October 2023 Theater Guide: Seek Your Higher Power
There’s little wonder as to why our oldest civilizations held high all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-knowing deities and “great spirits”; gods, almighty and omnipotent. We humble humans need to have order, and justice and a damn good explanation as to why we struggle so hard to survive. Life’s not fair; nothing’s fair. And who ever said it should be? That concept is about as innate to the human condition as is the precept of trusting a higher power.
This October, on Pittsburgh stages, a slew of dramatic productions touch on the common theme that, indeed, there are higher powers we humans best ought to seek. From not one, but two completely different takes on the classic The Wizard of Oz (see City Theatre’s Somewhere Over The Border and the touring production of The Wiz) to the resurrecting power of Ugly Cry or, perversely, the authority-defying Catch Me If You Can, there’s something afoot in our search for the divine. Of course, music and dance lift our spirits; from Billy Strayhorn’s inspired songwriting to the Pittsburgh Ballet’s Light in the Dark (with PMT’s Evil Dead, the Musical somehow in the middle), we seek the gifts of the Muses. Even a tale of love and lust at the Moulin Rouge!, the struggle to ride the Bluegrass Mile, the yearning of a Sevillian Count smitten by a woman he knows not how to court, the poetry of lovers flying over Vitebsk, or a wife who’s lecherous husband plays Jesus in a theme park production, all mirror our common search for something greater than that which we should ever hope to find. The tragedy, of course, is many never will. But you, dear reader, just might––especially if you click on any of these great picks for theater in Pittsburgh this October.
Shows 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. The Theater Guide outline is created by the theater writers and theater editors of Entertainment Central. Mike Vargo (M.V.) also contributed to this guide. (C.P.O.)
MOULIN ROUGE! (jukebox musical) based on the film by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, with book by John Logan. Touring company at Benedum Center, Through Oct. 8.
Although set in turn-of-the-century Paris, particularly the Montmartre district renowned for the famous French cabaret, Moulin Rouge! features the popular 20th century music of Elton John, Adele, Madonna, Sting, Katy Perry, Pink and Dolly Parton (among many, many others.) Indeed, the Broadway version of Luhrmann’s original film is truly a jukebox of pop hits that drive the emotions of this not-so-subtle (nor new) love story. The plot is welcomingly familiar: young musical composer arrives in town and falls in love with the lead actress only to be thwarted by the producer who needs his leading lady to save the show by seducing a wealthy benefactor. For good measure, Moulin Rouge! includes some historical perspectives of the Belle Epoque (the painter Toulouse-Lautrec takes stage) but for all of the Bohemian esprit and Parisian debauche, the story could be told in any (albeit theatrical) setting.
Yet, the reason Moulin Rouge! won ten Tony Awards in 2020 is because it offers two and a half hours of energy that just doesn’t quit. Best Musical, Best Lead Actor, Best Featured Actor, Best Direction, Best Choreography…the list goes on. As does the pop music. Performed often in thematic medleys, more than 70 hits lift the audience in ways a Can-Can dancer’s skirt never will. PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)
UGLY CRY by Katie Mack. Presented by off the WALL productions. Through Oct. 14.
Off the WALL productions, a leader in Pittsburgh’s alternative theater scene, often presents one-person shows by performers from across the country. Katie Mack’s Ugly Cry comes with an implicit trigger warning. This one is about death. But the piece also comes recommended, because New York-based Mack is a singularly dynamic writer and performer. As an actor she has played an amazing variety of parts—from Sally Bowles, the female lead in Cabaret, to the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Her award-winning podcast, F*cking Sober: The First 90 Days, provides comic-but-informative listening for anyone interested in recovery. Ugly Cry is a new piece that summons the voice of Mack’s friend Eric Anthamatten, a philosophy professor who died tragically in 2021. It’s also a participatory show, for which Mack invites you to bring and use your phone. She bills Ugly Cry as “an interactive night of theater, technology, and resurrection of the dead.” Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. (M.V.)
SOMEWHERE OVER THE BORDER (musical) by Brian Quijada, directed by Laura Alcalá Baker. City Theatre, Through Oct. 15.
When the desperate journey of a young El Salvadoran girl mirrors the American fable of The Wizard of Oz, Somewhere Over The Border reaffirms the universally human plight of seeking freedom and friendship on the road to fortune. Quijada’s re-telling of the L. Frank Baum classic is not as literal as it is lyrical––his songs are rooted in the true story of his mother’s journey to cross the US border years before—yet they evince the awe of adventure and the fear of failure. The music is inspired by Cumbia rhythms, Mariachi instrumentals, Hip Hop, and American Rock. The central characters share the road, discovering personal flaws and different fears. And, despite the “wizard” (here, the scary El Gran Coyote de Tijuana) who has organized their final crossing, they realize the true meaning of family.
Brian Quijada is a rising star with a number of Jeff Awards, an Emmy nomination, and accolades from regional theaters. His hip hop solo show Where Did We Sit On The Bus? was produced by City Theatre in 2018. Somewhere Over The Border features a cast of six and an orchestra of five. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (C.P.O.)
EVIL DEAD THE MUSICAL Book and lyrics by George Reinblatt. Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris and George Reinblatt. Additional lyrics by Christopher Bond. Additional music by Rob Daleman. Pittsburgh Musical Theatre. Through October 22.
So far, over 500 productions of Evil Dead: The Musical have been staged worldwide. Think of what this has required in human terms. Hundreds of talented actors, fluent at using their hands gracefully on stage, had to learn how to play a character whose right hand is replaced by a chainsaw. Yet the role is a coveted one, for Ashley “Ash” Williams is not your average bionic hero. In the Evil Dead films on which the musical is based, he duels with deadites in settings from the present-day U.S. to medieval Europe. Ash is a complexly flawed hero who bumbles through everyday life, but excels in matters such as fighting the Kandarian Demon. The British cinema magazine Empire ranked him the greatest horror movie character of all time. Pittsburgh Musical Theater—which has staged Evil Dead several times before—resurrects Evil Dead: The Musical by popular demand. Exuberant audience response is welcome but leave your chainsaws, and children, at home. Preferably not in the same room. West End Canopy at Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End. (M.V., R.H.)
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (musical) with a book by Terrence McNally, theatrical score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, based on a film directed by Stephen Spielberg (2002) written by Jeff Nathanson, created from an autobiography by Frank Abignale, Jr. (1980.) Lincoln Park Performance Center. Oct. 6 – 15.
Nominated for four Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2011, Catch Me If You Can is the story of Frank Abignale Jr. who claims, in the course of his young career, having forged payroll checks in excess of $2 million. Alternately disguising himself as an airline pilot, doctor and attorney, Abignale escapes the reach of FBI agent Carl Hanratty, until convicted later in his mischievous career, when he turns evidence to work for the same government agency. Although Abignale is the charming protagonist of the story, Hanratty delivers the laughs as he fumbles and bumbles in headstrong pursuit of his conman. The musical numbers are expository, but wildly choreographed with kicking choruses of sexy airline stewardesses (yes, this was in the ’60s) and others. Indeed, the musical speaks of love and intrigue from a different era, but the theme of family and forgiveness prevails. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, 1 Lincoln Park, Midland. (C.P.O.)
WHEN JESUS DIVORCED ME (musical) by Laura Irene Young. Off the Wall Productions. October 6 – 21.
Her husband was the man of her dreams. After their nuptials he started working in a theme park production. There he would either play Jesus or his crucifier every afternoon at 3 p.m. She tries to be proud of her husband and his roles. That is until a princess from a neighboring theme park comes onto the scene. It then devolves into an even more unusual story. It tells the tale of how we deal with life’s ups and downs. It’s told in the format of a folk-music concert from Laura Irene Young and spans the emotional spectrum from tears to laughter. When Jesus Divorced Me is written and performed by Young with direction from Allison Weakland. 25 w. Main St., Carnegie. (C.P.O)
THE BLUEGRASS MILE (drama) by Mark Clayton Southers. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company. Oct. 6 – 29.
Ever devoted to telling the stories of Black lives in 19th century America, playwright and director Mark Clayton Southers premieres yet another new work. Set in a Louisville boarding house, the play is about two Black horse jockeys who compete for the inaugural running of the Bluegrass Mile. Not surprisingly (but often unstated), jockeys were America’s first professional athletes. Filled with expectation, hope, and fury, The Bluegrass Mile becomes, as Southers promises, “much more than a race for prestige when the quest for truth becomes the ultimate prize.” Featuring a cast of seven, The Bluegrass Mile is his most recent work of his 19th Century Cycle, the first play of which––Miss Julie, Clarissa and John––ran at the 2017 National Black Theatre Festival and also had a three-week run in 2017 at Scotland’s prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company performs at its new home in the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street in the Lower Hill District. (C.P.O.)
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE (opera) by Gioachino Rossini, libretto by Cesare Sterbini. Pittsburgh Opera. Oct. 14 – 22.
From old Looney Tunes featuring Bugs Bunny to the more modern “Bohemian Rhapsody” written by Freddie Mercury, opera lovers have reveled in the popularity of the opera better known by its central character, Figaro. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville returns this fall to the Benedum stage, featuring Johnathan McCullough in the title role, along with Stephanie Doche as Rosina, and Lunga Eric Hallam as Count Almaviva. The plot is perhaps one of the least convoluted of perennially favorite operas. Wise and witty, Figaro, the barber, is the “go-to guy” in Seville. When Count Almaviva, smitten by the fair and lovely Rosina, must fend off the lecherous Don Bartolo (performed by Muse Nqungwana) whose amorous desires have more to do with greed than true love, he enjoins Figaro to save the day.
Directed by Gregory Keller and Music Director Antony Walker, The Barber of Seville also features Brian Kontes as Don Basilio, Brandon Bell as Fiorello, and Emily Richter as Berta. Pittsburgh Opera at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)
LIGHT IN THE DARK (dance and ballet) featuring a world premier by Jennifer Archibald. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. Oct. 27 – 29.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theater opens its 2023-2024 season with two evenings (and a matinee) of four distinctly powerful works. The first is a world premiere, Sounds of the Sun, celebrating the life of Florence Waren who worked with the French Resistance during WWII while entertaining Parisians with her unique contributions to dance. In conjunction with the nonprofit Violins of Hope project, PBT Orchestra’s 1st violinist, Rachel Stegeman performs. Next up is Monger, created by award-winning Israeli American choreographer Barak Marshall. Monger is an emotional story of people trapped in the house of an abusive mistress. Two ballets––Loss by Sasha Janes and Lacrimosa, by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa––conclude the evening’s offerings, in all a stunning program of beauty and intensity. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth Street, Cultural District. (C.P.O.)
THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK (musical) by Daniel Jameson. Quantum Theatre. Oct. 28 – Nov. 26
First produced in London in 2016, Daniel Jameson’s play is a musical mosaic of the lives of Marc and Bella Chagall; he the Jewish modernist painter whose flying figures (angels, cattle, young lovers) float in deep blue skies, she the poet (nee Rosenfeld) who fell in love with Chagall and wrote their life stories (pogroms, Moscow, Paris) in Burning Lights. Both born in the humble village of Vitebsk (now in Belarus), they met when twenty and married just as the Russian border closed for WWI. Quantum’s production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk will be set to Klezmer, the simple, yet rich music most often associated with Jewish folk songs. Furthermore, Quantum’s revival of Jameson’s most popular work will be staged at Rodef Shalom, Oakland’s most prominent synagogue.
But you don’t have to be Jewish to love Lovers. Jameson’s work is itself a floating vision of the artistic spirit, inspired by deep pain and soaring ambition. After all, art, like truth, is universal. Also honoring the Violins of Hope project, Quantum Theatre brings it all to life. Rodef Shalom, 4905 Fifth Avenue, Oakland. (C.P.O.)
THE WIZ (musical) by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, with added material by Tina TIppit. Touring company at Benedum Center. Oct. 31 – Nov. 5.
On its way back to Broadway since its first run of 1,672 performances (1975 to 1979) helped inspire the sensational film adaptation (1978) starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, this all new revival of The Wiz lands at the Benedum Center for five nights only. Newcomer Nichelle Lewis is slated for the role of Dorothy, the shy girl from Kansas who befriends a Scarecrow (Avery Wilson,) a Tin Man (Phillip Johnson Richardson) and Lion (Kyle Lamar Freeman) on the Yellow Brick Road to Oz. With an ensemble of more than 18 cast members, this Broadway-bound production features the fabulous funk, Gospel, pop, and toe-tapping favorites that made it one of the greatest box office bonanzas of all time. PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)
Other Shows of Interest
Through October 7
Three Viewings (South Park Theatre)
Thursday, October 5
The Book of Will (Little Lake Theatre)
Saturday, October 14
Gil Refazendo and Gira, Grupo Corpo. (Pittsburgh Dance Council)
Through October 15
Unexpected Exposure (Corningworks)
Tuesday, October 17
Rocky Horror Picture Show (Pittsburgh Cultural Trust)
A Tale-Tell Heart (Pittsburgh Public Theater)
Through October 22
Tick Tick Boom (Pittsburgh CLO)
Little Shop of Horrors (The Strand Players)
Big Shows on the Horizon
The Flying Dutchman (Pittsburgh Opera)
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (City Theatre)
Mrs. Doubtfire (PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh)
C. Prentiss Orr writes about theater for Entertainment Central. He has worked in theater management and has also taught theater.