Theater Preview For the New Year: Resolve to See More—in January and Beyond

It's all green light in Emerald City when the remake of "The Wizard of Oz" visits the Steel City. And should you want wizardry newer than Oz, there's plenty of that scheduled for Pittsburgh stages too.

It’s all green light in the Emerald City when the remake of “The Wizard of Oz” visits the Steel City. And should you want wizardry newer than Oz, there’s plenty of that scheduled for local stages too.

Here are three and a half reasons to see more live theater in Pittsburgh during the year to come:

(1) There’s nothing like the power of a live performance. Music fans understand this completely. They flock to concerts and clubs, even though lots of music—including music by the very artists who are appearing live—is available in recorded formats, music videos, concert films, and so forth. Yet many of the same people haven’t been to a play since the high school musical. The only drama and comedy they see is projected secondhand on a screen. Do they know what they’re missing?

(2) Live theater offers “content” that will not be found elsewhere. The notion that every worthwhile story gets made into a movie or turns up somewhere on the Internet is false. One cannot, for instance, be a proper connoisseur of modern dark comedy without seeing the stuff that Stephen Adly Guirgis writes, and three of his plays have been staged by Pittsburgh companies recently while not one has yet made it to the screen. Maybe you’ve seen Tom Lenk in TV episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but seeing him in the hilarious (and moving) one-man play Buyer & Cellar at Pittsburgh Public Theater this year was a trip beyond Joss Whedon-land.

This was the Apollo moon shot lifting off. "Some Brighter Distance," a new play about the dark side of the mission, lifts off in Pittsburgh.

This was the Apollo 11 moon shot lifting off. “Some Brighter Distance,” a new play about a dark side of the mission, lifts off in Pittsburgh.

Other absolute knockouts seen recently on live stages in Pittsburgh, but not in any multiplex, include Nina Raine’s Tribes, plays by old masters like Ibsen and new masters like Martin McDonagh (who, in a movie excursion, wrote and directed In Bruges), and more.

Upcoming on various stages in the first half of 2016 are a couple of exceptional musicals—Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins (more chilling than Into the Woods but never filmed), at Stage 62, and The Drowsy Chaperone (a wonderful multiple-Tony winner, also never filmed) at Point Park Conservatory Theatre—plus a number of great straight plays, and again, much more.

(3) Even the special effects are better live. As impressive as it is, CGI does not compare to the illusions created in theater. An example that’s hard to forget was the gruesome stunt pulled off by No Name Players in their surreal Shakespeare adaptation Fixing King John. After a battle scene, a character strolled onstage pushing a loaded shopping cart. The item on top of the pile was his opponent’s severed head—and it surely looked like the real head. (Later, once the horror subsided, you might guess that the actor had his body tucked out of sight down in the cart.)

Simple trick. Profoundly effective. There are thousands more, which range from shocking to subtly enchanting. Theater companies have been learning these tricks for centuries.

(3.5) Live theater is a relatively cheap ticket. Cheaper than a Netflix subscription? No. But cheaper than a major concert or sports event? The answer goes from “usually” to “definitely, ‘way cheaper” depending on what you see at which venue. Also, theater tickets are often priced flexibly. You may save even more by going to a preview performance, a weeknight show or a matinee—or on the pay-what-you-want nights now offered for some plays. (We’ll alert you to them here at Entertainment Central).

And, at most live theater venues in Pittsburgh, you sit much closer to the action for your money than you would at a big concert or game. No jumbo video is needed. It’s just the power of a live performance … done by real people creating worlds beyond the ordinary, right before your eyes in real time and space.

What’s up in January

The period from late December to mid-January is like halftime or intermission for local theater companies. While few shows are actually performed during this spell, the troupes are re-booting behind the scenes, and the schedule ramps back up to full steam starting later in the month.

Plays coming in January include a world premiere (Some Brighter Distance, about ex-Nazis and outer space) and a U.S. premiere (Ciara, about art, crime, and love). Also of interest are some radically new musical versions of old standards. There’s a remake of The Wizard of Oz, a modern opera based on the proto-feminist novel Little Women, and the South African dance piece Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake.

… Or, if you prefer your old standards un-tampered with, try one that literally set a standard for many musicals to follow. Guys and Dolls is back! Shows are previewed below in order of run dates.

ALTAR BOYZ (musical) by Gary Adler, Michael Patrick Walker, and Kevin Del Aguila. Through Jan. 10, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Musical satire continues to reign at Pittsburgh CLO’s Cabaret theater, where the ongoing run of Altar Boyz has been extended into early January. This comedy is a cheerfully irreverent send-up of two popular trends: boy bands and Christian-themed music. The fictional Altar Boyz of the title are a group with members named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham (he’s Jewish). Song-and-dance bits like “Church Rulez” and the hip-hop “Miracle Song” stop short of the outrageousness seen in The Book of Mormon but are quite rousing. The original off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz ran for five years, from 2005-10, and it has become a staple of regional theaters and fringe festivals worldwide. CLO Cabaret, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (musical) adapted by Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Jeremy Sams from the 1939 movie based on L. Frank Baum’s novel. Jan. 6-11, North American touring company at Heinz Hall.

Update alert: If you haven’t heard “Red Shoes Blues” (above), you are missing the latest version of The Wizard of Oz. The song is one of the new numbers added by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber when they teamed with director Jeremy Sams to re-conceive the classic movie as a stage musical. Their Wizard premiered in London in 2011, and now the North American touring production is booked into Heinz Hall. The show also includes the songs that Judy Garland and company made famous in the 1939 film— “Over the Rainbow,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Heart,” etc.—and, like the film, the new musical stays close to the plot of L. Frank Baum’s original children’s novel. Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. Since then the Oz story has been adapted into plays, movies, and other media in languages from Turkish to Japanese. It has been animated, Motowned, and Muppeted. This is your chance to see it Riced and Webbered. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

SOME BRIGHTER DISTANCE by Keith Reddin. Jan. 23 – Feb. 14, City Theatre.

At the end of World War II, a U.S. intelligence program called Operation Paperclip tracked down large numbers of German scientists and engineers. In the Nazi regime they had built the V-2 rockets that were launched against London and other Allied cities. These men were brought to the United States, where they led the design of new American rockets—first for the country’s nuclear arsenal, then for the Apollo space flights. A new play about this strange turn of events is making its world premiere at City Theatre. Some Brighter Distance is by Keith Reddin, a playwright known for dealing with moral ironies and paradoxes. Here he focuses on the story of engineer Arthur Rudolph, who became a fervid American citizen and a director of the Apollo projects, but later was forced to leave the country when controversy arose over his possible connection to Nazi-era war crimes. Rudolph’s famous colleague Wernher Von Braun is also a character in Some Brighter Distance. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

Corrie Stallings is Jo in "Little Women" and she plays it big.

Corrie Stallings is Jo in “Little Women” and she plays it big.

LITTLE WOMEN (opera) by Mark Adamo, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s novel. Jan. 23-31, Pittsburgh Opera.

The quest for women’s rights has been a long one, stretching back to the suffrage and social-reform movements of the 1800s. Pittsburgh Opera is staging a production that captures the emerging spirit of that time: Little Women, based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. The opera is a modern one, by Mark Adamo. It has been performed worldwide since its 1998 premiere and it is sung in English, with the text projected above the stage for extra clarity.

Little Women raises early feminist themes by telling a personal story laced with sharp humor. The heroine, Jo March, is a fiercely independent young woman who eventually settles in to marry and raise a family—but she does it on her own terms, choosing an unlikely husband while keeping her dreams of a broader career alive. Pittsburgh Opera has mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings as Jo. At the CAPA Theater, 111 9th St., Cultural District.

CIARA by David Harrower. Jan. 27 – Feb. 14, Quantum Theatre.

Every so often, in its forays into the unusual, Quantum Theatre presents a play that sets out to conduct a sweeping exploration of all aspects of the human condition, or at least a lot of them. Mnemonic (performed in 2013) was one such play and Ciara is another. But whereas Mnemonic took you on a whirlwind tour of the history and mysteries of Western civilization, with parallel plots unfolding across Europe while actors hopped between multiple roles, Ciara offers a different kind of journey. This new piece by Scottish playwright David Harrower is a one-person, one-location play. The title character is a middle-aged woman who owns an art gallery. Her late father was a mobster, head of a criminal enterprise now run by her husband. At the gallery, Ciara is exhibiting an artist who ignites her passion, in more ways than one. And as she reminisces and rambles, she reveals a life in which art, crime, love, drugs, violence, and high and low society all come together, or maybe apart. Ciara was a sensation at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2013. Quantum is giving the play its U.S. premiere with Mary Rawson as Ciara. Set designers include noted Pittsburgh painter Robert Qualters and filmmaker Joe Seamans. At Javo Studios, 5137 Holmes St., Lawrenceville.

GUYS AND DOLLS (musical) by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows. Jan. 28 – Feb. 28, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Most seasons at Pittsburgh Public Theater include a musical, and this year’s choice is among the most storied—literally—of all time. Guys and Dolls was adapted from short stories by Damon Runyon, who had enthralled millions of readers with his bizarre tall tales about gamblers and grifters in the New York underworld of the 1920s and ‘30s. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1950, was hailed for artfully translating Runyon’s colorful style and sly humor to the stage. It received five major Tony Awards including Best Musical. The 1955 movie version won no Oscars, but won a place in show-biz lore because of the actor cast in the lead: Guys and Dolls was Marlon Brando’s only musical. (As the video above illustrates, he “acted” his songs more than actually singing them.)

Guys and Dolls has been re-staged many times since the 1950s. The plot revolves around a gambler taking a bet that he can woo a beautiful but chaste woman who is out to save souls as a street-corner evangelist. Of the songs, only “Luck Be a Lady” became popular separate from the show—but the songs weren’t written to be stand-alone hits. One reason Guys and Dolls has been called a “perfect” musical is that the music and story work together so well. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

MOTHER LODE by Virginia Wall Gruenert. Jan. 28-31, off the WALL Productions.

Virginia Wall Gruenert has made her mark in Pittsburgh’s theater scene as the founding artistic director of off the WALL Productions, which highlights plays by and about women. She also writes a few herself, and the company swings back into action after the holiday break with a production of Wall Gruenert’s Mother Lode. The play is a one-person drama that delves into mother-daughter relations by depicting how the bonds may be tested, and deepened, at a crucial time—when the elderly mother is at life’s end, and the daughter must reckon with a veritable “mother lode” of feelings and decisions. Linda Haston is the actress. Off the WALL is presenting Mother Lode initially in a short January run of just four performances; the play will be reprised in similar runs during June and August. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

DADA MASILO’S SWAN LAKE (modern dance), adapted from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Jan. 30 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Tchaikovsky couldn’t have seen it coming. When the Russian master composed his ballet Swan Lake in the 1870s, he probably never imagined that a production someday in the future would be advertised with the warning “Contains nudity.” One also doubts that he could have envisioned a Swan Lake enhanced with African drum rhythms, a corps de ballet shouting exuberantly, men dancing in tutus, and the central love theme rewritten as a gay relationship. Yet all this and more can be found in Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake, a new adaptation by the South African choreographer. Along with her original dance pieces, Masilo has done several re-interpretations of existing works, ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. She has said that while the old classics are great, she doesn’t see the need to follow old conventions. Pittsburgh Dance Council is bringing Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake to town at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

Photo credits: The Wizard of Oz, courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust via the touring company. Apollo moon shot, NASA (public domain). Corrie Stallings, courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

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