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Aladdin
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin
Book by Chad Beguelin
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
November 9, 2018

Cast of Aladdin
Photo by Deen van Meer
Aladdin North American Tour

Aladdin is a crowd-pleaser. There’s no question about that when you attend the touring production at the Fox and hear the enthusiastic audience reactions to this adaptation of the popular Disney animated movie. It’s got a memorable score and some classic songs, as well as big, bright, flashy production values and an excellent cast. There’s a lot to enjoy about this production, although there are also some problems.

The show, as presented at the Fox and based on the Broadway production, is essentially like a Disney theme park attraction on stage. It’s not particularly authentic to the Middle Eastern setting–in fact, the Genie (Michael James Scott) makes a point in his introduction of telling the audience that this is a fictional location, and especially stressing the word “fictional”. The cast is very diverse, but the show is definitely not going for accuracy in terms of setting and tone, either. It’s all extremely stylized and played up for humor. The film was also highly stylized, so this is just following that precedent, although this stage version is even more so, somewhat in the vein of a 1950s-style sketch comedy show. The hit songs from the film are all here, from “Friend Like Me” to “A Whole New World” and more. The story is essentially the same as the film, but with some changes—Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) now has three sidekick-friends–Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Phillippe Arroyo), and Kassim (Jed Feder) who show up from time to time, and villain Jafar (Jonathan Weir) still has his henchman Iago (Jay Paranada), but Iago is not a parrot and the other animal characters from the film have been written out. Princess Jasmine (Lissa deGuzman) is given a little bit more to do and sing. Also, Aladdin is given a little more backstory and some plot points have been changed and rearranged, and the ending seems somewhat abrupt.

I first saw the stage adaptation of this show a few years ago when the Muny presented it, prior to its Broadway run. It was still in the development stages. Seeing it again at the Fox, I’ve noticed a lot of changes made to the script in the meantime, some of which are improvements and others that are more questionable. For instance, Aladdin’s three friends were the narrators in the Muny version, and seemed more of a presence in the story. Here, the narrator role has been given to the Genie, which seems appropriate in one sense since the Genie is such a memorable character. Still, the three friends now seem more like thrown-in characters and don’t seem to have a lot of purpose in the story. Still, this isn’t trying to be deep or challenging. It’s trying to be a big Disney spectacle, and it succeeds at that, for the most part.  It’s big, it’s flashy, there’s an impressive, ornate, versatile set by Bob Crowley, whimsically stylish costumes by Gregg Barnes, and atmospheric lighting by Natasha Katz. It almost looks like an animated film come to life, and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is energetic and well-performed.

It’s the performances, in fact, that are the real highlight of this production, led by Scott in a funny, high-energy, charismatic turn as the Genie. Actually, with this show it’s worth wondering why they don’t just retitle it Aladdin and the Genie or even the other way around because even though Aladdin has the most stage time, the Genie is really the star. Greenspan is an amiable Aladdin as well, with a strong voice and excellent chemistry with the equally strong deGuzman as Jasmine. Their duet on “A Whole New World” is a highlight, as is the staging of that song, which is a major improvement on the version I saw at the Muny. Weir and Paranada are also excellent, hamming it up with enthusiasm as a pair of over-the-top cartoon villains. Bencal, Arroyo, and Feder do well with their underwritten roles, as does Jerald Vincent as the Sultan. The leads are supported by a strong ensemble that does well with the high-energy dancing and production numbers, as well.

There’s more than a little bit of the commercial about this Aladdin, but that’s not a surprise, really.It has a great cast and memorable songs. It’s a bright, tuneful, energetic show that’s sure to attract a large family audience, and if that’s what you are looking for, you should enjoy it.

Michael James Scott
Photo by Deen van Meer
Aladdin North American Tour

The North American tour of Aladdin is being presented at the Fox Theatre until November 25, 2018

 

 

 

 

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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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The Lion King
Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Julie Taymor
Choreographed by Garth Fagan
The Fox Theatre
April 20, 2017

Mukelisiwe Goba
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Lion King North American Tour

The Lion King has become a massive hit on stage since first opening on Broadway in 1998. An adaptation of the popular Disney film, the stage version caused something of a sensation with its innovating staging and use of puppetry. Believe it or not, I had never actually seen the stage show before. I had only seen the film, and that was a long time ago. Now on stage at the Fox, the latest national tour of this grand, stunningly staged musical is an impressive spectacle for all ages, whether you are familiar with the story or not.

The story, at least partially inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is one of parent-child bonds, difficult family ties, personal responsibility and more, with a cast of characters who are wild animals living in the African savanna. It centers around Simba, played as a child in the performance I saw by Jordan Williams and as an adult by Dashaun Young. Simba is the son and heir of the current king of the lions and various other animals, the wise and brave Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey). Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Mark Campbell) wants to be king instead, and orchestrates events so that  he can take over the kingdom.  The story then leads to young Simba’s growing up under the tutelage of fellow “outcast” animals, meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), and eventually being reunited with childhood friend Nala the lioness (Nia Holloway as an adult, Meilani Cisneros as a child), and encouraged to return to Pride Rock and reclaim his rightful place as king. Presiding over all the action is Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba), a wise, mystical mandrill who also encourages Simba on his quest to challenge Scar and his hyena cronies for leadership.

The staging is famously innovative with its use of puppetry and stylized costumes in the portrayal of its animal characters, and also for its stunning production numbers such as the spectacular “Circle of Life” opening number, which drew enthusiastic applause from the audience. The production values here are excellent, especially for a production that’s been touring for so long. Richard Hudson’s set design, Julie Taymor’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting design, and Taymor and Michael Curry’s mask and puppet design are all dazzlingly memorable. The choreography by Garth Fagan is energetic and well-executed by the strong ensemble here.

The lead performances are also strong, led by Goba (the understudy) as the wise, sometimes mischievous Rafiki, who in the stage production is essentially the star of the show, as far as I’m concerned. Goba brings a great deal of energy and personality to the role, spurring on Young’s earnest adult Simba. Young and the equally strong Holloway have good chemistry as Simba and Nala, and young Williams and Cisneros give fine performances as their younger counterparts as well. There are some fun comic performances from Codileone and Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, and also by Tony Freeman as Mufasa’s bird advisor Zazu. Ramsey carries a strong sense of authority and general goodness as Mufasa as well. Campbell is also memorable as the scheming Scar, with a leering tone and strong voice, and he’s ably supported by Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift as the opportunistic hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed.  The dance ensemble is especially strong, as well, bringing a sense of fluidity and grace to the stage in the various dance numbers.

This is a good adaptation of the film, but with a few changes that actually make it work better on stage. It’s still The Lion King, though, and its memorable story and characters are on clear display here at the Fox. It’s an excellent show for audiences of all ages, and the audience I saw it with was definitely appreciative. It’s a story with humor, drama, and a strong message of redemption, responsibility, and hope. It’s well worth checking out.

Nia Holloway (Right) and Ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Lion King North America Tour

The North American Tour of Disney’s The Lion King runs at the Fox Theatre until May 7, 2017.

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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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Tarzan

Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins, Book by David Henry Hwang

Directed by John Tartaglia

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny

June 25, 2014

Michael James Reed, Kate   Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page Photo : The Muny

Michael James Reed, Kate Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page
Photo : The Muny

I have to admit I was not expecting much from this production of Disney’s Tarzan at the Muny. I had heard mixed comments about the stage show, and although I like the Disney movie on which it is based, I didn’t know how well the film would translate to the stage. Well, after seeing it this week, I’ve decided that the Muny really has its act together this year.  While the show itself does have its flaws, the Muny’s production is surprisingly entertaining, with an impressive cast and pleasing but not too flashy production values, all working together to present an engaging rendition of the classic story.

Tarzan, based on the Disney animated film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s well-known tale, tells the story of the son of shipwrecked travelers (Max Clayton, Emma Gassett) who is orphaned when his parents are killed by a leopard.  The infant is then adopted by the gorilla Kala (Katie Thompson), whose own young son has recently been killed by the same leopard.  Despite the doubtful discouragement from her mate, Kerchak (Quentin Earl Darrington), Kala raises the child, whom she names Tarzan, to become a determined young boy (Spencer Jones) who wishes to prove himself as valuable to the family group. He befriends a mischievous young gorilla named Terk (Nathaniel Mahone), and strives to be accepted by the increasingly distrustful Kerchak. As Tarzan (Nicholas Rodriguez) and Terk (Gregory Haney) grow into adulthood, Tarzan continually wonders about his place in the world, as a human raised by gorillas.  The arrival of English explorers Jane (Kate Rockwell) and her father Professor Porter (Ken Page) further exacerbates Tarzan’s dilemma when Tarzan and Jane become increasingly attracted to one another and Tarzan begins to learn more of what it means to be human.  Meanwhile, while the Porters are eager to study the gorillas and learn how they live, their greedy guide Clayton (Michael James Reed) only views the gorillas and Tarzan himself as a means for his own profit.

On paper, this musical has a lot going for it, with a score by well-known rock/pop musician Phil Collins and a book by celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang. Structurally, though, it has its problems, with the story not really starting to move forward until Tarzan is an adult, despite the fine performance of Jones as the earnest young Tarzan.  The songs are hit-or-miss, as well, with memorable songs from the film such as “Two Worlds, One Family” and “You’ll Be In My Heart” getting good renditions here, although other songs suffer from not being particularly melodic or memorable.  There are also some slight changes to the ending that I don’t think work as well, and the role of Clayton is minimized so much that it doesn’t give the talented Reed very much to do.  The show also seems to have a lot more energy and momentum in the second act.

All that said, however, it’s the casting and overall production that make this show work, ultimately.  Rodriquez is excellent as Tarzan, with a lot of personality and stage presence.  He and Rockwell display wonderful chemistry, and their scenes together are a real highlight of the show. I especially enjoyed their Act 2 songs “Like No Man I’ve Seen” and “Strangers Like Me”.  Thompson is also extremely effective as the loving and fiercely protective Kala, and Darrington brings a great deal of strength to the role of the stubborn, proud Kerchak.  Thompson and Rodriquez have a great moment late in Act 2 with the reprise of “You’ll Be In My Heart”, and Thompson leads the energetic “Son of Man” production number, in which Tarzan grows from a child to an adult, with authority. Haney displays good comic timing and a great deal of energy as Terk, as well, as he leads a fun dance number with the gorillas at the beginning of Act 2 called “Trashin’ the Camp”. Muny favorite Page is charming as Professor Porter, and there’s a very strong ensemble, as well, contributing to the overall energy and drama of the show.

The staging and choreography work well with Timothy R. Mackabee’s striking unit set, which is basically a “jungle gym” type structure that represents the trees in which the various apes and animals climb, and Tarzan swings and slides up and down on ladders and poles rather than swinging on vines.  There are a few flying moments in which Tarzan swings over the audience, such as Rodriguez’s initial entrance as the adult Tarzan in the “Son of Man” number.  For the most part, though, the acrobatics are confined to the small-ish set, which is clever and colorful even though it sometimes seems a bit too small for the giant Muny stage.  The costumes by Leon Dobkowski are clever, especially for the gorillas, who are more stylized than literal in appearance.  Jane’s first costume looks a little cartoonish, although the other outfits are well-suited to the characters.  The overall jungle atmosphere is well-realized here, adding to the mood of the show and the energy of the performances.

While the show itself has its structural problems, the Muny has done their best with it, and the result is a very entertaining show, if not a brilliant one.  This is another impressive production from the Muny, and it’ still early in the season. It bodes well for the rest of the shows, as I’ve been somewhat doubtful about some of the productions chosen this year. With its themes of self-discovery, communication and familial love and acceptance, this is an excellent show for all ages as well. This goes to show, in keeping with the show’s message, that preconceived expectations can often be wrong, and that every show is worth a chance. Tarzan at the Muny is definitely a production worth checking out.

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas  Rodriguez Photo: The Muny

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas Rodriguez
Photo: The Muny

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Mary Poppins

Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

Book by Julian Fellowes

New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Directed by Gary Griffin

Choreographed by Alex Sanchez

The Muny

July 25, 2013

marypoppins

Whenever anyone asked me when I was younger (college age) what my favorite movie was, I would have two answers—Citizen Kane and Mary Poppins.  I answered this way mostly because it was true, but also because I loved the reaction I got.  Still, even though I now have quite a few more movies on my favorites list (it’s too difficult to choose just one), the Disney film of Mary Poppins is one of my all-time favorites going back to when I first saw it on TV as a child.  I loved the sense of whimsy about the whole film, and the memorable songs and characters.  In 2006, on my first trip to London with my family, we saw the stage production at the Prince Edward theatre and I loved that as well, even though in many ways it’s different than the film. Now, the Muny has brought the show to the enormous stage in Forest Park, in a production that is at once colorful, charming, funny, mysterious and completely enchanting.

The stage show takes inspiration from the popular Disney film as well as P.L. Travers’s original book series, adding elements from the books and rearranging some of the scenes and songs from the movie, with a few songs added by songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  The story, as in the film, follows the Banks family—parents George (Stephen Buntrock) and Winifred (Erin Dilly), and their free-spirited but neglected children Jane (Elizabeth Teeter) and Michael (Aidan Gemme), who have made it their mission to drive out all the nannies their parents have hired.  Their mischievous efforts are thwarted by the arrival of Mary Poppins (Jenny Powers), a nanny like no other, whose unorthodox methods and stern-but-caring demeanor changes the lives of all of the members of the Banks family for the better. The story is narrated all the while by Bert (Rob McClure) a charming, itinerant Jack-of-all-trades who accompanies Mary and the children on their various adventures.

For the most part, I like the changes. The film will always be in a class of its own and it will always be there to watch and enjoy, but in order to turn a film into a stage show some adaptations, adjustments, additions and subtractions are necessary, and I think the team behind Mary Poppins has made the adaptation very well.  My only real criticism on that point is that the parents (and especially Mrs. Banks) are made much less quirky in the stage show and can come across as bland even with excellent actors in the roles. Some of the subplots from the film have been removed and some songs (such as “Jolly Holliday”, “A Spoonful of Sugar” and—most spectactularly—“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) have been re-set in a way that makes more sense on stage.

The Muny’s production is big and colorful, fitting for the gigantic stage, and with an excellent cast. The British accents ranged from pretty good to practically non-existent, but otherwise I thought the performers were strong and appealing.  Powers took a bit of time to get the right level of energy for Mary Poppins, seeming a bit too staid at first, but by the second act she had it right—with just the right balance of toughness and concern, with a truly wonderful singing voice and great rapport with the children and especially with McClure as Bert, who as far as I’m concerned was the real star of this show with all of the charm, presence and likeability required for the role as well as excellent dancing ability.  Teeter and Gemme as the children also put in winning performances, and real-life married couple Buntrock and Dilly were appealing as their parents.  The cast was rounded out by some very impressive performers in the smaller roles, most notably Rebecca Finnegan in multiple roles (especially as Mr. Banks’ nightmarish former nanny Miss Andrew) and Laura Ackermann as the Bird Woman.  The ensemble of dancers was extremely strong as well, showing of their abilities to delightful effect in the big production numbers like “Jolly Holiday” and “Step In Time”.

The larger production numbers are where this production really shone. Mr. Banks often expresses his desire for “Precision and Order” (that’s a song, as well) in his household, which often descends into chaos before a balance is eventually found with the timely intervention of Mary Poppins, but here that bears out in the production as well.  In songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (the hands-down best scene in the show) and “Step In Time”, the precision of the choreography makes order out of the seeming chaos of the situation. There is real suspense, for instance, in “Supercali…” when the huge ensemble with their letter placards assemble to spell the word, until it all gloriously comes together at the last possible second.  It’s amazingly timed, making full use of the huge Muny stage, and to marvelous effect.  “Step In Time”, “Jolly Holiday” and new song “Anything Can Happen” are also extremely well performed and add to the sense of whimsy, adventure and wonder of the show.

The technical aspects of the production contributed very well to the atmosphere as well, with the brightly colored modular set, colorful costumes and well-executed lighting effects.  The flying was interesting.  It worked very well especially at the end  when Mary Poppins flew out over the audience (a Muny first, apparently), but seemed clunky at other times in the show, with no attempt to disguise cables and harnesses, even though oddly the clunkiness often added to the charm of the production.

Mary Poppins is ultimately about finding order in chaos and helping parents to understand their children (and vice versa), and about finding adventure and wonder in the everyday tasks of life.  It’s a great show for families to see together, as it’s a show that successfully appeals to all ages.  My personal fondness for the film has remained strong over the years, and I think the stage adaptation stands well on its own.   I was glad to b able to see it again in such a delightful setting. The Muny’s production brought out all the wonder and charm of the piece, and the overall result was magical.

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