BWW Reviews: World Premiere of JUDGE JACKIE JUSTICE at the Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret
Small-scale cabaret musicals are a dime a dozen. These days, everybody and their mother has a song cycle or a one-set, small-cast musical to push. Whether high-concept like the Nunsense series, quirky and intellectual like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or simply sincere and honest about its lack of pretensions like Edges: A Song Cycle, little is the new big in the modern theatre scene. The downside to this small-theatre boom, however, is that a little show has to pack something huge in its run time to make audiences take notice. Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond's Judge Jackie Justice may be slim on plot, but it packs laugh after laugh into its simple premise.
The titular Judge Jackie, played by Kara Mikula, is a formerly-idealistic judge whose dreams of Supreme Court Justice fell to the wayside when she became the cranky, irascible and super-cynical judge/host of daytime television standard, "The Judge Jackie Justice Show." As ratings fall, Jackie falls under increased pressure to reinvent her show, and reinvent herself accordingly, as a kinder, gentler entertainment based on love, not on schadenfreude. With the pressure mounting, and the cases she arbitrates becoming more and more absurd, Jackie begins to question whether or not she has compromised herself, and how much more she can take.
Although certainly creative in its own right, Judge Jackie Justice is clearly indebted to Spelling Bee for its structure. Both shows take place in a single unit set, with the audience as a literal audience, and use a tiny cast playing multiple roles to play out side characters, including memories and fantasies of the main characters. Mikula anchors the cast as the only performer playing a single role, and with the exception of one song in Act 2, is never offstage. The rest of the cast rotate around her, constantly changing character and costume. Featured among the performers are "Man 1" and "Woman 1," the two-person ensemble who serve as plaintiff and defendant in each and every case on the Judge Jackie Justice show. Maggie Carr and Connor McCanlus are most important to the plot as a pair of star-crossed redneck survivalists, but they pop in and out of the proceedings as furries, pop stars, perverts, wannabe gangstas, and figures from Jackie's past.
The supporting leads, however, steal the show every time they appear onstage. Jason Coll, the occasional Assistant Artistic Director of the CLO Cabaret, stands out in the most serious dramatic role, playing Jackie's lovelorn bailiff, Henry. His presence is so sincere and genuine that his comic turn as a telenovela may catch audiences off guard- after all, no one expects the romantic lead to be this funny! Most of all, Jonathan Visser walks away with the entire show in the role of Shane, Jackie's sleazy producer. Looking uncannily like Conan O'Brien and sounding frighteningly like Nathan Lane, the lanky Visser leaps, slithers and shuffles across the stage and through the audience with the slimy assurance of a man who believes he is far smarter than he actually is. His character appearances, including a "before" and "after" tag team portrayal of a single character alongside McCanlus, are also highlights, though Shane was clearly an audience favorite at the performance I attended.
Judge Jackie Justice shares one more important trait with Spelling Bee: audience participation. From the very beginning of the show, in which audiences are taught to sing the call-and-response TV theme song, audience members are on their toes to shout out approval or be dragged onstage to play bit parts. In the grand finale, audiences are allowed to choose the verdict for a case, with one sentence clearly advancing the plot, and the other two sentences inflicting bizarre, crowd-pleasing stunts on a character. (You can bet that the stunts are going to win every time, which appears to be bookwriter Christopher Dimond's intent.)
Tony Ferrieri's courtroom-studio set serves as the perfect playground for the small but talented cast, allowing multiple areas for rapid entrance and exit, allowing for quick costume changes or special effect transitions. The simple but effective costumes by Susan O'Neill allow for rapid and comedic changes while maintaining a unified look that ties the various characters together. Michael Kooman's comic score, while pleasant, is sometimes merely serviceable, though a few songs, especially "Crazy As Love" and "Like Your Mother Does," stand out from the rest as destined for perennial audition and cabaret use. A few too many songs in the score have non-endings, petering off without resolution or cutting off abruptly to keep the dramatic flow moving. This technique works better in small doses than it does when it is repeated again and again in the score.