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Streets of America

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The other night I was talking to a friend about the new musical Streets of America, presented by the Point Park University Conservatory Company. Set in 1969, it's about the Vietnam War, specifically the lives of a handful of anti-war activists. Unlike other theater works and movies about that time, Streets isn't a nostalgic, cutesy trip into America's past. It's a clear-eyed demonstration of what it means to be (a) living in a country committing a moral wrong and (b) utterly unable to stop it.

Though well done, certainly, the whole thing's fairly depressing, and I was bitching about how sad it was. Perhaps to lighten my mood, my friend said: "Well, at least we learned something from Vietnam."

Which only made me feel worse, because apparently we didn't learn anything. The implicit power of Streets of America is, of course, that it forces into high relief what we're doing in the Middle East right now. And it's not just because I have a son of draftable age that I don't see how any of it is going to end well.

Because this is a production of a new work, here are my thoughts for the next round of revisions. The book-writers, Matthew Riopelle and Michael Rupert, need to do some cutting and reshaping. About half of the show is an ensemble piece with wildly divergent tones and styles (satirical skits, video interludes and tons of metaphor); the other half is a straightforward musical-theater boy-loses-girl plot. Either is fine (though I'd vote for the former). But having both in the same work pulls focus from each and the show, at times, feels at war with itself -- a problem that hobbles the overambitious first act.

Rupert is the composer, Rupert and Riopelle are the lyricists, and the two men write in a free-wheeling, unstructured style. I'm a Sondheim freak so, naturally, I was wishing for a bit more attention to form in the musical material: It's quite expressive, but by the evening's end feels a bit unvaried.

Director/choreographer Scott Wise and musical director/orchestrator Douglas Levine have created a very solid evening, with an enormous contribution from this achingly sincere and committed student cast, who fill the stage with enthusiasm and precision.

But still, there's that depression, and I guess the most depressing thing of all is wondering whether, 40 years from now, someone will write a musical about America's occupation of Iraq mirroring whatever country we will have invaded then.

Streets of America continues through Sun., Nov. 11. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com

Musical history: Kyle Igneczi (left) and Shannon Denney in Point Park Consevatory's Streets of America. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DREW YENCHAK, LIGHTHOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY

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