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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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Grey Gardens
Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Max & Louie Productions
July 9, 2016

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Grey Gardens, the offbeat musical based on a cult-hit 1975 documentary about two reclusive relatives of Jackie Kennedy’s, is making its St. Louis debut with a presentation by the ambitious Max & Louie Productions. Although the source material was also made into an HBO movie in 2009, I don’t think audiences need to be familiar with the story to enjoy this stunning, memorable production. The top-notch production values, ideal casting, and thoughtful direction makes this a show that should intrigue audiences regardless of whether they have seen either of the films.

I can make the above statement with some authority since, while I had heard of the films, I had never seen either before seeing this production. I had heard a few of the songs before, but aside from that and from knowing a little bit about the story on which the films and show are based, I went into this production with a fresh perspective, and I’m glad that this excellent production could be my introduction to the show. It’s the story of a mother and daughter–Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” Beale, who were at the height of New England society in the first part of the 20th Century, but by the 1970s had become reclusive and lived together surrounded by clutter and cats in their once-grand mansion, Grey Gardens, The show’s two acts show the audience their existence at two important eras of their lives, the 1940’s and the 1970s. Debby Lennon plays “big” Edith in the 1940s and older “Little” Edie in the 1970s, with Donna Weinsting playing “Big” Edith in the 70s and Madeline Purches playing the younger “Little” Edie in the 40s.  It’s a depiction of these women’s close but volatile relationship and the eccentricities of both.

In a way, this is almost two plays, although Act 2 is essentially dependent on Act 1 as background. Act 1 shows Edith Bouvier Beale in her prime, as she holds court in her palatial mansion planning an engagement party for Edie and her fiance’, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), although despite her daughter’s wishes, Edith intends to make the party more of a concert with herself as the star, accompanied by her ever-present pianist, George Gould Shaw (Terry Meddows). While Edie and Joe hope for the future, Edith lives in a somewhat deluded version of the present, where her ever absent husband is just “too busy” to be around, although she clings to the hope that he will be there to attend the party. The future is also represented by Edith’s young nieces Jackie (Phoebe Desilets) and Lee (Carter Eiseman) who are encouraged to “Marry Well” and fit into society by their domineering grandfather, Edith’s father J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Tom Murray). All the grand plans don’t go entirely as planned, however, and the result of what happens is seen in Act 2, where the mother and daughter are still living in the shell of a mansion and “Little” Edie clearly resents being tied to her mother, who has turned her attentions to the cats and to a hippie-ish young man named Jerry (also Bonfiglio) while the ghosts of the 1940s characters remain as a chorus of echoes from the past. It’s a difficult play to describe, and I don’t want to say too much so as to spoil it, but there’s a lot to see here and this wonderful cast makes it fascinating to watch.

The music ranges from more classical to more popular sounding songs, and the lead part of Act 1 Edith/Act 2 Little Edie is a demanding one, in terms of acting as well as musically. Fortunately, this production has the marvelous Debby Lennon, who gives a commanding performance, holding court as the imperious Edith in the 1940s and as the resentful, regretful, offbeat Little Edie of the 70s. There’s a suggestion of emotional/mental challenges for both women, although Edith seems much more assured in Act 1, trying to control the life of her only daughter, the excellent Purches as the desperately ambitious young Little Edie. In Act 2, when Lennon becomes the haunted, erratic older version of Little Edie, the superb Weinsting takes over as a sadder but not necessarily wiser Edith. Mother and daughter in Act 2 have a caustic, if dependent, relationship, and this is expertly played by both actresses and staged well by director Annamaria Pileggi, as silence and deliberation becomes as important in communication as the speaking. There are also strong performances from Meddows as the jaded, snarky pianist Gould, Murray as the affable but domineering Major Bouvier, and Desilets and Eiseman in winning performances as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier. Bonfiglio and Omega Jones are also memorable in dual roles–Bonfiglio as the ambitious Joe Kennedy and as the sweet slacker Jerry, and Jones as the Beale’s butler Brooks in the first act, and as his son the groundskeeper Brooks, Jr. in the second. The whole ensemble is excellent, working together well and presenting the material with clarity, ably supporting Lennon and Weinsting, whose performances are the anchor of this production.

The production values here are first rate, with a meticulously detailed set by Dunsi Dai that allows is appropriately luxurious in the first act, and then dressed down in Act 2 to show the mansion’s state of disrepair. There are also colorful, ideally suited costumes by Jennifer JC Krajicek and hair and wig design by Emma Bruntrager , highlighting the high style of the rich elites in the first act, and reflecting more eccentric personal styles of the Edies in the second. Michael Sullivan’s lighting is used to excellent effect to help set the scene and tone of each era.

The overall tone of this piece is melancholy, with shades of lost hope, regret, and emotional dependence. Still, these are truly formidable women regardless of their circumstances, and their story is vividly portrayed here. Max & Louie’s shows are always memorable, and this one is no exception. It’s an extraordinary work of theatre, not to be missed.

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Production  is presenting Grey Gardens in the Wool Studio Theatre the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 23, 2015.

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Quills
by Doug Wright
Directed by Brooke Edwards
Max & Louie Productions
August 2, 2014

Ted Gregory Photo by John Lamb Max and Louie Productions

Ted Gregory
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

It may seem strange, at first thought, that when looking to make a statement about artistic expression vs. censorship, playwright Doug Wright chose as his subject one of the most incendiary figures in the history of world literature.  French aristocrat and writer the Marquis de Sade lived and wrote in a manner that sparked much controversy, and the literary value of his prurient writings is still debated to this day.  Wright could easily have written a more modern story about censorship, avoiding the association with the controversial Sade.  Still, after seeing Max & Louie Productions’ impeccably staged production of Wright’s Quills, it becomes more clear why Wright chose to convey his message in this manner. It’s a story of extremes–of how the extreme desire to suppress the extreme ideas of another person can often bring out the most extreme and unsavory aspects of one’s own human nature. Expertly acted and presented, this production conveys its ideas clearly and memorably.

The story here is more symbolic than factual.  While the basic facts of Sade’s imprisonment at Charenton Asylum are true, the actual situation portrayed here is Wright’s invention. When Sade’s estranged wife Reenee Pelagie (Stacie Knock) is increasingly shunned by society because of her association with the notorious Marquis, she appeals to the asylum’s newly appointed director, Doctor Royer-Collard (David Wassilak) to stop her husband’s incessant and inflammatory writing, offering generous financial compensation as incentive.  The doctor, renowned for his commitment to traditional morality and his preference for more brutal methods of curbing the behavior of his patients, enlists the more benevolent Abbe de Coulmier (Antonio Rodriguez) in implementing his plans to silence the Marquis.  Meanwhile, Sade (Ted Gregory) has been enjoying relatively lenient treatment, indulging in his literary pursuits in his well-appointed cell, sipping wine and sharing his bawdy stories with the asylum’s kind-hearted seamstress, Madeleine Leclerc (Caitlin Mickey), for whom the Abbe harbors an attraction.  Through various inducements, the doctor uses the Abbe’s genuine concern about the well-being of the patients to induce him into more and more extreme methods of enforcing the ban on the Marquis’s writing, all the while Sade continues to seek to express his ideas with increasingly brutal consequences. There’s also a subplot about the doctor’s engaging an architect (Charlie Barron) to design a palatial home for his not quite virtuous wife (also Mickey), more as a way to keep her out of the public spotlight and save his own reputation than for her benefit.

There are several messages in this play, with the central one being that externally imposed censorship of art is not only bad–it doesn’t actually work in the long run, and the subject of the censorship often becomes much more well-known than he would have been (as echoed by Wright in the audience talk-back after the show). Also, even if the works are stopped, the thoughts behind them continue, and can only grow more and more insidious. Morality, for people like the doctor, becomes as Sade declares “a convenience”, and a means with which to exercise control. The Abbe becomes something of a surrogate for the audience, as his own struggles with maintaining his own principles in the face of pressure reflect the modern struggle to find balance between artistic expression, societal expectations and personal integrity.  Amid characters like the amoral Sade and the conflicted Abbe, the real villain here is the doctor, who seeks to further his own agenda while keeping his own hands “clean”, and more damage is done from the efforts to suppress the Marquis’s writings than had been done when he had been provided all the paper and quills he needed.

Wright’s script is masterfully written, with sharp dialogue, well drawn characters and even some fantastical elements thrown in for good measure, and director Brooke Wright’s production expresses the script as ideally as I can imagine.  With strong technical aspects such as Cyndi Lohrmann’s richly appointed costumes, Dunsi Dai’s appropriately atmospheric set, and Maureen Berry’s expert lighting design, the story comes to vivid life as the mood shifts from a more genteel, light start to a noticeably darker, more primal and horrific atmosphere as the play continues. The storytelling is enhanced especially in the remarkable performances of the uniformly excellent cast, with Gregory as Sade and Rodriguez as the Abbe being the standouts.  I’ve seen Rodriguez in many shows around St. Louis, and he’s never been better than he is here, making the struggle between his compassion, the doctor’s directions, and his own personal issues readily apparent.  Gregory is all oily charm as Sade, and regardless about what one may think about his writings, as the efforts to stop his writing become more and more intense,  it’s difficult not to sympathize with him in his increasingly desperate situation. These two are the focal point of this play, although there is not a weak link in this cast. Wassilak is memorable as the steely, unflappable doctor, and Mickey and Barron both shine in dual roles–Mickey as the sweet young seamstress and as the doctor’s lascivious wife, and Barron as the dandified architect and as brutish asylum patient who participates in an ill-fated scheme of Sade’s.

This play isn’t always easy to watch, as situations grow more and more grave and extreme and the outcome is increasingly unsavory.  Still, it’s an intriguing study of the effects of censorship, hypocrisy and morality-as-control, as well as the power of artistic expression. It’s a worthy topic for thought and discussion, and regardless of what one thinks about Sade as a person or as a writer, the extremity of his situation makes for an ideal setting to explore the many angles of this topic. Kudos to Max & Louie Productions for bringing this fascinating play to the St. Louis audience, especially in such a well-crafted production.  In addition to entertaining, art can instruct, anger, provoke, inspire and inform; and this play manages to do all of those things in the course of an evening. While it’s  not for all audiences (leave the kids at home), it’s a remarkable theatrical achievement.

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak Photo by John Lamb Max  & Louie Productions

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

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