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'Judge Jackie' to mete out some off-the-wall justice

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All rise, the faux reality-show court of CLO Cabaret, with Judge Jackie Justice presiding, is now in session. Please be seated and come to disorder.

The new musical comedy with a TV theme that's part "Judge Judy," part "Jerry Springer," plus a loopy love story, includes juror, er, audience participation. So be prepared to rise and be counted. Any twists and turns, in the end, are up to you: Via applause, the audience will choose from among three possible endings each night.

'Judge Jackie Justice -- A New Musical Comedy'
When: Jan. 30-April 27.
Where: CLO Cabaret at the Cabaret at Theatre Square, Downtown.
Tickets and showtimes: $39.75 Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., $34.75 for Thursday matinees at 1 p.m. (check, $44.75 Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and $34.75 Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

"That's as of today," said Judge Jackie herself, actress Kara Mikula, with a laugh.

Script changes are part of bringing any new musical into being and, with opening night two weeks away, the cast had just received 40 pages with rewrites.

Laughter helps with the pressure of originating characters, and there's plenty of it in rehearsals. Ms. Mikula said she has to stifle a smile each time Jason Coll enters as the mustachioed Jorge de Amor, a character who has lost the "e" in "Amore" to a script change.

"I just roll my r's now," Mr. Coll said.

Just as her alter ego holds the gavel in a TV courtroom, Ms. Mikula (a Point Park grad via Upper St. Clair High School) holds the floor during a gathering of the cast of the musical commissioned by Pittsburgh CLO. The all-local affair began when producing artistic director Van Kaplan took his concept to the writing team of Michael Kooman and Chris Dimond, Western Pennsylvanians who met at Carnegie Mellon University. The result, "Judge Jackie Justice -- A New Musical Comedy," will be presented in the heart of the Pittsburgh Cultural District, to audiences who will recognize references not just to reality-show mayhem but to the city.

"All of us are either from Pittsburgh or have moved to Pittsburgh to work here," said Connor McCanlus, who is making his CLO debut by playing more than a dozen characters. "It's great that we bring in tours like 'Wicked,' that's fantastic. But even 'Wicked' had to start somewhere. I'm really proud that pretty much 100 percent of this show is a Pittsburgh original musical."

Mr. McCanlus is often paired on stage with Maggie Carr, and the two were finishing each other's sentences as rehearsals hit their stretch run. There was a lot of that going around a dressing room that was just big enough to hold the Judge and her court.

The conversation ping-ponged as each cast member described his or her character:

Kara Mikula on Judge Jackie -- "She is a big, larger-than-life TV star," said Ms. Mikula, a veteran of Pittsburgh CLO and CLO Cabaret, where she first worked with current co-star Jonathan Visser in the musical comedy "Ruthless."

She is on stage almost constantly and is the only actor who plays just one character in the show. "She's a real tough cookie, but she's been burned in love. She has a very tough exterior, but throughout the show, you get to know what happened to her that caused her to be that way."

Connor McCanlus and Maggie Carr on Man #1 and Woman #1 -- "This is a small cast, but we play the ensemble of the show," Mr. McCanlus said. "We play all of the different couples that come into Judge Jackie's courtroom, as well as characters from her past. So we wear many, many hats in this show. Literally."

"We play people like doomsday Southern meth cookers, apocalyptic people. Got a little yinzers in there. A pop star and her father, like a Britney Spears character -- her name's Britley Spanx," Ms. Carr said. "And her criminally indulgent father," Mr. McCanlus added. "It's got a Veruca Salt kind of feel to it."

"We play two old people; I play a young Jackie. ... There's no normal character in there," Ms. Carr said.

Jason Coll on bailiff Henry Winslow and Jorge -- "I'm secretly in love with the judge -- it's not too much of a secret; you find out 10 minutes into the show," said Mr. Coll, a former associate artistic director for Pittsburgh CLO. "Jorge de Amor is a character from an old Telenova that [the judge] used to watch as a child that inspired her to go into law, to pursue justice."

"He was a Mexican revolutionary, kind of like Zorro the judge," Ms. Mikula said.

Jonathan Visser on TV exec Shane and the Judge's ex -- "I play both the antagonists. I play Shane Shankleman, who is the senior vice president of reality television. The numbers have been going down, so Shane has come in to lift things up, add a little pizzazz to the reality television that is Judge Jackie Justice. And I also play her ex-husband, who is a slimeball. They are both very fun to play."

"Horrible, horrible man," said Ms. Mikula, with a hint of glee.

The songs by the award-winning Kooman-Dimond team represent genres from pop to country to rap, with Mr. Coll getting the love ballad, and as so often happens, the bad guy having a grand old time.

"We're at a point now where the writers are writing because of what they see us do, which is kind of fun, because my character speaks in these incredibly complex thoughts and kind of sharp words that have a lot of pop to them," Mr. Visser said. "Like a movement comes out of Chris' writing and Michael's music, because they are villain songs. Connor said it -- they are such great villain songs, almost like Disney or 'South Park' villain songs."

After some teasing about Disney and 'South Park' in the same breath, Mr. Coll clarifies by likening the songs to Ursula's in "Disney's The Little Mermaid."

The tall, lanky Mr. Visser also gets to play backup dancer to Ms. Carr's Britney character, a scene that never fails to crack up Mr. Coll.

It's not all fun and laughter, of course. There are those script changes, and director Kaplan and choreographer Kiesha Lalama putting them through their paces to maximize the laughs.

Mr. McCanlus, an improv actor seen around town at Steel City Improv, Arcade Comedy Theater and City Theatre, summed up the experience of originating a role in a new work in his hometown:

"I'm young and this is one of my first big jobs. So every day, I'm pinching myself. It may seem trite, but it's not. Being from Pittsburgh and being in an original cast of a CLO musical, that is a hard-core dream I've had since I was like 10."

Ms. Carr, nodding, turned to her onstage partner to say, "Me too, buddy."

Before the judge brought down the gavel and the cast dispersed, the veteran Mr. Coll put it all in perspective.

"Where this show is right now, it's really at the top of what CLO has done in terms of developing and producing. ... It's ready. And I think it will play well in theaters this size across the country that are looking for this type of show."

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.

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