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Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
by James M. Barrie, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Sammy Cahn,
Moose Charlap, Betty Comden, Larry Gelbart, Morton Gould, Adolph Green,
Oscar Hammerstein II, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Laurents, Carolyn Leigh,
Stephen Longstreet, Hugh Martin, Jerome Robbins, Richard Rodgers,
Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Stein, Jule Styne
Directed by Cynthia Onrubia
Additional Choreography by Harrison Beal, Dan Knechtges, Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 11, 2018

Cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s 100th season is finally here, and it’s opening in grand style with a show that’s really several shows in one. The 1989 Tony Winner for Best Musical, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway pays tribute to a prolific director-choreographer from the Golden Age of Broadway in a production that, even though it has “Broadway” in the title, seems almost tailor-made for the Muny.

The Muny has traditionally been about big, large-cast musicals with spectacle and style, and that’s here in abundance with Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. It’s the first regional production of the show ever, apparently, and although it’s not exactly the same as the 1989 version, most of the songs are here, highlighting Robbins’ illustrious career and featuring some iconic numbers from classic shows, as well as some numbers from lesser-known shows. From On the Town, HIgh Button Shoes and Billion Dollar Baby to West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, and Fiddler On the Roof, this show has a little bit of everything, dance-wise, from dramatic, ballet-influenced numbers, to jazz, to slapstick comedy, and more, staged with the usual big, bold, high-energy stage-filling style of the Muny.

There isn’t really a story here. It’s a revue, essentially, with Rob McClure as “The Setter” introducing the scenes. McClure, a Muny veteran and favorite performer, also plays several memorable roles in the production, including two roles from HIgh Button Shoes and the role of Tevye alongside Maggie Lakis as Golde in the excellent Fiddler sequence that features “Tradition”, “Tevye’s Dream”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, and the always thrilling wedding dance. There are many excellent moments here. In fact, there are so many highlights, it’s not easy to name them all. Among the standout routines is a thrilling rendition of “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan starring Sarah Marie Jenkins as a vibrant Peter Pan, along with Elizabeth Teeter as Wendy, Gabriel Cytron as Michael, and Cole Joyce as John. This sequence is particularly dazzling, with excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. and great use of the Muny’s electronic scenery wall. The ensemble is the star here, really, with energetic dancing from the more dramatic West Side Story moments to the high comedy of the “On a Sunday By the Sea” number from High Button Shoes. Another memorable sequence is the truly stunning dance number “Mr. Monotony” featuring powerful vocals from Muny veteran Jenny Powers and astounding dancing from Sean Rozanski, Alexa De Barr, and Garen Scribner, who also all turn in strong performances in the West Side Story sequence as Bernardo, Maria, and Tony respectively, alongside the equally excellent Davis Wayne as Riff and Tanairi Vazquez as Anita, along with an athletic, energetic ensemble of Jets and Sharks. There is so much here to see and enjoy, with Robbins’ routines recreated with an authentic look and feel, to the point where it seems for some moments as if the audience has traveled in time.

The production values here are also first-rate, with a stylish, colorful and versatile set by Paige Hathaway and remarkably authentic costume design by Robin L. McGee. There’s also excellent lighting design from John Lasiter, lending atmosphere and changing tones and moods to the various production numbers. There’s also great video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and wonderful music from the always excellent Muny Orchestra.

This is an old-school musical revue with lots of energy and a big cast to fill out the enormous Muny stage. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a collection of numbers that serves as an ideal first show for the Muny’s 100th season. It’s a retrospective, but also a celebration of musical theatre’s past as the Muny prepares to move into the future. It’s a dazzling start to a long-awaited season in Forest Park.

West Side Story Dancers
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in Forest Park until June 17, 2018.

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 21, 2016

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers Photo: The Muny

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers
Photo: The Muny

It’s a good week for the Muny to be staging Mamma Mia! The show, set on a Greek island, is a quintessential summer show, and I’m sure the cast members appreciate being able to dress for the warm weather. This is the first production of this popular show at the Muny, and with its excellent production values, great cast, fun if slightly silly story and lots and lots of ABBA music, it’s a rousing success.

Not being the biggest fan of the whole concept of the “jukebox musical”, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Mamma Mia! the first time I saw it on stage. The movie is also a lot of fun, but I prefer the stage show and its whole sunny atmosphere, and the way it incorporates the songs of popular Swedish disco supergroup ABBA into the story. It’s not a particularly deep or profound show, but it’s a lot of fun, focusing on Donna Sheridan (Julia Murney)–the former lead singer of a disco trio–and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Brittany Zeinstra). When the soon-to-be-married Sophie finds her mother’s diary and discovers that she has three possible fathers, she invites all three to the wedding without telling Donna, which causes all sorts of drama. The “dads” are three very different men–American architect Sam (Justin Guarini), who may still be in love with Donna; Australian adventurer and writer Bill (Mike McGowan), who enjoys his carefree single life; and slightly stuffy Englishman and former “headbanger” Harry (Ben Nordstrom). Donna’s friends and former bandmates Tanya (Jenny Powers) and Rosie (Ann Harada) also arrive for the wedding and get involved in the various shenanigans that ensue. It’s something of a goofy plot that doesn’t bear a lot of scrutiny if you examine it closely, but that doesn’t really matter in this case,  because it’s such a fun show that it’s easy to suspend disbelief for a little while.

The highlights of this show include the ABBA songs and the great cast. In terms of the music, all the well-known hits are here, including “Dancing Queen”, “Take a Chance On Me”, “The Winner Takes it All”, the title song and more. As for the performers, the cast is extremely well-chosen, led by the dynamic, sympathetic, big-voiced performance of Murney as Donna, and by the excellent Zeinstra as the persistent, optimistic Sophie. Powers and Harada provide excellent comic support as Tanya and Rosie, as well. Harada’s duet with McGowan on “Take a Chance On Me” is a hilarious moment. The men are well-cast, as well,  with Guarini in excellent voice as Sam, Nordstrom charming as Harry, and McGowan energetic and amiable as Bill. Jason Gotay as Sophie’s fiance Sky, and Alexander Aguilar and Wonza Johnson as his buddies Pepper and Eddie, also give good performances. The leads are backed by a strong ensemble, as well, which is great considering all the big, energetic production numbers there are in this show.

 The sunny atmosphere is reflected in the excellent unit set, designed by Tim Mackabee, that represents the Taverna that Donna operates. The Muny’s turntable is also put to good use. The costumes by Leon Dobkowski set the mood well, with colorful summer outfits,  swim suits, and  flashy disco outfits for Donna and the Dynamos. There’s also great use of video, designed by Greg Emetaz, that is incorporated well into the delivery of some of the songs, particularly Harry and Donna’s duet, “Our Last Summer”.  There’s also great lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer that helps to maintain the festive mood of the show.

I’m not sure how many times I can use the word “fun” in one review, but that’s really the best word to describe this show. Mamma Mia! isn’t a deep, thought-provoking type of show, although there are some truly poignant moments, such as the use of the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” as Donna is helping Sophie prepare for the wedding. Still, this show is about energy, style, ABBA music, and lots of fun, and this production at the Muny delivers all that, from the hopeful beginning to the memorable “mega-mix”style curtain call. The only small criticism I have is that sometimes the Muny’s enormous stage seems too big for this show in its more serious moments, although the music and energy eventually makes the show seem big enough. If you’re looking for a funny, summery, tuneful show with loads of hit songs, Mamma Mia! surely won’t disappoint.

Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo: The Muny

Mamma Mia! is being presented by the Muny in Forest Park until July 28, 2016.

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Hairspray
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Dan Knechtges and Jessica Hartman
The Muny
June 23, 2015

Bryan Batt, Ryann Redmond, CHarlotte Maltby Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Bryan Batt, Ryann Redmond, CHarlotte Maltby
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Welcome to Tracy Turnblad’s Baltimore! Hairspray, the second production in the Muny’s 2015 summer season, has been brought to life with style and humor on stage in Forest Park. With a strong cast and stylish, evocative production values, this is a fun show with an important message and lots of heart.

Based on John Waters’ original 1988 film, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy (Ryann Redmond), a perky teenager in 1962 Baltimore. Tracy’s immediate ambition is to dance on a local hit TV show, The Corny Collins Show, which she watches every day after school with her geeky best friend Penny Pingleton (Charlotte Maltby)  She lives with her loving goofball father Wilbur (Lara Teeter), who runs a joke shop, and her reclusive seamstress mother, Edna (Bryan Batt) who, like Tracy, is overweight but lacks Tracy’s self-confidence. When Tracy gets a chance to audition for the show, her ambition is initially thwarted by the show’s villainous producer, Velma Von Tussle (Heather Ayers), whose aim to to further the celebrity chances of her selfish daughter Amber (Taylor Louderman), who’s popular on the show but isn’t a great dancer. Tracy is also attracted to the show’s teen heartthrob, Link Larkin (John Battagliese), who is ostensibly dating Amber.  When Tracy is sent to detention at school, however, she gains a new reason for getting on the show. She meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Gerald Caesar), a talented African-American dancer who features once a month on the show’s “Negro Day”, which is hosted by his mother,  Motormoth Maybelle (Liz Mikel), who owns a local record store. After befriending Seaweed and his family and friends, Tracy makes it her goal to integrate the Corny Collins Show so all the dancers, black and white, can dance together. Meanwhile, her mother Edna is brought along on her own journey to regain her sense of self-worth, supporting her daughter’s cause. Along the way, romantic entanglements, trouble with the law, and the schemes of the self-serving Von Tussles complicate the proceedings.

I haven’t seen the original film, but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to enjoy this immensely entertaining show. Tracy is an extremely likable character, as are her family and friends. The villains are a bit cartoonish, but that’s kind of the style of this show. It’s a show that sheds light on some of the more unsavory aspects of this country’s history, with a message that is still relevant today, but the overall emphasis is on hope, as Tracy and her friends fight for the cause of integrating the show and don’t back down. Everything is big, bright and full of energy, and although the story and its ultimate conclusion are fairly predictable, the show communicates its message of acceptance with heart, infectious energy, and the great 60’s styled songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with modern musical theatre classics such as “Good Morning Baltimore”, “Welcome to the 60s”, “I Can Hear the Bells” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.

The Muny’s production has assembled an excellent cast to tell this story. Redmond, as Tracy, has just the right amount of bubbly energy and charm, along with a strong singing voice and good dance ability. She’s thoroughly believable as a dreamer who goes after her dreams, bringing her family and friends along on her mission. Equally engaging is Batt, best known from TV’s Mad Men, as Tracy’s mother, Edna. He admirably doesn’t overplay the role, but brings verve, substance and heart to Edna and displaying excellent on stage chemistry with both Redmond as Tracy and Teeter as the sweetly goofy Wilbur. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me” is a sweet highlight of the show. There’s also excellent support from Maltby, a scene-stealer as the quirky Penny, and Caesar as the charming Seaweed, who is a terrific dancer. Mikel as Motormouth Maybelle also turns in a memorable performance, particularly in the second act delivering the powerful song “I Know Where I’ve Been”, and young Kennedy Holmes is delightful as Seaweed’s little sister and fellow dancer, Little Inez. Battagliese gives an amiable performance as Link, as well,  the show’s villains, Ayers and Louderman, are appropriately villainous, and Christopher J. Hanke is suitably suave as TV host Collins.

 Visually, this show is a nostalgic treat. With a vibrant color scheme of bright pinks, bold greens, oranges, and blues, costume designer Leon Dobkowski (basing his designs on the orginals by William Ivey Long) has brought an appealing 60s atmosphere to the show, featuring some eye-catching outfits for the dancers, Tracy and Edna particularly. Robert Mark Morgan’s set is whimsical and evocative, featuring a giant TV set as the centerpiece, and live video (designed by Matthew Young) during the Collins Show segments. It’s a stylish, visually pleasing production that reflects the energy of the show itself.

 Although I had seen the 2007 filmed version of the musical, I had never seen Hairspray on stage before. I think the Muny’s production is an ideal introduction to the show. Tracy Turnblad is a young girl with a dream and with aspirations to change the world, starting with Baltimore. The Muny has brought us into Tracy’s world with humor, drama, music and style.

 

 

Cast of Hairspray Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Cast of Hairspray
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny 

 Hairspray runs at the Muny until June 30th, 2015.

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Seussical
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed and Choreographed by Dan Knechtges
The Muny
July 22, 2014

Abigail Isom, John Tartaglia Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Abigail Isom, John Tartaglia
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

The stories of Dr. Seuss are among the familiar, much loved staples of childhood reading for countless children around the world. Filled with clever rhymes, fantasy and wonder, these classic stories have entertained and inspired generations of children, and it’s not surprising that someone eventually had the idea to adapt them into a musical. The latest entry in the Muny’s current season, Seussical is a show that’s full of rhyme, song and whimsical flights of fancy, cast with a strong lineup of Muny veterans that bring the classic tales to life in a gentle  fashion that seems designed to appeal most to the youngest members of the Muny audience.

Paying musical tribute to the various works of the esteemed Dr. Seuss, this show focuses primarily on the Horton the Elephant stories, with elements from many other Seuss tales thrown in here and there.  Narrated by the illustrious Cat in the Hat (John Tartaglia), the story begins with a group of children celebrating the works of Seuss in the bouncy, memorable song “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think”. A little girl (Abigail Isom) is brought into the story as Jojo, the daughter of the Mayor of Whoville and his wife (Gary Glasgow, April Strelinger). The Whos live on a tiny planet contained in a speck of dust that is found by the earnest, dependable Horton (Stephen Wallem), who deposits the speck of dust on a clover and vows to keep it safe.  Horton’s neighbors in the Jungle of Nool are very skeptical and, led by the confrontational Sour Kangaroo (Liz Mikel), question his discovery.  Meanwhile in Whoville, Jojo is questioned by her parents and the other townspeople because her imagination is too vivid, so she’s sent to a military school led by the loudly belligerent General Genghis Khan Schmitz (James Anthony), in order to teach her discipline.  In the Jungle of Nool, insecure bird Gertrude McFuzz (Kirsten Wyatt) pines for Horton while the self-absorbed Mayzie La Bird (Julia Murney) flies off to enjoy a vacation while leaving Horton to sit on her egg.  From there, the story unfolds in fantastical Seuss fashion, as Horton and Jojo struggle to find their place in their worlds and the Cat in the Hat guides the audience through the whole journey, as narrator, commentator and occasional participant.

The first word that comes to my mind when thinking of this production is “colorful”. The design team, led by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan and costume designer Leon Dobkowski, has certainly brought a whole lot of color to the Muny stage, inspired by Seuss’s style but not directly copying it, especially in the costumes.  The stage is set up like a storybook wonderland, with a giant open book at center and surrounded by several giant-sized Dr. Seuss books with familiar titles such as Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat In the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, etc. The books and scenery are painted in a rainbow of bright colors, as are the inventive, simply styled costumes that suggest the characters rather than literally representing them. The birds, for instance, wear bright dresses with fluffy skirts, and many other characters are wearing brightly colored outfits with earpieces and/or tails or, in the case of Horton, a trunk to distinguish their species. The Whos are similarly colorful, and General Schmitz is decked out in garish purple camouflage. It’s a visual feast, and fitting for the bright, imaginative tone of the musical itself. The staging is also well imagined, using every inch of the Muny stage, and even involving the audience in some fun moments such as bouncing beach balls around and following the Cat as he wanders throughout the audience followed by his “news camera” on various occasions, including a fun Muny in-joke referencing Tartaglia’s last appearance at the Muny in Aladdin. Aside from the Cat and a few other more energetic moments, the show is mostly paced more gently and a lot less madcap than I had expected.  It’s a kids’ show first and foremost, and the staging makes that clear.

Performance-wise, the cast is in excellent form, with strong performances all around, supported with much enthusiasm by the Muny’s Youth Chorus.  Tartaglia brings a great deal of charm to the role of the Cat, serving as an ideal tour guide through the production, and playing various other characters as needed along the way.  He’s not nearly as over-the-top as he was as the Genie in Aladdin, although that is fitting for the more gentle tone of this production, and he leads the production with style from start to finish. Wallem is appropriately earnest and likable as Horton, and Isom turns in an especially impressive performance as the imaginative, determined Jojo, with a strong, clear voice and great stage presence. Her duet with Wallem on “Alone In the Universe” is a memorable moment.  Wyatt is also very strong as the quirky, lovesick Gertrude, and Murney has some great moments as the impossibly vain Mayzie. Anthony as the stubborn General Schmitz is also a stand-out, bringing a lot of energy to his song about “The Military” and leading his army (and the reluctant Jojo) into a ridiculous and futile battle using “Green Eggs and Ham” as a marching chant. Mikel also makes a strong impression as the bold, contrary Sour Kangaroo, and the ensemble seems to be enjoying every minute on stage.

There are several sweet moments in this show, such as the bouncy, recurring “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” theme and the lullaby “Solla Sollew”, and even some wit and irony in the many reprises of “How Lucky You Are”. There are a few moments here and there of humor and themes that adults will be able to appreciate more than kids, although everything is primarily geared toward the children.  I brought my 14-year-old son to this show, and he agreed that this production is probably best appreciated by kids a few years younger.  I think it’s most suited for kids ages 5-10, as well as anyone with a particular appreciation or nostalgia for Dr. Seuss’s stories.  It’s all very sweet, charming and colorful, with a strong cast and a very Seuss-esque aesthetic, although it isn’t quite as crazy or energetic as I had hoped. With a valuable message that encourages imagination and acceptance, and a catchy, memorable score, Seussical is definitely a worthwhile production especially for the very young.

Stephen Wallem (center) and Seussical cast Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Stephen Wallem (center) and Seussical cast
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

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