Posts Tagged ‘DIane Paulus’

Book by Jessie Nelson, Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Based on the Motion Picture Written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreographed by Lorin Latarro
The Fox Theatre
March 26, 2019

Christine Dwyer
Photo by Philicia Endelman
Waitress North American Tour

Waitress is the hit Broadway musical based on a cult-hit movie, and featuring lots and lots of pies. It’s one of those shows that might have you craving baked goods by the time the curtain goes down. It did for me, anyway. Still, there’s a lot more than pastries to commend this show, and this touring production currently on stage at the Fox. What’s front and center, beside the pies, is the excellent score and a top-notch leading performance, along with a strong supporting cast, even though the story itself has its problems.

With a catchy score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, Waitress benefits from the name recognition of both Bareilles and the movie on which the show is based. I hadn’t seen the movie or the show before, so this touring production is my introduction, beyond knowing the basic plot and hearing one of the songs (the poignant “She Used to Be Mine”). The story follows Jenna (Christine Dwyer), who–as the title suggests–is a waitress at a small-town eatery called Joe’s Pie Diner. She’s more than a waitress, though, as she personally bakes the pies the establishment sells, as well as inventing the recipes. She works alongside fellow waitresses Becky (Maiesha McQueen) and Dawn (Ephie Aardema), supervised by the gruff cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin). She also waits on the diner’s eccentric owner, Joe (Richard Kline) every day, and goes home every night to her volatile, abusive husband Earl (Matt DeAngelis). The story begins when Jenna finds out she’s pregnant. She’s not thrilled with the news, but she resolves to make the most of it, making an OB/GYN appointment and meeting her new doctor, Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good), with whom she develops an initially awkward flirtation. And… that’s about as far as I can explain the plot without spoiling too much. What I will say, though, is that this show has its issues, not the least of which being problematic aspects of several of the relationships. The show is at its strongest when focusing on Jenna as an individual, and in her friendships with her fellow waitresses and with Joe, and Bareilles’s score is excellent, with several catchy songs that serve the story and the characters well. I just have some trouble liking some of the characters I think the show wants me to like (especially Dr. Pomatter), and some of the characters aren’t as well-drawn as they could be.

The real strength of this production is its central performance, and a few of the supporting performances. Dwyer is simply remarkable as Jenna, with a strong voice and excellent stage presence. She makes Jenna a relatable protagonist, and her pie-baking scenes involving flashbacks to her personal history are a particular highlight, as is her powerhouse performance of the show’s most well-known song, the aforementioned “She Used to Be Mine”. There’s also excellent support from McQueen as the snarky Becky and especially Aardema as the quirky, initially lonely Dawn, along with a standout performance from the energetic Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn’s socially awkward suitor. Kline as the crotchety but secretly supportive Joe is also memorable, as is Dawn Bless as Nurse Norma, the nurse at Dr Pomatter’s practice. DeAngelis is a suitable villain as the obnoxious Earl, and there are also fine performances from Dunkin as Cal and Good as Dr. Pomatter, although I didn’t care about their characters as much as the show seems to want me to. There’s also a strong ensemble, supporting the leads well in the various production numbers.

Technically, this show impresses, with a versatile, eye-catching set by Scott Pask that smoothly transitions from the diner set to other locations as needed, and a stunning backdrop enhanced by Ken Billington’s excellent atmospheric lighting. The costumes by Suttirat Ann Larlarb are also striking, suiting the characters and the tone of the show especially well. Another memorable feature is that the band is onstage throughout the show, and they’re in excellent form, as conducted by music director and keyboardist Robert Cookman.

Waitress is, ultimately, an entertaining show, especially in terms of the score and the truly superb performance of Christine Dwyer as Jenna. Story-wise, it has its problematic elements, although for the most part–especially when it focuses on Jenna herself–it’s compelling. And of course, there’s pie– there were some “pies in a jar” on sale at intermission as a clever tie-in. It’s certainly crowd-pleaser, as well, and a thought-provoking conversation-starter. It’s worth checking out.

Steven Good, Christine Dwyer
Photo by Philicia Endelman
Waitress North American Tour

The North American tour of Waitress is playing at the Fox Theatre until April 7, 2019

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Finding Neverland
Book by James Graham, Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreographed by Mia Michaels
The Fox Theatre
December 6, 2016

Cast of Finding Neverland Photo by Carol Rosegg Finding Neverland National Tour

Cast of Finding Neverland
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Finding Neverland National Tour

Finding Neverland the musical didn’t last long on Broadway, but now it’s on tour, stopping here in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre. It’s a big, bold and sparkly kind of musical with dazzling special effects and an interesting if somewhat cheesy story. Well cast and spectacularly staged, it’s overall impression is an enchanting one.

Inspired by the film of the same name, Finding Neverland tells the story of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (Kevin Kern), who is most famous nowadays for having written the classic Peter Pan. This musical is a condensed, partially fictionalized portrayal of Barrie’s relationship with the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her sons Peter (played on opening night by Ben Krieger), George (Finn Faulconer), Jack (Mitchell Wray), and Michael (Jordan Cole).  As the show portrays the situation, producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt) has been insisting that the discouraged Barrie write a new play for his company to produce as soon as possible, and Barrie’s newfound friendship with Sylvia and the boys eventually inspires him to write Peter Pan.  The process of writing and producing the play is juxtaposed with Barrie’s relationship with Sylvia and her sons, especially Peter, who Barrie encourages to write his own stories.  While the “love story” element here is somewhat overblown, it’s a fun show. The exploration of the creative process is interesting, and the character of Captain Hook (also Hewitt) serving as something of an antagonistic “muse” for Barrie is cleverly portrayed.  The score is pretty but not always particularly memorable.

What is memorable is the staging and the dazzling effects that enhance the story and add to the wondrous, magical atmosphere, especially in fantasy sequences. Scott Pask’s set is detailed and versatlie, transporting the audience to Turn of the 20th Century London as well as to Neverland itself. There are also terrific costumes from the authentic to the whimsical designed by Suttirat Anne Larlab, spectacular lighting by Kenneth Posner, projections by Jon Driscoll, illusions by Paul Kleve and fantastic flying effects by Production Resource Group. Barrie’s world–both real and imaginary–is incredibly well realized here. There’s also some great, inventive choreography by Mia Michaels, especially in the ensemble numbers.

The ensemble is particularly strong here, playing London townspeople, actors in the play, and more as the story requires. It’s a large cast, filling the stage at the Fox well. The leads are top-notch as well, particularly Kern as the imaginative, determined Barrie, Dwyer in great voice as Sylvia, and Hewitt in an amusing dual role as the persistent producer Charles and as the wily Captain Hook of Barrie’s imagination. The child performers are also very well cast, with Krieger a particular stand-out as the initially disillusioned but increasingly inquisitive and imaginative Peter. There’s also good supporting work by Joanna Glushak as Sylvia’s mother, Mrs. Du Maurier, Crystal Kellogg as Barrie’s wife Mary, and Corey Rives as the energetic butler, Albert.  The whole cast is excellent, elevating the occasionally cliched script with a real sense of wonder and enchantment. The Peter Pan rehearsal and performance sections are particularly impressive.

This isn’t a perfect musical. The “love story” seemed contrived, and there are a few good songs but a few too many reprises. Still, it’s an extremely well-cast, great looking production that should appeal to audiences of all ages. It’s a flight of fancy that, for the most part, succeeds.

Kevin Kern, Tom Hewitt Photo by Carol Rosegg Finding Neverland National Tour

Kevin Kern, Tom Hewitt
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Finding Neverland National Tour

The National Tour of Finding Neverland is playing at the Fox Theatre until December 18, 2016.

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Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreography by Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse
Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider
Peabody Opera House
December 10, 2014

Kyle Dean Massey Photo by Joan Marcus Pippin National Tour

Kyle Dean Massey
Photo by Joan Marcus
Pippin National Tour

The current Broadway revival of Pippin is something I’ve wanted to see since I first heard about it. Since trips to New York are few and far between for me, I was thrilled when I found out that the US National Tour, based on the Broadway production, would be coming to St. Louis. The whole concept of turning this show into a circus struck me as ideal for this show, the clips I’ve seen of the Broadway cast have been great, and now the tour has given those of us who were unable to see it in New York the opportunity to see this brilliant new re-imagining of this classic show. The touring production, which opened last night at the Peabody Opera House, definitely does not disappoint. With all the color, style, and spectacle of the circus, as well as an extremely talented cast, this show has “Magic to Do” and it succeeds in casting its spell on the St. Louis audience.

I had seen Pippin before, both live and on video (the 1981 recording with Ben Vereen and William Katt), but this new version is notable in that while it gives the production a total makeover, it seems just as true to the vision of the script as the original staging, albeit with a new ending.  The circus setting, with all its art and artifice, is an ideal backdrop for this story of a young prince (Kyle Dean Massey) on a quest for an extraordinary life.  The Leading Player is played by a woman this time (Lisa Karlin on opening night, covering for principal Sasha Allen), and in fitting with the circus theme, she’s the ringmaster. She introduces and orchestrates the action of the show in an increasingly controlling manner that grows more and more sinister as the show continues.  Pippin’s story takes him on many adventures, and the Leading Player is there to make sure events turn out as she has planned.  It’s actually kind of a play within a play, with the conceit that this is a troupe of traveling performers putting on a show, although it all seems real for Pippin. His adventures involve conflicts with his father Charles, or Charlemagne (John Rubenstein), stepmother Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) and her son, the dim-witted, war-obsessed Lewis (Callan Bergmann).  As Pippin tries everything from war to hedonism, to art to prayer, he eventually ends up finding a degree of happiness in an “ordinary” life on a farm with the widowed Catherine (Kristine Reese) and her son Theo (Zachary Mackiewicz, Lucas Schultz alternating), but is it enough?  What does the Leading Player have to say, and what about the promised Grand Finale that we’ll remember for “the rest of our lives”?  You’ll have to watch to see how that turns out.

The show has been re-imagined, and the circus theme works very well to drive the story and add even more substance to the simple but alternately humorous and poignant story. Performers and trained acrobats perform acts on the flying trapeze, as well as tricks with hula hoops, exercise balls and more. Elements of magic and puppetry are also used. The choreography, by Chet Walker in the style of original 1972 Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, is dynamic and creative, with elements such as a gender-switched (1 woman, 2 men instead of 1 man, 2 women) version of the famous “Manson Trio” dance break in the middle of the song “Glory” recreated and featuring the Leading Player and backing dancers Matthew DeGuzman and Borris York.  There’s lots of Fosse-style flash blended with the circus elements on songs such as the spectacular opening number “Magic to Do”, and elaborately choreographed production numbers like “Glory”, “Morning Glow”, “Extraordinary” and more. It’s a vibrant show with a dark edge that’s made all the darker by the revamped ending.  It’s full of style, charm, suspense and astounding feats of acrobatics and illusion.  The color scheme is full of vibrant purples, blues and reds, and the circus tent-styled scenery by Scott Pask and the ingenious costumes by Dominique Lemieux establish a consistent and memorable look the the production.

The cast here is extremely impressive. Karlin anchors the production as the stylish, dictatorial and occasionally menacing Leading Player. With her top-notch dance skills, great voice and loads of stage presence, one would never know she’s the understudy if the program didn’t say it.  Massey, who was a wonderful Tony in West Side Story at the Muny in 2013, is full of charm, magnetism and sympathy as Pippin, with a strong, clear voice and an open, youthful countenance. His earnest, plaintive “Corner of the Sky” is a musical highlight of the show. There’s excellent supporting work from Rubenstein (who played Pippin in the original 1972 production) as a particularly vainglorious Charles, as well as Harper in a gleefully vampish performance as Fastrada, Reese as an engaging and slightly goofy Catherine, and Lucie Arnaz in a show-stopping turn as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, performing “No Time At All” with immense energy and wit.  The ensemble of dancers and circus performers is in excellent form, as well, performing some truly astounding stunts with confidence and apparent ease.  It’s high-quality cast for a top-level touring production.

This tour is so good, it makes up for not being able to see the show on Broadway.  It’s full of charm, humor, drama, and all the things promised in the opening song, with a few twists–some thrilling, some terrifying–along the way. This is Pippin re-invented and re-invigorated, and it’s glorious.  It’s definitely a show not to be missed.

Pippin National Tour Cast Photo by Terry Shapiro

Pippin National Tour Cast
Photo by Terry Shapiro

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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Book Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, Musical Score Adapted by Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
The Muny
July 7, 2014

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour

The Muny hasn’t hosted a national touring production for a very long time. While Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, in his notes in this week’s program, promises that this won’t become a regular occurrence, he couldn’t pass up the chance to present this particular production, the national tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in the Muny setting. Although I do think the production suffers a little bit in that it’s obvious that it wasn’t designed to fit in this unique and gigantic performance space, for the most part I would say it’s a memorable performance with a very strong cast that does justice to the show’s memorable  score.

This version of the show is an update of the classic Gershwin opera. Director Diane Paulus worked with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt the story into more of a modern musical theatre format, with more spoken dialogue and a streamlined plot. Although it was a source of much controversy before it opened on Broadway, it eventually garnered multiple awards and nominations It tells the story of the residents of Catfish Row, a poverty-stricken African-American fishing community in Charleston, SC. After an atmospheric opening featuring the classic song “Summertime”, the story focuses primarily on the conflicted Bess (Alicia Hall Moran), a drug-addicted young woman in a volatile relationship with the burly, violent dock worker Crown (Alvin Crawford). Bess is looked down on by the people of Catfish Row until she forms a bond with the gentle-hearted Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), a disabled beggar who has previously admired Bess from afar and who seems to be the first person in Bess’s life who treats her with dignity..  Meanwhile, the smooth-talking drug dealer Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) tempts Bess with “happy dust” and offers of a more extravagant life in New York. After violence breaks out at  a crap came, Crown flees from the law and Bess tries to start a new life with Porgy and seeks the acceptance of the others in the community, only to be continually haunted by her past and by situations that threaten the the well-being of Bess, Porgy and those around them.

This production serves as something of a window to another era in American history, trying to bring the more stylized elements of the opera into more of a realistic presentation and showing the struggles and the hopes of its characters.  The close-knit community has its leaders and its outcasts, and the overall picture of life in an African-American community in the segregated South in the midst of the Depression is portrayed with detail in the characterizations on more of a stylized set.  I haven’t seen the full-length opera so I can’t compare directly, although this production does retain some of the operatic scope, particularly in the sweeping musical arrangements played with vigor and emotional depth by the wonderful Muny orchestra conducted by Dale Rieling. The costumes by Esosa are richly detailed and add to the overall period atmosphere. The set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez is more abstract, with a simple framework of painted flats surrounding a wooden platform where most of the show’s action takes place. Designed for the national tour, this set is the closest thing this production has to a real problem, since it is simply dwarfed by the enormous Muny stage and often gives the show a confined, boxed-in and occasionally detached quality, like the audience is watching the show on an oversized TV. This quality improves a little bit in the picnic scenes that take place on a nearby island, in which the back wall of the “frame” is removed and the Muny’s scenery wall is shown displaying a backdrop of clouds, framed by the real trees the frame the stage and provide more of a sense of openness.

Still, even with that one minor drawback, the overall production is a remarkable success.  The singing is simply glorious, with a strong ensemble and outstanding performances from the leading performers.  As the determined Porgy, Stampley is the emotional anchor of this production, with a soaring voice and a strong stage presence. He projects a palpable sense of decency and quiet strength, with that ever-present love for Bess that defines his character. Stampley and Moran’s scenes together are among the highlights of the show, such as the intensely emotional “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy”. Stampley also displays warmth and energy in his well-known song “I Got Plenty of Nothing”. Moran is a memorable Bess, as well, with a strong voice and complex characterization.  The other real standout in this production is Leggs as the slick, cynical Sporting Life.  His rendition of the comic ode to skepticism “It Ain’t Necessarily So” early in the second act is a showstopper, and he’s also at his wheedling, smarmy best in “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon” later in the show.  There are also excellent performances by Denisha Bellew as the grieving widow and local faith healer Serena, Crawford as the suitably menacing Crown, and by Danielle Lee Greaves as the good-hearted and strong-willed community matriarch Mariah.  It’s a very strong cast with too many great voices and performances to mention, with some memorable production numbers and strong dancing, as well. It’s a memorable performance of a classic show that’s brought more into an accessible scale, with its many familiar songs resonating throughout the Muny performance space with vibrancy and honesty.

Overall, I’m very glad that the Muny chose to bring this production to its stage, even despite the obvious fact that it’s not properly scaled for the size of the colossal stage. I think that sense of confinement would be an issue with any production that is not specifically designed for the Muny, though.  Still, for the most part I would call this production a resounding success.  I still have the melodies of the wonderful score playing in my head as I write this review.  It’s a vibrant update of a well-known work, with a lot to think about and many strong performances to remember.

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour



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