By SHARON EBERSON
In the intimate conference room in Pittsburgh CLO’s Benedum Center offices, there was a special something in the air. The trio of director Ameenah Kaplan, star Rashidra Scott and ensemble member Kylie Edwards had gathered to talk about their roles in Anything Goes, the opener for CLO’s 77th year of presenting summer musicals.
Scott, the Broadway veteran who plays Reno Sweeney, put the feeling into words, having written about it in her daily journal entry.
“I was just writing about how I’m thankful that it’s such an open and free room led by such an intelligent and aware and real woman,” Scott said, turning to Kaplan. “You’re my first Black female director, so there’s just another something … call it ‘Black girl magic’ … there’s just another something innate that’s like, we’ve got each other in a way that’s unspoken.”
Edwards, in her first professional job, was feeling it, too.
The Gateway High grad and rising sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University was the 2022 Gene Kelly Award winner as best actress, and was named the best dancer at the National High School Musical Theater Awards. She is on track to gain her Actors Equity card in three CLO musicals this summer. But at that moment, she was nodding her head, in a room with two accomplished Black women of theater, when “more often, I’m the only one in the room,” Edwards said.
There is one way in which the relative newbie has a leg up in this high-kicking musical. She has practically grown up in the venue where she will make her professional debut, and she expects opening night to be an emotional one.
“I describe it as kind of just a full circle moment for me,” Edwards said. “I’ve been coming to see shows at the Benedum since I was like 6 or 7 years old. And I have a very vivid memory of sitting in this beautiful theater and looking up at all of the art and seeing the shows and being like, ‘I want to do that.’ “
For Kaplan, the resident director of Disney’s The Lion King North American tour, this is her second summer with CLO, after directing a production of Sister Act that moved from Pittsburgh to Kansas City.
After that first experience, coming back to CLO was a must.
“Oh, it was very deliberate. I’m a big fan of [executive producer] Mark Fleischer and the program that’s being run here,” Kaplan said. “I’m specifically a fan of the business model because what this program does is it provides a living wage for the performers … and that is my chief platform that I want to stand on.”
She called CLO’s notoriously fast preparation for summer shows “a stroke of genius on the part of the people that run this program,” because it helps to make that business model work.
Scott was most recently on Broadway as Susan in the award-winning revival of Company. She has played Reno Sweeney before, at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, and the speed with which CLO shows are mounted is unlike anything she’s seen before.
The shorthand Scott says she immediately felt with Kaplan has helped facilitate her return to the part she last played in 2016.
“I’m having a lot of fun revisiting, but more importantly rediscovering Reno,” she said. “There’s a popular belief that a lot of things work in seven-year cycles, and it’s not lost on me that it’s now seven years later that I’m revisiting the show. So I’m in a different place, but [Reno] still feels really comfortable. I forgot how fun and just how freeing and like myself Reno feels to me. It’s almost like putting on my wedding dress and hoping that it fits.”
Scott laughed at that. For Kaplan, there’s another emphasis – on a Black Reno Sweeney – that she has discussed with her star.
Actresses including Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster have played the charismatic Reno, a nightclub singer and former evangelist. Character descriptions include: clever, funny, persuasive, extremely confident; strong singing and dancing required, as well as comedic timing.
Sweeney/Scott sings two of the best-known Cole Porter songs from the Anything Goes score – “I Get a Kick Out of You” and the big belter, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
CLO last produced Anything Goes in 2000. The show, which debuted in 1934, is a shipboard romantic farce with big dance numbers. It was most recently revived on Broadway and in London by award-winning director/choreographer and Pittsburgh native Kathleen Marshall.
Like most any show created in the 1930s, there are attitudes and representations that don’t play as well in the 2020s.
While Kaplan is not about to reinvent the wheel that has made Anything Goes a musical theater favorite for 90 years, “I am coming at it through Rashidra’s character, Reno Sweeney, and so this is about a Black woman in the Thirties because, you know, she is Black, and I’m not ignoring that,” the director said.
“So as soon as Rashidra was cast,” she continued, “it told me that I’m telling a human story of a sexually liberated woman in the Thirties, and that is literally the through line of this play. All of the women [in Anything Goes] want to be free, and … that includes their femininity, their sexuality, their intellect, all of it. That was something I felt like we could all relate to, as women and as human beings.”
While Kaplan and Scott have swooped into town for the show – along with the likes of Tony-nominee A.J. Shivley (Paradise Square) and Theo Allyn – it includes lots of local talent onstage and behind the scenes. Along with Edwards, making her CLO debut as Hope Harcourt is Liz Leclerc, a rising junior at CMU.
While Edwards has the luxury of making her professional debut at home, Scott, a New Yorker, has done three shows this past year, two away from home.
“For me, it’s a little old hat because, I mean, it’s what I do,” Scott said. “I try to explain it to friends and family. It is our job to come into a space and meet people for the first time, and we have no choice but to get intimate and get to know each other very quickly. Because within a matter of hours, we are putting on these characters who have known each other for years, and I just met you two seconds ago.”
A veteran of the cast and dozens of CLO productions is Pittsburgh actor Jeff Howell, as mobster Moonface Martin. Kaplan got to know him last year, when he was in the cast of Sister Act.
“Jeff got the part almost sight unseen,” Kaplan said. “In fact, when he finished auditioning, I just basically said, ‘Jeff, which part would you prefer to play, Moonface or [Elisha] Whitney?’ And he went out on a limb and chose Moonface, and I went, ‘You got it, sir.’ And so Jeff and I are on our journey together and it’s really great. Interesting.”
Now that the director has seen Howell, who played Monsignor O’Hara in Sister Act, in rehearsal as the Anything Goes baddie, “I understand why he’s Public Enemy Number 13,” Kaplan said with a smile.
“And,” she went on, “A.J. Shivley, he’s a gift; he’s a giver. He’s just onstage making everyone around him look awesome. We have a killer cast. Theo Allyn is Mrs. Harcourt … I mean, they’re all just super funny, and they’re like riding their own waves, and they’re doing a great job of it.”
Of particular interest to Kaplan as a director is the character of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Broadway’s Geoff Packard), often played as an undeniable fool.
“He’s a man who just needs the right woman, and the right woman is Reno Sweeney,” Kaplan said. “And so that character is not a fool, and, and I think the actor that we have, Geoff Packard, who’s playing him, can walk that line so well, and he’s doing a beautiful job of it.”
As the conversation was coming to a close – it was lunch hour during a rehearsal, and the trio had not yet eaten – Kaplan wanted to once again address that special something in the room and “shout out” one more member of her cast.
Turning to Kylie Edwards, the director said, “I want to put some light on this young lady because she really did stand out in the audition. Everyone was cast very deliberately … and Kylie definitely was a standout in the audition, and it was my honor and pleasure to get to cast her in this. I hope that we get to do some more together in the future.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Anything Goes is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, Tuesday, June 13, through Sunday, June 18. For tickets, visit https://pittsburghclo.culturaldistrict.org/production/82437 or call 412-456-6666.