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Mean Girls
Book by Tina Fey, Music by Jeff Richmond, Lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
February 15, 2022

Cast of Mean Girls
Photo by Jenny Anderson
Mean Girls North American Tour

Mean Girls, the movie, is one of those films that I feel like I’ve seen even though I haven’t. It’s become so ingrained in the culture, especially for people who were high school age when it came out, that it’s been the subject of much quoting and meme-ing over the years since it was first released in 2004. I’ve heard so much about it since then, even though I’m a little older than its main demographic. Now, the tour based on the 2018 Broadway musical, adapted by original film writer Tina Fey along with Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin, is onstage at the Fox, which is my first time actually seeing this story directly. For the most part, it’s an entertaining production that certainly makes the audience happy, and features some excellent performances in its lead roles. There’s also a whole lot of energy, if not necessarily a lot of story elements that haven’t been done before.

It’s a high school story, and as such the musical contains a lot of the typical “high school movie” tropes, with cliques, quests for popularity, teenage romances, and more. The action here centers on Cady Herron (Danielle Wade), a newcomer to North Shore High School after having been raised in Kenya and homeschooled. The story is narrated as “A Cautionary Tale” according the show’s opening number, by artsy kids Janis (Mary Kate Morris) and Damian (Eric Huffman), who take it upon themselves to befriend Cady and help her find her place at the school among its many social groups. Soon, however, she is introduced to the “Plastics”, a group of influential but manipulative girls led by the self-centered Regina George (Nadina Hassan), who along with the insecure Gretchen (Olivia Renteria) and ditzy Karen (Jonalyn Saxer), tries to dominate the social scene at the school. Cady is soon immersed in the world of the Plastics, sitting with them at lunch and being adopted into their group while still trying to maintain friendships with “outcasts” Janis and Damian, as well as trying to court the attention of calculus classmate and Regina’s ex, Aaron Samuels (Adante Carter), to whom she is attracted. Inevitably, Cady learns that all this trying to reinvent herself doesn’t exactly pay off, and lessons are learned by all about the nature of friendship. authenticity, and acceptance.

Mean Girls, as staged on tour, is a fun show with some memorable numbers and an energetic cast, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done in a variety of high school stories going back decades. Also, for anyone who hadn’t seen the film, the story is somewhat hard to follow especially in the first act because so much of the story is told in the songs, which the uneven sound mixing made difficult to understand. Still, the cast gives their all, with some impressive performances especially from Wade as the likable but conflicted Cady, Carter as the sweet-natured but also conflicted Aaron, and Huffman and Morrissey who are quirky and ideal narrators as Damian and Janis. There’s also a sweetly goofy performance from Lawrence E. Street as school principal Mr. Duvall, and a versatile multi-role turn from April Josephine as Cady’s mom, Regina’s mom, and influential math teacher Ms. Norbury. The Plastics are also memorable, with excellent comic timing from Renteria (the understudy) and Saxer, and a strong sense of presence from Hassan as Regina. The singing is strong throughout, and the dancing, choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw, is enthusiastic and full of energy. There’s a strong ensemble filling out the cast, as well, and all seem to be having fun with this somewhat busy but entertaining story.

Technically, aside from the aforementioned sound issues, the show dazzles. There’s a bright, colorful, and versatile set by Scott Pask, as well as fun and clever video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young and lighting by Kenneth Posner. The colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes, hair design by Josh Marquette, and makeup by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira also contribute to the overall bold and whimsical tone of the production. 

If you’re expecting Mean Girls to be fun and full of energy, you won’t be disappointed. I can’t say anything about the adaptation from the film because I haven’t seen the movie, although this show did make me want to see it. This show isn’t world-changing or deeply profound, but it’s got a great cast, vivid characters, and a fun sense of humor. It’s an entertaining way to spend an evening at the Fox.

Adante Carter, Danielle Wade
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mean Girls North American Tour

The North American tour of Mean Girls is running at the Fox Theatre until February 27, 2022

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The Prom
Book by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin
Music by Matthew Sklar, Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
January 28th, 2022

Kaden Kearney
Photo by Deen Van Meer
The Prom North American Tour

The Prom is a Tony-nominated musical with several St. Louis connections among its producers. It also was made into a Netflix film with an all-star cast. Here, in the show’s touring company based on the Broadway production, there are no “household names” in the cast, but there’s plenty of star power and a lot of energy on stage at the Fabulous Fox, as the story of a small town high school, a teenage girl,  a prom controversy and some (eventually) well-meaning Broadway meddlers comes to St. Louis in a memorable and crowd-pleasing production.

The story starts where this show earned its accolades: on Broadway, as  a pair of egotistical veteran Broadway performers, Dee Dee Allen (Ashley Bruce) and Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) are at a swanky after party for their just opened musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, where they played the leads. When the reviews don’t go so well and their publicist, Sheldon Saperstein (Thad Turner Wilson) tells them their narcissistic image needs improving, they get the idea of doing some kind of good deed to get publicity. Their colleague, perpetual chorus member Angie (Emily Borromeo) looks on her phone and sees a trending story about high school student Emma (Kaden Kearney), a lesbian who has been told that she can’t take another girl to the prom with her, so the school has canceled the prom altogether. The three, along with Sheldon and  “between gigs” actor Trent (Jordan Alexander), decide that they will make Emma their cause, and so they head to Indiana. At the high school, Emma struggles with the idea of being the “face” of a growing controversy and being ridiculed by her classmates and blamed for the lack of a prom. Meanwhile, her intended prom date, Alyssa (Kalyn West), is afraid to go public because nobody knows about her sexual orientation or her relationship with Emma, including her perfectionist mother, PTA president Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria), who is strongly opposed to the idea of holding an inclusive prom. The school’s principal, Mr. Hawkins (Christopher McCrewell), is on Emma’s side, and is trying to go through legal channels to help, but finds his plans and his life disrupted by the arrival of the actors, including Dee Dee, of whom he is a longtime fan, but who may not live up to his idealistic image of her.

That description is just the beginning, as we learn more about the characters as the story plays out in sometimes predictable but sometimes surprising ways. It’s mostly a broad comedy with a lot of knowing humor about theatre and Broadway actors in particular, as well as portraying inter-generational friendships and lessons in tolerance, communication and, as one upbeat song explains, the biblical ideal of “Love Thy Neighbor”. There’s exuberant dancing choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw, as well as some more humorous and poignant moments. It’s a fun show, with a lot of big, Broadway energy and good deal of small town charm.

The cast is especially strong, and particularly impressive in that there are more than a few understudies performing. Bruce, Wilson, Alexander, and McCrewell were all covering for the principal performers, and all gave excellent performances and wouldn’t be easily picked out as understudies, except that Bruce slightly underplays the over-the-top Dee Dee. The standouts, though, are the terrific Kearney, who shows off a lot of heart, stage presence and a great voice as Emma, and Wetzel, as the larger-than-life Barry, who has some great bonding moments with Emma. There’s also a strong and enthusiastic ensemble to fill out the cast.

Technically, the show is big, bold, and colorful, with dazzling sets Scott Pask that fill out the Fox stage well, as well as excellent detailed costumes by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman. Natasha Katz’s lighting also adds sparkle and style to the proceedings, and Brian Ronan’s sound design is crisp and clear. There’s also a strong orchestra conducted by Chris Gurr. 

There are a lot of memorable characters in The Prom, and an overall emphasis on the importance of communication, humility, kindness, and bravery as well as tolerance and acceptance. With a fun, memorable score and a big, enthusiastic cast, it entertains and leaves a memorable impression. It’s a show I had heard a lot about, and I’m glad I finally was able to see.

Cast of The Prom
Photo by Deen Van Meer
The Prom North American Tour

The North American Tour of The Prom is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 6, 2022

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Pretty Woman: The Musical
Book by Garry Marshall & J.F. Lawton, Music by Bryan Adams & Jim Vallance
Based on the Touchstone Motion Picture Written by J.F. Lawton
Directed and Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
The Fox Theatre
November 16, 2021

Olivia Valli and Cast of Pretty Woman: The Musical
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Pretty Woman: The Musical  US Tour

Pretty Woman is a well-known movie from 1990, and now it’s a musical, on tour across the country after a run on Broadway. Now it’s at the Fox, representing a return to touring shows for the venue after a fairly long hiatus. It’s a welcome return, and Pretty Woman: The Musical is more entertaining than I expected it to be, considering that this is one of those “film to stage” shows that makes me wonder why it was necessary in the first place. Still, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and despite a few issues with the show itself, it does provide an excellent showcase for its lead star, and several memorable supporting players.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the plot. Little has been changed here, except for the addition of a “narrator” character, Happy Man (Kyle Taylor Parker), who appears in various roles throughout the production, most notably a seller of “Maps to the Stars” on Hollywood Boulevard, and Mr. Thompson, the manager of the ritzy Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where much of the story takes place. After an intro from Happy Man and the cast, we get to meet Vivian Ward (Olivia Valli) and her friend Kit De Luca (Jessica Crouch), a pair of “working girls” on the Boulevard. Relatively new at her trade, Vivian wonders how she got where she is, and wishes for something different. A change arrives in the form of Edward Lewis (Adam Pascal), a rich, jaded businessman who spends the evening and night with Vivian, and is intrigued enough by her quirky personality that he hires her to be his date for the week. He’s in town for a big business deal, in which he hopes to buy out a struggling company so he can sell off its assets for a profit, which is essentially all that his company does. Of course, the week’s worth of swanky parties requires a makeover for Vivian, for which Edward foots the bill, but she has a lot of surprises in store for him, as well.

As mentioned, it’s essentially the exact same plot as the film with a few tweaks, and of course, the songs, which are hit-or-miss, and some seem kind of forced into place. Still, there are memorable moments, such as when Edward takes Vivian to the opera and the song “You and I” sung by Edward and Vivian is blended with scenes from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which provides for the most memorable moment in the show, featuring the showstopping vocals of Amma Osei as Violetta. There are also some fun comedy moments provided by Crouch as the tough-talking Kit, Parker in his various guises as Happy Man, and especially Matthew Vincent Taylor as the hotel’s enthusiastic bellboy, Giulio. There are some fun dance moments, as well, featuring Parker and Taylor. As for the two romantic leads, Pascal is good in a fairly dull role as Edward, showing off his strong, rock-influenced vocals and displaying good-enough chemistry with Valli, who is the real standout here in an energetic, quirky performance as Vivian. It’s her energy that drives the show much of the time, even at times managing to make up for the deficiencies of the somewhat lackluster book. The choreography by director Jerry Mitchell is strong, too, and the production numbers are especially entertaining, featuring a strong, enthusiastic ensemble. 

One especially striking aspect of this production is the set, by David Rockwell and how dynamic it is, coordinating with the choreography of the scenes much of the time. The various set piece are “flown” in and out with impressive efficiency, creating the 1980’s look of the show with vibrant style. There are also fun, colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes that highlight the era and setting, which is helped by Josh Marquette’s hair design and Fiona Mifsud’s makeup. Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting also adds sparkle and style to the proceedings, and the band led by Daniel Klintwork does well with the show’s score.

The 1980’s setting also provides for some fun little prop moments that add to the entertainment value of the show, and ultimately it is entertaining, even if it’s not a brilliant show, and I still wonder why Pretty Woman needed to be a musical. Still, there’s a lot to like here, especially in the performances and setting, and there’s a fun curtain call moment featuring the well-known song from which the movie and musical got their title, “Oh Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. If you like the film, you’ll probably enjoy the musical as well. It’s also nice to be able to see musical at the Fox again, at long last.

Amma Osei, Olivia Valli, Adam Pascal, and cast of Pretty Woman: The Musical
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Pretty Woman: The Musical US Tour

The US Tour of Pretty Woman: The Musical is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 28, 2021

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The Band’s Visit
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
The Fox Theatre
February 25, 2020

Sasson Gabay, Janet Dacal
Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
The Band’s Visit North American Tour

The Band’s Visit is a Tony-Winning musical that’s more about characters and atmosphere than plot. That’s a good thing, in this case, since the characters are so well-drawn and the atmosphere is haunting and memorable. Currently on tour at the Fox, this production boasts an excellent cast and a stunning sense of musicality to underscore these characters’ simple but profound stories.

It’s not a long play, running at 90 minutes with no intermission, and the setup is simple. An Egyptian police band has arrived in Israel to perform a concert, having been invited to appear at the opening of a cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva. There’s a misunderstanding at the bus station, however, and the band ends up in the small, out-of-the-way town of Bet Hatikva. Once the mistake is realized, band leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and his band are informed that the next bus arrives the following day, so they find themselves unexpectedly spending the night in the town, making the acquaintance of local restaurant owner Dina (Janet Dacal) and her employees Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Papi (played at the performance I saw by standby Danny Burgos). The various band members split up and spend the evening with the locals. Tewfiq and the suave Haled (Joe Joseph) stay with Dina, and Dina shows Tewfiq the town while Haled tags along with Papi and his friend on a double date, discovering that Papi is insecure and doesn’t know how to connect with his date. Clarinetist and composer Simon (James Rana) stays with Itzik’s family, forming a bond and finding himself helping in an unexpected way. Dina and Tewfiq share a bond and an attraction, but Tewfiq is haunted by past regrets. Meanwhile, the ever-persistent “Telephone Guy” (Mike Cefalo) waits by a payphone hour after hour for his long-absent girlfriend to call. This is more a series of episodes with a common theme than one cohesive story, and ultimately there is a message of persistence and hope in the midst of regret and despair, as well as finding common bonds among people from different cultures. There’s a memorable score by David Yazbek with standout songs like “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different” for Dina, and “Haled’s Song of Love” as well as the emotive “Answer Me” and more, played with heartrending beauty by the onstage band conducted by Adrian Ries.

The production values here are impressive, especially considering this is a tour, with detailed, fluidly-moving set by Scott Pask that represents all the various locations in the town and uses the stage’s turntable particularly well. There’s also evocative lighting by Tyler Micoleau that further sets and maintains the show’s lyrical tone and mood. Also excellent are the detailed costumes by Sarah Laux that help bring these characters to life along with the stunning performances.

As for those performances, the entire ensemble is strong here, with superb voices and strong presence. The heart of the show is the connection between Dacal’s bold Dina and Gabay’s soft-spoken Tewfiq, and both performers are stunning in their portrayals and in their chemistry. Other standouts include Joseph as the smooth-voiced ladies’ man Haled, Burgos as the anxious Papi, and the clear-voiced Koch as Itzik, who gets a poignant moment with “Itzik’s Lullabye”. Cefalo is also memorable as the determined Telephone Guy. The whole cast is strong, with a strong sense of cohesive energy and determination, singing the score well and bringing out the emotion of the memorable score.

Overall, The Band’s Visit is about little moments that turn out to be bigger than expected. It’s a “little” show in some ways, with a short run time and a relatively small cast, but it’s got a big heart and sense of musicality that shines through even beyond the curtain call. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking production.

The North American tour of The Band’s Visit is running at the Fox Theatre until March 8, 2020

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Dear Evan Hansen
Book by Steven Levenson, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Danny Mefford
The Fox Theatre
October 23, 2019

Cast of Dear Evan Hansen
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Dear Evan Hansen National Tour

I was especially looking forward to the latest touring production at the Fox, having heard a great deal about it before, although I hadn’t managed to see it yet. Dear Evan Hansen has had a lot of hype, and won a lot of awards, and inspired quite a bit of debate along the way, and now it’s here in St. Louis in an engaging, thought-provoking, visually stunning production that’s timely and inventive, and sure to spark discussion about the various issues it raises. With striking technical qualities and an especially strong cast, it’s a show that, at least for me, has lived up to its hype.

This show is as striking for its format as it is for its story. While I’m sometimes skeptical of “teen” because they often seem to be using the same tropes over and over again, Dear Evan Hansen has something a little different to say along with some of the usual territory but with an inventive structure that makes it seem more fresh. The story focuses on various issues including mental health, teen suicide, parent-child relationships, communication in the social media age, and more. It centers on Evan Hansen (Stephen Michael Anthony), a socially awkward teenager who writes letters to himself as an assignment from his therapist. Evan lives with his constantly busy single mother, Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), who works a full-time job as a nurse and also takes classes to become a paralegal, so she doesn’t have as much time as she would like to spend with Evan. Starting his senior year of high school, Evan isn’t particularly looking forward to school. He doesn’t have any friends to speak of, except for the snarky Jared (Alessandro Costantini), who seems to only talk to Evan because their families know each other. Evan also has a crush on schoolmate Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle), who has a difficult life of her own, with a troubled older brother Connor (Noah Kieserman) and parents, Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Claire Rankin) who seem so preoccupied with Connor that they don’t pay as much attention to Zoe. When Connor and Evan briefly cross paths before an unexpected tragic event, Evan finds himself caught in a web of untruths that start as a misunderstanding and then spiral into more, until before Evan knows it, he’s all over social media and getting more attention than he ever could have dreamed. With the assistance of Jared–who knows the truth–and another classmate, Alana (Ciara Alyse Harris)–who doesn’t know–Evan becomes leader of a movement, as he also grows closer to Zoe and her family, and his relationship with his own mother grows increasingly strained. As events go spiraling out of Evan’s control, and as his new-found popularity begins to affect his personality, Evan is faced with a difficult choice. What will he do, and how will these events effect everyone around him?

This is a dynamically staged show, with a look and feel unlike other musicals I’ve seen. David Korins’s scenic design features movable set pieces representing Evan’s bedroom, the Murphys’ house, and more, and everything is surrounded by screens with projections designed by Peter Negrini, representing social media posts, e-mails, and more, in a constant flow of information that coincides with the plot as it unfolds. There’s also striking lighting  by Japhy Weideman that enhances the overall look and feel of the production, and detailed character-specific costumes by Emily Rebholz. The band, led by music director Garret Healey, delivers the driving, emotional, contemporary sounding score with flair.

The cast for this show is deceptively small. There are eight characters, but the staging and big sound make it seem like there are more. There is some support from various voices representing the social media posts, but onstage there are only the eight cast members, led by a truly remarkable performance from Anthony as the fast-talking, nervous, initially lonely, conflicted Evan. Anthony has a great tenor voice for songs like “Waving Through a Window”, “For Forever”, “You Will Be Found”, and “Words Fail”. Evan is very much the center of this show, and Anthony’s performance drives the story well. Also excellent is La Rochelle in a relatable and well-sung performance as Zoe, as well as Hemphill and Harris as her struggling parents, and Sherman who is especially strong as the loving but overworked Heidi. There’s excellent support from Kieserman whose Connor becomes something of a voice of conscience for Evan; from Costantini as the sarcastic Jared; and Harris as the ambitious, somewhat bossy Alana. It’s a superb ensemble, surrounding Anthony’s tour-de-force performance with strong characterizations, vocals, and energy.

Dear Evan Hansen is a show that strikes me as a good basis for an ethics discussion, as it raises so many issues of what can happen when one small untruth spirals into something much, much bigger. It’s easy to think about something when you’re not in the middle of it, but what happens when things get out of control? Also, what is the role of peer pressure and viral social media culture in all this? This is a show that leaves a lot to think about, and to talk about. It’s also a showcase for a dynamic, remarkable lead performance and a stellar supporting cast. This Evan Hansen is definitely worth hearing from.

Steven Christopher Anthony, John Hemphill, Claire Rankin, Stephanie La Rochelle
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Dear Evan Hansen National Tour

 

The National Tour of Dear Evan Hansen is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 3, 2019

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Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
The Fox Theatre
October 1, 2019

Cast of Hello, Dolly!
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Dolly! National Tour

I’ve seen Hello Dolly! a few times now, at various levels from dinner theatre to regional theatre, as well as the movie. Now, the Fox is presenting the tour based on the recent Broadway revival. My first reaction upon seeing this new production is “it’s Hello, Dolly!” What I mean is that it’s basically what you would expect. There are no reinventions or re-imaginings here. In fact, this one seems to be trying to preserve the spirit of the original Broadway production, and original director, choreographer Gower Champion is even listed in the credits. What is somewhat different about this production is that the emphasis seems to be on the lead performer more than ever, which makes sense since it was originally designed as a vehicle for Bette Midler. Here, with the role being taken by Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello, that starry sheen is as evident as ever, and the title character is certainly the star of the show.

The story is the same familiar tale–of matchmaker and all-around professional meddler Dolly Gallagher Levi (Carmello), who after years of making matches for other people, has decided that she’s tired of being a widow and wants to set up a match for herself. The object of her scheme is curmudgeonly Yonkers-based “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (John Bolton), who thinks he’s being paired with widowed hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming), but he doesn’t know Dolly has other plans. This show also has an especially strong “B” plot that, for me, often upstages the “A” plot–that focusing on Horace’s sheltered and overworked chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Daniel Beeman), who along with young assistant Barnaby Tucker (Sean Burns) takes advantage of the boss’s absence to take an adventurous day trip to New York City, eventually crossing paths with Irene and her young assistant, Minnie Fay (Chelsea Cree Groen). There are some other subplots as well, that all eventually get tied together, with memorable characters and some increasingly hilarious situations, all while Dolly tries to reconcile her future plans with her past, while manipulating situations to her advantage.

Of course, this show, being named after its main character, needs to have a stand-out star in the role, and more than any other stage production I’ve seen, this one has that. I’ve seen some excellent performers as Dolly, but this whole production is essentially Carmello being backed by everyone else. That’s not to disparage the rest of the cast–everyone is excellent, with Bolton a fine, cantankerous Horace, and particular standout performances from Burns as an eager, amiably and athletically dancing Barnaby, Groen as the outspoken Minnie Fay, and a fun, expressive turn by Laura Sky Herman as Horace’s nervous niece, Ermengarde. Beeman and Leaming also show fine chemistry as Cornelius and Irene. There’s also a great, energetic ensemble filling out splashy, dazzling production numbers like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and Before the Parade Passes By”. Still, the main focus is on Carmello, as it should be because she’s terrific. She’s got everything anyone would want in a Dolly, and more, with a great voice, the big personality to fill out the stage even when she’s the only one on it, especially impressive comic timing and physical comedy skills, and an emotional range that brings poignancy to her more serious moments. It’s a tour-de-force performance.

Another standout feature of this show is its dazzling physical production. It’s a great-looking, fresh-from-Broadway stylish presentation, with a stunning, highly detailed set and fantastically colorful costumes, both by Santo Loquasto. There’s also excellent lighting by Natasha Katz and sound by Scott Lehrer. The production is also accompanied by a delightful orchestra led by Ben Whitely, making the classic score sound great.

The only major drawback to reviewing this production is that Carolee Carmello has joined the show so recently that there aren’t any production photos of her yet. Still, she’s the reason to see this show. It’s a fun, energetic production, with a good cast, but Carmello is the star, filling this great, classic role with style.

Cast of Hello, Dolly!
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Dolly! National Tour

The North American tour of Hello Dolly! is being presented at the Fox Theatre until October 13, 2019

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Waitress
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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Fiddler On the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Original Direction by Bartlett Sher
Original Choreography by Hofesh Shechter
Choreography Recreated by Christopher Evans
The Fox Theatre
January 29, 2019

Yehezkel Lazarov
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fiddler on the Roof North American Tour

This is Fiddler on the Roof, but not exactly as you may have seen it before. The national tour of Bartlett Sher’s most recent Broadway revival takes this time-honored classic and injects it with a fresh energy. It’s still the same show, essentially, but some staging changes and some especially strong performances highlight the strength of the material in a new and refreshing way, anchored by an especially strong leading performance and ensemble cast.

As beloved as Fiddler on the Roof is, one of the challenges to staging it is that, for most professional productions, the staging has strictly adhered to the original Jerome Robbins staging and choreography. As excellent as that is, if you see enough productions of the show, it can all seem too similar after a while. The most recent revival, while still using the Robbins staging and choreography as the basis, brought in a new choreographer, Hofesh Schechter, to change up some of the dances, and acclaimed director Bartlett Sher has added a simple but effective framing device to add an element of timeless transcendence to the story. These elements, along with an energetic, well-chosen cast, have brought a sense of vibrancy to this show that is especially refreshing. The story is the same, following Jewish milkman Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov) and his family in 1905 Tsarist Russia, but now, everything seems more immediate somehow. The relationships between Tevye and his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal) and his daughters, and between his three oldest daughers Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch), and Chava (Natalie Powers) and their suitors Motel (Jesse Weil), Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia), and Fyedka (Joshua Logan Alexander) seem even more authentic and credible. From classic solo moments like “If I Were a Rich Man” to big production numbers like “To Life”, “Tevye’s Dream”, and especially the entire wedding sequence, the energy is readily apparent, with new relationship dynamics subtly suggested, and with a great deal of energy and heart. Even the poignant ending is given a new sense of timelessness and hope without denying the inherent sadness of the situation.

There’s a great cast here, as well, led by the dynamic, charismatic performance of Lazarov as Tevye. With a strong voice and excellent stage presence, Lazarov brings all the energy, charm, likability and complexity of Tevye to the stage, leading the cast with a powerful performance. He’s well supported by a strong ensemble, as well, with standout performances from Uzal as Golde, Carol Beaugard as the determined matchmaker Yente, Jonathan Von Mering as the lonely butcher Lazar Wolf, and especially all three daughter-suitor combinations, with Weyn and Weil having particularly excellent chemistry. There’s a strong singing and dancing ensemble supporting the leads, as well, bringing the village of Anatevka to life in one memorable scene after another, from the opening “Tradition” to the closing “Anatevka”.

Technically, this production is stellar, as well. The set by Michael Yeargan is detailed and versatile, featuring well-realized settings like Tevye’s house against a more changeable background backed by an imposing brick wall. The costumes by Catherine Zuber are detailed and authentic, maintaining a classic Fiddler look with a few small changes here and there. There’s also truly stunning lighting by Donald Holder that sets and maintains the mood of the show especially well, along with excellent sound design by Scott Lehrer and Alexander Neumann.

One of the real strengths of director Bartlett Sher in his revivals is that he’s able to maintain the essence and spirit of a show while also bringing a new sense of immediacy and connection for modern audiences. He’s done that again, remarkably well, in this new Fiddler on the Roof. It’s still the same show, but there’s something extra there that’s especially rewarding. It’s on stage at the Fox now. Go see it if you can.

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof]
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fiddler on the Roof North American Tour

The North American Tour of Fiddler on the Roof is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 10, 2019

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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 Color Purple
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee WIllis, and Stephen Bray
Based on the Novel by Alice Walker and the Warne Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture

Directed by John Doyle
The Fox Theatre
March 20, 2018

Adrianna Hicks and cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Color Purple National Tour

The national tour of the revival of The Color Purple is currently playing at the Fox. Go see it! Based on a modern classic novel and featuring a superb cast and simple but stunning production values, this is a show that needs to be seen,

Based on the recent Broadway revival that originally got its start at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, this is something of a minimalist production, at least in terms of set and staging. Director John Doyle’s set is essentially three wooden slatted sections of wall, with a number of chairs suspended from them. Various chairs are also used throughout the production as suggestions of various locations, but there isn’t much else besides the walls and the chairs, and Jane Cox’s stunningly evocative lighting.  The minimalism, combined with Ann Hould-Ward’s remarkably detailed period costumes, actually adds to the overall atmosphere of the production, keeping the focus on the characters and their story and also highlighting the many transitions that happen for the characters.

The story, taking place in Georgia and covering several decades in the first half of the Twentieth Century, follows Celie (Adrianna Hicks), a young African-American woman who grows up abused by her father and bears two children by him by the time she is 14. With her children taken away from her and her beloved sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) being her only source of emtional support, Celie is eventually forced to marry a much older widower, Mister (Gavin Gregory), who already has children and mistreats Celie, who he views as “ugly”. Eventually, after Mister makes advances toward Nettie, Nettie leaves town and the sisters are separated. Celie, believing her sister to be dead, stays with her husband as he continues to mistreat her, although new figures appear and influence her life, most notably the strong-willed Sofia (played on opening night by Brit West), who marries Mister’s son Harpo (J. Daughtry), and especially the much talked-about Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a singer for whom Mister carries a torch and with whom Celie develops a close but complicated relationship. The whole plot is extremely involved, and I don’t want to give away too much, but if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, it seems to be a fairly faithful adapation, although necessarily condensed for time and dramatic purposes. Essentially, though, this story follows Celie through many difficult circumstances and relationships, eventually taking a more and more hopeful turn, with themes of independence and interdependence, as well as redemption and perseverence in trial, and also the trials inherent in living through the injustices of society and the systemic racism that pervaded society at the time.

Celie is a remarkable, complex character, growing and changing a great deal over the 40 year time period shown in the musical, and Hicks gives a truly stunning performance. Her process of maturity and eventual growth in confidence is readily evident in Hicks’s portrayal, reflected in her voice, movement and posture. She also has a great voice, commanding the stage with power throughout the show, and particularly in the show stopping “I’m Here”. The rest of the cast is excellent, as well, with Stewart making a strong impression as the charismatic Shug, West (the understudy) extremely impressive as the bold Sofia, Camara as the earnest, ambitious Nettie, and Gregory shining in the difficult role of Mister.  The whole ensemble is strong, with excellent ensemble chemistry and great singing across the board. The music is memorable, with the title song being a major standout, and the script is well-structured, managing to convey such a multi-faceted story in a clear, compelling and thoroughly engaging way.

Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film adaptation, The Color Purple is a must-see. This is an especially strong production, with simple and highly effective production values highlighting the strengths of story and characters. It has drama, humor, authenticity, and a stunning score, sung by a first-rate cast. It’s a truly remarkable production.

Carla R. Stewart, Adrianna Hicks and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Color Purple National Tour

 

The national tour of The Color Purple is running at the Fox Theatre until April 1, 2018.

 

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