When it comes to musicals, Point Park University's Performing Arts Conservatory students remain in a class by themselves. They get high marks for a new production of Thou Shalt Not, dancing up a storm, singing and acting with polish, style and depth equal to that of professionals. Credit directors/choreographers Susan Stroman and Tomé Cousin for vivifying David Thompson's adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin. Credit the cast for delivering the drive, stomp and pulse of Harry Connick Jr.'s best songs.
Clearly, someone saw the potential and virtues in a show heavily slammed by critics during its short 2001 premiere run. And these performances make the most of its special qualities.
Nonstop dynamism is bound by the thread of Zola's sensational, ground-breaking morality tale and turned into a fascinating, colorful pageant. In fact, it takes much of the first act to arrive at that story, one Quantum Theatre brilliantly and more thoroughly told in October inside an abandoned Braddock swimming pool.
Therese is married to sickly, foolish Camille Raquin, and falls passionately in love with his newly arrived buddy, Laurent LeClaire. Laurent and Therese wish Camille would forever disappear. When Camille drowns at the hands of Laurent, it looks as if the lovers are home free. But that death swamps the romance, especially when the victim's image haunts them relentlessly.
Thompson retains the essence of Zola's principal characters, setting the whole thing in 1946 New Orleans, a Connick-rooted town, while Stroman's original conception evokes a sultry, spicy, multi-racial atmosphere. They fill the stage with hearts throbbing on the edge of doom, menaced by nature, human or otherwise.
Witness bouncy, bluesy night-club scenes, a stage-filling Mardi Gras with an array of Don Difonso costumes to die for, and a way-down-home funeral parade. Scene after scene oozes sensuality, especially when Laurent and Therese gyrate near-nude on a bed alive with movements of its own. Wriggling, writhing Delta-sweaty bodies articulate desire, fate, irony and death.
Meanwhile, Connick's brassy, sassy band does its jazzy thing. His frequent story-telling songs don't equal those of the production numbers, sounding most like verses never leading to memorable choruses. But that doesn't matter any more than it matters that in nearly three hours, Zola's material gets overshadowed by fantastic permutations and decorations.
Watch and smell the steam.
Thou Shalt Not continues through Sun., Feb. 10. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com