Point Park University brings a delightful mix of Cole Porter and William Shakespeare to their final season at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland with the backstage musical Kiss Me, Kate. Winner of the first-ever Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, Kiss Me, Kate takes place during the production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Tensions mount when the egotistical leading man, director, and producer Fred Graham (Jeremy Spoljarick) is forced to play opposite with his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Katie Weinstein). As much as they hate, they appear to be still in love with each other. One could initially fault that notion, as Graham, has more than his eyes on Lois Lane (Hailie Lucille). She, however, is “So in Love” with her gambling boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Kurt Kemper). Lilli is also engaged to General Harrison Howell (Pierre Mballa) who promises to take her away from all the fame and adoration that comes from a life as a famous actress in theatre and the movies. Bill is late to the rehearsal, as he has been out gambling and lost ten grand. In order to leave the game, Bill signs a marker in Fred’s name for the balance due! Just before the opening curtain of opening night, two loveable gangsters (Kevin Gilmond and Beau Bradshaw) show up in Fred Graham’s dressing room to collect the dough. While this is going on, “the show must go on”. Taming of the Shrew is an old story. The oldest unpleasant daughter (Lilli Vanessi) must marry before the sweet younger sibling (Lois Lane) can wed. This musical Shrew shares the same similarity as Romeo and Juliet does to West Side Story. Kiss Me, Kate is the winning combination the irreverent humor of two brilliant writers: Cole Porter and William Shakespeare. As with any Porter musical, the show’s tunes send you home humming and include the “So In Love,” “Wunderbar,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “I Hate Men,” “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” and “Another Op’nin, Another Show.” Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein seemed to be in a bit of a competition in their day, each creating shows with the newest techniques. R&H developed the integrated musical, Oklahoma. where the songs were actually connected to the script. Kiss Me, Kate was Porter’s response. It proved to be so popular that it won the first Tony Award for best musical and was the only Porter show to run for over one thousand performances in its first presentation on Broadway. The real story here, however, is this production by the Conservatory Theatre of Point Park University. It is practically perfect in every way. If you went into the Rockwell Theatre thinking you were going to see a college level production with mostly undergraduates, that conception goes out the window within the first couple of numbers. This is first-class musical theatre in every way. Point Park has fact-based a reputation for producing “triple threats” actors who can brilliantly act, sing and dance. This show only further reinforces that reputation. Lucille, Weinstein, Kemper, and Spoljarick have strong voices and can belt with the best hitting and sustaining those high notes. Lucille’s Lois Lane shows off her dancing skills as well in the fun numbers “Tom, Dick or Harry” and “Always True to You in My Fashion”. There isn’t a single number that the four leads perform that leaves you feeling it could be any better than this. A special kudo to Jordan McMillan who plays Lois Lane’s assistant Hattie, she gets the signature “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” number and delivers to the cheers of the audience. Mel Holley’s vocals and Gabe Reed Saxophone skills in “Too Darn Hot” put the second act opener over the top. Just when you think it can’t get any better or funnier, the two gangsters, who have developed their own love of theatre, deliver a comedy gem in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. Director and Choreographer Zeva Barzell has executed a brilliantly crafted unified production that really brings the skills and talents of her cast to the forefront. The entire ensemble of singers and dancers cannot go without mention, each had a fully develop and realized character, no one was lost or just going through the motions here. Musical Director Camille Rolla brought out the best in the singers as well as ten other musicians in the on-stage pit. I mentioned a “unified production” early where all the elements of design fit seamlessly into and support the director’s vision. Barzell shows off the skills of Pittsburgh’s designers. Johnmichael Bohach has created a multilayered set, beautifully detailed in the theatre’s backstage area and suitably stylized for the Taming of the Shrew scenes. Bohach has a very long list of design credits and you can see why. Andrew David Ostrowski reprises his role as Pittsburgh’s busiest Lighting Designer enhancing Bohach’s design and sculpting the dancers with light. Steve Shapiro helms Sound Design for his eighth season which settled into a nearly invisible mix and a very realistic siren sound accompanying the General’s arrival. This show has a lot of costumes as characters have their streetwear, rehearsal clothes- and Shrew costumes. Veteran Point Park Costume Designer Cathleen-Crocker Perry misses no detail in any character’s costumes, the women’s gowns are gorgeous and the state of undress in “Too Darn Hot” conveys the double entendre beautifully. Kudos as well to the Stage Managers and run-crew, opening night as spot on. Point Park moves its theatre companies downtown to their new Pittsburgh Playhouse adjacent to our Cultural District next season. Kiss Me, Kate is on par, perhaps better than anything you might choose see down the street at another theatre. The Playhouse will be a welcome and well-earned addition to our world class cultural scene downtown. Point Park University Conservatory Company’s production of Kiss Me, Kate, runs now through October 29th at the Rockwell Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. For tickets click here.
There is no introduction to the colloquially titled I Won’t be in on Monday. There is no perfunctory schpiel prefacing the performance concerning donors or future shows or money that is needed. That is not to say that these prefaces do not have their place, as calls to endorse the arts and small theatres are absolutely tantamount to the continuation of performances as fine as these. But Anne Stockton’s dislodging and immersive one woman show needs to be framed in precisely those conditions—dislodging and immersive. As the audience ambles into the packed theatre, there is a stark solidarity to the stage that, somewhat incongruously, fills the space with its haunting, bareboned quality. The singular chair facing the crowd, austere and perplexing, manages to command more space than the audience can thoroughly reconcile with or acknowledge. To have interrupted the experience of walking into and settling oneself in such an environment would have been a disservice to the show. And so I Won’t be in… commenced with no interruption nor introduction, simply the play’s writer, sole star, and creative laborer, Anne Stockton, emerging onto the stage with strident force, seating herself in the eerily commanding lone chair on stage. The play, which unfolds as a dialogue that we as the audience are privy to only one side of (Stockton’s Nikki’s responses, diatribes, soliloquies and asides), is an interrogation of a vivacious woman in regards to expensive rings that have been stolen from the company with which she is employed. This is perhaps the most rudimentary exposition of the one woman show. What I Won’t be in… is at its most visceral level is an active disassembling of a woman’s tangled, multidimensional psyche as the façade she has constructed for herself and others is eroded throughout the play’s unconventional action. As Nikki converses with the unseen police officers, the audience begins to comprehend the meticulously sutured fragments of self that Nikki has very purposefully patched and woven together—she is a new employee and in love with her job and her very understanding employer; she met a new, extraordinarily wealthy, spontaneous and passionate man at a casino who she is in love with and has been living with; her life is a little unceremonious but ultimately fulfilling and coherent; she is absolutely befuddled as to how the rings could have been taken and where they could possibly be; etc., etc. But as Nikki’s conversation with the detectives progresses, we are exposed to the fractured membranes of her inner self—she is heavily medicated; her relationship with her new lover (revealed through phone conversations) is crumbling without her even fully recognizing it; she is codependent on her mother; she is apt to switch her affections and her outlandish plan to fly out of the country (her reason, presumably, why she “won’t be in on Monday”) to the detective conducting her interrogation; she perhaps has more involvement with the disappearance of the jewelry than even she allows herself to be aware of. From a script standpoint, the play is nearly flawless, and Stockton’s progression from a self-possessed yet visibly unbalanced woman is extraordinarily subtle. By the time the play’s somewhat double entendre, titular meaning is actualized, the audience has connected to Nikki in a way that makes the conclusion even more complicatedly heart-wrenching. Stockton’s performance is resilient and unwavering, even though at times some of the technical aspects break down a bit. What is most transcendent about the show is Stockton’s ability to radically transform the experience of speaking to an audience into one in which she simply exists as her own microcosm on stage. That is to say, the audience never once feels as though they are an audience during I Won’t be in… Rather, Stockton simultaneously consumes and is completely absorbed into the theatrical space she inhabits, allowing the play to become something not just to be observed, but to be lived. I Won’t be in… is a fantastic chapter in off the WALL’s stalwart legacy in presenting feminist-minded pieces. While at times the play veers on harmful or ghettoizing tropes for women—particularly women suffering from particular mental health issues—the play ultimately portrays a robust, flawed, and complexly damaged woman who is not defined by her gender or her psychosis. Both Stockton and off the WALL challenged the conventions of female representation in the show. I Won't be in on Monday has unfortunately closed already but you can follow off the WALL up to New York City in February. More details here.
Corsets on stage: Sometimes we see them, sometimes we don’t. Corsets have certainly made a comeback since designer Coco Chanel knocked them out of daily wear for early 20th century women. However, actors and singers often find themselves wearing corsets as part of period costumes for roles set in anywhere from the 1500s to early 1900s. This week, there’s a noticeable intersection of laced up undergarments with singers in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh singer Kara Cornell sings the role of sculptress Camille Claudel, an artist in her own right who was assistant to Auguste Rodin, in Into the Fire for Resonance Works | Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday. The New York Times described the piece as one that "compresses a tragic life of operatic dimensions into a song cycle of great beauty and emotional resonance.” [caption id="attachment_5842" align="aligncenter" width="1893"] Kara Cornell[/caption] On Sunday, final contestants in Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s Mildred Miller International Voice Competition sing at The Frick as “Undressed - The History of Fashion in Underwear” has its weekend. The show features historical undergarments at the Point Breeze museum. Up to 10 singers selected during sessions (free to the public on Saturday at Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts) will compete for cash prizes and summer season roles. Those attending can take the exhibit before the contest and during intermission while the judges deliberate. Kara shared her perspective as a singer most frequently corseted for one of her recurring roles, Carmen in Bizet’s opera. She’s twice sung the role for Pittsburgh Festival Opera as well as many other companies. The mezzo soprano is also often cast in “trouser roles”, but Kara brings a career singer’s perspective to the corset as a costume piece. PITR: How often have you worn a corset for a role? [caption id="attachment_5843" align="alignleft" width="230"] Cornell as Carmen[/caption] Kara: I really only wear a corset when I sing in Carmen - either the title role or the secondary character of Mercedes. So I don't wear a corset for all of my performings, but I do Carmen enough that I decided to buy my own corset. I've been able to dodge the corset in a lot of Handel and Mozart operas because I usually play the boy/men in those operas! Lucky me! As a singer who does not enjoy being bound up, I am lucky to have only worn tight corsets on the outside of my costume. PITR: Some say breathing against the corset might be at first different but a sometimes helpful experience. How does a singer learn to adapt to underpinnings that might appear to hinder breathing? Kara: Some of my colleagues really enjoy singing with a corset, and wear their personal corset under their audition outfit! The reason for this is because some singers like to feel a resistance when they breathe - expansion of the ribs is important for a lot of singers, so pushing the ribs against a corset or a tight dress helps them feel engaged around their entire ribcage. Before I purchased my own corset, I would expand my ribs before I was tied into the corset. Sometimes they would be so tight that I couldn't breathe! The corset I purchased ends above my belly button, so it makes me feel like I can let my stomach expand and I'm not as smushed. PITR: The sculptress Camille Claudel would have worn an Edwardian Corset, which creates a different silhouette than prior eras. It was known not only to constrict the waist and changed the emphasis on the stomach, but it caused the hips to jut out. Some women developed back injuries. Kara: I could also imagine Camille Claudel going sans corset, as she needed to have mobility in her body, in order to sculpt. PITR: Costumers also have multiple challenges... Kara: Buying my own assures that I have a well fitting corset that makes me look great AND makes me feel like I can still breathe. Another big issue with outer corsets is removing them quickly--if there is a quick change into another costume, untying a corset can be a real pain to do in 15 seconds. Also, many quick changes happen in minimal lighting, because there isn't always time to run back to the dressing room. The lack of light behind the stage curtain also makes it hard to see where the ties are on the corset, so a lot of time can be wasted. Some costume designers therefore cut a corset vertically and add velcro. This seems like a nice idea, but doesn't always work because now the singer's breathing can literally pop open the velcro! Of course, singers in concert while singing from a role would not bring their own corset along for events such as Resonance Works program or a recital setting like the Miller Competition. No such trappings “out of costume” for these singers. But when you’re attending a full-out Elizabeth, Victorian, and Edwardian period production you may assume the actresses are in corsets. Most often, cast members work “laced up” for the whole show. Aspects of period movement that include sitting, standing, and breathing in a corset are part of training. Nothing may accentuate one’s waist like a corset, but, then again, nothing may bring on the “vapors” as quickly on a hot day. Women in the 20th century may have merrily torn off their corsets or burnt their bras, but laced undergarments give us an idea of the women who went before--how they had to get dressed (often only with assistance) and how their movement was limited while corseted. On stage, knowing yourself and your corset are requirements for a good experience on stage. Just remember to breathe! About the Events Into the Fire/A Poet’s Love is presented by Resonance Works | Pittsburgh on Friday at 8 pm, PYCO School of Music Recital Hall, Wexford, and Saturday at 8 pm, Levy Hall, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Oakland. The Mildred Miller International Voice Competition of Pittsburgh Festival Opera finals take place on Sunday from 2 to 5 pm in the intimate auditorium of the Frick Art & Historical Center, Point Breeze. A special online promo code for PITR readers (MILLER2017) now provides tickets for $10. All students are admitted free. On Saturday, admission is free for all to hear the 20 semifinalists sing from 11 am to 1 pm and 3 to 6 pm, Kresge Theatre, Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts. Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear opens on Saturday, October 12 at the Frick. Those attending the Miller finals on Sunday may also visit the Frick galleries.