Pittsburgh’s Polished Musical Theatre Gem: The CLO

cloThe Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, as the CLO is officially known, has been around for a long time. Its first performances were outdoors at Pitt Stadium in June of 1946. Back then it was a summer stock theatre company that provided lighthearted entertainment to the Steel City, as America regrouped after World War II. Edgar J. Kauffman, of Pittsburgh’s department store and Falling Water fame, helped provide the initial financing to launch the CLO.

Imagine for a moment performers, singing and dancing outdoors in a football stadium in the days before modern sound and lighting systems. Actors back then really had to belt out a song in order to be heard by the crowd.

You might have heard that the former Civic Arena was built not just for a hockey team, but to also be the home of the CLO with a retractable roof- “theater under the stars”. In 1973 the CLO moved to the former Penn Theatre, now known Heinz Hall and later moved to The Benedum Center in 1988.

Most Pittsburghers still think of the CLO as a summer musical theatre. It has grown to be so much more. In addition to the six show main stage season, the CLO Cabaret features a year round smorgasbord of smaller musicals and cabaret performances in an intimate club setting. The less obvious part of the CLO’s work is training actors and creative teams in musical theatre through the CLO academy and Mini-Stars. The CLO founded the Gene Kelley Awards for high school musicals in our region and the National High School Musical Awards.

As the CLO’s reputation for high caliber and high quality productions has grown, demand for its productions has expanded nationally, resulting in a half dozen national tours being launched.

Perhaps the biggest change, while still being true to its Pittsburgh mission has been in the development of musicals on Broadway that include Legally Blonde, Curtains, Monty Python’s Spamalot, The Color Purple, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bombay Dreams, Flower Drum Song and Big River.

This leads us to the current year’s big story, An American in Paris, which it created in partnership with Elephant Eye Theatricals and Theatre du Chalet. It opened in Paris, played on Broadway and now the national tour is here in Pittsburgh. The show is a testament to CLO’s very successful transition from a summer stock company to full fledged Broadway Producer with roots firmly planted in Pittsburgh and an ongoing commitment to world-class theatre.

First, a brief stop over at the CLO Cabaret at Theatre Square.abby

Mix together the work of Doctor Ruth and Emily Post and you get Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage. The relationship expert to the stars!   Kick back and relax as Miss Abigail imparts the expertise she developed before booty calls and speed dating ruled – before the divorce rate was 50% and when ‘fidelity’ was more than an investment firm!

paigePaige Davis plays Miss Abigail.  She is most recognized from the TLC series Trading Spaces, but her true love is theatre and dance. Paige was one of the featured actresses who played Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway and in an odd twist of fate with the theatre next door here played God in An Act of God. Pittsburgh audiences have seen her in the national tours of Sweet Charity and Beauty and the Beast and as Maria in the Sound of Music. Great to have her in town for more than a week!

Miss Abigail’s Guide To Dating, Mating and Marriage performs May 11th to August 13th at the CLO CABARET in Theatre Square

The CLO Summer Season; A Well Oiled Machine

Presenting six full staged musicals with Broadway worthy orchestra accompaniment in two and a half months would be a challenge for any producing organization. The CLO has refined their process for making art and theatre magic over the past seventy seasons and has transformed it into a well-oiled machine. As you will see, a lot is about connections, great people, and good tools coupled with superior Stage Management skills, organization and scheduling.

As has been the case the past several years, the CLO has opened its season in alignment with the PNC Broadway series season closing production. This is a national tour production for which the Pittsburgh CLO has invested in with shared producing credit. The second show is usually from another regional theatre company. This effectively gives our CLO a month long head start before the final four home grown productions hit the boards at the Benedum.

I spoke with the CLO’s Producing Director, Mark Fleischer, about what it takes to pull off the season that appears to be seamless and effortless.

First and most importantly, “We get the best people we can” in order to “make memorable theatre that really special for the audiences”

The CLO nurtures new talent. Fleischer indicates in many cases “it is their first shot” at launching their professional theater career. Many actors subsequently return to the CLO to “give back and enjoy the comradery and creative energy that comes from an eight-day rehearsal cycle”.  Yes, you read it right, there are only eight days from first rehearsal typically starting on Thursday morning to opening night the following Friday at eight. And yet, these are fully realized productions that include rich choreography, full sets, lighting, costumes and orchestra.

To make it all work, creative team members with familiarity and past experience with the specific musical is a plus.  It also helps if the lead actors have played the role previously. Directors and Choreographers with similar or assistant experience or those who just know the CLO drill and can work well at the breakneck pace contribute significantly to the successful execution of the season.

A strong and versatile ensemble of singers and dancers works at rehearsing the upcoming show simultaneously in multiple physical spaces while squeezing in time for costumes fittings. Many ensemble members are rehearsing next week’s show during the day and performing that night.

The sets are a combination of build, buy or rent. The CLO Construction Center builds for CLO and other theatres and rents its inventory to other companies as well.

A strong Stage Management team coordinates everyone and everything, making it all happen like clockwork. The leads, ensemble, Directors, Choreographers, Designers, crafts persons, union stagehands and the musicians all pull together to make it “the best production possible”.

As Fleisher says, of the CLO “We Make Art, We Don’t Import It”

Here is a look at the 2017 CLO Summer Season

parisTheatre people refer to performers who can act, sing and dance, all equally and extraordinary well, as triple threats. The musical An American in Paris possesses those qualities and so much more, including the music of George and Ira Gershwin. This show was the most award-winning musical of the 2015-16 Broadway Season! It is also the hottest ticket in Pittsburgh this summer.

At the end of World War II, Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier, decides to stay in Paris and nurture his passion for painting. With a little help from kindred soul seekers Adam Hochberg, a composer and fellow veteran; and Henri Baurel, the son of wealthy French industrialists and wannabe song and dance man, they imagine a bright future in the City of Lights. Then Jerry meets and falls head over heels for a stunning French ballerina named Lise Dassin. The problem is Henri is about ready to propose to her.

An American in Paris has the perfect combination of a compelling story, beautiful dance routines, and the magic and romance of Paris and the unforgettable songs from George and Ira Gershwin.

McGee Maddox, who plays Jerry, took over the role in April, previously he was a principal with the National Ballet of Canada. He is first and foremost a dancer and that becomes quite apparent as the show progresses.  Classically trained ballerina Sara Esty is Lise. She has been the alternate for Lise at the Paris premiere and on Broadway prior to assuming the role full-time on the national tour.

Acclaimed director/choreographer and 2015 Tony Award®-winner Christopher Wheeldon received a Tony® Award nomination for Best Director and won the Tony Award for Best Choreography for this production. Christopher has danced for the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet.

If you love dance, Gershwin music, and fabulous staging, An American in Paris is the must see show this summer.

An American in Paris, presented in cooperation with PNC Broadway Across at the Benedum Center with performances May 30th to June 11th

mermaidWould you give up your voice to live somewhere else and perhaps find love? The beautiful young mermaid Ariel longs to leave her ocean home to live in the world above. It is based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved stories that was adapted by playwright Doug Wright. The story focuses on Ariel’s longing not for her prince, but for “a world in which she feels truly realized in her own terms” per Wright.  The music is composed by eight-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken and includes the classics “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” “Part of Your World” and more!

Checkout how the designers transform the Benedum to Ariel’s underwater world, no scuba gear required!

Disney’s The Little Mermaid is produced by Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight with performances June 14 to June 25 at the Benedum Center.

heightsIn The Heights is a great opportunity to catch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work before he created Hamilton. Miranda wrote the initial script for In The Heights in 1999 while he was in his sophomore year in college. He nurtured and morphed the show and brought it to its to its Broadway premiere in 2008.  The Director & Choreographer for the CLO’s production is Michael Balderraman. There is a nice Miranda connection as Balderraman is currently the resident Choreographer for the Chicago production of Hamilton. This is a great chance for us to see Balderrama’s interpretation of Miranda’s first revolutionary musical.

Story wise; In the Heights weaves Latin rhythms, hip-hop and pop to tell the story of a neighborhood in change and the challenges of chasing the American dream as you cling to your roots and those you love.

Summer is the perfect time to see In The Heights and imagine the hot steamy summer days in Washington Heights, a largely Latin-American neighborhood in New York City. Unforgettable songs, scorching rhythms and passionate choreography make for an exciting show.

In The Heights Performances July 07th to 16th at the Benedum Center

newsThe second Disney musical of the summer is based on the real-life Newsboy Strike of 1899, Newsies is the story of Jack Kelly, a rebellious newsboy who rallies “newsies” from across NYC to strike for what’s right after publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer threatens their livelihood.

Richard J. Hinds is directing at Pittsburgh CLO for the first time. His Broadway credits include the Tony nominated Come From Away as Associate Choreographer and Disney’s Newsies as Associate Director. He will also be choreographing this production.

Newsies was the winner of the Tony® Awards for Best Score and Best Choreography. Critics rave about the energetic and pounding choreography of the Broadway production. Let’s see if Hinds and the CLO troupe are up to the challenge.

As with most Disney shows, the music is charming; one of composer Alan Menken trademarks.  James Cunningham joins Pittsburgh CLO for the first time as Music Director for this and the remainder of the season.

Disney’s NEWSIES is at the Benedum Center July 18th to 23rd

mammaFor pure fun nothing beats Mama Mia! the wildly popular juke box musical loved by millions of people around the globe.

There’s not a lot of heavy lifting here plot wise. On the eve of her wedding, a daughter’s quest to discover the identity of her father brings three men back to the island they last visited 20 years ago, much to the chagrin of her mother.

The musical is a fun Abba immersion including such hits as “Super Trouper”, “Dancing Queen”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “Thank You for the Music”, “Money, Money, Money”, “The Winner Takes It All”, “SOS” and the title song.

Barry Ivan returns to the CLO as the Director & Choreographer for Mama Mia. His previous CLO directing assignments include Elton John & Tim Rice’s AIDA, The Wedding Singer, Sunset Boulevard, Company, A Little Night Music, Footloose, The Full Monty, Miss Saigon, West Side Story, Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Les Misérables.

Mama Mia! is at the Benedum Center,  July 28th to August 06th

millioinOn December 4, 1956, rock ‘n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins converged on Sun Records in Memphis for a jam session that became known as Million Dollar Quartet. Thankfully, Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips, pressed the record button and rock ‘n’ roll history was made. Million Dollar Quartet takes you behind the music with 21 legendary hits that define rock ‘n’ roll, including: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Hound Dog.” The four of them never sang together again.

David Ruttura, who is currently the Associate/Resident Director of Broadway’s School of Rock directs this production. Ruttura has worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, regionally and internationally.

Million Dollar Quartet plays at the Benedum Center August 8th to 13th

Pittsburgh CLO season, three show and single tickets are on sale now and may be purchased by calling 412-281-2822 or BY visiting pittsburghCLO.org/buy-tickets 

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