Up and Away

27173857_10155246014971696_5701965740620210128_oOver the years, Superman and Spider-Man have faced many foes. Usually for the sake of a happy ending, they always prevail. But there’s one enemy that they’ve both suffered humiliating, public defeats at the hands of. I’m of course referring to musical theatre.

It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman opened on Broadway in March of 1966 and closed after only 129 performances. And there isn’t enough room in this review to go into all the pitfalls of 2010’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

In a twisted sense, those disastrous flops paved the way for the spectacular world premiere of the five-person, 50-character blockbuster musical comedy Up and Away

After decades of bringing the best of musical theatre to the Steel City, the Pittsburgh CLO’s superpower has fully revealed itself. It is the power to spark the creativity of emerging artists and foster the development of original musical theatre.

The first reading of Kristin Bair’s and Kevin Hammonds’s Up and Away took place last year at CLO’s New Musicals Weekend. This year, the full production Up and Away at CLO’s cabaret venue is the crown jewel of the company’s inaugural Spark musical theatre festival, where Bair, Hammonds, and other writers will share their fresh material and experiences.

If Up and Away is a sign of things to come for the musicals making their debut in the Spark festival, then I think Pittsburgh CLO has another time-honored tradition on their hands.

John Wascavage and Quinn Patrick Shannon
John Wascavage and Quinn Patrick Shannon

As the sun rises on another beautiful morning in Farmtown, USA, Joe (Michael Greer) and Jerry Jessup (John Wascavage), start their daily routine. This includes helping their Mother Jessup (Christine Laitta) out before sitting down to listen to their favorite radio show, the “Dapper Cracker Variety Hour”. Their wholesome lives are upended when the circus arrives in town.

Mother Jessup forbids her boys from attending, but the vague story she’s told for years about Father Jessup being killed by circus folk isn’t enough to keep headstrong Joe away. Considering that Joe is almost abducted by aliens, it’s clear he should have heeded his warning. Unfortunately, the lesson falls on deaf ears when Joe starts to develop superhuman abilities like five-second premonitions and eventually flight. Joe takes this miracle as a sign that he was meant for more, so he takes off for the neighboring metropolis, Big City, USA.

Right away, it’s clear that Greer and Wascavage have dynamite chemistry. They complement each other vocally, physically, and comedically so much so that it hurts a little bit when their lives start to diverge. Their energy is enough to propel the show through its flat footed opening section. Bookwriter Hammonds sets up the characters and their relationships well, but that development is weighed down by too much exposition and composer Bair’s only forgettable tune, opening number “Down on the Farm”.

Things truly start to pick up when we enter Big City and meet its distressed citizens, who are desperately in need of “A New Kind of Hero”. The area is under siege by ne’er-do-wells, who are each more ridiculous than the last.

This scene is where director/choreographer Marlo Hunter really gets to play. Hunter’s ability to make a cast of five look like a cast of 20 is truly astonishing and slightly dizzying. The whole show moves faster than The Flash, but it’s impossible to miss a thing because there’s always an eye-popping dance number just around the corner. There’s not a wire in sight, but Hunter makes you believe that a man can fly.

Michael Greer and John Wascavage
Michael Greer and John Wascavage

Amidst the chaos, fish out of water Joe meets his idol, Susie Dare (Erika Strasburg). She dreams of reading hard-hitting news. Strasburg is a real wonder as a woman with real ambition in a “simpler time” when that was a rare phenomenon. She sings and dances with undeniable grace, but sadly that doesn’t enough prevent Susie from being passed over for a weather reporter position by Joe when the truth about his powers comes out.

Sudden celebrity lands Joe in the swanky penthouse apartment of the eccentric Ronak Fairchild, where his crime-fighting alter ego Super Saver is born. After having defeated all the evil doers in Big City, the only thing that can bring Joe down is the arrival of Jerry. Jerry and Susie fall for each other almost immediately and the love triangle is heartbreaking enough for Joe to question his role in society.

In addition to playing Fairchild, Quinn Patrick Shannon also portrays all of Big City’s notorious villains. The greatest crime Shannon commits though is stealing the show from his fellow actors. Ronak’s descent down his grand staircase is to the tune of the showstopper “Join Me, Won’t You”, which hilariously brought to my mind what it would be like if Nathan Lane starred in a production of Hello, Dolly!. Outside of that, Shannon’s performance (in what seems like dozens of roles) is a delicious, custom cocktail of goofiness and beautiful singing.

Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_UP_AND_AWAY._Photo_Matt_PolkThe only thing that shines brighter than Shannon is Ronak’s glittery dinner jacket. It’s one of many memorable pieces created by costume designer Leon Dobkowski. It’s thanks to Dobkowski’s wizardry that Shannon and Laitta (memorably amusing even without a particular standout moment or song) are able to transform so seamlessly from one wacky supporting character to the next. Up and Away has a surprising amount of suspense and reversals, but it’s most engaging guessing game is whether or not the actors will make it on stage following a quick change.

That is the incredible thing about this show. Bair and Hammonds have written a clever, crowd-pleasing riff on an oversaturated genre of entertainment. It succeeds so wildly on stage because it is crafted specifically to be performed live on stage. The expertise and hard work of everyone involved is on glorious display here.

I don’t know if it’s enough to spark a superhero musical renaissance, but it’s definitely a flight in the right direction.

Up and Away runs at the CLO Cabaret through April 15. For tickets and more information, click here.