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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 21, 2016

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers Photo: The Muny

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers
Photo: The Muny

It’s a good week for the Muny to be staging Mamma Mia! The show, set on a Greek island, is a quintessential summer show, and I’m sure the cast members appreciate being able to dress for the warm weather. This is the first production of this popular show at the Muny, and with its excellent production values, great cast, fun if slightly silly story and lots and lots of ABBA music, it’s a rousing success.

Not being the biggest fan of the whole concept of the “jukebox musical”, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Mamma Mia! the first time I saw it on stage. The movie is also a lot of fun, but I prefer the stage show and its whole sunny atmosphere, and the way it incorporates the songs of popular Swedish disco supergroup ABBA into the story. It’s not a particularly deep or profound show, but it’s a lot of fun, focusing on former Donna Sheridan (Julia Murney)–the former lead singer of a disco trio–and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Brittany Zeinstra). When the soon-to-be-married Sophie finds her mother’s diary and discovers that she has three possible fathers, she invites all three to the wedding without telling Donna, which causes all sorts of drama. The “dads” are three very different men–American architect Sam (Justin Guarini), who may still be in love with Donna; Australian adventurer and writer Bill (Mike McGowan), who enjoys his carefree single life; and slightly stuffy Englishman and former “headbanger” Harry (Ben Nordstrom). Donna’s friends and former bandmates Tanya (Jenny Powers) and Rosie (Ann Harada) also arrive for the wedding and get involved in the various shenanigans that ensue. It’s something of a goofy plot that doesn’t bear a lot of scrutiny if you examine it closely, but that doesn’t really matter in this case,  because it’s such a fun show that it’s easy to suspend disbelief for a little while.

The highlights of this show include the ABBA songs and the great cast. In terms of the music, all the well-known hits are here, including “Dancing Queen”, “Take a Chance On Me”, “The Winner Takes it All”, the title song and more. As for the performers, the cast is extremely well-chosen, led by the dynamic, sympathetic, big-voiced performance of Murney as Donna, and by the excellent Zeinstra as the persistent, optimistic Sophie. Powers and Harada provide excellent comic support as Tanya and Rosie, as well. Harada’s duet with McGowan on “Take a Chance On Me” is a hilarious moment. The men are well-cast, as well,  with Guarini in excellent voice as Sam, Nordstrom charming as Harry, and McGowan energetic and amiable as Bill. Jason Gotay as Sophie’s fiance Sky, and Alexander Aguilar and Wonza Johnson as his buddies Pepper and Eddie, also give good performances. The leads are backed by a strong ensemble, as well, which is great considering all the big, energetic production numbers there are in this show.

 The sunny atmosphere is reflected in the excellent unit set, designed by Tim Mackabee, that represents the Taverna that Donna operates. The Muny’s turntable is also put to good use. The costumes by Leon Dobkowski set the mood well, with colorful summer outfits,  swim suits, and  flashy disco outfits for Donna and the Dynamos. There’s also great use of video, designed by Greg Emetaz, that is incorporated well into the delivery of some of the songs, particularly Harry and Donna’s duet, “Our Last Summer”.  There’s also great lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer that helps to maintain the festive mood of the show.

I’m not sure how many times I can use the word “fun” in one review, but that’s really the best word to describe this show. Mamma Mia! isn’t a deep, thought-provoking type of show, although there are some truly poignant moments, such as the use of the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” as Donna is helping Sophie prepare for the wedding. Still, this show is about energy, style, ABBA music, and lots of fun, and this production at the Muny delivers all that, from the hopeful beginning to the memorable “mega-mix”style curtain call. The only small criticism I have is that sometimes the Muny’s enormous stage seems too big for this show in its more serious moments, although the music and energy eventually makes the show seem big enough. If you’re looking for a funny, summery, tuneful show with loads of hit songs, Mamma Mia! surely won’t disappoint.

Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo: The Muny

Mamma Mia! is being presented by the Muny in Forest Park until July 28, 2016.

John & Jen
Book by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald
Lyrics by Tom Greenwald, Music by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
July 15, 2016

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Brother and Sister. Mother and Son. These are important relationships to which many theatre goers will be able to relate, dealt with in Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s two-person musical John & Jen, which is currently being presented by Insight Theatre Company. The production is well-cast, for the most part, and provides an intriguing look at one woman and two important relationships in her life.

The story features two performers playing the characters at various ages and stages of their lives. Jen Tracy (Jenni Ryan) is six years old when her brother John (Spencer Davis Milford) is born, and we get to see the dynamics of their relationship as both grow up and learn to deal with the world around them and with a domineering, sometimes violent father. Jen’s wish to protect her brother conflicts with her desire to get away from her hostile home environment, and as she goes to college in the 1960’s and gets caught up in anti-war activism, John stays home under the influence of his father and eventually finds his own views about the war and life conflicting with Jen’s. This relationship has a profound impact on Jen, who later names her own son (also Milford) after her brother. We get to watch as Jen becomes a loving but sometimes overprotective mother, and as young John grows and learns to assert his own independence. The mother-son relationship is alternately strong and strained, as Jen learns to deal with her own personal issues regarding her brother and how she relates to her son.

There isn’t a lot more detail I can go into without spoiling too much, but essentially this is a character study. The primary focus is on Jen, with relationships with her brother and son providing insight into her own issues of attachment, guilt, and conflict about how to be a good mother to her son. The two performers give strong performances, with both convincingly portraying the characters at different ages, and with Milford especially doing an excellent job distinguishing between the two characters he plays, both named John. Milford also has a strong singing voice, performing the show’s songs well and displaying a great deal of energy on songs like “Dear God”, “Little League”, and “Bye Room”. Ryan, while giving a convincing acting performance, sometimes struggles with the singing, particularly as many of the songs seem a little to high for her range. Both performers portray convincing relationships, first as brother and sister, and then as mother and son, and the conclusion of the play is particularly affecting.

The show is performed on a minimalist set designed by Kyra Bishop–consisting of a series of ramps, platforms, a wall, and a swing– that provides an effective backdrop for the action of the show. There’s also excellent use of projections–also designed by Bishop and filmed by David Sanford–and Leah McFall’s excellent costumes to effectively portray the changing times as the story moves from the 1950’s and eventually into the 1980’s.  There’s also excellent lighting from Oliver Littleton and sound by Brett Harness.

John & Jen provides a lot for audience to think about, although the underlying message can be unclear at times. For the most part, though, this is a vivid, interesting character study looking at three people over the course of four decades of American history. Although the history is there as a backdrop, this is primarily a personal story, and as that it’s compelling to watch.

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting John & Jen at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until July 31, 2016.

Young Frankenstein
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 13, 2016

Cast of Young Frankenstein Photo: The Muny

Cast of Young Frankenstein
Photo: The Muny

“Fun” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about the Muny’s latest production of Young Frankenstein. Based on the classic Mel Brooks movie, this production sends up and pays homage to old-time horror films in general and the Frankenstein story in particular, with great production values and a lot of energy and humor. The well-chosen cast members seem to be having the time of their lives on stage, and that energy translates well for the audience.

Although this show is essentially the film on stage with songs added, the story is expanded upon slightly as well, and the jokes are plentiful, with an emphasis on innuendo and some physical comedy. The show has also amped up the “song and dance” elements, making the most of the musical comedy genre. The story’s central figure is Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Robert Petkoff), grandson of the infamous monster-creating Victor Frankenstein, who has recently died, leaving his Transylvanian estate to his grandson. The younger Frankenstein is a respectable scientist, insisting on pronouncing his last name “Frahnk–en-steen” so as to distance himself from a troubling family legacy. Frederick boards a ship overseas, bidding farewell to his physically averse fiancee Elizabeth (Jennifer Cody), and finally arriving in Transylvania, where he meets his assistants Igor (Steve Rosen) and Inga (Stephanie Gibson) and the mysterious housekeeper Frau Blucher (Vicki Lewis), whose name is always accompanied by the sound of horses neighing, as in the film. Although Frederick initially resists, he’s soon drawn to “Join the Family Business” (according to the song) and revisit his grandfather’s experiments with reanimating the dead. It’s an exaggerated “dark and stormy night” type of atmosphere throughout, as the suspicious villagers seek to find out Frederick’s plans, and Frederick hopes to bring to life a creature with intelligence and heart along with his giant stature and brute strength.

As a show, this production is carried by the strength of its cast and seemingly boundless energy. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time on stage, and it shows. Although some jokes occasionally fall flat, and a few of the songs are essentially just extended gags, this production simply works. The casting is excellent, from Petkoff’s overly determined Frederick, to Rosen’s delightfully goofy Igor who interacts delightfully with his fellow actors and with the audience, to Timothy Hughes’s charming, tap-dancing Creature, to Lewis’s melodramatic Frau Blucher (cue horse sounds), to the excellent comic performances of Frederick’s competing love interests, Gibson as the enthusiastic Inga, and Cody as the overbearing Elizabeth. There’s a strong ensemble, as well, serving the production well during the group numbers, such as the Act 1 ending “Transylvania Mania” and the inventively choreographed large-scale tap performance of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, the only song in the production that wasn’t written by Brooks, used here ostensibly because it was in the film. Here, it’s been hammed up delightfully, filling the huge Muny stage and providing one of the highlights of this production.

The set and special effects add much to the spirit of this production. Paul Tate dePoo III’s set provides the ideal backdrop for the action, with a suitably creepy castle that rotates to display Frankenstein’s laboratory, using the Muny’s turntable to excellent effect. The costumes, originally designed by William Ivey Long with additional design and coodination by Tracy Christensen, appropriately suggest those of the film while being ideally augmented for the stage. The movie was filmed in black and white, but this production is in full color, evoking the gloominess of the Transylvania setting with excellent effect. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Denton and creative video design by Matthew Young.

This isn’t an all-ages show, really. In keeping with the raunchy, innuendo-laden tone of the original film, this production is more suited for adults and older teens than for children. Young Frankenstein at the Muny is an energetic, joke-filled, hilariously hammy production. One of the best things about it is that the cast members seem to be having just as much fun presenting the show as the audience is watching it.

Timothy Hughes, Robert Petkoff Photo: The Muny

Timothy Hughes, Robert Petkoff
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Young Frankenstein in Forest Park until July 19th, 2016.

Grey Gardens
Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Max & Louie Productions
July 9, 2016

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Grey Gardens, the offbeat musical based on a cult-hit 1975 documentary about two reclusive relatives of Jackie Kennedy’s, is making its St. Louis debut with a presentation by the ambitious Max & Louie Productions. Although the source material was also made into an HBO movie in 2009, I don’t think audiences need to be familiar with the story to enjoy this stunning, memorable production. The top-notch production values, ideal casting, and thoughtful direction makes this a show that should intrigue audiences regardless of whether they have seen either of the films.

I can make the above statement with some authority since, while I had heard of the films, I had never seen either before seeing this production. I had heard a few of the songs before, but aside from that and from knowing a little bit about the story on which the films and show are based, I went into this production with a fresh perspective, and I’m glad that this excellent production could be my introduction to the show. It’s the story of a mother and daughter–Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” Beale, who were at the height of New England society in the first part of the 20th Century, but by the 1970s had become reclusive and lived together surrounded by clutter and cats in their once-grand mansion, Grey Gardens, The show’s two acts show the audience their existence at two important eras of their lives, the 1940’s and the 1970s. Debby Lennon plays “big” Edith in the 1940s and older “Little” Edie in the 1970s, with Donna Weinsting playing “Big” Edith in the 70s and Madeline Purches playing the younger “Little” Edie in the 40s.  It’s a depiction of these women’s close but volatile relationship and the eccentricities of both.

In a way, this is almost two plays, although Act 2 is essentially dependent on Act 1 as background. Act 1 shows Edith Bouvier Beale in her prime, as she holds court in her palatial mansion planning an engagement party for Edie and her fiance’, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), although despite her daughter’s wishes, Edith intends to make the party more of a concert with herself as the star, accompanied by her ever-present pianist, George Gould Shaw (Terry Meddows). While Edie and Joe hope for the future, Edith lives in a somewhat deluded version of the present, where her ever absent husband is just “too busy” to be around, although she clings to the hope that he will be there to attend the party. The future is also represented by Edith’s young nieces Jackie (Phoebe Desilets) and Lee (Carter Eiseman) who are encouraged to “Marry Well” and fit into society by their domineering grandfather, Edith’s father J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Tom Murray). All the grand plans don’t go entirely as planned, however, and the result of what happens is seen in Act 2, where the mother and daughter are still living in the shell of a mansion and “Little” Edie clearly resents being tied to her mother, who has turned her attentions to the cats and to a hippie-ish young man named Jerry (also Bonfiglio) while the ghosts of the 1940s characters remain as a chorus of echoes from the past. It’s a difficult play to describe, and I don’t want to say too much so as to spoil it, but there’s a lot to see here and this wonderful cast makes it fascinating to watch.

The music ranges from more classical to more popular sounding songs, and the lead part of Act 1 Edith/Act 2 Little Edie is a demanding one, in terms of acting as well as musically. Fortunately, this production has the marvelous Debby Lennon, who gives a commanding performance, holding court as the imperious Edith in the 1940s and as the resentful, regretful, offbeat Little Edie of the 70s. There’s a suggestion of emotional/mental challenges for both women, although Edith seems much more assured in Act 1, trying to control the life of her only daughter, the excellent Purches as the desperately ambitious young Little Edie. In Act 2, when Lennon becomes the haunted, erratic older version of Little Edie, the superb Weinsting takes over as a sadder but not necessarily wiser Edith. Mother and daughter in Act 2 have a caustic, if dependent, relationship, and this is expertly played by both actresses and staged well by director Annamaria Pileggi, as silence and deliberation becomes as important in communication as the speaking. There are also strong performances from Meddows as the jaded, snarky pianist Gould, Murray as the affable but domineering Major Bouvier, and Desilets and Eiseman in winning performances as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier. Bonfiglio and Omega Jones are also memorable in dual roles–Bonfiglio as the ambitious Joe Kennedy and as the sweet slacker Jerry, and Jones as the Beale’s butler Brooks in the first act, and as his son the groundskeeper Brooks, Jr. in the second. The whole ensemble is excellent, working together well and presenting the material with clarity, ably supporting Lennon and Weinsting, whose performances are the anchor of this production.

The production values here are first rate, with a meticulously detailed set by Dunsi Dai that allows is appropriately luxurious in the first act, and then dressed down in Act 2 to show the mansion’s state of disrepair. There are also colorful, ideally suited costumes by Jennifer JC Krajicek and hair and wig design by Emma Bruntrager , highlighting the high style of the rich elites in the first act, and reflecting more eccentric personal styles of the Edies in the second. Michael Sullivan’s lighting is used to excellent effect to help set the scene and tone of each era.

The overall tone of this piece is melancholy, with shades of lost hope, regret, and emotional dependence. Still, these are truly formidable women regardless of their circumstances, and their story is vividly portrayed here. Max & Louie’s shows are always memorable, and this one is no exception. It’s an extraordinary work of theatre, not to be missed.

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Production  is presenting Grey Gardens in the Wool Studio Theatre the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 23, 2015.

The Music Man
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson, Story by Franklin Lacey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Chris Bailey
The Muny
July 5th, 2016

Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, Adam Halpin, Hunter Foster Photo: The Muny

Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, Adam Halpin, Hunter Foster
Photo: The Muny

The Music Man, ideally staged, is a great big, delightfuly corny slice of old-fashioned Americana. It’s been performed at the Muny many times, and this is the third production I’ve seen there. This year, although it’s still a bright, colorful, energetic show with some great technical elements and truly wonderful choreography, it’s somewhat marred by some awkward casting and some bizarre directorial choices.

The story is a familiar one to many theatregoers. Professor Harold Hill (Hunter Foster) is a traveling salesman and smooth-talking con artist who arrives in River City, Iowa with the aim of swindling the townspeople with grand dreams of a boys’ band, and then running off with their money. What Harold doesn’t count on, though, is that this time he will get attached, particularly to earnest young librarian Marian Paroo (Elena Shaddow) and her family, including her feisty Irish mother (Liz McCarthy) and shy little brother Winthrop (Owen Hanford), who is self-conscious because he speaks with a lisp. The town is full of larger-than-life characters, such as the self-absorbed, bumbling Mayor Shinn (Mark Linn-Baker) and his gossipy wife Eulalie (Nancy Anderson). There’s also Harold’s old friend and somewhat reformed accomplice, Marcellus Washburn (Todd Buonopane), and the bickering school board members (Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, and Adam Halpin), who through Harold’s influence become a frequently singing barbershop quartet. What Harold doesn’t know is that rival salesman Charlie Cowell (Michael James Reed) is out to expose Harold’s scheme, although what Charlie doesn’t know is that Harold isn’t so sure he wants to go through with the scam anymore.

This is a show that basically demands ideal casting for its title role, and unfortunately the Muny’s production doesn’t get that. Foster, who was outstanding a few years ago as the Pirate King in Pirates! or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d, is miscast as the fast-talking Hill. He noticeably struggles with the rhythm on iconic songs like “Trouble” and “76 Trombones” and stumbles over the lyrics in “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” and “Marian the Librarian”. He also doesn’t quite project that sheer spellbinding energy that is essential for Harold Hill, although his performance does improve in Act 2. Shaddow, as Marian, gives a fine if somewhat laid-back performance as Marian, and she has a great voice, although the chemistry between her and Foster is lacking. The supporting players fare better, with truly excellent comic performances from the amiable Buonopane as Marcellus, and from Linn-Baker and Anderson as the Shinns. The real stand-outs, though, are Torello, Daw, Nordstrom, and Halpin who are truly marvelous as the school board-turned-quartet. There’s also an outstanding ensemble and first-rate dancing on production numbers like “76 Trombones”, “Marian the Libriarian”, and “Shipoopi”.

Visually, the show looks great. There’s a wonderful nostalgic set by Michael Schweikardt that takes full advantage of the Muny stage’s turntable, providing an excellent effect in “76 Trombones” as the ensemble appears to march throughout the town. There are also excellent, colorful period costumes by Amy Clark, superb lighting by John Lasiter, and strong video design by Rob Denton.

This is a wonderful looking show, with some great comic performances and a great ensemble, although some of the alterations to the script are puzzling. For instance, changing the timeline so that Harold arrives the week of Flag Day instead of the 4th of July is not adequately explained. It seems to have been done for no reason other than that the show is being performed during 4th of July week so that the Act 2 “Ice Cream Sociable” can be the “4th of July Sociable”. There’s no apparent “story” reason for the change, and it just comes across as awkward. Still, if you’re looking for a big, bright, musical show with a great old-fashioned score and some incredible dancing, then the Music Man is sure to entertain. It’s not an ideal production, but it does have its moments.

Cast of The Music Man Photo: The Muny

Cast of The Music Man
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Music Man in Forest Park until July 11, 2016.

42nd Street
Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
June 24, 2016

Cast of 42nd Street Photo: The Muny

Cast of 42nd Street
Photo: The Muny

 “You may be going out there a youngster, but you’ve gotta come back a star!”  Those are the words Broadway director Julian Marsh (Shuler Hensley) says to Peggy Sawyer (Jonalyn Saxer), exemplifying the dreams of many a hopeful young performer with aims of a dazzling career in show business. Those starry aspirations are at the heart of the latest production on stage at the Muny, the big and glitzy valentine to 1930’s Broadway, 42nd Street. This show isn’t about realism, but glamour and the fantasy of stardom, highlighted by a great cast and some truly spectacular dancing.

It’s New York City in the early 1930’s, and a host of young, talented hopefuls are excited to audition for famous director Julian Marsh’s newest show. Among those performers is Peggy Sawyer, who is fresh off the train from Allentown, PA and who has dreams of some day being a star.  At first, though, she’s not off to a great start. Despite showing off a good voice and great dancing skills, she arrives too late and misses the audition. But Peggy has caught the eye of the show’s leading man, Billy Lawlor (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and eventually one of its writers, Maggie Jones (Ann Harada) and she gets a part in the chorus. Of course, the show already has a leading lady, somewhat jaded star Dorothy Brock (Emily Skinner), who’s got a great voice but isn’t much of a dancer, and she’s not particularly fond of Peggy at first. There are a lot of twists and turns in this plot, and most of them are predictable, but that hardly matters in an upbeat, incredibly entertaining show like this that’s all about hopes, dreams, showbiz, and lots and lots of dancing. It’s a tribute to the big glamorous musicals of the 1920’s and 30’s, with a lot of energy, classic songs, and a good amount of humor and heart.

The production values are top-notch, with a colorful, versatile set by Michael Schweikart and wonderfully whimsical costumes by Andrea Lauer. The big production numbers like “We’re In the Money” and “Lullabye of Broadway” look great, featuring director Denis Jones’s spectacular choreography that showcases a lot of intricately executed tap dancing. The style, look, and sound of the 1930’s movie musicals is there, with great sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and superb lighting by Rob Denton.

In addition to that wonderful dancing ensemble, the leads are ideally cast as well. Saxer dances joyfully and has a great voice as the perky, optimistic Peggy, and Johnson is charming and an equally strong dancer as Billy. Hensley as Marsh projects a believable air of kindness that informs his otherwise authoritative character. Skinner is also great as the talented but insecure Dorothy Brock, and there are some fun comedic performances by Harada as Maggie and Jason Kravitz as comedian/writer Bert Barry.

42nd Street is a show that idealizes show business and is characterized by an underlying sense of hope, even in difficult times. The sense of drive and purpose displayed by its characters is enthusiastic and infectious, and the dance numbers are not to be missed. This is a spectacular in the best sense of that term. It’s a an ideal show for a venue with a reputation for big stylish musicals. This show is the Muny at its best.

Cast of 42nd Street Photo: The Muny

Cast of 42nd Street
Photo: The Muny

42nd Street at the Muny runs until June 30, 2016.

Company
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Insight Theatre Company
June 17, 2016

Cast of Company Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Cast of Company
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company has begun its 2016 season with the classic Stephen Sondheim “concept musical”, Company. A look at marriage and singleness in New York, the show has been staged in various venues around the world since its Broadway debut in 1970. Now, at Insight, the show has been given an ambitious production that, for the most part, is an intriguing and thought-provoking character study, although the script is starting to seem a bit dated.

In this production, Martin Fox plays Robert, or “Bobby” to most of his friends. As his 35th birthday approaches, the perpetually single Bobby is challenged by his married friends to examine his choices and consider the idea of marriage. The married friends range in ages and degrees of happiness and compatibility, and through a series of vignettes we get a glimpse into their lives, as well as Bobby’s life as he interacts with the couples and goes on dates with three different women.  Through the means of Sondheim’s insightful songs and George Furth’s witty script, we are shown the merits and challenges of romance and marriage in modern day New York City.

Actually, “modern day” is one of the problems with this show as it is currently staged. Although Insight’s production is clearly set in the present with its meticulously detailed modern loft set by Peter and Margery Spack, and costumes in a varied range of current styles designed by Laura Hanson, the script and situations seem more closely tied to the early 1970s than to today. With 1970’s slang still intact, and with a picture of marriage as something of a social compulsion more so than it is generally viewed in much of today’s culture, the 2016 setting of this show ends up being somewhat jarring. Conventions such as Bobby’s listening to his answering machine messages have been portrayed as voicemails on his smart phone, although they still seem more appropriate to the earlier setting. Although the show still has timeless truths and concepts with universal appeal, I still wonder if this show would be best if staged as a period piece rather than trying to update the setting.

Still, the show is still a strong piece, with excellent songs like the iconic “Being Alive”, which is given a dynamic performance by Fox, and the acerbic “The Ladies Who Lunch”, which is sung here by Laurie McConnell as the snarky Joanne, in a strong interpretation emphasizing its sadness more than its ferocity.  There are also some excellent production numbers that superbly feature the whole cast, such as the excellent Act 2 opening song-and-dance “Side by Side by Side”. Other songs suffer from the difficult acoustics in the venue, such as the title song that opens the show, and Samantha Irene’s (as Marta) more lackluster rendition of the show’s normally dynamic ode to New York, “Another Hundred People”.

The cast here ranges from ideal to OK, but for the most part does an excellent job. The standouts are Fox in a charming performance as the conflicted Bobby, McConnell as Joanne, and Stephanie Long as the anxious Amy, who delivers a superb rendition of “Getting Today” supported by the ensemble. Matt Pentecost as her intended, Paul, gives a convincing and amiable performance as well. There are also memorable performances from Bailey Reeves as one of Bobby’s girlfriends, somewhat ditzy flight attendent April, and Jonathan Hey and Cherlynn Alvarez as David and Jenny, who spend an awkwardly funny evening smoking pot and sharing uncomfortable truths with Bobby. Generally, it’s a strong cast, although due to the aforementioned sound problems it’s sometimes difficult to understand what people are singing, especially in the more wordy group songs.

Company is a well-respected classic show that was a game-changer in the musical theatre world in its day. Despite some dated language and concepts, it’s still a strong show, with a top-notch score by one of the all-time great composers and lyricists in musical theatre. Although Insight’s staging isn’t perfect, it hits a lot more than it misses. It’s a worthwhile opener for their new season.

Martin Fox (center) and Cast Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Martin Fox (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Company is being presented by Insight Theatre Company at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until July 3, 2016.

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