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Review: CLO Cabaret's 'Judge Jackie Justice' guilty of making fun

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 6:38 p.m.
Pittsburgh CLO
Kara Mikula as 'Judge Jackie Justice' in a new CLO Cabaret production.
Matt Polk | Civic Light Opera
'Judge Jackie Justice' cast includes, from left, Jason Coll, Kara Mikula, Maggie Carr and Connor McCanlus.

All rise. Judge Jackie is holding court and the verdict is in.

This jury of one finds in favor of the creators and cast of “Judge Jackie Justice” for inciting lighthearted laughter in the middle of a drab and seemingly endless winter.

Van Kaplan, executive producer of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the musical's director, conceived the idea for this mini-musical that is having its world premiere at the CLO Cabaret through April 27.

Recognizing the popularity of increasingly outrageous, so-called reality shows, Kaplan, lyricist and script writer Christopher Dimond and composer Michael Kooman have created a wacky, funny musical with a tender streak of romance.

While in Pittsburgh to tape an episode of her TV show, Judge Jackie learns that ratings for her courtroom show are plummeting.

Network hack Shane arrives to threaten the Superior Court justice-turned-celebrity with cancellation if she doesn't ratchet up the antics and celebrity profile of the plaintiffs and defendants in her TV courtroom.

The show's biggest speed bump for many audience members may be why Judge Jackie's ratings are tumbling.

Cases concern entertainingly bizarre and trivial lawsuits over pizza cheese-induced injuries, the disappearance of funds for a planned survivalist bunker, aliens, zombies and Renaissance re-enactors.

Two inventive performers — Maggie Carr and Connor McCanlus — create the roster of people behaving badly and idiotically with occasional assistance from Jonathan Visser and Jason Coll.

Carr shows off her vocal talents with a performance of “My Daddy Hate Me; Mean Mean Daddy! (Baby).”

These silly suits and loony litigants would be a magnet for reality TV fans.

Coll spends the bulk of the show as the Judge's insecure, but loyal, longtime bailiff with a secret. He also shows a flair for over-the-top comedy with some spicy Mexican fantasy sequences.

Visser is delightfully maniacal and pragmatic as the flamboyant and cynical Shane, who destabilizes Judge Jackie's life. He also has a hilarious cameo as Henry's passive-aggressive mother.

But what drives the show's pace and trajectory of the show is Kara Mikula's impatient, outspoken Judge Jackie and her deliciously judgmental diatribes. She has a full and vigorous voice that she puts to good use with “I'll Get it Back” and “Not Me.”

Kooman and Dimond's score runs the gamut from musical-theater ballad to rap.

It helps propel the show forward and fill in back stories, most notably Coll's ”If You Only Knew” solo.

But Coll's solo and the country-Western “Crazy as Love” could just as easily be stand-alone songs.

Kaplan says he decided to create “Judge Jackie” to increase the library of small, light musicals that would be at home in more casual venues, such as its current spot in the Cabaret at Theater Square.

When Kaplan was interviewed last month, he was not ready to talk about the show's potential beyond the current production. But this high-quality, entertaining production leaves little doubt that “Judge Jackie Justice” is an attractive option for other cities and theater companies.

Pittsburgh references that pepper the script can easily be adapted to other locales. The musical's spoofy take-off on popular TV shows and the drive for ratings, coupled with a nearly profanity-free script should make a big hit with a wide audience.

Pairing a just-the-facts-ma'am courtroom with a mirror ball, Tony Ferrieri's attractive, solid and lovingly detailed set and Scott Nelson's lighting design increase the show's interest and humor.

One caveat: Along with harmless segments that encourage the audience to echo a snippet of the “Judge Jackie Justice” theme song, the musical has built-in audience-participation bits that prove once again that spontaneity is not a Pittsburgher's strong suit.

If you prefer not to be among the chosen, ask for a seat farther back.

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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