It's not a birthday party until you rib the guest of honor. Why else invite the satirists of The Second City to give your town the once-over for its 250th anniversary?
The first high-profile guests for what Pittsburgh's civic panjundrums envision as a year-long, regional celebration were invited about a year ago. In talks with Ted Pappas, artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater, the famed Chicago-based sketch-and-improv comedy troupe accepted a commission to do a new kind of show at the Public.
Instead of performing an existing package of sketches complemented by improv -- which its touring companies have been doing here for years -- Second City would do something like its customized show in Denver, titled "How I Lost My Denverginity." This past summer, the writers flew in to learn the terrain and start boning up on Pittsburgh currrent events. The cast -- most of whom played the Public last year in Second City's Dysfunctional Holiday Revue -- arrives on the first weekend of the new year. And Three Rivers Run Through It! premieres Tue., Jan 8, at the O'Reilly Theater, with eight shows in six days.
In comedy, Second City is iconic. Since its founding in 1959, it's nurtured talents from John Belushi to Tina Fey, from Alan Arkin to Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris. The troupe now boasts three touring companies and branches in cities including Toronto, Detroit and Las Vegas. But according to Second City vice president Kelly Leonard, for a custom show, Pittsburgh held a particular appeal.
"The city itself seemed ripe for Second City satire -- just like Chicago, Pittsburgh has a wealth of local history to poke at: obsessive sports fans, local political intrigue and the tension between a blue-collar community evolving into a sophisticated urban metropolis," Leonard writes in an e-mail.
Pappas is thrilled to help with research. "We constantly send them the day's news," he says. "What weird unbelievable thing happened.
"The idea that they think we're worthy of a new show is really great," adds Pappas, whose own sketch-comedy roots include early 1980s choreography gigs on Saturday Night Live.
But what will we see? Three Rivers has a six-person cast -- the touring company of Tim Baltz, Rebecca Hanson, Brendan Jennings, Dana Quercioli, Mark Raterman and Mary Sohn, directed by Andy Miara, with musical direction by Bryan Dunn. The show is in three acts, the first two largely scripted, with original songs, the third completely improvised from audience suggestions.
About the content, the show's makers and presenters alike are cagey -- partly because they don't want to give too much away, partly because the material will be changing not only up until showtime, but during the run. Pressed, Pappas says: "Don't be surprised if you see a tailgating sketch [or one about] out-of-towners visiting Pittsburgh for the first time and their impression of Pittsburghers."
Performer Tim Baltz, interviewed by phone in Chicago, allows that there's a song about our exceptionally young mayor, and another lamenting the woes of the Pirates. "There will also be plenty of Cleveland-bashing," Baltz adds. That's to the chagrin of Quercioli, a Cleveland native. "She loses a little bit of herself everytime we go over those scenes," jokes Baltz.
But while the show is mostly an irreverent celebration of Pittsburgh, don't be surprised if some barbs are more pointed.
"Second City is billed as social and political satire," says Baltz. "I'm always surprised when I read reviews of shows on the road, and they're like, 'Nothing was off limits!' -- as though that was a bad thing.
"Whenever we do satirize anything," he adds, "we aim for no judgment in it. If this coin is being looked at heads up all the time, well, we need to see the tails side as well. ... That's what comedy is: a great way to show the fresh perspective."
Three Rivers Run Through It! Tue., Jan. 8, through Sun., Jan. 13. O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. $25-45. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org