Congo Square 

The chaotic assemblage of Mardi Gras parade detritus takes on extra meaning in Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre's production of Congo Square. In this -- the first fully-staged production of the 1975 play -- the wreckage is symbolic of Frank Gagliano's colorful script, which reaches into many corners but never fully coheres. And although this is called a musical, it more feels like a play punctuated by short songs which fail to come together, like shiny strips of paper wilting in the humidity.

Set in New Orleans, Congo Square introduces us to Willy Beau Squire, a mentally and emotionally unstable gunman who shoots a man and, while holed up in a storage room, tries to come to grips with who he is and what he's done. Too much of the script focuses on his flights of fantasy into New Orleans' black history, evoking long since dead people. Meanwhile, in a more compelling storyline, Willy Beau's compassionate companion, Dauphine, wants to be by his side, and Mayor Anderson tries to get Willy Beau to pay the price for his crime.

Monteze Freeland gives a virtuosic performance as Willy Beau, conveying an appealing innocence beneath Squire's confused mental state. Erika Cuenca's Dauphine brings the requisite sweet vulnerability to her role. As Mayor Anderson, Kevin Brown sings in a fine, sturdy voice, but delivers his dialogue as if preaching gospel rather than portraying a living person. Perhaps director Marci Woodruff wanted him to suggest another fantasy dimension, complementing Willie Beau's off-kilter mind. Next to Cuenca's sincerity, however, Brown's portrayal further stretches the fabric of this parade float, which already lacks enough wheels on the ground.

Pianist Ed Tarzia ably tinkles the ivories in Claibe Richardson's music, which hints at blues and various kinds of pop while lacking any definite personality. And during the performance I attended, Freeland and Cuenca got progressively further out of tune with those simple harmonies.

Gagliano's words sometimes ably suggest Tennessee Williams' ornately Southern turns of phrase. But Congo Square never reaches such compelling territory.


Congo Square continues through Tue., March 8. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or www.pghplaywrights.com


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