Archive for the ‘USA Theatre’ Category

Frozen
Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Book by Jennifer Lee
Directed by Michael Grandage
Choreographed by Rob Ashford
The Fox Theatre
November 3, 2022

Caroline Bowman, Lauren Nicole Chapman, and cast of Frozen
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Frozen North American Tour

Frozen has become a household name these days, starting with the hit Disney film, which spawned a sequel, and a Broadway musical that’s enjoyed a popular North American tour. The modern classic tale of magic, the love of family (both biological and found), and overcoming fear has now landed at the Fox, in a production that’s technically stunning to the point that I haven’t seen in a touring production, as well as boasting a strong cast and a memorable score. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the plot, although there are a few additions and expansions to the story for the stage version. Still, it’s a fairly faithful translation from screen to stage, centering on a pair of royal sisters. Elsa (Caroline Bowman), the heir to the throne of the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, has magical ice-creation powers that she’s hidden since childhood when she (played as a child by Sydney Elise Russell at the performance I saw) accidentally lost control of her power and injured her younger, non-magical sister, Anna (Aria Kane as a child at my performance, Lauren Nicole Chapman as an adult). The princesses’ parents, King Agnarr (Kyle Lamar Mitchell) and Queen Iduna (Belinda Allyn), are concerned, and after summoning the “hidden folk” led by Pabbie (Tyler Jimenez) to heal Anna and remove her memories of Elsa’s magic, they swear Elsa to secrecy and encourage her to hide her power. Upon their parents’ unexpected death in a shipwreck, the princesses live a reclusive life in the palace until the day arrives for Elsa’s coronation as Queen. The fearful Elsa, who has shunned her sister to protect her, welcomes the public to the palace for the first time in years, which leads to a series of events that changes everyone’s lives and threatens the survival of the kingdom. Along the way, Elsa has to learn what to do with her great power, and she and Anna learn about the power of love–familial for the sisters, but also of the romantic variety for Anna, as she falls quickly for the newly arrived Prince Hans (Will Savarese), while later finding herself drawn to mountain-dwelling ice-seller Kristoff (Dominic Dorset), who helps her look for Elsa after a catastrophic mishap sends the Queen fleeing to the mountains. 

This is a fairly well-structured show, although perhaps a little too much time is given to the prologue, and the finale seems a little bit rushed. Still, it’s a thrilling adventure for the most part, and sure to please fans of the movie. All the well-known characters are here, from the sisters to the mysterious Prince Hans, to the brave and loyal Kristoff and his reindeer friend, Sven (Collin Baja at the performance I saw, aided by a magnificent costume/puppet), and the lovable snowman Olaf (Jeremy Davis, operating a well-realized puppet). The music is familiar as well, with favorites like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the iconic “Let It Go” joined by a few new songs for the stage. 

The cast is excellent across the board, with memorable performances and an excellent sisterly bond from Bowman as the conflicted, secretive Elsa and Chapman as the energetic, adventurous Anna. While Elsa is prominent in the show, and Bowman shines in her scenes, showing off her powerful vocals on “Let It Go”, in the stage version especially, this comes across more as Anna’s story primarily, and Chapman does a commendable job holding the audience’s attention with her excellent vocals, comic timing, dramatic ability, and dance skills. The young Russell and Kane are also strong as the sisters in the prologue scenes. There are also standout performances from the engaging Dorset as Kristoff, whose scenes with Chapman are a highlight; and Savarese, whose Hans is suitably charming upon his introduction. Davis as Olaf is also a delight, providing comic relief as well as some heartwarming moments without ever going over-the-top. The puppetry, designed by Michael Curry, is stunning here, as well, also lending realism and wonder to the role of Sven, who is acted beautifully by Baja in a fully articulated reindeer outfit. Michael Milkanen also has a notable moment here as shopkeeper Oaken, who leads the bright and hilarious Act 2 opening number “Hygge”. There’s great work from all the players here, and striking, energetic choreography by Rob Ashford that helps move the story along well. 

As good as the cast is, however, the biggest star in this production is the technical wizardry that provides many “ooh” and “ahh” moments in the show. The glorious set and costumes by Christopher Oram and the special effects by Jeremy Chernick are probably the most elaborate and impressive that I have seen in a touring production of any show. Along with the dazzling lighting by Natasha Katz and video design by Finn Ross, these technical elements truly draw the audience into the world of Arendelle, first in the richly appointed castle and then into the awe-inspiring, wintery mountain landscape. It’s a magnificent technical achievement that serves the story well and inspired applause in at least one notable moment later in the show.

Frozen is certainly a crowd-pleaser. It’s also a heartfelt, occasionally thrilling story with a clear message about overcoming fear and the importance of love–not just romantic, but also (and especially) love of family. It’s appealing for all ages, as well.  It’s been a while since I had seen the movie, but the stage version strikes me as an especially fine, successful adaptation. 

Dominic Dorset, Colln Baja
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Frozen North American Tour

The North American Tour of Frozen is running at the Fox Theatre until November 13, 2022

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Hadestown
Music. Lyrics, and Book by Anaïs Mitchell
Developed and Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Choreographed by David Neumann
The Fox Theatre
October 11, 2022

Hannah Whitley, Matthew Patrick Quinn, Nathan Lee Graham, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Chibueze Ihuoma, Cast and Musicians of Hadestown
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Hadestown North American Tour

Hadestown, the Tony-winning Broadway musical, is now onstage at the Fox. I’m happy to be able to see it again, having seen it in New York three years ago. I loved it then, and was looking forward to seeing the tour and seeing if it’s as impressive as it was on Broadway. I’m glad to report that it’s a wonderful production, with a few necessary set and staging adaptations, but still with stunning production values and a great, Broadway-caliber cast. 

The story is adapted from Greek mythology, set in a nebulous time and place reminiscent of the Depression-era USA. Featuring a primarily folk/folk-rock/jazz/blues score by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, the show took a long road to the Broadway stage, starting out with small productions in New England, and eventually to a concept album, then an Off-Broadway run and stops in Edmonton and London’s National Theatre before finally arriving on Broadway and winning several Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  The story features several figures from Greek legend, including the god Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham), who narrates the story, and Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn), who rules over an industrial underworld known as Hadestown, and whose marriage to Persephone (Shea Renne on Opening Night, understudying principal Maria-Christina Oliveras) has become rocky, affecting the normal progression of the seasons and causing much consternation in the world above. The main focus, though, is on the relationship of earnest young poet/singer Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma), and the world-weary Eurydice (Hannah Whitley), whose story is compelling even when you do know how it turns out. The story is also engaging in the way it incorporates the excellent band into the action, as well as the ensemble and notably the enigmatic Fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, Nyla Watson), who are a constant presence throughout. 

The cast for this tour is terrific, even considering it is not the original touring cast. The level of excellence here is impressive. Graham, as narrator/mentor figure Hermes, is dynamic and in great voice, with a vibrant physicality. Ihuoma and Whitley are also standouts, with their strong chemistry and compelling performances and vocals. Quinn makes a suitably menacing Hades, working well with Renne, who gives an impressively complex performance as Persephone. Kempf, Moyono, and Watson display strong presence and vocals as the Fates, and the ensemble is strong in support. This is a first-rate production from start to finish, performing David Neumann’s strikingly inventive choreography with energy and power, and effectively carrying the intensity and emotion of the story.

In a technical sense, the production dazzles just as much as it did in New York, with some impressive adaptations to Rachel Hauck’s eye-catching set design so that it works better on tour. Most notably, the lift in the middle of the stage has been replaced by big “elevator” doors that suggest movement between the “up” and “down” worlds more than directly showing it. The lighting by Bradley King is also stunning, as are the meticulously detailed costumes by Michael Krass. The staging is thoroughly thrilling, keeping up a pace that fits the rhythm and mood of the score, as well as the intensity, heart, and occasional humor of the story. 

Hadestown is one of my favorite recent musicals, and I’m glad its touring production is so strong. It helps a little in following the story if you know at least a little about Greek mythology, but you don’t have to know all the details to enjoy this wonderfully original take on an oft-told legend. It’s hauntingly intense, marvelously cast, and thrillingly energetic. It’s a remarkable production.

Maria-Christina Oliveras, Chibueze Ihuoma, Matthew Patrick Quinn, and Cast of Hadestown
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Hadestown North American Tour

The North American Tour of Hadestown is playing at the Fox Theatre until October 23, 2022

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Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Book by Dominique Morisseau
Music and Lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalogue
Based on the Book The Temptations by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
The Fox Theatre
September 20, 2022

Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr., James T. Lane
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Ain’t Too Proud North American Tour

The touring production of Ain’t Too Proud, the hit Broadway musical about the legendary R&B group The Temptations, is currently onstage at the Fox Theatre. This is one of those shows that draws a big crowd simply on the subject’s reputation, with a broad catalogue of hit songs from the group and other classic Motown artists. With an excellent cast and a fast-moving, stylish technical production, it’s an engaging, energetic crowd-pleaser. 

The “jukebox bio-musical” has been a popular genre in recent years, with a host of  shows featuring the stories and songs of legendary musical artists and groups making the rounds on Broadway and on tour. With Ain’t Too Proud, the focus mostly on the “classic” version of The Temptations as they rose to fame at Motown Records in the 1960s–Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James), Paul Williams (James T. Lane), Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.), Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris), and David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis). The story, narrated by Otis Williams, focuses on how the group started, following as they achieved the height of their popularity, endured personal tensions and other issues, and eventually lost and gained members as the group–and the world–moved into the 1970s, 80s, and beyond, dealing with issues of changing musical styles as well as more weightier issues like dealing with racism in the industry and in the rest of the country, as well as war and violence in the world. The show also features other popular Motown artists–most prominently The Supremes (Amber Mariah Talley as Diana Ross, Shayla Brielle G. as Florence Ballard, and Traci Elaine Lee as Mary Wilson), portrayed as the Temptations’ main rivals for chart supremacy in the 1960s. Personal struggles, including the group members’ romantic relationships and family issues, are dealt with to a degree–especially for Otis Williams, whose first wife, Josephine (Najah Hetsberger), and son Lamont (Gregory C. Banks Jr.) are featured, highlighting the ongoing struggle to balance family and career ambitions. Other group members deal with the various temptations (pun noted) of fame, including drug and alcohol addiction, as the years go by and the group changes in various ways, with newer members Dennis Edwards (Dwayne P. Mitchell), Richard Street (Devin Holloway), and Damon Harris (Lawrence Dandrige) all getting notable stage time. 

The setup has some similarities to Jersey Boys (about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), in that it focuses on a prominent music group of men and their personal and musical struggles over the years, but the story is framed more from the point of view of one member of the group, since the show is based on Otis Williams’s memoir. So, everything is essentially from Otis’s perspective, and the music takes precedence over the personal drama most of the time. The book, by playwright Dominique Morisseau, is well-structured, managing to involve all the main players in prominent ways, for the most part, although as time goes by and the personnel of the group changes, it does seem to gloss over some detail sometimes, although the major focus is, as always, on the music, keeping the audience’s attention and enthusiasm throughout. In fact, there are a few well-timed moments in which the performers encourage the audience to sing and clap along, which works well in showcasing the classic Motown music and the overall tone of the show as a celebration of the Temptations’ legacy. The staging is smooth and energetic, with a great ensemble, vibrant choreography by Serigio Trujillo, and a dynamic set by Robert Brill that emphasizes movement and the swift passage of time, augmented by the excellent projection design by Peter Nigrini. There’s also dazzling lighting by Howell Binkley, along with stylish, marvelously detailed costumes by Paul Tazewell that reflect the changing eras especially well. 

As for the cast, it’s stellar, with the main five Temptations all giving strong, well-sung performances, with James as Otis Williams serving as an ideal narrator, and Lewis showing off excellent stage presence and some particularly impressive dance moves as David Ruffin. Lane also has some especially poignant moments as Paul Williams, and Harris as Eddie Kendricks and Holmes as Melvin Franklin also give winning, memorable performances. There are also strong turns from Mitchell as Ruffin’s replacement in the group, Dennis Edwards, Hetsberger as Josephine, and Reed Campbell as the group’s agent Shelly Berger. Everyone, from featured players to ensemble, is full of presence, energy, and excellent vocal ability, showcasing the story and especially the catalogue of classic hit songs with vibrancy and style. 

Overall, Ain’t Too Proud is an entertaining tribute to a legendary musical group, as well as Motown music in general. If you love this music, you are likely to love this show. With a terrific cast, impressive production values, and of course that legendary music, this is sure to entertain, and have you humming the tunes on the way home. 

Cast of Ain’t Too Proud
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Ain’t Too Proud North American Tour

The North American Tour of Ain’t Too Proud is playing at the Fox Theatre until October 2, 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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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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