Mr. Smalls gives live theater a go this weekend with Sondheim’s ‘Passion’

Jordan Berlin Speranzo and Nick Grosso have a passion for live theater. So it’s only appropriate that the first production they teamed up to stage shares that same name: Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.”

Speranzo’s mother Liz Berlin, rock veteran of Pittsburgh’s Rusted Root and owner of Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale, is so passionate about it that she is giving the venue over to her son to gauge the community’s interest in attending live theater in the borough.

“There’s just so much work that goes into it,” Berlin said. “I’ve put together large rock shows and festivals, and shows for my band, and I’ve never experienced anything that’s quite this much work.”

Speranzo and Grosso both graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in the spring.

Grosso, 24, who grew up in Florida, said he didn’t waste time taking Speranzo up on a proposal to start a theater company at Mr. Smalls.

“I’m a composer and playwright as well, so it really excited me,” Grosso said. “Jordan suggested ‘Passion,’ which is a relatively unknown Sondheim musical. But it’s quickly become one of my favorites.”

Grosso said the characters in the musical’s love story are “complex, sometimes in unlikable ways.”

“It contains a lot of uncomfortable truths, and it makes you grapple with the idea of love and romance,” he said.

Grosso, Speranzo and Berlin also had to grapple with the logistics of staging a live musical theater production in a venue built for rock bands.

And that doesn’t even take into account the building’s original conversion from a 19th-century church to a music hall.

“We didn’t want to just use the proscenium stage,” Grosso said. “So what we’ve done is basically make the whole venue a performance space. The audience sits all over the place, and the show happens all over the place.”

Berlin said the show, which opens Friday, is definitely not going be “your typical go-to-the-theater-look-at-the-stage” situation.

“We’re using the whole left side of the venue, two balcony levels above that, and also a private VIP box that we originally built for Wiz Khalifa, which will be the bedroom for one of the show’s lead characters,” she said.

Part of the profits from the show’s run will go toward the offshoot Mr. Smalls Theatricals group, which Grosso hopes will continue bringing theater to Millvale.

He agreed with Berlin about the amount of work it’s taken to reach this point — the production was postponed on three occasions with covid-19 and casting issues — especially for his first post-college, real-world project.

“We’ve had to fundraise, plan things, budget, bring a team together, and design pretty much everything about this production,” he said. “We don’t exactly know what the next show will be yet, but we do know it’s going to be quite a bit smaller!”

The show will take place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday at Mr. Smalls Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., in Millvale.

Tickets for “Passion” are $20, but $10 for Millvale residents and students, and are available at — search “Stephen Sondheim’s Passion.”

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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