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Comedy about power and politics opens Pittsburgh Public Theater's season

| Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Pittsburgh Public Theater presents Born Yesterday at the O'Reilly Theater. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Daniel Krell as Paul Verrall and Melissa Miller as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday at the O'Reilly Theater. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Ted Koch as Harry Brock and Melissa Miller as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday at the O'Reilly Theater. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Melissa Miller as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday at the O'Reilly Theater. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

When artistic director Ted Pappas chose the comedy “Born Yesterday” to open Pittsburgh Public Theater's 2012-13 season, it was about timing.

“I wanted to launch our Made in America season with panaché,” says Pappas, who also is directing the comedy that begins performances Thursday at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

Audiences weary of lingering economic woes and international strife want to see some glamour and some comedy, Pappas believes.

With its setting in 1946 in a lushly appointed Washington, D.C., hotel, characters who are wealthy and powerful and Garson Kanin's funny, smart plot and dialogue, “Born Yesterday” was just the thing to start the season.

“It reminds us how much fun it is to see a play. It reminds us of the delights of theatergoing,” Pappas says.

Looking at the calendar. Pappas couldn't fail to notice that “Born Yesterday” would open and run as the 2012 presidential-election campaign headed into its final six weeks.

“Born Yesterday” is the story of wealthy businessman, Harry Brock, who has come to the nation's capital to equip himself with the best politicians money can buy.

“It reminds us of the human nature of politics, and that the business of running the country was always full of flaws and hopes,” Pappas says.

Soon after arriving in Washington, Brock decides that his girlfriend, Billie Dawn, who is as pretty as she is unsophisticated, might be a stumbling block to his hob-nobbing with Washington's elite.

He hires a Paul Verrall, a journalist, to tutor her and smarten her up.

Brock gets more than he bargained for when the journalist and Billie succeed in ways that the tycoon never anticipated.

It's a Cinderella story, Pappas says, one of those stories where a girl we like blossoms, and we watch it happen.

But there's a twist, he says.

“She doesn't get prettier; she becomes smarter. She puts on her glasses and becomes better. What makes her more desirable is her intellect,” Pappas says.

“The play's message is that the smarter the people are, the better it is for all of us,” he says. “The play itself is smart. It works up to the audience, not down to the audience. The comedy is lifted and, therefore, funnier. It's a hilarious comedy, a political satire, a romance — all these great ideas shaped into a play plus two iconic characters.”

So many still remember Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday's vivid performances as Brock and Dawn in the 1950 movie of “Born Yesterday” that it's hard to imagine the roles being played by anyone else.

Not to worry, Pappas says: “If you cast legitimately and with power, the memory of their bodies and voices evaporate.”

He thinks he has just the performers to do that.

He gave the role of Brock to Ted Koch, who has previously appeared with the Public in “God of Carnage” and “Broadway,” and cast Melissa Miller, a newcomer to the Public who has numerous Broadway and regional theater credits, to play Dawn.

Miller had so impressed Pappas when she auditioned for a show in last year's season that he decided to save her for a starring role.

“She came in with a completely different sound, voice, walk and coloring. She shattered that (image of Holliday). You heard her voice and the way she moved reminded me of the part but not Judy Holliday,” Pappas says.

Similarly, Koch erased previous memories of Brock, Pappas says. Koch's performance is an original. “You are surprised how accurate it is, but how innovative it is,” Pappas says.

That's one of the rewards of being a director, Pappas says. “I like the glamour and excitement of finding the right actors for the right play,” he says. “The best part of the job is seeing that (I'm) proven right.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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