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Archive for July, 2011

The Muny is not without its quirks.  It’s a beloved St. Louis institution, and while there are plenty of other outdoor theatres in America and around the world, the Muny is a unique entity.  It is often a study in contrasts, as I experienced in attending their two most recent productions.  It’s interesting how a theatre as famous for its huge stage and large-cast, flashy productions can sometimes be so successful with a smaller-scale show and (at least somewhat) miss the mark on a bigger, flashier show.  Here are my short reviews:

Singin’ In the Rain

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Directed by Rick Conant

July 18, 2011

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So, here we have come to that time at the Muny.  I knew it would happen, because it seems to most seasons, except last year because I only saw three shows.  The deal is, most years at the Muny there is a production (or two or three) that I mostly enjoy, but the rest of the audience seems to absolutely love and I just don’t understand all the enthusiasm.   This season, that time came with Singin’ In the Rain.  It was not a bad production by any means, but it paled in comparison to the film on which it is based, and a few of the performers seemed to be just going through the motions, except in the spectacular dancing.  I did like the production, for the most part, but compared to the other shows I’ve seen at the Muny this season, this one was definitely not up to their level.

I guess my biggest problem was that the show never felt like it was real. The dancing was wonderful, and the perfomers tried their best–Tony Yazbeck and Shannon M. O’Brien were fine as movie star Don Lockwood and up-and-coming actress Kathy Selden, and Michele Ragusa as the show’s villain, screechy-voiced diva Lina Lamont, had some great moments even though she only truly seemed to “let loose” in her one solo song “What’s Wrong With Me”.  Curtis Holbrook as pianist Cosmo Brown was my favorite performer in the show, giving a truly charming performance with excellent comedy skills and spectacular acrobatic dancing as highlighted in “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “Good Mornin'” and “Moses”.  James Anthony as studio boss R. F. Simpson and John Freimann as move director Roscoe Dexter  were also fun in their roles, but for a lot of the time it  all seemed like the actors were just going from place to place and saying their lines, trying as much as the could to evoke the spirit of the film, but it all felt somewhat artificial.  In the opening sequence, for example, we supposed to be witnessing a grand film premiere in the 1920s, attended by glittering silent screen stars and their adoring fans, but it just seemed like a costume party to me.   The only times I felt truly transported were during the dance segments, as exemplified by the fun title number (complete with “real” rain), and the “Broadway Melody” number in the second act.

The costumes and sets were adequate but not particularly striking, and the overall experience for me was of watching a not-entirely-successful attempt at recreating the look and feel of the film.  It was an enjoyable evening for the most part, but I found myself wishing the whole cast had more energy, particularly in the acting.  Allow me to mention again, though, how much I loved the dancing!

Little Shop of Horrors

Music by Alan Menken, Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman

Directed by John Miller-Stephany

July 25, 2011

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This show is about as different as you can get from Singin’ In the Rain, but I think the Muny’s production in this case was much more successful.  Based on a B-grade horror film from the early 1960’s, this story of a nerd who finds a strange plant that turns out to be a maneater is full of dark humor, real sympathy and strong performances.  It’s not the type of show that I would normally imagine for this venue, as it has a very small cast by Muny standards and the subject matter is darker than typical Muny offerings, but this was a very well-imagined, excellently performed production and I was amazed at how well it worked on the huge Muny stage.

The performances in this production were universally excellent, with special kudos to Michael Latini (manipulation) and Muny regular Ken Page (voice) for bringing the bloodthirsty plant Audrey II to menacing life.  Rob McClure, made a convincing Seymour both with the comedic and dramatic elements of the story, while Alli Mauzy as the object of his affections, flower shop clerk Audrey, was effectively ditzy and  sympathetic, and their duet “Suddenly Seymour” was a highlight.  They were capably supported by Clarke Thorell in several roles, most notably Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, Orin.  The cast was rounded out by the excellent “Greek Chorus” of 60’s style “girl group” singers, Crystal (Alicia Deslorieux), Chiffon (Brene’ Jackson) and Ronette (Jen Brissman), who commanded the stage well with their tight harmonies and sassy attitude.

This show was able to maintain a tone of dark comedy as well as increasingly menacing horror throughout the evening, and the ending was particularly effective.  I loved how much time was taken to do this show right. Nothing was rushed.  Every joke was earned, and the horror elements were suitably frightening. I particularly remember the protracted moment of silence following Audrey II’s first spoken lines that made the scene that much funnier simply because of the timing of it.  Kudos to McClure especially for his reactions to the plant. The whole cast worked so well together and the plant itself was a fully realized character.  The increasingly chilling atmosphere of the piece was handled perfectly, as well.

This was a smaller show than the Muny usually does, but the excellent cast filled the giant Muny stage well, and the sets effectively portrayed the rundown inner-city neighborhood of the story.  Everything–costumes, props, sets, actors, and the magnificent Audrey II puppets, contributed to telling a compelling, alternately hilarious and horrifying story.  It was a truly transporting experience.

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The Little Mermaid

Music by Alan Menken

Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater

Book by Doug Wright

Directed by Paul Blake

The Muny, St. Louis

July 11, 2011

The Little Mermaid was probably this year’s most anticipated production at the Muny.  Based on the classic 1989 Disney animated film, this show brought out legions of little girls in princess dresses and mermaid costumes, as well as thousands of other enthusiastic audience members looking for an evening of theatre magic to help transport them from the ridiculously hot St. Louis summer night to the cool depths of an ocean filled with colorful sea creatures. One of the drawbacks of outdoor theatre is that you are at the mercy of the weather, and this time the weather wasn’t showing any mercy. It was so hot outside that I wished we really were under the sea, but this production was so energetic, colorful and well-cast that I was able to take my mind off of the extreme heat and allow myself to be transported to the fantasy world of the show.

The stage version tells the same basic story as the film–of Ariel, a young mermaid who falls in love with a human prince– with a few plot changes to make it work better onstage.  There was even a note in the program to inform the audience of these changes, and for the most part, I think the show worked very well.  The characters’ back stories are further explored–especially those of King Triton and Ursula the Sea Witch, and of Prince Eric, whose motivation for being at sea at the start of the show is further explained.  There are also several new songs to help fill out the show, and some of these provided some of the best moments in this production.  I thought that Ursula’s fate, drastically altered from the film, seemed a little rushed, and there were parts–“Les Poissons”, for instance, although very well-performed by Lee Roy Reams as Chef Louis–that didn’t seem necessary to the plot (I thought this song in particular worked better in the film).  Still, overall it was a very enjoyable story and managed to adapt the film story in a way that made sense for the stage.

The biggest strength of this production was the excellent cast.    Patti Murin made a strong, earnest Ariel, with a lovely voice and great stage presence, and she was well-matched by John Riddle as a suitably handsome and charming Prince Eric. I like that the stage version took a little more time with their love story than the film did, and they made a delightful couple.  Muny and Broadway veteran Ken Page was also a standout as King Triton, giving the character just the right combination of authority, strength and fatherly affection.  Lara Teeter was great as Scuttle the Seagull, with excellent comic timing and spectacular dancing skills. His Act Two opening number “Positoovity”, in which he and a chorus of other gulls try to help the newly-transformed Ariel get used to her new legs, was a showstopper.  Also noteworthy was Teeter’s 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who played Ariel’s fish-friend Flounder with a great deal of energy and spirit, especially in her delightful number with Ariel’s mermaid sisters, “She’s In Love”.  Francis Jue as Sebastian gave a fine performance with a funny little way of walking.  Paul Vogt was a suitably menacing, enthusiastically evil Ursula the Sea Witch, and Matt Braver and Max Kumangai were a comic delight as Ursula’s henchmen, the electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam.   Also, the very large ensemble of colorfully-costumed children playing various sea creatures helped to fill the stage for lively production numbers like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”.

I had so much fun at this show.  It’s almost pointless to criticize a show like this, because it was so well-performed and everyone onstage seemed to be having so much fun.  That fun was contagious, too, and the audience seemed to love every minute of the show.  If I had to say anything negative, it would be that some of the costumes could have been more elaborate, such as the mermaid dresses and the seagull costumes, but the show was so much fun and the performances were so universally excellent that little things like that don’t get in the way of the enjoyment of the show.  The sets were colorful and whimsical, creating an atmosphere similar to an animated film, and the choreography, especially in the big production numbers, was crisp and full of energy.  The overall effect was of excitement, adventure and joy, and even despite the notorious St. Louis summer heat, it was a delightful experience.

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