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Archive for the ‘USA Theatre’ Category

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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My Fair Lady
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
The Fox Theatre
March 22, 2022

Shereen Ahmed (center) and cast of My Fair Lady
Photo by Joan Marcus
My Fair Lady National Tour

I love Bartlett Sher’s revivals. The celebrated Broadway director has a remarkable gift for taking a classic musical, and with little or no change to the actual script, bringing out the meaning and emotion of the piece in a way that’s especially accessible to today’s audiences. They’re not reinventions or “revisals”, really, but they manage to bring out the meaning of the shows in a new and fresh way, all the while retaining the “classic” spirit of the productions. I’ve seen Sher’s South Pacific (filmed for PBS), as well as The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof on tour, and I have loved how each production brought an “old” show to life. Now Sher’s latest revival effort, My Fair Lady, has come to the Fox Theatre in a glorious, sumptuously staged production that emphasizes the best of this show that’s often regarded as one of the true classics of musical theatre, but has elements that have become dated over time. Here, though, the show seems about as current as a period piece could be, in highlighting the foibles of its characters in addition to their strengths, and putting the focus even more on the perspective of its leading lady.

Eliza Doolittle has been regarded as one of the great leading roles in musical theatre, although it is a challenging one, in that it calls for a deep emotional range, comic ability, and a first-rate soprano singing voice. All those elements are here in this production in the person of the remarkably talented Shereen Ahmed, who brings a willful determination as well as a sense of optimism, energy, and true love of learning to Eliza, who is the first character the audience sees on stage, before anyone else enters. The focus is on her from the start, and as the strict and increasingly exasperated and exasperating taskmaster Professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh) puts her through his rigorous course of phonetic exercises, it’s Eliza we are meant to sympathize, and empathize, with. Eliza has always been a sympathetic character, but here we get to see her determination showcased especially well, through means of Sher’s focused direction and Ahmed’s excellent stage presence, versatility, and remarkable vocals. The chemistry between her and Mackintosh’s proud, increasingly harried Higgins is also palpable, but this isn’t a sentimental love story, as emphasized by the directorial choices here that cast Eliza’s interest more as an infatuation, and the slightly altered ending that, in my mind, is more in the spirit of Eliza’s journey and lends more power in hindsight to what I have often considered the show’s best scene–the confrontation near the end at the home of Higgins’s mother (Leslie Alexander). The way the show plays out on Michael Yeargan’s impressively detailed set also highlights the immediate situation of Eliza’s journey, particularly in the use of turntable and impeccably appointed set of Higgins’s house. 

The settings help tell the story here especially well, as do the lavish costumes by Catherine Zuber and the wondrously dazzling lighting by Donald Holder. Hues of blue, green, purple, and pink are evident in the depiction of London at the turn of the 20th Century, in the depictions of life from the point of view of various classes, from lower to middle, to upper. The classic music is presented well, as conducted by music director John Bell, and the energetic choreography by Christopher Gatelli serves the story well, as performed by a strong ensemble.

As for the leading performers, in addition to the superb Ahmed and Mackintosh, there’s also excellent work from Kevin Pariseau as the enthusiastic and gentlemanly Colonel Pickering, as well as Martin Fisher, who gives a fun comic performance and is in excellent voice as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Sam Simahk is also strong as a particularly slouchy, simpering but golden-voiced version of Eliza’s upper-class suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and there are also strong performances from Alexander as Mrs. Higgins and Gayton Scott as Higgins’s stern but caring housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. The whole ensemble here is enthusiastic, conveying the spirit of numbers like the comically stuffy “Ascot Gavotte” and the boisterous “A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” with style and charm. There isn’t a weak link here, and the staging is well-paced and on point, even as the production encountered a technical issue in the midst of the Ascot scene on opening night, but handled it with utmost professionalism and resumed the show in a timely manner.

My Fair Lady is one of those shows that has been done so much it could easily become stale, and Higgins’s sexist pronouncements aren’t exactly pleasant, although here we get to see his character confronted in a more satisfying way than I’ve seen before. Also, Eliza gets the focus in ways that I hadn’t seen emphasized as much before in previous productions. That’s the beauty of Sher’s revivals–the script is there, the characters are there, but we get to see them from a slightly new angle even while the overall spirit of the show isn’t drastically different. There is a new twist on the conclusion, which has been somewhat controversial, although for me it makes a lot more sense than the way it’s been handled before. I’m not sure what notorious curmudgeon G. B. Shaw (author of the musical’s source play, Pygmalion) would think, but for me, it works. In fact, this whole show works especially well, being true to the “classic” tone while also being fresh and new in its own way. In Eliza’s words, it’s “loverly”.

Kevin Pariseau, Laird Mackintosh, Shereen Ahmed
Photo by Joan Marcus
My Fair Lady National Tour

The National Tour of My Fair Lady is playing at the Fox Theatre until April 3, 2022

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Mean Girls
Book by Tina Fey, Music by Jeff Richmond, Lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
February 15, 2022

Cast of Mean Girls
Photo by Jenny Anderson
Mean Girls North American Tour

Mean Girls, the movie, is one of those films that I feel like I’ve seen even though I haven’t. It’s become so ingrained in the culture, especially for people who were high school age when it came out, that it’s been the subject of much quoting and meme-ing over the years since it was first released in 2004. I’ve heard so much about it since then, even though I’m a little older than its main demographic. Now, the tour based on the 2018 Broadway musical, adapted by original film writer Tina Fey along with Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin, is onstage at the Fox, which is my first time actually seeing this story directly. For the most part, it’s an entertaining production that certainly makes the audience happy, and features some excellent performances in its lead roles. There’s also a whole lot of energy, if not necessarily a lot of story elements that haven’t been done before.

It’s a high school story, and as such the musical contains a lot of the typical “high school movie” tropes, with cliques, quests for popularity, teenage romances, and more. The action here centers on Cady Herron (Danielle Wade), a newcomer to North Shore High School after having been raised in Kenya and homeschooled. The story is narrated as “A Cautionary Tale” according the show’s opening number, by artsy kids Janis (Mary Kate Morris) and Damian (Eric Huffman), who take it upon themselves to befriend Cady and help her find her place at the school among its many social groups. Soon, however, she is introduced to the “Plastics”, a group of influential but manipulative girls led by the self-centered Regina George (Nadina Hassan), who along with the insecure Gretchen (Olivia Renteria) and ditzy Karen (Jonalyn Saxer), tries to dominate the social scene at the school. Cady is soon immersed in the world of the Plastics, sitting with them at lunch and being adopted into their group while still trying to maintain friendships with “outcasts” Janis and Damian, as well as trying to court the attention of calculus classmate and Regina’s ex, Aaron Samuels (Adante Carter), to whom she is attracted. Inevitably, Cady learns that all this trying to reinvent herself doesn’t exactly pay off, and lessons are learned by all about the nature of friendship. authenticity, and acceptance.

Mean Girls, as staged on tour, is a fun show with some memorable numbers and an energetic cast, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done in a variety of high school stories going back decades. Also, for anyone who hadn’t seen the film, the story is somewhat hard to follow especially in the first act because so much of the story is told in the songs, which the uneven sound mixing made difficult to understand. Still, the cast gives their all, with some impressive performances especially from Wade as the likable but conflicted Cady, Carter as the sweet-natured but also conflicted Aaron, and Huffman and Morrissey who are quirky and ideal narrators as Damian and Janis. There’s also a sweetly goofy performance from Lawrence E. Street as school principal Mr. Duvall, and a versatile multi-role turn from April Josephine as Cady’s mom, Regina’s mom, and influential math teacher Ms. Norbury. The Plastics are also memorable, with excellent comic timing from Renteria (the understudy) and Saxer, and a strong sense of presence from Hassan as Regina. The singing is strong throughout, and the dancing, choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw, is enthusiastic and full of energy. There’s a strong ensemble filling out the cast, as well, and all seem to be having fun with this somewhat busy but entertaining story.

Technically, aside from the aforementioned sound issues, the show dazzles. There’s a bright, colorful, and versatile set by Scott Pask, as well as fun and clever video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young and lighting by Kenneth Posner. The colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes, hair design by Josh Marquette, and makeup by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira also contribute to the overall bold and whimsical tone of the production. 

If you’re expecting Mean Girls to be fun and full of energy, you won’t be disappointed. I can’t say anything about the adaptation from the film because I haven’t seen the movie, although this show did make me want to see it. This show isn’t world-changing or deeply profound, but it’s got a great cast, vivid characters, and a fun sense of humor. It’s an entertaining way to spend an evening at the Fox.

Adante Carter, Danielle Wade
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mean Girls North American Tour

The North American tour of Mean Girls is running at the Fox Theatre until February 27, 2022

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The Prom
Book by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin
Music by Matthew Sklar, Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
January 28th, 2022

Kaden Kearney
Photo by Deen Van Meer
The Prom North American Tour

The Prom is a Tony-nominated musical with several St. Louis connections among its producers. It also was made into a Netflix film with an all-star cast. Here, in the show’s touring company based on the Broadway production, there are no “household names” in the cast, but there’s plenty of star power and a lot of energy on stage at the Fabulous Fox, as the story of a small town high school, a teenage girl,  a prom controversy and some (eventually) well-meaning Broadway meddlers comes to St. Louis in a memorable and crowd-pleasing production.

The story starts where this show earned its accolades: on Broadway, as  a pair of egotistical veteran Broadway performers, Dee Dee Allen (Ashley Bruce) and Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) are at a swanky after party for their just opened musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, where they played the leads. When the reviews don’t go so well and their publicist, Sheldon Saperstein (Thad Turner Wilson) tells them their narcissistic image needs improving, they get the idea of doing some kind of good deed to get publicity. Their colleague, perpetual chorus member Angie (Emily Borromeo) looks on her phone and sees a trending story about high school student Emma (Kaden Kearney), a lesbian who has been told that she can’t take another girl to the prom with her, so the school has canceled the prom altogether. The three, along with Sheldon and  “between gigs” actor Trent (Jordan Alexander), decide that they will make Emma their cause, and so they head to Indiana. At the high school, Emma struggles with the idea of being the “face” of a growing controversy and being ridiculed by her classmates and blamed for the lack of a prom. Meanwhile, her intended prom date, Alyssa (Kalyn West), is afraid to go public because nobody knows about her sexual orientation or her relationship with Emma, including her perfectionist mother, PTA president Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria), who is strongly opposed to the idea of holding an inclusive prom. The school’s principal, Mr. Hawkins (Christopher McCrewell), is on Emma’s side, and is trying to go through legal channels to help, but finds his plans and his life disrupted by the arrival of the actors, including Dee Dee, of whom he is a longtime fan, but who may not live up to his idealistic image of her.

That description is just the beginning, as we learn more about the characters as the story plays out in sometimes predictable but sometimes surprising ways. It’s mostly a broad comedy with a lot of knowing humor about theatre and Broadway actors in particular, as well as portraying inter-generational friendships and lessons in tolerance, communication and, as one upbeat song explains, the biblical ideal of “Love Thy Neighbor”. There’s exuberant dancing choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw, as well as some more humorous and poignant moments. It’s a fun show, with a lot of big, Broadway energy and good deal of small town charm.

The cast is especially strong, and particularly impressive in that there are more than a few understudies performing. Bruce, Wilson, Alexander, and McCrewell were all covering for the principal performers, and all gave excellent performances and wouldn’t be easily picked out as understudies, except that Bruce slightly underplays the over-the-top Dee Dee. The standouts, though, are the terrific Kearney, who shows off a lot of heart, stage presence and a great voice as Emma, and Wetzel, as the larger-than-life Barry, who has some great bonding moments with Emma. There’s also a strong and enthusiastic ensemble to fill out the cast.

Technically, the show is big, bold, and colorful, with dazzling sets Scott Pask that fill out the Fox stage well, as well as excellent detailed costumes by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman. Natasha Katz’s lighting also adds sparkle and style to the proceedings, and Brian Ronan’s sound design is crisp and clear. There’s also a strong orchestra conducted by Chris Gurr. 

There are a lot of memorable characters in The Prom, and an overall emphasis on the importance of communication, humility, kindness, and bravery as well as tolerance and acceptance. With a fun, memorable score and a big, enthusiastic cast, it entertains and leaves a memorable impression. It’s a show I had heard a lot about, and I’m glad I finally was able to see.

Cast of The Prom
Photo by Deen Van Meer
The Prom North American Tour

The North American Tour of The Prom is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 6, 2022

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Pretty Woman: The Musical
Book by Garry Marshall & J.F. Lawton, Music by Bryan Adams & Jim Vallance
Based on the Touchstone Motion Picture Written by J.F. Lawton
Directed and Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
The Fox Theatre
November 16, 2021

Olivia Valli and Cast of Pretty Woman: The Musical
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Pretty Woman: The Musical  US Tour

Pretty Woman is a well-known movie from 1990, and now it’s a musical, on tour across the country after a run on Broadway. Now it’s at the Fox, representing a return to touring shows for the venue after a fairly long hiatus. It’s a welcome return, and Pretty Woman: The Musical is more entertaining than I expected it to be, considering that this is one of those “film to stage” shows that makes me wonder why it was necessary in the first place. Still, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and despite a few issues with the show itself, it does provide an excellent showcase for its lead star, and several memorable supporting players.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the plot. Little has been changed here, except for the addition of a “narrator” character, Happy Man (Kyle Taylor Parker), who appears in various roles throughout the production, most notably a seller of “Maps to the Stars” on Hollywood Boulevard, and Mr. Thompson, the manager of the ritzy Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where much of the story takes place. After an intro from Happy Man and the cast, we get to meet Vivian Ward (Olivia Valli) and her friend Kit De Luca (Jessica Crouch), a pair of “working girls” on the Boulevard. Relatively new at her trade, Vivian wonders how she got where she is, and wishes for something different. A change arrives in the form of Edward Lewis (Adam Pascal), a rich, jaded businessman who spends the evening and night with Vivian, and is intrigued enough by her quirky personality that he hires her to be his date for the week. He’s in town for a big business deal, in which he hopes to buy out a struggling company so he can sell off its assets for a profit, which is essentially all that his company does. Of course, the week’s worth of swanky parties requires a makeover for Vivian, for which Edward foots the bill, but she has a lot of surprises in store for him, as well.

As mentioned, it’s essentially the exact same plot as the film with a few tweaks, and of course, the songs, which are hit-or-miss, and some seem kind of forced into place. Still, there are memorable moments, such as when Edward takes Vivian to the opera and the song “You and I” sung by Edward and Vivian is blended with scenes from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which provides for the most memorable moment in the show, featuring the showstopping vocals of Amma Osei as Violetta. There are also some fun comedy moments provided by Crouch as the tough-talking Kit, Parker in his various guises as Happy Man, and especially Matthew Vincent Taylor as the hotel’s enthusiastic bellboy, Giulio. There are some fun dance moments, as well, featuring Parker and Taylor. As for the two romantic leads, Pascal is good in a fairly dull role as Edward, showing off his strong, rock-influenced vocals and displaying good-enough chemistry with Valli, who is the real standout here in an energetic, quirky performance as Vivian. It’s her energy that drives the show much of the time, even at times managing to make up for the deficiencies of the somewhat lackluster book. The choreography by director Jerry Mitchell is strong, too, and the production numbers are especially entertaining, featuring a strong, enthusiastic ensemble. 

One especially striking aspect of this production is the set, by David Rockwell and how dynamic it is, coordinating with the choreography of the scenes much of the time. The various set piece are “flown” in and out with impressive efficiency, creating the 1980’s look of the show with vibrant style. There are also fun, colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes that highlight the era and setting, which is helped by Josh Marquette’s hair design and Fiona Mifsud’s makeup. Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting also adds sparkle and style to the proceedings, and the band led by Daniel Klintwork does well with the show’s score.

The 1980’s setting also provides for some fun little prop moments that add to the entertainment value of the show, and ultimately it is entertaining, even if it’s not a brilliant show, and I still wonder why Pretty Woman needed to be a musical. Still, there’s a lot to like here, especially in the performances and setting, and there’s a fun curtain call moment featuring the well-known song from which the movie and musical got their title, “Oh Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. If you like the film, you’ll probably enjoy the musical as well. It’s also nice to be able to see musical at the Fox again, at long last.

Amma Osei, Olivia Valli, Adam Pascal, and cast of Pretty Woman: The Musical
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Pretty Woman: The Musical US Tour

The US Tour of Pretty Woman: The Musical is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 28, 2021

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The Band’s Visit
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
The Fox Theatre
February 25, 2020

Sasson Gabay, Janet Dacal
Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
The Band’s Visit North American Tour

The Band’s Visit is a Tony-Winning musical that’s more about characters and atmosphere than plot. That’s a good thing, in this case, since the characters are so well-drawn and the atmosphere is haunting and memorable. Currently on tour at the Fox, this production boasts an excellent cast and a stunning sense of musicality to underscore these characters’ simple but profound stories.

It’s not a long play, running at 90 minutes with no intermission, and the setup is simple. An Egyptian police band has arrived in Israel to perform a concert, having been invited to appear at the opening of a cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva. There’s a misunderstanding at the bus station, however, and the band ends up in the small, out-of-the-way town of Bet Hatikva. Once the mistake is realized, band leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and his band are informed that the next bus arrives the following day, so they find themselves unexpectedly spending the night in the town, making the acquaintance of local restaurant owner Dina (Janet Dacal) and her employees Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Papi (played at the performance I saw by standby Danny Burgos). The various band members split up and spend the evening with the locals. Tewfiq and the suave Haled (Joe Joseph) stay with Dina, and Dina shows Tewfiq the town while Haled tags along with Papi and his friend on a double date, discovering that Papi is insecure and doesn’t know how to connect with his date. Clarinetist and composer Simon (James Rana) stays with Itzik’s family, forming a bond and finding himself helping in an unexpected way. Dina and Tewfiq share a bond and an attraction, but Tewfiq is haunted by past regrets. Meanwhile, the ever-persistent “Telephone Guy” (Mike Cefalo) waits by a payphone hour after hour for his long-absent girlfriend to call. This is more a series of episodes with a common theme than one cohesive story, and ultimately there is a message of persistence and hope in the midst of regret and despair, as well as finding common bonds among people from different cultures. There’s a memorable score by David Yazbek with standout songs like “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different” for Dina, and “Haled’s Song of Love” as well as the emotive “Answer Me” and more, played with heartrending beauty by the onstage band conducted by Adrian Ries.

The production values here are impressive, especially considering this is a tour, with detailed, fluidly-moving set by Scott Pask that represents all the various locations in the town and uses the stage’s turntable particularly well. There’s also evocative lighting by Tyler Micoleau that further sets and maintains the show’s lyrical tone and mood. Also excellent are the detailed costumes by Sarah Laux that help bring these characters to life along with the stunning performances.

As for those performances, the entire ensemble is strong here, with superb voices and strong presence. The heart of the show is the connection between Dacal’s bold Dina and Gabay’s soft-spoken Tewfiq, and both performers are stunning in their portrayals and in their chemistry. Other standouts include Joseph as the smooth-voiced ladies’ man Haled, Burgos as the anxious Papi, and the clear-voiced Koch as Itzik, who gets a poignant moment with “Itzik’s Lullabye”. Cefalo is also memorable as the determined Telephone Guy. The whole cast is strong, with a strong sense of cohesive energy and determination, singing the score well and bringing out the emotion of the memorable score.

Overall, The Band’s Visit is about little moments that turn out to be bigger than expected. It’s a “little” show in some ways, with a short run time and a relatively small cast, but it’s got a big heart and sense of musicality that shines through even beyond the curtain call. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking production.

The North American tour of The Band’s Visit is running at the Fox Theatre until March 8, 2020

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Dear Evan Hansen
Book by Steven Levenson, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Danny Mefford
The Fox Theatre
October 23, 2019

Cast of Dear Evan Hansen
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Dear Evan Hansen National Tour

I was especially looking forward to the latest touring production at the Fox, having heard a great deal about it before, although I hadn’t managed to see it yet. Dear Evan Hansen has had a lot of hype, and won a lot of awards, and inspired quite a bit of debate along the way, and now it’s here in St. Louis in an engaging, thought-provoking, visually stunning production that’s timely and inventive, and sure to spark discussion about the various issues it raises. With striking technical qualities and an especially strong cast, it’s a show that, at least for me, has lived up to its hype.

This show is as striking for its format as it is for its story. While I’m sometimes skeptical of “teen” because they often seem to be using the same tropes over and over again, Dear Evan Hansen has something a little different to say along with some of the usual territory but with an inventive structure that makes it seem more fresh. The story focuses on various issues including mental health, teen suicide, parent-child relationships, communication in the social media age, and more. It centers on Evan Hansen (Stephen Michael Anthony), a socially awkward teenager who writes letters to himself as an assignment from his therapist. Evan lives with his constantly busy single mother, Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), who works a full-time job as a nurse and also takes classes to become a paralegal, so she doesn’t have as much time as she would like to spend with Evan. Starting his senior year of high school, Evan isn’t particularly looking forward to school. He doesn’t have any friends to speak of, except for the snarky Jared (Alessandro Costantini), who seems to only talk to Evan because their families know each other. Evan also has a crush on schoolmate Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle), who has a difficult life of her own, with a troubled older brother Connor (Noah Kieserman) and parents, Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Claire Rankin) who seem so preoccupied with Connor that they don’t pay as much attention to Zoe. When Connor and Evan briefly cross paths before an unexpected tragic event, Evan finds himself caught in a web of untruths that start as a misunderstanding and then spiral into more, until before Evan knows it, he’s all over social media and getting more attention than he ever could have dreamed. With the assistance of Jared–who knows the truth–and another classmate, Alana (Ciara Alyse Harris)–who doesn’t know–Evan becomes leader of a movement, as he also grows closer to Zoe and her family, and his relationship with his own mother grows increasingly strained. As events go spiraling out of Evan’s control, and as his new-found popularity begins to affect his personality, Evan is faced with a difficult choice. What will he do, and how will these events effect everyone around him?

This is a dynamically staged show, with a look and feel unlike other musicals I’ve seen. David Korins’s scenic design features movable set pieces representing Evan’s bedroom, the Murphys’ house, and more, and everything is surrounded by screens with projections designed by Peter Negrini, representing social media posts, e-mails, and more, in a constant flow of information that coincides with the plot as it unfolds. There’s also striking lighting  by Japhy Weideman that enhances the overall look and feel of the production, and detailed character-specific costumes by Emily Rebholz. The band, led by music director Garret Healey, delivers the driving, emotional, contemporary sounding score with flair.

The cast for this show is deceptively small. There are eight characters, but the staging and big sound make it seem like there are more. There is some support from various voices representing the social media posts, but onstage there are only the eight cast members, led by a truly remarkable performance from Anthony as the fast-talking, nervous, initially lonely, conflicted Evan. Anthony has a great tenor voice for songs like “Waving Through a Window”, “For Forever”, “You Will Be Found”, and “Words Fail”. Evan is very much the center of this show, and Anthony’s performance drives the story well. Also excellent is La Rochelle in a relatable and well-sung performance as Zoe, as well as Hemphill and Harris as her struggling parents, and Sherman who is especially strong as the loving but overworked Heidi. There’s excellent support from Kieserman whose Connor becomes something of a voice of conscience for Evan; from Costantini as the sarcastic Jared; and Harris as the ambitious, somewhat bossy Alana. It’s a superb ensemble, surrounding Anthony’s tour-de-force performance with strong characterizations, vocals, and energy.

Dear Evan Hansen is a show that strikes me as a good basis for an ethics discussion, as it raises so many issues of what can happen when one small untruth spirals into something much, much bigger. It’s easy to think about something when you’re not in the middle of it, but what happens when things get out of control? Also, what is the role of peer pressure and viral social media culture in all this? This is a show that leaves a lot to think about, and to talk about. It’s also a showcase for a dynamic, remarkable lead performance and a stellar supporting cast. This Evan Hansen is definitely worth hearing from.

Steven Christopher Anthony, John Hemphill, Claire Rankin, Stephanie La Rochelle
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Dear Evan Hansen National Tour

 

The National Tour of Dear Evan Hansen is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 3, 2019

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Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
The Fox Theatre
October 1, 2019

Cast of Hello, Dolly!
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Dolly! National Tour

I’ve seen Hello Dolly! a few times now, at various levels from dinner theatre to regional theatre, as well as the movie. Now, the Fox is presenting the tour based on the recent Broadway revival. My first reaction upon seeing this new production is “it’s Hello, Dolly!” What I mean is that it’s basically what you would expect. There are no reinventions or re-imaginings here. In fact, this one seems to be trying to preserve the spirit of the original Broadway production, and original director, choreographer Gower Champion is even listed in the credits. What is somewhat different about this production is that the emphasis seems to be on the lead performer more than ever, which makes sense since it was originally designed as a vehicle for Bette Midler. Here, with the role being taken by Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello, that starry sheen is as evident as ever, and the title character is certainly the star of the show.

The story is the same familiar tale–of matchmaker and all-around professional meddler Dolly Gallagher Levi (Carmello), who after years of making matches for other people, has decided that she’s tired of being a widow and wants to set up a match for herself. The object of her scheme is curmudgeonly Yonkers-based “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (John Bolton), who thinks he’s being paired with widowed hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming), but he doesn’t know Dolly has other plans. This show also has an especially strong “B” plot that, for me, often upstages the “A” plot–that focusing on Horace’s sheltered and overworked chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Daniel Beeman), who along with young assistant Barnaby Tucker (Sean Burns) takes advantage of the boss’s absence to take an adventurous day trip to New York City, eventually crossing paths with Irene and her young assistant, Minnie Fay (Chelsea Cree Groen). There are some other subplots as well, that all eventually get tied together, with memorable characters and some increasingly hilarious situations, all while Dolly tries to reconcile her future plans with her past, while manipulating situations to her advantage.

Of course, this show, being named after its main character, needs to have a stand-out star in the role, and more than any other stage production I’ve seen, this one has that. I’ve seen some excellent performers as Dolly, but this whole production is essentially Carmello being backed by everyone else. That’s not to disparage the rest of the cast–everyone is excellent, with Bolton a fine, cantankerous Horace, and particular standout performances from Burns as an eager, amiably and athletically dancing Barnaby, Groen as the outspoken Minnie Fay, and a fun, expressive turn by Laura Sky Herman as Horace’s nervous niece, Ermengarde. Beeman and Leaming also show fine chemistry as Cornelius and Irene. There’s also a great, energetic ensemble filling out splashy, dazzling production numbers like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and Before the Parade Passes By”. Still, the main focus is on Carmello, as it should be because she’s terrific. She’s got everything anyone would want in a Dolly, and more, with a great voice, the big personality to fill out the stage even when she’s the only one on it, especially impressive comic timing and physical comedy skills, and an emotional range that brings poignancy to her more serious moments. It’s a tour-de-force performance.

Another standout feature of this show is its dazzling physical production. It’s a great-looking, fresh-from-Broadway stylish presentation, with a stunning, highly detailed set and fantastically colorful costumes, both by Santo Loquasto. There’s also excellent lighting by Natasha Katz and sound by Scott Lehrer. The production is also accompanied by a delightful orchestra led by Ben Whitely, making the classic score sound great.

The only major drawback to reviewing this production is that Carolee Carmello has joined the show so recently that there aren’t any production photos of her yet. Still, she’s the reason to see this show. It’s a fun, energetic production, with a good cast, but Carmello is the star, filling this great, classic role with style.

Cast of Hello, Dolly!
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Dolly! National Tour

The North American tour of Hello Dolly! is being presented at the Fox Theatre until October 13, 2019

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Come From Away
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Directed by Christopher Ashley
The Fox Theatre
May 14, 2019

Cast of Come From Away
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Come From Away North American Tour

It’s one of those days that people remember with specific detail. “Where were you when?” Most people have an answer. I have an answer, and invariably when the subject comes up, people around me start telling their stories of 9/11. The people of Gander, Newfoundland in Canada have a particular story that has become internationally famous–that of a small unprepared town that suddenly had to play host to thousands of grounded air travelers for several days following that fateful Tuesday in 2001. Come From Away is the award-winning musical that tells their story. Currently on tour across North America, the production has now landed at the Fox, and it’s well worth seeing.

This isn’t a huge, flashy show. In fact, it strikes me as the type of show that will do particularly well in regional theatres once the rights become available. The Broadway production represented by the current tour is striking, but remarkably simple, in a good way. There isn’t an elaborate set–it’s more of an evocation. A tree-surrounded, versatile backdrop designed by Beowulf Borritt, stunningly lit by Howell Binkley, and with the excellent band conducted by Cynthia Kortman Westphal on stage as part of the action. The music is a mixture of styles, mostly with a folk-ish vibe and featuring a variety of instruments from guitar and drums to accordion and various flutes and whistles. It’s a distinctive score with songs that tell the stories of the various residents and “Come From Away” visitors.

The staging is dynamic, with an energetic pace and a small-ish cast in which the actors are all performing more than one role. The story follows the events in Gander on September 11, 2001 and the days following, with some catching up at the end to tell the audience about what happened to some of the key players in the ten years after the events of the story. The residents of Gander, various airline passengers from around the world, and airline employees are featured and a whole lot happens in a few days. The locals scramble to help the passengers, the passengers find out about what’s happening after hours on their planes, and various relationships are formed and strained. It’s a tuneful show with a lot of heart, focusing on kindness and compassion.

There’s drama and humor, and some genuine poignancy, all played out by a fantastic ensemble cast. Everyone is excellent, but standouts include Kevin Carolan as the town’s mayor; Becky Gulsvig as pilot Beverley, who leads the standout number “Me and the Sky”; Megan McGinnis who plays animal shelter worker Bonnie, who makes it her mission to find and care for the animals on the planes; Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah, who’s searching for news about her NYC firefighter son; and Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson as Nick and Diane, an Englishman and Texan woman who get to know one another over the course of the show.

I hadn’t seen or heard much of this show before seeing this production, and I’m glad that I’ve been able to see it now. This is a top-notch touring production of a poignant, unique, fascinating musical with a great score and an excellent cast. Come From Away isn’t a long show, but there’s a lot going on in its 100 minute running time. It’s a story of a town and its people who tell their stories and share their lives with strangers and help find some hope in the midst of tragedy.  It’s a remarkable show.

Becky Gulsvig (center) and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Come From Away North American Tour

The North American Tour of Come From Away is playing at the Fox Theatre until May 26, 2019

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Waitress
Book by Jessie Nelson, Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Based on the Motion Picture Written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreographed by Lorin Latarro
The Fox Theatre
March 26, 2019

Christine Dwyer
Photo by Philicia Endelman
Waitress North American Tour

Waitress is the hit Broadway musical based on a cult-hit movie, and featuring lots and lots of pies. It’s one of those shows that might have you craving baked goods by the time the curtain goes down. It did for me, anyway. Still, there’s a lot more than pastries to commend this show, and this touring production currently on stage at the Fox. What’s front and center, beside the pies, is the excellent score and a top-notch leading performance, along with a strong supporting cast, even though the story itself has its problems.

With a catchy score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, Waitress benefits from the name recognition of both Bareilles and the movie on which the show is based. I hadn’t seen the movie or the show before, so this touring production is my introduction, beyond knowing the basic plot and hearing one of the songs (the poignant “She Used to Be Mine”). The story follows Jenna (Christine Dwyer), who–as the title suggests–is a waitress at a small-town eatery called Joe’s Pie Diner. She’s more than a waitress, though, as she personally bakes the pies the establishment sells, as well as inventing the recipes. She works alongside fellow waitresses Becky (Maiesha McQueen) and Dawn (Ephie Aardema), supervised by the gruff cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin). She also waits on the diner’s eccentric owner, Joe (Richard Kline) every day, and goes home every night to her volatile, abusive husband Earl (Matt DeAngelis). The story begins when Jenna finds out she’s pregnant. She’s not thrilled with the news, but she resolves to make the most of it, making an OB/GYN appointment and meeting her new doctor, Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good), with whom she develops an initially awkward flirtation. And… that’s about as far as I can explain the plot without spoiling too much. What I will say, though, is that this show has its issues, not the least of which being problematic aspects of several of the relationships. The show is at its strongest when focusing on Jenna as an individual, and in her friendships with her fellow waitresses and with Joe, and Bareilles’s score is excellent, with several catchy songs that serve the story and the characters well. I just have some trouble liking some of the characters I think the show wants me to like (especially Dr. Pomatter), and some of the characters aren’t as well-drawn as they could be.

The real strength of this production is its central performance, and a few of the supporting performances. Dwyer is simply remarkable as Jenna, with a strong voice and excellent stage presence. She makes Jenna a relatable protagonist, and her pie-baking scenes involving flashbacks to her personal history are a particular highlight, as is her powerhouse performance of the show’s most well-known song, the aforementioned “She Used to Be Mine”. There’s also excellent support from McQueen as the snarky Becky and especially Aardema as the quirky, initially lonely Dawn, along with a standout performance from the energetic Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn’s socially awkward suitor. Kline as the crotchety but secretly supportive Joe is also memorable, as is Dawn Bless as Nurse Norma, the nurse at Dr Pomatter’s practice. DeAngelis is a suitable villain as the obnoxious Earl, and there are also fine performances from Dunkin as Cal and Good as Dr. Pomatter, although I didn’t care about their characters as much as the show seems to want me to. There’s also a strong ensemble, supporting the leads well in the various production numbers.

Technically, this show impresses, with a versatile, eye-catching set by Scott Pask that smoothly transitions from the diner set to other locations as needed, and a stunning backdrop enhanced by Ken Billington’s excellent atmospheric lighting. The costumes by Suttirat Ann Larlarb are also striking, suiting the characters and the tone of the show especially well. Another memorable feature is that the band is onstage throughout the show, and they’re in excellent form, as conducted by music director and keyboardist Robert Cookman.

Waitress is, ultimately, an entertaining show, especially in terms of the score and the truly superb performance of Christine Dwyer as Jenna. Story-wise, it has its problematic elements, although for the most part–especially when it focuses on Jenna herself–it’s compelling. And of course, there’s pie– there were some “pies in a jar” on sale at intermission as a clever tie-in. It’s certainly crowd-pleaser, as well, and a thought-provoking conversation-starter. It’s worth checking out.

Steven Good, Christine Dwyer
Photo by Philicia Endelman
Waitress North American Tour

The North American tour of Waitress is playing at the Fox Theatre until April 7, 2019

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