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Archive for September, 2018

Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

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Evita
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Gustavo Zajac
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 7, 2018

Sean MacLaughlin, Michelle Aravena
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has opened its newest season with a classic Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, Evita. This is a show that I had heard much of the music to, but had never actually seen. I’m glad the Rep’s production is the first one I’ve been able to see, since it’s stunning, with an especially strong cast and fabulous production values.

Evita is a well-known collaboraton from the celebrated team of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, and after seeing this production, I think it’s Lloyd Webber’s strongest score. With memorable songs like “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, “Buenos Aires” and “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”, this is a vibrant score with elements of tango, rock, and operatic styles, sung through and structured like an opera. It tells the story of the celebrated First Lady of Argentina in the late 1940s and early 50s, Eva Perón (Michelle Aravena), who starts out as Eva Duarte, rising from obscurity in rural Argentina, moving to the big city of Buenos Aires to become an actress, later meeting and marrying influential Colonel Juan Perón (Sean McLaughlin), and using her influence and popularity with the people to help him win the Presidency. The show, is narrated in a critical manner by Ché (Pepe Nufrio), who represents the common people of Argentina as Eva grows in power, influence and affluence and gains many admirers, who adore her as “Evita”. It’s a well-structured show with many strong musical moments, and a prime opportunity for a tour-de-force performance from its lead. Told essentially as flashback starting and ending with Eva’s funeral–accompanied in this production by actual footage projected on a screen above the stag–the story unfolds at a steady pace, examining Eva’s character and influence on her husband’s rise to power, as well as her influence on the general population of Argentina and her eventual inconic status.

I don’t know enough about the real Eva Perón to know exactly how historically accurate it is, but it’s a convincingly told story and a fascinating show, given an impressive staging at the Rep, with those glorious production values that the Rep is known for, including a fabulous unit set and projections by Luke Cantarella, dazzling period costumes by Alejo Vietti, and stunning lighting by John Lasiter. The staging is dynamic, using the turntable to excellent effect, whether it’s comic as in “Goodnight and Thank You” as Eva meets and moves on from a succession of lovers in Buenos Aires, or dramatic as in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, poignantly sung by Perón’s rejected young Mistress (Shea Gomez) after Eva moves in. There’s also energetic choreography with a strong tango influence by Gustavo Zajac, and a first-rate band led by music director Charlie Alterman.

In terms of the cast, since this is Evita, it’s essential to cast that central character well, and the Rep has done that with the outstanding Aravena, who delivers a strong, powerful, and vulnerable performance as Eva. Vocally she is impressive despite a little bit of straining on the higher notes, and her dancing is particularly strong, as is her portrayal of Eva’s emotional journey from ambitious teenager to complicated national icon. She is well-matched by Nufrio, who displays excellent stage presence and a great voice as the challenging, confrontational Che. Her chemistry with MacLaughlin’s equally strong Perón is convincing, as well. There are also memorable performances from Gomez as Perón’s Mistress, and by the smooth-voiced Nicolas Dávila as singer Augustin Magaldi, who first brings Eva to Buenos Aires. There’s also a versatile and energetic ensemble ably supporting the leads in various roles, bringing spark and power to the production numbers such as the Act 1 closer, “A New Argentina”.

Evita is one of the more famous shows that I hadn’t actually seen before, and when I heard the Rep would be producing it I was looking forward to it. I’m happy to say the production has lived up to its promise. It’s a big, visually and vocally impressive show with a stellar cast that does justice to its celebrated score. It’s a great way to start a new season at the Rep.

Cast of Evita
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Evita until September 30, 2018

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Preparations for stage construction

I’ve been writing about the Muny since I started this blog in 2010, and I’ve been seeing shows there since my family moved to St. Louis in 2004. That’s only 14 years of the 100 years of the company’s existence, and in those 14 years I’ve seen a lot of shows at the outdoor theatre in Forest Park that’s become a household name in St. Louis. There’s been a lot of reflecting and looking back over the past year as the Muny has celebrated its centennial. There was a gala concert, a 100th season of performances, a public “open house” style event where St. Louisans were invited to see and celebrate the inner workings of the company, and an impressively detailed and informative exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that I finally got to see recently. That, along with another major event in the Muny’s schedule, were occasions for me and others who attended to reflect on the Muny’s past, and to look toward its future.

The day after I attended the exhibit at the History Museum, I attended the Muny’s presentation called Intermission: Setting the Stage For the Next Act. It was a small gathering in which major Muny donors and representatives of the press were invited as the Muny prepared to begin major renovations to performance and backstage areas, many of which will be ready for next year’s 101st season. Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, Muny President and CEO Dennis Reagan, and others gave brief descriptions of the projects and outlined their grand plans for the space and for the venue in the years to come. For me, it was an informative gathering but also an instance for reflection, thinking back about my own experience as a Muny audience member and as a reviewer and blogger, and also about the Muny’s place in St. Louis as a cultural institution and tradition for the past century.

Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson speaks on the Muny stage

Now, as to the details of the project and the donors, I refer you to the article I’ve linked on the Muny’s website, as well as their Second Century Campaign page that gives more details on the project and on how anyone can donate to the campaign. It’s an exciting plan in many ways, and walking around on that vast Muny stage that’s full of memories but also outdated in many ways, I couldn’t help but try to imagine what it will be like to be sitting in that auditorium next year and seeing the fully rebuilt stage and updated surrounding areas, featuring improvments both cosmetic and functional. I noted the wooden rail constucted on the stage’s edge as that stage awaits its demolition in preparation for a new one. Next year, that rail won’t be there, and the stage I stood on will be replaced with something shiny and new, and more up to date with today’s theatrical needs. I’m especially curious to see those renderings brought to life.

The memories, still, are there, and the devotion to both preserving and expanding that tradition was stressed at the Intermission event as well as at the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, which I highly recommend. It may seem obvious, but there’s a lot of history in 100 years. It’s easy to look at a number like 100 and think it’s beyond the scope of imagining, but that exhibit does an impressively thorough job of recounting that history–focusing on the high points, as is expected in an exhibit like this, but there’s also a bit of perspective inherent to exhibits of this nature. We all know the Muny, for instance, or at least we think we do, but 50, 60, 70 years ago it was still the Muny (or the Municipal Opera, as it was formally called), but there were a lot of difference as well. Many changes have happened over the years, both in terms of cultural changes and in terms of the kind of shows presented (operas and operettas used to be the norm), to the long list of performers who have appeared on that stage. For every legendary star who has tread the boards at the Muny (Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, etc.), there are others whose names used to be familiar but now have mostly been forgotten (Gladys Baxter, Guy Robertson, and more). Imagining the Muny a century from now,, I have little doubt there would be performers from today in both of those categories. A century is a long time.

Trees surround the existing Muny stage. New trees will soon be planted as well.

Still, the focus now, even with the talk of the “Next Century” is on practical improvements for the immediate future, and those results will be seen as early as next year. I’ve already witnessed a lot of changes in the 14 years I’ve been here, but the next few years sound like they’re going to be even more interesting. The sense of hope and optimism was palpable at the Intermission event. It was a very small gathering, representing an important but small portion of the total audience for Muny shows. High dollar donors are needed for a big project like this. They are essential, but the “regular” Muny goers are just as important, if not more so, because a venue as big as this needs audiences to see the shows. There were some great events featured in the Muny’s 100th season, including An Evening With the Stars, the aforementioned History Museum exhibit, and more, but I think my favorite was the “Birthday Bash” open house event, in which the general public was invited into spaces they normally don’t get to see–backstage, behind the scenes, and onto that vast stage to look out at the immense seating area from an angle most of us don’t normally get to see. I sincerely hope that more events like that are planned for the future.

Thanks for the memories, Muny. Here’s to the next 100 years!

Muny President and CEO Dennis Reagan

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