By Sharon Eberson
When it comes to music at Heinz Field, you expect some RENEGADE between Steelers’ possessions or Kenny Chesney singing about sexy tractors. Or you may have seen the Rolling Stones on their last tour — the one before the pandemic forced them to cancel in 2020.
Well, don’t blink now, Kenny, but some of Broadway’s finest have taken the field, and you could say that Pittsburgh CLO has been preparing for 75 years to get there.
Van Kaplan and Mark Fleischer greet patrons before opening night of “A Broadway Musical Celebration” at Heinz Field. The end zone by the Champions Club leads to field-level tables and seats in the stands. Photo by Sharon Eberson.
Modestly titled A BROADWAY MUSICAL CELEBRATION, the really big show with a party atmosphere, paying tribute to CLO”s 75th anniversary and the breadth of the company’s reach, from Mini-Stars to Tony Award winners to Hollywood stars.
Norm Lewis — “Broadway royalty,” as host Clay Aiken called him — WICKED’s Jackie Burns, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Tony nominees Max von Essen and Robbie Fairchild, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL TV star Joe Serafini, Genny Lis Padilla of ON YOUR FEET! and more delivered a slew of well-known show tunes and 11th-hour numbers.
The second of CLO’s Summer Under the Stars shows, an unabashed lovefest of Broadway tunes and talent, is helping bring back Pittsburgh’s summer-stock tradition that was halted last year by the COVID-19 outbreak.
But this is CLO like you’ve never seen it before. When the company started out at Pitt Stadium in 1946, there were no giant video screens — one for the backdrop, two flanking the stage for close-ups. And I can’t imagine that the sound was ever as pure and crisp, or the performers as in sync with the live orchestra as they were on opening night Wednesday.
The host, cheerleader and performer for “A Broadway Celebration,” Clay Aiken, who played Teen Angel in CLO’s most recent production of “Grease.” All rehearsal photos by Matt Polk, Pittsburgh CLO.
As noted by Aiken, opening-night weather was mercifully clear and mild, as if the stars had aligned to kick off the Broadway celebration’s Wednesday through Saturday run.
The engaging host, cheerleader, and performer was as well-versed in CLO history as he was eager to get the party started. You’d think he was a Pittsburgher the way he kvelled about the city’s talent onstage and behind the scenes.
The AMERICAN IDOL runner-up and SPAMALOT star, who burst onto the CLO scene as a bespangled Teen Angel in GREASE, quipped that he was invited back so he could outdo his costume and show off “my best Liberace.”
He opened the celebration with a song by Jason Coll, UNDER THE STARS, written specifically for the occasion. Aiken later delivered one of the few take-a-breath numbers, an unexpectedly jazzy, moving arrangement of WHAT KIND OF FOOL AM I?, featuring a sax solo by Sam Eisenreich.
Stephanie Umoh (HAMILTON tour’s Angelica Schuyler, and I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE HIM, soloist, in the CLO show). Umoh was tasked with presenting the history of the COPACABANA musical in Pittsburgh. Aiken then timed it just right to say, “I’ll take it from here, girl.” He sang the title song of the CLO-produced Barry Manilow musical while the ensemble danced up a storm.
This was a staged concert, with many of the performances punctuated by a high-energy dance ensemble and teens from the CLO Academy of Musical Theater.
The BROADWAY MUSICAL CELEBRATION had nearly 20 numbers, with some history and storytelling in the fast-paced mix. As CLO executive producer Mark Fleischer told us, there would be no intermission because the pandemic had kept us waiting long enough.
Norm Lewis wowed the opening night crowd with “Being Alive” and “The Impossible Dream.”
Chief among the memorable takeaways Wednesday was Lewis’ bookending the concert with Stephen Sondheim’s BEING ALIVE from COMPANY and THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM, plus a solo within SEASONS OF LOVE. His rich baritone filled every crevice of the stadium, along with patrons’ audible gasps during the big notes.
During his first number, and as the concert progressed, my only quibble was with the centerstage video backdrops. They were often so distracting as to obscure some of the staging and unnecessary when a larger-than-life performer like Lewis belts his heart out on a classic like BEING ALIVE.
But at other times, the video and lighting effects found the harmony I was looking for — such as the starry lighting that emanated toward patrons as Lewis sang THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM.
In other cases, the video screen helped tell CLO’s storied history, Patrick Cassidy tells his family’s history with the city and company.
Patrick Cassidy performed numbers from “The Music Man” and told of how the musical shaped his life — his mother, film star Shirley Jones, was pregnant with him during the making of the movie version. Cassidy, his mother and dad Jack Cassidy are all CLO alums.
The dashing Cassidy, who last was with CLO for the 2014 production of FOOTLOOSE, followed in his parents’ footsteps. Smithton, PA’s Shirley Jones, and Jack Cassidy, who both had performed with CLO.
Fittingly, Patrick Cassidy’s entry into musicals began with one of his mother’s best-known films, THE MUSIC MAN. Before performing a couple of numbers from the show, including a duet with Ali Ewoldt, he told a name-dropping story of how he was the star quarterback at Beverly Hills High School. When he suffered an injury, and turned to the drama club. The upcoming show was, of course, THE MUSIC MAN. So, to prepare for his audition, his mother naturally took him to see her friend Dick Van Dyke, who was starring in a tour of the show at the time.
Cassidy thought he had Harold Hill all sewed up, but alas, the role went to the son of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Cassidy actually started life on the Hollywood set …
You didn’t think I’d give it all away, did you? Aiken said something about how we were also getting E Entertainment — less gossip, more showbiz history — before moving on to one of his own solos, followed by a MAMA MIA! medley and a “teen” takeover.
Genny Lis Padilla, Jackie Burns and Stephanie Umoh rehearse a medley of ABBA tunes from “Mamma Mia!”
Joe Serafini, the 23-year-old out of Bethel Park and star of (deep breath) Disney’s HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES, got his start at CLO Academy. He was inspired to enter the program, he said when he saw the stage version of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL at age 9.
Joe Serafini, a CLO Academy alum, led a spirited song representing his TV series, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
Serafini then launched into WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER with the CLO and Teen Ensemble, complete with gold pompoms and Serafini bounding blissfully about the stage and getting the audience clapping to the beat.
Late in the program came the tribute to one of CLO”s biggest Broadway triumphs, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Co-produced by Van Kaplan, the show won four Tony Awards and made a Broadway star of ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild. When the world was shut down last year, Fairchild started a floral arrangement business, boo.kay, and produced a few dance videos, too.
Allison Walsh and Robbie Fairchild perform the pas de deux from “An American in Paris.”
On Wednesday night, he was back on stage in the Gene Kelly role of Jerry Mulligan dancing Christopher Wheeldon’s breathtakingly romantic AMERICAN IN PARIS pas de deux with Allison Walsh.
In a parade of showstoppers, the AMERICAN IN PARIS sequence was well worth the wait. Broadway costar von Essen and Manu Narayan joined in on other Gershwin tunes. Fairchild’s spinning leap put an exclamation point on the performance.
A dream team of Manu Narayan, Robbie Fairchild and Max von Essen rehearse Gershwin numbers from the CLO-produced musical “An American in Paris.”
A word here about the immensely talented von Essen, whom I first saw on a CLO stage.
Listening to von Essen deliver on three songs — THE DRINKING SONG (THE STUDENT PRINCE); OH WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING and his big number from AAIP, I’LL BUILD A STAIRWAY TO PARADISE — made me frustrated anew that the filmed version of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is of the London production. Overseas, the musical also starred Fairchild and Leanne Cope but had a different supporting cast than the brilliant Broadway group. Prohibitive costs and union agreements aside, I want everyone to see original Broadway cast members such as von Essen and Brandon Uranowitz, and Billy Porter and Stark Sands in “Kinky Boots,” for that matter.
But I digress. Such memorable performances also are a reminder that we were witnessing something that only live theater can deliver — a singular, exclusive moment to treasure.
One of the many things the concert did well was to relate each song or medley to CLO’s past 75 years. That includes collaborating to administer the Richard Rodgers Award for Excellence in Musical Theater, last awarded in 2009, to composer Stephen Schwartz,
That led to a series of songs by Rodgers Award winners. Sondheim’s “Putting It Together,” was rendered by Pittsburgh native and BOMBAY DREAMS star Narayan, who was recently seen on Broadway in MY FAIR LADY. Other highlights were Joshua Grosso, CLO’s IN THE HEIGHTS star, dueting with Ali Ewold on A HEART FULL OF LOVE from LES MIZ. And Ewold, Broadway’s recent Christine Daae, on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’s THINK OF ME.
The finale portion of the show was intended to be from WEST SIDE STORY, but it was cut before the program was printed. Instead, we were treated to the big finish by Burns, the longest-running Elphaba in WICKED’s ongoing Broadway run, belting DEFYING GRAVITY to the heavens.
The show ended with the veteran stars onstage and cheering from the sidelines as the gold-clad Teen Ensemble performed ONE from A CHORUS LINE.
The finale “One,” from “A Chorus Line,” featured the CLO Ensemble and Teen Ensemble from the CLO Academy.
The Broadway/CLO pedigree of talent behind the scenes of this extravaganza includes director/choreographer Baayork Lee, a CHORUS LINE original, and music director James Cunningham. The celebration was conceived by Jason Coll and written by Mary Jane Brennan.
It was pointed out that CLO’s new shows of today may be the hit revivals of the future. Ending the celebration with CLO Academy teens and current stars onstage said as much about the past as it bodes well for a bright future.
A Broadway Musical Celebration by thePittsburgh CLO at Heinz Field runs through July 21 – 23 | for tickets visit https://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/broadway-musical-celebration