Carnegie site of musical produced by Shaler native


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Shaler native John Biles remembers in 2006 sprinting to his home in New York City after a Sunday theater rehearsal at 6 p.m., hoping he wouldn't get caught in the subway, so he could make it in time to watch the Steelers play in the Super Bowl.

"I guess you can take the boy out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take Pittsburgh out of the boy," Mr. Biles said recently while talking about "The Last Five Years," a musical he is producing at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie.

The show is the Point Park University graduate's first foray into producing after working for 12 years in New York as an actor and vocalist.

He has performed off-Broadway and in touring shows up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest.

Along the way, he earned a master's degree in vocal performance at New York University, but the lure of his hometown proved strong, and he returned this year with the hope of realizing a new goal.

"I want to deconstruct musicals of all sizes for audiences in an intimate space, while utilizing actors and actresses with Western Pennsylvania ties," he said.

At the 96-seat Off the Wall Theater, Mr. Biles believes he has found the perfect spot to turn his vision into reality.

"Off the Wall Theater has been amazing," he said, adding that Hans Gruenert and Virginia Wall Gruenert, who run Off the Wall, have been very supportive.

The couple opened the theater last month after making extensive renovations to convert the former WorkWell Inc. office building on West Main Street into just the kind of intimate theater space Mr. Biles was seeking.

The show produced by Mr. Biles won't be the first production in Carnegie.

That honor went to a play performed last week called "The Other Place," a drama in which Ms. Gruenert, artistic director of Off the Wall Productions, played the leading role.

Before opening their new theater in Carnegie, the Gruenerts had staged plays at a space in Washington, Pa., but they decided to move to Carnegie in June, mainly to be closer to most of their patrons and performers who live in Pittsburgh and its suburbs.

"We will be the first new company to perform at the theater," Mr. Biles said.

"This show is an experiment to see the viability of my vision. It will be an experiment for Virginia and Hans, too."

Mr. Gruenert, who takes care of the business side of the theater, was happy to make the theater available to Mr. Biles.

He didn't want to limit the theater to only four to six productions a year by Off the Wall but aimed to create a space other theater companies, dance troupes or even stand-up comedians could use.

"The Last Five Years" is about the relationship between Jamie, played by Mr. Biles, and Cathy, played by Pittsburgh-based actress Holly Bryan Scott.

Written in 1999, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, the story is told by Jamie from the couple's first date through their divorce, and by Cathy from their divorce going backward in time to their first date.

"There are 14 songs in the show. It's pretty much an all-sung show," he said.

To help with the show, Mr. Biles has tapped into the local theater talent in Pittsburgh, often relying on friendships formed from his days studying theater and journalism at Point Park.

Ms. Scott, for instance, went to school with him at Point Park. Except for musical director Eddie Guttman from New York, everyone in the cast and crew is local.

"I think the city can support a new voice in musical theater. I don't want to compete with the CLO or community theaters. We want to do stuff that really hits you in the heart and brain. An intimate theater like Off the Wall is the perfect setting," he said.

And, he is drawing on one more feature from his hometown.

"We have a blue-collar mentality, just like the city, and we will work hard," he said.

"The Last Five Years" will be performed at 7:30 tonight through Saturday and next Thursday through Nov. 10. All seats are free, with a suggested cash donation of $18 at the door and $12 for students with ID. To reserve seats, send email to thecompanyofpgh@gmail.com.

neigh_west - neigh_north - neigh_south

Bob Podurgiel, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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