A new season is upon us and once again that September cry rings across the land: Are you ready for some live theater? The schedule on Pittsburgh stages this month is lean but loaded. Although the sheer number of shows isn’t huge—a couple of major companies opened with outdoor productions in August, while some others launch in October—seldom has such an intriguing variety been offered.
Two notable plays are being mounted for the first time locally: Hand to God, the dark comedy about a Satanic hand puppet (at City Theatre), and Wig Out!, a Tarell McCraney saga set in New York’s drag queen/house ball scene (at The REP). Throughline Theatre is premiering a new dystopian drama, The Censor, as part of its politically themed 2016 season.
Nor have old favorites been neglected. PICT Classic Theatre is staging the one-woman classic Shirley Valentine, and The Public presents a long-awaited (at least by this writer) local revival of a memorable musical, The Fantasticks.
Speaking of hit musicals, Kinky Boots makes a return visit to the Benedum. The schedule also includes dance performances, and even a pair of summer-stock-style comedies in Better Late (South Park Theatre) and Death by Fatal Murder (Apple Hill Playhouse) … because after all, until Sept. 22 it is still summer, right?
For your chronometric convenience, shows are profiled in order of their run dates.
THE 39 STEPS (comic adaptation) by Patrick Barlow. Through Sept. 11, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.
The 39 Steps, 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 with a madcap play that won an Olivier Award 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 build a comic energy that parrots the suspenseful energy of the movie. The small cast of Barlow’s John Buchan’s The 39 Steps also makes it a natural for cabaret theater, so naturally the Pittsburgh production is being done by CLO Cabaret. In the Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
Opening in September …
SHIRLEY VALENTINE by Willy Russell. Sept. 1-17, PICT Classic Theatre.
Once again, PICT Classic Theatre kicks off a season with a Willy Russell play, but this time it’s different. Last year PICT began its final season at Pitt’s Charity Randall Theatre with Russell’s comedy/drama Educating Rita. Now the company is christening its new home—the Union Project in Highland Park—with the British playwright’s Shirley Valentine. The plays have a similar theme, as both are about middle-aged working-class women who feel confined by their lives and aspire to something more. But whereas Rita dealt with a brassy hairdresser who goes to college to study literature, Shirley gives us a quirky and introspective housewife who goes off to Greece on a fling. Shirley Valentine is a one-person play in which the title character relates and re-enacts the whole story. The London production won the 1988 Laurence Olivier Award (England’s equivalent of a Tony Award) for Best New Comedy, while the tour-de-force role helped to skyrocket the career of actress Pauline Collins. PICT has Karen Baum as Shirley, which is no coincidence: Baum played Rita in last year’s opener. At the Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park.
BETTER LATE by Larry Gelbart. Sept. 1-17, South Park Theatre.
Larry Gelbart, best known as creator and lead writer of the classic TV series “M*A*S*H,” wrote a late-life stage comedy shortly before his death in 2009. The play is called Better Late and South Park Theatre is doing it here. Better Late (co-authored by dramatist Craig Wright) is a serio-farcical riff on the intertwined subjects of aging, art, and love. The key characters are an elderly composer; his wife, a once-glamorous actress; and the wife’s cantankerous ex. When the ex suffers a stroke, wife persuades current hubby to let the guy move in with them while he recuperates, whereupon much tension and laughter ensue. Better Late premiered in 2008 at the Chicago area’s Northlight Theatre, where it was praised for its comic energy and zingy one-liners. The local production is at the corner of Brownsville and Wooded Gap Roads, South Park Township.
REMAINS (modern dance/performance) by Beth Corning. Sept. 7-11, CORNINGWORKS at the New Hazlett.
Choreographer and dancer Beth Corning returns to the stage with an updated version of her 2013 one-woman show remains. The feature-length piece combines physical movement with spoken and projected text, creative lighting, and other multidisciplinary effects. As for the title: remains is meant to evoke fragments and vestiges of personal memory—ranging, as Corning has written, from “a loved one’s scent left behind in a coat” to “the memory of family dinners past.” At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
DEATH BY FATAL MURDER by Peter Gordon. Sept. 8-17, Apple Hill Playhouse.
Fans of the late Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau movies may get a charge out of another bumbling British detective, playwright Peter Gordon’s Inspector Pratt. The clueless sleuth is the hero of a trilogy of Gordon comedies—and Apple Hill Playhouse, having previously done Murdered to Death and Secondary Cause of Death, now presents the third and (until further notice) final Pratt-fall, Death by Fatal Murder. Patrons who missed the first two should have no trouble following this one. The plot quickly becomes clear, although Pratt of course never quite achieves that blessed state. Death by Fatal Murder is reputed to include some of the Inspector’s funniest scenes. The Apple Hill gang has actor/director Rick Dutrow reprising his prior role as Pratt, so continuity of dramatic intent should be evident. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.
WIG OUT! by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Sept. 8-25, The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
News bulletin, for those unaware of the fact: you do not have to be L,G,B,T, or Q to enjoy LGBTQ theater. Such is the case for the plays of Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose work often features LGBTQ characters but explores universal human themes—and is highly entertaining as well. Last year The REP (Point Park University’s professional company) did McCraney’s Choir Boy, a music-filled play about the not-so-closeted student leader of a young men’s gospel choir. Now The REP returns with Wig Out! This 2008 love story unfolds amid New York’s drag ball scene, where drag queens and persons in other “themed” costumes develop extravagant floor-show routines to compete for coveted prizes. If you’ve seen the excellent 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, it’s the same scene that the film captured … except Wig Out! gives you a distinctly McCraney treatment and story line, from a 21st-century perspective. In the Rauh Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
THE CENSOR by David L. Williams. Sept. 16-24, Throughline Theatre.
“Can You Trust the Government?” For 2016, Throughline Theatre Company has themed its summer-to-fall season around that question, exploring it thus far through the classic plays Judgment at Nuremberg and Julius Caesar. Now hot on Caesar’s heels comes a new work: The Censor, by American playwright David L. Williams. Set in a fictional dystopian regime, The Censor follows the adventures of a government official who forms a bond with a dissident artist she’s been assigned to watch over. For several years now, Throughline itself has been a group of young theater artists worth watching. The company’s past shows have included feisty, provocative plays like Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class. If you haven’t yet caught Throughline in action it might be time to try The Censor. At the Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville.
KINKY BOOTS (musical) by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein. Sept. 20-25, national touring company at Benedum Center.
From Jersey Boys to Hamilton, musicals based on true stories are an odd lot, and one of the oddest is Kinky Boots. Winner of six Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in 2013, the show is derived from the true tale of a shoe-factory owner who saved his business by converting it to produce specialty footwear: the high-heeled, high-fashion boots worn by men who perform as drag queens. Kinky Boots played locally last year with Pittsburgh native Billy Porter in his Broadway lead role as Lola, the queen who inspires the factory man to get those boots rolling off the line. Now the musical returns, minus Porter, but in a lauded national touring production. Kinky Boots has music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper with a book by Broadway veteran Harvey Fierstein. At Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
HAND TO GOD by Robert Askins. Sept. 24 – Oct. 16, City Theatre.
Plays with puppets in them are not just for children, and some are not targeted to small children at all. The musical Avenue Q set an adult tone a decade ago with its depictions of puppet sex and drunkenness, and now Hand to God raises the bar. This dark comedy by Robert Askins is set in a small Texas town where a church has started a faith-based puppet club for teenagers. Things literally get out of hand when an evil hand puppet takes on a life of its own—spewing foul obscenities, oozing lust and rebellion, and otherwise acting out (one suspects) the repressed impulses of the shy teenaged boy who made him. Hand to God was a smash hit off-Broadway, then moved last year to Broadway, where it was nominated for five Tony Awards. Here in Pittsburgh, City Theatre opens its season with the play. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY (ballet) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. Sept. 28 only, 7:30 p.m., Russian Grand Ballet at Byham Theater.
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 in an authentic Russian style, as the Russian Grand Ballet brings The Sleeping Beauty to town on its U.S. tour. At the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.
THE TOXIC AVENGER (musical) by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Sept. 22 – Dec. 18, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.
For those who enjoy mutations, a cult horror-comedy movie from 1984 has been turned into a stage musical. The Toxic Avenger tells the story of a pollution-fighting nerd named Melvin Ferd the Third who is transformed to a slimy superhero after being soaked in toxic waste. Using his newfound superpowers, mutant Melvin wins the love of a blind librarian, and together they wage war on the nefarious characters responsible for corrupting the environment. The musical, which premiered off-Broadway in 2009, has a rock score with songs like “All Men Are Freaks” and “Who Will Save New Jersey?” Pittsburgh CLO is performing The Toxic Avenger in the friendly confines of the Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
THE FANTASTICKS (musical) by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Sept. 29 – Oct. 30, Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The longest-running musical in the history of show business? It’s not Phantom of the Opera, which holds the Broadway record at nearly 12,000 performances and still counting, but a modestly scaled off-Broadway musical. The Fantasticks opened there in 1960 and finished its initial run in 2002, after 17,162 performances. Part of the show’s charm is its mixture of simplicity and surreal strangeness. Using only a few actors and rudimentary stage props, The Fantasticks conjures up a bizarre tale. Two neighboring dads concoct a surefire scheme to make their children fall in love with one another: they forbid the young man and woman to have any contact. Then, as surreptitious romance blooms, the fathers hire a dashing stranger to pretend to kidnap the girl so the lad can “rescue” her—a twist that brings unexpected consequences. The show also mixes haunting music (such as the song “Try to Remember”) with wry humor, and Pittsburgh Public Theater has chosen The Fantasticks to open its 2016-17 season. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD by Halley Feiffer. Sept. 29 – Oct. 16, The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Playwright Halley Feiffer is the daughter of a near-legendary man. Her father Jules Feiffer (still alive and kickin’ at age 87) has won a Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award, and Obie Award for his work as cartoonist, screenwriter, and author. So it may be no coincidence that young Halley—who also acts—has written a play about an actress with a famous, domineering dad. One must hope that real-life papa Jules isn’t as savagely wacko as the father in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard. In this play the old coot turns his daughter’s professional debut into an occasion for a rambling, drug-and-alcohol-fueled tirade about the triumphs and frustrations of his own career in theater. I’m Gonna Pray is said to be amusing but frightening—when it opened in New York last year, some audience members fled their seats in alarm—and it has a surprise twist at the end. The REP, Point Park U’s professional company, is staging Feiffer’s father-daughter smashup in the Studio Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse. 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
Photo credits: Russian Grand Ballet, courtesy of the company. Shirley Valentine, PICT Classic Theatre. Beth Corning in remains, by Frank Walsh. Tarell McCraney, by Jean-Marc Giboux, courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.The Toxic Avenger, by Archie Carpenter.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.