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Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 17, 2019

James Patterson, Patrick John Moran (center) and cast of Man of La Mancha
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

With the closing production of its 2019 season, STAGES St. Louis has brought a classic to the stage with a great deal of energy and heart. Man of La Mancha may be a much-staged musical from the 1960s, but in this remarkable production, the energy and strength of the casting makes it seem brand new. That, and a particularly striking set.

Man of La Mancha, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes classic 17th Century novel Don Quixote, is one of those shows that I had heard the music to many times, but I had never actually seen it onstage before. I wore out my cassette tape of the cast album when I was a teenager, and I even read the script, but I never managed to catch a production, until now. I can’t think of a better full-scale introduction to the show than this one. It’s ideal, in many ways, considering the aspirational tone of it, encouraging the challenging of norms and pursuit of seemingly unattainable goals, and overall a sense of basic human dignity that is celebrated, while also showing the dehumanizing effects of forced conformity and rigid societal expectations. The story also has has a play-within-a-play structure that works especially well in introducing and reiterating its themes. It follows the story of writer/actor Cervantes (James Patterson), who is sent to a holding cell, joining many others, awaiting an audience with the infamous Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, he is put on “trial” by his fellow inmates, led by the stern but fair “Governor” (Steve Isom) and the more cynical Duke (Ryan Jesse). In his own defense, Cervantes and his manservant (Patrick John Moran) begin a theatrical telling of the work-in-progress story of Don Quixote, employing theatrical makeup and props to help tell the story as Cervantes “becomes” Quixote and the manservant becomes Quixote’s devoted squire, Sancho Panza. The cellmates are then incorporated into the story, with the Governor becoming a kind but weary innkeeper, the Duke becoming the skeptical Dr Carrasco, who is engaged to Antonia (Julie Hanson), the niece of the ailing old man, Alonso Quijano, who sees himself as Quixote. The seemingly impossibly idealistic Quixote sees the world very differently than those around him–a small country inn is a castle, its Innkeeper is the Lord of the castle. Scullery wench Aldonza (Amanda Robles) is seen as a noble lady, Dulcinea, much to her own consternation and to the ridicule of a group of surly and eventually abusive Muleteers. A barber’s shaving basin, which the barber (Ryan Cooper) wears on his head as he travels, is seen as the coveted “Golden Helmet of Mambrino”, and Quixote is determined to prove himself worthy and attain a formal knighthood. He is seen as foolish and even dangerous by many around him, including his own family who try to bring him back to his senses, as well as the Muleteers who belittle him and, at first, Aldonza who finds herself gradually fascinated with this odd stranger who treats her like a lady when seemingly everyone else in her life has treated her as a commodity.  The overall message of the show seems to be mostly about dreams, and the effects of seeing people as who they can be versus what society expects and/or forces them to be. Quixote is an intriguing figure, who can be seen as either a hero or a fool, or as both at once. Also, there’s an overall theme of challenging convention that rings true with the show’s 60s origins, and the tone of the piece, while gritty at times, is ultimately about hope and potential, with the oft-recorded song “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” as its theme. The score features many other memorable songs as well, from the stirring title song to the ballad “Dulcinea” to various comical songs to the blistering “Aldonza”. It’s a show that runs the gamut of emotions, with a tone that’s alternately comic and dark, with some harrowing depictions of violence, and abuse as well as stark representations of poverty and authoritarian oppression. It’s seen as a classic musical with an uplifting score, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and this production shows that with credible skill and a first-rate cast.

Patterson leads the cast with authority, charm, and a powerful voice in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote, bringing the audience along on his idealistic journey as well the occasional sharp reminders of the reality in which he lives. He’s got a great rapport with the truly excellent Moran as the devoted, supportive Sancho, as well. Moran’s performance is a notable highlight, as well. Also strong is Robles as the mistreated, increasingly conflicted Aldonza, who struggles between wanting to believe what the world has always told her about herself vs. the enticing words of the kindly but seemingly foolish Quixote. Other standouts include Isom in contrasting roles as the authoritative Governor and the well-meaning Innkeeper; Jesse as the challenging Duke and determined Dr Carrasco; and Sean Jones as the brutal leader of the Muleteers, Pedro. It’s a strong cast all-around, with much energy and musical ability, along with some remarkable dancing expertly choreographed by Dana Lewis.

Technically, this is the most impressive production I’ve ever seen at STAGES, with its remarkably detailed, stunningly evocative set by James Wolk and fantastic lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There’s a strong sense of theatricality about this production, and Brad Musgrove’s detailed costumes lend to that atmosphere especially well, along with the well-paced staging, especially notable in the thrilling transition as Cervantes puts on his makeup and becomes Don Quixote before our eyes. The overall musicality is plainly evident as well, with musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert and strong voices all around.

Man of La Mancha as a show is what I expected it to be, and more. This production at STAGES is so finely staged that I was able to get the 60s tone of it while also seeing it as enduringly timeless. There’s more darkness here than you may expect, but the overall theme is one of perseverance and hope. It’s an “Impossible Dream”, perhaps, but STAGES has brought out the possibilities of this show with clarity and emotion. This one is not to be missed.

Patrick John Moran, James Patterson, Amanda Robles, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Man of La Mancha at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 6, 2019

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The Boy From Oz
Music and Lyrics by Peter Allen
Book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
June 5, 2019

David Elder
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

If you didn’t know a lot about Peter Allen before, The Boy From Oz at STAGES St. Louis will educate you. A singer/songwriter and entertainer known for his songs, his flashy stage show, and his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli, Allen becomes the larger-than-life focus of this star-vehicle of a musical. It starred Hugh Jackman on Broadway, but the STAGES production has a dazzling star of its own who, along with an excellent supporting cast, makes this a lively, dazzling spectacular of a show.

The story, narrated by Allen (David Elder), follows the entertainer from his childhood days in Australia. Young Peter Woolnough (Ben Iken, alternating with Simon Desilets) takes up dancing at an early age, encouraged by his mother Marion (Corrine Melançon) and largely ignored by his violent, alcoholic father Dick (Steve Isom) who dies when Peter is still young. As Peter ages into his teens, he teams up with another singer and musician, Chris Bell (Erik Nelson) to form an act known as “The Allen Brothers”, gaining notoriety in their home country and, eventually, overseas. Peter is eventually noticed by the legendary Judy Garland (Michele Ragusa), and the “brothers” become her opening act for her concerts. He also meets and quickly forms a bond with Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli (Caitlyn Caughell). The two marry, but eventually separate when Peter comes out as gay. The second act follows Peter through the 1970s and 80s, as he finds new love with partner Greg Connell (Zach Trimmer) and a new manager in Dee Anthony (also Isom), and he develops the flashy, glittery performance style for which he became known. It also follows Peter’s relationship with his mother over the years, and features many of the well-known songs that he wrote or co-wrote, including “I Honestly Love You”, “Everything Old Is New Again”, and the bouncy “I Go To Rio”. It’s a tuneful, energetic show that follows Peter Allen’s life with all its highs, lows, triumphs, and tragedies.

Like the better “jukebox” musicals, The Boy From Oz has a solid book and a compelling story, but this one works especially well as a vehicle for whoever plays Peter. Here, that role is filled by Elder, who is absolutely the star of the show–no question. As Peter, Elder radiates charm, charisma, and energy as he sings and dances his way through the story, even taking some moments to interact with the audience along the way. This is a role for a showman, and Elder is definitely that. He has excellent chemistry with his co-stars, as well. The supporting cast is also strong, with the standouts being Melançon in one of her best roles at STAGES in a poignant turn as Peter’s mother, and Caughell as a vibrant Liza Minnelli. Keiser and Trimmer are also excellent in their small-ish roles as Peter’s first performing partner and his most enduring romantic partner, and Isom is good as usual in his dual role as Peter’s father and, later, as his manager. Ragusa gives a fine performance as Garland, as well, for the most part, although she does seem to be trying so hard to “act” like Garland that it comes across as more of an impression than an authentic performance. There’s a great ensemble of singers and dancers to back up Elder and the supporting cast, as well, with the big, flashy production numbers being a major highlight of the show.

Production-wise, the show looks as great as it sounds, with a colorful set by James Wolk, dazzling costumes by Brad Musgrove, and splashy lighting by Sean M. Savoie. The changing eras from the 1930s through the 1990s are vividly portrayed here, with the changing times reflected in the changing life of its central figure.  It’s dynamically staged, as well, with energetic choreography by Dana Lewis and musical staging by director Michael Hamilton.

The Boy From Oz is a show I didn’t know much about before seeing this production, aside from who starred in the Broadway production. STAGES has brought the show to St. Louis now, with a star who may not have the name recognition of Hugh Jackman, but who has all the presence and star quality that anyone could ask for in the leading role. David Elder is the star here, and he and the rest of the excellent cast are definitely worth seeing. This is a terrific way to start a new season for STAGES.

Corinne Melançon, David Elder
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting The Boy From Oz at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until June 30, 2019

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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

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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.

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The Drowsy Chaperone
Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2016

David Schmittou Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Drowsy Chaperone is apparently one of the most popular shows that STAGES St. Louis has produced. I didn’t see their last production, in 2009, nor had I seen any production of the show prior to this latest staging, although now I certainly can see the appeal. This is a tribute not only to “classic” 1920’s musicals, but to the whole concept of musical theatre in general. At STAGES, it’s a well-cast, richly produced, energetic and fun production that’s sure to entertain.

The show is a twist on the concept of the “play within a play”, as a protagonist and musical theatre aficionado identified only as Man in Chair (David Schmittou) introduces the audience to one of his favorite (fictional) musicals from 1928, called The Drowsy Chaperone. Man in Chair is a veritable fountain of information about this show, including anecdotes about the production and biographical information about the original cast members. As he plays the record, the show comes to life in his apartment, and what we see is broad, satirized representation of a typical 1920’s musical, complete with broad humor, a relatively thin plot, stereotyped characterizations, and lots of big, glitzy production numbers. The story follows the wedding plans of Broadway starlet Janet Van De Graaff (Laura E. Taylor) to a man she only recently met, Robert Martin (Andrew Fitch). Her boss, Feldzieg (Steve Isom) wants to keep her from getting married so she won’t leave his show, and ditzy chorus girl Kitty (Dana Winkle) hopes he will consider her as a replacement. There’s also the title character, the Chaperone (Corinne Melancthon), who is “drowsy” because she is constantly drinking, although she tries her best to offer sage advice to Janet. Other characters include would-be Latin lover Aldopho (Edward Juvier), who’s hired by Feldzeig to seduce Janet; the enthusiastic and slightly silly party host Mrs. Tottendale (Kari Ely) and her faithful butler and assistant known only as Underling (John Flack); and the optimistic Best Man, George (Con O’Shea-Creal), for whom tap dancing is the best solution to any problem.  It’s a big cast and a convoluted, extremely self-aware plot, as Man in Chair gets involved in the proceedings and expounds on his own philosophy of life and the purpose and importance of musical theatre.

This is an extremely clever show that both criticizes and celebrates old-style musical theatre, as well as presenting a sympathetic narrator in the person of Man in Chair, who is expertly and wittily portrayed by the superb David Schmittou. His winning performance is the centerpiece of this show as he becomes the point of interaction between the audience and the characters in the play-within-a-play. The rest of the cast is extremely strong as well, with standouts being Melancon as the hilariously “drowsy” Chaperone, Taylor as the glamorously goofy Janet, and Ely and Flack as the hilarious team of Mrs. Tottendale and Underling. Ryan Alexander Jacobs and Austin Glen Jacobs are also a lot of fun as a pair of comically overplayed gangsters. Juvier as Aldopho gives a winning comic performance as well, and Fitch and O’Shea-Creal show off their impressive tap dancing skills as Robert and George. The entire cast is excellent and full of energy as well, highlighting stand-out production numbers like “Fancy Dress”, “Show Off”, “Toledo Surprise”, and “I Do I Do In the Sky”, which also features a strong vocal performance by Kendra Lynn Lucas as Trix the Aviatrix.

The technical aspects of this production are stunning, as well. James Wolk’s set is marvelously versatile, transforming from Man in Chair’s modest apartment to various locations in the play-within-a-play with seamless precision. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also helps to maintain the whimsical tone of the show, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes are sensational. From Man in Chair’s comfy sweater vest to the more colorful period dresses and suits, and the glitzy glamour of the ensemble in the production numbers, the costumes are a real highlight of the show. The whole tone of 1920’s-meets-present-day is wonderfully achieved in this expertly crafted production.

I’m glad this production at STAGES has served as my introduction to The Drowsy Chaperone. Such a cleverly written, funny and heartwarming musical deserves a first-rate production like this one. It’s truly spectacular, with a fantastic finale. It’s a highlight of the summer theatre season in St. Louis.

Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 21, 2016.

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