act promptly if you want to see the title character sell out his integrity. For Pittsburgh theater fans unfamiliar with Dear Evan Hansen, here’s a brief recap of what you will see in this touring production: 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. Evan thereby gains 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. 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. Dear Evan Hansen plays an eight-show run as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)
JERSEY BOYS (musical) by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by The Four Seasons. Pittsburgh Musical Theater. May 4 – 14.
There were people who couldn’t stand the sound, but millions more who loved it. The sound was the otherworldly, phenomenally high falsetto of lead singer Frankie Valli. It was the centerpiece of The Four Seasons’ distinctive musical style, helping drive the group to fame and fortune in the 1960s from the members’ rough-and-tumble beginnings in Newark, N.J. Their climb from blue-collar obscurity to gold-record status was so colorful that it inspired the musical Jersey Boys. The Broadway original won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006 and was made into a 2014 movie. Unlike the stage show and the group itself, the Jersey Boys film didn’t chart, but it was directed by none other than Clint Eastwood. And if tough-guy Clint could be enthralled by songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man,” who can resist? Pittsburgh Musical Theater presents Jersey Boys in the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)
DENIS & KATYA (opera) by Philip Venables and Ted Huffman. Pittsburgh Opera. May 6 – 20.
Tragic opera takes on new dimensions in Denis & Katya. The opera conveys the true story of Russian teenagers Denis Muravyov and Katya Vlasova, who became social media celebrities in a ghastly way. The 15-year-olds were a loving but troubled couple. In November 2016 they ran away together and holed up in a vacant summer house stocked with liquor and firearms. This led to a long standoff with special-forces officers. Denis and Katya refused pleas to come out, firing shots from a window, alternately clowning and brooding—and streaming video of themselves doing so. Eventually Denis and Katya streamed a farewell message. They were found dead in an apparent suicide pact. The opera uses only two singers, who do not portray Denis and Katya. Instead they sing multiple “outsider” roles—a journalist, witnesses, a friend of the couple—while projections of text grabs from actual online posts and other sources help to tell the tale in an eerie mixture of immediacy and distance. Denis & Katya premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2019 and has played elsewhere to wide acclaim. Pittsburgh Opera has mezzo-soprano Jazmine Olwalia and baritone Brandon Bell as the performers. See Denis & Katya at the company’s Bitz Opera Factory, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District. (M.V.)
Meanwhile there is major news: Late in the show’s run, our city serves as the center of the U.S. opera community. Pittsburgh Opera is hosting the annual conference of the professional group OPERA America from May 17-20. This event is the world’s largest yearly gathering of opera administrators, artists, and other stakeholders. Along with conference sessions aimed at advancing the state of the art, visitors may attend up to three locally produced operas. Pittsburgh Opera is staging We Shall Not Be Moved (previewed below) May 13 – 21, thus creating a contemporary double-bill with Denis & Katya, and Resonance Works presents Verdi’s Macbeth May 18 and 20.
John Buchan’s THE 39 STEPS (parody) by Patrick Barlow. Prime Stage. May 5 – 14.
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. 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 to build a comic energy that parrots the suspenseful energy of the movie. Even for those who have never seen the movie, theater audiences will recognize many of Hitchcock’s famous film traits. Indeed, The 39 Steps (1939) was one of his first spy thrillers. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Northside. (M.V.)
ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER (dance) three modern dances choreographed by Kyle Abraham, Jamar Roberts, and Alvin Ailey, respectively. Pittsburgh Dance Council at Benedum Center, May 9.
For one night only, this world-renowned dance company founded by Alvin Ailey in 1989 returns to Pittsburgh for the first time since 2005. Now under the artistic direction of Robert Battle, the company will perform two 2022 world premieres and a classic work created by Alvin Ailey when he was 29. Are You in Your Feelings? is Kyle Abraham’s newest work exploring Black culture. It is scored to a mix of hip-hop, R&B, and soul, featuring music by artists such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, and Summer Walker. Jamar Roberts’ In a Sentimental Mood also premiered last year. Scored to the original composition by Duke Ellington (as well as four other classic jazz standards), the night’s second dance explores the depths of love and desire between a young and very intimate couple. And then comes the finale. First performed more than 60 years ago, Ailey’s own Revelations is his masterpiece, seen by more people internationally than any other work of modern dance. This once visionary piece reflects mankind’s deepest grief and greatest joy through African-American religious spirituals, a platform on which Ailey proved his young genius. At Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. 8 p.m. on May 9 only. (C.P.O.)
MADAGASCAR THE MUSICAL LIVE! adapted from the DreamWorks film, produced by Red Tail Live and The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Touring company at Benedum Center. May 12.
When the most popular animals in New York’s Central Park Zoo escape, all the world goes wild. Of course no one seems much afraid of these silly, fun-loving, and adventurous beasts who must redeem themselves by sailing to Madagascar, King Julien’s madcap land, lovingly idealized as a world of lemurs and penguins and other anthropomorphic critters. Of course, too, the show is child-friendly, designed to get everyone singing and clapping to the hit songs of the original film, as well as a few new ones written for this show. Madagascar The Musical Live! plays at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. 7 p.m. on May 12 only. (C.P.O.)
WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED (opera) by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Pittsburgh Opera. May 13 – 21.
Pittsburgh Opera’s season finale is a cutting-edge contemporary work that builds from a tragic true episode. In the 1980s, members of the Black spiritualist-activist group MOVE lived together in a Philadelphia row house. During a tense confrontation with authorities, police made a shocking decision: They bombed the house, ostensibly to gain entry, but triggering a fire that killed six MOVE members and five of their children. We Shall Not Be Moved imagines a group of runaway teens, sometime later, taking refuge in the abandoned structure. While struggling to resolve their own problems they commune with ghosts of the youth who died. The opera’s score combines classical strains with those of blues, jazz, and R&B. Directing and choreographing the show for Pittsburgh Opera is the renowned dance and theater artist Bill T. Jones. Jones has won global acclaim for his original modern-dance pieces, as well as Tony Awards for choreographing Spring Awakening and Fela! on Broadway. Expect a stirring production here in Pittsburgh. We Shall Not Be Moved plays at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (M.V.)
FALSETTOS (musical) by William Finn and James Lapine. Front Porch Theatricals. May 19 – 28.
There is a category of live theater called “really good musicals that you probably won’t see at Benedum Center, because they don’t quite have big-brand-name status or they’re not on tour, or whatever.” Front Porch Theatricals is a company proudly producing that type of musical for Pittsburgh audiences, with a focus on shows that have thematic substance as well as great music. Up this month at Front Porch is Falsettos, which—lest we forget—won the Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score in 1992. William Finn and James Lapine created Falsettos by merging two of Finn’s previous one-acts into a feature-length piece, and the result is remarkable: part zany comedy, part ominous tragedy. The show is set in New York in the early 1980s. A guy leaves his wife to move in with a male lover, while trying to stay close to his freaked-out young son and not get too freaked, himself, when his dumped wife and his therapist become an item: that’s the zany setup. The ominous part comes with the onset of a mysterious epidemic in 1981. Front Porch presents Falsettos at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (M.V.)
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY (ballet) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. May 19 – 21.
Sleeping Beauty is a classic tale that has been told in many different genres. The ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, is one of the best ever created. The tale is centered around a beautiful princess who’s been cursed into an eternal slumber until she is awakened by her one true love’s kiss. It premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1890. Now, in Pittsburgh, it will be performed on the Benedum Center stage. The PBT Orchestra will play Tchaikovsky’s immortal score. 237 7th St., Cultural District. (R.H.)
EVERY BRILLIANT THING (comedy) by Duncan MacMillan (with Jonny Donahoe.) Kinetic Theatre. May 25 – June 11.
Depression seems an unlikely subject for a comedy, but the conceit of Duncan MacMillian’s acclaimed play is no less bizarre; the audience is responsible for telling the story. And therein lies the empathic honesty. And the fun. A sell-out for three consecutive runs at the famed Edinburgh Festival, MacMillan’s comedy earned standing ovations. The UK’s Guardian wrote, “There is something tough being confronted here––the guilt of not making those we love happy––and it is explored with unflinching honesty.” A longtime collaborator of Kinetic Theatre’s director Andrew Paul, Marcus Weiss, veteran actor and “clown” of Vegas spectacles like Cirque du Soleil’s O, plays the narrator. The comedy is yet another of many productions this month where the central character is the creation of external influences. Don’t miss this one. Kinetic Theatre stages Every Brilliant Thing in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland. (C.P.O.)
YOUNG AMERICANS by Lauren Yee, directed by Desdemona Chiang. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Through May 14.
In yet another world premiere, Pittsburgh Public Theater, in co-production with Portland Center Stage, presents Young Americans, a riotous comedy of a young Asian immigrant who woos his soon-to-be fiancé, Jenny, while driving from Washington D.C. to Portland, Oregon. They discover an America they had never thought to find, forced to take detours along the way that test their incredulity. Twenty years later the father drives their adopted daughter to college back east, a road trip that takes them both in directions they had not planned on and, yet, which enlightens their respective journeys in ways that are both silly and sublime. Advance publicity for the new comedy says it “pieces together [a] bittersweet family history in [a] beautiful new comedy about the lengths we will go for the people we love.” Playwright Lauren Yee, best known for her musical hit, Cambodian Rock Band, now playing at Berkeley Rep, is one of the hot new voices in American theater. Young Americans plays in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)
AMERICAN FAST by Kareem Fahmy. City Theatre, Through May 21.
When March Madness coincides with Ramadan—the month-long Islamic holy period requiring Muslims to fast until sundown—college basketball superstar Khady lies to her mother about holding true to her religious obligations. Yet, if American sports tradition begs every team to win at any cost, at what cost does one hold up Islamic tradition? Therein lies the rub. The basketball phenom becomes the shining star of Muslim women everywhere—except in her own home. Canadian playwright Kareem Fahmy, a naturalized Egyptian, has written a deep and heartfelt exploration pitting family against faith, and fame against fasting. City Theatre’s production of American Fast is the third of four rolling world premieres, that is, four consecutive productions of a new play staged independently at four of the country’s best regional theaters. American Fast premieres in Pittsburgh on City Theatre’s mainstage,1300 Bingham St., South Side. (C.P.O.)
Other Shows of Interest
Sondheim on Sondheim (Stage 62)
Amélie (Little Lake)
Momentum Festival of New Plays (City Theatre)
Big Storm (Kelly Strayhorn Theater)
Chicken & Biscuits (New Horizon Theater)
Big Shows on the Horizon
Frida…a Self Portrait (Pittsburgh Public Theater)
Anything Goes (Pittsburgh CLO)
Into the Woods (Pittsburgh CLO)
12:52 The Mike Webster Story (Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater)
Note: This will be the last Theater Guide until the fall.
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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