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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Matt Lenz
Chorographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
July 29, 2015

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of Disney’s modern animated films. It’s a contemporary classic that’s been adapted for the stage and enjoyed a successful, long-running Broadway production. It’s a big, colorful show that’s well-suited for a large venue like the Muny. With a cast of well-known Muny veterans as well as some welcome new faces, this production is thoroughly entertaining and true to the magical, enchanting spirit of the film.

The plot, based on the age-old fairy tale, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film. Belle (Kate Rockwell) is a well-read young dreamer who is praised for her physical beauty, but criticized for her unconventional ways in her small French village. She’s pursued by the vain but good-looking Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann), who seems to only want to marry Belle so he can add another trophy to his collection. When Belle’s father, the eccentric inventor Maurice (Lenny Wolpe) gets lost in the woods and wanders into an enchanted castle, he’s imprisoned by the Beast (Nicholas Rodriguez), who is under an enchantress’s curse. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to save her father, the story really gets going, as their relationship is the key to breaking the spell that binds the Beast and his household servants, who have all been transformed into objects–like the candlestick Lumiere (Rob McClure), the clock Cogsworth (Steve Rosen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Marva Hicks) and her son Chip (Spencer Jones) the teacup. There’s also feather duster Babette (Deidre Goodwin) and wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche (Heather Jane Rolff).  A few changes have been made from the film version, mostly to make the story work better on stage, and a few new songs have been added, including the excellent ballads “Home” for Belle and “If I Can’t Love Her” for the Beast. The film’s classic songs including “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and the classic title song are all there, as well.

This is a big, vibrant production designed to fit the Muny’s massive performance space. Although the costumes, designed by Robin L. McGee, seem a bit overly cartoonish at times, the set is spectacular. Designed by Robert Mark Morgan, it’s a big, versatile set focused for much of the production on the castle, with a suggestion of the grand stone facade including arches, a staircase and prominent fireplace. The Muny’s turntable is put to excellent use as well, making for smooth scene changes and maintaining the show’s grand atmosphere. There’s also excellent video design by Matthew Young, and some well-placed special effects including real fireworks in a key scene. Again, as has been happening in every show so far this season, there are a few sound mishaps, with mics cutting out and lines being missed as a result. Still, the show is a scenic wonder, contributing to the overall fairy tale theme with style.

The performances are strong all-around, with the biggest standout being Rockwell as a thoroughly convincing Belle. She’s got just the right amount of earnestness, determination and likability, as well as a big, powerhouse voice that’s well showcased on songs like “Home” and “A Change In Me.” She’s paired well with Rodriguez as a particularly sensitive Beast, and their scenes of getting to know one another are real highlights. The “Beauty and the Beast” number is beautifully done, with Rockwell and Rodriguez bringing the romantic energy and Hicks in fine voice as Mrs. Potts.  There’s great comic support from the always excellent McClure as the charming Lumiere, and Rosen as the fastidious Cogsworth. Hackmann is a suitably swaggering and clear-voiced Gaston, and Michael Hartung is funny as his bumbling sidekick Lafou. There’s also an excellent, extra-large ensemble bringing verve and vigor to the production numbers like “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Belle”.

There are a few somewhat jarring changes from the film that I’m not sure play particularly well, especially toward the end when Gaston confronts the Beast, although the overall conclusion is still effective. The overall charm of this show comes across well in that big, bold Muny style. It’s an entertaining iteration of a classic, and it’s sure to bring joy and enchantment to theatregoers of all ages.

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen Photo: The Muny

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 7th, 2015.

Moon Over Buffalo
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Edward Coffield
Insight Theatre Company
July 25, 2015

Will Bonfiglio, Alan Knoll, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Will Bonfiglio, Alan Knoll, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

“All the world’s a stage”, Shakespeare wrote, but for some people, the stage is their world. Insight Theatre’s latest production, Ken Ludwig’s outrageous backstage farce Moon Over Buffalo, depicts a couple of past-their-prime stage stars for whom show business is their life, although family conflicts and the lure of Hollywood complicate that life. Insight has brought this play to life in a fast-paced, laugh-a-minute production that calls to mind the theatre world of yesteryear while managing to emphasize some timeless themes as well.

Backstage at the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo New York, celebrated stage performers George (Alan Knoll) and Charlotte Hay (Jenni Ryan) are leading a company of actors on the latest stop of a tour. They’re performing two plays in repertory–Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Their daughter, Rosalind (Sam Auch) used to perform with the troupe but has left showbiz for the “real world”, and returns to visit so she can introduce her parents to her new fiance, star-struck TV weatherman Howard (Will Bonfiglio). That’s only the start of the story. The rest is a comedy of many surprises, involving Rosalind’s ex-boyfriend Paul (Pete Winfrey), who still loves Rosalind; her feisty grandmother Ethel (Tommy Nolan), who rarely remembers her hearing aid; company member Eileen (Kara Overlein), who may or may not be having a fling with George; and Richard (Eric Dean White), the Hays’ lawyer, who is harboring a not-so-secret romantic interest in Charlotte.  What follows is a hilarious, slapstick farce involving love triangles, mistaken identity, mixed up performances and costumes, and in a vein similar to another famous backstage comedy,  Noises Off, lots of running in and out of doors.  It’s a story that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you take it seriously, but fortunately “serious” is about the last word you can use to describe this play–unless of course you mean “seriously funny”, because Moon Over Buffalo certainly is that.

The delightful cast has no weak links, and is led by Knoll in a memorable performance as the bombastic, vain George. He’s got the timing down to a science, especially excelling in his drunk scenes. Ryan matches him as the somewhat jaded Charlotte, who seems to be a little more grounded than her husband. Auch is fine as Rosalind, as well, especially pairing well with Winfrey as the still lovestruck Paul. Winfrey has a goofy, energetic charm about him and plays the physical comedy well. There are also strong performances from Nolan as the confrontational Ethel, White as the more subdued Richard, Overlein as the emotional Eileen, and Bonfiglio in a scene-stealing performance as the delightfully goofy Howard. This play depends a great deal on comedic timing, and these players execute that well. There’s a particularly side-splitting section in Act 2 involving a mixed-up stage performance that highlights most of the performers comic abilities and keeps the audience laughing out loud.

The scene has been set ideally by means of Peter and Margery Spack’s remarkably detailed set. The backstage of a 1950’s theatre has been meticulously recreated and decorated with all sorts of theatrical paraphernalia and Margery Spack’s excellent period-specific props.  The costumes, designed by Thomas Crain, are colorful and well-suited, as well, from the 1950s clothes to the theatrical costumes for Cyrano and Private Lives. It’s a very strong technical production, providing the appropriate whimsical atmosphere for the chaotic goings-on of the show.

Laughter is the number one goal of a show like this, and Insight’s production achieves that goal with zeal and gusto.  It also provides a little window into the world of theatre in the middle of the 20th century, when television was starting to emerge as an important force in entertainment, and films had already become predominant. The main reason for a show like Moon Over Buffalo, though, is to make its audience laugh, and it does that well. It’s a zany, charming farce that holds the audience’s attention from the beginning and holds it until the end.

 Insight Theatre Company’s Moon Over Buffalo runs at the Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, Webster Groves, until August 9th, 2015.

The LaBute New Theater Festival has become a summer tradition for St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Featuring a new play by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute as well as plays submitted by playwrights all over the world, the festival seems to get bigger and better every year. A total of ten plays have been selected this year, in addition to a special reading of scripts written by high school students. Of the main stage productions, they’re being presented in two consecutive engagements, with LaBute’s “Kandahar” being presented in both time slots. There’s a great variety of plays this year, ranging from comedies and dramas to thrillers and even science fiction.  The second installment of this years festival is still running until this weekend. Here are some brief thoughts on all ten plays:

 

“Kandahar” by Neil LaBute (Presented in parts 1 and 2 of the Festival)

Michael Hogan Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Michael Hogan
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This riveting short play, by the festival’s namesake playwright, is the centerpiece of this year’s collection, as well as its highlight. It’s basically an extended monologue, although it builds drama and tension very well, presenting a difficult character and situation in a fascinating, if disturbing, manner. Michael Hogan gives an intense performance as an unnamed soldier recently returned from Afghanistan. He recounts a violent event that’s just taken place with an unapologetic and chilling tone. LaBute manages to examine the brutality of war as well as exploring what makes a killer, both before and after war. This is play a that gains power on seeing it the second time. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s profoundly memorable.

Part 1 (July 10-19)

“Custom” by Mark Young

This is an intriguing drama about a young man, Robert (Nathan Bush), who walks into a custom jeweler’s shop ostensibly to try to sell some jewelry. The jeweler (GP Hunsaker) has strong opinions about what kind of jewelry he buys, and makes. As the conversation evolves, it becomes clear that Robert has ulterior motives, and the jeweler has a secret.  While I managed to guess the “twist” about halfway through the production, this is a compelling piece, exploring relationships between people as well as an artists’ relationship with his art. The performances were engaging and believable, as well.

“A Taste of Heaven” by Chris Holbrook

In the festival’s sole venture into science fiction, this play has an interesting concept that’s somewhat overdone, and an ending that’s distinctly underdone.  There are some fine performances, but the story isn’t particularly convincing. It concerns a woman (Nancy Crouse), who walks into what appears to be some sort of government agency to talk to an administrative representative (Kevin Minor) about her health benefits. Apparently, they’ve been terminated because the government thinks she’s dead.  This starts an increasingly absurd chain of events that leads to a “surprise” development involving another agency employee (Rhyan Robinson) and the nature of the agency itself, and the woman’s request. It’s a twist that’s too little, too late.

“Cold In Hand” by Steve Apostolina

The story of a developing friendship between an elderly, blind African-American man and a young, white street musician, this play is distinguished by fine performances by its two actors, Don McClendon as the older Razz, and Rynier Gaffney as young Luke. The two bond over blues music, and Gaffney plays it well on his guitar. The exploration of an unlikely relationship between people of different ages and backgrounds is an intriguing concept, and the performances make it even more so. It’s a strong script with an even stronger cast.

“Stand Up for Onseelf “by Lexi Wolfe

Nathan Bush, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Aside from “Kandahar”, this was my favorite production of the festival’s first wave.  It’s something of an offbeat, UK-set romance, as the outgoing young Lila (Alicia Smith) meets the more standoffish, older Lucas (Nathan Bush) at a party. While the possibilities of a romantic encounter are discussed, we learn a lot more about both of these individuals and what draws them together. There’s much more than initially meets the eye, and both performers give convincing portrayals and display a strong sense of chemistry. This is a thoroughly engrossing story, with a sweet conclusion.

A Stranger Here Myself” by Rich Orloff

This is something of an oddity–probably the least raunchy sex-comedy I’ve heard of.  It follows a stressed-out business woman, Patricia (Jenny Smith) in a hotel room on the eve of an important presentation. When various methods of getting to sleep don’t work, she decides to relieve the tension through an elaborate fantasy that takes on a life of its own, involving a hunky movie star (Paul Cereghino), her ex-husband (Don McClendon), and her adventurous next-door neigbhor (Stephanie Benware). It’s a funny little play with some excellent comic timing, deciding to major on the absurdity of the fantasy to hilarious effect.

Part 2 (July 24–August 2)

“Homebody” by Gabe McKinley

Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Overall, I think part 2 of the festival is generally stronger than part 1, and this dark, somewhat disturbing play is a highlight.  It explores the relationship between a dejected aspiring novelist, Jay (Michael Hogan), and his manipulatiive and apparently invalid mother (Donna Weinsting). The performances here are extremely strong, and the script is excellent. Hogan and Weinsting have a believably combative relationship, and the plot developments are both gripping and surprising.  It’s a sharp, incisive play that deals not only with a dysfunctional mother-son relationship, but also deals with issues of commercialism in the publishing industry, integrity and identity in writing, and the lengths to which one might go in order to succeed.  Just when I thought I knew where this story was going, the playwright turned the tables, and it’s all as utterly convincing as it is unsettling.

“Pitch” by Theresa Masters & Marc Pruter

This is a sweet little comedy about two long-time friends who collaborate in writing television scripts. When Matt (Paul Cereghino) suggests to Trina (Stephanie Benware) that they stray from their usual subject matter of fantasy scripts and try a romantic comedy, she’s skeptical at first. Then, the story starts taking shape in ways that oddly reflect on the writers’ lives. It’s a cute concept and very well acted by both performers, although the ending isn’t particularly convincing.  The interactions between Trina and Matt are compelling to watch, for the most part.

“Deirdre Dear” by Norman Young

This play has its moments, but seems unfinished. It tells the story of Deirdre (Jenny Smith), a once-famous actress who has taken time off to raise her daughter, Bobbi (Maya Dickinson), but now wants to get back into the business. Bobbi is helping Deirdre run her lines for an audition when they run into the younger, more recently successful Bea (Alcia Smith), who is auditioning for the same role.  The play also features Ryan Robinson and Stephanie Benware. This is a play that tells an interesting story, showing the fickleness of show business and the difficulties of being an aging performer in such a world. There are some good moments in this production, and the actors all do a fine job, although it runs out of steam near the end, and the ending is abrupt and confusing.

“There You Are” by Fran Dorf

Jenny Smith, B. Weller Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Jenny Smith, B. Weller
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The second installment of the festival ends with one of its strongest entries. Featuring an excellent script, well-drawn characters and two top-notch performances, “There You Are” presents two interesting and likable characters in a thoroughly believable but unsettling situation. Two married (not to each other) writers, the more established George (B. Weller) and aspiring first-time novelist Jesse (Jenny Smith) have met at a writers’ workshop and have quickly developed a strong friendship with more than a little bit of a flirtatious tone. These two are clearly drawn to one another, and the sense of temptation is clear throughout the production as George and Jesse share their love of writing and profound connection with one another. The “will they or won’t they” is always there in the background, and for once, the eventual conclusion is both plausible and true to the characters. It’s anchored by two very strong characterizations from Weller and Smith.  Along with “Kandahar”, “Stand Up For Oneself,” and “Homebody”, this is one of my favorite productions of this year’s festival.

Anything Goes
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, and Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 22, 2015

Cast of Anything Goes Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Anything Goes
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

In a way, Anything Goes could well be called one of the orginal “jukebox musicals”. It’s been performed in various versions for decades, with many lyric, song, and book changes, and the plot, while entertaining, is fairly slight. The show exists, essentially, to be a showcase for the songs of celebrated 20th Century composer and lyricist Cole Porter. It’s a lively show with lots of silly comedy and spectacular dancing, and it’s currently being performed in top-notch fashion at STAGES St. Louis.

The story is somewhat silly, but entertaining nonetheless. It follows nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Julie Cardia) and friends on an ocean liner traveling between New York and London in the 1930s. Reno’s got something of a crush on her old friend, the handsome stockbroker Billy Crocker (Brent Michael DiRoma), but Billy’s newly smitten with young debutante Hope Harcourt (Heidi Giberson), who is sailing on the cruise with her mother (Kari Ely) with the aim of marrying rich English nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Dan Fenaughty). Meanwhile, gangster Moonface Martin (Bob Amaral), “Public Enemy #13″, is on the run from the law, and boards the ship in preacher’s disguise, bringing his friend Erma (Laura E. Taylor) along.  What ensues is a comedy of love triangles and quadrangles, as well as mistaken identity, gambling, singing and a whole lot of dancing.

The plot isn’t really one that bears a lot of scrutiny. It’s really just a platform for the songs and some some hilariously goofy comedy. Despite the various script updates over the years, the show does still come across as slightly dated, and there are some unfortunate stereotypes that are played for laughs. Still, for the most part it’s a fun show, and the real focus is on those lovely Cole Porter songs and Stephen Bourneuf’s spectacular choreography and excellent ensemble dancing.

This is a very ensemble-dependent show, considering all the stylish dance-numbers and intricately performed choreography. The ensemble sparkles on on numbers like the tap-dance heavy “Anything Goes” and the truly showstopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” led by the big-voiced Cardia as Reno.  Cardia also displays a strong sense of comedy, working well opposite both the charming DiRoma as Billy, the hilariously shady Amaral as Mooonface, and the delightfully goofy and thoroughly winning Fenaughty as Lord Evelyn.  All of these performers show great comedy skills and excellent voices, especially DiRoma, who also shares delightful chemistry with Giberson, who is also in excellent voice as Hope.  There are also fun comic performances from the always excellent Reichert as Billy’s nearsighted boss Elisha Whitney, and Kari Ely as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt.  Flack as the Captain, Brennan Caldwell as the Ship’s Purser, and Taylor as Erma also give memorable performances. It’s a very strong cast, from the leads to the ensemble, working together to bring life to the classic Porter score and a great deal of laughs to the audience.

The set, designed by James Wolk, is striking, colorful and versatile, creating a vibrant 1930’s atmosphere. There are also some marvelously detailed and stylish costumes by Bard Musgrove. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is effective and atmospheric, as well.

Ultimately, the point of Anything Goes is to entertain, and the production at STAGES does that well.  It’s a big, bold, stylish and energetic production that splendidly showcases the marvelous score and choreography. It’s also hilariously funny, with a decidedly silly sense of humor.  Despite a few drawbacks in the script, this is about as ideal a production of this show as I can imagine.

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Lousi

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Lousi

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Anything Goes is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 16th, 2015.

Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Directed by Gary Griffin
The Muny
July 21, 2015

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly Photo by Phillip Hamer  The Muny

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods has been one of my favorite musicals since I was a teenage drama geek listening to the Original Broadway Cast album on cassette tape on my Walkman. It’s the show that, after Carousel (which the Muny hasn’t staged since 1988), had been the musical I’d most wanted to see at the Muny, since the outdoor setting and wider appeal (compared to other Sondheim shows) made it an ideal choice.  Finally, in its 2015 season, the Muny has brought this modern classic to Forest Park, and it has done so in glorious fashion. With its wonderful production values and a top-notch cast, this production is a celebration of the magic of theatre.

The story is well-known now, since this play is so popular with regional, community, and school theatre companies. It’s basically a blend of various well-known fairy tales along with some original elements, as a childless Baker (Rob McClure) and his Wife (Erin Dilly) are sent on a journey to break a family curse by a mysterious Witch (Heather Headley) with secret motives of her own. Also on their own quests are Cinderella (Elena Shaddow), who wishes to escape her unhappy  home life with her cruel Stepmother (Ellen Harvey) and self-centered Stepsisters (Jennifer Diamond as Florinda, April Strelinger as Lucinda) and her weak-willed Father (Michael McCormick). She wants to attend the King’s festival , but soon finds herself being pursued by a persistent Prince (Andrew Samonsky). Meanwhile, the young lad Jack (Jason Gotay) is sent to the woods by his Mother (Zoe Vonder Haar) to sell his beloved cow, Little Red Riding Hood (Sara Kapner) meets a Wolf (also Samonsky) on the way to Grandmother’s (Anna Blair) house, and the isolated Rapunzel (Samantha Massell) lives a lonely existence being stowed away in a tower by the overprotective Witch and pines for another handsome Prince (Ryan Silverman). All these stories weave together in a complicated but clever way, with many surprises in store as the characters learn the truth of the old adage “be careful what you wish for”.

This is a story of archetypes and motivations, using fairy tales to present a complex morality tale with several important messages, especially that actions have consequences. The issue of parents as role models for their children is another major theme, as the show’s iconic closing number “Children Will Listen” exemplifies. It’s a multi-layered story, with some deceptively dark connotations, but also with a lot of fast-paced action and precisely timed comedy.  It’s one of those shows where timing is absolutely essential, and for the most part, this production gets it right. I did notice a few small issues with dropped lyrics and dialogue, although I’m sure all of that will be ironed out as the show continues its run. It’s impeccably staged, with the paramount sense of urgency maintained and the characterization compelling.

This is something of an all-star cast here, as well. Tony winner Heather Headley as the Witch is probably the most recognizable name, and she makes a profound impression, expertly conveying the Witch’s single-minded determination as well as her often creepy preoccupation with Rapunzel. Her takes on “Stay With Me” and “Witch’s Lament” are heartwrenching, and “Last Midnight” is powerfully effective, with Headley’s excellent vocals and imposing stage presence. McClure is ideally cast as the show’s Everyman figure, the Baker, bringing all the required conflict and sympathy to the role as well as a strong tenor voice. He works especially well in his scenes with McCormick as the “Mysterious Man” and with Dilly, in a winning performance as the determined, witty, and sometimes preoccupied Baker’s Wife.  Other standouts include Shaddow, who takes Cinderella on a believable emotional journey and delivers a great rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace.” Samonsky and Silverman are suitably handsome and self-absorbed as the Princes, with their duets on “Agony’ and its reprise among the comic highlights.  There’s also Kapner, displaying excellent comic timing as the snarky, confrontational Little Red and Gotay, who is amiable as the brave but not-too-bright Jack. Muny stalwart Ken Page is in excellent form and voice as the Narrator, and there are also strong turns by Vonder Haar as Jack’s Mother and Anna Blair as the ethereal figure of Cinderella’s Mother. Maggie Lakis operates a particularly expressive life-sized puppet as the cow Milk White, as well, and The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is put to clever use in various moments from the show’s storybook intro to its more somber, cautionary conclusion.

Visually, this production is a wish come true, exemplified by Michael Schweikart’s spectacular set. It’s giant storybooks in the intro give way to a more mysterious, versatile unit set that suggests a wooded setting and makes excellent use of the Muny’s giant turntable in portraying various areas in the dark and looming woods. The real trees framing the set are an added atmospheric bonus.  The costumes, by Andrea Lauer, are colorful and appropriate to the characters, with a variety of styles from the traditional to the more modern, giving the show a timeless effect.  There aren’t a lot of flashy special effects in this production, with the various transformations and magical entrances and exits mostly performed through staging or fairly simple lighting, but it all works well, with Rob Denton’s lighting being particularly striking.

Sondheim at the Muny is a wonderful thing. I wasn’t sure it would ever happen, and it has now with one of his more accessible shows. The Muny has done Into the Woods right, and I’m glad. It’s a journey of wonder, mystery, drama, comedy and tragedy, all well-paced and staged by a stellar cast.  It was worth the wait, and it’s worth the journey into the “woods” of Forest Park to witness the magic.

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods is running at the Muny in Forest Park until July 27th, 2015.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story
Written by Alan Janes
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
July 13, 2015

Andy Christopher Photo: The Muny

Andy Christopher
Photo: The Muny

I have to admit I’m often skeptical of “jukebox musicals”. There are great ones, like Jersey Boys, that manage to tell a compelling story as well as presenting the music of the play’s subject. There are others, though, that have less of a story and seem to be just an excuse to string a bunch of memorable songs together onstage without much of a plot. Fortunately, the Muny’s current show Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is an example of the kind of jukebox musical I like. The show, cleverly presented and impeccably cast, presents the story of one of rock ‘n roll’s most influential early artists in a thoroughly enjoyable way that celebrates Holly’s musicianship and innovation in a thoroughly entertaining manner.

The show follows the rise to fame of one of the rock world’s early stars, showing his relationships with his bandmates, producers and the general public as now-familiar hits form the soundtrack. Commendably, a great deal of the music is played live on stage by the performers as well. We get to see Holly (Andy Christopher) and his band the Crickets (Joe Cosmo Cogen as Jerry Allison, Sam Weber as Joe B. Mauldin) as they develop their country and blues influenced rock sound. We see the early recording sessions in which producers tried to force a more traditional country sound on the band, whereupon Holly looked for and found a new producer, Norman Petty (Michael James Reed), and so the hit records began. Through a judicious use of Holly’s music and well-known classics like “That’ll Be the Day”, “Peggy Sue” and a particularly effective use of “Everyday” we get to see the band’s creativity in process. Their rise to fame follows, with their memorable appearances at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre.  Act II covers the later developments of the band and Holly’s personal life, including tensions with the band and his whirlwind romance with wife Maria Elena (Sharon Sayegh), leading to a lovely acoustic guitar-accompanied version of “True Love Ways”.  Then it’s off to Clear Lake, Iowa, and the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour along with the Big Bopper (Chrstopher Ryan Grant) and Ritchie Valens (Nicholas Rodriguez).

While the tragic events following the Clear Lake concert are mentioned, the overall air of that concert presentation and the tribute that follows are more celebratory than mournful.  It’s a tribute, first and foremost. While it’s not the most detailed of books for a musical, the script is solid, and the music takes the lead in telling the story.  It’s an effective presentation characterized by charm, energy and impressive musicianship, led by the charismatic Christopher as the amiable but occasionally hot-tempered Holly. There are strong performances all around, particularly by Weber as Mauldin, who shows some impressive acrobatic bass playing skills. There’s also a vibrant turn by the excellent Apollo musicians, led by singer Teressa Kindle. The musicians (Troy Valjean Rucker, Theodore Brookins, Lamar Harris, Jahi Eskridge, and Nick Savage) also appear at the Winter Dance Party sequence in the second act, providing strong accompaniment to the energetic performances of Christopher, Grant, and Rodriguez. Sayegh as Maria Elena, Reed and Norman Petty, and Jo Lynn Burks as Petty’s piano-playing wife Vi provide strong support, as does the terrific Muny ensemble.

The show is replete with 50’s flair with the bright, period-specific costumes designed by Tracy Christensen, and Robert Mark Morgan’s evocative, versatile modular set.  There were a few sound issues on opening night, as well as one noticeable extended scene change that resulted in a missed cue and delayed entrance, but it was covered well and didn’t diminish the overall professional quality of the show.

Buddy Holly’s music continues to make an impression today despite his short life and career. At the Muny, his legacy is boldly and ably represented in this tuneful, highly entertaining celebration of this supremely talented man and the early days of the rock ‘n roll era.  The final sequence, featuring the entire ensemble in a medley of memorable rock hits by Holly and others, is simply a joy. It’s a fitting celebration of a legend, his music, and a time that shaped rock ‘n roll history.

Andy Christopher (center) and cast Photo: The Muny

Andy Christopher (center) and cast
Photo: The Muny 

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story runs at the Muny in Forest Park until July 19th, 2015.

The Killing of Sister George
by Frank Marcus
Directed by Brooke Edwards
Max & Louie Productions
July 12, 2015

Shannon Nara, Erin Kelley, Lavonne Byers, Cooper Shaw Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Max & Louie Productions

Shannon Nara, Erin Kelley, Lavonne Byers, Cooper Shaw
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Max & Louie Productions

What a difference 50 years makes.  The Killing of Sister George apparently caused quite a scandal when it debuted in 1965, due to its then-daring subject matter. Today, the play isn’t as shocking as it would have been half a century ago, but it’s still relevant in many ways. In fact, there are issues in this play that are probably more noticable now because of the lack of “scandal”.  As presented by Max  & Louie Productions, it’s an ideally cast production with a colorful 1960’s aesthetic and sharp, incisive humor.

The title of the play refers to June Buckridge (Lavonne Byers), an actress in a BBC radio drama who is so invested in her character, the moped-riding small-town nurse Sister George, that her friends actually call her “George”.  She also frequently talks about the characters on the show as if they’re real. George shares a flat with the younger, seemingly childlike Alice “Childie” McNaught (Shannon Nara). The two are obviously romantically involved, although that’s not explicitly stated. George is growing increasingly insecure because she thinks her character on the show may be killed off, and she’s also extremely jealous and possessive of Childie, who she apparently is afraid will cheat on her with a man. When one of the BBC executives, the prim and scheming Mrs. Mercy Croft (Erin Kelley) comes to call, George is sure that her days on the show are numbered, and Childie is concerned about her own security in various ways. Their volatile relationship is witnessed by their neighbor, the good-natured self-professed psychic Madame Xenia (Cooper Shaw), who seems to genuinely like George and distrust Childie.

The show is, appropriately, not updated for setting. It’s very much of a 1960s sensibility, and so the setting and costumes are all appropriately in-period. The production values are meticulously detailed, particularly in the costumes, designed by Bess Moynihan. Each character’s costumes reflect their personality with precision, from George’s dowdy attire, to Mrs. Mercy Croft’s severe, chic suits and Madame Xenia’s more colorful and eccentric garb. Childie’s outfits are a highlight, representing the mod 60s styles with wild, colorful patterns and stylish accessories. Dunsi Dai’s detailed set is suitably appointed to suggest the era, as well. There’s also excellent sound design by Michael B. Perkins, and an entertaining representation of George’s radio show, Applehurst.

It was the same-sex relationship aspects of the show that apparently caused such an outrage 50 years ago, although now that just plays as a matter of fact. Actually, I wonder if the other issues represented in the play have been brought into sharper focus simply because the shock value isn’t as apparent anymore. It’s still a caustic, dark comedy portraying an extremely dysfunctional relationship and characters who, for the most part, aren’t easy to sympathize with. It seems everyone has her own agenda, and the machinations just get more and more obvious as the play goes along.  Among the issues dealt with are those of personal identity, job security, age vs. youth, and art vs. marketability in the entertainment industry. The very nature of and motivations for relationships and friendship is also explored, as are the consequences of actors’ identifying too closely with their roles. Throughout, the tone is one of sarcastic, biting humor as well as some forays into despair.

Byers as George is a strong anchor to this superb cast. With a commanding presence and brisk manner, she presents George’s authoritarian nature, tempering it with a sense of obvious vulnerability, as well. She’s well-matched by Nara as the deceptively childlike Childie, who seems fairly innocuous at first but becomes increasing complex as the story unfolds. She and Byers have strong chemistry as a bickering pair, with clear affection as well as suspicion, weariness, and strong hints of fear. Their “Laurel and Hardy” routine in Act 2 is a memorable tragicomic moment. Kelley also gives a memorable performance, lending a palpable air of menace to Mrs. Mercy’s outwardly polite and cheerful manner, and Shaw is warm and engaging as the play’s most likable character and possibly George’s only real friend, Madame Xenia. All four performers work together well, maintaining the sense of pacing and energy that this show requires.

I’m impressed by the overall authenticity  of this production, set in London in the 1960s. The accents are very well done, and the sense of time and place is very believable.  It’s a play full of well-drawn characters and challenging situations, with suitably memorable performances. Even though its premise is not as shocking as it would have been 50 yeears ago, this production still feels current and challenging in ways that may not have been as apparent in 1965. It’s an incisive and sometimes brutal character study, making for an intense and thought-provoking theatrical experience.

Shannon Nara, Lavonne Byers Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Max & Louie Productions

Shannon Nara, Lavonne Byers
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Max & Louie Productions

The Killing of Sister George is being presented by Max & Louie Productions, onstage at the Wool Studio Theatre, A & E Building of the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex. It runs until July 26th, 2015. 

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