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Archive for July, 2012

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter

The Muny, St. Louis

July 23, 2012

I almost skipped this production of Joseph.  The Muny just did a production of this show five years ago and I was planning on sitting this week out because I thought I wouldn’t need to see it again so soon. I was wrong.  I’m glad I caught a report on the local news talking about the “twist” of this production, because it made me curious to see it, and I’m very happy that I did.  With this production, the latest in the Muny’s so-far extremely impressive 94th season, veteran Muny performer Lara Teeter takes the reins as director and choreographer and, along with a strong cast and crew, presents a show that is wildly entertaining, extremely clever and uniquely St. Louis.

As usual, this is the Biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob, with a twist—a pastiche of different musical styles melded together to tell the story.  What is not usual, though, is that this production is set in a strange amalgam of the ancient Middle East and Egypt, and modern-day St. Louis.  The show starts with a collection of people wandering aimlessly on stage as, one by one, a few recount how they have “lost their dream”.  Then the Narrator (Mamie Parris) appears to tell the story of Joseph (Justin Guarini), who enters wearing a Cardinals jersey, singing one of the show’s most well-known songs “Any Dream Will Do”.  From there, we are taken back to Bible times, sort of.  Everything has a St. Louis flavor and oddly enough, it works.  Jacob (Gary Glasgow) and his sons run a Schnucks-like supermarket (“Jacob and Sons”), go tailgating at Busch Stadium (“One More Angel In Heaven”) and later, when their fortune changes, are relegated to hawking frozen custard concretes at Ted Drewe’s (“Those Canaan Days”).  Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and goes to work for Potiphar (also Glasgow), who is an obvious Donald Trump-like character whose business empire is based in Downtown St. Louis.  Later Joseph meets the Pharaoh (Austin Miller), who is an Elvis-like figure as is usual in this show, but this time he is backed by an ensemble consisting of golden cat-people and 1950’s-styled teenage groupies.  The settings are hilariously random and specific at the same time, and St. Louisans in the audience are bound to recognize a lot of the references.  It’s also amazing that most of the change of setting is achieved by the sets, costumes and performances as opposed to changes in the script.  As far as I can tell, aside from the little addition to the prologue, the most drastic change to the show as written is an adaptation in the arrangement of one song– the usually titled “Benjamin Calypso” toward the end of the show has been turned into a gospel song, incorporating the full cast in a rousing,  energetic production number.  I’ve never heard of this being done before but in the context of this production, it works.  There are also some fun pop-culture references thrown into the “Megamix” at the end.

What is great about this production is that, while this very different approach could easily seem distracting or pretentious, it all goes together surprisingly well.  This is just the right kind of show to adapt in this manner, in that it’s not a deeply serious show to begin with, and it seems to work best when everyone involved just has fun with it.  All the elements of the show work together seamlessly. The set design is simple but effective—it’s basically just a bridge, with a few movable booths and platforms and familiar St. Louis scenes posted on the scenery wall in the background.  The costumes are also simple with a lot of bright colors and some St. Louis specific outfits like the Ted Drewe’s uniforms and Cardinals jersey.  The choreography is well-executed and energetic, reflecting the various styles of the songs. One of the best examples of the St. Louis specific staging is in the Ted Drewe’s sequence in “Those Canaan Days”, in which the booths are arranged into a reasonable suggestion of the custard stand, and the choreography even incorporates the signature “turning the concrete upside down” gesture in a way that is hilariously appropriate and adds to the humor of the song without seeming the least bit forced.

Aside from the setting, the best thing about this production is its cast.  Parris as the Narrator has a strong voice (occasionally reminiscent of original Broadway Narrator Laurie Beechman) and good stage presence, and Guarini, who was a pleasant surprise as Billy Flynn in the Muny’s Chicago a few weeks ago, is excellent again as Joseph.  He projects just the right air of charm and cockiness at the beginning of the show, and convincingly matures into the wise leader by the end, and his voice is very strong in songs like “Any Dream Will Do” and the moving “Close Every Door.”  Miller is obviously having a lot of fun as Pharaoh, and he shows a great rapport with both the cast and the audience.  His part is relatively small, but he makes the most of it, and the scene in which he describes his dreams to Joseph (“Poor Poor Pharaoh/ Song of the King”) is a real highlight.  Maurice Murphy as Joseph’s brother Judah leads the “Benjamin Gospel” number with a strong, clear voice and infectious enthusiasm as well, and Glasgow plays his dual roles of Jacob and Potiphar convincingly.  All of the the brothers work very well together and their group numbers are a treat as well.

The bottom line here is that this production is, simply put, a whole lot of fun.  It’s goofy, it’s clever, and it’s so well put together that the company makes it appear as if this is the way the show was always supposed to be done.  It’s not a deep or overly serious show, and there is not one bit of pretension.  The way this production incorporates its setting is ingenious and a remarkable success. It’s a production with lots of humor, and to borrow a lyric from another show (Damn Yankees), “miles and miles and miles of heart”. It’s a great way to celebrate the time-honored St. Louis tradition of attending a show at the Muny. I was very pleasantly surprised by this production, and after this season is done, this is one that will definitely stand out in my memory as an ideal example of how some things that might not work anywhere else can work incredibly well at the Muny.  It’s a unique venue, and this was a fittingly unique and surprisingly successful production.

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Dreamgirls

Music by Henry Krieger, Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler

Directed by Robert Clater

Choreography by Leisa Kaye

The Muny, St. Louis

July 16, 2012

Wow! The Muny is pulling out all the stops this season, and the “newer, bigger, better” trend continues in a clear way here in their production of Dreamgirls. The classic Broadway show is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and what better way to mark that occasion than to put on a first-class production with a top-notch cast and the show’s original star in the role that made her famous.  I had been looking forward to seeing this production because I had never seen the stage version and I remember seeing Jennifer Holliday performing on the Tony Awards when I was a kid.  There was a lot of  buzz around this show in the St. Louis media, and this show more than lives up to the expectations.  It’s a spectacular production and more than worth braving the scorching St. Louis heat to experience.

The story begins backstage at New York’s famous Apollo Theatre, as a young girl group from Chicago, the Dreamettes, enter a talent contest hoping for their big break.  There they meet an ambitious car salesman named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Christopher Jackson) who has big dreams and will do basically anything to achieve them, who becomes their manager.  The story follows the Dreamettes (later the Dreams) and their lead singers Effie White (Holliday) and Deena Jones (Demetria McKinney) on their road from obscurity to stardom, and (for Effie) back again. The story echoes the story of the Supremes and the Motown era and conveys a clear sense of time and place.  It’s an impressive production based on the original Broadway staging, with sets to suggest the stages (and backstage areas) of various venues on the Dreams’ rise to the top of the music charts in the 1960s.   The clever staging of the performances seems to have been an influence on later musicals such as Jersey Boys as well.  The music, dancing, costumes and sets all worked together to create an authentic-seeming atmosphere, and the songs, while not authentic Motown numbers, definitely have that feel.  Several of the songs are used as transitions between various eras in the Dreams’ history, giving the sense that they are taking the audience along with them on their journey to success (and heartache) in the music industry.

The main question most people are asking about this show is “how is Jennifer Holliday?” Well, all I can say is that she still has it.  She’s 30 years older than she was when she opened on Broadway in this role, but she doesn’t seem it. The only area in which her age is evident is in her movement, especially when dancing with the younger performers playing the Dreams, but that’s a minor issue as her overall performance is excellent.  She holds her own and commands the stage whenever she’s on, but this isn’t a “showcase” performance and she doesn’t play it that way, and she is very convincing especially in the more emotional moments.  Her singing is simply astounding. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is the acknowledged showstopper of this show, and her performance more than lives up to its reputation.  At the end, she drew a reaction I’ve never seen at the Muny before—a partial standing ovation (about half of the audience stood) for one song.   She was just as excellent and compelling on the rest of her songs—the highlight for me being the stirring “I Am Changing”.  I especially liked her scenes with Deena and C.C. (Tommar Wilson) in Act Two, and her portrayal of Effie’s growth as a character.

Still, despite Holliday’s excellent performance, this isn’t the Jennifer Holliday Show.  Having seen all the hype leading up the this production, I was concerned that the show would basically just be a vehicle for Holliday with less attention paid to the other cast members, and that was not the case at all. It’s a very strong cast with no weak links.  The three actresses playing the Dreams especially were outstanding.  As Deena Jones, the “Diana Ross” figure who takes over from Effie as the Dreams’ lead singer, McKinney is thoroughly convincing in her portrayal of the character’s growth from a naive young dreamer into a more confident, sophisticated superstar.  As Lorell, the third original Dreams member, Jenelle Lynn Randall gave a sympathetic performance and displayed a very powerful singing voice, and Karla Mosley was equally effective as Michelle, who replaces Effie as the third member of the group.  All of the Dreams work well together as a group, with strong, smooth vocals and good, well-synchronized dancing.  Jackson is very effective in the somewhat challenging role of Curtis, the Dreams’ manager who often resorts to less-than-honorable methods to achieve his goals for the group.  Jackson is convincingly smooth and charming at the beginning, and increasingly manipulative and controlling as the show progresses.  Jackson does a good job of making the character believable and multi-dimensional.  Wilson as Effie’s brother C.C., the group’s songwriter, is excellent as well, and Milton Craig Nealy is dynamic and alternately humorous and sympathetic as singer James “Thunder” Early.  Also making an impression is the always excellent Muny veteran Ken Page as Early’s (and later Effie’s) manager, Marty.

I was very impressed by this production and felt honored to witness it.  It’s another excellent entry in this inaugural season of the “next generation” Muny. I highly recommend seeing it for the overall quality of the whole show.  You may want to see it for Jennifer Holliday, and she doesn’t disappoint, but the whole cast, crew and creative team deserve kudos for this fine, thoroughly entertaining production.  If you’re anywhere near St. Louis this week, I highly recommend checking it out.

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Aladdin

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, Book by Chad Beguelin

Directed by Gary Griffin

Choreographed by Alex Sanchez

The Muny, St. Louis

July 9. 2012

As a longtime fan of animated films, I have to admit that Aladdin was not one of my favorite of Disney’s films, even though I did enjoy it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard that the Muny would be presenting a new stage production based on the movie, but I figured it would probably be a crowd-pleaser, and it certainly has turned out to be just that.  In many ways, this production is the ideal Muny show, and it’s another excellent entry in this season of the newer, revitalized Muny.

Book writer Chad Beguelin has tweaked the story of the film to make it work better onstage and to make it longer.  The story is now reminiscent of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies, with a trio of narrators: Omar (Jason Graae), Babkak (Eddie Korbich) and Kassim (Francis Jue), who make a grand entrance on real camels (gotta love the Muny) to introduce the setting and then reappear throughout the story to serve as narrators and commentators on the action. They also are traveling musicians and bandmates with Aladdin (Robin DeJesus), the young “diamond in the rough” who finds adventure and meets a princess (Samantha Massell as Jasmine), falls afoul of the evil Jafar (Thom Sesma) and gets help from a campy, wisecracking, larger than life Genie (John Tartaglia) along the way.  This is basically the plot of the movie without the animal sidekicks and a few extra characters and plot twists. Even Jafar’s crony Iago (Curtis Holbrook) who isn’t really given much to do, doesn’t seem to be a bird in the show as he was in the film. He’s just a colorfully dressed, parrot-like human henchman.

This production is a great example of the power of spectacle and great performances, because even though the story is simplified in some ways from the film and there aren’t any over-the-top special effects, this production is anything but dull.  Its big, colorful sets (most notably the Cave of Wonders) and bright costumes help set the mood, but the performances are really what drive the show.  Tartaglia as the Genie (even though the role seems smaller than it was in the film) owns the stage from his first entrance from the audience on a motorcycle (more Muny magic at work).  His over-the-top, flamboyant characterization sets the tone for the show, with many pop-culture references and asides to the audience, including a great deal of Muny in-jokes.  He’s like a human Disney World ride with all his energy, and he makes the most of every moment he’s onstage.  His introductory number “Friend Like Me” is a true showstopper, and even though Tartaglia is backed by the excellent Muny ensemble, he almost doesn’t need them since all eyes in the house are on him.  It’s a great comic performance, and the rest of the cast almost match him in their energy and enthusiasm.  DeJesus as Aladdin, Massell as Jasmine and the always excellent Ken Page as the Sultan all give convincing performances, as do the trio of narrators and and the rest of the cast, but Tartaglia really is the centerpiece.

The musical numbers are a combination of songs from the film, songs that were written for the film but cut during production (such as the moving “Proud of Your Boy”, movingly performed by DeJesus), and songs that were written specifically for the stage show.  Of the last category, the most notable is the rousing, Vaudeville-styled  “Somebody’s Got Your Back”, which is performed with gusto by Aladdin and his trio of bandmates.  The large Muny ensemble is put to good use, with some big, bright, energetic dance numbers. The only slight disappointment is in what is perhaps the most famous song from the film, “A Whole New World” which, while beautifully sung by DeJesus and Massell, was distinctly underwhelming visually as Aladdin and Jasmine are simply spotlighted on the dark stage, sitting on the magic carpet with a background of just a few stars behind them.   Still, even with that small let-down, it was an extremely entertaining production, and the cast, crew and  creative team obviously pulled out all the stops to deliver such an elaborate and fun show.

I’m somewhat of two minds reviewing this show, because as a performance I really enjoyed it, but structure-wise  I think it needs a little bit of revision before it can play on Broadway, which is apparently the ultimate aim of the show’s producers.  There are a few issues that I think should be addressed with the story–the role of the three narrators can get confusing as they pop in and out of the action, some characters are given very little to do, and I think there’s a little too much breaking the fourth wall, to the point where it can take the audience too far out of the story– but for the most part it’s an engaging presentation of the story from the film with a few entertaining additions. I think the show does need some work in the writing , but the performers give their all, the production looks good, and it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.  In many ways, this is the ultimate Muny show, and it makes for a great evening of music, laughter and spectacle.

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