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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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Aida
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Directed by Matt Lenz
Choreographed by Jon Rua
August 8, 2016

Cast of Aida Photo: The Muny

Cast of Aida
Photo: The Muny

It’s a musical based on the story from a well-known opera, with music by one of pop music’s most recognizable names. It’s set in ancient Egypt, but with a host of modern musical styles from pop to rock to gospel and more. The show is Aida, and it’s the last–and best–production of the Muny’s 98th season in Forest Park.

Aida is named after its central character, a Nubian princess (Michelle Williams) who has been captured along with others from her country as a result of a recent battle with Egypt. The Nubian captives are taken as slaves by the Egyptians, and Aida keeps her identity as a princess secret. The Egyptian captain, Radames (Zak Resnick), decides to present Aida as a “gift” to be a handmaiden for his betrothed, Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (Taylor Louderman), although he and Aida are obviously attracted to one another. As their attraction grows, political intrigue also grows, as Radames’s unscrupulous father Zoser (Patrick Cassidy) schemes to get his son into power, against Radames’s own wishes. As the story continues, Aida and Radames are increasingly drawn to one another as Aida also develops something of a friendship with Amneris and also confides her secret to her countryman, Mereb (Wonza Johnson), another captured palace servant who wants to reveal her secret to his people. The warlike nature of society, the injustice of slavery and imperialism, roles and expectations of women, social pressures of marriage for political gain vs. love, and other issues are key elements in this story. It’s a love story ultimately, but not only about romantic love. It’s also about love for family, friends, country, and the desire for freedom to live and love as one chooses. The excellent songs by Elton John and Tim Rice portrays these themes with style and a variety of musical styles, ranging from pop to rock to gospel.

The cast here features several performers who have been involved in productions of Aida on Broadway, on tour, and in the last Muny production in 2006, including the excellent Michelle Williams, who previously played the title role on Broadway. She’s in excellent voice here and displays great stage presence and chemistry with Resnick’s conflicted Radames. Their duets are a highlight of the production. Taylor Louderman is also impressive as the initially superficial-seeming Amneris, whose ode to fashion “My Strongest Suit” is a musical and comedic tour de force. Louderman also does a great job portraying her character’s conflict and growth as a character. Also excellent is Johnson as Mereb, with a strong voice and a strong sense of conviction and loyalty to Aida and his people. There’s also a great performance by the Muny’s veteran Ken Page, reprising his 2006 role as Aida’s father, Nubian king Amonasro. Patrick Cassidy, who has previously played Radames on Broadway and on tour, does a fine job here in the somewhat cartoonish role of Zoser, although the vocals seem to be challenging for his range at times. The show also boasts a top notch ensemble, shining vocally and physically in stunning production numbers such as the Act 1 finale, “The Gods Love Nubia”. It’s a wonderful cast all around, telling the story with energy, emotion, and superb skill.

Technically, this production is also a stunner. The expansive, versatile set by Tim Mackabee evokes the Egyptian setting well, with pyramids, desert backdrops, and regal palace settings. Robin L. McGee’s costumes are superbly detailed, as well, suiting the characters well and evoking the time and place. There’s also fantastic lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer and video design by Matthew Young, transporting the audience to a somewhat stylized version of ancient Egypt.

Overall, this has been a good year for the Muny.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see all of the shows this year, missing Fiddler On the Roof because I was out of town that week. Still, the Muny is in excellent hands with Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson, and this production of Aida closes out the season in spectacular fashion. It’s a poignant, musically impressive, visually stunning, superbly acted production. I hadn’t seen this musical, or the opera on which it is based, before, and I’m glad this first-rate production was my introduction to this story.

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick Photo: The Muny

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Aida in Forest Park until August 14, 2016.

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Billy Elliot, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John
Directed by Steven Minning
The Muny
June 16, 2014

Tade Biesinger, Emily Skinner Photo: The Muny

Tade Biesinger, Emily Skinner
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is off to a great start this year.  Having had such a spectacular season last year with probably the three best shows I’ve ever seen at the Muny (West Side Story, Les Miserables, and South Pacific), Executive Producer Mike Isaacson and his team have a lot of live up to. So far, so good, I would say, with tthe first show of the Muny’s 2014 summer season. With a truly remarkable performance by its young lead and with great ensemble support and fantastic dancing, Billy Elliot, makes a winning impression.

A newer musical based on the popular film, Billy Elliot has the creative reputation of composer and pop music icon Elton John on hand, as well as an extremely impressive cast of young performers.  It’s an ideal show for Isaccson’s “New Muny”, in that it contains a lot of crowd-pleasing dance numbers and some great performances, but with a more modern approach and slightly grittier atmosphere. Set against the backdrop of a miners’ strike in a Northern town in England in 1984, resulting from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to privatize the mining industry, this musical tells a story of an unlikely young hero.  Miner’s son Billy (Tade Biesinger) reluctantly takes boxing lessons while his father (Daniel Oreskes) and older brother Tony (Ben Nordsrom) work in the mines and then man the picket lines after the strike is declared.  Billy takes boxing lessons after school but doesn’t enjoy them, although after one session he finds himself in the middle of a ballet class taught by the gruff but kind Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner), who sees Billy’s potential as a dancer and encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School.  From there, the story unfolds with much drama and creative choreography as the events of the miners strike are shown in parallel with Billy’s dance training, and eventually Billy’s dream is threatened by expectations from his family, financial concerns, and the pressure to conform to societal norms in which a miner’s son isn’t expected to become a ballet dancer.

The dancing is at the forefront in this production, as it should be, and young Biesinger displays incredible ability in a variety of dance styles including ballet and tap.  Biesinger is also a fine actor with excellent stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice.  He’s an ideal fit to carry a show that’s named after his character, and every scene he is in is a winner, especially in the dancing scenes including a riveting fantasy sequence in which he dances a section of Swan Lake with an older version of himself (Maximilien Baud).  This scene is s technical wonder as well, with great flying effects.  Biesinger is supported by the excellent work of his co-stars, including Skinner who excels in fun numbers like “Shine” (in which Billy is introduced to the dance class) and “Born to Boogie”.  Michael Harp is also wonderful as Billy’s sweet best friend Michael, who likes to wear women’s clothes and shows off spectacularly in the charming “Expressing Yourself”, also shining in the dance department and tapping alongside Biesinger in a show-stopping production number.  Oreskes is also a strong as Billy’s Dad, who begins to display a real warmth and vulnerability despite his initially cold exterior.  His voice is a little rough-sounding on songs like the poignant “Deep Into the Ground”, but it fits the character so it works for me.  Patti Perkins, in a featured role as Billy’s Grandma, also has a great musical moment with “We’d Go Dancing” along with the excellent Men’s Ensemble.  Nordstrom is fine as the determined, resentful Tony as well, although his character isn’t given a lot to do and he disappears for long sections of the story.  The whole ensemble is very strong here, with excellent dancing especially, and strong singing and presence on group songs like the darkly comic “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the wistful “Once We Were Kings”.

The choreography, originally by Peter Darling and re-created for the Muny by Alison Levenberg, is another star of this show.  With a fusion of various styles from modern dance to tap and, of course, ballet, the dance numbers are among the most memorable I’ve seen in any production and not just at the Muny.  The clever staging of numbers like “Solidarity”, in which Billy’s dance training is juxtaposed with the miners’ protests at the mine, is a real highlight.  Visually, the color palette is one of darker tones like charcoal grays and browns, with occasional accents of orange and yellow in the the period-specific costumes designed by Nicky Gillibrand and coordinated by Tracy Christensen.  The set, by Robert Mark Morgan, is also in these more muted tones, with a split backdrop of row houses to represent the town, and various movable set pieces to suggest the Elliots’ house, the town hall, and the mine.  Video footage and still images from the era are put to excellent use in establishing the overall mood as well.  It’s a very cohesive look and atmosphere that successfully evokes a very specific time and place. I should also note here that the Northern English accents are, for the most part, excellently articulated by the cast.

This is a show with several messages–of the importance of acceptance, of family ties and responsibilities, of daring to be different and pursuing one’s dreams on one hand, while having to deal with the disappointed hopes and crushed dreams of a whole town on the other hand.  The relationships are very well-played here, with surprisingly little sentimentality and melodrama.  I’m also impressed by the effective use of fantasy sequences such as the aforementioned Swan Lake scene, and Billy’s occasional conversations with his late mother (Molly Garner), especially in the very moving song “Dear Billy” and its later reprise.

This show strikes me as a shining example of everything that’s good about the “New Muny” under Isaacson’s tenure. It’s a top-notch quality show with elements of what the Muny loves (dance, big production numbers, flashy technical elements, a very large ensemble), but in a slightly more modern and sometimes grittier form than some of the more classic musicals that the Muny has been known for, even though  I’m sure the Muny will still be producing the classics as well. Superb productions like this one help to emphasize the Muny’s return to a world-class level of performance, and I hope the trend continues throughout this summer season.

 

The Cast of Billy Elliot Photo: The Muny

The Cast of Billy Elliot
Photo: The Muny

 

 

 

 

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