Archive for December, 2009


Thursday, December 31st, 2009

F. J. Hartland

     It’s the last day of the year and time to reveal my picks for the best theatrical work of 2009.

     It was my pleasure to see nearly fifty shows this year.  I listed my nominees in a previous post–check the archive if you missed them.

     The envelope please…

     BEST FEATURED ACTOR:  With the most nominees of any category, this was a particularly tough decision.  It came down to Doug Mertz’s amazing portrayal of “Roy Cohn” in the University of Pittsburgh’s production of Angels in Americaand the touching performance of Alex Etling as “Alex,” the NYC hustler who falls in love with a movie star in The Little Dog Laughedat Off The Wall.  Mertz was great–but Etling reduced me to tears.  So BEST FEATURED ACTOR goes to Alex Etling.

     BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY:  Jamie Slavinsky was amazing as “Slyphe,” the armless side show freak, in Phase 3’s Swamp Thing.  The things she did without use of her arms was phenomenal.  But after thinking long and hard, the BEST FEATURED CTRESS goes to Joanna Lowe as “Mad Hattie” in Rage of the Stages’s Alice’s Adventure’s in “Wonderland.”  Lowe totally transformed herself in a side-splitting performance.

     BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY:  For my money, Erica Cuenca gave the female performance of the year as “Agnes” in Agnes of God at Off The Wall.  Her schizophrenic performance made me believe she was too innocent to have killed her baby and at the same time had an edge that made me believe she did.

     BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY: This one came down to Joel Ripka’s spellbinding performance in PICT’s Crime and Punishment and David Droxler’s terrifying “Baby” in The Rep’s Mojo.  Both played insanity, but in a photo finish I’m going with Droxler’s sexy sociopath for BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY.

     BEST SCENIC DESIGN:  All the nominees created sets that propelled me into the world’s of their respective plays, but Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s design for Bricolage’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom that also embodied the theme of the script.

     BEST DIRECTOR: Kim Martin did exceptional work with The Rep’s Mojo, but Matt M. Morrow really knocked me out with Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom at Bricolage, so the nod goes to him.

     BEST PRODUCTION:  I went into the theatre sure I was going to hate it–but Bricolage proved me wrong.  I LOVED Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom.  And I hate video games–but this show WOWED me!

     There you have it.  I am looking forward to another great year of theatre in 2010.

      Happy New Year!



Wednesday, December 30th, 2009


F. J. Hartland 

           It’s splashy…it’s spectacular…it’s Dreamgirls, the “fictionalized” story of a girl group from its humble beginnings in the 1960’s through it’s rise and fall in the 1970’s.

            The group is The Dreams with its lead singer Deena Jones (read “Diana Ross and the Supremes), and it makes for one amazing show.

            Now re-vamped with new choreography, music from the successful film adaptation and computer technology, it remains true to the theme of what lengths some people will go to on the way to reaching their dreams.

            Shane Sparks has done a superb job updating the original Michael Bennett choreography.  The new set stays true to designer Robin Wagner’s concept of moving towers of lights.  William Ivey Long’s costumes are even more glamorous than in the original Broadway production (which I saw—as a baby in my mother’s arms.  Right.)  Rivaling the beauty of the costumes are the lightning-swift costume changes from one sparkling gown to the next!

            Syesha Mercado does a magnificent job as Deena—making a most believable transition from innocent back-up singer to superstar.  She is probably at her best n the powerful duet “Listen” (which was lifted from the film).

            I have seen Dreamgirls several time—but this was the first occasion that I really liked James “Thunder” Early, a wild and crazy James Brown-type performer.  Chester Gregory is an amazing singer and gymnastic dancer.  He is a true show man—working the audience with every note and move.

           Adrienne Warren brings humor to the show in the role of “Lorelle.”  She, too, does a fine job—but during some of her numbers, it is difficult to understand what she is saying.

            Handsome Trevon David plays songwriter C.C. White with fire and compassion.

            But “the” role in Dreamgirls is that of Effie, the lead singer who loses not only the spotlight—but her man as well.  Jennifer Holliday became a Tony Award-winning Broadway star in the original production, and Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for the film…and Moya Angela easily fills the shoes of her predecessors.  She embodies “attitude” and is a vocal powerful who brings the audience to its feet during the searing “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going.”  Bravo, Moya!

          Why doesn’t Act One just end on that emotional note?  No, there is an anticlimactic cross-over scene that dilutes all that raw emotion.

            The production is far from perfect.  Some actors insist on upstaging either themselves or their fellow performers.  (Come on, people…that’s like from Basic Acting 101)

            Chaz Lamar Shepherd is rather flat as con-man agent Curtis Taylor, Jr.

            Sound is a major problem.  I do not know if the fault belongs to Heinz Hall or this particularly production.  The opening five minutes of the show are muffled and quite difficult to understand.  There were horrible malfunctions during the “Dreamgirls” number.  And frequently Syesha Mercado’s microphone was turned off.

            Very bright lights are often turned into the auditorium—causing many patrons in the rows in front of me to shield their eyes with their programs.

            Act One tumbles seamlessly from scene to scene.  Act Two does not flow as well. 

           But overall, this is a visually stunning production with several key performances not to be missed!

            Dreamgirls continues through January 3.



Sunday, December 27th, 2009

BEST OF 2009

F. J. Hartland 

           As 2009 draws to a close, it seems there are “Best of…” lists everywhere.

            OUT has been reviewing theatre at its online website since the spring, so this will be our first list of theatrical achievements for 2009.

            Of course, we were unable to cover every theatre production in Pittsburgh.  I am only one person…and we got a late start.  But I think we have a fairly comprehensive—and impressive—list.

            Sixteen theatre companies received nominations.  Off The Wall and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (PICT) lead with most nominations at five.  CLO had four.  Bricolage, The Rep, Point Park and no name tied with three.  With two nominations were Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre (PPTCO), Rage of the Stage, Quantum and the Pittsburgh Public.  City Theatre, barebones, Open Stage, Phase 3 and the University of Pittsburgh each scored one nomination.

            Congratulations, not only to the following nominees—but to everyone who kept theatre alive and vibrant in Pittsburgh in 2009!Check back on December 31 for the list of winners!  BEST FEATURED ACTOR

Kevin Brown as “Obadiah Fields” in Il Napolti (PPTCO)

Blake Bashoff as “Moritz” in Spring Awakening (CLO)

Sean Michael Gallaher as “The Pimp” in Alice’s Adventures in “Wonderland” (Rage of the Stage)

Jason Martin as “John Bell” in 36 Views (Quantum)

Alex Etling as “Alex” in The Little Dog Laughed (Off The Wall)

Doug Mertz as “Roy Cohn” Angels in America (University of Pittsburgh)

Sam Trussell as “Nicholas” in What the Butler Saw (PICT) BEST FEATURED ACTRESS

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as “Fantine” in Les Miserables (CLO)

Jamie Slavinsky as “Sylphe” in Swamp Baby (Phase 3 Productions)

Joanna Lowe as “Mad Hattie” in Alice’s Adventures in “Wonderland” (Rage of the Stage)

Tami Dixon as “Lenka” in Rock-N-Roll (PICT)

Shammen McCune as “Claire” in 36 Views (Quantum)

Jen Cody as “Little Red Riding Hood” in Into the Woods (CLO)  BEST ACTRESS

Erica Cuenca as “Agnes” in Agnes of God (Off The Wall)

Rachel Downie as “Diane” in The Little Dog Laughed (Off The Wall)

Tressa Glover as “Alice” in Breaking Up (no name productions)

Tina Fabrique as “Ella” in Ella (Pittsburgh Public)

Sharon Brady as “Auggie” in Disinfecting Edwin (Open Stage) BEST ACTOR

Christopher McLinden as “Yasen” in Speak American (City Theatre)

David Droxler as “Baby” in Mojo (The Rep)

Jody O’Donnell as “Steve” in Breaking Up (no name productions)

Joel Ripka as “Raskolnikov”  in Crime and Punishment (PICT)

Patrick Jordan as “Richard Roma” in Glengarry Glenn Ross (barebones)  BEST SET DESIGN

Paul A. Shaw for Agnes of God (Off The Wall)

James Noone for The Little Foxes (Public Theatre)

Stephanie Mayer-Staley for Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (Bricolage)

Gianni Downs for Rocky Horror Picture Show (Point Park University)

Mark Clayton Southers for Seven Guitars (PPTCO) BEST DIRECTOR

Kim Martin for Mojo (The Rep)

Scott Wise for Rocky Horror Picture Show (Point Park)

Matt M. Morrow for Neighborhood 3:  Requisition of Doom (Bricolage)

Don DiGiulio for Breaking Up (no name)

Jeffrey M. Cordell for Doubt (PICT)  BEST PRODUCTION

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (Bricolage)

Spring Awakening (CLO)

Rocky Horror Picture Show (Point Park)

Doubt (Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre)

The Little Dog Laughed (Off The Wall)

Mojo (The Rep)


Monday, December 14th, 2009


F. J. Hartland

More than anything, Mitchell wants to be a Hollywood star.  With the help of his maniacal agent Diane, nothing is standing in his way.

Nothing that is except a slight re-occurring case of homosexuality.

Mitchell does the unthinkable. He falls in love with a hustler named Alex—and Mitchell is prepared to “come out” and live openly with Alex.

Trouble is, Diane won’t allow it.

This is the basis of The Little Dog Laughed a stinging comedy by Douglas Carter Bean, the current offering at Off The Wall Theatre in Washington PA.

And it’s a production not to be missed.

Chad McWreath is funny and charming as Mitchell.  And while he plays the humor well, McWreath also captures the pain Mitchell suffers as he is torn about his sexuality and the choices he must make for his career.

As the hustler Alex, Alex Etling makes a seamless transition from jaded rent boy to vulnerable lover.  And it’s this transition from being a wolf to being a sheep that will break your heart at the end of The Little Dog Laughed.

The scenes where Mitchell and Alex are afraid to admit their feelings for each other and tentative and beautifully nuanced—and McWreath and Etling dance this dance on eggshells to perfection.

It also helps that Etling often removes his clothes and that alone is well-worth seeing!

As the ball-busting agent Diane, Rachel Downie is brutal.  She captures the master manipulator in such a way that you hate Diane—and yet you must somehow admire her total understanding of what makes people tick.  Downie is kicking ass and taking names as Diane.  It is also Diane’s masterful manipulation that brings about the surprise conclusion to the play.

Lauren Michaels plays Alex’s sometime girlfriend Ellen.  Ellen is a kind of lost-soul who hides her vulnerability under the veneer of a tough New York City party girl.  Michaels does a splendid job—especially in the scenes where she talks directly to the audience.           

Overall, director Michael Moats keeps The Little Dog Laughed moving at a good pace, but one wishes he had done move within the individual scenes in terms of movement.  He has managed to get excellent performances from all four cast members.           

 Paul A. Shaw’s set has a beautiful color palette and is very eye-catching.  Again, he makes the most of the small stage at Off The Wall and is mindful of all the little details.           

The Little Dog Laughed really has it all…laugh-out-loud humor, serious drama, colorful characters, powerful performances and an ending that will take you by surprise—and maybe reduce you to tears.           

 Off The Wall has done it again!  Bravo!

The Little Dog Laughed continues through December 19.  It’s well-worth the drive to Washington PA!


Sunday, December 13th, 2009


F. J. Hartland

Neil Sedaka sang, “Breaking up is hard to do.”  Although he wasn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know.  Everyone has been through the torment of a break-up, right?

Likewise the current No Name production of Michael Cristofer’s Breaking Up doesn’t shed any new light on breaking up.  But it is an entertaining ninety minutes with two engaging performers.

Director Don DiGiulio has cleverly added two elements to the stage production.The first are film clips of the couple “Alice” (played by Tressa Glover) and “Steve” (played by Jody O’Donnell) in happier days.  The juxtaposition of this as the backdrop of the “break up” creates a bittersweet feeling.  (Oddly enough, I don’t think either character ever calls the other by name—perhaps this is at the heart of their break-up?)

Second, DiGuilio enlisted the participation of eleven local artists to create an artwork based on each scene from Breaking Up.  The art work is on display in the lobby; it is also projected behind each scene.  While I didn’t always see the connection between each canvas and its scene, the artwork is attractive and appealing.

DiGiulio also keeps the play running at a brisk pace, never allowing the action to drag.

At the heart of Breaking Up are the two performers.Glover and O’Donnell have wonderful chemistry and create two characters who are flawed—but likeable.  Some of their best moments occur in their solo scenes.  Breaking Up is peppered with telephone calls.  While it’s a one-sided dialogue, it is a credit to Glover and O’Donnell that I seem to be able to actually hear the unheard side of the conversations.O’Donnell’s best moment, however, is when he asks Glover to “give him a minute” before she walks out for the final time.  No words are spoken, but O’Donnell’s face speaks volumes.

Nick Coppula’s simple set works well and also helps the pace of the show.  It also functions well in the intimate Bricolage space.

Breaking Up is not a great script.  In fact, it pales in comparison with Cristofer’s Pultizer Prize winning The Shadow Box.  And if it were any longer—or had DiGuilio allowed the pace o slow—it would be much less effective.

Breaking Up continues through December 19.


Sunday, December 6th, 2009


F.J. Hartland

When entering the Charity Randall Theatre for the current production of Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre, there appears to be three full trash bags of garbage on the stage.  A pitch to remind us to re-cycle? 

No, there are supposed to be rocks. 

They are—without a doubt–the phoniest looking rocks I have ever seen.

Behind them are trees.  In the trees are the opening lines of the classic novel Jane Eyre where Jane describes how it is too cold and wet to walk outside.

And yet that’s where PICT has deemed fit to set Jane Eyre—outside.  The trees become doors, and the rocks are furniture.  People sit on them, have tea on them, sleep on them—even die on them.

In the laboriously long Act One, there was really only one (okay, maybe two) scenes set out-of-doors.

So between the lengthy narrative sequences and scenes where people stand and talk…and talk…and talk, I began to ponder why these proper English people are taking tea by a fireplace while sitting on rocks?  (And rocks that aren’t all that convincing as rocks—have I mentioned that?)

Is it because Jane’s life is so rocky?  Is it because life is so rocky?  Does somebody at PICT really like Sylvester Stallone as Rocky?  Rocky road ice cream?  Martinis-on-the-rocks?  Who knows?  Perhaps I can get someone older and wiser (perhaps my fellow theatre reviewer Ted Hoover?) to explain it to me.

Normally, I am a champion of Gianni Downs’ sets.  This time, no.

Jane Eyre is a classic—beloved by millions.  I hope the millions who aren’t familiar with the novel don’t walk away from this PICT production thinking—why do those other millions of people think this crashing bore is a classic?

The musical underscoring (by Douglas Levine and Mary Beth Malek) is lovely and helps to relieve some of the tedium.  So does Kate Young’s charming and delightful performance as the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax.

One of the things that Jane and Eyre and the character of Mr. Rochester have in common is that they are both to be somewhat plain.

Naturally, PICT casts the dashingly handsome David Whalen to play Edward Rochester.  The attempt to make Whalen “plain” is to put him in a hair piece that looks like a first cousin to a Halloween fright wig.  Now I know why Mr. Rochester is always in such a surly mood.  He’s suffering from a lifetime of “bad hair days”!

Whalen also plays the part rather like a buffoon—which also seems does not seem in keeping with the novel.

Three women play Jane throughout the various stages of her life:  Shelley Delaney, Jenna Lanz, and Allison McLemore.  It was akin to watching the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There where several Hollywood stars play the singer.  At times this technique works in Jane Eyre; at times, it doesn’t.

The highlight of Act One is when Rochester and Jane confess their feelings for each other.  At this moment, sparks really fly between McLemore and Whalen.

Other highly talented Pittsburgh actors like Joel Ripka and Lisa Ann Goldsmith are wasted on minor roles.

Catherine Moore plays several characters: most notably, the beautiful rival for Mr. Rochester’s affections, Grace Poole.  For some unknown reason, costumer Diane Kubasak Collins has chosen to make poor Ms. Moore look like a drag queen.  The character of Poole is introduced to the audience during a most peculiar period piece dance.  I was torn between 1) watching the odd (and l-o-n-g) dance or 2) trying to ascertain the real gender of Grace Poole!

Now THAT would have been a plot twist!

To the credit of director Scott Wise, there are some lovely stage pictures.  But at two-and-one-half-hours, this production drags on too long.

I will admit, it’s more than two decades since I’ve read Jane Eyre. I wish I’d stayed home and done that instead…while drinking an old fashioned (on the rocks)!

Jane Eyre continues through December 20.