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Archive for December, 2013

The Mousetrap
by Agatha Christie
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 6, 2013

William Connell, Christian Pedersen, Michael James Reed, Sean Mellott Photo by Larry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

William Connell, Christian Pedersen, Michael James Reed, Sean Mellott
Photo by Larry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Agatha Christie is one of the best-known mystery writers in history.  Her novels, plays and the film adaptations of those plays have provided the basis for many popular conventions in the murder mystery genre, and the whole idea of a classic “whodunit” set in an ornate English country house with a cast of disparate characters and a dramatic reveal of the culprit is irrevocably associated with Christie.  The Mousetrap is one of her best-known plays, famous for its plot as well as the fact that the original production has been running in London’s West End since 1952. Since then, the play has been performed many times around the world by professional and amateur companies as well as schools.  For a play that is so well-known and oft-performed, it must be a challenge for a professional company to present it with a sense of energy and immediacy that would still make it exciting for today’s audience, and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has done just that with their excellent new production.

The story is set in one of those cavernous and characterful old English houses, Monkswell Manor, which is being opened as a guest house by young couple Giles (William Connell) and Mollie Ralston (Ellen Adair).  On the day their first guests are to arrive, they are greeted by an inconvenient snowstorm, and the news of a murder in nearby London, committed by a person with a vague enough description that it could fit just about anyone, including the new residents of Monskwell Manor, all of them possessing unique quirks and secrets of their own. When a determined young police sergeant arrives on the scene announcing that there may be a murderer in their midst, the mystery begins to build, with fear, suspicion and surprising revelations abounding, with Christie’s requisite clues and red herrings along the way, all leading up the the inevitable big reveal.

Christie’s larger-than-life characters are richly drawn in this production, played with energy and panache by this universally superb cast. There’s the excitable and odd young Christopher Wren (Sean Mellott), the cranky and fastidious Mrs. Boyle (Darrie Lawrence), the dependable Major Metcalf (Michael James Read), the guarded, secretive Miss Casewell (Tarah Flanagan), and the mysterious unannounced latecomer Mr. Paravicini (Larry Paulsen).  Added to this mix is the increasingly determined Detective Sergeant Trotter (Christian Pedersen), who is intent on finding out all he can about each and every person in the house, with varying degrees of cooperation and wariness from the assembled guests.

I thought the characters’ relationships were particularly well-played, with warm affection and growing uncomfortable questioning between Giles and Mollie, Mollie’s unexpected bond with the insecure Wren, Mr. Paravicini’s stirring up mischief and Trotter’s constant questioning and challenging.  The characters drive the plot as the evidence is presented gradually and efficiently, and even though I had seen The Mousetrap before years ago (so long ago that I didn’t remember the ending at first), this cast still managed to make the reveal dramatically satisfying.  Special credit goes to the performer playing the murderer (no, I won’t say who it is) for fooling me, even though I had seen the show before, until very close to the final revelation when I finally remembered how it ended.

The casting for each character was ideal, and the play’s suspense and drama as well as its elements of broad comedy are well played. Some of the standouts for me were Mellott, Adair, Paulsen and Pedersen. Mellott especially held my attention whenever he was on stage, with all his nervous energy and eagerness, and the charm of his developing friendship with Adair’s sympathetic Mollie.  Paulsen was also a delight as the colorful, dynamic and enigmatic Paravicini, and Pedersen brought just the right blend of charm and dogged determination to the character of Trotter.  The entire cast is to be commended, as well. These characters could easily become caricatures, but this wonderful cast has managed to bring out their humanity rather than just portray them as a collection of quirks.

The set for this production, designed by John Ezell, and the richly appointed costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis were meticulously detailed and added to the character of this production.  The setting of England in the 1950’s is effectively achieved, and the staging is clever and ingenious, positioning the audience behind an invisible wall in the Great Hall of Monkswell Manor, providing  just the right angle to experience all of the action and unfolding intrigue. Also, while this couldn’t have been planned, the cold, snowy weather on Opening Night certainly added to the atmosphere and helped make the situation of this group of snowbound individuals all the more believable.

Agatha Christie’s mysteries are so well-known and oft-imitated that they could very easily be viewed as a collection of worn-out cliches, and this production very effectively avoids that trap.  The real thrill here is in how this precisely executed production is able to ensnare its audience and keep our attention from start to finish.  I personally have a sense of nostalgia about Agatha Christie shows (I grew up attending annual productions at a local dinner theatre with my mother), and I’m sure many others who see this play will have their own associations with Christie’s plays, but this production’s strength is that it’s able to both celebrate the long Christie tradition and make it a real, fleshed-out story at the same time. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre.

Cast of The Mousetrap Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.  Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of The Mousetrap
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Medal of Honor Rag
by Tom Cole
Directed by Sean Belt
West End Players Guild
Missouri History Museum
December 5, 2013

Tom Kopp, Reginald Pierre Photo by John Lamb

Tom Kopp, Reginald Pierre
Photo by John Lamb

One of the best things about live theatre is that it is so versatile. It can be so many different things. It can be a big, flashy musical with a large cast and lots of complicated sets and lighting effects; it can be a Shakespearean tragedy with a complex plot;  it can be a light, airy drawing room comedy; or it can simply be a conversation, where all the complexity and drama comes from the characterization of the performers.  Medal of Honor Rag, presented by West End Players Guild is one of those simpler presentations, and this expertly presented production is no  less fascinating than an elaborately staged spectacle.

Tom Cole’s play, which is being presented at the Missouri History Museum in conjunction with the museum’s “1968 Exhibit”, is simply staged and set, depicting a room in a a Pennsylvania Army hospital in the early 1970s.   The set is minimal, with basic office furniture and an imposing security door.  The story (based on a real person) depicts a therapy session, of a traumatized African-American Vietnam vet who has won the Congressional Medal of Honor but finds it difficult to reconcile his life at home with what went on during the war. DJ (Reginald Pierre) meets with psychiatrist Doc (Tom Kopp) in an interview that starts out guarded and becomes increasingly confrontational as it continues, and Doc reveals some personal issues of his own.  In the course of this short play (a little less than an hour and a half, with no intermission), the audience is made witness to the raw emotions of both men as issues of the morality of war, survivor’s guilt, and racial prejudices (both overt and covert) are brought to light.

This is essentially a two-man show. Darrious Varner is fine in a small role as an Army guard, but for the vast majority of the play, the stage belongs to Pierre and Kopp.  The weight of this play rests on their shoulders, and they carry it extremely well.  Pierre’s DJ is wounded (emotionally rather than physically), suspicious, alternately numb and agitated, and ultimately sympathetic.  He portrays a regular guy turned damaged war vet in with all his volatile energy, and his wrestling with reconciling his actions in war with his winning a medal for those actions, as well as his guilt for having survived the war, are dynamically portrayed.  Kopp as Doc, with an oddly balanced mixture of smugness, nerves, and compassion, serves as both a foil and a support for DJ.  Doc genuinely wants to help DJ but doesn’t exactly know how, and DJ is not sure what to think since he’s seen a succession of doctors and re-hashed his story over and over, although this doctor seems both the same and different at once. This tension is well portrayed by the actors as they take us through a whirlwind of emotions, and the issues–of whether the Vietnam War, or any war for that matter, is justified, or how a man can function amid the brutal amorality of a combat setting (and get rewarded for it) and then come home and expect to resume a “normal” life, and whether his survivor’s guilt can ever be overcome, and also of a doctor’s dilemma of how to help his patient–are made immediate and believable by the remarkable performances of these two actors.

The staging is simple, dynamic and builds well, from the tense formality at the beginning to the violent emotional and physical sparring, and the abrupt, quiet and devastating conclusion. The action is perfectly pitched by director Belt and his cast, and the very simple set (by Ken Clark) suggests the time and place effectively.  This is an expertly written, crafted and performed piece of theatre, distilling all of the intensity of these issues into one relatively brief performance that holds the audience’s attention and makes us not only think about, but feel for these men, and DJ in particular. 

The Vietnam War ended almost 40 years ago, but its influence on American history and culture is still apparent, and shows like this help us to remember.  The issue of war itself, and whether it is ever necessary, will always be a topic of discussion and debate, as will the effects of war upon its individual participants.  For those of us who haven’t experienced combat first-hand, a play like this one takes these issues out of the realm of the academic and makes them personal.  It doesn’t provide easy answers to any of the questions it raises, but this is never going to be an easy issue. Medal of Honor Rag  an intense, gripping play, and West End Players Guild’s production brings it to life with remarkable clarity, emotion and strength.

Reginald Pierre, Tom Kopp Photo by John Lamb

Reginald Pierre, Tom Kopp
Photo by John Lamb

 

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As anyone who read my last blog entry would know, I was eagerly anticipating NBC’s broadcast of The Sound of Music, which finally aired last night after months of hype, and it seems like everyone was talking about it online. It was on Twitter, Facebook, the BroadwayWorld message boards, and many other places online, and I can’t remember the last time (if ever) I have seen so much buzz for a theatre-related event among the general public. The show also apparently drew huge ratings for the night, and today, people are still talking about it (good and bad). As for my own thoughts, I think this was overall a positive night for theatre and the production itself was entertaining if not perfect.

This biggest reason for all the hype surrounding this event was the casting of Carrie Underwood as Maria. She was the undisputed main draw of this production, and I defended her casting in my last article when I had only heard clips of her singing and hadn’t seen her act the role, so I was particularly curious to see how she would perform in the show. I think the best way to describe her performance is “un-polished, but earnest”. Underwood was obviously trying her best, emphasizing Maria’s youth and naivete, but her lack of acting experience was apparent.  Early in the performance, she appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by nerves and simply seemed to be reciting lines, except when she sang and she was more in her element. Then, about halfway through the first act, after a particularly rousing and charming rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd” with the well-cast group of Von Trapp children, Underwood started to loosen up, and had some genuinely convincing moments, such as her confrontation of Captain Von Trapp (Stephen Moyer) about his neglect of his children, her reactions to The Mother Abbess’s (Audra McDonald) glorious “Cimb Ev’ry Mountain”, and a nice little moment with McDonald before the Captain and Maria’s wedding, where Underwood seemed to finally let go of any residual nervousness and displayed a warm, genuine smile. Underwood has an inherent likability about her that, I think, made her deficiencies as an actress a little easier to bear, and her voice was strong in the musical numbers. Overall, she came across as a singer and not an actress.  She did seem to have some flashes of acting talent there, though, and I would be curious to see her try more roles in the future, with some training (but starting with smaller projects than this one).

As for the rest of the cast, the Broadway veterans were, to my mind, the real stars of this show. Every moment Audra McDonald was onscreen, she got my attention with her strong, authoritative but warm characterization and that glorious voice of hers, which was best highlighted in the soaring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.   She also seemed to help make Underwood’s performance stronger in all of their scenes together. Laura Benanti was the best Elsa Schraeder I’ve ever seen, bringing all the wit and sophistication, as well as much more sympathy  to the character than usual, and her scenes with Christian Borle as the enterprising Max Detweiler were particularly well done. Borle brought intelligence and charm to his performance, as well, and I was also impressed by the strong performances of Kristine Nielsen as the Von Trapps’ housekeeper Frau Schmidt and Sean Cullen as butler Franz. The children, led by the winning performances of Ariane Rinehart as Liesl, Sophia Caruso as Brigitta and Joe West as Kurt, were well-cast and engaging, performing their scenes with energy and a good sense of familial rapport, and in great voice on numbers like “The Lonely Goatherd” and “The Sound of Music”.

Some of the casting was more problematic, however. Michael Campayno as Rolf the delivery boy is nice-looking and had a good voice, but seemed too old for the much more youthful-looking Rinehart as Liesl, and “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” had some charm but ultimately lacked believability. Moyer as Captain Von Trapp was more of a one-note characterization, and his chemistry with Underwood seemed more friendly than romantic, but he did have a bit of a nice moment with “Edelweiss” late in the production.

In terms of the production as a whole, which was directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller, I thought it had the look of a daytime soap opera in terms of filming, but the sets by Derek McLane were stunning, from the forested hills to the grandeur of the Abbey and the opulence of the Von Trapp villa.  I also thought the changes between scenes were clever and well-executed, especially the transition from the Von Trapps’ mansion to the music festival towards the end of the show. There were some strange camera angles, though, and too many shots of the backs of people’s heads, and the costuming mostly ranged from good enough (for most of the performers) to unflattering (most of Underwood’s outfits in the second act). The sound was muddled, with an odd background humming during the dialogue scenes. The mixture of the pre-recorded orchestral tracks with the live vocals seemed disjointed, especially in the Abbey scenes with the nuns and at the end when McDonald’s reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was drowned out by the music. Some of the pacing also suffered because of the lack of a live audience, and I hope that if NBC ever does this again with another musical, they will include an audience. I think some of the audience feedback may have helped less-confident actors like Underwood find their energy, and it might have helped with the flow of the production as well.

Despite the production’s flaws, this is an amazing event in terms of exposure for musical theatre to the general public. The net was alive with the buzz surrounding this production last night, and I hope NBC capitalizes on that by producing more live broadcasts of musicals. Perhaps they could find a star performer with a little more confidence in the acting department and have even more success the second time around. Still, even with its limitations, I view The Sound of Music Live as a success, and I’m glad I was able to see it and engage in some great discussions with friends and acquaintances online.  I hope this leads to bigger and better developments for musical theatre on TV in the future.

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There has been a lot of hype and talk surrounding the upcoming live broadcast of The Sound of Music, which airs tomorrow night on NBC and stars country music superstar Carrie Underwood as Maria and Stephen Moyer (from HBO’s True Blood) as Captain Von Trapp. I’m looking forward to this production because I think live theatre on television is a great thing. It harks back to the days of other live musical events such as Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. If this broadcast is successful, I could imagine it leading to more live musical broadcasts in the future, and I hope so. I still keep seeing a lot of skepticism about this production online, though, either because of the casting of Underwood or because people seem to think of this as a remake of the film (which it is not), so I thought I would offer just a little bit of information about this production and what it is, and what it is not.

I know many viewers will be familiar with the movie and not the play, but to quote that great philosopher Yoda—“you must unlearn what you have learned”.   This is The Sound of Music, but in a way you may have never seen before. It’s the same basic story, and there will still be a whole lot of singing, dancing and yodeling, but this is the play, not the film. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind as you watch The Sound of Music Live:

1. “Where’s That Song?” The film adds two songs that Richard Rodgers wrote on his own specifically for that adaptation: “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” (Oscar Hammerstein II had died before the film was made). Several stage revivals have added these songs as well, but this production will apparently only be using “Something Good”, which was written to replace the original stage show’s beyond bland love duet, “An Ordinary Couple”, a song Rodgers himself apparently wasn’t happy with. Basically, what you will be seeing here, with one exception, are the songs from the 1959 original Broadway production in their original order and context.

2. “New Songs?” Not so New The original stage play contains two very witty numbers for Max and Elsa—“No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive” that are sorely missed (by me, anyway) in the film. I look forward especially to seeing these great songs being performed by celebrated Broadway stars Christian Borle and Laura Benanti, and bringing an air of sharp, sophisticated humor to the show that wasn’t as apparent in the film.

3. The Same, But Different Several of the songs in the show are in different places in the stage play than they are in the film, such as “My Favorite Things”, “The Lonely Goatherd” (there’s no puppet show), and “Do Re Mi” (same general idea, but it’s earlier in the play). Also, “Edelweiss” is in the play, but only in one of the scenes it appears in on film. The plot is the same as the film, but many of the individual scenes and plot developments are different. While I personally think the film script, for the most part, is superior to the stage script, the stage script when performed well is highly engaging and entertaining. It’s all slightly different, but it’s still The Sound of Music, and if this production lives up to its promise, it should be well worth watching.

4. Carrie Underwood as Maria? Why Not? I was dismayed to read that Underwood has received “hate tweets” because she dared take on a role that has been played in such an iconic fashion by Julie Andrews in the film. Underwood, however, has never claimed to be trying to usurp or imitate Andrews, and in fact, nobody “owns” a role. Andrews (who has had nothing but good things to say about Underwood) was not even the first Maria in The Sound of Music, nor was she the last. There have been many excellent and acclaimed stage Marias, starting with Mary Martin on Broadway in 1959 and including Petula Clark (1981 London Revival), Rebecca Luker (1998 Broadway Revival), Connie Fisher (2006 London Revival), and this production’s Elsa Schraeder, Laura Benanti, who (at age 19) replaced Luker in the ’98 revival. The role has been played by countless actresses of varying levels of notoriety in regional and touring productions, as well.

While Andrews’s name and voice will always be associated with the role for many people, and she was certainly wonderful in the film, this is a classic and much-played role, and Carrie Underwood is in excellent company. Whether she is able to convincingly act the part remains to be seen, but judging from the clips I’ve heard of the newly-released Cast Recording, she’s more than up for the task vocally. She has obviously worked hard to learn to adapt her voice from singing country-pop to singing musical theatre, and all that work has paid off. She sounds great, and I hope she’ll be able make a positive impression with her acting as well.

5. All-Star Cast (and they mean it!) Personally, I would be tuning into this production no matter who played Maria, simply because of the extremely talented supporting cast. Apart from Underwood, Moyer, and the children, this show is full of big-name Broadway veterans. Benanti, Borle and the glorious-voiced Audra McDonald (who plays the Mother Abbess) are all Tony winners, and even the nuns’ chorus is chock full of high-caliber Broadway performers, and even leading ladies like Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original Mary Poppins). There are more Broadway performers in this ensemble than I can easily highlight. This is a theatre geek’s dream, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but even non-Broadway fans should know the depth of talent in this production, and that so many of the cast members from the major supporting players to the ensemble are top-quality performers with years of stage experience.

To sum up my advice—if you don’t know anything but the film, please try to put your pre-conceived notions aside and see this production for what it is. Judge it on its own merits—and it seems to have a lot of them. This is promising to be a truly remarkable television event, and I hope it lives up to that promise.

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