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Archive for June, 2011

Kiss Me, Kate

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack

Directed by John Going

The Muny, St. Louis

June 27, 2011

So, we got a double dose of Shrew in Forest Park this Summer. Last month, there was the wonderfully different production of The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and now the Muny brings us the classic musical variation, Kiss Me, Kate. Personally, I love this show. I love the 40s atmosphere, Cole Porter’s sharp, witty and sometimes hilariously raunchy songs, and the whole backstage dynamic of a troupe of actors and crew performing a pre-Broadway tryout of a show in post-WWII Baltimore.  It’s such a wonderful evocation of time, place and character, and the Muny’s production did an excellent job of taking the audience to that time and place.

Now it is time to gush a little.  I loved, loved, LOVED this production!  It’s not the most politically correct of shows, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and both sides in this battle of the sexes are equally matched. It’s the story of a theatre troupe in the 1940s as they are staging a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew, with the leads played by a bickering formerly married couple—stage veteran Fred Graham (Tom Hewitt) and stage-and-screen actress Lilli Vanessi (Lisa Vroman).  Their relationship is the center of a story that involves gamblers, actors, and lots of misunderstandings, as well as Cole Porter’s glorious score and wonderful, clever lyrics–for instance: “I’ll stay with you forever/or at least ’til you dig my grave” (from “Why Can’t You Behave”), and fun rhymes like “Demo-crassy”/Brassy/Lassie in “I Hate Men”, as well as the long list of bawdy Shakespeare puns in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, and the beautiful music ranging in style from love ballads  to jazz.  I love this score, and this production more than does justice to it.

There’s lots of verbal (and some physical) sparring and sparks flying between the two leads, Hewitt and Vroman.  It’s a very believable rocky relationship, and both actors perform their roles with gusto.  Vroman in particular has a clear, powerful voice which served the classic Cole Porter score well.  Hewitt offered a vivid, confident portrayal of an actor with a little too much ego.  His voice was also strong for the most part, except in “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily In Padua” which he acted wonderfully but seemed to struggle a bit in his lower range.  Overall, though, the show was made by his chemistry with Vroman, which was perfect.  I also loved the relationship between Lois Lane/Bianca (Andrea Chamberlain) and Bill Calhoun/Lucentio (the magnetic Curtis Holbrook).  Chamberlain played her role as a classic 40s bombshell to excellent comic effect, and Holbrook’s dancing stole the show whenever he got the chance to strut his stuff, in numbers like the sizzling “Too Darn Hot” and the delightfully goofy “Bianca”.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the performances of Conrad John Schuck and Lee Roy Reams as a pair of gangsters out to collect a gambling debt.  Their performance of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was a comic highlight.  St. Louis veteran actor Joneal Joplin also put in a solid performance as an aging actor portraying Kate and Bianca’s father, Baptista.

As a self-confessed ‘theatre geek”, I love the backstage atmosphere of this show, with references to the actors’ previous roles and future aspirations, as well as the stagehands and crew members involved with the production of the show.  The set varies from the more realistic backstage backdrops to the brightly colored, somewhat cartoonish set pieces in the Taming of the Shrew sequences.  The costumes in the play-within a play also call to mind photos I’ve seen of productions from that era.

For me, live theatre is about energy.  Often, energy is the key difference between a good performance and a great one.  This production was just crackling with energy from beginning to end.  The comedy was sharp, the dramatic moments were pitched just right, the singing and dancing were almost universally excellent, and even though there were one or two line flubs, the performers didn’t let that throw them off.  This was a glorious production, full of charm, verve, and color. It calls to mind years of Muny history—all those glamorous shows they used to do in the 40s that I am too young to have been able to see, but have seen pictures of in books.  It was joy for me to be able to attend this wonderful celebration of theatre in Forest Park.

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Legally Blonde

Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin

Book by Heather Hach

Direction re-created by Marc Bruni

The Muny, St. Louis

June 21, 2011

So, it’s Summer, and in St. Louis that means it’s time for the Muny. This year, they’ve picked an ideal show to open the season with. Legally Blonde encompasses a lot of what the Muny is about–fun and spectacle.  That’s not to say that there haven’t been some great “serious” shows at the Muny because there have, but I think when most people think of the Muny they think of that huge stage with thousands of enthusiastic audience members watching, and big, grand, energetic and colorful productions.  Legally Blonde, based on the popular film, is certainly big, colorful and and whole lot of fun.

This is basically a variation of the classic “fish-out-of-water” situation, centering on perky UCLA fashion student Elle Woods, who loves her sorority, her chihuahua, and all things pink.  She also loves Warner (Matthew Hydzik), her upwardly mobile college boyfriend who decides that Elle isn’t serious enough for him, since he is headed to Harvard Law School and hopes to be a senator one day.  Elle is a determined girl, however, and she decides to follow Warner to Harvard in an effort to win him back.  She gets much more than she bargained for, as does Harvard itself and all the people she meets along the way.  It’s a journey of self-discovery for many of the characters, but especially for Elle herself.

The show’s point is that there is a lot more to Elle than meets the eye, and Zakrin does a very good job of conveying Elle’s inner strength and determination, and her intelligence despite all the trappings that made Warner write her off as superficial.  She also finds a good match in Emmett (D.B. Bonds), her law school mentor who teaches her about taking law school seriously just as she teaches him how to loosen up a little.  They have good chemistry together  (especially in the song “Take It Like a Man” in the second act), but the Emmett role seems a bit thankless, even though the charming, engaging Bonds makes the most of it.  The real standouts for me, performance-wise, were Lisa Howard as Elle’s hairdresser, Paulette (her song “Ireland” is a highlight), and Elle’s “Greek Chorus” of sorority sisters Serena (Tiffany Engen), Margot (Taylor Louderman) and Pilar (K.B. Hart), who always bring the energy when they appear.  Special mention needs to go to Colt Prattes, as well, as Kyle, the hunky UPS guy who manages to almost stop the show simply by walking across the stage! Ken Land as the hard-driving, somewhat slimy Professor Callahan also put in a convincing performance.

I found the energy of the show to be hit-or-miss, and a show like this depends on a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.  The second act was considerably more energetic than the first, however, as the cast just seemed to get into the sheer fun of the show.  Also, some of the more catchy numbers such as “Bend and Snap”, “There, Right There!” and the reprise of “Legally Blonde” are in this act, and there is a great, rousing finale as well.  I thought the whole ensemble managed to convey a great sense of fun through the entire second act, but there were times in the first act where the energy seemed to be lacking, and some of the choreography was a little out-of-synch.  It was opening night, though, and the fact that the show got increasingly more fun as the evening progressed bodes well for a good run.

The costumes and sets were suitably colorful and served very well to set the mood of the show, and the audience seemed to really love it.  My husband used to tease me for dragging him to “chick flicks”, and this is the ultimate “chick flick” musical, although he did enjoy it as well.  I think there’s a lot for everyone to enjoy.  The point of the show seems to be that we all need to set aside our pre-conceived notions of people and encourage them to fulfill their potential, but ultimately it’s less about the message and more about fun. I think, for the most part, Legally Blonde really delivered the fun.

Here’s a montage from YouTube:

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The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

Directed by Sean Graney

June 1, 2011

It’s Shakespeare in Forest Park, it’s for everyone, and it’s free!  That’s been the premise of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis since its founding in 1997.  Since then, they have put on high-quality, professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays—a new one each season—in an area near Art Hill that is now known as “Shakespeare Glen”.   It’s a wonderful atomosphere–the stage set up at the foot of a hill and plenty of space for picnic blankets and chairs, and a nightly “Green Show” before the main event featuring various forms of live entertainment such as jugglers, musicians, and academic lectures.  Previous productions include Much Ado About Nothing (staged as a Western), Richard III, The Merry Wives of Windsor and last year’s marvelous Kevin Kline Award-winning Hamlet. This year’s offering, the festival’s eleventh production, is the often controversial but still popular The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Sean Graney of Chicago’s The Hypocrites theatre company and done in a 1950s style that really helps bring the show to life for a contemporary audience.

Everything from the sets by Scott C Neale (especially the amazingly colorful Mid-Century Modern house that’s painted to look like a cartoon) and the costumes by Alison Siple, to the use of 50’s era music by Elvis Presley and others helps to set the atmosphere of this play.  It was also fun how the introduction to the show (called the Induction, and not always used in previous productions) helped to set up the action as well as add to atmosphere. In fact, Kurt Ehrmann, who plays the drunken Christopher Sly, wanders through the audience in character before the play begins, so that when he finally staggers up onto the stage to start the show, he’s already a familiar face.

The premise is that the drunken Sly wanders into the front yard of an upper middle class house, whereupon the occupants decide to convince him he’s a Lord and stage a play for his amusement.  He’s then plunked into an aluminum swimming pool on the side of the stage, where he sits watching the action for the entire first act.

The play he’s presented is the familiar story of of a father, Baptista (Steve Isom) with two daughters–the young, beautiful Bianca (Megan M. Storti) who has many suitors, and her older sister Katherina, known as Kate (Annie Worden), who has a reputation as a “shrew”.  Baptista decides that Bianca can’t marry until Kate does, which prompts Hortensio (Michael James Reed), one of Bianca’s suitors, to enlist his old friend Petruchio (Paul Hurley), newly arrived in town, to pursue Kate.  Since Petruchio came to town to get a rich wife and Kate, the daughter of the wealthy Baptista, qualifies, he decides to take up the challenge.

Petruchio and Kate are the heart of the story, as always, and for the first time, I really thought their story had heart.  Paul Hurley’s Petruchio is less domineering than usually portrayed–full of boasting and bravado at first, but gradually becoming more bewildered by his situation and by Kate herself.  He seems to be at first challenged, then frustrated, and finally fascinated by her, while Annie Worden’s Kate is slouchy, grumpy and surly at first, with a posture and strut that reminds me of a goose,  but she seems to have gained a real confidence at the end.  This isn’t as much a case of one of them trying to beat the other down, as I’ve seen in other productions of this play, as it is more of a mutual challenge and discovery, so that by the last scene when Kate gives her famous speech (full of attitude), it’s as if the two of them are in this together, trying to put one over on everyone else.  It’s a “me and you against the world” kind of approach that I really liked. Theirs is definitely an unconventional relationship, but I actually believe they’re in love in this production, and that’s a good thing.  I also have to say that I love the costuming in the last scene, which also emphasizes how Petruchio and Kate are somehow out-of-step with everyone else.

The other main subplot of Bianca and her suitors, Hortensio, the elderly Gremio (Gary Glasgow) and Lucentio (Will Shaw) is handled in a slapstick-ish manner and is entertaining as well, but not quite as much as the Petruchio/Kate plot.  Storti is fine as Bianca, but she plays up the “pampered princess” angle a bit much at times, although she is excellent in a scene with Kate, as the two argue and fight over a large pink teddy bear.  Shaw is amiable if a bit bland as her main suitor.  Glasgow as Gremio and David Graham Jones as Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, are the standouts in this plot, as is Ehrmann when he joins the action in the second half in a dual role as Lucentio’s father, Vincezio and as the man pretending to be Vincenzio.  This situation allows for some hilarious moments as the staging sets up quick changes for Ehrmann between one character and the other.  It’s a bit dizzying at times, and very, very funny.  Another stand-out in the cast is Karl Gregory as Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, who plays the physical comedy very well.

I also would like to make special note of the music in this production, which uses classics from the 50’s and early 60’s to set the mood wonderfully.  I especially enjoyed the use of “Chapel of Love” in the wedding scene, as the entire cast sings and dances along, with Ehrmann as Sly’s reactions from the sidelines a real highlight.  “All Shook Up” works very well as the scene-setter in the beginning, as well.

Overall, this has been one of my favorite productions at SFStL, along with 2007’s Much Ado About Nothing and last year’s Hamlet.  The updating to the 50s/60s era really works to make the story more accessible to a modern audience, and the the direction, performances, costumes, sets and music all helped to make this an extremely enjoyable experience. There is still a week left to see it, and if you’re in St. Louis, I highly recommend checking it out.

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Since I wrote my last “Save Dress Circle” piece, there have been some new developments in the situation, so I thought I’d address those here.  I’ve seen a lot more debate online on various theatre message boards, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., mostly centering on the fact that there is now a benefit concert in the works, featuring quite a few big-name West End performers, to help raise money for the shop.  I thought this was a great idea, and I really wish I lived in London so I could go.  I never realized, though, that this was going to turn into such a contentious issue.  Most of the debate seems to center on the issue of “charity vs. business”—basically, that Dress Circle is a for-profit business, and all the various fundraising efforts are making it seem like a charity.  Some even go so far as to say that such fundraising efforts are wasted and that whatever time and money are put into this effort should be spent on actual charities.

I don’t know if this is a cultural thing, being American, but I see no problems with holding a benefit of this kind to help out a struggling business.  I have heard of similar cases in this country.  In the specific case of Dress Circle, it is not claiming to be a charity, and as far as I know the shop’s owner did not plan this benefit himself.  The point is that this store is more than just a store, and people can argue with that all they want, but the fact is that there is no other place like this shop, and they do a lot more than just sell CDs, books and other theatre-related items. Their efforts to support the theatre community and promote artists and productions via signings and other events cannot easily be done online.  I really wish we had a shop like this in St. Louis. It is well-loved in the theatre community in London, and these performers and the others involved don’t want to see it close.  They are not making these efforts at the expense of charitable organizations, though.  In fact, many of the performers reported to be involved in the benefit have been involved in many fundraising efforts for charities as well.  This is not a case of either/or.  It’s just one more cause that they are supporting because they care about it, even though in this case the cause is a for-profit business rather than a non-profit charity.

Another case that is being made is that the fundraising efforts will not really save the store, and in one sense I do see that point.  I know very little about running a business, but I do know that it takes more than a lump-sum of money to keep a business afloat for the long haul.  I’m sure that there are a lot of factors contributing to the shop’s current financial struggles and I think a lot of those are not the owner’s fault.  The store is located in a very high-rent district of London, and many people now buy their music online to get the best prices.  These factors will not go away, and no matter how much money the benefit raises, those funds won’t last forever.  The shop’s business plan does need to be revisited and modified if the shop is going to survive for years to come, and Murray Allan, the shop’s owner, has indicated on the Dress Circle website’s message board that he is in the process of doing just that.  Also, a long-term investor will most likely be needed to keep the shop going, as Allan has also admitted and is actively seeking.  In fact, Allan has recently spoken on the subject in a short interview that is up on YouTube. See what he has to say here:

Still, despite the business issues that need to be dealt with, I think a benefit concert and other fundraising efforts are worthwhile for several reasons.  First, the current efforts have served to raise awareness of the shop’s situation, and apparently business has picked up as a result.  The efforts will also help to advertise the need for and attract the attention of potential long-term investors.  Also, the funds raised will help to meet the shop’s immediate financial needs and give the owners more time to address the long-term issues.  The benefit is not a magic cure, but it is a start, and if I lived in London I would attend.  I hope they make a DVD of the concert and sell it to help raise further funds. If they do, I will buy it and encourage others to do so.

The bottom line is, I think Dress Circle is a valuable asset to the London theatre community, and many performers and other theatre professionals, as well as fans, agree with me and are involved in the efforts to save it.  Some people either don’t like the store or disagree with the idea of raising money to help a business.  These people don’t have to support the efforts, but those of us who do support them will not change our minds.  I wish the benefit every success and hope the shop remains open for many years to come.

Addendum–To keep up to date with the fundraising efforts and other issues regarding the shop, you can follow @dcbenefit on Twitter and/or join the Facebook page I linked to in my last post on this subject.  Dress Circle also has an official Facebook page here and they also have a Twitter @DressCircleShop.  The main Dress Circle website (from which you can order their merchandise online) is linked in the Blogroll on the right side of this page.

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