The Conservatory Theatre Company at Point Park University has a well-deserved reputation for presenting musicals with professional-quality singing, dancing and staging, amid great sets and impressive costumes. The acting also frequently leaves strong impressions.
Now Conservatory students dance and sing again, thronging the stage within imaginative scenic designs, costumes, lighting and sound effects. Some engage in dynamic, exciting sword fights. But Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is no musical. It's a play, an eloquent, passionate tale of deadly events, deeper and wider than a musical. This is a chance for performers to explore expressive, beautiful spoken English while delving into complexities of famed characters.
Since performers of the same age as these characters often lack the experience or depth of insight to expertly deliver the essence of such complex verbal material, the Conservatory should provide what they need to learn. But the students don't get enough of such necessary training in director Penelope Miller Lindblom and assistant director Randy Kovitz's conception. Instead of maximizing time rehearsing language, the directors have cut parts and made room for actions in which these students already excel.
As the star-crossed lovers, Amadeo Fusca and Gina Tomkowich successfully convey the vulnerable and volatile qualities of such kids speaking with sweet conviction -- even though the famed balcony scene, after trimming, has almost as many kisses as words. Meanwhile Lindblom allows Sean Lenhart to make the loquacious Mercutio a bouncing, giggling goof, robbing his speeches of humor and charm. Dressed in generic Native American clothing for the part of "Running Brave -- friend to Romeo," meanwhile, Jeremy Earhart is called upon to narrate and to play solo violin, intermittently struggling with familiar melodies or providing scratchy sound effects. Sometimes his violin even obscures dialogue. Didn't Lindblom notice the effect, again suggesting that words don't count?
She and Kovitz have set the story in 1849 -- newly statehooded California, where the important issue of brutal family feuds gets lost. Because people randomly attired in Spanish, Native American and Western clothing never clearly define crucial alliances, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet no longer look like causes for closure.
This framework legitimizes the swordplay; no doubt Kovitz and his cast relished spending much rehearsal time for the fights. The time, like that spent on production numbers, would be better spent on Shakespeare's glorious, magnificent speeches.
Note the ampersanded "and" in this production's title, further underlining that the directors have Hollywooded in the shadow of Zorro.
Romeo & Juliet continues through April 13. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 www.pittsburghplayhouse.com