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Camelot
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Book Adapted by David Lee
Directed by Matt Kunkel
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
June 23, 2022

Robert Petkoff (center) and Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Camelot is a strange show, in the sense that it never seems to be the same show depending on what production you see. Since it first played on Broadway in 1960, there have been many professional, amateur, and school productions, along with a Broadway revival in 1980 and various national tours. I’ve seen many versions, from a high school production to dinner theatre, to a couple of those tours, to the last Muny production in 2009, and there always appear to be changes to the way the story plays out, in terms of the song catalogue and the book. It’s a legendary story that has become a beloved classic, but you never really know what you’re going to see when you see Camelot. Now, the Muny is going even further in the book revisions than I’ve ever seen before with their newest production, featuring an adapted book by David Lee that streamlines many aspects of the story while focusing on the three main characters. It’s a bold endeavor, and for the most part, it works.

The book has always been considered a weakness of Camelot, despite its beloved score and beloved reputation. Revising the book has been done before, and it’s going to be done again (for Broadway later this year, in the hands of well-known playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin). The current Muny production is an adaptation by writer David Lee that overhauls the script in a somewhat drastic way, omitting several characters and some songs, and creating a framing device in which a group of “revelers” tell the story of King Arthur (Robert Petkoff), Queen Guenevere (Shereen Pimentel), and Sir Lancelot (Brandon S. Chu), along with the Knights of the Round Table and the legendary court of Camelot.  It starts off somewhat abruptly once Arthur is introduced, and he starts right into his first song, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, but soon he meets Guenevere and their chemistry is strong, lighting up the stage as they form a strong, credible bond. Eventually, though, their relationship is challenged by the arrival of Lancelot from France, and the new knight causes a stir in the King’s court and in his marriage, as Lancelot and Guenevere find it difficult to fight their attraction to one another, despite their love for Arthur. Soon, the devious Mordred (Barrett Riggins) shows up to further stir up tensions, among the increasingly bored and dissatisfied knights as well as the royal couple and Lancelot, threatening the very ideals that Arthur has built his kingdom upon. 

It’s a well-known story, but this version has distilled the story down to its basic elements, for the most part. There’s a small ensemble, but notable characters from the musical are missing–most notably Merlyn, who is relegated to off-stage status, and King Pellinore, who I found myself missing, since I think his role as a confidant for Arthur is needed in some places. I didn’t miss Merlyn, though, and Arthur’s stories about him work well even without the character’s appearing onstage. Still, what’s done here works to speed up the show a bit, and the framing device helps to emphasize the legendary nature of the story. The look and presentation of the show is also radically different, with a stylized set by Anne Beyersdorfer that is frequently in motion, striking costumes by Tristan Raines that blend elements of Medieval style with more modern rock-inspired looks that feature a lot of leather jackets and chains for the knights, along with more modern suits and dresses for Arthur and Guenevere. The set, along with Shelby Loera’s stunning lighting design and some excellent video design by Kylee Loera, works well with the staging, which takes advantage of the Muny’s turntables to keep the action, and the story, moving along. 

The casting is strong, as well, led by a charming performance from Petkoff as the idealistic but self-doubting Arthur. He’s a joy to watch, and his chemistry with Pimentel’s Guenevere is palpable. Pimentel is also excellent, with strong stage presence and a glorious voice, bringing energy to “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, “The Lusty Month of May”, and more. Chu is good as Lancelot, with a strong voice, although he doesn’t quite have the bold presence that the character demands from his first appearance, and his scenes with Pimentel aren’t as electric as they should be, although this improves as the show goes on. Other standouts include Riggins as the gleefully malevolent Mordred, oozing stage presence from his first moment on stage. There are also memorable turns from the trio playing Camelot’s top three knights–Daryl Tofa as Sir Lionel, Sarah Quinn Taylor as Ser Sagramore, and Evan Ruggiero as Sir Dinadan. There’s also a strong ensemble and some excellent, energetic choreography by Beth Crandall and some well-paced staging of musical numbers, most notably the cleverly staged “C’est Moi”, which shows Lancelot’s journey to Camelot while he sings. 

This is a Camelot like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. While I did find myself missing some of the elements that were cut out, I find this staging excellently paced and well-cast, with strong singing and a dazzling set and production values. The finale works especially well, with the emphasis on the legendary nature of this story, and for the most part, the cast brings a “shining moment” to the Muny with excellent style. 

 

Shereen Pimentel, Robert Petkoff, Brandon S. Chu and the Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Camelot in Forest Park until June 28th, 2022

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Paint Your Wagon
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
New Book by Jon Marans
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 27, 2019

Mamie Parris, Matt Bogart
Photo: The Muny

Paint Your Wagon is a show with a complicated history, but a wonderful Lerner and Loewe score with several memorable songs. Now, as the penultimate production of its 101st season, The Muny has given this show a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, with a brand new book, a revised song list, and a new story with elements of the original, all performed by an especially strong cast and with remarkable production values.

The source material is tricky. Paint Your Wagon is a show that is known these days more for a few of the songs than the plot. The 1969 film is remembered somewhat, but that’s often seen as more of a novelty, and the original stage version isn’t remembered much at all, but both versions have those songs by a legendary musical theatre writing team, and some memorable characters, so this new version has playwright Jon Marans re-imagining some of the basic plot elements and essentially creating a new story. It’s still focused on the mid-18th Century California Gold Rush, but bringing more characters into the plot and emphasizing the international draw of that event. The show makes excellent use of Caite Hevner’s video design, and begins with projections of vintage newspaper ads in various languages, leading into the opening “I’m On My Way” number in which a variety of characters from around the world head west in search of gold, adventure, and a measure of freedom. Among these characters include the widowed former tavernkeeper Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart), who has sent his daughter Jennifer (Maya Keleher) off to college and has set out on his own. There’s also Cayla Woodling (Mamie Parris), who travels with her brutal husband Craig (Michael James Reed); half-brothers Jake (Preston Truman Boyd), and the enslaved Wesley (Allan K. Washington); free black businessman H. Ford (Rodney Hicks), who seeks to help Wesley obtain his freedom; the Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte Thornton), who flees the potato famine in hopes of making some money to send to his wife and child back home; and Chinese brothers Ming Li (Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), who often clash over their different goals and views of American culture. The wandering Ben soon meets up with Mexican-American Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), who becomes his business partner. That’s just the set-up. There’s a lot that happens in this play, as the characters arrive at a mining settlement known as No Name City and begin to see their fortunes in the mines, as well as forming friendships, romances, rivalries, and dreams for the future. There are a lot of subplots, and it takes a while for the various threads to be tied together, with a decidedly serious turn in the second act that happens a little late and isn’t built up as well as it could be, but for the most part it’s an intriguing, engaging story, with some memorable characters and situations.

The glorious songs are there, too, with some lush arrangements by Ian Eisendrath, Jason DeBord, and Albert Evans and an excellent Muny Orchestra conducted by Music Director Sinai Tabak. There are a few new songs, or at least new to this show, with one (“What Do Other Folk Do?”) being strikingly similar to a song (“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”) from another Lerner and Loewe classic, Camelot. The plots could stand to be tightened and streamlined here and there, and some of the character motivations and arcs (especially Ben’s and William’s) need to be made more clear, but generally this new story works, with humor, poignancy, and some important themes including acceptance, personal responsibility, the dangers of materialism and greed, and more.

The Old West setting is well-realized on the vast Muny stage by means of Michael Schweikardt’s expansive, versatile set that uses the turntable well and consists of several detailed set pieces. The costumes by Amy Clark are vibrant and detailed, as well. There’s also stunning lighting by John Lasiter that helps set and maintain the tone of the show through its various transitions. The sound design, by John Shivers and David Patridge, is fine as well, although there were some noticeable issues with feedback and malfunctioning microphones on opening night. I’m hoping these issues will be smoothed out as the show continues its run. The staging is lively, with some remarkable choreography especially in the ensemble production numbers. There are also some fun bits of Muny spectacle that work especially well on this huge stage–such as the use of real Clydesdale carriage horses in a key number at the beginning of Act 2.

The cast is large, with quite a few named characters that it takes a while to keep track of them all, although the performers are universally excellent, with some particularly strong singing. Bogart as Ben makes a strong impression on stage with an authoritative and mostly amiable presence, with a powerful voice to match. He’s well-matched by Parris as the mistreated but determined Cayla, and their story develops well. Lopez-Cepero is also impressive and in excellent voice as Armando, who has some memorable scenes and duets with the powerfully-voiced Keleher as Jennifer. Other standouts include Thornton as the increasingly desperate and conflicted William; Ku and Lee as the the close-knit but frequently at odds Li brothers: and Hicks and Washington as H. Ford and Wesley, who form a strong bond as friends and allies against the stubbornly possessive and increasingly menacing Jake, also impressively played by Boyd. There’s a strong ensemble to back the leads, as well, from miners to tavern dancers, all singing and dancing with energy and style, bringing new life to a classic score and a newly revitalized story.

Overall, I would say that the Muny’s Paint Your Wagon is an entertaining success, although it could still use some work in terms of plotting and character motivations. There’s definitely some gold here, but there’s still some more mining to be done. Still, it’s an impressive debut of this new version, for the most part, and it fills up that colossal Muny stage with drama, humor, and a great deal of energy. It’s another good example of the Muny’s occasional role as an incubator of new shows, or revamped versions of older shows that are being given a new life for today’s audiences.

Cast of Paint Your Wagon
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Paint Your Wagon in Forest Park until August 2, 2019

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My Fair Lady
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed by Marc Bruni
The Muny
June 15, 2015

Anthony Andrews, Peggy Billo, Alexandra Silber, Paxton Whitehead Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Anthony Andrews, Peggy Billo, Alexandra Silber, Paxton Whitehead
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

My Fair Lady is an iconic musical. It’s often considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, and as such has been revived many times since its Broadway debut in 1956. The problem that comes with a show as well-known as this one, though, is that it’s been performed so many times that it’s easy for productions to appear dated or just to lose that sense of “newness” and energy that’s important in any production. Fortunately, the Muny’s 2015 season debut production does not suffer from that problem. In fact, the Muny has brought to the stage a My Fair Lady that has all the verve and vibrancy of a new production while still honoring the classic spirit of this timeless musical.

The story is familiar–a less cynical, musical take on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in which curmudgeonly linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Anthony Andrews) encounters Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Alexandra Silber) and bets his new friend, fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Paxton Whitehead) that he can turn Eliza into a well-spoken lady and pass her off as such at an upcoming grand ball.  Along the way, Eliza learns how to assert her own independence as she deals with Higgins, Pickering, her opportunistic father Alfred P. Doolittle (Michael McCormick) and some of the upper class people she meets, such as Higgins’s mother (Zoe Vonder Haar) and an eager and somewhat silly new suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Matthew Scott).  All the familiar songs are here, as well, from “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” to “A Little Bit of Luck”, “On the Street Where You Live”, “Get Me to the Church On Time”, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and more.

The battle of wits between Higgins and Eliza is, as usual, the main attraction in this production, and it is impeccably played out by the marvelous Andrews and Silber. Andrews plays a Higgins who’s stubbornness is apparent, although there is just enough vulnerability and charm to make his story believable, and by the time he gets to the perfectly played  “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” it’s clear that, although he’s still the same guy, he’s been changed just a little bit for the better. Silber plays a tough, gutsy Eliza whose transformation from flower girl to lady is thoroughly convincing. Unlike some other Elizas I’ve seen, the transformation is played more as an empowerment, and it’s very clear that, although her speech and manners are altered, she’s still recognizably the same person by the end of the play–just wiser and more mature. She also has a strong, clear soprano and strong presence especially on “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “Show Me” and “Without You”.  These two are a formidable duo, with convincing combative chemistry, and their notable confrontation scenes in Act 2 (in Higgins’s parlor and later, at his mother’s house) are ideally played.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, as well. Whitehead is an ideal Pickering, with an amiable personality and excellent comic timing. McCormick, in a role that’s easy to overplay as Doolittle, strikes just the right balance between reality and caricature, bringing spark and life to “A Little Bit of Luck”, “Get Me to the Church on Time” and his scenes with Eliza.  Scott is a find as Freddy–probably the best Freddy I’ve ever seen, in being able to effectively portray a slightly foolish lovestruck young man with just the right amount of charm that doesn’t go over the top to cloying or annoying. His “On the Street Where You Live” is a soaring highlight of the show. There are also strong performances from Peggy Billo as Higgins’s no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as Higgins’s strong-willed but fair-minded mother. There’s also a very strong ensemble, supporting the main cast well and displaying much energy and skill in production numbers like the magnificent “Ascot Gavotte” and the delightfully choreographed (by Chris Bailey) “Get Me to the Church On Time.” Vocally, everyone’s in good form, achieving a sound that’s recognizably 50’s influenced but also suitably fresh and vibrant.

Visually, the huge Muny stage is used to excellent effect. As with the performances, noting is over or underdone. The design elements–from Timothy R. Mackabee’s simple but stylish set to Amy Clark’s wonderfully colorful and detailed costumes–strike just the right balance of grandiosity and realism. There’s also excellent lighting work from designer John Lasiter. The only real issue on opening night was sound, with some mics not working properly and a few lines being missed, although I expect that will be dealt with as the show continues its run.

My Fair Lady is an excellent celebration of tradition as well as a prime example of the excellence brought to the company by Executive Director Mike Isaacson.  With energy, style and ideal casting, this show presents the best of what the Muny has to offer. It’s a grand introduction to the 2015 season, and I look forward to seeing what else the Muny has in store this summer.

Michael McCormick (center) and the cast of My Fair Lady Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Michael McCormick (center) and the cast of My Fair Lady
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

My Fair Lady runs at the Muny in Forest Park until June 21, 2015.

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