Musical comedy justice is served in a new CLO Cabaret show featuring catchy tunes, clever lyrics, juicy characters and important roles for audience members throughout the proceedings.
"Judge Jackie Justice's" signature line is: "You've been burned, and now you are adjourned!" Remember the first part. It's a key phrase if you ever watched a television judge deliver a verdict packed with venomous rebukes and wondered, "Where does that come from?" Then again, you may have witnessed cases given titles such as "Vampire Showgirl" (that's a real "Judge Judy" case, folks) and wondered at the restraint from the bench.
For a musical with just a week's preview under its belt, "Judge Jackie Justice -- A New Musical Comedy" has arrived with the authoritative bang of a gavel and a keen eye for mischievous mayhem.
Composer Michael Kooman and lyricist/librettist Chris Dimond, award-winning songwriters out of Western Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University, have created a 21st-century farce based on a concept from Pittsburgh CLO chief Van Kaplan, who directs the production. Mr. Kaplan asked for a musical that was courtroom TV-meets-Jerry Springer, and the Kooman-Dimond team have delivered.
Amid the courtroom chaos, the story centers on a scorned judge who harbors malice toward couples, then is presented with a second chance at love.
That Point Park grad Kara Mikula as Judge Jackie can take the reins and run with a larger-than-life character is no surprise for those who have seen her wide-ranging vocal and comedic talents on display in shows such as CLO Cabaret's "Ruthless!" and Pittsburgh CLO's "Annie." She can belt and she can mug, and when she sings "like Springsteen I'm the boss," you better look out. This judge has a mean streak when it comes to love, and she verbally mows down the couples who come into her courtroom.
Before Judge Jackie's court is called to order, members of the cast take a stroll among the tables. Then bailiff Henry Winslow (Jason Coll) addresses the audience, there for the filming of the top-rated show on daytime television, "Judge Jackie Justice." First up, have cell phones at the ready to come on stage and have your picture taken with the judge herself. Including the time it took for about 30 people to take advantage of the photo opp, the first act clocked in at a little more than an hour. That might change if there's a full house with everyone wanting a souvenir photo.
Next, we were instructed by Henry in our group participation for the night: Each time someone on stage would sing "Judge Jackie Justice," we were to be the repetitive chorus, which went fairly well throughout opening night Friday.
As ridiculous cases move through the court and Judge Jackie destroys love connections left and right, it's revealed that shy Henry has a secret crush on the judge. Mr. Coll, in a dual role including the telenovela character Jorge de Amour, makes a triumphant return to the venue where he served as assistant artistic director. He brings a welcome tenderness to the show's lone ballad, "If You Only Knew."
The carrot-topped beanpole also known as Jonathan Visser sinks his teeth into two roles we love to hate, including the judge's philandering ex-husband and rival TV judge. As network exec Shane, he has an obsession with kitten videos and brings news that ratings are in free fall: His verdict: "Bid farewell to your integrity./Only losers cling to legality." Judge Jackie's tough-on-love stance is out and celebrities and happily ever after are in.
Maggie Carr and Connor McCanlus breathe life into an array of wild and crazy characters. Ms. Carr gives a dazzling pop-tart impression as Britley Spanx, and Mr. McCanlus is a laugh-riot in roles such as Henry's disparaging mother. In the song "Like a Mother Does," about the kindest thing she has to say is, "See how strong you've grown. ... Since you're 43 and all alone."
Together, they shine as Southern-fried lowlifes and poser rappers from Fox Chapel.
For a new show, "Judge Jackie Justice" is remarkably free of kinks. Places to improve might be in the category of "a little too much": A little too much of a mean streak from Judge Jackie, for instance, including low-blow redneck stereotypes that eventually seem like piling on. And forsooth, the opening case involving Renaissance re-enactors was kind of clunky and confusing, and I wished it would have been lanced with a red pen.
Most of all, Ms. Mikula is more than capable of belting a la Ethel Merman, but it was such a pleasure when she had the chance to let her more dulcet tones shine.
Music director Michael Moricz provides piano support, and the actors move to choreography by Kiesha Lalama on Tony Ferrieri's spot-on courtroom set. Scott Nelson's dynamic lighting design is essential to the action, and Jessi Sedon-Essad has created videos for monitors a la a TV studio. Susan O'Neill's costumes give a spark to characters played by Ms. Carr and Mr. McCanlus, who have to be quick-change artists.
The sixth man in the show is the audience, and "Judge Jackie" puts it through its paces. Best were a young woman who did an impromptu leg lift when Alistair described her, uh, flexibility, and the fellow who tried to mimic moves as a backup dancer. Arrive alert and willing to have fun, and you, too, can earn the crowd's cheers.
The second act picks up the pace with the appearance of Britley and one of the couples returns to send the courtroom saga hilariously off the rails. As for Henry and Jackie, the question of will they wind up together is answered, and the audience has its final role, deciding among three possible endings.
There's a frantic moment toward the end that points to the many characters played by Ms. Carr and Mr. McCanlus that's just priceless and adds to the appreciation of all that came before. It's a wink to just how hard it is to pull off farce. And that they do.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.