Thursday, July 6, 2017

Miss Abigail - Advice to the Lovelorn Never Felt So Good

Paige Davis Stars in "Miss Abigail" Credit: Archie Carpenter


Looking for a good time? Then you might want to head down to the Cabaret at Theater Square in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Paige Davis, probably best known for her work in the Emmy-nominated "Trading Spaces," is tickling the funny bone with advice under the guise of  a relationship guru. As the title character in "Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage," Davis dispenses all the expertise she’s garnered after 23 years of marriage followed by five years of widowhood.

Those who remember Dr. Ruth, the forthright radio talk show host who tackled sensitive issues of a sensual nature, might make a superficial comparison to Miss Abigail, who’s a bit more naïve (without being school marm-ish or prissy) but none the less eager to inform than her predecessor. Unlike Dr. Ruth, Davis can’t disguise the fact that her real mission is not necessarily to inform on matters of courtship and marriage but to entertain her audience with one-liners, risqué jokes and double entendres penned by co-authors Ken Davenport and Sarah Saltzberg. And that she does with consistent dedication to her craft throughout the intermission-less 80 minute show.

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to come up on stage and contribute to the shenanigans as part of the interactive performance. As an example, audience members cajoled to the front of the theater are asked to participate in a game and guess whether a particular scenario should be classified as Love, Lust or Stalking. Some lucky participants may even have an onstage photo taken and pasted on the CLO Facebook page.

Even before the show begins, Abigail’s devoted assistant, Paco, (Jerreme Rodriguez) passes through those seated around cabaret tables to pick up questions audience members might like to ask the diva of romance. Chore accomplished, he then rouses the crowd to a fever pitch by sweet-talking them and reminding them of the Stanley Cup victory now owned by the "City of Champions." When he mentions the phrase "cup repeat," the decibels become intense, and Davis enters the stage amid the uproar

From the comfortable confines of a chic living room set by Tony Ferrieri, complete with well-stocked bar and library, Miss Abigail delivers her shtick to her listeners touching on everything from how to converse, groom and preen to flirt, kiss and seduce.

While Davis carries the bulk of the show and is especially adept in clever ad lib moments when interacting with her audience, Rodriguez adds a lot of nuanced color and interest to his character. Secretly smitten by his mentor to the point of idolatry, he presses his case in not-always-so-subtle ways, but all his signals of romantic interest go unnoticed by the indifferent Abigail.

Director Luanne Nunes de Char gets good chemistry from her co-stars, whose characters are contrasts in style, mood and mannerisms. Davis comes off as very self-confident without being overbearing, and she invites her listeners in with an approachable demeanor that never becomes condescending. As her character, she shows a bit of naiveté, seeming unaware of the double meaning of the word wiener, which she invokes often, and by thinking the "F word" stands for flirting.

Rodriguez builds a genuine rapport and a sympathetic bond with the audience as the love stricken assistant smitten by unrequited love. He also manages to convey the impression that he has a depth of comedic talent, one that isn’t fully explored in his limited but vital role in this casual theatrical venture.

Costume designer Anthony James Sirk cleverly matches the actors’ outfits in complimentary colors, and lighting designer K. Jenna Ferree is asked to bring up the lights frequently when the spotlight is thrown on moments of audience engagement.

Inspiration or the comedy comes from a real life advice author, Abigail Grotke, whose insights into the human mating and marrying psyche found their way onto her website, a book and a weekly column in the London "Times." Magazine.

The latest offering by the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera is one for which you can leave your thinking cap at home. But, depending on your sense of humor, it’s slathered in comedy that ranges from downright silly to belly-shaking intensity and everything in between.

"Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage is at the CLO Theater at Cabaret Square, 655 Penn Avenuein Downtown Pittsburgh through September 17. For tickets, go to CLOCabaret.com or phone 412-456-6666.

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