Stage preview: Squirrel Hill native nimble at both comedy and drama


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You can't help but smile when you say "Elf the Musical" and "The Glass Menagerie" in the same sentence. They are the "clearly confused" oxymoron of theatrical works, one a splashy movie-based comedy, the other an intimate drama by American master Tennessee Williams.

Squirrel Hill's Benjamin Shaw understands that they are not a natural match, and he should know. He is associate director of both the Christmas-themed musical that makes its way into the Benedum Center Tuesday and the critical darling of the Broadway season

‘Elf the Musical’
Where: PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh at Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday (preshow talk opening night, check trustarts.org); 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. next Sunday.
Tickets: $20-$90; trustarts.org or 412-456-4800.

When he tells people what he's been up to, the reaction is, " 'The Glass Menagerie' and what?"

"That's what everybody says and I say it, too. It's quite funny, I know, but it's wonderful to be a part of two very different projects that allow me to exercise my artistic muscles in all kinds of ways. Ultimately in theater what we want to do is tell great stories ... so hopefully these two shows do that really well."

Both shows are about families, torn apart or reunited, but the common ingredient is Mr. Shaw, a Pittsburgher through and through, even after six years in New York. His parents and brother still live here, and he's thrilled to be coming home during Thanksgiving for the run of "Elf."

"I'm really proud of my Pittsburgh roots," he proclaimed, and not for the last time. "I always include it at the end of my bio -- 'Grew up in Pittsburgh,' with an exclamation point, because that's how I feel about it."

He attended the Jewish Community Day School in Squirrel Hill before heading to Pittsburgh CAPA, when the performing arts school was in Homewood. Mr. Shaw was nominated for a Gene Kelly Award before he decided he leaned more toward directing than performing. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2007 and was working that summer with Pittsburgh CLO when an unexpected offer changed his course.

The first show he worked on was the national tour of "Disney's High School Musical," which was launched in collaboration with CLO. By the end of August, he had moved to New York to work as the executive assistant to Thomas Schumacher, the man in charge of Disney Theatrical Productions. He arrived when "The Little Mermaid" was in its earliest stages of heading toward Broadway and stayed on for three years of learning the theater ropes from every business and creative angle the global giant had to offer.

The time came to branch out on his own, and he began his own grad-school process as an associate director for hire. When Mr. Shaw spoke by phone recently, he was doing tech work on "Elf" in Kentucky and getting ready to fly to New York for a 24-hour check-in on "The Glass Menagerie," where he is the resident director.

His time with Disney was preparation for all aspects of a show, from the script appearing on his desk to budgets and workshops and starts and stops. "Elf," like many Disney projects, came from the pedigree of a hit movie and drew top-notch talent to its stage version.

Writers Thomas Meehan ("The Producers") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") adapted the 2003 Will Ferrell movie, which adds music by "The Wedding Singer" songwriters Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. It played two holiday runs on Broadway, in November 2010 and again in 2012, when the tour began to make its way across the United States.

The movie is all there, with Christmastown elf Buddy being sent to reconnect with his human family. The guileless, kind-hearted Buddy spreads the holiday spirit among jaded New Yorkers as he searches for his parents and along the way meets a department-store elf who could use a little good cheer herself.

"The show adds big musical numbers, and of course it has a couple of ballads, like all good musicals should," Mr. Shaw said. "It's a sweet-natured show and it's very funny. It's a little bit of a love letter to Christmas, to New York, and then at the heart of it, what it means to grow up, find your inner kid and connect with the people who are important to you."

While at Disney, Mr. Shaw was part of the development of "The Little Mermaid," and he watched the earliest incarnation of the imaginative "Peter and the Starcatcher," a play with music that also is on the 2013-14 PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh slate.

Christian Borle, the Fox Chapel native who won a supporting-actor Tony for "Peter and the Starcatcher," was at the La Jolla Playhouse workshop, along with co-star Celia Keenan-Bolger, who is now in "The Glass Menagerie" with Green Tree's Zachary Quinto.

"She's not a Pittsburgh connection, but theater is tiny, tiny, tiny," Mr. Shaw said, noting he attended CAPA with Courtney Mazza, a Broadway performer and the wife of Mario Lopez.

"We were in a musical when she was a senior and I was a freshman, and then she was in 'The Little Mermaid' on Broadway when I was at Disney. The connections are endless, and that's really special. I think people have a lovely response to Pittsburgh, between artists who've grown up there -- Rob and Kathleen Marshall among them -- and having Point Park and CMU, these major schools that are contributing to the arts scene in general."

He had been trying to get together with another CAPA alum, "Kinky Boots" star Billy Porter, in recent weeks, but their schedules were just not cooperating. Both men studied voice in Pittsburgh with Myrna Paris, who helped Mr. Shaw realize his destiny was behind the scenes.

"You wouldn't want to see me on stage -- my Gene Kelly nomination was my crowning moment," he said with a laugh.

He recalled working with Ms. Paris beside the baby grand piano in her Shadyside apartment and discussing every aspect of performing a song.

"I always had all of these ideas. And she would say to me, 'You need to be a director.' Because my ideas, even then, in middle school and high school, were about the bigger picture of the story being told."

When it comes to "The Glass Menagerie," Mr. Shaw explained, that means not just what was happening when Tennessee Williams was reading his play in the 1940s, but how it relates to the people who are filling Broadway's Booth Theatre today.

Believe it or not, the same goes for Benedum Center audiences who will spend part of their Thanksgiving week with "Elf."

"There's this lovely sentiment at the heart of 'Elf' about finding the true Christmas spirit. I'm a nice Jewish boy from Squirrel Hill, but finding the Christmas spirit, getting back to the matter, connecting with your family, appreciating these little things that matter, the story really highlights all that. [Buddy] is looking for a family and finds one, and the family finds itself by having him enter their lives."


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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