Best of Culture: January

Take in one of this month's top-level exhibits, musicals or dance performances, selected by our contributing arts editors.



The new synonym for “spectacular” very well may be Pippin — the 2013 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of the legendary musical by composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Roger O. Hirson. Originated at Carnegie Mellon University when Schwartz (of “Wicked” fame) was a student in the School of Drama, the show’s revolutionary 1972 Broadway debut featured an acting troupe narrating the story of a young royal heir striving for independence. In the stunning revival, a circus troupe — a la Cirque de Soleil — takes over as narrators in a high-flying theatrical marvel you won’t soon forget.
[Benedum Center, 237 Seventh St., downtown; Jan. 20-25; 412/456-6666,; 'Pippin' photo by Joan Marcus]

Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, Jan. 29-31/ Celebrating its 11th year, Playground: A Festival of Independent Student Work is an annual CMU School of Drama showcase of artwork across all disciplines. This year’s schedule features 10 art installations and 45 original presentations varying in length from 15-45 minutes and including everything from new plays and musical performances to light shows. Audiences are encouraged to catch several works in one day. Some of these student partnerships go on to enjoy professional success, such as the PigPen Theatre Co., which now tours nationally. What The New Yorker has said of PigPen easily could hold true for the whole festival: “It’s like watching child geniuses at play.”
[Purnell Center for the Arts, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland; 412/268-2407,]

Pittsburgh Public Theater, Jan. 6-10/ Who knows which future comedic superstars you’ll catch on the rise in The Second City’s N’At’s All Folks! Known as perhaps the world’s best training ground for improvisational comedy, The Second City boasts more than 500 famous alumni including Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. The Public commissioned the SC revue “Three Rivers Run Through It” in 2008 as part of Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday celebration. “N’At’s All Folks!” includes some greatest hits from that production as well as new material poking fun at local politics, the “Stillers” and the city’s most recent “accolade” as having “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Come with a sense of humor — leave with a sense of pride.
[O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., downtown; 412/316-1600,]

City Theatre Co., Jan. 24-Feb. 15/ When the local shoe-repair shop suddenly shutters its doors, regular customers start to dearly miss the shop’s beloved owner in the world premiere of Mr. Joy by Obie-winning writer Daniel Beaty. Actress Tangela Large portrays all nine captivating characters of different genders. Examples include a transgender flight attendant at odds with her father, a charismatic young black man with the wrong friends and a fed-up grandmother who starts her own street gang. Each of these customers reflect on the impact of Mr. Joy’s addictive optimism on their stressed lives. Poignant and relevant, the play ultimately spreads a message of hope.
[1300 Bingham St., Mainstage, South Side; 412/431-2489,]


SPACE, Through Jan. 25/ Artist Lucian Freud once said, “The painter’s obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work.” In the show Obsessions, curator Tom Sarver begins with that universal idea and ratchets it up a notch or two, with a look at “the nature of obsessions” through the work of six artists from across the United States, including Pittsburgh. Sarver also is a local artist who has earned a reputation with a delightful obsession centered on puppets and puppetry, including an ongoing effort called “The Puppet Happening.” He clarifies that “the connection to the obsession theme is different for each artist in the show.” That sounds like a good thing because overthinking the show title could be off-putting; letting everything play out visually, individually and with diverse media and viewpoints seems to be the way to go. For example, Pittsburgh artist Becky Slemmons comes up with a performance concept for her piece, “Obsessive Love.” Look for thousands of marks on SPACE walls — each a minimalist memorial of a day spent with her husband — because Slemmons is fascinated by the “physicality of the artist making thousands of marks.” Sarver sees Nathan Margoni as “obsessed with the awkwardness of being human.” That’s recorded in an art form Sarver describes as a cross between cartoonist Robert Crumb and realist sculptor Ron Mueck. Jason Lockyer’s work demonstrates an obsession with bugs, says Sarver; Mary Ivy Martin focuses on plants. Each, however, uses these leitmotifs to explore deeper meanings. Jeremiah Johnson takes current events, advertising and personal life moments and blends them with ideas drawn from religion and mythology. In the work of Laurie Trok, another Pittsburgh artist, Sarver observes “an obsessive practice of art-making” through the many hours she spent hand-cutting paper to form the delicate patterns required for her project.
[812 Liberty Ave., downtown; 412/325-7723,; 'Bugs' art by Jason Lockyer]

707 PENN GALLERY, Jan. 16–March 1/ Not only sights but also sounds play into the work of Danny Bracken, whose exhibit Here opens this month in the Cultural District. Bracken, originally from Michigan, has a diverse background in the arts, including a stint with Chicago-based music collective Anathallo. He’s composed music for films and commercials and in 2010 was part of a musicians-in-residence experience at the Mattress Factory, where he’s included in a group show that’s part of the Pittsburgh Biennial. Now Pittsburgh-based, Bracken is featured in his first solo exhibition, in which he examines how technology has “shifted concepts of place.” Urban planning, home renovation and installation art are enlisted to help him investigate “the intersection, conflict and possible compatibility of our physical and digital worlds.”
[707 Penn Ave., downtown; 412/456-6666,]


FIREWALL Dance Theater, through Jan. 11/ Off the WALL Productions and its resident dance troupe offer a creative double-header of productions — one theater and one dance — revolving around themes of strong, independent female characters. American playwright Liz Duffy Adams’ historical farce “Or” provides a springboard for Uproar, an hour-long contemporary-dance production choreographed by Elisa-Marie Alaio, Firewall’s resident choreographer. Though the play revolves around a night in the life of 17th-century poet, spy and dramatist Aphra Behn, “Uproar,” which performs at different times, is set in the 1960s and focuses on a female playwright whose imagination runs wild as writer’s block impedes her creative process. Ryan McMasters’ prerecorded score accompanies the dance production.
[25 W. Main St., Carnegie; 888/71-TICKETS,; photo by Allie Wynands]

Dancing with the Stars: Live!, Jan. 8/ The North American tour based on ABC’s popular dance competition show offers a 90-minute showcase of new choreography and memorable dances from the TV program performed by cast members including Mark Ballas and Witney Carson.
[Benedum Center, 237 Seventh St., downtown; 412/456-6666,]

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