(gravity + grace) | Blogh


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

(gravity + grace)

Posted By on Tue, Sep 29, 2009 at 9:48 PM

Lots of arts events were derailed by last week's G-20 summit. Among the smaller-scale independent productions that by necessity went head-to-head with road closures, protests and general discombobulation, one that deserves a broader audience is this original new opera by Frank Ferraro and Steve Pellegrino.

Not that this evocation of a man's experiences with early-onset Parkinson's disease was attended all that badly, even all the way out in Fox Chapel, on the Shadyside Academy campus. In fact, the Saturday-night show I saw, the third of three scheduled, drew a couple hundred folks.

But Ferraro, Pellegrino and their cast and crew are talented pros who earned applause for a sophisticated exploration of what's too often movie-of-the-week territory.

Writer and artist Ferraro and composer and performer Pellegrino collaborated on the book and music for the show, based on Ferraro's experiences and the stories of others. It's mostly a series of musical vignettes, with live music and dance.

It's not even really all that "small": True to their claims to opera, the show boasts a 14-piece orchestra and members of the Renaissance City Choir, plus actors Brian Czarniecki and Adrienne Wehr and dancers Jamie Erin Murphy and Renee Smith. Pellegrino's score is artful and lyrical, the songs (with words by Ferraro) covering a range of styles from cabaret to rhythm and blues.

But a real sense of Ferraro's witty, idiosyncratic approach can come only from seeing the show in person. The production boasted what might be music-theater's only cowboy song sung by a lead performer (Czarniecki) with his butt to the audience and his head deep inside a washing machine. (A video camera within beams his harshly lit mug to the crowd on a screen above.) The show is often humorous, frequently surprising, and moving and hopeful but never maudlin.

While the offbeat style won't surprise anyone who knows experimental-theater veteran Pellegrino's work, it can be a weakness as well as a strength. One scene, built around the song "Godspeed, The World is a Monkey," finds singer Pellegrino repeatedly leaving and returning to the stage, while dancers dance, singers sing and Czarniecki pops up with what look like traffic cones on his hands. (There's a story behind the number – it has to do with Ferraro offending a TV news reporter with a comment about a lab-animal research subject – but even though I knew the story I still couldn't make heads or tails of scene or song.)

Nonetheless, I'd call (gravity + grace) accessible. Ferraro wisely anchors the show with three straightforward monologues delivered by Wehr in the voices of caregivers, not to mention Czarniecki's empathetic Everyman turn. And the the singers, under the direction of Andres Cladera, are integrated seamlessly to provide some beyond-beautiful musical moments.

Ferrarro and Pellegrino hope to take their show on the road. But we should hope they stage it in Pittsburgh again.


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