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The Light in the Piazza
Book by Craig Lucas, Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Directed by Christina Rios
Choreographed by Cecily A. King
R-S Theatrics
August 9, 2018

Macia Noorman, Tiélere Cheatem
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is great with making people anticipate their shows. They’ll announce a show months–sometimes as much as a year–in advance, and it creates this sense in me of “wow! They’re doing X show? That sounds great! I can’t wait to see it!” That was the case with last year’s In The Heights, and now with their latest production, The Light In the Piazza. Like everything R-S does, this show hadn’t been produced locally in St. Louis before (although the national tour based on the Broadway production played at the Fox), and I was looking forward to seeing what this theatre company–that has already produced many excellent shows in the past–would do with it. Well, it’s on stage now at the Marcelle, and I’m happy to say that it was worth the wait.

This show, which I had heard the score for but not seen until this production, was a hit on Broadway and had a national tour as well as a PBS broadcast performance. It’s a somewhat unusual hit in terms of having a relatively small cast, a more classical-sounding score, and having several extended untranslated sequences in Italian, although there are also important scenes that are translated in a particuarly effective way. The story, based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer that was also turned into a film in 1962, follows American mother and daughter Margaret (Kay Love) and Clara Johnson (Macia Noorman), who at first appear to be “ordinary” tourists in Florence, where Margaret is showing her daughter the sights of the city and the youthful Clara attracts the interest of a young Italian man, Fabrizio (Tiélere Cheatem). The attraction is mutual, but Margaret is concerned because of a secret about Clara that Margaret is reluctant to reveal. We also get to meet Fabrizio’s family, who are close-knit but also have troubles of their own, such as Fabrizio’s married older brother, Giuseppe (Michael Lowe), who neglects his wife, Franca (Stephanie Merritt) in favor of the attentions of other women. His parents Signor and Signora Naccarelli (Kent Coffel, Jodi Stockton) are wary but initially supportive, although, inevitably, there are complications that have to be worked out, and Margaret has to deal with her own feelings of regret and concern for her and her family’s past and present realities, as well as being understandably protective of her daughter, while also wanting to encourage Clara to make her own choices.   There’s a lot of detail here that I’m leaving out because the journey of discovery is an important part of the play. The tone is lyrical, emotional, and alternately melancholy and romantic.

With the intense emotional and vocal demands of a show like this, a strong cast is essential, and this production has that. Led by the reflective, nuanced and wonderfully sung performance of Love as Margaret, and by the equally excellent Noorman in a sensitive, also well-sung turn as the youthful, determined Clara, this cast is extremely well chosen. Love and Noorman display a strong and credible mother-daughter relationship, and their scenes together are a highlight of the show. Cheatem, as the love-struck young Fabrizio, is also strong although occasionally struggling with volume on the vocals, although his vocal quality is superb, and the chemistry betweeen him and Noorman grows in intensity over the course of the show. There are also solid supporting performances from Coffel, Lowe, and Merritt, and an especially memorable portrayal by Stockton as the occasionally snarky Signora Nacarelli, who doesn’t speak English but still translates a lot of the Italian scenes by way of the magic of theatre. There’s a great ensemble here, too, in excellent voice and delivering complex harmonies with style, as well as helping to contribute to the overall 1950s atmosphere of the piece.

That time-and-place atmosphere is also supported by means of particularly impressive production values. The show fits well into its venue, the Marcelle Theatre, with a performance space that’s just the right size for this show. Director Christina Rios has staged the show with a constance sense of movement, as well as taking time for reflection as necessary. The set, designed by J. Keller Ryan, is simple and versatile, consisting of marble-painted blocks that are arranged to suggest the Florentine setting, as well as being able to be moved around as needed. The costumes, by Ashley Bauman, are well-suited to the characters and the era, and Nathan Schroeder’s ethereal lighting also contributes to the mood. Although there are occasional moments where the musical accompaniment can overpower the vocals, the stunning score is well-played by the superb band, as well, led by music director Sarah Nelson.

This is a thoughtful, reflective, highly emotional play that deals with many thought-provoking and timeless themes, especially in terms of risk and regret involved with love, both familial and romantic. Its well-defined characters and lyrical atmosphere are well-represented in this memorable production from a theatre company that already has a strong reputation for dramatic excellence. The Light In the Piazza is illuminating, challenging, heart-warming, and well-worth seeing.

Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting The Light in the Piazza at the Marcelle Theatre until August 26, 2018

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In the Heights
Words and Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Christina Rios
Choreographed by Cecily A. King
R-S Theatrics
August 17, 2017

Cast of In the Heights
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
R-S Theatrics

In the Heights is a big show for a small theatre company like R-S Theatrics. With music and lyrics by the celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is a show with a great deal of technical and casting demands. It’s an exciting show as well, and I’ve been anticipating seeing it ever since R-S announced they would be producing it. That was over a year ago, and now R-S has proved that the show was worth waiting for, with a vibrant, well-cast production.

The show’s title comes from its setting–the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. The cast and characters reflect the neighborhood’s mostly Latino population. Usnavi De La Vega (Jesse Muñoz) owns a local bodega and introduces many of the local residents as they patronize his store. The rest of the cast includes Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny (Kevin Corpuz), who also works at the bodega, and Usnavi’s friend Benny (Marshall Jennings), a young African-American man who works for a local taxi company run by Kevin (Jaime Reyes) and Camila Rosario (Maritza Motta-Gonzalez). The Rosarios’ daughter, Nina (Cassandra Lopez) has struggled with her grades at Stanford and returns to the area conflicted about how to tell her parents that she’s dropped out. Usnavi is attracted to hairdresser Vanessa (Natasha Toro), who has a difficult home life and wishes for a new life outside the neighborhood. There’s also Abuela Claudia (Carmen García), who Usnavi considers his grandmother, since she raised him after the death of his parents. There’s a large cast of additional characters as well, including Daniela (Anna Skidis Vargas), who runs the salon that Vanessa works at, and Carla (Gabriela Diaz), who also works there. There’s also Grafitti Pete (Karl Hawkins) and a local Piragüero (Kelvin Urday) who sells frozen treats in the neighborhood. The intertwining plot lines follow the characters through important moments and decisions, as well as showing their hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles as the neighborhood changes, and lives are changed in various significant ways.

This is R-S Theatrics’ first production in the new .Zack Theatre. It’s a space that has some interesting challenges in terms of staging, but director Christina Rios and the show’s large cast make the most of the space. Keller Ryan’s set is fairly simple, and it works well for the space, along with Nathan Schroeder’s vibrant lighting that helps set the scene and provide some excellent effects in various moments like the “Blackout” sequence and finale. There are some great costumes by Sarah Porter, as well, and the orchestra conducted by musical director Leah Luciano is also excellent. There is occasionally a problem with the music overpowering the actors’ voices, although that situation does improve significantly in the second act.

The cast is strong here, with excellent vocals and energetic dancing to Miranda’s eclectic, hip-hop, pop, and Latin-influenced score. Muñoz is particularly engaging as the earnest, charming and somewhat awkward Usnavi. He’s the main character and essentially the narrator of the show, but its emotional heart is largely with Carmen García’s excellently portrayed and powerfully voiced Abuela Claudia. There are also strong turns from Lopez as the conflicted Nina, who has good chemistry with the also excellent Jennings as Benny. Their duets are among the vocal highlights of the show. There’s also great work from Corpuz, who is simply terrific as Sonny, Toro as Vanessa, Skidis Vargas as Daniela, Diaz as Carla, Zayas and Motta-Gonzalez as Kevin and Camila, and Urday in especially strong voice as the Piragüero. There’s an excellent ensemble in support, as well, giving a lot of energy to the production numbers like “Blackout”, “96,000”, “Carnaval Del Barrio” and more, showcasing Miranda’s memorable score and Cecily A. King’s dynamic choreography.

In the Heights is an obviously affectionate musical, looking at the lives and loves of the residents of Washington Heights with poignancy and a strong dose of hope. It’s a Best Musical Tony winner, and I can see why. This is another strong, thought-provoking, immensely entertaining production from R-S Theatrics.

Jesse Muñoz, Kevin Corpuz, Marshall Jennings
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting In The Heights at the .Zack Theatre until September 3, 2017.

 

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