Stage reviews

College casts rewind clock to produce fine musicals


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Excellent productions can be found in musicals by students at Carnegie Mellon University and Point Park University:

'The Wild Party'

A musical of love and lust, abuse and jealousy might seem like a strange choice for kicking off a centennial celebration, but not when the big birthday belongs to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. The production of "The Wild Party" is, indeed, a celebration -- of the student talent that has been nurtured at and exported from the Oakland campus for 100 years.

Andrew Lippa's musical is having a revival of sorts, with a jazz makeover planned at the NYC cabaret 54 Below in April. The CMU production at the Philip Chosky Theatre is an all-in affair of steamy desire and simmering rage, a triumph for the cast and director Matthew Gardiner and his team, including musical director Thomas W. Douglas and choreographer Tome Cousin. Lush costumes by Erik Larson and imaginative lighting by Justin Keenan Miller enhance the concept of Roaring '20s flapper glam gone to the dark side.

The story begins when a clown with a nasty temper (Brian Muller as Burrs) and a sultry chorus girl (Claire Saunders as Queenie) fall in and out of love. Queenie decides to "put Burrs on the rack" by throwing a wild party but gets more than she bargains for. Scheming Kate (Zanny Laird), who pines for Burrs, brings along the too-good-to-be-true Black (Daniel Bellomy). His eyes meet Queenie's, and you know it's going to be a bumpy night.

They are the stars at the center of a cast of stars who navigate dueling turntables for a swirling night of sex, drugs and debauchery. The show could be viewed as a companion piece to "Chicago," but this one is inspired by a Joseph Moncure March narrative poem. The songs by Mr. Lippa ("The Addams Family," "Big Fish") are often weighty with intense emotion and an undercurrent of impending doom, all handled adeptly by the student cast.

On a night honoring the School of Drama's past, voices of CMU's present responded with a choice that includes the perfect song title -- "Look at Me Now."

Through Saturday at 8 p.m. plus 2 p.m. Saturday at the Philip Chosky Theatre, Purnell Center for the Arts, Oakland. $17-$32 (check student and senior discounts); 412-268-2407 or www.drama.cmu.edu.

'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson'

On Broadway, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" was set on a static saloon stage, filled with satirical touches. In a D.C. production at Second Stage, the black-box staging was minimalist and relied heavily on projections. I liked both, but what I now like best is the Point Park University Conservatory Theatre Company's production.

Set designer Michael Thomas Essad and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski have outdone themselves without going over the top. The show that put writer-director Alex Timbers on the map -- here directed with a sure hand by Michael McKelvey -- presents the seventh president as a strutting, swaggering rock star torn between his hate for all people unlike himself and his love for "the people," those he perceives as representing the common man, the frontiersmen, the soldiers who follow him into battle after battle.

This Old Hickory wears skintight jeans, curses up a storm and brings forth the Democratic Party.

Senior Reed Worth gives Jackson his all through a long line of horrors bathed in silliness and satire -- his parents' death at age 7, torture at the hands of the English when he's a teen, constant war with European factions and the genocide of Native Americans.

This eyeliner-wearing president is a cross between Elvis and Steven Tyler, a man who seemingly loves the battlefield. When he falls in love with a married woman (junior Brittany Dorazio well cast as Rachel), he commits bigamy without regard for the consequences. Mr. Worth is on stage almost constantly and never falters in spewing craziness or long political speeches.

The problematic part of "BBAJ" remains a problem. Jackson spouted populism and love of country but also is portrayed as the most imperialistic and bloodthirsty of warriors, "the 'man' in manifest destiny."

There are many standouts in the fine cast, particularly the cadre of corrupt politicians (Conner Gillooley, Luke Halferty, Joe Godley, Wood Van Meter and Patrick Steven Bovo) and the troubadour bandleaders Luke Minx and Jon Rohlf. Tal Kroser is all seething rage as Black Fox, Jackson's friend and co-conspirator, and storyteller Caitlin Bower adds comedic flair to a show whose laughs are bathed in irony and blood.

This production has added length and depth of meaning and clarity, and certainly Cassidy Adkins has stepped up the choreography.

"BBAJ" is not for everyone; the language puts the blue in red, white and blue. It's history with a contemporary voice and all the better for it.

Through Sunday (8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday), Rockwell Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, Oakland. $18-$20 (check student and senior discounts); 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.


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

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