Archive for July, 2010

Damn Yankees

The Muny

July 12, 2010

I’m finding it hard to review the Muny’s production of Damn Yankees. I thought it would be easier  than Titanic because I had seen this show before, on stage and on film, but I guess I forgot how long ago I had seen it, because  this time, it really felt like I was stepping into a time machine. Damn Yankees is a classic American musical about the classic American sport–baseball, and how one fan’s devotion to his team brings more than he ever bargained for.  The Muny’s production, directed by their Executive Producer, Paul Blake, is like a step back in time in more ways than one.

The show starts out as Meg Boyd (Linda Mugleston) laments the fact that her husband Joe (Walter Charles) is so obsessed with the Washington Senators baseball team that he ignores her for half the year.  Joe then hastily states that he would sell his soul for one great hitter, and Mr. Applegate (Lewis J. Stadlen) shows up to take him up on that offer.  Joe Boyd is then transformed into young baseball phenom Joe Hardy (Eric Kunze) in a very clever bit of staging (he walks through a doorway as Joe Boyd and walks out as Joe Hardy).  The story then unfolds from there.

I thought this production was, for the most part, a success, despite being obviously dated in terms of how the show is structured.  It was kind of like going back in time to see a show in the late 50’s.  The characterizations were almost universally excellent—especially Stadlen bringing old-style Vaudeville charm as Applegate and Kunze as the earnest young Joe Hardy.  Leslie Kritzer does a nice turn as reporter Gloria Thorpe, leading the baseball team in the rousing ensemble number “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO”.  Zoe Vonder Haar also gives a fun performance as Meg Boyd’s friend Sister Miller.  Angie J. Schworer, as the temptress Lola,  was excellent in the second act but in the first act it seemed like she was trying too hard to be like Gwen Verdon, the original Broadway and film Lola, and was not as convincing. The best scenes, I thought, were between Kunze as Joe Hardy and Mugleston as Meg, who does not realize that young Joe is actually her husband.  The chemistry between the actors was lovely.

Another nice time-trip in this production was provided by the choreography, which was re-created from Bob Fosse’s original Broadway work.  The dance routines were mostly executed very well, with highlights including the dance break with the baseball players in “Shoeless Joe”, and the “Two Lost Souls” number with Joe Hardy, Lola, and the ensemble.

St. Louisans, being as crazy as they are about their baseball team, can most likely relate well to the level of baseball devotion depicted in this show.  A nice treat was hearing the beloved Cardinals broadcaster, Mike Shannon, announcing the game as fans listen on the radio in the second act.   That was a very nice way to add a touch of St. Louis to the production, and overall, it was a very enjoyable evening.

NOTE: I thought that the weather on the production night deserved a mention. One of the joys of outdoor theatre is that the elements often contribute to the experience of the show, and on the night I saw Damn Yankees with my family, we were treated to a spectular natural fireworks show as several bolts of lightning shot across the sky directly above the stage. It wasn’t raining enough to stop the show, but the pyrotechnic display was spectacular!

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Ship of Dreams

Titanic: The Musical

The Muny, July 9, 2010

Everybody knows the story of the Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that struck an iceberg in April 1912 and sank, carrying over 1,500 people to their deaths.  Most people know the Oscar-winning film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, but the musical, despite winning a Tony for Best Musical in 1997, is more obscure.  Titanic: the Musical, has had its maiden voyage at the Muny this season, directed by Don Stephenson.  I had never seen the show before, nor had I heard most of the music.  I vaguely remember the performance from the 1997 Tony Awards broadcast, and I think I liked it at the time, but mostly I was going into this production blind, and, for the most part, I thought the production was a remarkable success.

In the stirring introduction, several musical themes are introduced that carry throughout the rest of the show, including “There She Is”, which refers to Titanic as the “Ship of Dreams”.  The entire first act of the show seems to be about dreams.  Various characters are introduced and they all have dreams.  Thomas Andrews (Tom Hewitt), the ship’s designer, dreams of seeing his vision become a reality. J. Bruce Ismay (William Youmans) of the White Star Line dreams of setting speed records.  Stoker Frederick Barrett (Ben Crawford) dreams of completing the journey and returning to his girl back home, while three Irish girls named Kate (Jessica Grove’, Madeline Trumble, and Amanda Choate) and other third class passengers dream of a better life in America. Second class passenger Alice Beane (Michele Ragusa) dreams of rubbing elbows with the elites in First Class, to the bewilderment of her husband, hardware-store owner Edgar (Rich Pisarkiewicz). Also, the crew members of the Titanic led by Captain E. J. Smith (Joneal Joplin) dream of a triumphant maiden voyage for the colossal new ship.

The theme of dreams continues throughout the first act, and provides some wonderful moments, like Barrett proposing to his girl via telegraph while radio operator Harold Bride (Telly Leung) sings about the excitement of his job (“The Proposal”/”The Night Was Alive”).  Also, the three Kates and the steerage passengers sing of the new jobs they would like to pursue in America (“Lady’s Maid”), and Mrs. Beane sneaks into first class to dance with the elites (“Doing the Latest Rag”, which also features some excellent ragtime dancing).  The dreams are shattered as, inevitably, the ship strikes the infamous iceberg and starts to sink.

The sinking is handled in a very clever way technically, except for one slight misstep–when a small motorized model of the Titanic chugged across the stage to meet its doom, it drew audible laughs from the audience, which I doubt was the intended effect.  Despite that, the air of desperation builds in the second act, and this is helped greatly by the staging, as ramps and tilted sets are used to great effect to suggest a sinking vessel.  The second act also brings some excellent musical moments, as Andrews, Ismay, and Captain Smith argue about whose fault the accident was (“The Blame”), and as passengers hurry to their lifeboats, sharing a tearful goodbye with loved ones they must leave behind (“We’ll Meet Tomorrow”).

I thought the music by Maury Yeston was excellent, with several repeated themes that ran throughout the show to good effect.  Also, the story (book by Peter Stone) was well-plotted and built well.  There are perhaps one or two too many subplots, and there are a few characters who are not given much to do, but still the plots come together reasonably well, giving a good cross-section of life in the first part of the 20th Century, and building to a tense and heart-wrenching climax that even made me almost want to cry.

As for the performances, the large ensemble worked together convincingly, with solid performances all around.  Crawford as Barrett, with his strong stage presence and gorgeous voice, and Ragusa as Mrs. Beane, who handled both the comedic and dramatic aspects of her character in a very believable way, were two of the standout performers.  Also notable were Joplin in a solid, commanding performance as Captain Smith, Youmans as the weaselly Ismay,  Henry Stram as First Class Steward Henry Etches, and Leung as the determined, eager Bride.  The only casting that didn’t really work for me, though, was Matthew Braver as First Officer William Murdoch.  Braver tried his best and had a strong tenor voice, but he appeared at least ten years too young for the role, which made the character less believable than he should have been.

The sets were relatively minimal as far as the Muny goes.  There were a few movable set pieces, like the two-level bridge setup and the radio operator’s office, but most of the set was done with large painted backdrops.  The deck of the ship, for instance, was just the open stage with a backdrop of the ocean behind a rail.  It was simple but effective, as was the staging of the scenes, using the large Muny stage to full effect as well as suggesting the vastness of the ship.

Overall, I thought it was an effective, engaging presentation of a fascinating show.  The Titanic was a grand ship and its story is a well-known tragedy of history, and I thought that was presented very well in the Muny’s production. The grandness of the ship was matched by the grandness of the production, and it was an enjoyable, moving experience.

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It’s summer, and in St. Louis that means it’s Muny time!  (Complete with cheesy TV commercials!)

The Muny is a St. Louis tradition that is somewhat hard to explain to people who haven’t been there.  In one way, it’s easy—it’s an outdoor theatre that shows seven large-scale musicals every summer, and they do a lot of their casting in New York, which means that many of the performers are Broadway and touring veterans, from Tony winners like Randy Graff (Hello Dolly, 2006), to touring favorites like Eric Kunze (who has been in several Muny productions and who stars as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees this year), and rising stars like 2010 Tony nominee Kate Baldwin, who has been in five shows at the Muny—most recently last year when she played Marian in The Music Man.  They usually put on well-known, crowd-pleasing shows that draw thousands every year to their large outdoor venue in Forest Park, just a few blocks from our house.

That’s the easy part to explain.  The hard part to describe is the whole atmosphere of the place, which is a large part of what makes it such a beloved St. Louis institution despite its drawbacks (which I will also try to explain).   The Muny is an experience.  It’s not just about going to a show.  It’s about going to a show with a picnic dinner and sitting in the grass surrounded by hundreds of others before the show, taking in the live pre-show entertainment provided by various local acts.  It’s also about lining up for ice cream and popcorn at the concession stands, and sitting down in the huge stadium-like outdoor auditorium while huge fans buzz overhead on hot days before the show.  It’s also about rising for the National Anthem before the show like at a baseball game, but unlike at most sporting events, the vast majority of the thousands of people in attendance actually sing—at the top of their lungs.  It’s also about watching possums run back and forth in the lighting rigs, sometimes during the show.  And because it’s outdoors and the stage is so huge, it’s about special features like an actual helicopter flying over for Miss Saigon (2008), and real fireworks at the end of Meet Me in St. Louis (2004). The stage is so big that colossal productions like Les Miserables (2007) actually have to have larger casts than Broadway.  Also, the outdoor setting and the stage backed by real trees adds an interesting element to the sets.  And then, there are the free seats in the back, which have an atmosphere of their own.

I mentioned drawbacks, and there are a few.  First, the schedule tends to get repetitive.   There are certain shows (like Cats, Annie, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music) that seem to be on a perpetual five year cycle.  If you go to the Muny long enough you are guaranteed to see many repeated shows.  My family and I moved to St. Louis in 2004, and we’ve already seen them repeat quite a few shows, like The Music Man, Meet Me in St. Louis and Annie, and this year they have already repeated Beauty and the Beast, and will be repeating The Sound of Music and Cats. Next year’s season is bound to bring a few more repeats from the previous 5-6 years, as well.  There are classic shows such as Carousel that have not been performed at the Muny in over 20 years, because the Muny has a voting system.  Every year they pass out surveys and the audience members vote for the shows they want to see.  This results in many repeats and a few debuts of newer favorites like The Producers (2008) and Hairspray (last year), but also often results in some well-known classics being overlooked and more obscure shows being ignored, with occasional exceptions such the the excellent 2007 production of The Pajama Game, which hadn’t been performed at the Muny since 1968.   This also often precludes productions of some of the edgier or grittier shows like Sweeney Todd and Rent.

Still, despite the drawbacks, the Muny is well-loved fixture of summers in St. Louis, and we always try to see at least some of the shows every year.  This year, we plan on seeing Titanic, Damn Yankees and Show Boat. We have seen some first-rate productions, as well as some less-than-great ones, but it’s always an experience, and it’s one you can only get in St. Louis.

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So, for many years many people have told me “Michelle, you should start a blog”, because I like to write, and I guess people think I’m good at it.  I also love theatre, both musical and non-musical, and I’ve always thought it would be fun to write a blog about the shows I see, as well as my general thoughts about theatre.  Well, at long last, here it is!

Just by way of explanation, here are some things you should know:

1. “Snoop” comes from a name I have used on various message boards for many years.  The “Snoop” part does not come from the rapper (Snoop Dogg), but from Snoopy, the Peanuts comic strip dog, because I’ve loved Snoopy for as long as I can remember.  It has gotten to the point where several of my online friends just call me “Snoop” instead of my real name, so I figured I should carry it over to this blog, because it’s fun.

2. As the blog title says, I do not claim to be an expert in theatre.  The closest thing to formal training I have is four years of drama class in high school, and one playwriting class in college.  I have a smattering of experience in various areas of amateur theatre, but mostly I’m just an avid fan.  I love to see plays, and I love to read, talk and write about plays and performers.

3.  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own, based on my years of being a major theatre geek.  The level of my geekdom has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s in full swing right now and I’m excited to finally get this blog going so I can have an outlet for my thoughts.

4. I will try to write reviews of all the shows I see, whether in St. Louis or elsewhere.  I will also be sharing my opinions on various theatre-related topics, and maybe a few other random things as well–but mostly having to do with theatre in some way.

5. My interests run the gamut from high-brow to low-brow to everything in between.  From Shakespeare and Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber to original shows thrown together by a bunch of college students (see A Very Potter Musical, below).  I do not like everything (Cats and High School Musical, this means you), but I like things of all levels, both well-known and obscure, and I always love discovering new shows and performers.

6. I will share links to videos of performances I like.  I have lots of favorite performers and shows, and I will post my favorite videos as the whim strikes me.  Like now (hints of blog entries to come!)

There.  I think that’s it.  So, this is my blog, for better or worse.  Whoever reads it, I hope you enjoy!

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