Saturday, October 22, 2011

"A Chorus Line" from Pittsburgh Playhouse

At it's best, "A Chorus Line" is an actual audition with tension and hunger bubbling just under the surface of the performers while they at first present their smiling faces to the director and then gradually are broken down until we see their true, human selves. At decent, "A Chorus Line" is a nostalgia show of the 70's with great songs and spirited dancing. The production at Pittsburgh Playhouse never quite reaches "A Chorus Line"'s best.

Now let it be known, "A Chorus Line" is a marathon for it's cast. It's almost two solid hours of dancing and singing, with almost all of the characters onstage all the time - and no intermission. However, what should also make it a marathon is the emotional journey these characters, who were developed in workshop with actual 1970's New York dancers, make. The cast, while extremely charismatic, has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer when it comes to crafting actual human beings. Take Sheila, played by Andrea Weinzierl, obviously an audience favorite, but her performance resembles Norma Desmond the entire show and doesn't stop - even after the director yells at her to drop the act and be real.

Unfortunately, that's about the tone for the rest of the cast made up of young Point Park performers. Not that this necessarily makes it a reason to avoid the show; it's still a fun night full of great songs, dancing, etc. There are, of course, stand outs, often found in the supporting roles. Among these are Sarah Meahl as a believably bubbly Judy, and Jordan P. Haskins as a disturbingly charming Bobby. Maggie, played by Sarah Chybrynski, drops audition pretenses for a beautiful solo in "At the Ballet". Richie, Marquis E. Johnson, is amazing in his short solos as he seemlessly connects his voice to the dance. Jessica Ruane as Diana ultimately ends up being the heart of the show with "What I did for love". And finally, Lily Davis as Cassie must be cited for her fine dancing and voice while Jerreme Rodriguez as Paul will have anyone who has ever questioned who they are in tears with his final monologue (and ultimate fate).

The costumes are believable to time period and the individual characters and really tell you something about each one, that goes for hairstyles too. However, Val, played by Nicole Soriano, has a great singing voice, but comes off almost as a demented Shirley Temple with babydoll-blond ringlet pigtails and tits SO fake-looking they are borderline distracting by their immobility through the bounciest of dance numbers. (It's interesting to see Val played for laughs instead of sex, though. Bold choice.)

In theory, the audtioners of "A Chorus Line" are in an empty theatre, playing to an audience of one - who is going to decide whether they have a reason to exist for the next six months or so. However, what may have stopped the cast from reaching the intimacy that comes from playing to an empty house may have been the rather bizarre sound system set up. The stage was miked, but the speakers were behind the audience, making voices, dance steps, etc. sound as though they were coming from the immediate back of the theatre. Also, at a point when Cassie is dancing with her back to the audience for a long period of time, the mirrors she faces are so cloudy, we the audience are completely cut off from the emotion of her face.

Truly bizarre,  but Eponymous begs the question why the stage was miked at all. The main stage of The Pittsburgh Playhouse is not that big considering most proscenioum stages, and there was no live orchestra as far as Eponymous could see (or read in the program). Perhaps the fact that the cast had to keep up with a pre-recorded track lent to the unnaturalness? Either way, the cast all but yells the entire show when they probably don't need to if the music was just turned down for dialogue. Worst of all, in fantastic ensemble numbers like the series of Montages ("Hello, Twelve", "Mother", etc.) great lines are muffled by said mikes and some characters are barely heard at all.

All in all Pittsburgh Playhouse's "A Chorus Line" is a nice night of nostalgia. The audience is invested in the show, and the actors obviously love what they are doing, so most everything else can be forgiven and is.

Pittsburgh Playhouse website -

- Eponymous has a note to other students of Point Park: We know your friends are singing and dancing, but stating their names out loud and "whoo-hooing" in an obnoxious A-flat does not enhance the viewing experience for those sitting next to you...or aid the actors. Simple, rabid hand-clapping will suffice in conveying your overwhelming joy and delight at seeing people you know onstage. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Good Person of Setzuan" from Carnegie-Mellon University

Those hoping for a quiet, inconspicuous night of sitting anonymously in a dark room watching people onstage may be suprised by moments of Carnegie-Mellon University's production of "Good Person of Setzuan" by Bertolt Brecht. The play is the story of Shen Te, a prostitute commisioned by the gods to "be good" and the parasites who latch onto that goodness, sucking it dry for all its worth.

Now, rest assured, Eponymous did homework. Brecht's original play featured actors speaking to the audience and random outbreaks of song, all of which are held true to in this version, albeit modernized and specialized for Pittsburgh audiences. The songs are best when staged naturally, rather than everyone running to the front of the stage for ten bars and then retreating, and when they are used to reveal how desperate the lives of the citizens of Setzuan really are. (i.e."In Our Country" and "The Song of the Day of St. Never To Be") A point which, given the humor of the performances, doesn't really come across when the actors are just talking about how miserable their lives are.

The set looks skeletal, with visible rigging and bare scaffolding so that you never forget you're in a theatre, watching actors - who you can see changing upstage if you're into that sort of thing. Costumes hang on racks in plain sight and seem like they've been lovingly pulled out of several designer dumpsters (shoe enthusiasts will be thrilled throughout). The rag-tag effects, along with the music and use of black underwear, make the overall effect "The Beggar's Opera" meets "Cabaret"/"Chicago". Video elements are used sporadically and beg the question, "Does it really amplify the message of the play to have close-ups of the actors on screen as they play onstage like a black-and-white movie?" Eponymous says no, but it does look nice.

Spoiler Alert * (If you're not up on your Brecht)

The female/male lead, Shen Te, is played transformatively by Ava DeLuca-Verley. She plays Shen Te, the ex-prostitute, as the picture of soft, do-gooding feminity. On the other hand, her Shui Ta, the "cousin" of Shen Te who appears when dirty work needs to be done, looks like Bob Dylan with the street-smart, masculine energy of Lou Reed, complete with New York Accent. Annie Heise as the perpetually shaky Mrs. Shin is also unforgettable, but the show is such a well-built ensemble show, everyone will have their favorite character/actor, with all characters/actors worthy of being called favorite.

The entire ensemble cast really shows a remarkable talent seldom seen in large theatres. You see, there's a reason most shows do not involve actors instigating a dialogue directly with the audience. The reason is it's flipping hard to do. A bad house gets only silence, which can be unnerving. Or one too-rowdy patron can easily make the whole room shuffle uncomfortably. But, the entire cast gives off the impression of adept control, putting the audience at ease to respond or not. Corey Cott as Wang evokes a young Hugh Jackman and is fortunately just as charming in his daring interactions with the audience.

 The actors radiate freedom onstage, even free to go back after a missed line or comment on a wardrobe malfunction. And this gives the audience freedom to laugh, relax and listen to what could become an unforgiving critique on humanity, but never does - although you probably will find the ending heartbreaking, or disturbing, or hilarious, or some potent combination. - Link to the Carnegie-Mellon School of Drama Box Office

- Eponymous admits a certain bias. After all, Eponymous was President of Carnegie-Mellon University until a coup of belligerent lawn gnomes forced Epony to abdicate and retire to the North Hills of Albuquerque. But, it's all right. There are hot air ballons here.