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Archive for August, 2022

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
August 13, 2022

Jason Gotay, Jessica Vosk
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is closing out its 2022 summer season with a bright, colorful, truly joyful performance of a crowd-pleasing classic. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been done a few times at the Muny before, and this is the third production I’ve seen there. As with any production of this show, though, each one has had its own unique style and energy. Joseph… is one of those shows that lends especially well to different direction and interpretations, and this latest production is a prime example of a staging that retains the “essence” of the show but also does its own thing, with a superb cast and its own dazzling, colorful style.

The story, based on the biblical tale from the book of Genesis, follows Joseph (Jason Gotay) on his journey from favored son of Jacob (Eric Jordan Young), to being sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, to being sent to jail, to rising to a place of prominence in the court of Pharaoh (Mykal Kilgore). All the while, it’s framed as a story being told by a Narrator (Jessica Vosk), and the Muny Kids and Teens are used especially well in this production, as the children’s chorus who listen to the Narrator’s tale and in various roles throughout the story. The show also features a variety of musical styles, from country to rock, to pop, to calypso, and more. It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s first collaboration, first written as a short production for a school choir, and expanded over the years. It’s not a heavy or deep show, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and an excellent showcase for its leading performers as well as some key featured roles. 

As I’ve mentioned, this show is especially versatile, and I’ve never seen two productions that looked the same, although they all managed to maintain that overall energetic and fun spirit. This production is big, bright, and colorful, as is fitting for the Muny stage, with a whimsical set by  Edward E. Haynes, Jr. that blends elements of the ancient and the modern. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are also striking, from the Narrator’s pop-star glamour looks to Joseph’s more laid-back (mostly) looks, to more flashy looks for Pharaoh and Potiphar (also played by Young), as well as a variety of looks for the ensemble to suit the various production numbers. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Jason Lyons, dynamic video design by Greg Emetaz, and fun puppet designs by Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck. There’s also a great Muny Orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman, playing those catchy tunes with great enthusiasm. 

The whole production is  big and lively, as is fitting for the Muny, and in keeping with the overall whimsical tone of the piece. The pacing is just right, as well, with a great deal of energy without being rushed. It’s not a long show, but the excellent cast makes the most of every moment here, along with the top-notch direction and choreography by Josh Rhodes. The whole cast is wonderful, led by the charming and boyish Gotay as Joseph. Gotay’s strong stage presence and great voice are just right for this role, and he works especially well in his scenes with the dynamic Vosk, who is a powerhouse as the Narrator, with equally excellent stage presence and a truly stunning voice. Kilgore is also a standout in a different interpretation of Pharaoh than usual. Usually, Pharaoh is played as an Elvis Presley impersonator, but not here. Here, Kilgore’s acrobatic, rock-styled vocals are showcased in a performance that is more reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz (thanks to my friend and St. Louis Theater Circle colleague, Tina Farmer, for that observation). There’s a strong supporting cast, as well, with memorable performances from all of Joseph’s brothers, especially Harris Milgrim as Reuben leading “One More Angel in Heaven”, Sean Ewing as Simeon leading “Those Canaan Days”, and, especially, Darron Hayes as Judah leading “Benjamin Calypso”. This is a fun show, and the cast here, from the leads to the ensemble to the Muny Kids and Teens, does an excellent job, making this show a joy to watch, and hear, from start to finish. There’s also an especially spirited “Megamix” at the end of the show that showcases the whole cast in ideal fashion.

Overall, this has been a great year for the Muny. From the excellent encore of Chicago a the beginning of the season to the stunning Sweeney Todd and The Color Purple, to this fantastic closing show, the Muny has been at its best, even though this year did include one of the more controversial productions I’ve seen (Camelot, which I enjoyed for the most part, but which many apparently didn’t like). Still, regardless of what you thought about any other productions this season, this Joseph… is a good one to see as an example of the energy, style, excellent casting, and sheer spectacle that the Muny has to offer. As staged on the Muny’s big stage in Forest Park, it’s an Amazing Technicolor Dream show! 

Cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Forest Park until August 18, 2022

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Shinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Additional Material by Jay Reiss
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 5, 2022

Kevin Corpuz, Dawn Schmid, Grace Langford, Clayton Humburg, Kevin O’Brien, Sara Rae Womack, Chris Kernan
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

The spelling bee is one of those childhood rites of passage that many adults can relate to. I know I can. I still remember the word I was disqualified on in my 8th grade bee (“crucible”–I’d spelled it correctly, but I had started over after first missing the “r”). It also works as a seemingly innocuous but potentially high-pressure event that can bring out a lot of emotion and reflection in the participants. I think it’s this reflective quality that makes The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee work so well as a concept. Of course, the great script, catchy songs, and memorable characters also help a great deal. As staged at Stray Dog Theatre, this show comes to life in all its charming, goofy, and insightful glory, as portrayed by a great cast of talented local performers.

The concept is fairly simple, but there are some fun touches that make the show especially fun. For instance, there’s an interactive aspect, in which four audience members who signed up to participate are brought onstage to compete alongside the “official” cast members. The spelling bee is serious business for its participants, from adults staffing the bee to the student spellers, who appear to be upper elementary and middle-school aged. The host is former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Stephanie Merritt), who seems a little overinvested in the proceedings at times. She’s assisted by “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Chris Kernan), who is there because he has to be (the reason is explained in the show), but who soon finds himself caring more about the bee and its contestants than he had expected. There’s also Douglas Panch (Jason Meyers), a local elementary school vice principal, who announces the words and doesn’t always deal with unpredictable situations well. The spellers are a collection of students with their own quirks, foibles, and stories–last year’s champion, the high-achieving Chip Tolentino (Kevin Corpuz); socially awkward and serious speller William Barfée (Kevin O’Brien), who has an unusual way of remembering his spellings; sweet-natured homeschooler Leaf Coneybar (Clayton Humburg), who is insecure about spelling because his family doesn’t think he’s up to the challenge; young activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Dawn Schmid), who faces family pressures of her own; academically gifted Marcy Park (Sara Rae Womack), who feels pressure from all around to be the best at everything; and Olive Ostrovsky (Grace Langford), who loves language and words, reads the dictionary for fun, and wishes her busy parents could be there to watch her in the bee. The format follows the spelling bee with a few “breaks” for the various characters to tell their stories. Obviously, since this is a competition, someone has to win, and the order of elimination provides a degree of suspense, as rivalries play out, friendships are formed, and words are spelled, defined, and used in a series of hilariously silly sentences. 

This is a sweet show, overall, with a little bit of raunchy, but mostly PG-13, humor thrown in, and the characters are well defined. Though the spellers do have their individual quirks, they don’t come across as caricatures. There are also some memorable songs the characters each tell their stories as the bee plays out. These are characters you get to know, and care about. The script is intelligent, witty, and insightful, and the performers bring the characters to life with a lot of energy and heart. Everyone is excellent, with wonderful ensemble chemistry, but if I have to pick standouts I’d have to say Langford is especially strong as the dictionary-loving, sweetly earnest Olive, and Humburg also has a charming turn as the offbeat Leaf. Kernan is also memorable as Mitch, with a strong voice and believable character arc, and O’Brien has a fun moment leading a production number about his “Magic Foot” spelling technique. Everyone is excellent, though, in voice, in comic timing, and in ensemble chemistry. There are no weak links here, and as some might want to say about the spelling bee, everyone is a winner–truly.

On the technical side, the production is also strong, with excellent use of lighting by Tyler Duenow to emphasize specific moments in the show, and a simple but effective set by director Justin Been. Eileen Engel’s costumes are also memorable, fitting the characters and their individual personalities especially well. There’s also a great band led by music director Leah Schultz, and effective sound design by Jacob Baxley, although there were a few moments where the volume seemed uneven and jarring, although in some cases that seemed to be intended for story purposes. 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical I had heard a lot about, but had never seen until this production. I’m glad this production has been my introduction to this show, since everything–from staging, to singing, to casting, to look and atmosphere–seems ideal. There are even some fun topical references thrown in for additional humor. Overall, this is a sweet, funny, quirky, thoughtful show that is sure to provoke a lot of reflection, and maybe even some nostalgia, from the audience. 

Dawn Schmid, Chris Kernan, Kevin Corpuz, Kevin O’Brien, Clayton Humburg, Grace Langford, Stephanie Merritt, Sara Rae Womack
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Tower Grove Abbey until August 20, 2022

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The Color Purple
Based upon the Novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee WIllis, and Stephen Bray
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Choreographed by Breon Arzell
The Muny
August 4, 2022

Tracee Beazer, Anastacia McCleskey
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is continuing it’s excellent 2022 season with a remarkable Muny debut production of The Color Purple. The musical, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie, is a sweeping, intensely emotional tale that features memorable characters and a strong musical score. At the Muny, with a top-notch cast led by a stunning leading performance, as well as stellar direction and production values, this show makes a lasting impression. 

The story, set in Georgia in the early-to-mid 20th Century, centers around Celie (Anastacia McCleskey), a young woman who is brought up by an abusive father, giving birth to two children as a a teenager and being forced to give them up. She then is essentially given by her father to Mister (Evan Tyrone Martin), a bitter widower who beats her, calls her ugly, and makes no secret of the fact that he would have preferred her sister, Nettie (Nasia Thomas), who is chased away by Mister after refusing his advances. Separated from the only person she knows who truly loves her, Celie lives a difficult life driven by fear; doing whatever Mister wants and enduring his wrath, until a series of influential people come into Celie’s life and encourage her to stand up for herself and discover the beauty she hasn’t been able to see. These people include the outspoken, strong-willed Sofia (Nicola Michelle Haskins), who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Gilbert Domally); and popular singer Shug Avery (Tracee Beazer), who has her own complicated history with Mister. Shug and Celie soon form a strong connection, and Celie also receives news that gives her hope of seeing her sister again. Nothing is simple or easy, as complications arise, people come in and out of Celie’s life, couples get together, break up, and sometimes reconcile, and Celie learns how to see and assert her own worth and value life beyond what has been dictated to her from childhood. 

This is a rich portrait of complex, well-drawn characters, and also of life situations affected by segregation and racist systems in the South in the first part of the 20th Century, as well as of the effects of authoritarianism and sexism. It’s a poignant, often intensely emotional story that requires a strong, talented cast, which this production clearly provides. Celie is a challenging character to play, requiring a strong sense of presence, a clear portrayal of the character’s vulnerability and inner strength, as well as a top-notch singing voice. At the Muny, McCleskey shines, displaying all those essential qualities and commanding the stage whenever she is on. She also has great chemistry with her equally strong co-stars, including the terrific Beazer as the worldly, outgoing Shug, Haskins in a memorable turn as the bold Sofia, and Thomas as the loyal, determined Nettie. Other standouts include Martin, ably portraying the complicated and contrasting aspects of Mister’s character; Domally, excellent as Harpo; and Erica Durham in a fun comic performance as aspiring singer and Harpo’s sometime-girlfriend Squeak. The standouts are supported by a stellar ensemble, as well, with excellent vocals and energetic movement to Breon Arzell’s dynamic choreography.  There’s also a great Muny orchestra led by music director Jermaine Hill. 

The production values here are, as usual for the Muny, excellent, and the overall design is in different ways both minimalist and expansive.  Arnel Sancianco’s unit set is fairly minimal, although it covers the huge Muny stage well, and serves as an ideal setting for the story, as Heather Gilbert’s detailed lighting design and Paul Deziel’s stunning video designs add atmosphere, texture, and specificity. There are also striking costumes by Samantha C. Jones that fit the characters well, adding to the vibrancy and emotion as the story unfolds. 

 Even if you haven’t seen The Color Purple before, or experienced this story in its other forms, this production is an ideal introduction to this sweeping, intense, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s a memorable exploration of character, family, and community, at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and heartwarming, centering around a tour-de-force central performance. It’s a modern classic story and musical, given a remarkable staging at the Muny.

Nicole Michelle Haskins, Gilbert Domally, Erica Durham and Cast of The Color Purple
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Color Purple in Forest Park until August 9, 2022

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