Friday, April 29, 2011

Steve Pellegrino's Accordion Stories

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2011 at 4:14 PM

I've admired performance artist Pellegrino's work for years, but until last night I'd never thought to consider him a mutant hybrid. But it's true: Pellegrino is what you get when you cross-fertilize the son of a Mon Valley coal town with avant-garde theater.

Pellegrino, after all, cites as key formative experiences both the instructions from his Italian-immigrant dad to pound bent nails straight in the family basement ... and a late-1960s junior-high class trip to see a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed on a rotating stage.

Perhaps Pellegrino's best-known live work is "Calling Mr. Conrad," a collaboration with Frank Ferraro at the 2005 Three Rivers Arts Festival. The "outdoor radiophonic opera," a tribute to local broadcast-radio pioneer Frank Conrad, involved Pellegrino singing from the top of a giant replica radio dish in Downtown's Stanwix Triangle, accompanied by a platoon of saxophonists and a modern-dance troupe.

Pellegrino, a plasterer by trade, has also done a whole series of drywall-themed performance-art pieces, some of which have involved the deus ex machina of a refrigerator from outer space. It can all be as puzzling and oblique as it is fascinating.

By contrast, Accordion Stories is Pellegrino at his most accessible. It's just him on stage at little Grey Box Theatre, for 90 minutes of storytelling and music.

As Pellegrino admits, most anyone who grew up in the Mon Valley in the wake of the Depression would have similar stories about wacky family members. What distinguishes Accordion Stories is the music. It's a theme from his earliest memories of his father -- also an accordionist -- lullabying the young Pellegrino and his brother with the squeezebox.

Pellegrino still has his dad's old accordion -- the one the old man bought as a young man by lugging coal-furnace ash for 50 cents a day. Such stories would make a pleasant enough evening, but Pellegrino really shines when sharing songs.

At the first of three performances, he summoned countless Mon Valley wedding receptions by recruiting a couple up to polka. Later, he played "Lady of Spain," "Twilight Time" and a jazzed-up "Sweet Georgia Brown." He performed his ticked-off-workingman original "Andrew Carnegie Was a Jag-off" and a terrific version of the wonderfully dolorous Depression-era hit "Brother Can You Spare a Dime."

The shows, by the way, benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Pellegino's encore involved a recollection of how he came to work with acclaimed Braddock filmmaker Tony Buba, some 30 years ago. That story, too, illustrated Pellegrino's working-class roots. If you doubted that it did, you could have just asked

Buba himself. He was the guy at last night's show with the video camera, documenting it for his good pal Pellegrino.

Accordion Stories continues at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow at Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Tickets are $12-15 plus a food item. 412-576-0898 or www.qmproductionsinc.com 



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