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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 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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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Matt Lenz
Chorographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
July 29, 2015

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of Disney’s modern animated films. It’s a contemporary classic that’s been adapted for the stage and enjoyed a successful, long-running Broadway production. It’s a big, colorful show that’s well-suited for a large venue like the Muny. With a cast of well-known Muny veterans as well as some welcome new faces, this production is thoroughly entertaining and true to the magical, enchanting spirit of the film.

The plot, based on the age-old fairy tale, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film. Belle (Kate Rockwell) is a well-read young dreamer who is praised for her physical beauty, but criticized for her unconventional ways in her small French village. She’s pursued by the vain but good-looking Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann), who seems to only want to marry Belle so he can add another trophy to his collection. When Belle’s father, the eccentric inventor Maurice (Lenny Wolpe) gets lost in the woods and wanders into an enchanted castle, he’s imprisoned by the Beast (Nicholas Rodriguez), who is under an enchantress’s curse. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to save her father, the story really gets going, as their relationship is the key to breaking the spell that binds the Beast and his household servants, who have all been transformed into objects–like the candlestick Lumiere (Rob McClure), the clock Cogsworth (Steve Rosen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Marva Hicks) and her son Chip (Spencer Jones) the teacup. There’s also feather duster Babette (Deidre Goodwin) and wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche (Heather Jane Rolff).  A few changes have been made from the film version, mostly to make the story work better on stage, and a few new songs have been added, including the excellent ballads “Home” for Belle and “If I Can’t Love Her” for the Beast. The film’s classic songs including “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and the classic title song are all there, as well.

This is a big, vibrant production designed to fit the Muny’s massive performance space. Although the costumes, designed by Robin L. McGee, seem a bit overly cartoonish at times, the set is spectacular. Designed by Robert Mark Morgan, it’s a big, versatile set focused for much of the production on the castle, with a suggestion of the grand stone facade including arches, a staircase and prominent fireplace. The Muny’s turntable is put to excellent use as well, making for smooth scene changes and maintaining the show’s grand atmosphere. There’s also excellent video design by Matthew Young, and some well-placed special effects including real fireworks in a key scene. Again, as has been happening in every show so far this season, there are a few sound mishaps, with mics cutting out and lines being missed as a result. Still, the show is a scenic wonder, contributing to the overall fairy tale theme with style.

The performances are strong all-around, with the biggest standout being Rockwell as a thoroughly convincing Belle. She’s got just the right amount of earnestness, determination and likability, as well as a big, powerhouse voice that’s well showcased on songs like “Home” and “A Change In Me.” She’s paired well with Rodriguez as a particularly sensitive Beast, and their scenes of getting to know one another are real highlights. The “Beauty and the Beast” number is beautifully done, with Rockwell and Rodriguez bringing the romantic energy and Hicks in fine voice as Mrs. Potts.  There’s great comic support from the always excellent McClure as the charming Lumiere, and Rosen as the fastidious Cogsworth. Hackmann is a suitably swaggering and clear-voiced Gaston, and Michael Hartung is funny as his bumbling sidekick Lafou. There’s also an excellent, extra-large ensemble bringing verve and vigor to the production numbers like “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Belle”.

There are a few somewhat jarring changes from the film that I’m not sure play particularly well, especially toward the end when Gaston confronts the Beast, although the overall conclusion is still effective. The overall charm of this show comes across well in that big, bold Muny style. It’s an entertaining iteration of a classic, and it’s sure to bring joy and enchantment to theatregoers of all ages.

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen Photo: The Muny

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 7th, 2015.

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Aladdin

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, Book by Chad Beguelin

Directed by Gary Griffin

Choreographed by Alex Sanchez

The Muny, St. Louis

July 9. 2012

As a longtime fan of animated films, I have to admit that Aladdin was not one of my favorite of Disney’s films, even though I did enjoy it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard that the Muny would be presenting a new stage production based on the movie, but I figured it would probably be a crowd-pleaser, and it certainly has turned out to be just that.  In many ways, this production is the ideal Muny show, and it’s another excellent entry in this season of the newer, revitalized Muny.

Book writer Chad Beguelin has tweaked the story of the film to make it work better onstage and to make it longer.  The story is now reminiscent of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies, with a trio of narrators: Omar (Jason Graae), Babkak (Eddie Korbich) and Kassim (Francis Jue), who make a grand entrance on real camels (gotta love the Muny) to introduce the setting and then reappear throughout the story to serve as narrators and commentators on the action. They also are traveling musicians and bandmates with Aladdin (Robin DeJesus), the young “diamond in the rough” who finds adventure and meets a princess (Samantha Massell as Jasmine), falls afoul of the evil Jafar (Thom Sesma) and gets help from a campy, wisecracking, larger than life Genie (John Tartaglia) along the way.  This is basically the plot of the movie without the animal sidekicks and a few extra characters and plot twists. Even Jafar’s crony Iago (Curtis Holbrook) who isn’t really given much to do, doesn’t seem to be a bird in the show as he was in the film. He’s just a colorfully dressed, parrot-like human henchman.

This production is a great example of the power of spectacle and great performances, because even though the story is simplified in some ways from the film and there aren’t any over-the-top special effects, this production is anything but dull.  Its big, colorful sets (most notably the Cave of Wonders) and bright costumes help set the mood, but the performances are really what drive the show.  Tartaglia as the Genie (even though the role seems smaller than it was in the film) owns the stage from his first entrance from the audience on a motorcycle (more Muny magic at work).  His over-the-top, flamboyant characterization sets the tone for the show, with many pop-culture references and asides to the audience, including a great deal of Muny in-jokes.  He’s like a human Disney World ride with all his energy, and he makes the most of every moment he’s onstage.  His introductory number “Friend Like Me” is a true showstopper, and even though Tartaglia is backed by the excellent Muny ensemble, he almost doesn’t need them since all eyes in the house are on him.  It’s a great comic performance, and the rest of the cast almost match him in their energy and enthusiasm.  DeJesus as Aladdin, Massell as Jasmine and the always excellent Ken Page as the Sultan all give convincing performances, as do the trio of narrators and and the rest of the cast, but Tartaglia really is the centerpiece.

The musical numbers are a combination of songs from the film, songs that were written for the film but cut during production (such as the moving “Proud of Your Boy”, movingly performed by DeJesus), and songs that were written specifically for the stage show.  Of the last category, the most notable is the rousing, Vaudeville-styled  “Somebody’s Got Your Back”, which is performed with gusto by Aladdin and his trio of bandmates.  The large Muny ensemble is put to good use, with some big, bright, energetic dance numbers. The only slight disappointment is in what is perhaps the most famous song from the film, “A Whole New World” which, while beautifully sung by DeJesus and Massell, was distinctly underwhelming visually as Aladdin and Jasmine are simply spotlighted on the dark stage, sitting on the magic carpet with a background of just a few stars behind them.   Still, even with that small let-down, it was an extremely entertaining production, and the cast, crew and  creative team obviously pulled out all the stops to deliver such an elaborate and fun show.

I’m somewhat of two minds reviewing this show, because as a performance I really enjoyed it, but structure-wise  I think it needs a little bit of revision before it can play on Broadway, which is apparently the ultimate aim of the show’s producers.  There are a few issues that I think should be addressed with the story–the role of the three narrators can get confusing as they pop in and out of the action, some characters are given very little to do, and I think there’s a little too much breaking the fourth wall, to the point where it can take the audience too far out of the story– but for the most part it’s an engaging presentation of the story from the film with a few entertaining additions. I think the show does need some work in the writing , but the performers give their all, the production looks good, and it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.  In many ways, this is the ultimate Muny show, and it makes for a great evening of music, laughter and spectacle.

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The Muny is not without its quirks.  It’s a beloved St. Louis institution, and while there are plenty of other outdoor theatres in America and around the world, the Muny is a unique entity.  It is often a study in contrasts, as I experienced in attending their two most recent productions.  It’s interesting how a theatre as famous for its huge stage and large-cast, flashy productions can sometimes be so successful with a smaller-scale show and (at least somewhat) miss the mark on a bigger, flashier show.  Here are my short reviews:

Singin’ In the Rain

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Directed by Rick Conant

July 18, 2011

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So, here we have come to that time at the Muny.  I knew it would happen, because it seems to most seasons, except last year because I only saw three shows.  The deal is, most years at the Muny there is a production (or two or three) that I mostly enjoy, but the rest of the audience seems to absolutely love and I just don’t understand all the enthusiasm.   This season, that time came with Singin’ In the Rain.  It was not a bad production by any means, but it paled in comparison to the film on which it is based, and a few of the performers seemed to be just going through the motions, except in the spectacular dancing.  I did like the production, for the most part, but compared to the other shows I’ve seen at the Muny this season, this one was definitely not up to their level.

I guess my biggest problem was that the show never felt like it was real. The dancing was wonderful, and the perfomers tried their best–Tony Yazbeck and Shannon M. O’Brien were fine as movie star Don Lockwood and up-and-coming actress Kathy Selden, and Michele Ragusa as the show’s villain, screechy-voiced diva Lina Lamont, had some great moments even though she only truly seemed to “let loose” in her one solo song “What’s Wrong With Me”.  Curtis Holbrook as pianist Cosmo Brown was my favorite performer in the show, giving a truly charming performance with excellent comedy skills and spectacular acrobatic dancing as highlighted in “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “Good Mornin'” and “Moses”.  James Anthony as studio boss R. F. Simpson and John Freimann as move director Roscoe Dexter  were also fun in their roles, but for a lot of the time it  all seemed like the actors were just going from place to place and saying their lines, trying as much as the could to evoke the spirit of the film, but it all felt somewhat artificial.  In the opening sequence, for example, we supposed to be witnessing a grand film premiere in the 1920s, attended by glittering silent screen stars and their adoring fans, but it just seemed like a costume party to me.   The only times I felt truly transported were during the dance segments, as exemplified by the fun title number (complete with “real” rain), and the “Broadway Melody” number in the second act.

The costumes and sets were adequate but not particularly striking, and the overall experience for me was of watching a not-entirely-successful attempt at recreating the look and feel of the film.  It was an enjoyable evening for the most part, but I found myself wishing the whole cast had more energy, particularly in the acting.  Allow me to mention again, though, how much I loved the dancing!

Little Shop of Horrors

Music by Alan Menken, Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman

Directed by John Miller-Stephany

July 25, 2011

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This show is about as different as you can get from Singin’ In the Rain, but I think the Muny’s production in this case was much more successful.  Based on a B-grade horror film from the early 1960’s, this story of a nerd who finds a strange plant that turns out to be a maneater is full of dark humor, real sympathy and strong performances.  It’s not the type of show that I would normally imagine for this venue, as it has a very small cast by Muny standards and the subject matter is darker than typical Muny offerings, but this was a very well-imagined, excellently performed production and I was amazed at how well it worked on the huge Muny stage.

The performances in this production were universally excellent, with special kudos to Michael Latini (manipulation) and Muny regular Ken Page (voice) for bringing the bloodthirsty plant Audrey II to menacing life.  Rob McClure, made a convincing Seymour both with the comedic and dramatic elements of the story, while Alli Mauzy as the object of his affections, flower shop clerk Audrey, was effectively ditzy and  sympathetic, and their duet “Suddenly Seymour” was a highlight.  They were capably supported by Clarke Thorell in several roles, most notably Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, Orin.  The cast was rounded out by the excellent “Greek Chorus” of 60’s style “girl group” singers, Crystal (Alicia Deslorieux), Chiffon (Brene’ Jackson) and Ronette (Jen Brissman), who commanded the stage well with their tight harmonies and sassy attitude.

This show was able to maintain a tone of dark comedy as well as increasingly menacing horror throughout the evening, and the ending was particularly effective.  I loved how much time was taken to do this show right. Nothing was rushed.  Every joke was earned, and the horror elements were suitably frightening. I particularly remember the protracted moment of silence following Audrey II’s first spoken lines that made the scene that much funnier simply because of the timing of it.  Kudos to McClure especially for his reactions to the plant. The whole cast worked so well together and the plant itself was a fully realized character.  The increasingly chilling atmosphere of the piece was handled perfectly, as well.

This was a smaller show than the Muny usually does, but the excellent cast filled the giant Muny stage well, and the sets effectively portrayed the rundown inner-city neighborhood of the story.  Everything–costumes, props, sets, actors, and the magnificent Audrey II puppets, contributed to telling a compelling, alternately hilarious and horrifying story.  It was a truly transporting experience.

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