On Stage: Sowing the Seeds of “Ruthless”

Photo by Matt Polk

Kiesha Lalama is adding one more hat to her head these days. Already mom to Jake, 13, and Jax, 11, Kiesha is an associate professor at Point Park University, education director for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, choreographer for such groups as Gus Giordano Dance Chicago, August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble and TedxPittsburgh. She also is rewriting her full-length jazz dance piece about family affairs, The Bench.

But when CLO executive director and Ruthless director Van Kaplan asked her to choreograph the latest Backstage Cabaret Show, Ruthless, she just couldn’t say no. “I’m having the time of my life,” she exults in that familiar rasp of hers, sort of like actress Kathleen Turner or, for the younger set, Miley Cyrus. It probably helps that four of the cast members are former students at Point Park, leading Kiesha to say, “I walked in and I said I was home.”

But Ruthless is also “the most challenging thing I have done so far,” adds Kiesha. She calls this musical comedy take-off on “The Bad Seed,” the story of a a little girl whose ambitions go awry (or maybe it’s more than that), “highly stylized. It’s just that everything is so intricate and the timing has to be perfect and precise or it’s just not funny.”

What with the intimacy of the Backstage Cabaret and the postage stamp stage, it means reining in the broad-based choreographic heart that generally permeates Kiesha’s movement. “I’m so used to dancing big — you know, get your legs up as high as they can go, give it everything you’ve got.”

Not here. “For me it’s finding the little details and intricate moments to make it work,” she admits. “So it’s the complete opposite of what I’m normally doing. It made me step out of my comfort zone and I love that because I’ve grown so much from this. It will enhance my choreography for the concert stage.”

She credits Van for much of it, a perfectionist of a director with a  “meticulous process” that she promises will produce a big comic payoff. “A magic is happening with this cast with Van at the helm and the information that the young actors are getting from him,“ she says. “It’s priceless!”

So look for tidbits like Marlana Dunn’s transformation from “baking cookies to Broadway stage,” a theater critic who hates musicals, 8-year old Allison Joyce, a vocal powerhouse who is about as big as Jonathan Visser’s (Sylvia St. Croix) right leg and more.

Then, too, the cast just has a great chemistry all on its own and that must account for something as well.

Evidently it does for Kiesha, who spouts, “I haven’t laughed this hard in any show!”

Ruthless will run through May 6 at the CLO Cabaret in Theater Square, Downtown. Tickets: $34.75-44.75; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.

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