'Judge Jackie Justice' courts musical fun for CLO Cabaret audience

| Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Executive producer Van Kaplan is always on the hunt for small musicals to fill the CLO Cabaret schedule.

“There are not a lot of small musicals and it is difficult to find (ones) that are lighter,” Kaplan says.

Rather than wait for artists to create more shows like “Forever Plaid,” “Nunsense” and “Ruthless! The Musical,” Kaplan has begun taking a proactive approach, by fostering new musicals.

The CLO Cabaret's first foray “ 'S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical,” which debuted in 2010, drew its inspiration from the musicals of the legendary composing team of George and Ira Gershwin.

For the company's second project, Kaplan needed to look no further than his home TV.

“I've been on a quest to find new, relevant shows that speak to audiences,” Kaplan says. “Reality shows like ‘The People's Court,' ‘The Jerry Springer Show' and ‘Dr. Phil' are popular. People watch them.”

The outcome of that brainstorm — “Judge Jackie Justice” — will have its world premiere with performances beginning Jan. 30 at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.

The popularity of reality-based courtroom dramas began with radio audiences. Television has hosted a variety of them, including “Divorce Court,” “Kids' Court,” “Paternity Court,” “Judge Judy” and the long-running “People's Court,” which celebrated its 30th anniversary last September.

The premise of “Judge Jackie Justice” is that a reality show is doing a live taping of its show in Pittsburgh as part of its national tour and the Cabaret at Theater Square has been transformed into a TV studio for the event.

Local litigants will appear, seeking Judge Jackie's brand of justice, says Kaplan, the show's creator and also the director of the production.

“You will see a lot of hometown references, which makes it fun,” he says. “There are also a lot of surprises. It takes you to places you don't expect to go.”

It also has three possible endings, so those who see it at one performance may experience a different conclusion than those who see it on another night, Kaplan says.

To create the score and script for “Judge Jackie Justice,” Kaplan enlisted two Carnegie Mellon University graduates — composer Michael Kooman and lyricist and book writer Christopher Dimond.

Kooman and Dimond began collaborating while they were students at CMU. Together, they have written a half-dozen musicals, including “Orphie & The Book of Heroes,” a commission by the Kennedy Center, where it is set to premiere in February.

They were instantly intrigued by Kaplan's concept for “Judge Jackie Justice.”

“This is a concept where you could push far and go over the top,” says Dimond, who grew up in Thornburg and graduated from Bishop Canevin High School.

“It was something we had not done before. We had to come up with creative ways to maximize its potential and be foolproof and make sure the audience would participate in its good-hearted fun.”

The show is scripted. But it also has room for improvisational moments and audience interaction, Kaplan says.

“We tried to come up with a loose idea or structure focused around Judge Jackie and the things going on in her life and how, through the cases, you were able to see her (problems),” Kooman says.

The score covers a wide range of musical styles from old-school Kander and Ebb-style show tunes to pop and rap music, Kooman says.

For research, Kooman and Dimond spent a lot of time with their TVs immersing their creative selves in the worlds of Judge Judy and Dr. Phil and people behaving badly.

“We tried to tap into that, because this is their world,” Kooman says. “It has been fun to play with the stereotypes. But there are also a lot of twists and turns you might not expect.”

Creating songs for the often-outrageous people and raucous situations that reality TV encourages and inspires offered rewards, Kooman says: “You are working with over-the-top personalities who call out to be musicalized.”

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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