Cathy O'Neil (left) and Les Wharton in the 2007 production. (Courtesy photo: Bill Mahan) Cathy O’Neil (left) and Les Wharton in the 2007 production. (Courtesy photo)

When Cathy O’Neil created the first Atlanta Bard show almost 20 years ago, she had no idea what she was getting into.

A Bard Show Tribute: One Singular Sensation” honors O’Neil, the much-loved visionary behind the long-running series of all-lawyer, musical-comedy parodies who died of pancreatic cancer last year. It is playing next weekend only at the new Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.

The witty and irreverent musical comedies have become an Atlanta legal community tradition, thanks to O’Neil’s uniquely energetic ability to tap into the previously unsung acting and dancing talents of the local bar.

The often ludicrously criminal storylines were informed by her career as a white-collar defense partner at King & Spalding after working as a federal prosecutor and then the DOJ’s chief drug gang-buster at the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.

Since launching the first one in 1999, O’Neil was the “shining star,” in the words of director Marc Clark, for the shows’ troupe of moonlighting lawyers.

“One Singular Sensation” features O’Neil’s favorite song-and-dance numbers from the nine shows that she directed, tied together by a loose plot that tells the behind-the-scenes story of a motley band of Atlanta lawyers putting on a musical comedy.

“Because we are weaving together so many of Cathy’s greatest hits, it took the form of a show within a show,” said Maggie Vath, who is producing the tribute show with Alison Nazarowski. By day, Vath teaches at Georgia State University College of Law and Nazarowski practices family law at her own firm.

Scripted by Brian Johnson of Drew, Eckl & Farnham, the O’Neil tribute features the Bard shows’ trademark (and possibly trademark-violating) humor.

“There’s goats and chickens in this show—and jokes,” said the director, Clark, a solo practitioner in Cartersville. There are also star chambers and people driving fake cars, he added. Even the devil will make an appearance.

“What we found out, when we started putting this show together, was how much work Cathy did,” Clark said. “She was able to direct, do the choreography, provide script oversight, raise money and get people in the theater.”

“I don’t know how she did it. It takes a team of us,” he added. “This really is a tribute to the work she did.”

Catherine O'Neil,(center) Atlanta Bard show impresario Cathy O’Neil leads the cast in singing “No One Needs a Courthouse” in a 2013 show.

The roughly 70 lawyers and judges who make up the cast and crew have been rehearsing since August, Vath said. Rick McMurtry and Courtney McBurney (also the vocal coach) will reprise their show-stopper “Somebody to Blame,” sung to the tune of Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” from the 2016 show, “Mock the Vote,” the last one O’Neil directed.

“They’re going to belt it out,” Vath said. “That was an epic one.”

The show will open with “You Can’t Stop the Law,” lifted from Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Another Bard show classic, “Biller,” which riffs on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” is also in the lineup, Nazarowski said.

Expect cameos from about 15 judges, plus Atlanta U.S. Attorney BJay Pak (a former scriptwriter) and other local legal luminaries, she added.

The producers declined to divulge any spoilers, saying only that some surprising candidates have been cast as the directors, producers and other characters for the show within a show.

They did reveal that the choreographer characters are played by Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney (spouse of Courtney McBurney), along with fellow Fulton Superior Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr. and JAMS mediation guru Terrence Croft in what O’Neil would have called “stretch roles.”

“It’s the opposite of typecasting,” Vath said.

Ragtag Origins

The Atlanta Bard show launched in 1999 in the storied tradition of American musical theater with a small and ragtag, yet enthusiastic, band of lawyers. They harbored hopes of fleeting fame or even notoriety and were eager to unleash their pent-up thespian energies and put on a show.

O’Neil and then-Atlanta bar president Greg Smith also talked a few initially dubious federal judges into dressing up as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion to sing about the rulings they would make if they only had, respectively, a brain, a heart or courage.

O’Neil, a performer from childhood who went on to direct Harvard Law School revues, took Smith up on his appeal to create a similar follies as a benefit for the Atlanta Bar Association. Since then, the Bard shows (officially known as “The Courthouse Line” series) have become the bar’s major fundraiser for legal charities.

They also have fostered a close-knit community of lawyers with a love for singing, dancing and acting—and the willingness to do so in public. A surprising number possess Broadway-level talent, and all have a high tolerance for potentially embarrassing tomfoolery.

Clark, who ran his own theater company in Florida before becoming a lawyer, recalled that for his first O’Neil show he did the “Carlton dance” from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” singing the Tom Jones lounge hit “It’s Not Unusual” with criminal defense attorney Don Samuel.

The shows have even sparked a few romances. Clark is now married to Ashley Wilson Clark, the associate producer in charge of marketing.

“I would never have met him if Cathy hadn’t rewritten a male villain role to be a female villain in 2013 after I auditioned,” Wilson Clark said. “It put me in scenes with Marc as we plotted to take over all of the ADR [alternative dispute resolution] companies in an evil monopoly.”

Show Must Go On

The production team already knew it would develop a tribute show before O’Neil’s death last October, Vath said, adding that O’Neil, in typically organized fashion, gave some notes for what to include.

They have been working on “One Singular Sensation” since around January, Clark said. “We really wanted to keep the show going,” he said.

Johnson, O’Neil’s longtime script co-writer, is assisting Clark as associate director. Norman Barnett, a Cobb County assistant district attorney, reprises his role as musical director, while federal prosecutor Laurel Boatright again jumps in as choreographer and dance captain. (The producers did not say, however, whether the FBI Dancers will reprise their forebodingly up-tempo number from “Mock the Vote.”)

Production team members gathered in Johnson’s basement over several weekends to watch all of O’Neil’s shows on his big-screen TV and decide which musical numbers to include.

“We tried to stay as true to Cathy’s choreography and her vision as we could—and we picked numbers that she especially loved,” Vath said. “There was a lot of laughing, a lot of reminiscing and a whole lot of crying.”

Vath served as O’Neil’s producer from the second show onward, right after she started practicing law. Like O’Neil, Vath had done musical theater in high school, college and law school, but she said that, as a practicing lawyer, she didn’t think she’d have the chance again.

Then she saw an ad for a Bard show audition in the Daily Report. “I was literally and figuratively embraced by Cathy,” she said, adding that she did anything O’Neil needed, whether it was learning to tap dance, design costumes or build props. “Whatever she asked, I did it. I adored her,” Vath said.

O’Neil and her husband, Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias, “wanted this show to live on and be her legacy,” Vath said.

To that end they established the Cathy O’Neil Memorial Bard Show Fund, which will support future shows. (To contribute from the group’s online donations page, click on the drop-down menu for Donation Distribution to specify the O’Neil fund.)

If O’Neil hadn’t been a lawyer, she could have gone into show business, Clark said. “She had the ability, the talent—and most of all, she had the love for it.”

“One Singular Sensation” will run Nov. 16 and Nov. 17 only at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center at 1 Galambos Way. Showtime is 8 p.m., and tickets are $34. They can be purchased online through the box office or by calling 770-206-2022. All proceeds benefit the Atlanta Bar Foundation.