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9 to 5
Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton, Book by Patricia Resnick
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
July 26, 2017

Summerisa Bell Stevens, Corinne Melançon, Laura E. Taylor
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

9 to 5 was a hit movie as well as a hit song for Dolly Parton in 1980. The musical based on the film wasn’t exactly a smash hit on Broadway, but it won a few awards and afforded Parton the opportunity to write a whole musical score. Now STAGES St. Louis has brought it here, and it’s definitely a crowd-pleaser. With a strong cast, especially in the three leading roles, and excellent production values, the show serves as an homage to the film as as well as a look back at office culture in the early 198os, as well as featuring some issues that continue to be relevant in 2017.

It’s been a while since I saw the film, but from what I can remember, this musical seems to be a fairly faithful representation, with the addition of a love interest for one character who I didn’t think had one in the movie. Still, the main story is the same, with secretaries at a company called Consolidated being terrorized by their sexist, arrogant boss, Franklin Hart (Joe Cassidy). Veteran secretary and aspiring manager Violet Newstead (Corinne Melançon), self-professed “Backwoods Barbie” Doralee Rhodes (Summerisa Bell Stevens), and the timid, recently divorced newcomer Judy Bernly (Laura E. Taylor) form a bond over their mutual frustration with Hart’s mistreatment.  There are some interesting supporting characters and small subplots, but the main focus, as in the film, is primarily on the central trio, and on the experiences of women in the corporate environment in the early 1980s. Incorporating elements of broad comedy and fantasy, the musical provides a showcase for Parton’s score as well as the talented cast.

Star casting isn’t the draw at STAGES at it was for the film and, to a degree, the musical in its Broadway run. In fact, the roles of Violet and Judy aren’t as inextricably tied to their film portrayals, although the role of Doralee (Parton’s role in the film) is, for the most part. Still, it’s a funny show that requires three memorable leading players, as well as a host of quirky supporting roles.  Melançon is appropriately authoritive and sympathetic as Violet; Taylor brings warmth and energy to the role of the naive Judy, along with an excellent singing voice; and Stevens, in the “Dolly” role as Doralee, displays particularly strong vocals and good comic timing. All three display strong friendship chemistry as well. There are also some memorable “villain” roles, with Cassidy as a suitably self-absorbed Hart and Kari Ely as his devoted and love-struck assistant Roz. There’s a great ensemble, as well, and the production numbers from the famous title song to the fantasy sequences to the upbeat “Change It” are performed with verve and style.

Visually, this production has done a good job of bringing the early 1980s to the stage. James Wolk’s set is evocative and colorful, as are Brad Musgrove’s costumes. There’s also impressive lighting work by Sean M. Savoie that provides atmosphere for the fantasy sequences in particular.

Overall, while I’m not entirely convinced the film needed to be turned into a musical, 9 to 5 at STAGES is an entertaining production. It’s also a story that’s still timely in many ways. Overall, it’s a fun show, and for the most part, as an office comedy, it works.

“Kari Ely, Joe Cassidy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting 9 to 5 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 20, 2017.

LaBute New Theater Festival 2017
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 9 and 22, 2017

It’s time again for the LaBute Festival, and St. Louis Actors’ studio has populated the Gaslight Theatre this year with a variety of short plays that cover questions of truth, identity, belief, power struggles, and more. As usual, the festival’s main feature is a play by the festival’s namesake, celebrated playwright Neil LaBute. His play runs throughout the festival, with the rest of the plays shown in two sets, the first one having opened on July 7, and the second–which is still running–opening on July 21. Overall, it’s an intriguing group of plays this year, showcasing some promising playwrights and some excellent local acting talent. Here are my thoughts:

“Hate Crime”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Greg Hunsaker, Chauncy Thomas
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This year’s contribution from Neil LaBute is a two-character piece focusing on a complicated relationship and a secret “plan”. Greg Hunsaker and Chauncy Thomas play two men who are obviously involved in some sort of romantic relationship, although it seems Hunsaker is more enamored with Thomas than the other way around. In fact, it often seems like Thomas can barely stand to be around Hunsaker, even though Hunsaker’s attitude toward Thomas is more on the level of adoration. As the two plan to carry out a sinister plan, it’s fairly clear who is in control and who is being manipulated. This is an intriguing character study, exploring issues of self-acceptance and self-loathing,  as well as the power of attraction and personal manipulation. It’s quite disturbing when the nature of the plan becomes known, as well as the two men’s different attitudes toward it, and toward each other. The dialogue is sharp, and the performances are strong and believable. It’s a strong, but unsettling, entry from the always provocative LaBute.

Part 1 (July 9, 2017)

“Waiting for Erie Lackawanna”

by Ron Radice

Directed by John Pierson

This play is the first of two in this festival that have strikingly similar themes. Basically, an unsuspecting individual in a seemingly mundane situation is confronted by other characters who seem intent on messing with his mind. Here, Ryan Lawson-Maeske is waiting for a commuter train at a station he hasn’t been to before, and two “regulars” at the station, played by Spencer Sickmann and Reggie Pierre, confront him and challenge his very sense of what is real. Tone-wise, this is essentially a suspense comedy, and it’s well played by all three actors, although the overall point of it isn’t entirely clear. There’s a lot of energy to this production, though, and the staging is clever, with casting that emphasizes the intimidation factor, in that both Sickmann and Pierre are much taller than Lawson-Maeske, and the height difference adds to the sense of tension that grows as the play progresses. It’s a simply staged piece, and has some memorable comic moments.

“Sacred Space”

by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich

Directed by Nancy Bell

This is a short, poignant play that deals with issues of death, mourning, and atonement. Two women (Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow) are preparing to carry out a Jewish cleansing ritual for a woman in her upper 80s who has recently died. While they are preparing for their task, however, they talk about their day, and strange messages keep appearing on the wall that they first try to dismiss, but they won’t stop.  As the women try to continue their work, they can’t help but be caught up in the messages, and the story that they tell. It’s a story they are both familiar with, as they’ve heard it on the news. Brown and Furlow are both excellent in this short production that serves as a tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, as well as a reflection on life, death, tragedy, and the importance of remembering.

“Percentage America”

by Carter W. Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Kelly Schaschl, Nancy Bell, Chauncy Thomas
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As far as I’m concerned, this play is the highlight of the festival. An extremely well-constructed, cleverly written, incisive and impeccably staged piece, this play is several things at once, and they all work. It’s a mystery, a light romance, a story of political intrigue, and more. It’s framed as a “date play”, in which a man and woman (Chauncy Thomas and Nancy Bell), who have met via an online dating site are getting to know one another, and decide to engage in a little fact-finding game in order to escape the boredom of every day life.  They decide to pick a news story and by comparing various news reports and finding their own sources, they try their best to determine the truth of what happened.

This is such a clever, insightful, incisive play, with commentary on the nature of news coverage, the current state of political affairs in the US, and the general media culture, as well as insights into modern dating, teenage life, and more. So much is said in such a short piece. The story is structured so well and the performances are universally strong. It’s a riveting production from start to finish.

Part 2

“How’s Bruno”

by Cary Pepper

Directed by Nancy Bell

I guess the moral of this play is “when you get a text from a stranger, don’t text back”. In a story that’s oddly reminiscent of “Waiting for Erie Lackawanna”, an unwitting young man finds himself surrounded by strangers who may or may not be deliberately messing with his mind. Spencer Sickmann plays the man, who is sitting in a coffee shop and gets a text from a number he doesn’t recognize. When he responds, two men (Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Reggie Pierre) soon appear with an urgent story about how Sickmann is apparently in a whole lot of trouble. Chauncy Thomas later shows up and continues the story, increasing Sickmann’s confusion. The tone is broadly comic, for the most part, with similar themes as “Lackawanna” but with the added element of modern technology-induced paranoia. It’s a funny play, with a somewhat mysterious ending, although there doesn’t seem to be lot of point to it beyond the shock factor.

“Sin Titulo”

by Tearrance Chisholm

Directed by Linda Kennedy

This play, the last and longest of this year’s plays at the festival, is actually set in St. Louis, looking at the experiences of three members of an African-American family shortly following the 2016 presidential election. Damascus (Reggie Pierre) is an activist who led a local chapter of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and after her loss, he feels aimless and depressed. His wife Naomi (Patrice Foster) is concerned about him, and encourages him to find a new focus for his energy. Complicating the situation is Naomi’s unemployed brother Lloyd (Jaz Tucker), who is full of conspiracy theories that Damascus tries to play along with in order to manipulate Lloyd into being more responsible with his life choices. There are a lot of important, timely issues covered in this play, although it’s a bit disjointed and the ending is especially abrupt. Still, the performances are excellent, the relationships are credible, and the story provides a lot to think about, even though  it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s happening in Damascus’s mind. This is a promising play, even if it can be a little confusing at times.

There are still a few days left to catch the second half of this year’s festival. It’s a fascinating group of plays this year, with humor, drama, suspense, and strong casting. It’s a memorable feature of the St. Louis summer theatre season.

 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 30,2017

 

The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Lyrics and Music by Meredith Willson, Book and Additional Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Based on the Original Book by Richard Morris
Musical Adaptation by Michael Rafter
Direction and Choreography by Kathleen Marshall
The Muny
July 21, 2017

Beth Malone (Center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

I wasn’t around when The Unsinkable Molly Brown originally debuted on Broadway in 1960.  In fact, I wouldn’t be born until years later. Still, sitting at the Muny on a hot, humid Friday night, I felt like I was witnessing something I never thought I’d be able to see–the performance of a new, classic musical from the Golden Age of Broadway. This new, highly revised version of the show has been several years in the making, and several of the old familiar songs are still there, but still, with this production at the Muny, there’s this unmistakable air of something new, and it’s wonderful.

The only version of this show I had seen before was a high school production many years ago, but it doesn’t really matter what version of this show you may have seen, because this one is different. It’s a total re-imagining of the story, still focusing on Margaret “Molly” Brown (Beth Malone), but with new songs from composer Meredith Willson’s catalog of lesser-known works. There’s an entirely new book, as well, with new characters and a story that tracks more with Brown’s real life, even though for show purposes she’s still “Molly” here–apparently, she went by “Maggie” in real life. Anyway, when we first see Malone’s plucky, feisty Molly, she’s an uneducated but highly ambitious young woman newly arrived in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado, although she really wants to be in Denver, pursuing her dream of becoming rich and influential. Still, a series of events keeps her in Leadville, where she gets to know a group of miners including the stubborn and persistent J.J. Brown (Marc Kudisch), who eventually becomes her husband. She also meets Julia (Whitney Bashor), the young English widow of a miner who was killed in an accident, as well as the miner’s three friends Erich (David Abeles), Arthur (Paolo Montalban), and Vincenzo (Justin Guarini).  The story then follows Molly as she helps J.J. make his fortune in gold mining, and as she becomes an active member of Denver society and an activist for several causes. Of course, the story of her surviving the sinking of the Titanic is also here, but so much else is different. It’s a whole new show, completely in the spirit of an “old” show.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the “original” Molly Brown, I’m convinced anyone seeing it now would think this was the original. The beauty of using “new” songs written by Meredith Willson rather than having a new composer try to write in his style is that the songs–even with modified lyrics–fit right into the show, in terms of tone and style, and they sound completely authentic. The new book makes a lot more sense than the old book, as well, in that while it still contains fictional elements, it’s more in tune with the real life of the woman on whom it is based. With this production, we get to see Molly as a philanthropist and activist, as she was in real life, and the tensions between her and her husband are given more of a realistic basis. Also, the new characters fit into the story well, and it doesn’t seem revisionist at all. It seems like the show should always have been like this, and in overall atmosphere it’s very much a classic musical. This is a remarkable feat for all involved.

Also remarkable is the excellent cast that has been assembled here, and especially the casting of the title role. The term “star quality” gets thrown around a lot in theatre, but I can’t think of a better term to use when describing Beth Malone’s performance. The minute she steps on the vast Muny stage, she owns it. This is a story that spans more than 20 years of Molly’s life, and Malone convincingly navigates the character’s growth over the years, from young, uneducated and spunky, to older, wiser, more educated and still spunky. And Malone can sing and dance with energy and strength, as well. Her combative but affectionate chemistry with the excellent Kudisch as J. J. is also a highlight of this production. There’s a wonderful supporting cast as well, led by the smooth-voiced Guarini, Abeles, and Montalban as Molly’s and J.J.’s miner friends, and by Bashor as the earnest, also strong Julia. There’s a great, energetic ensemble, as well, and the miners’ ensemble at the beginning is especially notable, with powerful voices and athletic dancing. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s choreography is dynamic and memorable as well, and the ensemble performs it with verve and gusto.

Molly’s world, from Leadville to Denver, to Europe and beyond, is well-realized in the production design here, with Derek McLane and Paul Tate dePoo III’s bold and colorful set design providing an excellent backdrop to the story. There are also bright and detailed costumes by Paul Tazewell and believable wigs by Leah J. Loukas. Rob Denton’s lighting, and Nathan W. Scheuer’s video designs also contribute to the overall look and atmosphere of this rousing, energetic production. There were a few minor sound issues on opening night, but I expect these will be dealt with as the show continues to run. The musical arrangements by music director Michael Rafter–well played by the superb Muny Orchestra–are also excellent, contributing to the overall classic Broadway vibe of this production.

Possibly because of the weather this week, they could have called this Molly Brown “Unmeltable”. Still, despite the extreme heat in St. Louis this summer, if the Muny’s latest production  of The Unsinkable Molly Brown can be defined by one word, that word has to be “unmissable”.  With a strong ensemble and truly stellar lead performance, this is a spectacular show that is worth sitting through the weather to see.

Beth Malone, Marc Kudisch
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Unsinkable Molly Brown in Forest Park until July 27, 2017.

All Shook Up
Book by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman

Caroline Bowman, Tim Rogan
Photo: The Muny

All Shook Up is certainly a crowd-pleaser. A “jukebox” musical featuring many songs famously associated with Elvis Presley, this is the latest show in the Muny’s season. Inspired and rather loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, this production has a somewhat convoluted plot and entirely too many characters. Still, it’s an entertaining show, and its greatest strengths are its strong cast and energetic choreography.

This show, which had a short Broadway run, is being presented at the Muny for the first time this season. With its 1950s setting, Elvis music, and slightly Shakespeare-influenced plot, it does have some fun moments, including a basic premise and a few scenes that pay homage to classic Elvis films. Still, there’s a whole lot going on here and a few too many thinly drawn characters and implausible romantic plots. Basically, everyone seems to be falling in and out of love a lot over the course of one day, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of who is interested in who. The Elvis-like figure is the cool, charismatic Chad (Tim Rogan), newly released from jail, who rides into a small Midwestern town to get his motorcycle fixed and causes a stir. He attracts the attentions of young mechanic Natalie (Caroline Bowman), who is instantly smitten even though he ignores her, choosing to set his sights on local museum owner Miss Sandra (Felicia Finley), who does not welcome his attentions. There’s Dennis (Barrett Riggins), Natalie’s best friend, who harbors feelings for her that he is too nervous to confess. Also featured is Natalie’s widowed father Jim (Lara Teeter), who is also smitten with Miss Sandra, and Jim’s longtime friend Sylvia (Liz Mikel), a diner owner who has feelings for Jim. And that’s not all. There’s also the town’s conservative mayor, Matilda (Hollis Resnik), who has made strict rules against certain types of music, clothing and behavior, and who is out to drive Chad, who she sees as a bad influence, out of town and back to jail. And then there’s the mayor’s teenage son Dean (Paul Scwensen), who is newly returned from military school and who becomes instantly smitten with Sylvia’s daughter Lorraine (Ciara Alyse Harris), who likes him back. The plot involves a whole lot of “love at first sight”–mostly unrequited–which leads to a series of events including Natalie’s dressing up as a man and calling herself “Ed” as a way of getting closer to Chad, as well as Jim’s taking lessons from Chad in trying to look and act more cool, as well as the Mayor’s efforts to apprehend Chad, Dean and Lorraine trying to hide from both of their mothers, and much more. And of course, there’s lots and lots of Elvis music.

This show does have its fun moments, and the songs are used in clever ways in some scenes, such as the juxtaposition of “Teddy Bear” and “Hound Dog” when Chad is trying to woo Miss Sandra and she is trying to get rid of him. The Elvis music is fun, and it’s well sung by the cast, but there really is too much going on here, for the most part, and the characters don’t really have enough time for their relationships to develop believably. There are some strong performances, particularly by the excellent ensemble, performing choreographer Jessica Hartman’s high-energy dance numbers with style. The leads are strong as well, led by Bowman and Mikel who both have extremely strong voices that carry off the Elvis numbers well. Riggins is also a standout as Dennis, with particularly strong tenor vocals, and there’s a good supporting performance from Jerry Vogel as the mostly silent Sheriff Earl, who is bossed around by the Mayor until he finally has a reason to speak up. For the most part, this is an excellent cast, and they make the most of what they are given.

Technically, the show is impressive, mostly, except for a few sound mishaps on opening night that I imagine will have been fixed in later performances. There’s a bold, colorful set by Luke Cantarella that captures the 50s atmosphere, and the “Elvis movie” mood extremely well, with locations from Sylvia’s diner, to Jim and Natalie’s garage, to an old abandoned fairground. There are also some vibrant, versatile costumes by Leon Dobkowski and striking lighting by John Lasiter, as well as some goofy but fun videos designed by Greg Emetaz.

Overall, this is a fun, tuneful show, but without a whole lot of substance and way too many characters and subplots. The Shakespeare adaptation is extremely loose, as well. Still, the music is great, and the dancing is great, and there’s a great cast, and it’s worth seeing for those elements.

Cast of All Shook Up
Photo: The Muny

 

AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time–A Parody
Written by Shualee Cook, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, and Ben Ritchie
Concept and Direction by Suki Peters
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
July 8, 2017

Ben Ritchie, Roger Erb
Photo: Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

I’m really glad there’s a list in the program for this show, just so it was easier to keep track. In typical Magic Smoking Monkey fashion, the company’s latest production, AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time–A Parody is fast-moving and wildly inventive. It’s also extremely funny.

Here, the AFI’s list is taken and given the Magic Smoking Monkey treatment, as the energetic, enthusiastic cast races through the list in reverse order, from Ben-Hur to Citizen Kane, with a bell ringing to indicate the changing of films.  Some are given more time than others, and the presentations range from the literal the more symbolic. It’s a fun experience to watch, and with films as well-known as most of these are, it’s fairly easy to understand the scenes even when I haven’t seen all the films (I checked off the list–I’ve seen 54 of them). The pace is quick, and there are even occasional jokes about that ringing bell, and some crossover jokes between some of the movie parodies. It’s a lot of fun, as usual.

There’s a great cast here, too, making the most of every joke and creating some memorable impressions–figuratively and literally. One of the fun conceits this show uses is to have the same performers reappear when the same actors appear in several different films. Alyssa Ward as Katharine Hepburn and Brennan Eller as Jimmy Stewart are special standouts, but the whole cast is great. Kudos to Rachel Bailey, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, Ben Ritchie, Fox Smith, and Ron Strawbridge for their versatile takes on a variety of film characters. There are also special appearances by Nate Cummings and Morgan Maul-Smith.

The creative team has done a great job as well, with great costumes by Carla Landis Evans, lighting by Justin Chaipet, sound design by Ted Drury, and slides by Dan Foster. It’s all kind of unpolished, but that’s part of the charm of these shows. Also, with the quick pacing, anything can happen, and that element of surprise lends a lot to the humor.

This show is great fun for film buffs and casual filmgoers alike. It’s an uproarious blend of movies and theatre, as well. With Magic Smoking Monkey’s usual wit, style, and goofy charm, this parody is an ideal comic tribute to classic American Film

Alyssa Ward
Photo: Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents AFI’s Top 100 Greatest Films of Al Time–A Parody, until July 7, 2015.

On Golden Pond
by Ernest Thompson
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
July 7, 2017

Susie Wall, Joneal Joplin
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

On Golden Pond is a play that’s perhaps best known by its film adaptation, starring movie legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. The play itself has been seen as a showcase for distinguished peformers, and Insight’s latest production is a prime example, featuring a cast of excellent and award-winning local performers, and particularly in its two lead roles, played by the talented and prolific Joneal Joplin and Susie Wall.

This is a play that’s more character-driven than story-driven. The story is fairly slight, in fact. It’s a look at a long-married couple spending the summer at their lake house in Maine, like they have for the previous 47 years. Norman Thayer, Jr. (Joplin) is a retired university English professor, and he’s become increasingly curmudgeonly as he approaches his 80th birthday. His more optimistic wife, Ethel (Wall), grows weary of Norman’s constant talk about death and his strained relationship with their middle-aged daughter, Chelsea (Jenni Ryan), who has come to visit for Norman’s birthday with her new boyfriend, dentist Bill (Eric Dean White) and his 15-year-old son Billy (Michael Pierce) in tow. The “story” here is about the relationships, and how Norman and Ethel come to terms with aging and with the reality of the idea that each new summer at Golden Pond may be their last. It explores themes of aging, regret, broken and reconciling relationships, inter-generational friendships, and more while providing an excellent showcase for the actors involved.

And “the actors involved” are remarkable. Joplin, one of St. Louis theatre’s most prolific actors for the past few decades, has an ideal role here with Norman. Despite the more unsavory aspects of the character–his negativity and particularly his casual bigotry–Joplin’s considerable skill as an actor brings out the sympathy in Norman’s situation, and particularly in his relationships with Ethel, Chelsea, and Billy. Wall matches Joplin in every way as well in a formidable portrayal of the insistently, persistently optimistic Ethel, and their chemistry is heartwarmingly credible. There are also strong performances from the supporting cast–Ryan as the wounded but hopeful Chelsea, Pierce as the initially moody Billy–who bonds with Norman over fishing–White in the small role of the loyal new boyfriend Bill, and also from Kurt Knoedelseder as the sweet, slightly goofy local mailman Charlie, who grew up in the area and knows the family well.

The setting is well-realized, with Matt Stuckel’s detailed set bringing the rustic summer home to life with meticulous authenticity. The digital screen serving as the picture window overlooking the lake provides a nice atmospheric touch, and Robin Weatherall’s sound design contributes to the overall effect as well, as does Geordy Van Es’s lighting. My only small quibble is that the script, written in the late 1970s, doesn’t always lend well to the updating of the setting to the present day, as this production has done. Some of the dialogue and situations make more sense with the earlier setting.

There’s drama and a good amount of humor in On Golden Pond, with its somewhat talky story and with those richly portrayed characters, with the lake house itself becoming a prominent character as well. There isn’t a lot in terms of action, but at its best, it’s a moving look at aging, youth, family, and the power of memory and hope. The heart of the show, however, is the relationship between Norman and Ethel, which is touchingly portrayed here by two superb veteran St. Louis performers.

Jenni Ryan, Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting On Golden Pond at the .Zack Theatre until July 23, 2017.

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
Choreographed by Alex Sanchez
The Muny
July 5, 2017

John Tartaglia, Mark Linn-Baker, Jeffrey Shecter
Photo: The Muny

 

According to the notes in the program, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in its original pre-Broadway run was saved by a last-minute song change, as composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim added “Comedy Tonight” as the opening number and the show became a hit. Well, another last-minute change has occurred for the Muny’s latest production, as billed star Peter Scolari unfortunately had to drop out due to illness, and Jeffrey Schecter, who winningly portrayed Scuttle in the Muny’s last production, The Little Mermaid, was called in four days before opening to take over the role of Pseudolus. Executive producer Mike Isaacason made an appearance before the opening night show to announce the change, and to let the audience know that Schecter would be performing with script in hand.  Still, despite the short rehearsal time, Schecter’s performance is a resounding success, anchoring a production that’s full of wit, energy, and old-school humor.

Based on several comedies by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, Forum is framed as a theatrical repertory performance, introduced by Prologus (Schecter), who will play Pseudolus in tonight’s comedy. Pseudolus is a slave in the house of the wealthy Roman Senex (Mark Linn-Baker), who is about to go out of town with his overbearing wife Domina (E. Faye Butler), leaving his son Hero (Marrick Smith) in the charge of Pseudolus and chief slave Hysterium (John Tartaglia), who aren’t yet aware that the wide-eyed young man has fallen in love with a young woman he’s only seen but never met. This young woman is Philia (Ali Ewoldt), a new arrival at the house of Lycus (Jason Kravits), who keeps courtesans and has sold the virginal Philia sight unseen to a vainglorious military captain, Miles Gloriosus (Nathaniel Hackmann), who is due to arrive any day to claim his bride. There’s also Erronius (Whit Reichert), another neighbor, who is still searching for his long lost children, who were abducted years previously by pirates. Meanwhile Pseudolus seeks to obtain his freedom by helping Hero, but as this is a farce, nothing runs smoothly, with many comic mishaps and misunderstandings happening along the way to the show’s promised “happy ending”.

This is a funny, funny show, with a lot of wild, bawdy, and slapstick humor, and yes, some dated elements and some predictable plot points, but it’s a lot of fun, especially here with this energetic, enthusiastic cast. Schecter has had a difficult job filling in at the last minute in such a prominent role, but he shines, with excellent comic timing, smooth dance skills, and winning stage presence. He even manages to incorporate the script into a few jokes and visual gags. He also manages great chemistry with his co-stars with such little rehearsal time, which is remarkable, and his song-and-dance number “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” with the equally excellent Tartaglia, Linn-Baker, and Kravits is a comic highlight.  Tartaglia especially seems to be reveling in his part as the excitable Hysterium, giving a stand-out performance. There are also strong turns from Hackmann as the haughty, full-of-himself Miles Gloriosus, who has come to claim his bride but would probably marry himself if he could; and by Reichert as the determined, goofily earnest Erronius. As the thwarted young lovers Hero and Philia, Smith and Ewoldt are excellent, as well, with Ewoldt especially funny and in great voice. There’s also a trio of Proteans–Marcus Choi, Justin Keyes, and Tommy Scrivens–who play a number of roles throughout the production and bring a lot of laughs in the process; and six elaborately costumed courtesans (Khori Michelle Petinaud, Katelyn Prominksi, Emily Hsu, Lainie Sakakura, Justina Aveyard, and Molly Callinan) who also contribute to the humor and energy of the show.

This isn’t as big a cast as is usually seen at the Muny, but they fill the stage well, as does the colorful, evocative set by Tim Mackabee, representing the three prominent houses and providing an ideal setting for the action. There are also vibrant costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, wigs by John Metzner, and lighting by Rob Denton,  contributing to the Roman atmosphere as well as the slapstick tone. The staging is brisk and sprightly, with some energetic choreography by Alex Sanchez adding to the overall madcap atmosphere.

This is a funny show. The title doesn’t lie. It’s a kind of show that brings in a lot of old-style comic elements, with some memorable Sondheim songs and a great cast. Kudos again to Jeffrey Schecter for giving such a strong, assured performance on such short notice. I’m sure his portrayal will get even stronger as the show goes on. It’s another excellent production from the Muny.

Cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in Forest Park until July 11, 2017.