Archive for July, 2014

LaBute New Theater Festival
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 25, 2014

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has, true to its name, been an excellent venue for local actors to exercise their talents in high-quality productions of well-known plays as well as more obscure works. With their LaBute New Theater Festival, now in its second year, STLAS has teamed up with acclaimed playwright Neil LaBute to highlight the works of up-and-coming playwrights, while simultaneously providing an excellent opportunity for some of the area’s best actors. I was able to attend the festival’s second opening night, featuring this year’s festival finalists: four new one act plays–three  by new playwrights and one by LaBute.  It’s an evening that shows off the great variety of new writing, from broad comedy to intense drama, with a little bit of sci-fi/fantasy thrown in for good measure.  The range of plays is impressive, and it’s great to be reminded of all the promising aspiring playwrights out there, and the importance of developing new theatrical work.  What also continues to impress me is the quality of acting talent this city has to offer.  These are fully staged productions that highlight the talent of the writers and the performers. The festival runs until August 3rd, and I highly recommend checking it out. Here are some brief reviews of the shows I saw:

“Coffee House, Greenwich Village”

by John Doble

Directed by John Pierson

Nathan Bush, Paul Cereghino, Ellie Schwetye Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, Paul Cereghino, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The evening’s performances began with this darkly comic tale that puts something of a macabre twist on the concept of the blind date, as well as Existentialist philosophy.  This simply staged play starts off as a simple coffee meeting between the timid Jack (Nathan Bush) and the more confrontational Pamela (Ellie Schwetye), but then gradually develops into a rather extreme form of “Truth or Dare” involving the pair and their nameless, snarky waiter (Paul Cereghino).  The script is witty and clever in places, although I could figure out where it was going about halfway through the story, and the conclusion is not a little disturbing. The actors give strong performances all around, with Bush and Schwetye managing to keep their characters engaging even as the proceedings grow darker and darker, with Schwetye expertly manipulating the initially mild-mannered, insecure Bush. Cereghino, as both antagonist and catalyst for the play’s action, turns in a believably abrasive performance as well.  It’s a satirical exploration of some of the more unsettling aspects of human nature, although the conclusion does seem a bit abrupt and oversimplified.  It’s an intriguing concept, brought to life by some solid direction and the strong performances of the three performers.

“The Thing With Feathers”

by Susan Steadman

Directed by John Pierson

Caroline Adams, Chopper Leifheit, GP Hunsaker Photo by john Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Caroline Adams, Chopper Leifheit, GP Hunsaker
Photo by john Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Two strangers meet in a hospital corridor–the middle-aged Aaron (Chopper Leifheit), who is battered and bruised an appears to be under arrest, guarded by a somewhat menacing police officer (GP Hunsaker); and the young, troubled Mara (Caroline Adams). The two form an unlikely connection as the details of Aaron’s arrest and both patients’ injuries are revealed, and Aaron convinces the initially suspicious Mara to retrieve a poetry notebook from his hospital room.  Issues of trust, respect, courage and hope are discussed via the poetry of Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath and others, as these two very different people learn to communicate and learn from one another.

As is the theme for most of this evening’s presentations, the acting is what makes this production. It’s an intriguing idea, although the play’s action moves a little too quickly conclusion is too easily achieved.  There’s a credible chemistry between these two performers–Adams’s guarded but ultimately vulnerable Mara and Leifheit’s engaging, erudite Aaron.  The hospital atmosphere is effectively achieved through Patrick Huber’s simple set design and Carla Landis Evans’s costumes, as well.  This is a play that I think needs more development to be a more effective script, as right now it projects a sort of movie-of-the-week vibe. It’s enjoyable as a performance, and STLAS has produced it probably as well as the play will allow.

“Comeback Special”

by JJ Strong

Directed by Tom Martin

Chopper Leifheit, Ellie Schwetye, Paul Cereghino Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Chopper Leifheit, Ellie Schwetye, Paul Cereghino
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This is, hands down, my favorite of the plays I saw.  Blending sharp comedy, fantasy, and an intriguing blend of absurdity and humanity, this play tells the story of a young couple, Jesse (Cereghino) and Bonnie (Schwetye) on a road trip to New Orleans, who have stopped in Memphis along the way to visit Graceland, the home of the legendary Elvis Presley.  When Bonnie convinces Jesse to break from the guided tour and explore Elvis’s bedroom, they are surprised to find a belligerent, overly friendly jump-suited character claiming to be the King himself (Leifheit), who challenges the couple’s thinking about reality, authenticity and their perceptions of one another.  So, is this guy really Elvis and what does he want from this conflicted couple?  What does this confrontation mean for all three players here?  Those questions are all answered by the play and it would spoil far too much of the fun to say much else. This is a very cleverly written, dynamically staged and impeccably acted production that never gets boring and continues to challenge assumptions, with great costuming and sets that add to the overall atmosphere of this hilarious and compelling show.

Leifheit is a delight as the energetic and charming Elvis, and Schwetye as the adventurous fan Pamela and Cereghino as the more skeptical, somewhat pretentious Jesse also give winning performances.  The script is fast-moving, as is the staging, and there is never a dull moment as these three perform their roles with enthusiasm.  This is a very clever idea that has been given an ideal staging at STLAS, and I really hope that there will be more productions of this play in the future. Although I respect Elvis’s talent, I’m by no means a die-hard fan, and the beauty of this show is that I think it has plenty of appeal for fans and non-fans alike.  Of the four plays presented here, this is the one that I think has the most potential for future stagings. It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.

“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by Milton Zoth

Reginald Pierre, William Roth Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Reginald Pierre, William Roth
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final play of the evening, by the festival’s namesake playwright, is something of an enigma.  As a showcase for actors, I think it’s excellent, and the script is full of strong, dramatic exchanges, although I don’t find anything particularly innovative about the script itself. The plot is very predictable, telling the story of a confrontation between two men in a park. As the seemingly happy, relaxed Bill (William Roth) sits on a park bench to eat his lunch (with the sounds of children playing nearby clearly audible), he’s soon joined by the more serious, purposeful Kip (Reginald Pierre), whom Bill has never met before but who has a grievance involving his wife and, particularly, his child, whom Bill has befriended.  The issue with this play is that I don’t think I really need to say anything else about the plot for it to be any more obvious where this story is headed.  I found myself hoping for some surprises, but there weren’t any. Kip challenges Bill, and Bill tries to defend himself and rationalize his behavior,and that’s pretty much all that goes on.  As a character study, it’s interesting, and both actors portray their characters well–Pierre with effective righteous anger spurring on Roth’s initially affable and increasingly defensive Bill to gradually implode with devastating intensity.  The dialogue is good and the performances are great, but this kind of situation has been staged many times already.  It’s an important, timely topic, although this play doesn’t really bring anything new to the discussion, simply providing a situation for two actors to act. It’s very well presented, and  LaBute is a master of dialogue, but I find myself wishing there was more of a story to go along with that dialogue.

Overall, I think the LaBute New Theater Festival is an exciting development for the theatrical community in St. Louis. Developing strong new scripts and showcasing the talents of excellent local actors, St. Louis Actors’ Studio has made a festival to look forward to. I hope this is a tradition that continues for many years in the future.

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Funny Girl
Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Choreographed by Zachary Stefaniak
Stray Dog Theatre
July 24, 2014

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Funny Girl is one of those unusual shows in that it’s about a real person who was very famous at one time, although its first association in most people’s minds is with the actress who originated the role, in the Broadway production and later in the hugely popular film.  For the general public, this show is about Barbra Streisand much more than it is about Fanny Brice.  The difficulty with that situation is that there’s only one Barbra Streisand, and any actress who plays this role with Streisand too much in mind is inevitably going to look like a pale imitation. The best thing that theatre companies can do, then, when producing this show is try to forget about Streisand entirely and put the focus on the person whose story the show tells–early 20th Century singer and comedienne Brice. With the right performer in the role, playing Brice rather than Streisand-as-Brice, this can be a highly successful show, and Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production at least has that one point in its favor. With Lindsey Jones in a strong-voiced, sympathetic, very un-Streisand characterization, this show manages to entertain despite its noticeable flaws.

Another issue with productions of this play is that the film is much more well-known than the stage version, and there were many modifications made for the movie including adding several songs that Brice actually sang.  The show’s music is all original, and the story is told in more of a traditional musical format and with more subplots than the film, in which the focus was turned even more toward Fanny’s relationship with gambler Nick Arnstein (played here by Jeffrey M. Wright).  That plot is still a major feature of this production as it’s told in flashback format, as the older, now-famous Fanny Brice remembers her rise to fame and the people who helped her achieve that fame, such as her mother (Laura Kyro) and her family friends from her old New York neighborhood and her early days on the Vaudeville circuit, including dancer Eddie Ryan (Zach Wachter).  Eventually, Fanny is noticed by famous Broadway produced Florenz Ziegfeld (Michael Monsey), who signs her to star in his famous Follies.  As Fanny becomes increasingly well-known, her romance with Arnstein develops gradually, eventually leading to much tension and drama as these two very different people try to maintain a relationship in the midst of the challenges of Fanny’s career and Nick’s own personal ambitions.  It’s a somewhat disjointed script, as the story keeps jumping back to the “old neighborhood” when it probably should keep the focus on Fanny, although there are some entertaining moments with Mrs. Brice and her poker playing friends.

Despite some problematic casting in other roles in this production, Jones herself shines as Fanny Brice.  Although she doesn’t physically resemble the real Brice very much (but then, neither did Streisand), she actually sings more in the style of Brice than Streisand did, and her voice is strong and clear.  It’s not a perfect performance, in that Jones does seem to take a little while to find her energy, but when she does find it (about halfway through Act 1), she owns the stage.  On iconic songs like “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and, especially, “People”, Jones sings with heart and personality.  She displays a good sense of comic timing in the more humorous numbers, as well, and leads production numbers like “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” with authority despite the lack of cohesion in the ensemble that supports her. She portrays Fanny’s maturing and growth in confidence as a performer well, as well as her frustration with her increasing personal difficulties. Jones is really the star of this production, with some excellent support by Kyro as Mrs. Brice, who shows a great deal of stage presence, comic ability and a strong voice, and especially by Wachter as Eddie, who commands the stage with charm and excellent tap-dancing skills. In fact, Wachter’s solo version of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”–which is supposed to be a rehearsal–is actually more captivating than the “finished” ensemble performance that immediately follows it. These three performers, along with several of the female ensemble members, give the most engaging performances in the show, but the most of the male ensemble is noticeably weaker, and Monsey as Ziegfeld lacks the engaging personality and authority that the role requires while sporting a distractingly obvious fake mustache.  Wright, as Arnstein, gives a fine performance for the most part, although he doesn’t quite project the right air of suave confidence early on, and his chemistry with Jones is awkward at best, with the one exception of their very last scene together, which is poignant and  believable but also not really enough to make up for their earlier lack of connection.

Another uneven aspect of this production is its visual presentation and its pacing, particularly in the production numbers.  The grand Ziegfeld Follies staircase is there, and it looks great, as does most of Robert J. Lippert’s set, which fits well on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, although the costumes, designed by director Gary F. Bell, are hit-or-miss in terms of period detail, with some of the female ensemble members rehearsing in outfits that look much more of this century than of the last.  The Follies sequences, despite the nice-looking set, simply are not grand enough, and the ensemble lacks cohesion  in the production numbers until Jones shows up and brings up the energy level.  There are also some issues with volume, in that there were moments of dialogue that were difficult to hear.  Stray Dog’s productions have impressed me a great deal in the past, especially their spectacular Cabaret earlier this year, but this one is surprising in its inconsistency, even there there is a lot to enjoy about the production as well and I hope the ensemble’s energy and presence will improve  as the show continues to run.

Ultimately, this show is about Fanny Brice, and a winning performance in that role makes the show worthwhile even if the rest of the production is flawed.  Plain and simple, Lindsey Jones is the main reason to see this show.  With excellent support from Wachter and Kyro, Jones overcomes the shortcomings of the script and an occasionally uneven supporting cast to present a memorable, appealing performance as Fanny Brice.  It’s definitely a characterization worth seeing.

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 23, 2014

Ben Nordstrom and cast Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Ben Nordstrom and cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a classic satire of corporate culture that debuted on Broadway in 1961 and has enjoyed two successful major revivals, most recently in 2011 starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. It’s one of those shows that, even with its well-known songs and celebrated reputation, needs just the right cast, pacing and direction to work well. STAGES St. Louis in their impeccably cast production has achieved just the right balance of sharp satire, comic timing and colorful staging to make for a wildly entertaining and truly memorable evening of theatre.

Since this is a show that is very much tied to the era in which it was written, this production wisely keeps the period setting intact.  This is a world in which big business is dominated by ambitious men, with young window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (Ben Nordstrom) being perhaps the most ambitious of all. Armed with a seemingly omniscient “how-to” manual (narrated authoritatively by George Spelvin), Finch embarks on his quest to rise in the corporate ranks at the World Wide Wicket corporation.  Along the way up the executive ladder, Finch meets a variety of business-world characters such as the bumbling boss J.B. Biggley (Whit Reichart), the boss’s outrageously scheming nephew Bud Frump (Joseph Medeiros), the archetypal ditzy blonde secretary (and Biggley’s mistress) Hedy LaRue (Heather Ayers), and a host of others ranging from ambitious backbiting executives to world-weary secretaries to unambitious worker bees, in a large, dehumanizing company setting. Finch also meets Rosemary Pilkington (Betsy DeLellio), a young secretary whose ambitious are more personal than corporate, and who is continually frustrated by Finch’s single-minded aspirations despite her own stated life’s goal to be a neglected executive’s wife.  Finch’s successes are not without their complications, although he always seems to find a way to turn situations to his advantage, with hilarious results.

While some of the situations portrayed in this show are still relevant today, others (such as the very strictly defined gender roles) are very specific to the show’s era, so an early 1960’s look and sensibility are required for this production, as is a very sharp sense of pacing.  The jokes are fast-moving and the humor is witty and sharp, with a large ensemble and many stage-filling production numbers that require precise choreography. Fortunately, this production strikes just the right tone, and the pacing is crisp and vibrant, as evidenced by such fantastic ensemble numbers as “Coffee Break”, “The Company Way” and the show-stopping “Brotherhood of Man”.  The dancing is very strong and cohesive, and every ensemble member is in excellent form, performing with energy, enthusiasm and style.  The physical look of the production is striking as well, with a great atmospheric set by James Wolk and colorful lighting effects designed by Matthew McCarthy. The costumes, designed by Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird, are well-suited to the characters and, for the most part, evocative of the period. Chairman of the Board Wally Womper (Bill Bateman) looks more like he belongs in 1978 than 1961, and a few of the secretaries’ outfits appear more 1980’s than 1960’s, but for the most part, the look is distinctly appropriate, especially with Finch’s increasingly colorful suits and Biggley’s outrageous argyle golf ensemble.

This production’s strongest point is its universally wonderful cast, led by the appropriately charismatic Nordstrom as Finch. This is a difficult role because Finch is so boldly ambitious, it takes just the right combination of charm and audacity to make the audience cheer for him despite some of his clearly unscrupulous actions. Nordstrom has a winning smile, a strong voice, and great “buddy” chemistry with Reichart as Biggley, as evidenced in the outstanding “Old Ivy” number in the first act. Nordstrom also displays a strong romantic spark with the equally excellent DeLellio as the perky Rosemary, especially in their truly wonderful, sweetly goofy duet, titled “Rosemary” at the end of Act 1. Also notable is the delightfully oily performance of Medeiros as the spiteful, simpering Bud Frump. Medeiros is a master of physical comedy, bringing a gleeful energy to his every move and expression, and he threatens to steal every scene he’s in.  Also giving memorable performances are Claire Neumann as Rosemary’s friend, the secretary Smitty; Ayers, slightly channeling  Judy Holliday as Hedy LaRue; Bateman, hilarious in a dual role as Womper and as the determinedly un-ambitious mail room chief Twimble; and Johmaalya Adelekan as Biggley’s no-nonsense secretary Miss Jones, displaying a strong voice in the 1995 revival’s arrangement of “Brotherhood of Man” which includes jazz scatting and gospel influences. This is an impressive cast of strong character performances as well as charming leads who bring out all the satirical elements of the clever script while remaining eminently watchable and making every scene a comic delight.

This is a deceptively difficult show to produce. All the right elements need to be there–a dynamic and likable Finch, a strong supporting cast, spot-on comic timing and the right balance of satire and heart. This production has all those elements in abundance, as well as that extra undefinable “something special” that distinguishes a truly great production from simply a good one. How To Succeed… at STAGES is distinctively entertaining and uproariously funny from start to finish.  If the goal, like that of the protagonist Finch, is success, this production achieves that goal with flying colors.  It’s well worth the journey to Kirkwood to see this fantastic show.

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom  Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed and Choreographed by Dan Knechtges
The Muny
July 22, 2014

Abigail Isom, John Tartaglia Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Abigail Isom, John Tartaglia
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

The stories of Dr. Seuss are among the familiar, much loved staples of childhood reading for countless children around the world. Filled with clever rhymes, fantasy and wonder, these classic stories have entertained and inspired generations of children, and it’s not surprising that someone eventually had the idea to adapt them into a musical. The latest entry in the Muny’s current season, Seussical is a show that’s full of rhyme, song and whimsical flights of fancy, cast with a strong lineup of Muny veterans that bring the classic tales to life in a gentle  fashion that seems designed to appeal most to the youngest members of the Muny audience.

Paying musical tribute to the various works of the esteemed Dr. Seuss, this show focuses primarily on the Horton the Elephant stories, with elements from many other Seuss tales thrown in here and there.  Narrated by the illustrious Cat in the Hat (John Tartaglia), the story begins with a group of children celebrating the works of Seuss in the bouncy, memorable song “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think”. A little girl (Abigail Isom) is brought into the story as Jojo, the daughter of the Mayor of Whoville and his wife (Gary Glasgow, April Strelinger). The Whos live on a tiny planet contained in a speck of dust that is found by the earnest, dependable Horton (Stephen Wallem), who deposits the speck of dust on a clover and vows to keep it safe.  Horton’s neighbors in the Jungle of Nool are very skeptical and, led by the confrontational Sour Kangaroo (Liz Mikel), question his discovery.  Meanwhile in Whoville, Jojo is questioned by her parents and the other townspeople because her imagination is too vivid, so she’s sent to a military school led by the loudly belligerent General Genghis Khan Schmitz (James Anthony), in order to teach her discipline.  In the Jungle of Nool, insecure bird Gertrude McFuzz (Kirsten Wyatt) pines for Horton while the self-absorbed Mayzie La Bird (Julia Murney) flies off to enjoy a vacation while leaving Horton to sit on her egg.  From there, the story unfolds in fantastical Seuss fashion, as Horton and Jojo struggle to find their place in their worlds and the Cat in the Hat guides the audience through the whole journey, as narrator, commentator and occasional participant.

The first word that comes to my mind when thinking of this production is “colorful”. The design team, led by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan and costume designer Leon Dobkowski, has certainly brought a whole lot of color to the Muny stage, inspired by Seuss’s style but not directly copying it, especially in the costumes.  The stage is set up like a storybook wonderland, with a giant open book at center and surrounded by several giant-sized Dr. Seuss books with familiar titles such as Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat In the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, etc. The books and scenery are painted in a rainbow of bright colors, as are the inventive, simply styled costumes that suggest the characters rather than literally representing them. The birds, for instance, wear bright dresses with fluffy skirts, and many other characters are wearing brightly colored outfits with earpieces and/or tails or, in the case of Horton, a trunk to distinguish their species. The Whos are similarly colorful, and General Schmitz is decked out in garish purple camouflage. It’s a visual feast, and fitting for the bright, imaginative tone of the musical itself. The staging is also well imagined, using every inch of the Muny stage, and even involving the audience in some fun moments such as bouncing beach balls around and following the Cat as he wanders throughout the audience followed by his “news camera” on various occasions, including a fun Muny in-joke referencing Tartaglia’s last appearance at the Muny in Aladdin. Aside from the Cat and a few other more energetic moments, the show is mostly paced more gently and a lot less madcap than I had expected.  It’s a kids’ show first and foremost, and the staging makes that clear.

Performance-wise, the cast is in excellent form, with strong performances all around, supported with much enthusiasm by the Muny’s Youth Chorus.  Tartaglia brings a great deal of charm to the role of the Cat, serving as an ideal tour guide through the production, and playing various other characters as needed along the way.  He’s not nearly as over-the-top as he was as the Genie in Aladdin, although that is fitting for the more gentle tone of this production, and he leads the production with style from start to finish. Wallem is appropriately earnest and likable as Horton, and Isom turns in an especially impressive performance as the imaginative, determined Jojo, with a strong, clear voice and great stage presence. Her duet with Wallem on “Alone In the Universe” is a memorable moment.  Wyatt is also very strong as the quirky, lovesick Gertrude, and Murney has some great moments as the impossibly vain Mayzie. Anthony as the stubborn General Schmitz is also a stand-out, bringing a lot of energy to his song about “The Military” and leading his army (and the reluctant Jojo) into a ridiculous and futile battle using “Green Eggs and Ham” as a marching chant. Mikel also makes a strong impression as the bold, contrary Sour Kangaroo, and the ensemble seems to be enjoying every minute on stage.

There are several sweet moments in this show, such as the bouncy, recurring “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” theme and the lullaby “Solla Sollew”, and even some wit and irony in the many reprises of “How Lucky You Are”. There are a few moments here and there of humor and themes that adults will be able to appreciate more than kids, although everything is primarily geared toward the children.  I brought my 14-year-old son to this show, and he agreed that this production is probably best appreciated by kids a few years younger.  I think it’s most suited for kids ages 5-10, as well as anyone with a particular appreciation or nostalgia for Dr. Seuss’s stories.  It’s all very sweet, charming and colorful, with a strong cast and a very Seuss-esque aesthetic, although it isn’t quite as crazy or energetic as I had hoped. With a valuable message that encourages imagination and acceptance, and a catchy, memorable score, Seussical is definitely a worthwhile production especially for the very young.

Stephen Wallem (center) and Seussical cast Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Stephen Wallem (center) and Seussical cast
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

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The Addams Family
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
September 14, 2014

Cast of The Addams Family Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Cast of The Addams Family
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Muny

One of the things I always loved about The Addams Family in all its incarnations is how much fun the characters always seemed to have as a family. From Charles Addams’s classic comic panels to the 1960’s TV series, to the feature films in the 1990’s, this was a family that, while noticeably unconventional,  offbeat and decidedly macabre, sincerely loved one another and made the most out of life.  I used to look forward to watching reruns of the show after school when I was younger, and I enjoyed the movies as well, but I have to admit I was skeptical about the musical. I had heard of the mixed reviews on Broadway, and the adjustments to the show that were made for the tour, and I just didn’t know what to expect. The cast, led by Muny veterans Rob McClure, Jenny Powers and Jennifer Cody, looked extremely promising, and I sat in my seat on opening night with high hopes.  I was not disappointed. In true Addams tradition, this is a show about love, lunacy and a great deal of laughs.  It’s a very fun show that blends elements of the cartoons, the TV show and the movies along with a new twist to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre works surprisingly well on the giant Muny stage.

This version of the story, which seems to take some inspiration from theatrical classics like You Can’t Take It With You and La Cage aux Folles, takes the familiar characters and introduces new ones to tell a story of unlikely love, culture clashes, and parents’ dealing with their children’s growing up. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is full of witty jokes, plot twists and revelations, and there are some memorable songs by Andrew Lippa as well as an echo of the iconic TV theme song in the overture (with the audience enthusiastically clapping and snapping along). After we are re-introduced to the famous family including Gomez (McClure), Morticia (Powers), Pugsley(Michael Harp), Grandma (Cody) and Lurch the butler (William Ryall) in an energetic, colorful production number called “When You’re an Addams”, the storytelling duties are then taken over by Uncle Fester (Steve Rosen), who serves as something of a Master of Ceremonies and tour guide through the ensuing story, which Fester reminds us is ultimately about love. Gomez and Morticia have to deal with the fact that their daughter Wednesday (Sara Kapner) is growing up. In fact, she’s met a nice, respectable young man, Lucas Beineke (Dan DeLuca), and they want to get married, which is part of the problem. Lucas’s parents, Mal (John Scherer) and Alice (Hollis Resnick) have been invited to dinner at the Addams mansion, and both Wednesday and Lucas are afraid of being embarrassed by their parents.  Meanwhile, Wednesday has confided a secret to Gomez, which she has made him promise not to tell Morticia, from whom Gomez never keeps secrets.  Gomez’s dilemma, along with the various culture conflicts and what happens when even more secrets threaten to be revealed, becomes the basis for a hilarious and heartwarming tale of love and unconventionality told only as an Addams could tell it.

While the darker, more overtly spooky atmosphere of the cartoons and the films is present as well, the general tone of the musical seems to be more in the vein of the TV show (albeit a little more risqué at times), with its broad comedy, sight gags and joke-a-minute humor.  The comedy is in excellent hands, as well, with Rosen as a Vaudevillian-styled Fester and Cody as the outspoken Grandma delivering many of the best jokes in scene-stealing performances. The “Full Disclosure” number that ends Act 1 is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen at the Muny, with so much raucous humor that it’s difficult to pause and take a breath. Just when I thought I was laughing as much as I could, another joke would come along to make me laugh even more.  There are also some great moments for Kapner and Harp with the delightfully unhinged song “Pulled”, and for Resnick as the outwardly happy, frequently rhyming Alice, who gets to reveal her own dark secrets in a cathartic moment at the end of Act 1. She and Scherer as the bewildered Mal, along with a well-matched Kapner and DeLuca, also have an excellent moment in Act 2 with “Crazier Than You”. In fact, all the principals here are ideally cast, and everyone gets a moment to shine, including Fester with his sweet ode to his secret crush “The Moon and Me” (along with some excellent visuals on the scenery wall), and Ryall as Lurch, whose confusion about how to act when he meets the Beinekes is endearingly hilarious.  There are some great “breaking the fourth wall” moments as well, with Rosen’s little stand-up routine at the beginning of Act 2–featuring some Muny-specific jokes–being a real highlight.

As great as the supporting cast is, however, this being The Addams Family means the stars of the show have to be Gomez and Morticia, and the Muny has cast these celebrated characters very well indeed. Both McClure and Powers are at their best here, and that’s saying something, considering the excellent performances I’ve seen from them in past Muny shows. Something about these characters just seems to energize these two, and they work together with crackling chemistry and a great deal of charm. Powers is in great voice on songs like “Secrets” and her big production number “Just Around the Corner”. She displays just the right balance between elegance and enthusiasm, as well. McClure is a joy as Gomez, as well, bringing charisma, wit, emotion, comic timing and boundless energy.  He’s able to command the stage in a dynamic fencing routine, express his dilemma humorously in “Trapped”, and also share a poignant moment with Kapner’s Wednesday on the wonderful “Happy/Sad” in Act 2.  He and Powers are well-matched in their electric, expertly choreographed “Tango de Amor” as well. These two consummate professionals fill their roles with humor and style, leading a strong principal cast and equally excellent ensemble of undead ancestors, skeletons and such.

Visually, the set by Michael Schweikart fills the vast stage with just he right air of whimsical creepiness, with a detailed graveyard set and the house,which revolves to show different rooms such as the main hall and the dungeon. The costumes, designed by Andrea Lauer, are influenced by the earlier incarnations of the characters but are appropriately updated for this setting. I especially liked the individual styling of the various Addams ancestors.  There were some obvious issues with the sound on opening night, with a few lines being lost due to microphone problems, although I’m sure those will be sorted out as the show continues its run. Overall, this production a strong technical achievement, with elements fitting the overall darkly madcap atmosphere very well.

The Addams Family is, as Fester says, ultimately a story about love. It’s about trust, acceptance, and unconventionality, but its all tied together by love. While I think the original TV show will always be my favorite version of these characters, the musical is a surprising delight as well, especially in this larger-than-life production at the Muny.  It’s creepy, it’s kooky and it’s contagiously fun. This is a family that’s well worth getting to know, and the Muny provides an excellent–and outrageously funny–introduction.

Rob McClure, Jenny Powers Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Rob McClure, Jenny Powers
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Muny


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by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
July 12, 2014

Maggie Wininger Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Maggie Wininger
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

This isn’t your great-great-great-grandfather’s Hamlet. In St. Louis Shakespeare’s new production of the oft-produced classic play, Hamlet is played by a woman (although the character is still portrayed as male), the castle guards brandish automatic rifles and Hamlet himself carries a handgun and a large hunting knife, the usurping King Claudius and his court are dressed to the nines in dapper suits and chic gowns, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take selfies with their smartphones in the palace. All of these ideas could easily come across as cheap gimmicks, but in director Donna Northcott’s bold new staging, all of these elements work together along with a palpable sense of tension and urgency to create a fresh, exciting and thoroughly fascinating production that never bores and frequently captivates.

The story is familiar to anyone who studied the play in English class or saw one (or more) of the many filmed versions of the story, or saw one of the many, many staged productions that have been produced for generations.  Just as it says in the title, it’s about Hamlet (Maggie Wininger), the Prince of Denmark whose father, the King, has recently died and been succeeded by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Ethan H. Jones), who has also rather quickly married the King’s widow, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Kelly Schnider).  When Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his late father (Tom Moore), he is informed that Claudius is not only an opportunist but a murderer, and Hamlet is encouraged to take revenge. Much of the drama that ensues revolves around Hamlet’s wrestling with what to do about this charge.

This version of the play is set on a very simple stage, but with all the right trappings to suggest an elegant royal court. It’s all efficiently designed by Pippin McGowan and sumptuously costumed by Michele Friedman Siler.  The men wear the finest, most stylish suits and the women are in fashionable gowns and jewelry.  Gertrude is appropriately regal, and Ophelia (Taylor Steward) wears flowing, patterned dresses. The younger, flashier Rosencrantz (Paul Edwards) and Guildenstern (Shane Bosillo) are given more obviously trendy outfits, and Hamlet spends a fair amount of time dressing down in ripped pants and a wrinkled hoodie. The palace guards are imposing in camouflage, and the court attendants wear military-like livery. It’s all very well thought-out and consistent with the updating of the production. Also, while the guards, Hamlet and Laertes do carry guns at key moments in the show, the iconic sword duel at the end is still there, using modern fencing equipment and excellently choreographed by Erik Kuhn. With the excellent, dynamic staging of the piece, none of the updates seem out of place and all work to serve the story, actually adding to the accessibility and overall drama of the play.

The cast, like the overall production, is uniformly excellent. Wininger, with her short-ish, curly mop of a hairstyle and brooding energy, is a particularly intense and youthful Hamlet.  While she never completely manages to make me forget the fact that she’s a woman playing a man, Wininger’s wonderful and richly nuanced performance makes that distinction work in her favor.  Her Hamlet is among the more collected portrayals I’ve seen, clearly showing the character’s self-examination and struggles with indecision and doubt.  This Hamlet also shows obvious affection for the visiting Players, with the scene of their arrival and Hamlet’s interactions with them being among the most memorable and effective moments in this production.  She also notably shines in her scenes with Schnider’s Gertrude and with Edwards and Bosillo as the ever-present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose memorable and somewhat flighty characterizations are another notable aspect of this production. Schnider is excellent as Gertrude, as well, eschewing the somewhat silly, distracted characterization I’ve seen so many times for a more elegant portrayal. Whatever her own personal flaws may be, this Gertrude clearly loves her son and is concerned about his well-being.  Jones, who also played Claudius in Equally Represented Arts’  excellent re-imagining–called Make Hamlet–earlier this year, here portrays the King in a self-doubting, considered characterization that gives weight to his famous “attempted prayer” scene.  Michael Amoroso is another stand-out as an earnest, single-minded Laertes.  There are so many excellent performances here that it’s difficult to name them all without naming the whole cast.  There’s Steward’s waifish, bewildered Ophelia, Richard Lewis’s gently officious Polonius, Ben Watts’ fastidious and attentive Osric, and more. It’s a great cast in a very strong interpretation of the show that brings the audience into the action just as it brings the characters to the audience by the very skillful updating of the setting.

One of the reasons I love Shakespeare so much is that his plays are so adaptable.  While some interpretations have come across as more stunt than substance, there’s so much capacity for updating that clarifies the story rather than confusing it, especially in the hands of a good director with a consistent vision.  This production is a prime example of the good kind of updating.  It’s style and substance, elegance and drama, emotion and action, and ultimately, it’s a thoroughly convincing production. This is a Hamlet with heat, energy and immediacy, as well as some well-placed humor at the right moments. It’s one of the better examples of a “modern dress” staging of Shakespeare that I’ve seen. It’s a strong opening to St. Louis Shakespeare’s 30th Anniversary season, and it makes me look forward even more to seeing what else this company has in store.

Cast of Hamlet Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of Hamlet
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare


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Dan DeLuca Photo by Matthew Murphy

Dan DeLuca
Photo by Matthew Murphy


Dan DeLuca is a New York-based actor who has been cast as Lucas Beineke in the Muny’s production of The Addams Family, which opens tonight. A Pittsburgh native, DeLuca was originally inspired to pursue a career in musical theatre as a child, upon seeing Cathy Rigby’s touring production of Peter Pan.  He grew up staging plays and making movies in his neighborhood and his family’s basement, and he trained with the Pittsburgh Musical Theater as a teenager before attending the Cap21 Conservatory in New York.  Since graduating in 2012, he has appeared in various regional productions at companies such as the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and the West End Playhouse in Vermont.

Fittingly enough (and entirely by coincidence), since DeLuca’s character is the fiancé of  Addams Family daughter Wednesday, he met with me last Wednesday evening to speak about his role in the show and his experience at the Muny, as well as his thoughts about St. Louis and his future career goals. Here’s some of our conversation (including some minor plot spoilers for The Addams Family):

Michelle–What was the audition process for the Muny like?

Dan–I just got a submission from my agent–they were like “Hey, can you put yourself on tape for this?” And I was sent a song and two scenes, and I filmed it. There was no call back. They were just like “OK, you have the job!”


D–I didn’t meet the director until I got here. I knew no one else in the cast until I got here.

M–You didn’t have a callback? It’s was just like “we watched your video, we like you, here you go?”

D–Yeah. It was like “OK. I’m going to the Muny”, which I’ve heard many amazing things about. It’s one of the most respected summer stocks of all time. The quality of the productions and the accommodations, and the way you’re treated, it’s amazing. It’s a wonderful experience. But yeah, it was just a video submission. I just put myself on tape in my living room.

M—What’s the rehearsal process like? I’ve heard it’s kind of crazy.

D–I think we have 10 days, which is I think the max you will get here at the Muny. We finished blocking yesterday [Tuesday], and that was our sixth day. We’ll call from 10 to 6 every day. The hours may vary based on which scenes you’re in, of course. You rehearse outside. The first few days are like, just music, with really intense blocking. You have to go home and look at it, and really review our stuff, because you normally have at least two weeks in a normal contract. I’ve never put up a show this quick before. They send you your scripts at least a month in advance, so you come in and you kind of have to know your stuff, or else it’s very difficult.

M–So, you basically have to be off-book [have your lines memorized] by the time you get here?

D–Pretty much. You’ll get your blocking, and you’re expected to be off-book the next day. So, I tried to learn as much [as I could] before I got here.

M–What’s different about the Muny rehearsal process vs. the rehearsal process for other shows you’ve been in?

D–Like I said, it’s definitely the fastest one. I think one of the most special things about the Muny rehearsal process that I don’t think any other theatre ever does, is that tech [rehearsal] starts at midnight on Saturday, and we tech from midnight until 5am the next morning. We get out at 4:00 the day before, so we have from 4 until midnight to take a nap or take care of ourselves, and then we start. I’m not even sure what time we start the next day. I’m so looking forward to that, because tech can be such an excruciating process.

M–So after that marathon overnight tech rehearsal, do you get some time to rest?

D–Yes, we have the morning and I believe the beginning part of the afternoon, just to, obviously, have a sleep. And we then have the Sitz, where we do the singing of the show with the orchestra, and the next day we run the show during the day, with what’s called a “sweat tech” because we’re out in the sun. We’re out in the sun with our costumes with the sun beaming down on us. Then we open that night.

M–You’re very lucky to have gotten good weather.


M–I feel for the actors up there. I’ve been there on nights when it’s been 100 degrees outside, and I wonder, how do they do it?

D–(laughing) Yeah, and some of the costumes in this show… there are a lot of dead ancestors who are just covered in ghost makeup and all this stuff, where I’m one of the “normal” people in the show. I’m engaged to Wednesday. I get to wear normal clothes. I just have like this nice dinner jacket and jeans, so I fortunately have it easy costume-wise.

M–Have you worked in outdoor theatre before?

D–I have not, no. This is my first time doing outdoor theatre, and rehearsing outside as well.

M–What about on a stage this big?

D–Yeah, it’s humongous. You’re running a marathon across the stage.

M–What do you like most about your Muny experience so far?

D– Honestly, the people. Mike Isaacson, he’s the Executive Producer. He pops in at least once a day to see how everybody’s doing. They take such amazing care of us. I think we just have a legacy and it’s such an honor to be a part of that legacy. So many people have worked in the Muny. The Muny Hall of Fame, it’s just so amazing to see the people that have been here.

M–And then some people are here and they make it big later, and you get to say “I saw them when they were at the Muny”.

D–Yeah, exactly! It’s so cool. So I guess just being part of the legacy, and finally joining the Muny family. I love the people.

M–If you had the opportunity, would you do a show at the Muny again?

D—Absolutely! I would love to come back here. It’s just so privileged. It’s not too long of a contract, so we’re not out of the city [New York] too long, but they pay us very well for summer stock. It’s just so fun. It’s like summer musical theatre boot camp, is what a lot of people are saying, because it’s so quick but it’s so fun. It’s an amazing contract. There are so many actors who would kill to be on a contract at the Muny.

M–So what is it about the show and the role that most appeal to you? You play Wednesday’s fiancé. Conveniently we’re meeting on a Wednesday.

D—(laughs) Yes we are! I didn’t think about that. Well, I used to love the TV show and the movies that came out in the 90’s. I also loved the dark Gothic, sort of dark humor. It was also family friendly.

M–But you get to play one of the “normal” ones.

D–(Laughing) I do!  No, that’s the thing. There’s not a role for me in the actual family. I saw the show in New York and found it so charming, and Andrew Lippa’s music is so catchy and so fun. We’re actually the regional premiere of the show. They did pre-Broadway in Chicago, had a Broadway run, and then they did the tour, and the tour, I guess was ending. So it will be exciting to be part of the regional premiere of the show. Like I said, this is the only role I could play in the show. He’s the normal one, but it’s also kind of fun just to… me and the two people who play my parents, we kind of get to sit and watch the show as we’re onstage because the craziness around us is so fun. And we have some of Broadway’s best character people–we have Steve Rosen [Uncle Fester], Jen Cody [Grandma]. We have Rob McClure [Gomez] and Jenny Powers [Morticia]–just some of the greatest character actors of all time running around the stage, and you just literally have to stand there and not laugh a lot of the time.

M–You get to be sort of an audience on stage.

D–Yeah. It’s like, of course, active listening and staying in character, but a lot of the times it’s very difficult not to crack up, because of the things that are happening on stage. It’s The Addams Family. Hilarity will ensue.

M–Now, what’s different about this show compared to the TV show and the movies?

D–We take a step, because Wednesday is growing up. Wednesday’s always been a little girl, and now she’s a young adult. So, in the show we take a step forward in time, of what happens after all of that craziness. Everyone’s growing up.  And it’s mainly how Gomez and Morticia deal with their baby girl growing up. There’s this amazing song called “Happy/Sad”, where Gomez says, I’m happy that you’re happy and, I’m so happy that you found love, but so sad that you’re growing up. So she’s maturing. It’s really what happens when… because the family’s actually being torn apart.  I’m pulling Wednesday away from her family, and they’re freaking out because they just love each other so much. There’s so much passion and love in the family, and what happens when that all starts to fall apart?

M–There’s also the culture clash issue…

D–Yes. The Ohioans and the Addamses.

M–It reminds of something like You Can’t Take It With You or La Cage aux Folles, where the child of an unconventional family falls in love with the child of a more conventional family, and then the families meet.

D–Forbidden love. It’s star-crossed lovers.

M–(Laughs) It’s not quite Romeo and Juliet because it’s a comedy.

D—(Laughs) Not quite that, but they have a hard time getting along at times. You have the very strict, normal Ohio family, and then you have the Addams family, who live in the middle of Central Park. Their house is in the middle of Central Park.

M–Oh, is that new for this show?

D–Yes. They added that for the musical. That was not always the case.

M–Does the show say how Wednesday meets Lucas?

D–Yes. Actually, I was lost in the woods, and then a pigeon drops at my feet with an arrow in it, and I look up and there she is–Wednesday, with a crossbow. And I just immediately fall in love with her. This boy from Ohio, he just sees something that he’s never seen before, and it’s so interesting. And he says that he wants to be a writer. I imagine him watching many Tim Burton films growing up, Nightmare Before Christmas and stuff like that, but his parents would never allow him to do that. And so when they come to that house in the middle of Central Park, they’re taken aback because I don’t think they’re expecting that from me whatsoever. But yeah, for me it’s love at first sight.

M–So what do you think of St. Louis? Is this your first time here?

D–Yeah. I love the Central West End, where I’ve been spending a lot of my time. It’s beautiful. I can’t even compare it to anything. It’s just this charming little street with all these amazing shops and stuff. I love it.  I’m mad because I only have two weeks left, and I wish I could stay longer.

M–Have you gotten to see a lot of the city yet?

D–No. I went to the Cardinals game, so I’ve seen it but… Rob McClure, he’s been here last summer and, I think, 2010. He’s an amazing tour guide because he knows all the ins and outs of things like the museums, the City Museum, with the big slide that I have to go down.

M–Yeah. I’ve been there a few times, and it’s better for somebody like you who’s younger and more physically fit (laughs), because there’s a lot of climbing and sliding, and tiny little places to climb through.

D–See, that’s my favorite thing in the world. I see the world as a jungle gym and a playground, so stuff like that is amazing. I’m looking forward to it.

M–So, what can you tell me about your future career plans beyond the Muny?

D–I’m going to do a brief reading at the Barrington Stage [in Pittsfield, MA], just for a few days.  And then I actually have something coming up that I’m not allowed to talk about, but it’s something big and very exciting. It’s a bit of a dream thing for me that I’m super excited about.

M–Can I mention that, in a vague way? That there’s something coming up?

D–Yeah, you can mention something vague. There’s something coming up but I can’t say what it is. Something exciting is coming. I feel very lucky.

The Addams Family runs July 14-21 at the Muny. For ticket information, see the Muny’s website. 

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Josh & Shawn
by Paul Hibbard
Directed by Paul Hibbard
The Chapel
July 11, 2014

Set for Josh and Shawn

Set for Josh & Shawn

A new play, like the marriage depicted in writer-director-actor Paul Hibbard’s new production Josh & Shawn, is a labor of love that requires a lot of work to make it successful.  I was glad to be given the opportunity to see Hibbard’s ambitious new work, which is being presented at the Chapel this weekend. In this promising but sometimes uneven work, Hibbard and his cast present the story of a rocky marriage in a simple presentation that is extremely intriguing, but is clearly still a work in progress.

Named for its lead characters, Josh & Shawn is a talky, philosophical exploration of the relationship of one married couple as well as a reflection on the meaning of marriage and romantic relationships in general.  Starting with a wry, witty introduction by narrator Joe Hanrahan, the story unfolds as Josh (Hibbard) and Shawn (Sheri Facchin) spend an evening together, indulging in flights of fantasy as Josh challenges writer Shawn’s relationship with her agent, Mike (Jeffrey Miller) in a series of sequences that portray various versions of an earlier encounter that makes Josh question Shawn’s commitment to the relationship, as well as causing Shawn to question Josh’s trust, and even his love. In the play’s approximately one-hour running time, Josh, Shawn and the imaginary Mike explore various issues about the nature of relationships and the question of whether or not this relationship is worth fighting for.

This is a very good concept, and I especially liked the use of fantasy. Even though the play takes a while to get moving, once Mike shows up and the various imaginary scenarios start playing out, the show becomes much more interesting.  It displays a somewhat cynical view of marriage, and the script could use a little bit of revision especially in the earlier moments, but for the most part it’s a very interesting idea, with its more surreal moments late in the play showing the playwright and the actors at their best. There’s also a fun earlier sequence in which Josh and Shawn play a game involving movie quotes, although before this, a lot of the action is somewhat static.  Staging-wise, I think this production could benefit greatly in the hands of a new director who would be able to look at the production with a different perpective.  There are many moments in which the two main characters simply stand onstage and talk, occasionally wandering about the stage with no apparent purpose, and often times the well-appointed set doesn’t seem to have much purpose. A script can be brought to life with a great deal of power through dynamic staging, and there are several missed opportunities for heightened drama that could have been improved with more focused direction.

Acting-wise, the show could also benefit from a strong director. Hibbard’s performance is fine, if a little unfocused at times, as the insecure, self-centered and occasionally cruel Josh, and I think working with another director might help him gain more confidence in his characterization. Facchin as Shawn gives the play’s strongest performance, as she brings a great deal of complexity and sympathy to the character, and she displays good chemistry with both Hibbard and Miller, who also has some good moments as Mike. His entrance is perhaps the best-staged moment in the play, and his arrival adds a great deal of dramatic tension to the proceedings.  Hanrahan does a good job with a very limited role as the narrator, but he really doesn’t have much to do.

Overall, I would say that this is a show that is very much worth seeing, but it is still very much in process and, like the marriage of its two lead characters, is worth investing in and fighting for.  More productions of this play are planned for the Fall, apparently, and I hope that Hibbard will take some time to revise and re-think some of the staging of this play, and enlist a director who can help it realize its potential.  I’m glad I was able to see this play. It’s an intriguing script that could provide the basis for a lot of thoughtful discussion about the nature of marriage and relationships, but it still seems rough around the edges and could use some work, especially in the staging. It’s a promising show, and I hope that in subsequent stagings it will be able to better fulfill that promise.

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Over the River and Through the Woods
by Joe DiPietro
Directed by John Contini
Insight Theatre Company
July 10. 2014

Ariel Roukaerts, Matt Pentecost, Tom Murray, Jerry Vogel, Tommy Nolan, Maggie Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Ariel Roukaerts, Matt Pentecost, Tom Murray, Jerry Vogel, Tommy Nolan, Maggie Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

“Tengo famiglia!” That’s an oft-repeated phrase in Joe DiPietro’s very family-focused comedy, Over the River and Through the Woods, the second show in Insight Theatre’s 2014 season. This is a show all about the importance of family and how a person’s family helps shape one’s own personal identity, and how different generations of a family can learn from one another.  It’s a funny, heartwarming and charming story told very well by Insight’s excellent cast.

Nick Cristano (Matt Pentecost) is a marketing executive from Hoboken, New Jersey, who still has dinner with all four of his grandparents every Sunday.For his proud Italian-American grandparents, the most important things in life are the “three F’s”–family, faith and food.  Although they can be overbearing and occasionally embarrassing to Nick, they clearly care about him in their unique and frequently loud manner, with lots of food cooked by maternal grandmother Aida (Tommy Nolan), music and mild bickering from maternal grandfather Frank (Jerry Vogel), and lots of stories of the “old days” and personal questions from bubbly paternal grandmother Emma (Maggie Ryan) and boisterous paternal grandfather Nunzio (Tom Murray).  When Nick surprises his older relatives with his announcement of an exciting job promotion that will require him to move to Seattle, they become determined to do everything they can to make him stay, including setting him up with a friend’s young, single niece, Caitlin (Ariel Roukaerts).  Although this seems like something of a sitcom setup, it’s a little more complicated than that, as Nick and all four of his grandparents learn lessons about the importance of family, individuality and above all, real communication.

The overall atmosphere here is one of a large, loving a loud family whose most important need is to communicate their love for one another in ways that both generations will understand.  The setting is extremely well-defined, as Chris Regelsen’s detailed set evokes the homey atmosphere of the maternal grandparents’ house, and Laura Hanson’s costumes suit the characters well.  The use of classic Italian-flavored pop music like Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” to set the tone also adds to the experience.  Although most of the action takes place in the 1990’s, that early era of the 1940’s and 50’s is a clear influence on the lives and personalities of the grandparents, which the music helps make clear.  It also helps build a bridge between grandparents and grandson in the play’s most memorable scene.

The characters are well-written and vividly portrayed by the excellent ensemble cast.  Pentecost plays the exasperated young Everyman with ease, and he works very well with his four very colorful castmates. including Vogel as the stubborn Frank, Nolan as the sweetly overprotective and always cooking Aida, Ryan as the enthusiastic and maternal Emma, and Tom Murray as the energetic storyteller Nunzio, who shares a heartwarming, bittersweet scene with Pentecost in the second act that is one of the highlights of the show.   Roukaerts has a lot of warmth and energy in her two scenes as Caitlin, as well, but the real focus here is on Nick and the grandparents, so the Caitlin character sometimes seems extraneous.  It would be very easy with a show like this for these characters to come across as one-not caricatures, and it’s a great credit to this cast that nobody falls into that trap.  It’s a strong, easily relatable cast that brings real warmth and dimension to the characters.

Although the family portrayed here is Italian-American, and there are a lot of specific situations that those with Italian heritage will certainly relate to, the message here is also universal.  I think a lot of people have that experience, as Nick has here, of having to get to know relatives they always thought they knew well.  It’s listening, and sharing stories rather than simply viewing someone as a collection of idiosyncrasies that is important, as Nick learns in the positively delightful scene in which he and his grandparents sing and dance to the song “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”.  The grandparents, in turn. have to learn that Nick is an adult who needs to be able to make his own choices in life, and both generations are reminded that family is family no matter how close by you live.

There’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall, in which the characters talk directly to the audience and recall moments from their past. This works well for the most part, although it becomes a little too much in the play’s epilogue. Still, even with its few minor flaws (mostly in the writing, not the production itself), this is a thoroughly winning production with a great cast and excellent staging by director John Contini, who displays a personal understanding of the subject in the director’s notes in the program.  It’s not a big or flashy show, although its fully realized characters give it a larger-than-life tone much of the time.  This very strong cast has been brought together to present a very credible family dynamic and some very real warmth and emotion, in addition to a whole lot of laughs.  I’m left with the impression that I was really able to get to know this family, and it’s a pleasure to have met them.

Tom Murray, Matt Pentecost Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Tom Murray, Matt Pentecost
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Book Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, Musical Score Adapted by Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
The Muny
July 7, 2014

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour

The Muny hasn’t hosted a national touring production for a very long time. While Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, in his notes in this week’s program, promises that this won’t become a regular occurrence, he couldn’t pass up the chance to present this particular production, the national tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in the Muny setting. Although I do think the production suffers a little bit in that it’s obvious that it wasn’t designed to fit in this unique and gigantic performance space, for the most part I would say it’s a memorable performance with a very strong cast that does justice to the show’s memorable  score.

This version of the show is an update of the classic Gershwin opera. Director Diane Paulus worked with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt the story into more of a modern musical theatre format, with more spoken dialogue and a streamlined plot. Although it was a source of much controversy before it opened on Broadway, it eventually garnered multiple awards and nominations It tells the story of the residents of Catfish Row, a poverty-stricken African-American fishing community in Charleston, SC. After an atmospheric opening featuring the classic song “Summertime”, the story focuses primarily on the conflicted Bess (Alicia Hall Moran), a drug-addicted young woman in a volatile relationship with the burly, violent dock worker Crown (Alvin Crawford). Bess is looked down on by the people of Catfish Row until she forms a bond with the gentle-hearted Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), a disabled beggar who has previously admired Bess from afar and who seems to be the first person in Bess’s life who treats her with dignity..  Meanwhile, the smooth-talking drug dealer Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) tempts Bess with “happy dust” and offers of a more extravagant life in New York. After violence breaks out at  a crap came, Crown flees from the law and Bess tries to start a new life with Porgy and seeks the acceptance of the others in the community, only to be continually haunted by her past and by situations that threaten the the well-being of Bess, Porgy and those around them.

This production serves as something of a window to another era in American history, trying to bring the more stylized elements of the opera into more of a realistic presentation and showing the struggles and the hopes of its characters.  The close-knit community has its leaders and its outcasts, and the overall picture of life in an African-American community in the segregated South in the midst of the Depression is portrayed with detail in the characterizations on more of a stylized set.  I haven’t seen the full-length opera so I can’t compare directly, although this production does retain some of the operatic scope, particularly in the sweeping musical arrangements played with vigor and emotional depth by the wonderful Muny orchestra conducted by Dale Rieling. The costumes by Esosa are richly detailed and add to the overall period atmosphere. The set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez is more abstract, with a simple framework of painted flats surrounding a wooden platform where most of the show’s action takes place. Designed for the national tour, this set is the closest thing this production has to a real problem, since it is simply dwarfed by the enormous Muny stage and often gives the show a confined, boxed-in and occasionally detached quality, like the audience is watching the show on an oversized TV. This quality improves a little bit in the picnic scenes that take place on a nearby island, in which the back wall of the “frame” is removed and the Muny’s scenery wall is shown displaying a backdrop of clouds, framed by the real trees the frame the stage and provide more of a sense of openness.

Still, even with that one minor drawback, the overall production is a remarkable success.  The singing is simply glorious, with a strong ensemble and outstanding performances from the leading performers.  As the determined Porgy, Stampley is the emotional anchor of this production, with a soaring voice and a strong stage presence. He projects a palpable sense of decency and quiet strength, with that ever-present love for Bess that defines his character. Stampley and Moran’s scenes together are among the highlights of the show, such as the intensely emotional “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy”. Stampley also displays warmth and energy in his well-known song “I Got Plenty of Nothing”. Moran is a memorable Bess, as well, with a strong voice and complex characterization.  The other real standout in this production is Leggs as the slick, cynical Sporting Life.  His rendition of the comic ode to skepticism “It Ain’t Necessarily So” early in the second act is a showstopper, and he’s also at his wheedling, smarmy best in “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon” later in the show.  There are also excellent performances by Denisha Bellew as the grieving widow and local faith healer Serena, Crawford as the suitably menacing Crown, and by Danielle Lee Greaves as the good-hearted and strong-willed community matriarch Mariah.  It’s a very strong cast with too many great voices and performances to mention, with some memorable production numbers and strong dancing, as well. It’s a memorable performance of a classic show that’s brought more into an accessible scale, with its many familiar songs resonating throughout the Muny performance space with vibrancy and honesty.

Overall, I’m very glad that the Muny chose to bring this production to its stage, even despite the obvious fact that it’s not properly scaled for the size of the colossal stage. I think that sense of confinement would be an issue with any production that is not specifically designed for the Muny, though.  Still, for the most part I would call this production a resounding success.  I still have the melodies of the wonderful score playing in my head as I write this review.  It’s a vibrant update of a well-known work, with a lot to think about and many strong performances to remember.

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour



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