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School of Rock
Based on the Paramount Movie Written by Mike White
Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, New Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Laurence Connor
Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter
The Fox Theatre
January 16, 2018

Cast of School of Rock
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national tour

As far turning popular movies into musicals goes, School of Rock makes more sense than others, at least on paper. It’s a show about rock music, after all, with music by a composer not unfamiliar with the genre, having composed a few “rock operas” back in the day. It’s also a good casting opportunity for talented young performers, who actually play their instruments live on stage. The national tour is at the Fox now, and it’s a fun show, even if the story isn’t necessarily the most credible.

I haven’t seen the movie, and all I had seen of the musical before was the brief performance by the orginal Broadway cast on the Tony Awards broadcast. Still, although I knew the basic idea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The story, as it is, is a little bit thin, and it’s the characters, and the live music, that really make the show. The story follows aspiring rock guitarist Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti), who is kicked out of the rock band he helped found shortly before the band, No Vacancy, is due to audition for a “Battle of the Bands” competition. The downcast Dewey lives with his long-time friend and ex-rocker Ned (Matt Bittner) and his controlling girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo). Ned is a substitute teacher now, having long given up dreams of rock n’ roll glory, but one day when Ned isn’t home, Dewey answers a phone call from Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), principal of the exclusive Horace Green prep school, offering Ned a sub job. Dewey, attracted by the offered salary, poses as Ned and takes the job instead, intending to spend the days goofing off and letting the school kids do whatever they want, until he hears them playing classical music and decides that he’s going to turn them into a rock band, and that they are going to be his ticket to the Battle of the Bands. The kids have a range a personalities and insecurities, and after a time, Dewey helps them learn to expresses themselves via rock music, and they in turn teach him a lesson about responsibility. Also, Dewey’s unorthodox attitude and teaching methods begin to affect the morale of the other teachers. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s really not that difficult to guess where this story is going to go, even if you haven’t seen the film. The plot is more than a little predictable, as well as being implausible, but the performances, and the genuine sense of bonding between Dewey, the kids, and eventually Rosalie, makes the show work. There’s also some good music here, from the upbeat “You’re In the Band”, to the confrontational “Stick It to the Man”, to the plaintive “If Only You Would Listen”, to the hard-driving, motovational title song.

The real draw of this show is the live music, played on stage by the child performers with energy and style. The lead role of Dewey is also important, as he is the focus of the story, and Colletti manages to make the intially selfish character interesting and compelling. He’s got a lot of charm and stage presence, and he particularly shines in the classroom scenes and in scenes with the excellent Sharp as Rosalie. Sharp combines a great voice with strong comic timing and manages to make an underwritten role stand out. The rest of the adult cast is good as well, but aside from Colletti and Sharp, the kids really make the show, from Ava Briglia as bossy band manager Summer, to Gianna Harris as shy but vocally gifted Tomika, to Phoenix Schulman as guitarist and songwriter Zack, to Theodora Silverman as cellist-turned-bass player Katie, to Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton as drummer Freddy, to Theo Mitchell-Penner as insecure keyboardist Lawrence, to John Michael Pitera as enthusiastic band stylist Billy, and more. The entire cast of kids is great–putting on a great show playing their instruments with attitude, and believably portraying the transformation from sheltered prep school kids to confident rockers.

The show’s technical elements are impressive, as well, with a versatile set and colorful costumes by Anna Louizos, dazzling rock-show lighting by Natasha Katz, and clear sound design by Mick Potter. There’s also a strong band led by music director Martyn Axe in addition to the kid performers.

Overall, this is an entertaining show. The characters are likable, lending an air of credibility to the not entirely convincing plot. The stars of the show, though, are the band–Dewey and the child performers–and the energy of the music itself.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Rob Colletti Lexie Dorsett Sharp
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national Tour

The national tour of School of Rock is running at the Fox Theatre until January 28, 2018

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The Little Mermaid
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Waldren
The Muny
June 20, 2017

Kevin Zak, Will Porter, Emma Degerstedt, Emily Skinner
Photo: The Muny

This isn’t opening week at the Muny, but it is for me. Unfortunately, I was out of town and unable to attend the first performance of the 2017 Muny season, Jesus Christ Supertar. That is especially sad because I heard it was an excellent production. Still, for me, the first Muny show of the year is the season’s second production, Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This is the second production of this adaptation of the popular animated film that the Muny has done, and I remember enjoying the last one but that was in the “old Muny” era so I’m not sure if a direct comparison is really possible. What I can say is that this version is visually stunning and extremely well cast, making for an entertaining evening of theatre in Forest Park.

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen the film, although it has been altered slightly for the stage, and additional songs have been added. The mermaid of the title is Ariel (Emma Degerstedt), the golden-voiced youngest daughter of King Triton (Jerry Dixon), who rules the undersea realm but has trouble understanding his youngest child. Ariel herself is obsessed with the world of humans, often journeying to the surface of the sea and collecting trinkets and keepsakes of the world beyond the ocean. She eventually encounters the human Prince Eric (Jason Gotay), who isn’t happy with his life as a prince and longs for a life at sea. When Eric is shipwrecked and Ariel saves him, Ariel’s fascination with humans turns into love for this particular human, and that’s where the Sea Witch Ursula (Emily Skinner) becomes involved. Striking a deal with Ursula that will give her legs in exchange for her voice, Ariel must get Eric to kiss her within three days or else she forfeits her soul to Ursula. With the help of her friends Sebastian the crab (James T. Lane), Flounder the fish (Spencer Jones), and Scuttle the seagull (Jeffrey Schecter), Ariel sets out to achieve her goal while Eric’s guardian Grimsby (Richard B. Watson) suggests a singing contest to find the girl with the beautiful voice who rescued Eric, and whom the prince–who is expected to marry by his 21st birthday–is determined to find and hopes to wed.

The structure of the show is similar to the film, but has been expanded for the stage, and some plot details altered to better fit the stage format. For the most part, this story works, although I still question the inclusion of the song “Les Poissons”, since it makes little sense on stage even though Frank Vlastnik as Chef Louis performs it well and with lots of energy. The ending, especially Ursula’s fate, also isn’t as dramatically satisfying as the film version, although I do like that the development of Ariel and Eric’s relationship is given a little more focus. Still, this is a vibrant, energetic show with a lot of great songs including (and especially) the film classics like “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, and “Kiss the Girl”, and the Muny has brought the show to life with style and stunning visual effects, with a colorful, versatile set by Michael Schweikart, excellent costumes by Robin L. McGee such as the truly magnificent Ursula costume for Skinner and the ensemble members who play her tentacles. There’s also excellent lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer, video design by Matthew Young that augments the scenery well, and some truly clever puppets designed by Puppet Kitchen Productions, inc. The undersea world, as well as the dry-land world of Eric’s court, are well represented here on the giant Muny stage.

There’s a great cast here, as well, led by Degerstedt’s determined, wide-eyed, clear-voiced performance as Ariel. Her chemistry with Gotay’s smooth-voiced, earnest Prince Eric is strong, and their scenes together are a highlight of this production. Skinner makes the most of the villain role as Ursula, reveling in her evil schemes and commanding the stage on her featured number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. She’s supported well by the gleefully oily characterizations of her henchmen, electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam, by Kevin Zak and Will Porter. There are also strong performances from the young Jones as Ariel’s devoted friend Flounder, and Schecter as the wisecracking, overconfident seagull Scutttle, who leads a group of other gulls in a memorable tap-dance number, “Positoovity”. Lane, as Ariel’s friend and reluctant guardian Sebastian, has some excellent moments leading the iconic songs “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”. The leads are supported by a strong, vividly outfitted ensemble playing everything from an array of undersea creatures to palace guards and princesses.

The Little Mermaid is not the best of Disney’s stage musicals, but it is fun and it has it’s memorable moments.  At the Muny this time around, it’s especially striking in a visual sense. This production is essentially what audiences would want it to be–a big, bright, energetic musical that fills the Muny stage well and entertains viewers of all ages.

Emma Degerstedt, Jason Gotay
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Disney’s The Little Mermaid in Forest Park until June 29, 2017.

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Sister Act
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 14, 2016

The Cast of Sister Act Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

I think everyone immediately thinks of Whoopi Goldberg when they hear the title Sister Act.  The 1992 film was a big hit, followed by a 1993 sequel and a subsequent musical adaptation in London and on Broadway, co-produced by Goldberg. The musical, however, has been substantially re-tooled to have a different setting and musical style than the film, and as the final production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2016 season, it’s not quite as memorable as the movie, but it’s still an entertaining show.

The writers were wise to re-tool the show, in sense. The story is so associated with Goldberg and her unique talents that adapting the show basically required making the central character Deloris Van Cartier (played here by Dan’yelle Williamson) more distinct from Goldberg’s characterization. The show has also been re-imagined and re-set so it now takes place in late 1970’s Philadelphia, casting Deloris as an aspiring disco diva instead of a Motown-inspired Reno lounge performer as in the film. The classic hits used in the film aren’t here either, replaced with new songs by Alan Menken (of Disney fame) and Glenn Slater. The style is a blend of disco and traditional musical theatre songs, with occasional elements of Gospel. The story is also made a little more personal, giving Deloris a backstory of having gone to high school with police officer Eddie Souther (Curtis Wiley), who arranges for Deloris to go into hiding at Queen of Angels convent after having witnessed her nightclub-promoter/crime boss boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Kent Overshown) committing a murder.  The story then follows a similar pattern to the movie, as the newly christened “Sister Mary Clarence” struggles to adapt to her new environment at the convent, much to the consternation of the strict but caring Mother Superior (Corinne Melançon), and to the fascination of the other nuns who just want to make friends, including the ever-cheerful Sister Mary Patrick (Sarah Michelle Cuc), the shy novice Sister Mary Robert (Leah Berry), and the feisty Sister Mary Lazarus (Michele Burdette Elmore).  Together, Deloris and the sisters embark on a journey that takes them, their choir, and the convent, to new levels of understanding and notoriety. The basic story of the film is followed, with some changes in the tone and a slightly modified conclusion.

The 1970’s setting works reasonably well, and the disco songs are catchy, particularly the group songs with the nuns such as “Raise Your Voice”, the reprise of Deloris’s original disco anthem “Take Me to Heaven”, and especially the joyous “Sunday Morning Fever”.  For the most part, however, I preferred the songs in the film.  The comedy elements of the show work well enough, with some of the jokes falling flat but most of them working. Curtis Jackson’s three henchmen, T.J. (Kevin Curtis), Pablo (Keith Boyer), and Joey (Myles McHale) are funny but a little overly silly, and Curtis is more of a one-dimensional villain, although Overshown makes the most of the role. Still, it’s a fun show, and Wiley’s Eddie is believably sympathetic and has good chemistry with Williamson’s Deloris. The real stars of the show, though, are of course Deloris and the nuns, and this production has cast them all extremely well.

Williamson brings a convincing mixture of toughness and vulnerability to the role of Deloris, and she has a great voice and strong stage presence. She carries off the songs very well, and her developing rapport with the sisters is affectingly believable. Melançon, as the Mother Superior, has just the right blend of authority and compassion, as well, and she has some excellent musical moments with “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer”. The main supporting nuns are all standouts, as well, with Cuc’s bubbly enthusiasm,  Berry’s earnest sincerity, and Elmore’s snarky energy all contributing to the overall sense of camaraderie of the nuns, and the infectious energy of the show.  Steve Isom is also memorable as the benevolent Monsignor O’Hara, who becomes an enthusiastic supporter of the Deloris and her “new” choir. The lead performers are also backed by a strong ensemble, filling out the bigger musical numbers with appropriate style and attitude.

The staging is strong, as well, with vibrant choreography by Stephen Bourneuf. James Wolk’s set is colorful and versatile, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes appropriately evoke the disco era, with just the right over-the-top glitter and glitz when it’s needed. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also contributes to the overall disco mood of the piece, and the sense of fun is well achieved and maintained.

Ultimately, there really isn’t a whole lot of depth to this Sister Act. The story is a little contrived, but what’s there is a lot of fun.  A show like this is more about the characters than the story, and the characters are cast well, led by the excellent Williamson and Melançon. It’s a big, bold, glittery disco tale of sisterhood in various forms, and it’s a fine conclusion to the season at STAGES.

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan'yelle Williamson Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan’yelle Williamson
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Sister Act is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 9, 2016.

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