Theater Guide April 2024: All the World’s a Stage; Pick Your Show

PBT Artists in Petal for 'Spring Mix.' (Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artists in petal for ‘Spring Mix.’ (Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)

Great theater celebrates the human condition. Often, however, the best theater also celebrates the medium by which it informs us of that condition. That is to say, for example, when Hamlet intends to avenge his father’s death, he stages a play (within Shakespeare’s play) to support his cause. And so, we find this month in Pittsburgh a number of great works that shine a light, not just on character, but on the very medium by which that character finds his or her redemption. Take the story of Mary Cardwell Dawson, one of Pittsburgh’s greatest impresarios of opera. Sandra Seaton’s play, produced by Pittsburgh Opera, celebrates the impresario by staging an opera within the greater story of her courageous life. Quantum Theatre’s new production, Scenes from an Execution, is a sophisticated comedy about an artist  commissioned to paint a scene of war. To tell his story, playwright Howard Barker staged scenes of people at war over art. Likewise, when Andy Warhol is in Iran, playwright Brent Askari very purposely explores the pop artist’s life by incorporating his art on the stage before us. In Dinah, a staged study of the great “Queen of the Blues,” it only makes sense that playwright Ernest McCarty tells his central character’s story inside a blues club. 

Consider, too, the popularity of jukebox musicals; many of the best––Jersey Boys for one, Million Dollar Quartet for another––succeed by dramatizing the circumstance by which the musicians they celebrate triumph (or fail) while performing the very songs for which they’re famous. And so, it’s not a hard stretch to understand why, when Pittsburgh’s premiere ballet company celebrates the rebirth of Spring, it includes a masterpiece created by the very master who gave new life to ballet in our modern world. In a similar vein, Attack Theatre’s contribution this month of The Show of 1000 Tomorrows is celebrated against a backdrop of innovative and progressive ideas once (and forever?) celebrated by world’s fairs. Finally, Sondheim’s Company is the ultimate tribute to the indifference of the male gender; experience for yourself how this musical, flipped on its ear, now engenders a similar tale with a curious difference.  

Shows are previewed below in three sections. Spotlight Picks for the month are followed by Other Shows of Interest, a list of universities producing great theater, and then a look-ahead to Big Shows on the Horizon. Spotlight Picks are listed by run dates. The Theater Guide is created by the theater writers and editors of Entertainment Central including Mike Vargo (M.V.) and C. Prentiss Orr (C.P.O.) 

Spotlight Picks:

SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION by Howard Barker. Quantum Theatre. April 5 – 27.

Actor Hansel Tan poses while Lisa Velten Smith paints. (Photography: Jason Snyder)

Actor Hansel Tan poses while Lisa Velten Smith paints. (Photography: Jason Snyder)

To say that Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theatre produces unusual plays is to state the obvious, but the one that closes the company’s 2023-24 season might be more unusual than usual. Scenes from an Execution, by the irascible English playwright Howard Barker, is a satirical seriocomic imaginary history play set in Venice in the 1570s. The play presents a bizarre take-off on true events. And the title refers not to the execution of a criminal, but to the artistic execution of a painting. This much is true: In 1571, the navies of the Holy League—a coalition of Catholic European states—defeated the armada of the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. Afterward, numerous colossal paintings were done throughout Europe to celebrate the triumph. Now cut to the play. The Republic of Venice commissions a female painter (of whom some were active in the late Renaissance) for the job. But she doesn’t paint a glorious victory scene. Instead she renders a gory scene depicting the agonies of a melee in which thousands died. The Doge of Venice is outraged. And from there, a story that’s already weird takes unexpected turns. 

Quantum has Lisa Velten Smith playing the painter Galactia, Robert Ramirez as Doge Urgentino, and Andrew William Smith directing a cast of 10. Scenes from an Execution is performed in the Abiding Missions community center in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood. 731 Excelsior St., Allentown. (M.V.) 

DINAH: A MUSICAL REVUE (play with music) by Ernest McCarty. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. April 5 – 28.

Mark Clayton Southers, artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, first produced Ernest McCarty’s Dinah: A Musical Revue in 2015. The play––but let’s call it a show, because the story is propelled by great songs performed by a fluid assembly of great jazz artists––was a big hit. And it featured Delana Flowers as Dinah Washington, the acclaimed “Queen of the Blues,” Cheryl El-Walker as LaRue Mann, and Les Howard as singer-songwriter Brook Benton. All three actor/performers return in this year’s revival. McCarty became a Pittsburgh transplant in 1993 when he moved here from New York and became artistic director of New Horizon Theater the following year. A bassist and composer who, for five years accompanied Pittsburgh’s own Errol Garner, McCarty has written (or co-written) more than 25 plays and revues. Dinah, now revived, will see new life and seek higher acclaim with some of Pittsburgh’s greatest jazz artists live onstage, including Dwayne Dolphin, Tony Campbell, Dwayne Fulton and the incomparable Roger Humphries. Get ready for an evening of nostalgia, blues, and rollicking performances in Pittsburgh Playwrights’ newest theater featuring the intimacy of a nightclub complete with cabaret tables and cocktail lights. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company at the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee St., Schenley Heights. (C.P.O.)

SPRING MIX (ballet and dance) by George Balanchine, Jae Man Joo, Yoshiaki Nakano, and Helen Pickett, with music by Tchaikovsky, Glass, Newman, and Bruch. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.  April 5 – 7.

Heralding the promise of warmer days and brighter skies, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is staging a spring feast of the brightest and most breathtaking dances of some of the world’s greatest choreographers. Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante briskly syncs with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The piece runs just 13 minutes but Balanchine once said it included everything he knew about classical ballet. Complementing the “tried and true,” PBT artistic director Adam W. McKinney will feature two world premieres. The first is Jae Man Joo’s When Time Stands Still and, following, will be Violin Pas de Deux by PBT Principal Artist and Choreographer-in-Residence Yoshiaki Nakano. The evening’s sparkling repertory program will also include Petal by Helen Pickett, a high energy and brilliant work first experienced with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2008. Friday, April 5 offers a pre-opening audience forum of Spring Mix with choreographer Helen Pickett and répétiteur Zippora Karz. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre at the Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)

THE SHOW OF 1000 TOMORROWS (dance) by Peter Kope and Attack Theatre. April 5 – 13.

Peter Kope, co-founder and artistic director of Attack Theatre, wants to take you to a World’s Fair––no one exposition in particular––but all that have been and may yet to come. World’s fairs were pivotal in human history for introducing new inventions, new styles, and new creative ways to think about our collective future. And, so, The Show of 1000 Tomorrows, his latest dance creation, is ready for boarding at Attack Theatre’s new performance studio. Said Kope of this fluid production of movement and ideas, “In the dream of tomorrow lies a poignant reminder of today, and the power of reflection, hope, and human connection.” Attack Theatre Studios, 212 45th St.t, Lawrenceville.  (C.P.O.)

COMPANY (musical) by Stephen Sondheim. PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh. April 16 – 21

Britney Coleman as Bobbie (center) and the North American Tour of 'Company.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)

Britney Coleman as Bobbie (center) and the North American Tour of ‘Company.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)

Despite a chaotic and crowded social life, the central character in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 hit musical comedy is “all alone.” About to turn 35, Bobby (or Bobbie) is still single. Surrounded by close friends, all of whom are married (or, at least, in long-term relationships), none can seemingly understand why their BFF, who is unquestionably straight, has yet to “take the plunge.” And so, they all come together to throw a special birthday celebration. Company premiered on Broadway with Dean Jones playing the lead, replaced by Larry Kert, then George Chakiris for a national tour, and was restaged over the years until Neil Patrick Harris took the role in a special New York Philharmonic concert production in 2011. In 2018, a remake of the show took London’s West End by storm when (most) all of the roles were gender-swapped, casting Rosalie Craig as Bobbie. Sondheim himself helped rewrite the original book created by George Furth.

Even for all of its clever humor, the joy of experiencing Company, however, is not the story line, but the music. Bobbie’s romantic escapades are played out in multiple vignettes, but each has its own unforgettable show-stopping song. Hits like “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “Someone Is Waiting,” “Another Hundred People,” “Marry Me a Little,” “Side by Side by Side,” “Barcelona,” and “The Ladies Who Lunch” are only to be out-anticipated by Bobbie’s final revelation in the masterful “Being Alive.” See the new touring production of Company as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series at the Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (jukebox musical) by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott. Pittsburgh Musical Theater. April 18 – May 12. 

PMT's 'Million Dollar Quartet features L-R: Collin Yates (Elvis Presley), Taylor Isaac Gray (Jerry Lee Lewis), Jon Rohlf (Carl Perkins), and Allen Law (Johnny Cash).

PMT’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet features L-R: Collin Yates (Elvis Presley), Taylor Isaac Gray (Jerry Lee Lewis), Jon Rohlf (Carl Perkins), and Allen Law (Johnny Cash).

The musical Million Dollar Quartet is set in the 1950s, back when a million was an almost-mythical amount. So it’s fitting that the show dramatizes a day considered legendary in the annals of rock and country music. On December 4, 1956, four rather notable persons happened to show up at Sun Record Studios in Memphis: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. They met; they jammed. Tapes of the impromptu session, lost for years, were eventually found and formed a series of albums. The stage musical (with book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott) followed in 2006. Million Dollar Quartet fictionally re-creates the meeting and interaction of the four greats. It also fictionalizes much of the music they made together. Whereas the tapes caught them harmonizing mostly on country and gospel songs, the musical is heavy on jukebox hits of the period: “Hound Dog” by Presley, Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” etc. But hey, this isn’t history class; it’s show time. Pittsburgh Musical Theater stages Million Dollar Quartet in the company’s Gargaro Theater. 327 S. Main St., West End. (M.V.)

ANDY WARHOL IN IRAN by Brent Askari. City Theatre. April 20 – May 12.

Jeffrey Emerson portrays Andy Warhol in City Theatre's 'Andy Warhol in Iran' which is based on a true story.

Jeffrey Emerson portrays Andy Warhol in City Theatre’s ‘Andy Warhol in Iran’ which is based on a true story.

Internationally famous for his silkscreen portraits of Chairman Mao, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland and Vladimir Lenin, among other icons of world politics, Andy Warhol actually visited Tehran in 1976. Accompanied by Bob Colacello, editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine, he was summoned by the Iranian Ambassador to the United States to take a Polaroid “sketch” of the Shah’s wife, Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi. Brent Askari’s play about the artist’s visit, however, takes very purposeful liberties in staging the briefly historic event that preceded the Iranian Revolution just three years later.  In Askari’s two-character, one-hotel-room drama, Warhol is confronted by a young revolutionary who intends to entrap the pop icon in a scheme to foil the Shah’s political indifferences. Of course, this isn’t a mere kidnapping caper; the plot sets up a platform on which is illustrated (both visually and verbally) a worldly debate on the relevance of artistic freedom, social aims, geopolitical wealth and the rights of the populace. Of several 2023 productions, called it “a taut tale of suspense,” and WTTW, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, said “If you see only one play this season…,” while the Berkshire Valley Advocate exclaimed Andy Warhol in Iran “ is “a study in contrasts with life-and-death stakes.” At City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side. (C.P.O.)

JERSEY BOYS (jukebox musical) by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by The Four Seasons. Stage Right! April 26 – 27. 

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? See Jersey Boys presented by Stage Right! of Greensburg. The show runs for two evenings with a matinee in between at The Palace Theatre. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. (M.V.) 

THE PASSION OF MARY CARDWELL DAWSON (play with music) by Sandra Seaton. Pittsburgh Opera. April 27 – May 5.

Mary Cardwell was born in North Carolina but grew up as a child in Munhall, graduating from Homestead High School in or around 1912. A chorister at the historic Park Place A.M.E. Church, she earned the opportunity to attend the New England Conservatory of Music where, between classes in voice and piano, she helped pay her tuition by working in a dentist’s office. The only Black graduate of her class in 1925, she returned to Pittsburgh and, with her young husband, Walter Dawson, opened the Cardwell School of Music at 7101 Apple Street in Homewood, where, by 1941, she organized the first assembly of the National Negro Opera Company. Three more companies would start up in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Her artistic vision and directorial talents were first recognized by a predominantly white audience only when her company performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1956. Hers was the first opera company to perform on the Met’s stage other than their own.

The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson is a play with music celebrating the struggles and achievements of Pittsburgh’s most renowned operatic impresario. But, rather than portraying a sweeping saga of her illustrious career, the play by Sandra Seaton, centers around a singular event. In 1943, while scheduled to perform on a floating barge to evade local segregation laws, “Madama” Cardwell and her company are threatened by consequences far more destructive than the impending storm overhead. With selections from Bizet’s Carmen and additional music by Carlos Simon, The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson is based on a true story about a true Pittsburgher. Pittsburgh Opera features actor/soprano Alyson Cambridge in the title role. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District. (C.P.O.)

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (rock opera) by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Touring company at Benedum Center. April 30 – May 1. 

When Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in 1971, it marked the converging of several new trends in rock music and theater—a convergence that ran partly through Pittsburgh. One trend was the notion that rock and Christian themes could go together. Christian rock was still a radical idea, as songs like “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” (from California rocker/evangelist Larry Norman) expressed the sentiment but didn’t chart. Meanwhile, The Who’s 1969 Tommy showed that a concept album with a narrative thread could be staged as a “rock opera.” At Carnegie Mellon in 1970, drama student John-Michael Tebelak and his mates presented the initial version of Tebelak’s Godspell—a standard musical in format, but featuring Jesus himself as a character. And by that time, two young British guys were putting the various pieces together. Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice released Jesus Christ Superstar as a concept album in 1970. Then they fleshed it out for a live U.S. tour. It premiered here in Pittsburgh—at the now-gone Civic Arena, in July of 1971—before a fully developed Broadway production went up later that year.   

Superstar added bold new twists of its own. This rock opera put Judas at the center of a fictionalized drama depicting personal and political tensions among Jesus, his followers, and the authorities of their era. The show was a shocker in ‘71. It won no Tony Awards. But it has been playing worldwide ever since. Now, the prize-winning revival produced by Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre of London is on tour. This production of Jesus Christ Superstar plays in Pittsburgh for two nights only. See it at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)


THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Jenny Koons. Pittsburgh Public Theater. Through April 14. 

Oscar Wilde’s funniest play was his last. The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in London in 1895, just as the controversy that ruined Wilde’s career was coming to a boil: He was in a same-sex love affair with the son of an English nobleman who objected mightily. Although Earnest is popular for its sheer silliness, it may contain sly allusions to Wilde’s real-life predicament. The central character is a man who enjoys having a secret identity, and wants to marry the—ahem—daughter of Lady Bracknell, an upper-crusty English noblewoman. Earnest was a hit when it opened, for its clever twitting of the era’s social conventions, and has aged well due to its nonstop flow of ditzy dialogue in absurd situations. You’ve got to love a play with lines like “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” Pittsburgh Public Theater presents The Importance of Being Earnest in an adaptation by New York-based theater artist Jenny Koons, who also directs. In the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (M.V.)

Other Shows of Interest:
(By opening date)

Friday, April 12
Khūrākī (Real Time Arts)

Thursday, April 18
Appis (New Hazlett CSA) 

Saturday, April 20,
Makom (Vertigo Dance Company)

Friday, April 26
Footloose (Lincoln Park)  

University Theater
In addition to Pittsburgh’s professional theater companies we have many outstanding university theater programs as well. Check their box office pages for what’s onstage:

Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama
Duquesne University Red Masquers
Point Park University’s Playhouse
University of Pittsburgh Department of Theatre Arts

Big Shows on the Horizon:
(By opening date)

May 7
The Kite Runner (PNC Broadway)

May 17
Cinderella (Pittsburgh Ballet Theater)

May 29
The Coffin Maker (Pittsburgh Public Theatre)

May 31
Fishy Woo Woo (Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater)

C. Prentiss Orr is a Pittsburgh-based writer who covers theater and other topics for Entertainment Central. He is the author of the books The Surveyor and the Silversmith and Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred.

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