Archive for August, 2012

The Music Man

Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson

based on a story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey

Directed by Aaron Paschall

Choreographed by Ariel DeWitt

Curtains Up Theatre Company

Denver, Colorado

August 11, 2012

I had no idea what I was getting into when I saw this production of The Music Man, but I thought I did. I mean, it’s The Music Man.  Most people with even a moderate knowledge of musical theatre have heard of the The Music Man.  Many people (me included) saw the show performed at their high schools or local community theatres.  It’s one of the most performed classic musicals in America.  It’s a big show with a big cast, and even though I knew this production was by a small-ish theatre company I didn’t really expect it to be this small.  It’s so small that it would seem that the essence of the show–a tribute to small town Midwestern America by a man (Meredith Willson) who grew up there–might be diminished, but oddly even though the size of the production was reduced, the atmosphere was not, and in fact the more intimate nature of this production actually added a new perspective to the material that added to my enjoyment of the show.

The set by Eric Franklin is simple but effective, with benches and movable set pieces that are changed around to suggest various settings such as a train car, a front porch, a school gymnasium and a library.  The cast doubles as the stage crew, in fact.  The costumes (by Tammy Franklin) are meticulously accurate, and the 1912 atmosphere is set very well even with the minimal scenery.  For such a tiny production, the attention to detail in terms of setting is quite remarkable, and it lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

The intimacy of the production allows for a conversational feel to numbers such as “Rock Island”, which also—in a clever bit of staging that I had never seen before—allows Harold Hill (Darren Chilton) to speak his own words of introduction, unbeknownst to the salesmen around him.  The salesmen are played by the same actors who turn up later in the show as the quartet and townspeople, and that works very well.  Other adjustments to the staging included having the Paroo house scenes entirely staged on their front porch, with piano student Amaryllis offstage during “The Piano Lesson” and most of “Goodnight My Someone”.  This staging makes the songs more of a showcase for Marian and her mother.  Other settings such as the footbridge and the ice cream social work very well with this small set, and the overall feel of the piece is one of familiarity, like the audience is invited to experience this small town and get to know these characters in a more direct way than with some of the larger productions.  Also, the choreography of some of the usually-larger numbers such as “76 Trombones” and “Shipoopi” has been adapted to the space and cast size to make these numbers focus much more on the relationships between the characters than large-scale spectacle.  I especially loved the “Marian the Librarian” sequence, in which the focus has been directed almost entirely on the elaborate “cat and mouse” game between Harold and Marian.  It’s very well staged and well danced by all of the players.

The performances are “smaller” than usually seen in this show, as well.  Some characters who are larger than life caricatures in most productions—like Mayor Shinn (Charles Kolar) and his wife, Eulalie (Tammy Franklin)—are brought more down to Earth in this production.  They are still comic characters, and very well-played, but these are characters that seem more accessible somehow, like people you would actually meet in small town America in 1912.  Nothing is cartoonish here, and it lends a sense of realism to the show that isn’t always there in larger productions.  The smaller scale also lends a sense of  camaraderie among the townspeople that adds to the authenticity–this a very believable small town with townspeople who all know each other.  It’s not difficult to imagine that these people are familiar with all the goings-on in the town.

The show’s central relationship, between con man Professor Harold Hill and town librarian and music teacher Marian Paroo (Natasha Gleichmann) is ideally represented here.  Chilton is a suitably charming, smooth-talking Hill, and Gleichman lends an air of toughness to Marian in the earlier scenes that makes her later softening even more effective.  The pair’s chemistry is very good, especially in the second act as their relationship grows, such as in the wonderful moment just after “Shipoopi” in which it becomes clear that Harold, who had previously seemed so sure of himself, is actually starting to lose track of his “game” and fall for Marian’s charms.  Chilton is appropriately winning in songs such as “Trouble” and “76 Trombones”, and Gleichmann with her clear, strong soprano, is in excellent voice on “Goodnight My Someone”, My White Knight” and “Till There Was You”.

Other stand-outs in the cast include Charles Burden in a winning turn as Harold Hill’s erstwhile partner-in-crime, Marcellus Washburn, and Malissa Silvey as Marian’s mother Mrs. Paroo.  Both show excellent comic abilities and great stage presence. There are also some strong performances by the younger cast members including Caylin West as Amaryllis, Carter Novinger as Marian’s brother Winthrop, and Cole Franklin and Lizzi Bennett as teenage sweethearts Tommy and Zaneeta.  The barbershop quartet (Ian Post-Green, Glenn Brackett, David Novinger and Aaron Paschall) are charming and in great voice, and the Pick-a-Little Ladies (Kathy DeWitt, Jennifer Novinger, Jaclyn O’Hara and Amanda Pouiliot) lend excellent support as well.

That all said, there were a few slight issues with line flubs here and there and somewhat clunky set changes and a backstage mishap with that resulted in a (very well-covered) trio performance of “Lida Rose”.  There were also a few projection issues with some of the younger cast members, but overall it was a thoroughly entertaining, very different production of a time-honored classic show.  The whole perspective of the show seemed to have been shifted toward highlighting the relationships between the characters, particularly Harold and Marian, and Marian and her family.  It’s a family show, not just for a family audience but there was a real sense of connection among the cast and crew that added real charm to this production.  I’m glad I got the chance to see it, and if you’re in Denver in the next few weeks I highly recommend checking it out.

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The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

August 6, 2012

The King and I is the classic musical loosely based on the  true story of Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly),  a widowed English schoolteacher who  was hired to teach the children of the King of Siam (Kevin Gray) in the 1860s.   As the story is presented here, the King wants to “modernize” his country’s ways so as to have better diplomatic relations with Western countries and not get taken over by the British Empire, but he and Anna clash over cultural differences and issues like polygamy, use of authority and roles of women in society.  Over the course of the show, both Anna and the King learn to appreciate and respect one another in a gradually developing bond of real affection.  It’s a show that has been produced many times around the world, and the Muny delivers a thoroughly believable, strong production to finish off their truly wonderful 2012 season.

Personally, as a follower of the London theatre scene, it was great for me to hear that a bona fide West End star, Laura Michelle Kelly, was going to be playing Anna in this production. I had only seen some (excellent) promotional clips of her as Mary Poppins, but many of my UK friends spoke highly of her, so I was looking forward to seeing her in this production. I can happily say now that she more than lived up to the hype. Kelly is wonderful in this role. She possesses a strong, clear, powerful voice and plays Anna as strong and compassionate, and her stubbornness is a match to the King’s. Kelly is younger than the usual casting for this role but, at 31, is roughly the same age as the real Anna when she first came to Siam, and she brings a youthful energy to the role that is balanced by just the right amount of authority.  She shines in songs like “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” in which she indulges in an imaginary rant towards the King, as well as in gentler, moments like “Hello, Young Lovers” and especially its more melancholy reprise in the second act.  “Getting to Know You” is also a highlight, as Kelly is able to display a great sense of rapport with the children in her charge.

Kevin Gray as the King has a commanding presence. From his very first appearance onstage, just from the way he is standing, it’s obvious that he is King even though the emphasis of his portrayal is on his self- doubt as exemplified in his excellent song “Is a Puzzlement”.   Gray is at his best in his scenes with Kelly, where their mutual stubbornness comes into the forefront and the energy is palpable.  I like how the affection that builds between Anna and the King is not portrayed as a straightforward romance, as playing it as a romance would make this delightfully complex relationship too simple.  The truth is that these two, in this situation, would never have been able to have a true romance so rather than dwelling on what might have been, we are treated to what is actually there, which is a growing sense of mutual admiration with a hint of attraction that shows up in moments like the delightful “Shall We Dance”.  This is many-faceted relationship, also exemplified by the verbal sparring in “Song of the King”, and it is well-played by both Kelly and Gray.

The rest of the players in this production are excellent as well. Stephanie Park and Joshua Dela Cruz are convincing as the star-crossed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, and their second act duet “I Have Dreamed” is a stand-out moment in the show. Park also excellently narrates the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and makes the parallels in that story with what is going on in her character’s own life readily apparent.  Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, also puts in a strong performance as somewhat of an emotional anchor in the story, especially in her beautifully sung number “Something Wonderful”.  There is also a great children’s ensemble, and the young actors playing Anna’s son Louis (Matt Johnson) and Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Nick Boivin) do a fine job as well.

In addition to the strong performances, this is a great looking show as well, with richly detailed period costumes, and sets that appropriately fill the large Muny stage and set the atmosphere for the show, such as the simple and elegant columned throne room of the King.  The dance numbers such as “Shall We Dance” and the visually striking ballet sequence are very well executed, and lend to the overall charm of the production.

This thoroughly entertaining production closes out a game-changing 2012 season for the Muny.  It’s  hands-down the best season I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been attending. This season also bodes well for future seasons of the Muny.  Past seasons have been more erratic, but this one was consistent and raised the level of performance at the venue.  I look forward to seeing what they do next season.

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