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Archive for January, 2018

School of Rock
Based on the Paramount Movie Written by Mike White
Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, New Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Laurence Connor
Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter
The Fox Theatre
January 16, 2018

Cast of School of Rock
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national tour

As far turning popular movies into musicals goes, School of Rock makes more sense than others, at least on paper. It’s a show about rock music, after all, with music by a composer not unfamiliar with the genre, having composed a few “rock operas” back in the day. It’s also a good casting opportunity for talented young performers, who actually play their instruments live on stage. The national tour is at the Fox now, and it’s a fun show, even if the story isn’t necessarily the most credible.

I haven’t seen the movie, and all I had seen of the musical before was the brief performance by the orginal Broadway cast on the Tony Awards broadcast. Still, although I knew the basic idea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The story, as it is, is a little bit thin, and it’s the characters, and the live music, that really make the show. The story follows aspiring rock guitarist Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti), who is kicked out of the rock band he helped found shortly before the band, No Vacancy, is due to audition for a “Battle of the Bands” competition. The downcast Dewey lives with his long-time friend and ex-rocker Ned (Matt Bittner) and his controlling girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo). Ned is a substitute teacher now, having long given up dreams of rock n’ roll glory, but one day when Ned isn’t home, Dewey answers a phone call from Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), principal of the exclusive Horace Green prep school, offering Ned a sub job. Dewey, attracted by the offered salary, poses as Ned and takes the job instead, intending to spend the days goofing off and letting the school kids do whatever they want, until he hears them playing classical music and decides that he’s going to turn them into a rock band, and that they are going to be his ticket to the Battle of the Bands. The kids have a range a personalities and insecurities, and after a time, Dewey helps them learn to expresses themselves via rock music, and they in turn teach him a lesson about responsibility. Also, Dewey’s unorthodox attitude and teaching methods begin to affect the morale of the other teachers. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s really not that difficult to guess where this story is going to go, even if you haven’t seen the film. The plot is more than a little predictable, as well as being implausible, but the performances, and the genuine sense of bonding between Dewey, the kids, and eventually Rosalie, makes the show work. There’s also some good music here, from the upbeat “You’re In the Band”, to the confrontational “Stick It to the Man”, to the plaintive “If Only You Would Listen”, to the hard-driving, motovational title song.

The real draw of this show is the live music, played on stage by the child performers with energy and style. The lead role of Dewey is also important, as he is the focus of the story, and Colletti manages to make the intially selfish character interesting and compelling. He’s got a lot of charm and stage presence, and he particularly shines in the classroom scenes and in scenes with the excellent Sharp as Rosalie. Sharp combines a great voice with strong comic timing and manages to make an underwritten role stand out. The rest of the adult cast is good as well, but aside from Colletti and Sharp, the kids really make the show, from Ava Briglia as bossy band manager Summer, to Gianna Harris as shy but vocally gifted Tomika, to Phoenix Schulman as guitarist and songwriter Zack, to Theodora Silverman as cellist-turned-bass player Katie, to Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton as drummer Freddy, to Theo Mitchell-Penner as insecure keyboardist Lawrence, to John Michael Pitera as enthusiastic band stylist Billy, and more. The entire cast of kids is great–putting on a great show playing their instruments with attitude, and believably portraying the transformation from sheltered prep school kids to confident rockers.

The show’s technical elements are impressive, as well, with a versatile set and colorful costumes by Anna Louizos, dazzling rock-show lighting by Natasha Katz, and clear sound design by Mick Potter. There’s also a strong band led by music director Martyn Axe in addition to the kid performers.

Overall, this is an entertaining show. The characters are likable, lending an air of credibility to the not entirely convincing plot. The stars of the show, though, are the band–Dewey and the child performers–and the energy of the music itself.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Rob Colletti Lexie Dorsett Sharp
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national Tour

The national tour of School of Rock is running at the Fox Theatre until January 28, 2018

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Fences
by August Wilson
Directed by Lorna Littleway
The Black Rep
January 6, 2017

Ron Himes, Richard Agnew
Photo by Joe Clapper
The Black Rep

The latest production at the Black Rep is a well-known modern classic. A Pulitzer Prize winner recently made into an award-winning film, Fences is a poignant, incisive play by August Wilson. With its casting requirements and powerful script, this is a challenging play, and the Black Rep has presented it with poignance, power, and precision.

The story follows a family in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, focusing on a character whose life has been profoundly affected by the systemic and societal racism of the times. Troy Maxson (Ron Himes) was once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but after spending a long time in prison for petty offences, missed out on his chance to play in the Major Leagues because of his age. Troy, who now works for a sanitation company, lives with his wife, Rose (Linda Kennedy) and their teenage son, Cory (Brian McKinley), who has shown promise as a football player, although the embittered Troy refuses to let him talk to a college recruiter. The trials and events of Troy’s and Rose’s lives also involve Troy’s friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Robert Alan Mitchell), who questions some of Troy’s personal choices; Troy’s son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Steven Maurice), a musician who lives in the hope of gaining his father’s approval; and Troy’s brother Gabriel (Richard Agnew), who hasn’t been the same since he was injured in the war and who used to live with Troy, and who now wanders the streets during the day seeming to believe himself to be the Angel Gabriel, ready to blow his trumpet to signal the opening of the gates of Heaven.  Through the course of the play, Troy is forced to confront his own past and his disappointment with the way his life has turned out, as well as his goals for the present and the future, and his own thinly veiled resentment for his own son, whose hopes for advancement are viewed as something of a threat.  The play deals with a variety of issues, including personal and family responsibility; the effects of societal racism on individuals, families, and communities; parent-child relationships, and more. It’s a powerful character study as well as a thought-provoking portrait of a time and place in history, with themes that resonate still today.

This is a long, talky play, marked by Wilson’s insightful dialogue and richly-drawn characters, including a deeply flawed central character. Troy is a difficult role, as bitter, manipulative and self-focused as he can be, but there’s also an inherent sympathy in his situation, and it takes a strong actor to convincingly play all the many layers of this character. Himes is simply superb in the role, bringing his strong stage presence to the role and conveying with authenticity all the complexities of this character. He’s well-paired with the truly excellent Kennedy as the determined, longsuffering Rose, whose love for and exasperation with Troy are in full evidence, as is her devotion to her family.  There are also strong performances from Mitchell as Troy’s loyal but increasingly disillusioned (with Troy) friend, Bono; and by Agnew in a standout performance as the unstable, single-minded Gabriel. Maurice as Lyons and McKinley as Cory are also convincing, for the most part, although their stage presence isn’t quite at the same level as the rest of the powerhouse cast. For the most part, this is a strong, cohesive ensemble, supporting the first-rate performances of Himes and Kennedy who are real anchors of this production, thoughtfully and dynamically staged by director Lorna Littleway.

Technically, this show is also impressive, as is usual for the Black Rep. The stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre has been transformed into the Maxson’s backyard by means of  Jim Burwinkel’s comprehensive, detailed set. There’s also excellent character-specific costume design by Marissa Perry. Joseph W. Clapper’s striking lighting, Kareem Deanes’s clear, effective sound design, and Kate Slovinkski’s props also contribute to the overall dramatic impact of this play.

The Black Rep is known for its remarkable work, including previous productions of August Wilson’s works. This latest production of Fences is yet another example of this company’s commitment to excellence and its position as a showcase for superb acting. It’s a riveting, personal, highly affecting drama, especially highlighting the performances of some of St. Louis’s more celebrated performers. It’s well worth seeing.

Robert Alan Mitchell, Ron Himes, Linda Kennedy
Photo: Joe Clapper, Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Fences at the Edison Theatre until January 21, 2017

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The Marvelous Wonderettes
Written and Created by Roger Bean
Directed by Choreographed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 5, 2017

Leanne Smith, Chiara Trentalange, Morgan Kirner, Iris Beaumier
Photo by Eric Woolsey

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is starting out 2018 with an upbeat, nostalgic tunefest. The Marvelous Wonderettes is something of a blend between a jukebox musical and a revue, featuring many classic pop hits from the 1950’s and 60’s. There’s not a lot of plot here, and what is there tends to be somewhat silly, but still, there’s a strong cast here and the overall tone is “fun”.

The “story”, or what there is of it, takes place in two acts, set ten years apart, in 1958 and 1968. The “Marvelous Wonderettes” of the title are a group of high school classmates performing at their senior prom.  In the first act, we meet the perky, slightly ditzy Suzy (Leanne Smith), the vain Cindy Lou (Chiara Trentalange), the brash Betty Jean (Iris Beaumier), and the assertive Missy (Morgan Kirner), who are all friends but have their conflicts and personal issues that are reflected in the songs they sing. There’s a little bit of an effort at audience participation (asking the audience to vote for Prom Queen, for instance), but for the most part this is something like a concert with a story. The first act highlights songs from the 50’s, such as “Mr. Sandman”, “Lollipop”, “Secret Love”, “Stupid Cupid” and more. The second act, taking place in the same high school gym for the classmates’ 10 year reunion, features 60’s hits such as “You Don’t Own Me”, “I Only Want to Be With You”, “It’s My Party”, and “Son of a Preacher Man”, among others. Through the course of their singing, we get to know the characters’ stories and see how their relationships with one another develop, and it becomes obvious that some of the off-stage characters mentioned are named to fit the lyrics of some of the songs. It’s an energetic show, with an overall comic tone, and it’s a lot of fun despite being obviously contrived to fit the stories of the songs.

The performers here are excellent, bringing a lot of energy, emotion, humor, and chemistry to this show. The biggest voices belong to Trentalange as the sometimes overconfident Cindy Lou, and Beaumier as the alternately confrontational and insecure Betty Jean. Trentalange also stands out for being the character who changes the most between the two acts, and for making this change believable. There are also strong comic performances from Kirner as the determined Missy, and by Smith as the sweet but longsuffering Suzy. The friendships and conflicts between the characters are made credible by the strong cohesive chemistry here, and the vocal harmonies on the songs are also strong.

The 50’s and 60’s look and sound are achieved here with colorful style by means of Adam Koch’s “high school gym” unit set and Dorothy Marshall Englis’s colorful period costumes. Peter E. Sargent’s lighting adds to the mood in various scenes as well, and Rusty Wandall’s sound is crisp and clear. There’s some fun staging of the various musical numbers, as well, choreographed by director Melissa Rain Anderson. The songs, arranged by Brian William Baker and orchestrated by Michael Borth, are appropriately catchy with an authentic era-specific sound as well as being convincingly performed by a group of high school friends.

Overall, The Marvelous Wonderettes is a fun show. It’s definitely on the “light entertainment” end of the spectrum, but it’s very well done light entertainment. With a lot of energy, personality, and a succession of well-known classic pop songs, it’s an entertaining start to the new year at the Rep.

Iris Beaumier, Morgan Kirner, Chiara Trentalange, Leanne Smith
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Marvelous Wonderettes until January 28, 2017

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