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Archive for March, 2013

Hello, Dolly!

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Michael Stewart

based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder

Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Choreographed by Karma Camp

Co-Produced by Ford’s Theatre Society and Signature Theatre

Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC

March 15th, 2013

fordstheatre

I recently had the opportunity to return to my old stomping grounds, the Washington DC area, on a family trip.  Despite having grown up there and having participated in countless school field trips to various Nation’s Capital attractions, I had never managed to make it to the historic Ford’s Theatre until this latest trip.  Most famous for its connection to Abraham Lincoln, the theatre is now both a historical attraction (with an excellent museum) and a working theatre hosting several productions each year.

This is a smaller production of Hello Dolly! than usual.  The show has been known for elaborate, colorful costumes, a large cast and lots of spectacle, such as the title number with Dolly descending a grand staircase accompanied by a large chorus of waiters. The last time I saw this show was in 2007 at the Muny, a venue which seems the very definition of “larger than life”, to the point where in comparison, a production like this might be akin to producing the show in someone’s basement.  Still, it’s a glorious “basement” and the ideal setting for this slightly re-imagined production. In this version, the cast is smaller, the spectacle is brought down and the costumes, while still beautifully made, are more muted.  The emphasis here is more on character than spectacle, and for the most part, it works.

This is the classic story of widowed matchmaker and professional meddler Dolly Gallagher Levi (Nancy Opel), who aims to arrange a marriage for Yonkers “half-millionaire”, the curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Edward Gero) without letting him know that her intended bride for him is herself.  Dolly also has a few other schemes up her sleeve, involving several people in Horace’s circle, including his chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Gregory Maheu) and young assistant Barnaby Tucker (Zachary Collona), who go on an adventure of their own involving widowed hatshop owner Irene Molloy (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and her young employee Minnie Faye (Lauren Williams).  All of these characters spend an eventful day in New York City, where Dolly’s influence is shown to be far-reaching, and where the various characters pursue their dreams and get more than they bargained for in various ways.

Opel is a wistful, engaging Dolly.  In contrast to previous interpretations that have emphasized the character’s hyper-competence, Opel brings the character’s sense of regret to the forefront. She has excellent chemistry with Edward Gero as Horace and has handles most of her numbers very well. Her highlights musically are the opening sequence (“I Put My Hand In”), “Motherhood”, the title song and “So Long, Dearie”, which is her tour-de-force as far as I’m concerned.  It was such a strong moment for her, and Gero’s reactions to her were perfectly appropriate.  All of these numbers that have her interacting with other characters, and the chemistry is strong.  Gero is a humanized Horace—stubborn and set in his ways, but convincingly changing throughout the show and warming up to Dolly.  Together, Opel and Gero make their growing relationship both engaging and believable.

As celebrated as the character of Dolly is,  my favorite story line in this show has always been the B-plot, with Horace and Barnaby going out on the town with Irene Malloy and Minnie Fay, and all the players do well here.  Maheu is an earnest, charming Cornelius and his chemistry with Olivera’s Irene  is striking, particularly in what is probably the best staging of “It Only Takes a Moment” I’ve ever seen.  Olivera is in very strong voice as Irene, delivering an excellent rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back”. Collona brings an amiable energy and strong dancing to the role of Barnaby, and Williams  turns in an engagingly funny performance as Minnie Faye.  These four performers make the most of their scenes together, and numbers like the hilarious “Motherhood” and  the charming “Elegance”are delightful highlights of the show, also with their inventive staging and well-executed choreography.  This show has a very strong cast all around, as well, and a delightful ensemble, particularly in regard to dancing.

I liked Adam Koch’s simple but effective train station set, in muted colors to set the mood of the times, and with wheeled luggage racks that are reused as set pieces throughout. The costumes by Wade Laboissonniere are extremely well-done as well.  The colors may not be eye-poppingly bright as in some other productions of this show, but all of the costumes are exquisitely made with rich fabrics and patterns and very much evocative of the era.   I also loved the strong choreography, most notably in the energetic “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and in the title song, which isn’t as flashy as previous productions, but is extremely well-staged and performed with a lot of style and class by Opel and the ensemble of four waiters.

I was glad to be able to witness this remarkable joint production by the Ford’s Theatre Society and the DC area’s much-acclaimed Signature Theatre, and the production is well-realized and directed by Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.  It’s a different Dolly than audiences may be expecting, but the experiment in bringing this show down to scale pays off in highlighting the atmosphere of the 1890’s and the relationships between the characters. This production is a treat for the eyes, ears, and heart, and well worth checking out before it closes in May.

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Next to Normal
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre, St. Louis
February 28, 2013

n2n set

Lights go up on a stage set with a framework representing the inside of a house, assembled in a jumbled fashion from elements of one family’s life.  It all looks well-ordered at first glance, and then the odd elements catch the eye. There are lamps that stand right-side-up, hang upside-down, or stick out sideways from wall beams.  There is a door on its side where the roof should be, and boxes are stacked neatly in rows, while hundreds of small pill bottles decorate the scene everywhere.  In the foreground are four chairs, three neatly arranged in a line and one on the floor on its side.  This is reflection of the fact that not all is as it first seems with the show’s central characters, Diana Goodman (Kimi Short) and her family–husband Dan (Jeffrey M. Wright), son Gabe (Ryan Foizey) and daughter Natalie (Mary Beth Black). This show takes us on a tour through the lives of a family dealing with mental illness, relationship struggles and more, with an extremely well-written script, many excellent songs and New Line’s top-notch cast.

As Diana, Short gives a wonderfully measured, grounding performance that showcases the character’s energy as well as her confusion, fear and regret. It is something of an “every woman” performance in that she makes the character easy to relate to, even for those of us who do not share her struggles with mental illness.  With all of the character’s ups and downs, Short takes the audience with her along the way and has us hoping for a good outcome to her quest for answers and healing.  Her voice is strong and reminiscent of Alice Ripley’s from the Broadway cast album. She brings real strength and sympathy to songs like the wistful “I Miss the Mountains” and the angry “You Don’t Know”.  Her Diana is the center of this production, and the rest of the cast works very well with her.

As Diana’s stable-but-overwhelmed husband Dan, Wright lends excellent support, and makes Dan’s struggles to cope with the chaos as well as his own journey of grief, denial, and finally hope compelling. Their teenage daughter Natalie is an aspiring classical pianist who has her own struggles in dealing with relating to both of her parents as well as her sweet, affable slacker/stoner boyfriend Henry (Joseph McAnulty), and she is remarkably portrayed by high-school junior Mary Beth Black, an extremely promising young performer who has a very bright future ahead of her.  In addition to her very strong vocals, Black brings out all the sympathy in Natalie’s situation while at the same time very believably portraying the character’s confusion, frustration and anger, as well as her desire for a more genuine relationship with her parents in the midst of all the drama.  Natalie’s journey of self-discovery parallels Diana’s in several significant ways, and Black’s scenes with Short (including a trippy fantasy sequence in “Wish I Were Here”) are a particular highlight of this production.  Black also has great chemistry with McAnulty, and the off-and-on romance between Henry and Natalie is both intriguing and endearing.  I also liked how the Natalie/Henry relationship was contrasted with that of Diana and Dan especially in the second act in “Why Stay?”/”A Promise”, which is perfectly played by all four performers and is only one highlight of many in this beautifully realized production.

Rounding out the cast with equally outstanding performances are Ryan Foizey as the enigmatic son, Gabe, and Zachary Allen Farmer in a dual role as two of Diana’s doctors.  Gabe is in many ways the key to the conflict in this show, and Foizey is excellent, bringing all the charm, menace and mystery that the role requires, and his voice is strong and clear, bringing physical and emotional energy to numbers like “I’m Alive” and haunting magnetism to the slower numbers like “There’s a World”.  Farmer, provides strong support as the two very different doctors, displaying a strong voice and handling the “rock-star” fantasy sequences particularly well.

This show has lately become very popular with regional theatres, and New Line is the first St. Louis company to perform it.  It’s one of my favorite new musicals, and I was excited to be able to see a local production after having seen the national tour at the Fox two years ago with its giant multi-level set and slicker production values.  This production is smaller and more intimate, and that works very well as a way for bringing the audience into the action and emotions of the characters.  The set by Scott L. Schoonover doesn’t have all the height or scale of the Broadway and tour set, but it suits this production extremely well, with lots of depth and little details (like the the askew furniture and pill bottles) that may not be evident as first but become more noticeable upon further scrutiny.  The set provides just the right backdrop for this enthralling drama, and there is also an excellent band conducted by Music Director Justin Smolik which lends dynamic support to the truly spectacular cast.

It’s only three months into this year, and I’ve already fulfilled one of my New Year’s resolutions–to explore some more of St. Louis’s excellent local theatre companies.  New Line’s Next to Normal has impressed me in so many ways that I hope to see many more of this company’s productions in the future. Aside from a minor issue with uneven sound (that I’m sure will be corrected as the run continues), this was about as close to a perfect production of this show as I could imagine.  I encourage all my St. Louis readers to check it out.

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