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'Triple Espresso' magically brews taste of vaudeville

| Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010

When artistic director William Partlan first staged "Triple Espresso" in 1996 at the Cricket Theatre in Minneapolis, he had no idea it would be the start of a long-running relationship.

The result of a creative collaboration among three successful solo performers, "Triple Espresso" used songs, a little vaudeville and slapstick, audience interaction, magic tricks and a lot of comedy to create a rags-to-rags story about three guys, a coffee house, a complete lack of common sense and a shot at fame and fortune that ends as a nationally televised embarrassment.

Its creators — Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg — had been performing the show in a Minneapolis church when they asked Partlan to take a look at it.

Partlan, who often premiered new works at the Cricket Theatre, liked what he saw.

"Minneapolis has a sophisticated theater audience. I was impressed by the audience's reception," Partlan says. "The kind of comedy this is is ageless. This is vaudeville. ... Somewhere at its core is something truly funny."

Partlan directed the production that opened in 1996 and went on to be the longest running show in Minneapolis history.

Fourteen years, 52 theaters, six countries and 10,000 performances later, he still directs every production of "Triple Espresso" including the one that begins Thursday at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.

Before expanding "Triple Espresso" into a worldwide enterprise, Partlan, Arnold, Donley, Stromberg and producer Dennis Babcock formed a company. In addition to Partlan continuing to direct all productions, the three original performers help cast and train all the actors, and the original participants continue to oversee every production.

"We do keep control because we really care about quality control," Partlan says.

There's no need for understudies, Partlan says, because the originators have trained more than 30 actors who can step into the roles of Buzz Maxwell, Hugh Butternut and Bobby Bean with little to no advance notice.

Actors don't always stay with a production through its run and the cast can vary from week to week.

But the quality is consistent, Partlan says.

"I'd be proud to bring any three of those guys to perform," Partlan says. "They all trained with me originally and have worked with different performers, so there is immediate communication."

The availability of interchangeable performers still allows for creativity and individuality in their performances, he says.

"The show changes because we don't want to step on creative choices," Partlan says. During rehearsals, individual performers will work out nuances of how to hand a line to a fellow performer to accommodate personal styles and choices.

Also, the show is updated and tweaked so that it remains fresh or relevant to a specific city or culture.

To perform the magic tricks that are part of the show, Partlan says it's easier to cast magicians who can become actors, than to train actors to become magicians.

One of those magicians, Christopher Hart, who is part of the CLO Cabaret cast, has been doing "Triple Espresso" for most of its 14 years.

It's an element that comes as a surprise to most audiences, Hart says.

"The audience doesn't expect to see magic," he says. "There are very few places to see magic and it's visual not just about words. ... When the 'Triple Espresso' audience sees it, it takes them to a new world."

It's also a show that can be enjoyed by audiences from 8 to 80, Hart says. "It's not playing to children or to adults. Somehow it crosses age."

Additional Information:

'Triple Espresso'

Presented by: CLO Cabaret

When: Thursday-Jan. 9 at 7:30 p.m. most Wednesdays to Fridays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Check website for specific days.

Admission: $34.75 and $44.75

Where: Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghclo.org

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