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Newsies, the Musical
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed and Choreographed by Chris Bailey
The Muny
August 7, 2017

Cast of Newsies
Photo: The Muny

Thinking of shows that seem like they are made for the Muny, I think Newsies would be a prime example. The big, energetic Disney musical is ideally suited for a large outdoor stage like the Muny’s, and there’s a lot of room for the youth ensembles as well. As the closing show for the Muny’s 99th season, Newsies proves to be an excellent fit for the venue, as well as a rousing, well-cast and immensely entertaining production.

The show, based on the Disney film, tells a fictionalized version of a true story–a strike by newsboys in New York City in 1899. Here, the focus is on a group of “newsies” who deliver papers for the New York World newspaper, led by Jack Kelly (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a teenage orphan with artistic talents and dreams of moving west. When World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Davis Gaines) decides to raise the prices that the newsies pay for the papers they sell, Jack finds himself the leader of an impromptu union, along with his friend Crutchie (Daniel Quadrino), his new friends Davey (Spencer Davis Milford) and Davey’s little brother Les (Gabriel Cytron), and the rest of the neighborhood’s newsies, with hopes of rallying support from those from other papers and throughout the city. The movement is covered by ambitious reporter Katherine Plumber (Tessa Grady), who harbors a secret and finds herself attracted to Jack. As the movement grows, Pulitzer, the show’s obvious villain, grows agitated, and the newsies enlist the help of local entertainer Medda Larkin (Ta’rea Campbell), for whom Jack occasionally works painting backdrops for her theatre. The newsies’ strike becomes front page news, but Pulitzer’s efforts to stop it threaten to run Jack out of town and make conditions even worse for the newsies.

I’ve seen this show before, twice, on tour, first in Chicago and then here in St. Louis. I enjoyed both of those productions, but I think this production works even better not only because of its excellent cast, but because of the unique staging opportunities the Muny affords. The Muny Kids and Teens, for instance, are ideally suited for a show like this, to fill out the cast in a way that doesn’t seem manufactured or forced in the least. The direction and choreography by Chris Bailey is in a similar vein to the touring show, but the big Muny stage lends a great advantage for this show full of energetic leaping, spinning, and tapping.  Michael Schweikardt’s set also works well, with movable set pieces in the steel-beam platform style of the tour, but allowing for more flexibility of movement for the production and its large cast. There’s also excellent lighting by John Lasiter, striking video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, and colorful period costumes by Leon Dobkowski to help complete the overall look and atmosphere of the production.

The cast here is simply superb.  Johnson, with his strong voice and amiable stage presence, makes an ideal Jack Kelly. His scenes with his fellow newsies and with Grady’s terrific, spunky Katherine are highlights of this production. There’s also great work from Milford as Davey, young Cytron as Les, Campbell as Medda, and all of the newsies as well. I’ve always thought Pulitzer has been written as something of a cartoon villain in this show, but Gaines does an excellent job with the role as it’s presented. There’s a first-rate ensemble as well, including the Muny’s Youth Ensemble, helping to populate the Muny stage and contribute the energetic, tuneful production numbers.

Newsies is a fun show, with a big, enthusiastic cast. And at the Muny, it’s bigger, bolder, and better than ever. It’s been a great season at the Muny, and this show closes it out with style.

Cast of Newsies
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Newsies in Forest Park until August 13, 2017.

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The Little Mermaid
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Waldren
The Muny
June 20, 2017

Kevin Zak, Will Porter, Emma Degerstedt, Emily Skinner
Photo: The Muny

This isn’t opening week at the Muny, but it is for me. Unfortunately, I was out of town and unable to attend the first performance of the 2017 Muny season, Jesus Christ Supertar. That is especially sad because I heard it was an excellent production. Still, for me, the first Muny show of the year is the season’s second production, Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This is the second production of this adaptation of the popular animated film that the Muny has done, and I remember enjoying the last one but that was in the “old Muny” era so I’m not sure if a direct comparison is really possible. What I can say is that this version is visually stunning and extremely well cast, making for an entertaining evening of theatre in Forest Park.

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen the film, although it has been altered slightly for the stage, and additional songs have been added. The mermaid of the title is Ariel (Emma Degerstedt), the golden-voiced youngest daughter of King Triton (Jerry Dixon), who rules the undersea realm but has trouble understanding his youngest child. Ariel herself is obsessed with the world of humans, often journeying to the surface of the sea and collecting trinkets and keepsakes of the world beyond the ocean. She eventually encounters the human Prince Eric (Jason Gotay), who isn’t happy with his life as a prince and longs for a life at sea. When Eric is shipwrecked and Ariel saves him, Ariel’s fascination with humans turns into love for this particular human, and that’s where the Sea Witch Ursula (Emily Skinner) becomes involved. Striking a deal with Ursula that will give her legs in exchange for her voice, Ariel must get Eric to kiss her within three days or else she forfeits her soul to Ursula. With the help of her friends Sebastian the crab (James T. Lane), Flounder the fish (Spencer Jones), and Scuttle the seagull (Jeffrey Schecter), Ariel sets out to achieve her goal while Eric’s guardian Grimsby (Richard B. Watson) suggests a singing contest to find the girl with the beautiful voice who rescued Eric, and whom the prince–who is expected to marry by his 21st birthday–is determined to find and hopes to wed.

The structure of the show is similar to the film, but has been expanded for the stage, and some plot details altered to better fit the stage format. For the most part, this story works, although I still question the inclusion of the song “Les Poissons”, since it makes little sense on stage even though Frank Vlastnik as Chef Louis performs it well and with lots of energy. The ending, especially Ursula’s fate, also isn’t as dramatically satisfying as the film version, although I do like that the development of Ariel and Eric’s relationship is given a little more focus. Still, this is a vibrant, energetic show with a lot of great songs including (and especially) the film classics like “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, and “Kiss the Girl”, and the Muny has brought the show to life with style and stunning visual effects, with a colorful, versatile set by Michael Schweikart, excellent costumes by Robin L. McGee such as the truly magnificent Ursula costume for Skinner and the ensemble members who play her tentacles. There’s also excellent lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer, video design by Matthew Young that augments the scenery well, and some truly clever puppets designed by Puppet Kitchen Productions, inc. The undersea world, as well as the dry-land world of Eric’s court, are well represented here on the giant Muny stage.

There’s a great cast here, as well, led by Degerstedt’s determined, wide-eyed, clear-voiced performance as Ariel. Her chemistry with Gotay’s smooth-voiced, earnest Prince Eric is strong, and their scenes together are a highlight of this production. Skinner makes the most of the villain role as Ursula, reveling in her evil schemes and commanding the stage on her featured number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. She’s supported well by the gleefully oily characterizations of her henchmen, electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam, by Kevin Zak and Will Porter. There are also strong performances from the young Jones as Ariel’s devoted friend Flounder, and Schecter as the wisecracking, overconfident seagull Scutttle, who leads a group of other gulls in a memorable tap-dance number, “Positoovity”. Lane, as Ariel’s friend and reluctant guardian Sebastian, has some excellent moments leading the iconic songs “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”. The leads are supported by a strong, vividly outfitted ensemble playing everything from an array of undersea creatures to palace guards and princesses.

The Little Mermaid is not the best of Disney’s stage musicals, but it is fun and it has it’s memorable moments.  At the Muny this time around, it’s especially striking in a visual sense. This production is essentially what audiences would want it to be–a big, bright, energetic musical that fills the Muny stage well and entertains viewers of all ages.

Emma Degerstedt, Jason Gotay
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Disney’s The Little Mermaid in Forest Park until June 29, 2017.

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Sister Act
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 14, 2016

The Cast of Sister Act Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

I think everyone immediately thinks of Whoopi Goldberg when they hear the title Sister Act.  The 1992 film was a big hit, followed by a 1993 sequel and a subsequent musical adaptation in London and on Broadway, co-produced by Goldberg. The musical, however, has been substantially re-tooled to have a different setting and musical style than the film, and as the final production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2016 season, it’s not quite as memorable as the movie, but it’s still an entertaining show.

The writers were wise to re-tool the show, in sense. The story is so associated with Goldberg and her unique talents that adapting the show basically required making the central character Deloris Van Cartier (played here by Dan’yelle Williamson) more distinct from Goldberg’s characterization. The show has also been re-imagined and re-set so it now takes place in late 1970’s Philadelphia, casting Deloris as an aspiring disco diva instead of a Motown-inspired Reno lounge performer as in the film. The classic hits used in the film aren’t here either, replaced with new songs by Alan Menken (of Disney fame) and Glenn Slater. The style is a blend of disco and traditional musical theatre songs, with occasional elements of Gospel. The story is also made a little more personal, giving Deloris a backstory of having gone to high school with police officer Eddie Souther (Curtis Wiley), who arranges for Deloris to go into hiding at Queen of Angels convent after having witnessed her nightclub-promoter/crime boss boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Kent Overshown) committing a murder.  The story then follows a similar pattern to the movie, as the newly christened “Sister Mary Clarence” struggles to adapt to her new environment at the convent, much to the consternation of the strict but caring Mother Superior (Corinne Melançon), and to the fascination of the other nuns who just want to make friends, including the ever-cheerful Sister Mary Patrick (Sarah Michelle Cuc), the shy novice Sister Mary Robert (Leah Berry), and the feisty Sister Mary Lazarus (Michele Burdette Elmore).  Together, Deloris and the sisters embark on a journey that takes them, their choir, and the convent, to new levels of understanding and notoriety. The basic story of the film is followed, with some changes in the tone and a slightly modified conclusion.

The 1970’s setting works reasonably well, and the disco songs are catchy, particularly the group songs with the nuns such as “Raise Your Voice”, the reprise of Deloris’s original disco anthem “Take Me to Heaven”, and especially the joyous “Sunday Morning Fever”.  For the most part, however, I preferred the songs in the film.  The comedy elements of the show work well enough, with some of the jokes falling flat but most of them working. Curtis Jackson’s three henchmen, T.J. (Kevin Curtis), Pablo (Keith Boyer), and Joey (Myles McHale) are funny but a little overly silly, and Curtis is more of a one-dimensional villain, although Overshown makes the most of the role. Still, it’s a fun show, and Wiley’s Eddie is believably sympathetic and has good chemistry with Williamson’s Deloris. The real stars of the show, though, are of course Deloris and the nuns, and this production has cast them all extremely well.

Williamson brings a convincing mixture of toughness and vulnerability to the role of Deloris, and she has a great voice and strong stage presence. She carries off the songs very well, and her developing rapport with the sisters is affectingly believable. Melançon, as the Mother Superior, has just the right blend of authority and compassion, as well, and she has some excellent musical moments with “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer”. The main supporting nuns are all standouts, as well, with Cuc’s bubbly enthusiasm,  Berry’s earnest sincerity, and Elmore’s snarky energy all contributing to the overall sense of camaraderie of the nuns, and the infectious energy of the show.  Steve Isom is also memorable as the benevolent Monsignor O’Hara, who becomes an enthusiastic supporter of the Deloris and her “new” choir. The lead performers are also backed by a strong ensemble, filling out the bigger musical numbers with appropriate style and attitude.

The staging is strong, as well, with vibrant choreography by Stephen Bourneuf. James Wolk’s set is colorful and versatile, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes appropriately evoke the disco era, with just the right over-the-top glitter and glitz when it’s needed. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also contributes to the overall disco mood of the piece, and the sense of fun is well achieved and maintained.

Ultimately, there really isn’t a whole lot of depth to this Sister Act. The story is a little contrived, but what’s there is a lot of fun.  A show like this is more about the characters than the story, and the characters are cast well, led by the excellent Williamson and Melançon. It’s a big, bold, glittery disco tale of sisterhood in various forms, and it’s a fine conclusion to the season at STAGES.

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan'yelle Williamson Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan’yelle Williamson
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Sister Act is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 9, 2016.

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Newsies
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Choreographed by Christopher Gatelli
The Fox Theatre
January 19, 2016

Joey Barreiro (center) and Cast Photo by Deen van Meer Newsies North American Tour

Joey Barreiro (center) and Cast
Photo by Deen van Meer
Newsies North American Tour

Newsies is a big, bold, energetic musical based on a cult-classic Disney movie of the same name. It’s on the second leg of its North American tour now, and it’s finally making a stop in St. Louis.  I saw the tour in Chicago in late 2014 and enjoyed it. This year, the cast is mostly new but it’s the same entertaining show.

Newsies is Disney’s retelling of the 1899 newsboys’ strike in New York, given the family-show treatment and lots of energy and optimism. It follows a group of “Newsies” led by the enterprising orphan Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), along with his friends Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) and “new kids”, brothers Davey (Stephen Michael Langton)–who becomes essentially Jack’s deputy–and feisty 10-year-old Les (John Michael Pitera, alternating with Ethan Steiner). Upset when New York World newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) raises the prices that the newsies have to pay for their papers, Jack gathers his buddies to launch a strike against the paper, and eventually other New York papers as well. Into the midst of this situation comes Katherine (Morgan Keene), a young woman reporter who writes about the strike and is attracted to Jack, who likes her back even though there’s one important fact about her that he doesn’t know.

This is a fun show, plain and simple. It’s not particularly deep or reflective, but there’s some good music and some especially extraordinary dancing, choreographed by Christopher Gatelli. It’s the kind of high energy, athletic, jumping and tapping and leaping and cartwheeling kind of dancing that gives this show its real spark. In fact, I would say that the real stars of this edition of the tour are the newsies themselves. With their considerable dance skills, charm, and ensemble chemistry, these guys carry the show in enemble numbers like “Carrying the Banner”, “Seize the Day”, and “King of New York”. The rest of the cast is fine, with the standouts being Sayle as the amiable Crutchie, Langton as the earnest Davey, and Pitera as his spunky little brother Les. Aisha De Haas is also excellent as the newsies’ main adult ally, singer Medda Larkin. Blanchard, who along with Sayle has been with the tour from the beginning, is good in this portrayal of Pulitzer as somewhat of a cartoonish villain. Barreiro is fine as Jack, displaying a lot of energy, although he’s not quite convincing as a teenager, and his chemistry with Keene’s more lackluster Katherine is not particularly convincing. Still, this is a show that’s sure to entertain especially because of that top-notch ensemble.

The set, designed by Tobin Ernst, is still spectacular, with its movable beams and grids, and wonderful use of projections, originally designed by Sven Ortel and adapted by Daniel Brodie. The costumes, by Jess Goldstein, are colorful and period appropriate, and they suit the characters well. For once, the sound, designed by Ken Travis–works well at the Fox, too. I’ve noticed sound problems in several touring shows that have played here, but Newsies does well, and every word of dialogue and the lyrics of every song are clearly audible. The show presents something of a stylized version of late 19th-Century New York, in keeping with the upbeat, more family-focused theme, but it’s a well-realized vision that contributes to the vibrancy of the production.

Newsies at the Fox might not be quite as stellar as it was in Chicago, but it’s still lots of fun. Ultimately, a show like this is about telling its story and doing so in an entertaining fashion. Newsies does that, with a delightful ensemble and a memorable score. I’m glad St. Louis audiences now have the chance to see it.

Cast of Newsies Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies North American Tour

Cast of Newsies
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies North American Tour

The North American tour of Newsies runs at the Fox Theatre until January 31, 2016.

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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Matt Lenz
Chorographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
July 29, 2015

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of Disney’s modern animated films. It’s a contemporary classic that’s been adapted for the stage and enjoyed a successful, long-running Broadway production. It’s a big, colorful show that’s well-suited for a large venue like the Muny. With a cast of well-known Muny veterans as well as some welcome new faces, this production is thoroughly entertaining and true to the magical, enchanting spirit of the film.

The plot, based on the age-old fairy tale, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film. Belle (Kate Rockwell) is a well-read young dreamer who is praised for her physical beauty, but criticized for her unconventional ways in her small French village. She’s pursued by the vain but good-looking Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann), who seems to only want to marry Belle so he can add another trophy to his collection. When Belle’s father, the eccentric inventor Maurice (Lenny Wolpe) gets lost in the woods and wanders into an enchanted castle, he’s imprisoned by the Beast (Nicholas Rodriguez), who is under an enchantress’s curse. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to save her father, the story really gets going, as their relationship is the key to breaking the spell that binds the Beast and his household servants, who have all been transformed into objects–like the candlestick Lumiere (Rob McClure), the clock Cogsworth (Steve Rosen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Marva Hicks) and her son Chip (Spencer Jones) the teacup. There’s also feather duster Babette (Deidre Goodwin) and wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche (Heather Jane Rolff).  A few changes have been made from the film version, mostly to make the story work better on stage, and a few new songs have been added, including the excellent ballads “Home” for Belle and “If I Can’t Love Her” for the Beast. The film’s classic songs including “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and the classic title song are all there, as well.

This is a big, vibrant production designed to fit the Muny’s massive performance space. Although the costumes, designed by Robin L. McGee, seem a bit overly cartoonish at times, the set is spectacular. Designed by Robert Mark Morgan, it’s a big, versatile set focused for much of the production on the castle, with a suggestion of the grand stone facade including arches, a staircase and prominent fireplace. The Muny’s turntable is put to excellent use as well, making for smooth scene changes and maintaining the show’s grand atmosphere. There’s also excellent video design by Matthew Young, and some well-placed special effects including real fireworks in a key scene. Again, as has been happening in every show so far this season, there are a few sound mishaps, with mics cutting out and lines being missed as a result. Still, the show is a scenic wonder, contributing to the overall fairy tale theme with style.

The performances are strong all-around, with the biggest standout being Rockwell as a thoroughly convincing Belle. She’s got just the right amount of earnestness, determination and likability, as well as a big, powerhouse voice that’s well showcased on songs like “Home” and “A Change In Me.” She’s paired well with Rodriguez as a particularly sensitive Beast, and their scenes of getting to know one another are real highlights. The “Beauty and the Beast” number is beautifully done, with Rockwell and Rodriguez bringing the romantic energy and Hicks in fine voice as Mrs. Potts.  There’s great comic support from the always excellent McClure as the charming Lumiere, and Rosen as the fastidious Cogsworth. Hackmann is a suitably swaggering and clear-voiced Gaston, and Michael Hartung is funny as his bumbling sidekick Lafou. There’s also an excellent, extra-large ensemble bringing verve and vigor to the production numbers like “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Belle”.

There are a few somewhat jarring changes from the film that I’m not sure play particularly well, especially toward the end when Gaston confronts the Beast, although the overall conclusion is still effective. The overall charm of this show comes across well in that big, bold Muny style. It’s an entertaining iteration of a classic, and it’s sure to bring joy and enchantment to theatregoers of all ages.

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen Photo: The Muny

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 7th, 2015.

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Newsies
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Choreographed by Christopher Gatelli
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
December 12, 2014

Stephanie Styles, Dan DeLuca Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies the Musical

Stephanie Styles, Dan DeLuca
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies the Musical

Over the weekend, I took a road trip to Chicago to see the US National Tour of Disney’s Newsies. Based on the film of the same name that flopped at the box office but then developed a sizable cult following,  the stage show ran for two years on Broadway and has now embarked on an ambitious tour that is unfortunately not scheduled to play in St. Louis in the near future. The good news is that it’s going to be running in Chicago for almost a month, so there’s plenty of time for St. Louisans to make the journey to see this upbeat, wonderfully cast and impressively produced show.

I approached this production as something of a Newsies newbie. I’ve never seen the film and had only heard a few songs and seen a few performance clips from the stage show.  I knew the basic plot, but that’s about all, although I’ve found that this tour is an excellent introduction to the show. The story, loosely based on an actual event, follows a group of newsboys working for the New York World newspaper in 1899.  Most of the boys are orphans, like the charismatic, artistically talented Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), his friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) and others. Even those who aren’t orphans are poor, relying on their income from selling papers to support themselves and their families, like rookie “newsie” Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his younger brother, Les (Vincent Crocilla alternating with Anthony Rosenthal). When the paper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) raises the price of the papers, it affects the newsies because they have to pay for the papers they sell, and having to pay more up front means they will earn less. With Jack as the leader and Davey as the “brains”, the newsies form a union and begin a strike, but not without major complications and clashes with the authorites.  Meanwhile, a young reporter, Katherine (Stephanie Styles), who seeks to advance her career and help the newsies by writing about their cause, finds herself attracted to Jack, although a secret she’s keeping from him threatens their burgeoning relationship.

This is a very Disney spin on the story, with the emphasis on the energy and drive of the youthful characters, who are much more well-rounded than most of the adults, with the exception of burlesque entertainer Medda Larkin (Angela Grovey), for whom Jack paints backdrops, and who allows the newsies to use her theatre for rallies. Pulitzer is something of a mustache-twirling villain for most of the show, although that’s a minor quibble considering the real focus here is on the teenagers and their quest for better working conditions not just for themselves, but for other young workers throughout the city.  There are a few most-likely deliberate echoes in the staging of another show that features a group of idealistic young men rebelling against authority, Les Miserables, only this one is a lot more upbeat.  Even though this is a show for all ages, its primary audience seems to be teenagers, who are likely to be inspired by the determination and drive of this group of likable tough guys trying to make a difference, discovering their own strengths and talents in the process.

The producers have assembled a top-notch cast for this tour, led by the dynamic DeLuca, who will best be remembered by St. Louis audiences as Lucas in The Addams Family at the Muny in July.  DeLuca brings considerable charm, strong dance skills and a powerful singing voice to the role of the sensitive but guarded young Jack. He’s a more than capable leader for this group of loveable misfits, bringing emotion to numbers like “Santa Fe” and gutsy zeal to energetic group numbers like “Seize the Day” and “Once and For All”.  His scenes with the equally charming Sayle as Crutchie and Kemp as Davey are strong points of this production, and he displays great chemistry with Styles as the plucky Katherine.  Styles and Kemp, for their parts, are also standout performers, with Styles bringing a great blend of sympathy and excellent comic timing to her solo number “Watch What Happens”, and Kemp showing a lot of heart as the initially mild-mannered and somewhat nervous Davey, who gains confidence as the story develops.  There are also memorable performances from Grovey as Medda, whose big voice gets a great showcase on “That’s Rich”, and Crocilla as the enthusiastic youngest newsie, Les.  Blanchard also turns in a fine performance as the self-centered, villainous Pulitzer. As for the rest of the newsies, there are too many to mention them all by name, although they form a cohesive and eminently likable ensemble with a great deal of heart, strong voices and athletic dancing on songs like “Carrying the Banner”, “Seize the Day” and the showstopping tap-dance number “King of New York”.  This is an ensemble filled with youth and boundless, infectious energy, making for a very fun show.

Visually, this show is simply a wonder, with some of the most impressive sets I’ve seen, especially for a touring production. Designed by Tobin Ernst, the set is constructed of several multi-level units that fit together in various ways as the plot demands. Surrounded by ladders and metal piping, these units effectively evoke the network of fire escapes that are such a ubiquitous feature of the New York City landscape. The units can also be arranged together in a kind of grid, emphasizing the athleticism of the staging as the cast climbs up and down all those stairs with seemingly endless verve.  The use of projections, originally designed by Sven Ortel and adapted for the tour by Daniel Brodie, is particularly ingenious as Jack draws and we see what he’s drawing, or Katherine types and we see the result immediately over her head.  The overall color scheme in blues, grays and browns and reds is reflected in the set and in Jess Goldstein’s period-specific costumes and Jeff Croiter’s striking lighting design.  From these top-notch technical elements to Christopher Gattelli’s dizzyingly dynamic choreography with all its jumping, leaping, kicking and spinning, this show is a treat for the eyes and ears.

Disney’s Newsies on tour is a memorable high-quality show that is well worth a trip to Chicago to see.  It’s a shame it’s not coming to St. Louis anytime soon, but if you’re planning a holiday trip to the Windy City, why not “seize the day” and see this show? You don’t have to just “read all about it” when you can see it. Chicago is only a few hours away, and this show is well worth the trip.

Cast of Newsies Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies the Musical

Cast of Newsies
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies the Musical

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Aladdin

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, Book by Chad Beguelin

Directed by Gary Griffin

Choreographed by Alex Sanchez

The Muny, St. Louis

July 9. 2012

As a longtime fan of animated films, I have to admit that Aladdin was not one of my favorite of Disney’s films, even though I did enjoy it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard that the Muny would be presenting a new stage production based on the movie, but I figured it would probably be a crowd-pleaser, and it certainly has turned out to be just that.  In many ways, this production is the ideal Muny show, and it’s another excellent entry in this season of the newer, revitalized Muny.

Book writer Chad Beguelin has tweaked the story of the film to make it work better onstage and to make it longer.  The story is now reminiscent of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies, with a trio of narrators: Omar (Jason Graae), Babkak (Eddie Korbich) and Kassim (Francis Jue), who make a grand entrance on real camels (gotta love the Muny) to introduce the setting and then reappear throughout the story to serve as narrators and commentators on the action. They also are traveling musicians and bandmates with Aladdin (Robin DeJesus), the young “diamond in the rough” who finds adventure and meets a princess (Samantha Massell as Jasmine), falls afoul of the evil Jafar (Thom Sesma) and gets help from a campy, wisecracking, larger than life Genie (John Tartaglia) along the way.  This is basically the plot of the movie without the animal sidekicks and a few extra characters and plot twists. Even Jafar’s crony Iago (Curtis Holbrook) who isn’t really given much to do, doesn’t seem to be a bird in the show as he was in the film. He’s just a colorfully dressed, parrot-like human henchman.

This production is a great example of the power of spectacle and great performances, because even though the story is simplified in some ways from the film and there aren’t any over-the-top special effects, this production is anything but dull.  Its big, colorful sets (most notably the Cave of Wonders) and bright costumes help set the mood, but the performances are really what drive the show.  Tartaglia as the Genie (even though the role seems smaller than it was in the film) owns the stage from his first entrance from the audience on a motorcycle (more Muny magic at work).  His over-the-top, flamboyant characterization sets the tone for the show, with many pop-culture references and asides to the audience, including a great deal of Muny in-jokes.  He’s like a human Disney World ride with all his energy, and he makes the most of every moment he’s onstage.  His introductory number “Friend Like Me” is a true showstopper, and even though Tartaglia is backed by the excellent Muny ensemble, he almost doesn’t need them since all eyes in the house are on him.  It’s a great comic performance, and the rest of the cast almost match him in their energy and enthusiasm.  DeJesus as Aladdin, Massell as Jasmine and the always excellent Ken Page as the Sultan all give convincing performances, as do the trio of narrators and and the rest of the cast, but Tartaglia really is the centerpiece.

The musical numbers are a combination of songs from the film, songs that were written for the film but cut during production (such as the moving “Proud of Your Boy”, movingly performed by DeJesus), and songs that were written specifically for the stage show.  Of the last category, the most notable is the rousing, Vaudeville-styled  “Somebody’s Got Your Back”, which is performed with gusto by Aladdin and his trio of bandmates.  The large Muny ensemble is put to good use, with some big, bright, energetic dance numbers. The only slight disappointment is in what is perhaps the most famous song from the film, “A Whole New World” which, while beautifully sung by DeJesus and Massell, was distinctly underwhelming visually as Aladdin and Jasmine are simply spotlighted on the dark stage, sitting on the magic carpet with a background of just a few stars behind them.   Still, even with that small let-down, it was an extremely entertaining production, and the cast, crew and  creative team obviously pulled out all the stops to deliver such an elaborate and fun show.

I’m somewhat of two minds reviewing this show, because as a performance I really enjoyed it, but structure-wise  I think it needs a little bit of revision before it can play on Broadway, which is apparently the ultimate aim of the show’s producers.  There are a few issues that I think should be addressed with the story–the role of the three narrators can get confusing as they pop in and out of the action, some characters are given very little to do, and I think there’s a little too much breaking the fourth wall, to the point where it can take the audience too far out of the story– but for the most part it’s an engaging presentation of the story from the film with a few entertaining additions. I think the show does need some work in the writing , but the performers give their all, the production looks good, and it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.  In many ways, this is the ultimate Muny show, and it makes for a great evening of music, laughter and spectacle.

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