Pillbox

Broadway comes to the ’Burgh

The O’Reilly Theater located downtown was designed by world-renowned architect Michael Graves. The O’Reilly is the fourth theater project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the fifth Cultural District theater. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) The O’Reilly Theater located downtown was designed by world-renowned architect Michael Graves. The O’Reilly is the fourth theater project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the fifth Cultural District theater. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Downtown Pittsburgh and the Cultural District, often considered the undeclared theater district of the city, is home to several theaters and venues.  (credit: Courtesy of brunkfordbraun) Downtown Pittsburgh and the Cultural District, often considered the undeclared theater district of the city, is home to several theaters and venues. (credit: Courtesy of brunkfordbraun)

While the Big Apple may be hours away by train, car, or plane, New York City’s rich theater programs and talented performances are a lot closer than that. Broadway shows have marked out Pittsburgh as a stop for many of their performances, and many of the city’s drama students, notably Carnegie Mellon alumni, are also making a splash on stages across the country. Pittsburgh is fast becoming a cultural hub, not only a city to visit for many touring shows as they make their rounds, but also as a fountainhead of aspiring talent.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s history tells the story of the transformation of the city from industry town to vibrant cultural center as a series of renaissances. Arguably, Pittsburgh has had a long history of reinventing itself: going from smog and steel to sustainable industry, shifting from trust belt city to a center for the arts to flourish. The Trust, formed in 1984 by Jack Heinz and a small group of his friends and companions, made it its mission to transform the run-down downtown into an urban hub. After restoring the Stanley Theater, now known as the Benedum Center, the trust began working its way through the downtown area, revitalizing it with theaters, open spaces, and public art projects. Now, thanks to the Trust, the downtown area boasts over 14 different performing arts venues and is still going strong.

However, while having facilities to host cultural events is a start, other components are crucial in making Pittsburgh the success story that it is. Performers, technicians, and dramatists are needed to put on the shows, and an audience must come to support them. The various universities in the city provide eager actors, and the smaller venues in town provide great jumping points for a career in show business.

While the life of an actor can be fraught with challenges, some graduates of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music have achieved especially notable success in their line of work. Students of associate professor of music Douglas Ahlstedt have found themselves particularly well prepared. One of them, Liam Bonner, is debuting at the Metropolitan Opera’s February production of Carmen. Another, Jeffrey Behrens, will also be making his debut at the Metropolitan in The Nose in March. Graham Fenton, another former student, is in Jersey Boys, singing the role of Frankie Valli. Other acclaimed alumni of the School of Music can be found in City That Never Sleeps. Patricia Phillips wows crowds as Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, currently the longest-running Broadway production to date. Alumnae Catherine Walker and Christine Noll also took the stage by storm in the recent revival of Ragtime, which had its final performance this January.

Pittsburgh also has upcoming performances of its own to showcase its local and traveling talent: The Benedum’s spring season is packed with Broadway shows for the discerning theater enthusiast. Coming up soon is Xanadu, the somewhat whimsical tale of redemption and roller derbies, set in the 1980s. Sonny, the male lead, is a struggling artist unsure of what to do with his life until he meets Kira, an Australian rollerskater, who inspires him to pursue his long-forgotten dream of starting a roller disco. However, little does Sonny know that the attractive Kira is none other than Clio, the muse of history, in disguise. All’s well for Clio as she helps her mortal query with his dream, until she realizes that she’s falling for him. Her sisters, the other muses, naturally take full advantage of her plight as they aspire to undermine Clio’s position as leader of the muses. The show is based on a movie from the ’80s that enjoyed tepid success at the box office but has become a cult classic. The theater production has made an unexpected splash on the Broadway scene, perhaps owing to its unique combination of mythology and wacky trends of the past. The opening night for Xanadu is Feb. 23, and it runs through Feb. 28.

Also coming up at the Benedum is Grease. For those unfamiliar with the plot of the show, the show is set in the 1950s and follows the lives of 10 teenagers in high school as they go through the familiar conflicts of life and love. Billed as a rock and roll musical, it confronted issues of gang violence, teenage pregnancy, experimentation, and rebellion. Sandy and Danny, the two main characters, go through an unresolved love affair from over the summer break that blossoms into a mess of misunderstandings and hurt feelings during the school year. Sandy, the new kid at the Rydell High School, finds that she has a lot to learn about fitting in, especially if she wants to be part of the Pink Ladies, the school’s most popular group of girls. Danny also has to overcome his pride to accept how attached he is to Sandy. Eventually, after sock hops and slumber parties, the two finally confront each other about their feelings. The show runs from March 9 to March 14. Interestingly, Taylor Hicks of American Idol fame will be playing the part of Teen Angel for this performance.

Another beloved classic coming to Pittsburgh is The Wizard of Oz. A musical based on L. Frank Baum’s delightful children’s book, The Wizard of Oz follows the story of Dorothy as she longs for a life more exciting than living on a farm in Kansas with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. A tornado rushes through the state, sweeping up everything in its path, including Dorothy, her dog Toto, and her house. When everything stops spinning, Dorothy finds herself in the Land of Oz, a different realm where magic is very much real and nothing is ordinary. While she loves being in a new place, Dorothy soon realizes that she misses her family and begins a quest to find a power that can take her back home. Advised to journey to the Emerald City to seek an audience with the Wizard of Oz, a powerful sorcerer who can solve any problem, Dorothy meets up with her memorable companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. Naturally, the Wicked Witch of the West will stop at nothing to foil the heroine’s plans and confronts her at every turn. A classic way before Wicked broke onto the scene, The Wizard of Oz rejoices in the magic of childhood, all the while recalling that sometimes the most important things are the ones we don’t realize we love so much until they’re gone. The Wizard of Oz premieres on March 30 and will be in Pittsburgh until April 4.

While that bevy of shows rounds out the theater scene at the Benedum for this spring, plans for the summer and early fall season are already in the works. The Benedum has just released plans to host The Phantom of the Opera from Aug. 25 to Sept. 19. The Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running Broadway show. It follows the life of aspiring singer Christine Daaé as she attempts to gain fame at the Paris Opera. Things aren’t very easy for Christine: She must contend with the diva Carlotta, the opera’s star performer who refuses to relinquish any of her roles to the ingénue, and the affections of Raoul, her vicomte suitor. However, Christine’s voice is spectacular, thanks to the tutelage of her mysterious teacher, the Phantom. Plots and schemes abound as the Phantom falls for his student and takes drastic action to assure that she has the success and attention that she deserves.

Pittsburgh, though it may not be as big as New York, Boston, or other urban areas, is still a force to be reckoned with in terms of talent and performing arts offerings. It is a city that prides itself on coping with new challenges and is a rising star in cultural districts across the country, with many opportunities for drama students and theater aficionados alike to enjoy its artistic offerings.