Archive for June, 2022

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Book Adapted by David Lee
Directed by Matt Kunkel
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
June 23, 2022

Robert Petkoff (center) and Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Camelot is a strange show, in the sense that it never seems to be the same show depending on what production you see. Since it first played on Broadway in 1960, there have been many professional, amateur, and school productions, along with a Broadway revival in 1980 and various national tours. I’ve seen many versions, from a high school production to dinner theatre, to a couple of those tours, to the last Muny production in 2009, and there always appear to be changes to the way the story plays out, in terms of the song catalogue and the book. It’s a legendary story that has become a beloved classic, but you never really know what you’re going to see when you see Camelot. Now, the Muny is going even further in the book revisions than I’ve ever seen before with their newest production, featuring an adapted book by David Lee that streamlines many aspects of the story while focusing on the three main characters. It’s a bold endeavor, and for the most part, it works.

The book has always been considered a weakness of Camelot, despite its beloved score and beloved reputation. Revising the book has been done before, and it’s going to be done again (for Broadway later this year, in the hands of well-known playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin). The current Muny production is an adaptation by writer David Lee that overhauls the script in a somewhat drastic way, omitting several characters and some songs, and creating a framing device in which a group of “revelers” tell the story of King Arthur (Robert Petkoff), Queen Guenevere (Shereen Pimentel), and Sir Lancelot (Brandon S. Chu), along with the Knights of the Round Table and the legendary court of Camelot.  It starts off somewhat abruptly once Arthur is introduced, and he starts right into his first song, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, but soon he meets Guenevere and their chemistry is strong, lighting up the stage as they form a strong, credible bond. Eventually, though, their relationship is challenged by the arrival of Lancelot from France, and the new knight causes a stir in the King’s court and in his marriage, as Lancelot and Guenevere find it difficult to fight their attraction to one another, despite their love for Arthur. Soon, the devious Mordred (Barrett Riggins) shows up to further stir up tensions, among the increasingly bored and dissatisfied knights as well as the royal couple and Lancelot, threatening the very ideals that Arthur has built his kingdom upon. 

It’s a well-known story, but this version has distilled the story down to its basic elements, for the most part. There’s a small ensemble, but notable characters from the musical are missing–most notably Merlyn, who is relegated to off-stage status, and King Pellinore, who I found myself missing, since I think his role as a confidant for Arthur is needed in some places. I didn’t miss Merlyn, though, and Arthur’s stories about him work well even without the character’s appearing onstage. Still, what’s done here works to speed up the show a bit, and the framing device helps to emphasize the legendary nature of the story. The look and presentation of the show is also radically different, with a stylized set by Anne Beyersdorfer that is frequently in motion, striking costumes by Tristan Raines that blend elements of Medieval style with more modern rock-inspired looks that feature a lot of leather jackets and chains for the knights, along with more modern suits and dresses for Arthur and Guenevere. The set, along with Shelby Loera’s stunning lighting design and some excellent video design by Kylee Loera, works well with the staging, which takes advantage of the Muny’s turntables to keep the action, and the story, moving along. 

The casting is strong, as well, led by a charming performance from Petkoff as the idealistic but self-doubting Arthur. He’s a joy to watch, and his chemistry with Pimentel’s Guenevere is palpable. Pimentel is also excellent, with strong stage presence and a glorious voice, bringing energy to “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, “The Lusty Month of May”, and more. Chu is good as Lancelot, with a strong voice, although he doesn’t quite have the bold presence that the character demands from his first appearance, and his scenes with Pimentel aren’t as electric as they should be, although this improves as the show goes on. Other standouts include Riggins as the gleefully malevolent Mordred, oozing stage presence from his first moment on stage. There are also memorable turns from the trio playing Camelot’s top three knights–Daryl Tofa as Sir Lionel, Sarah Quinn Taylor as Ser Sagramore, and Evan Ruggiero as Sir Dinadan. There’s also a strong ensemble and some excellent, energetic choreography by Beth Crandall and some well-paced staging of musical numbers, most notably the cleverly staged “C’est Moi”, which shows Lancelot’s journey to Camelot while he sings. 

This is a Camelot like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. While I did find myself missing some of the elements that were cut out, I find this staging excellently paced and well-cast, with strong singing and a dazzling set and production values. The finale works especially well, with the emphasis on the legendary nature of this story, and for the most part, the cast brings a “shining moment” to the Muny with excellent style. 


Shereen Pimentel, Robert Petkoff, Brandon S. Chu and the Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Camelot in Forest Park until June 28th, 2022

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Every Brilliant Thing
by Duncan Macmillan, With Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
June 17, 2022

St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest dramatic presentation isn’t from the Bard, but it contains its fair share of comedy, drama, and tragedy. Every Brilliant Thing is a simply staged one-person show with interactive elements that is able to be tailored toward the leading performer, as well as each unique audience. Directed by Donna Northcott and starring local actor Isaiah Di Lorenzo, this is an engaging show that fits well into its space and tells its story with poignancy and hope.

This is a short show, running a little over an hour, and while the tone is whimsical at times, it deals with some heavy subjects including depression, self-harm, and suicide. There are resources included in the back of the program for anyone seeking help. In the play, Di Lorenzo is presented as a version of himself, telling his story of trying to list all the “brilliant” bright spots in life, first as a way to comfort his chronically depressed mother, and eventually for himself, as well. As he tells the story, he interacts directly with the audience, enlisting some viewers to participate in the action, playing his father, a teacher from school, his college sweetheart, and more, as well as reading the items on the list from cards as Di Lorenzo calls their number. It’s a thoroughly engaging show, given weight, drama, and heart by the personable Di Lorenzo, who has an excellent way of engaging the audience in the story. The audience engagement goes a little further than the story itself with this production, as well, as guests are encouraged to add their own “brilliant things” on sticky notes that they can attach to the walls in the lobby after the show. 

The staging is fairly simple, with no elaborate production values and a simple setup with chairs set out around the perimeter of the floor at the Chapel venue. For a set, there is only a crate in the middle to serve various purposes as Di Lorenzo weaves his compelling tale. There’s excellent support from sound designer John “JT” Taylor and properties designer Amanda Handle. 

Every Brilliant Thing seems to be an especially popular show these days, and I can see why, considering its interactive nature, compelling and poignant story, and the opportunity it provides to showcase a talented performer. At St. Louis Shakespeare and featuring the impressive Di Lorenzo, this show doesn’t disappoint. Even with its weighty subject matter, it’s a poignant and ultimately hopeful story which is especially well-told in this powerful production.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Every Brilliant Thing at The Chapel until June 26, 2022

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Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
June 14, 2022

Cast of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is back, with a familiar show, a familiar cast, and a familiar “Razzle Dazzle”, as Chicago takes the stage for an encore run after having been cut short last year due to a COVID-19 outbreak. This year, it’s the same amazing show that took the Muny stage by storm last season, and won Outstanding Production of a Musical and six other awards from my colleagues and myself in the St. Louis Theater Circle. All the principal performers are back, along with the same production design and dazzling staging. 

Sarah Bowden, James T. Lane (center) and Cast of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

I raved about the show last season–and you can read that review here. I will add that it’s just as energetic, jazzy, and exciting as it was last season, led by truly dynamic performances from Sarah Bowden as Roxie Hart and J. Harrison Ghee as Velma Kelly. All the other leads are excellent, as well, including James T. Lane as Billy Flynn, Emily Skinner as Matron “Mama” Morton, Adam Heller as Amos Hart, and Ali Ewoldt as Mary Sunshine. It’s a truly stunning show, from production values to casting, including the brilliant ensemble supporting the first-rate leads. Everything I wrote last year is still true, and if you weren’t able to see the show last year, now is your chance. Go see it while you can. It’s a thoroughly entertaining,, jazzy, satirical, funny, musical treat!

Sarah Bowden, J. Harrison Ghee
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until June 19th, 2022

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Dear Jack, Dear Louise
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Sharon Hunter
New Jewish Theatre
June 9, 2022

Molly Burris, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is currently serving as a time machine, or the closest we can probably get outside of science fiction. Its staging of Ken Ludwig’s love letter to his parents, Dear Jack, Dear Louise, portrays its time period and setting in a way that makes everything seem so astonishingly immediate. It’s billed as a “romantic comedy”, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and in the hands of the two wonderful leading performers, this is a tale that takes the audiences on a convincing emotional journey.

As made clear in the play’s promotional materials, and via pictures displayed in the lobby, this show is about two real people, playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents Jacob “Jack” Ludwig (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Louise Rabiner (Molly Burris), who “meet” via letters after being “set-up” by their parents in the early 1940s. I would say this is a two character play, but as staged here, there are basically four characters–Jack, Louise, the 1940s, and World War II. After an initially halting and brief first letter, their relationship grows and these two get to know each other more closely, even though they don’t actually meet in person for most of the play, despite several frustrated attempts, as the war (for Jack) and Louise’s burgeoning career as an actress and dancer intervene. Of course, because of the poster in the lobby and the promotions for the play, we know these two will eventually meet and marry, but Ludwig’s construction of the play, along with the performances and Sharon Hunter’s well-pitched direction make this a thoroughly engaging and even suspenseful story, as we the audience get to know these characters as they grow closer to one another through their letters, developing a friendship that leads to romantic feelings and expectations. The presentation is dynamic–rather than simply having the characters read the letters, they are structured more like dialogue, as the characters respond to one another more conversationally as the story develops. The growth of the relationship, along with various challenges–from personal issues and jealousy to the growing and increasingly threatening presence of the war–is portrayed in a fully credible and compelling way, as these well-drawn characters form a believable personal connection, engaging the audience in their hopes, dreams, and struggles.

Everything is developed in such a vivid way, with Dunsi Dai’s impressively detailed set and contributions by scenic artist Cameron Tesson and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler bring these characters and their world to life in a stunningly effective way. The 1940s vibe is enhanced by the pictures and posters that decorate the stage, featuring celebrities, plays, and movies from the era that are mentioned in the letters. There’s also an atmospheric soundtrack of 1940s pop hits to further set the mood, and excellent work from sound designer Amanda Werre, lighting designer David LaRose, and props supervisor Katie Orr in bringing this world to vivid, dramatic life. 

As well developed as Jack and Louise’s world is here, the characters themselves are also ideally portrayed in the stunningly well-matched performances of Burris as the outgoing Louise and Lawson-Maeske as the more reserved but compassionate Jack. Both are intensely likable, portraying a range of emotions as the tone shifts between light romantic comedy and more intense drama.  Their chemistry is fully believable, as well. They’re a vibrant, complex and thoroughly winning combination, making this play all the more involving as these two embody their characters so completely and credibly. 

This show is excellent in portraying a world history event (the Second World War) in a relatably human way, as well as serving as the playwright’s tribute to his own parents, on whose early relationship this show is based. Dear Jack, Dear Louise at NJT is an effective time trip as well as a riveting romantic story. It’s another excellent theatrical experience from this celebrated theatre company.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Molly Burris
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Dear Jack, Dear Louise at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until June 26th, 2022

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The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 8, 2022

Stephen Peirick, Joey Saunders
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Depending on your age, the early days of the AIDS crisis may be living memory for you, or something you’ve only heard and/or read about after the fact. Even if you do remember, the level of detail you remember depends on level of involvement or whether you or anyone you knew was directly affected. For Larry Kramer and his friends in New York City in the early 1980s, the growing crisis was an unavoidable daily reality, as was the fight for recognition, funding, and care for the growing number of people suffering and dying as a result of the virus, before the virus was even identified or named. In Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Kramer’s acclaimed play The Normal Heart, the sense of urgency is readily apparent, as is the focus on the real people behind the fight for recognition and care against increasingly frustrating opposition. With a strong cast and highly effective staging, this is a show that cuts to heart, profoundly and affectingly.

The story and the people represented in this play are real, as noted in the voiceover at the beginning and in a letter from Kramer published in the program. There are elements of dramatization because it’s a play, and the names have been changed, but this is essentially Kramer’s account of his involvement in the development of an activist movement in the early 1980s in New York City, in response to a lack of urgency in the media and public as the news of the virus and its spread–largely among gay men. Kramer is represented here in the person of activist writer Ned Weeks (Stephen Peirick), who is affected in various ways, as he realizes that several people he knows are getting sick and dying, and little to nothing is being done. He and several other friends, including closeted businessman Bruce Niles (Jeffrey M. Wright) and health department employee Mickey Marcus (Jonathan Hey) start a new organization that focuses on raising awareness and helping those affected by it. As Ned and his friends fight for funding and support from the city government and the press, they also deal with tensions among themselves, as Ned’s confrontational approach gets a lot of pushback, and Ned grows increasingly impatient. Ned also navigates various personal relationships in his life, from his friendships in the organization to his new romance with society and fashion writer Felix Turner (Joey Saunders), to his increasingly difficult relationship with his straight, well-to-do lawyer brother, Ben (David Wassilak). The medical research side of the AIDS epidemic is also addressed through the character of Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarajane Alverson), a friend of Ned’s who is treating increasing numbers of patients and is losing her patience with the medical establishment, who don’t seem to take her seriously. There’s a lot of story here, but it’s grounded in a human focus. We see real struggles here, and credible relationships, as a well a profound sense of growing urgency and a current of grief, as the crisis continues to grow, and the numbers of deaths increases at an overwhelming rate.

This play is at once intensely personal and grander in scope, with an effort to document the early days of a movement while also increasing that movement’s reach and furthering its goals, all the while emphasizing the humanity and personhood of the people affected. The patients and victims are not just names on the stacks of boxes that fill the stage in Stray Dog’s production. They are people, with hopes, dreams, emotions, and very real fears. The sense of urgency is palpable here, as is the sheer level of emotion and the intensity of the grief as the crisis grows and gets closer and closer to the personal lives of Ned and his friends. The setting and staging of the play reflects that sense of urgency and quest for recognition, with a simple but effective set by Justin Been, striking atmospheric lighting by Tyler Duenow, and dynamic staging by director Gary F. Bell, who also served as costume designer. The look of the production isn’t as time-period specific as it could be, but that’s not a problem because a more timeless style lends to the immediacy of the production. 

The biggest strength of this production is it’s impressive cast, with no weak links and excellent ensemble energy. Peirick’s Ned is at the center, in the best performance I’ve seen from this already excellent actor.  Peirick convincingly portrays all the sides of Ned, from caring friend and boyfriend to frustrated brother to firebrand activist. There are also excellent turns from Wright, Hey, and Alverson, who all get intense “showcase” monologue moments in the second act. Saunders and Wassilak are also convincing in their roles as key figures in Ned’s life–his new boyfriend, and his brother. Saunders especially portrays the tragedy and struggle with compelling intensity. There’s also strong support from Jeremy Goldmeier and Michael Hodges in a variety of roles. 

The Normal Heart is a play you won’t forget, especially as staged by Stray Dog Theatre’s stunningly effective company. This is an era of history that you may or may not remember directly, but it’s important not to forget, even as strides have been made in the treatment and care of HIV/AIDS. It’s not just something from a history book or documentary. It’s a human story about real people. It’s important to put faces to all those names, and this production does that with poignant sensitivity and drama. 

Stephen Peirick, Jeffrey M. Wright, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Normal Heart at Tower Grove Abbey until June 25th, 2022

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Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollman, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Scott Miller and Chris Kernan
Choreographed by Chris Kerman
June 4, 2022

Cast of Urinetown
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

“What is Urinetown?” That’s a question that gets asked often in New Line Theatre’s latest production. In terms of the plot, that’s for the audience to find out, but in terms of the show itself, Urinetown is a 2001 musical that gained a lot of accolades when it first played on Broadway. It’s notable for being one of the first “meta-musicals” in the fullest sense of the term. It’s a clever sendup of many of the conventions of musical theatre, as well as some specific shows. It’s a dark comedy and a sharp satire, and at New Line, it’s a memorable experience with an especially strong cast, insightful direction, and a striking aesthetic.

The story, narrated by Officer Lockstock (Kent Coffel) of the police, and the curious, precocious Little Sally (Jennelle Gilreath), tells of a nameless town in the not-so-distant future in which there has been a drought and a major water shortage, and in which a corporation, Urine Good Company, has taken over managing public toilets, which the townspeople are required to use. The part of town where most of the story takes place is home to only one of these public “amenities”, as they are called. The amenity is managed by the imperious Penelope Pennywise (Sarah Gene Dowling), and assisted by the young, increasingly dissatisfied Bobby Strong (Kevin Corpuz), who becomes convinced that the way things are is unfair, as anyone who is caught breaking the rules–including his own father Joseph (Zachary Allen Farmer) is arrested and carted off to the mysterious “Urinetown” as a punishment. Meanwhile, Urine Good Company’s big boss, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Todd Schaefer) is using his considerable influence to bribe Senator Fipp (Colin Dowd) to influence the government to pass new laws that raise the fees for the amenities, much to the public’s distress. When Cladwell’s fresh-faced college graduate daughter, Hope (Melissa Felps), gets lost on her way to work and meets Bobby, that starts a chain of events that leads to much uproar, rebellion, and the revelation of long-held secrets. Ultimately, the story is a highly cynical one, as Officer Lockstock reminds Little Sally that “this isn’t a happy musical”. It’s stylized, occasionally over-the-top, and cleverly sends up many of the tropes audiences have come to expect in the musical theatre canon. There are also some obvious sendups of well-known shows such as Les Miserables and West Side Story, among others. 

The staging is, as is usual for New Line, full of energy and strong singing, featuring a remarkable cast led by the charismatic Corpuz as the earnest, determined Bobby, and the equally excellent Felps as the well-meaning but initially sheltered Hope. There are also strong turns from Schaefer as the greedy, self-important Cladwell, Dowling as increasingly mysterious Pennywise, Marshall Jennings as Lockstock’s loyal counterpart, Officer Barrel, and Dowd as the corrupted, conflicted Senator Fipp.  Coffel and Gilreath hold the stage with excellent presence and timing as the authoritarian Lockstock and the inquisitive, occasionally snarky Little Sally. It’s a strong ensemble all around, with loads of cynical energy and strong vocals. There’s also excellent stylized choreography by Chris Kernan.

This is a demanding show in terms of style, pacing, and overall theming, and all that is done remarkably well at New Line, under the direction of Scott Miller and Kernan. There’s also a strikingly evocative set by Schaefer, meticulously detailed costumes by Sarah Porter, and excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl that helps capture the overall dystopian tone of the piece. The excellent New Line Band, led by music director Tim Clark, provides ideal accompaniment, as well.

This is one of those shows that is probably not going to appeal to everyone. It’s remarkably sharp and clever, but it also can be deeply cynical and bleak, so if you are looking for a truly “happy musical”, this isn’t it. It’s witty, incisive, and hilarious at times, though, and a special treat for musical theatre buffs, in that it’s such a precise parody that features many familiar tropes and references, and has a memorable, highly referential score. At New Line, Urinetown challenges, provokes, and ultimately entertains with a superb cast of of local actors and singers. It may not be a happy musical, but it’s certainly a memorable one. 

Kent Coffel, Kevin Corpuz, Marshall Jennings
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Urinetown at the Marcelle Theatre until June 25th, 2022

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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
June 3, 2022

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Much Ado About Nothing seems to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies these days. I think that’s because it’s probably one of the least intimidating for general audiences who aren’t as familiar with the Bard’s work, or who may have only studied his plays in school. The plot is fairly straightforward, and many of the situations are easily relatable for modern audiences. It’s also especially conducive to various setting updates. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, with its latest production, reiterates just how immediate and engaging this play can be, with a strong cast, sharp comic timing, and superb production values. 

The main story, as pointed out by Producing Artistic Director Tom Ridgely in his program note, is relatable because it’s timeless. The dynamic between the quick-witted Beatrice (Claire Karpen), and the equally sharp-tongued soldier Benedick (Stanton Nash) is one that’s been featured in stories–and especially in romantic comedies–for generations. As is usual for productions of this show, it’s the central relationship that shines through most clearly, as showcased through the strong chemistry, presence, and comic timing of Karpen and Nash, who make an ideal pair here. The subplots are done well, also, with the all-too easily persuaded Claudio (Kenneth Hamilton) wooing the sweet-natured Hero (Carmen Cecilia Retzer) but easily falling prey to the machinations of the scheming, gravelly-voiced Don John (Sorab Wadia), who seems to want to cause trouble just for the sake of it. There are also strong performances from Chauncy Thomas as the soldiers’ leader Don Pedro, who comes up with the idea to playfully trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love. There’s also a goofy comic subplot involving bumbling local constable Dogberry (Liam Craig) and his assistant Verges (Whit Reichert), who have some hilarious moments with their watchmen, who despite Dogberry’s comic ineptitude, manage to catch Don John’s henchman Borachio (Aaron Orion Baker) and Conrade (Alex Rudd) in revealing an act of deception that causes a a lot of havoc between Claudio and Hero. There’s an excellent cast all around here, with standout moments from Gary Glasgow and Carl Overly, Jr. in dual roles, as well as Christopher Hickey as Hero’s father Leonato, Tim Kidwell as Leonato’s brother Antonio,  and Jenna Steinberg and Maison Kelly as Hero’s waiting gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula.  

According to the program notes, this version of the story is given a setting toward the end of the first quarter of the 20th Century, just after the First World War. That time period is the inspiration for the eye-catching production design here, including props like an authentic-looking Victrola-style phonograph, and the colorful and striking costumes by Dorothy Englis. Josh Smith’s multi-level set is also richly detailed and an ideal setting for the action, and the overall whimsical, witty, and musical tone of this production. And speaking of music, there’s a wonderful soundtrack here, with music to Shakespeare’s songs composed and played by Matt Pace and Brien Seyle, and beautifully sung by Michael Thanh Tran as Bathasar. The atmosphere and mood are also helped along nicely through means of John Wylie’s excellent lighting design, sound design by Rusty Wandall, sound effects by Kareem Deanes. It’s a great looking and sounding show that fits especially well into the outdoor setting in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen.

This is a fast-paced production with moments of slapstick comedy, witty banter, underhanded scheming, and an overall uplifting tone even though there are some darker moments sprinkled in amidst the comedy. The tone, the style, the energy, and especially the first-rate cast make this show a true delight, worthy of the excellent reputation of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, and the Bard himself. 

Claire Karpen, Stanton Nash
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting Much Ado About Nothing in Forest Park until June 26th, 2022

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The Karate Kid: The Musical
Book by Robert Mark Kamen, Music and Lyrics by Drew Gasparini
Directed by Amon Miyamoto
Choreographed by Keone & Mari Madrid
STAGES St. Louis
June 1, 2022

Jake Bentley Young, Alan H. Green (Center) and Cast of The Karate Kid: The Musical
Photo: STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis brought some big surprises with the announcement of its latest show. Yes, St. Louis is hosting a genuine pre-Broadway tryout of a new musical, and yes, that musical is a screen-to-stage adaptation of the hit 1984 movie that led to a whole series of sequels and spin-offs: The Karate Kid. That news was enough to spark a lot of anticipation and speculation. The current Broadway trend seems to be in favor of lots of movies-turned-musicals, some that are hits, and some that aren’t. Which would this be? The answer to that question is still undecided, but for me, I would say that while it’s not perfect, it has a lot of promise. 

It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. The opening night audience was energetic and enthusiastic, providing lots of mid-show encouragement and a rapturous standing ovation at the end. For my part, I found it enjoyable, with some true moments of poignancy and heart, especially when focusing on the story’s title protagonist, Daniel LaRusso (John Cardoza)–newly moved from New Jersey to Southern California–and his newfound friend and Karate teacher, Okinawan-American Mr. Miyagi (Jiovanni Sy). These two are the heart and soul of this production, showing a strong, credible bond between the characters and excellent stage presence, and especially strong, emotive vocals from Cardoza especially. The story is essentially the same as the film, but with a few changes, most of which are welcome, such as the expanding of the role of Daniel’s new friend Freddie Fernandez (impressive newcomer Luis-Pablo Garcia), who is given a compelling story here. There’s also a bit of an extended role for Ali Mills (Jetta Juriansz), the girl from school that catches Daniel’s eye, much to the annoyance of her ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (Jake Bentley Young), who leads a gang of bullies from Cobra Kai, Karate dojo run by the angry and vengeful John Kreese (Alan H. Green), a Vietnam vet who seems to have a grudge against the whole world. When Johnny and his cronies make it their mission to make Daniel’s life miserable, Miyagi suggests to Kreese that they take their fight to the local youth Karate tournament, and after a series of training sequences and conflicts, the match is on, just like in the movie, and there’s a lot of action and drama along the way.

What I especially liked about this production is the focus on Miyagi and Daniel’s relationship, as well as Miyagi’s backstory, with a poignant song an flashback scene focusing on his past with his young wife Kiyoko (Abby Matsusaka, in excellent voice). The scenes in the arcade with the kids from school are also fun, especially the ones involving Freddie, who gets to lead a fun, bouncy, 80’s-pop flavored number called “Dreams Come True” in Act 2. There are also memorable, and especially crowd-pleasing, scenes at the Cobra Kai dojo led by Green’s gleefully menacing Kreese, and some dynamic choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid. The choreography is strong throughout, with a compelling conceit of having backing dancers in many of the scenes to support the performers. There’s also believable chemistry between the immensely likable Cardoza as Daniel and the equally excellent Juriansz as Ali.  The only problem I have to do with the casting isn’t about a performance, but about an underwritten role for the always excellent Kate Baldwin, who plays Daniel’s mother, Lucille. Two-time Tony nominee Baldwin was one of my favorite performers back when she was doing shows at the Muny before I started this blog, and I was consistently impressed by how much substance she brought to her roles, but here, she isn’t given much of a chance. While Baldwin gives a strong performance as usual, and she does have some good moments with Cardoza and a few occasions to show off her impressive vocals, her character disappears for much of the show to the point of almost seeming irrelevant. Still, all the leads are strong, even when they aren’t given a lot to do, and Drew Gasparini’s  score is fun, for the most part, but some songs are more memorable than others. 

Staging-wise, the show is a little “smaller” than I was expecting for a musical that’s aiming for Broadway, but it fills the stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts center well, and I assume they will scale some of the production values up when the time comes. Derek McLane’s set is colorful and 80’s inspired, and the scene transitions are smooth a fluid, aided by the ensemble members who largely drive the scene-changes. There are also excellent detailed costumes by Ayako Maeda, and stunning lighting design by Bradley King and eye-catching projections by Peter Nigrini. The overall look is retro, with the musical retaining the film’s mid-80’s setting, and the overall style and flair are especially well done. There are especially impressive technical moments in Miyagi’s training scenes and the Cobra Kai sequences, with all the elements working together to tell the story in an eye-catching and occasionally thrilling manner. It’s also great to see a live orchestra in the pit at STAGES, sounding great here as conducted by music director and keyboard player Andrew Resnick.

The past and the future are onstage at STAGES at the moment–the past being the 80’s setting of the show, and all the retro elements, and the future being the promise of more pre-Broadway tryouts of developing productions in St. Louis. The Karate Kid: The Musical is a promising show, and ultimately entertaining even if there are elements that can stand to be improved and tightened before this show makes its eventual bow in New York. Still, it’s a fun show, for the most part, with heartwarming moments, humor, drama, and action, and I look forward to seeing how it develops on it’s way to Broadway.

Cast of The Karate Kid: The Musical
Photo: STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting The Karate Kid: The Musical at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until June 26, 2022

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