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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Loesser’

Guys and Dolls
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreographed by Lorin Lotarro and Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
June 10, 2019

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo:The Muny

The stage looks bigger. That was my first impression when the Muny’s Executive Producer and Artistic Director, Mike Isaacson, appeared on the newly rebuilt stage to introduce this season’s opening production, Guys and Dolls. It’s a new era for the Muny, unveiling its newly revamped performance area and technical setup, and they’ve chosen a classic 1950s-set Broadway musical to introduce the “new Muny” to the audience. I’m not sure if the stage really is any bigger, but it looks big, shiny, and new, but what’s not new is the expectation of an excellent show, and the Muny has delivered that with an energetic, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining production of this well-known “musical fable”.

Guys and Dolls is a show of its time, and that time is the early 1950s. The place is Damon Runyon’s stylized New York City. It’s not supposed to be gritty and realistic. It’s broad comedy, for the most part, and the sensibilities can be jarring to 21st century eyes. The focus is on gamblers and the women who probably shouldn’t love them, but do anyway. Nathan Detroit (Jordan Gelber) is the proprietor of a notorious “floating crap game” who, along with his cohorts Benny Southstreet (Jared Gertner) and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Orville Mendoza) is eager to find a new place to host the game while they avoid the watchful eye of the persistent police Lt.Brannigan (Rich Pisarkiewicz). He’s also been engaged for 14 years to the increasingly exasperated nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide (Kendra Kassebaum), who is nursing a frequent cold apparently brought on by her stress over the situation. Meanwhile, high rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Ben Davis) is in town, and in order to secure the money he needs for his crap game location, Nathan makes a bet with Sky, involving the pious young Sarah Brown (Brittany Bradford), who works for the struggling Save-a-Soul Mission. It’s a show full of larger-than-life and deliberately broad characterizations, with stereotypical gamblers and visions of New York City, along with a great score and lots of energetic dancing.

One notable fact, casting-wise, about Guys and Dolls is that there are four equal leading roles. It’s not a lead couple and a supporting couple. All four roles–Adelaide, Nathan, Sarah, and Sky–share the same prominence, and the casting for all four is essential. The roles here are memorably played, and the chemistry (“yeah… chemistry!”) is excellent. Davis and Bradford show off strong voices in their roles, and Bradford shows strong comic ability with her fun rendition of “If I Were a Bell”. Gelber is fun as a the marriage-avoidant and crap-game obsessed Nathan, and Kassebaum conveys Adelaide’s increasing weariness along with her genuine love of–and exasperation with–Nathan with impressive presence and energy, delivering a strong rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” especially. The supporting players are well-cast, as well, led by Mendoza and Gertner who make a fun comic team, and by beloved Muny regular Ken Page in a charming turn as Sarah’s kind, devoted grandfather and co-worker at the mission, Arvide Abernathy. There’s a vibrant, energetic ensemble as well, contributing to dazzling group numbers like “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “The Crapshooter’s Dance”, which also showcase the dynamic choreography of Lorin Latarro and Patrick O’Neill.

Technically, this production is wondrous, making the most of the new capabilities of the new and improved Muny stage. Paul Tate dePoo III’s stylish, colorful set shows off the neon boldness of old-school New York, aided by the excellent video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and lit up brightly by lighting designer Rob Denton. There are excellent, vividly styled period costumes by Tristan Raines, as well. There’s also a great Muny Orchestra and music direction by Brad Haak that bring Frank Loesser’s classic score to life with verve.

Guys and Dolls is a fun show. It’s big, bold, and full of energy, filling the Muny’s enormous stage with stylized characterizations and energetic singing and dancing. I’m not sure if the new stage really is bigger, but it seems that way, and it certainly looks newer, with some new aspects that add to its versatility. It’s a new stage for a new era, and Guys and Dolls is ushering that new era, and the Muny’s 101st season, with style.

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Guys and Dolls in Forest Park until June 16, 2019

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How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 23, 2014

Ben Nordstrom and cast Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Ben Nordstrom and cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a classic satire of corporate culture that debuted on Broadway in 1961 and has enjoyed two successful major revivals, most recently in 2011 starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. It’s one of those shows that, even with its well-known songs and celebrated reputation, needs just the right cast, pacing and direction to work well. STAGES St. Louis in their impeccably cast production has achieved just the right balance of sharp satire, comic timing and colorful staging to make for a wildly entertaining and truly memorable evening of theatre.

Since this is a show that is very much tied to the era in which it was written, this production wisely keeps the period setting intact.  This is a world in which big business is dominated by ambitious men, with young window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (Ben Nordstrom) being perhaps the most ambitious of all. Armed with a seemingly omniscient “how-to” manual (narrated authoritatively by George Spelvin), Finch embarks on his quest to rise in the corporate ranks at the World Wide Wicket corporation.  Along the way up the executive ladder, Finch meets a variety of business-world characters such as the bumbling boss J.B. Biggley (Whit Reichart), the boss’s outrageously scheming nephew Bud Frump (Joseph Medeiros), the archetypal ditzy blonde secretary (and Biggley’s mistress) Hedy LaRue (Heather Ayers), and a host of others ranging from ambitious backbiting executives to world-weary secretaries to unambitious worker bees, in a large, dehumanizing company setting. Finch also meets Rosemary Pilkington (Betsy DeLellio), a young secretary whose ambitious are more personal than corporate, and who is continually frustrated by Finch’s single-minded aspirations despite her own stated life’s goal to be a neglected executive’s wife.  Finch’s successes are not without their complications, although he always seems to find a way to turn situations to his advantage, with hilarious results.

While some of the situations portrayed in this show are still relevant today, others (such as the very strictly defined gender roles) are very specific to the show’s era, so an early 1960’s look and sensibility are required for this production, as is a very sharp sense of pacing.  The jokes are fast-moving and the humor is witty and sharp, with a large ensemble and many stage-filling production numbers that require precise choreography. Fortunately, this production strikes just the right tone, and the pacing is crisp and vibrant, as evidenced by such fantastic ensemble numbers as “Coffee Break”, “The Company Way” and the show-stopping “Brotherhood of Man”.  The dancing is very strong and cohesive, and every ensemble member is in excellent form, performing with energy, enthusiasm and style.  The physical look of the production is striking as well, with a great atmospheric set by James Wolk and colorful lighting effects designed by Matthew McCarthy. The costumes, designed by Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird, are well-suited to the characters and, for the most part, evocative of the period. Chairman of the Board Wally Womper (Bill Bateman) looks more like he belongs in 1978 than 1961, and a few of the secretaries’ outfits appear more 1980’s than 1960’s, but for the most part, the look is distinctly appropriate, especially with Finch’s increasingly colorful suits and Biggley’s outrageous argyle golf ensemble.

This production’s strongest point is its universally wonderful cast, led by the appropriately charismatic Nordstrom as Finch. This is a difficult role because Finch is so boldly ambitious, it takes just the right combination of charm and audacity to make the audience cheer for him despite some of his clearly unscrupulous actions. Nordstrom has a winning smile, a strong voice, and great “buddy” chemistry with Reichart as Biggley, as evidenced in the outstanding “Old Ivy” number in the first act. Nordstrom also displays a strong romantic spark with the equally excellent DeLellio as the perky Rosemary, especially in their truly wonderful, sweetly goofy duet, titled “Rosemary” at the end of Act 1. Also notable is the delightfully oily performance of Medeiros as the spiteful, simpering Bud Frump. Medeiros is a master of physical comedy, bringing a gleeful energy to his every move and expression, and he threatens to steal every scene he’s in.  Also giving memorable performances are Claire Neumann as Rosemary’s friend, the secretary Smitty; Ayers, slightly channeling  Judy Holliday as Hedy LaRue; Bateman, hilarious in a dual role as Womper and as the determinedly un-ambitious mail room chief Twimble; and Johmaalya Adelekan as Biggley’s no-nonsense secretary Miss Jones, displaying a strong voice in the 1995 revival’s arrangement of “Brotherhood of Man” which includes jazz scatting and gospel influences. This is an impressive cast of strong character performances as well as charming leads who bring out all the satirical elements of the clever script while remaining eminently watchable and making every scene a comic delight.

This is a deceptively difficult show to produce. All the right elements need to be there–a dynamic and likable Finch, a strong supporting cast, spot-on comic timing and the right balance of satire and heart. This production has all those elements in abundance, as well as that extra undefinable “something special” that distinguishes a truly great production from simply a good one. How To Succeed… at STAGES is distinctively entertaining and uproariously funny from start to finish.  If the goal, like that of the protagonist Finch, is success, this production achieves that goal with flying colors.  It’s well worth the journey to Kirkwood to see this fantastic show.

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom  Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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So, I recently got to go to New York for my brother’s wedding, and I took the opportunity to take in three Broadway shows while I was there.  It was so much fun to be able to walk around the Times Square area and just soak up the atmosphere.  I feel truly blessed to have been able to take in shows in the two greatest theatre cities on Earth (London and New York) in the same year, and it was fun to compare as well.  Overall, I think New York is bigger and flashier and London, while still big and flashy in its own way, is a little more relaxed.   I didn’t find myself wanting to move to New York when I always want to move to London, but I mostly chalk that up to the fact that I’m an unrepentant Anglophile and as far as I’m concerned (for the most part) things are just more fun when they’re British.  Still, this was New York City, and it definitely lived up to the hype.  I’d been there before, but not for over a decade and I had only seen two shows on Broadway before, so this time I took advantage of the chance to see as many shows as I could and just enjoy the Broadway atmosphere.  I hope I get a chance to go back many times in the future.  Here are reviews of the three shows I saw:

 Follies

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by James Goldman

Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Marquis Theatre, New York, NY

October 12, 2011

The chance to see this show was kind of a dream come true for me, since I’ve been a fan of Stephen Sondheim and Bernadette Peters since I was a teenager.  It was also great to be able to see London theatre legend Elaine Paige on stage as well, along with a top-notch cast of Broadway veterans.  This was  a classic Sondheim show with star-studded cast, and the production did not disappoint.

The mood is set the minute you walk in the door, as the relatively new Marquis Theatre has been transformed by set designer Derek McLane into a crumbling old variety house years past its prime and ready for demolition, with  a worn-out stage and black and gray sheets draped everywhere.  The “ghosts” of elaborately dressed showgirls haunt the space, wandering in and out of scenes and standing about on the various levels of scaffolding backing the stage.  It’s the story of a reunion of participants (mostly showgirls) from a Ziegfeld-like variety revue called the Weissmann Follies, which supposedly ran in this old theatre every year between the World Wars.  Here the former Follies girls update each other on how they have been and remember their glory days as young performers.  Some of the women seem to have few regrets and others have many, but for the central characters Sally (Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), and their husbands Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines), regret is still a major part of their lives, as played out in the events of the show as they revisit and recall their earlier selves, culminating in a Follies-styled “Loveland” fantasy sequence, where they portray the follies of their own lives, showbiz-style.

I don’t want to write a novel about this production, so I’ll have to condense my thoughts and just say it was wonderful.  The leads were universally well-cast, and the contrast between Peters’ depressed, delusional Sally and Maxwell’s bitter, sarcastic and cynical Phyllis was striking.  Both gave wonderful performances, but to my mind, Maxwell was the star of the show, giving a truly multi-layered performance. Her numbers “Could I Leave You?”, simmering with caustic wit, and “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”, in which she portrays her struggle between the younger and older versions of herself, were true highlights of the production.  She was also very well matched by Raines as the self-absorbed, self-destructing Ben.  Peters had a great moment with “Losing My Mind”, as well, perfectly portraying Sally’s obsessive love for another woman’s husband.  Peters is such a master of Sondheim’s material that all she has to do is stand onstage and sing, portraying the full emotional range of the song and holding the audience riveted.  Danny Burstein as the charming but conflicted Buddy also had some great moments, and together these four formed the center of the production.

Another strength to Follies, though, is that its structure gives many performers their moments to shine as the other former Follies girls tell their stories and remember their Follies performances.  Highlights from this production were Jane Houdyshell’s brassy “Broadway Baby” and Terri White leading the ensemble in a dance number with their younger counterparts in “Who’s That Woman”—a true show-stopping moment.  Paige’s gutsy ode to the ups-and-downs of a career in showbusiness, “I’m Still Here” was also a showstopper.  Also, veteran opera singer Rosalind Elias has a great, poignant duet with Leah Horowitz (as Elias’s younger self) on “One More Kiss”.  I could list more great moments, but I would just end up listing the entire song list, as the universally excellent cast delivered a strong production from start to finish.

The sets and costumes (costumes designed by Gregg Barnes) were elaborately done and helped to set the conflicting moods of showbiz energy and underlying darkness, and the “Loveland” sequence in the second act was a bright, fluffy (yes, fluffy) contrast to the dreary, dilapidated theatre setting of the rest of the show.  This production was truly marvelous from the performances to the look and and the feel for time and place.  I felt privileged to witness it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser

Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert

Directed and Choregraphed by Rob Ashford

Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York, NY

October 13, 2011

For a lot of people, this production is simply thought of as “that show with the guy from Harry Potter”, but it’s really a whole lot more than that.  Sure, Daniel Radcliffe is front-and-center in the advertising–and he’s great in a very un-Potterlike performance–but no one performer can carry a show with such a large ensemble by himself.  This show, the second Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1961 musical, is a full-scale, well-rounded production that looks great, sounds great and is a whole lot of fun.

This is a broadly satirical tale of a young window-washer, J. Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe), who takes the advice of a book (narrated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper) in how to rise to the upper levels of management at the World Wide Wicket Corporation.  Along the way, he meets Rosemary (Rose Hemingway), a young secretary with lofty goals of her own, as well as the boss’s nephew Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke) who becomes his professional nemesis, and a varied host of secretaries,  office workers and corporate executives. .  The boss, J.B. Biggley, is played with a kind of goofy charm by the show’s other well-known star, John Larroquette (best known from the classic sitcom Night Court), and his scenes with Radcliffe are a delight.  The tone of this piece is satire, with many jabs at corporate culture that are still relevant today, but also with a very palpable 60s vibe provided by the excellent costumes and sets.

The performances are universally appealing.  The role of Finch demands an actor with loads of (seemingly) guileless charm, and Radcliffe delivers.  He does at times seem a little subdued in his acting, in contrast to the broadly comic tone of the show, but for the most part he is excellent, and his dancing skills are surprisingly adept.  Hemingway is perfectly cast as the secretary who pursues Finch romantically, and their chemistry together is sweet and believable.  Other stand-outs in the cast are Tammy Blanchard as ditzy bombshell secretary Hedy La Rue, with a look reminiscent of Joan from Mad Men and a voice reminiscent of Slappy Squirrel from Animaniacs, and the aforementioned Laroquette, who seems to be having an absolute ball in this part and owns the stage whenever he’s on.  Hanke as Frump makes for a effective bumbling “heel”, and  Mary Faber as Rosemary’s secretary friend Smitty and Ellen Harvey as Biggley’s secretary Miss Jones put in fine comic performances as well.

This is a dance-heavy show where the leads and the ensemble get quite a workout—there are dancing mail workers (“Company Way”), dancing secretaries (“Cinderella Darling”), dancing football players (“Grand Old Ivy”), dancing executives (“Brotherhood of Man”) and even dancing pirates (“Pirate Dance”), and all of the dancing is full of seemingly effortless energy.  “Brotherhood of Man” in particular stopped the show with its gradually building, stage-filling controlled chaos.  Radcliffe more than holds his own in this department, as does the fine ensemble.

I must also make special mention of the spectacular set.  Done in a colorful mid-century modern style with geometric patterns, shelves that slide out from the sides to serve as offices, and modules that are rearranged into various configurations as needed to suggest the corporate environment, the set serves very well to set the tone and mood of this production.  The color-shifting hexagon background  reminds me of a 60s game show, and there’s an authentic-looking, functional elevator as well.  Kudos to set designer Derek McLane for his excellent work here.

Overall, I had a great time at this show.  It’s much more than just Harry Potter on stage (in fact, it isn’t that at all).  It is a thoroughly entertaining, well-directed and choreographed satire of the business world, winningly performed by an appealing cast.  I highly recommend checking it out.

Anything Goes

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and Howard Linday and Russel Crouse

New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Wideman

Directed and Choregraped by Kathleen Marshall

Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York, NY

October 16, 2011

This is the Tony Award-winning revival of the classic Cole Porter show, normally starring Sutton Foster and Joel Grey.  At the performance I saw, however, the understudies were on–Tari Kelly for Foster as Reno Sweeney, and Robert Creighton for Grey as Moonface Martin.  I could hear some not-so-subtle grumbling from some audience members at the fact that the marquee names were not performing, but by the end of the first act most such complaints were silenced, as both Kelly and Creighton gave wonderful, star-worthy performances.

This is a show about the music, really.  It’s Cole Porter hit after Cole Porter hit, with a somewhat silly but still very entertaining plot to string the songs together.  Most of the action takes place on an ocean liner in the 1930s, where nightclub singer Reno Sweeney performs her church-inspired act and multiple subplots ensue involving her friends Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell), a stockbroker who is in love with a debutante (Erin Mackey), and Moonface Martin, a small-time gangster who is on the run from the law. There is much energetic singing and dancing along the way, all expertly done by the excellent ensemble.

Kelly and Creighton were really the heart of the production, with stage presence and energy galore.  Kelly commanded the stage with numbers like “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, singing and dancing up a storm, and Creighton was delightful as Moonface, especially in his Act 2 number “Be Like the Bluebird”.  He did a wonderful job playing the “gangster with a heart of gold” with all the necessary charm and just the right hint of menace that made him believable as a gangster.  Also excellent were Donnell as the handsome, lovestruck Crocker and Mackey as his love interest Hope Harcourt, and the two had excellent chemistry and danced very well together in “It’s De-Lovely”.  John McMartin as Billy’s boss, the goofy old business tycoon Eli Whitney and Kelly Bishop as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt provided some fun comic moments, and Adam Godley as Hope’s eccentric English fiancé Lord Evelyn Oakleigh was a sheer delight as well, putting a whole lot of energy into his number with Reno, “The Gypsy In Me”.

The dance numbers in this show were a real highlight, with energetic, tightly-executed routines, and the set (again by Derek McLane) was fun, as well.  The ship was constructed of various modules that could be rearranged and turned around to form the various set pieces, including the staterooms.  The meticulously detailed costumes by Martin Paklidinaz added to the 30s-era feel of the show as well.  Overall, I felt transported to the 1930s and had a great time joining the cast and crew on their voyage.

The moral of this story is, don’t be too disappointed when you see a show and find out the understudies are on.  You just might be pleasantly surprised, as I definitely was here.  Anything Goes was a complete joy of a show, and the understudy/leads more than held their own.  I would love to get a chance to see the regular players and compare, but as that option is unlikely, I will just be happy with what I did get, which was a wonderful performance from all.

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