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Footloose
Stage Adaptation by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie
Based on the Original Screenplay by Dean Pitchford
Music by Tom Snow, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Additional Music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Jim Steinman
Directed by Christian Borle
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 18, 2019

Mason Reeves, Eli Mayer
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s impressive 101st season is continuing this week with an energetic dance musical.  Footloose, based on the popular 1984 film, is a fun show most of all. This production fills the giant Muny stage with a large cast and lots of energy, along with a dose of 1980s nostalgia and an excellent cast, many of whom are college students or recent graduates.

I hadn’t seen the stage version of Footloose before, nor have I seen the 2011 film remake, and I hadn’t seen the original film for many years. From what I can tell, this rendition keeps fairly close to the plot of the first movie, with some character expansion and the addition of new, original songs along with hits from the film’s soundtrack such as the title song, love duet “Almost Paradise”, and the bouncy “Let’s Hear It For the Boy”. The story follows the teenaged Ren (Mason Reeves), who moves along with his mother, Ethel (Darlesia Cearcy) from Chicago to the small rural town of Bomont (state unspecified). Here, Ren has some trouble fitting in with the locals, eventually making friends with classmate Willard (Eli Mayer) and forming an attraction to an influential local preacher’s rebellious daughter, Ariel (McKenzie Kurtz). Ariel’s father, Rev. Shaw Moore (Jeremy Kushnier), is the driving force behind a restrictive law in the town that avid dancer Ren is shocked to hear about. All dancing in the town is banned, and after making more friends and gaining some support among his classmates, Ren leads the effort to change that law and hold a dance at the school. The reasoning behind Rev. Moore’s opposition to dancing, and his strained relationship with his daughter, is a key element of the story that drives a lot of the drama. It’s not a perfect book, with some characters being underutilized and a few loose ends in some of the subplots, but overall, it’s an entertaining show. There are some poignant moments here, with messages about family relationships, friendship and acceptance, as well as many upbeat moments of fun and, of course, dance, leading up to a rousing finale that makes excellent use of the large ensemble, including an energetic Muny Youth Ensemble.

The look and atmosphere of this production is impressive in that it’s able to achieve an obvious ’80s vibe without being too over the top with it. The colorful costumes by Leon Dobkowksi and wigs by Kelley Jordan reflect the setting well, and Tim Mackabee’s set is vibrant and versatile, making excellent use of Greg Emetaz’s video design as well. There’s also excellent lighting by Rob Denton and a rocking Muny Orchestra led by music director Andrew Graham. Jessica Hartman’s choreography is also impressive, with a blend of various styles showcasing the talent and energy of the whole cast.

There’s a great cast here, led by the immensely talented Reeves as Ren. He’s got charm, energy, a great voice and dance skills, and a strong presence on stage, and his chemistry with the also excellent Kurtz as Ariel is excellent. He also works especially well with the terrific, amiable Mayer as the sweet, gawky Willard, who has several great moments in the show such as the memorable Act 2 number “Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down”. Also a standout is Kushnier, who originated the role of Ren in the 1998 Broadway production, as the conflicted, grieving Shaw Moore. He’s well-matched by Heather Ayers in a strong performance as Shaw’s wife Vi, as well, providing for a lot of the show’s poignancy and drama. A musical highlight is the simply staged, expertly harmonized ballad “Learning to Be Silent”, wonderfully performed by Ayers, Kurtz, and Cearcy. Other standouts include Khailah Johnson, Maggie Kuntz, and Katja Rivera Yanko as Ariel’s friends Rusty, Urleen, and Wendy Jo. Johnson especially gets a memorable moment to shine, leading the superbly staged “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” production number early in Act 2.

There’s a great assembly of talent on stage, bringing Opening Night energy even though the show’s tech rehearsal had to be cancelled because of the weather. Aside from a few slightly slow transitions early in the first act, the fact that this was the first full-scale staging of the show wasn’t apparent, and I’m sure it’s only going to improve in terms of energy and pacing as the show continues to run.  It’s a bright, upbeat, occasionally poignant, and highly crowd-pleasing evening of entertainment, and another reflection of the true excellence of this season at the Muny.

Cast of Footloose
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Footloose in Forest Park until July 24, 2019

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Annie
Book by Thomas Meehan, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 18, 2018

Cast of Annie Photo: The Muny

It’s strange to think that, considering my personal history, I had never actually seen Annie onstage until the Muny’s latest production. I had seen two of the three filmed versions and almost wore out my LP of the Original Broadway Cast recording when I was a little girl, before any of the movies had been made. Like countless kids then and since, I would sing along with the album and imagine playing Annie someday. Still, despite the proliferation of productions around the country and the world since the original production opened, including several at the Muny (and two since I moved here in 2004), I had never actually gotten around to seeing a stage production of the show. Now, in the Muny’s 100th season, they’ve brought this classic to the stage in a vibrant production that’s got a lot going for it, especially an excellent cast.

Annie is a familiar story to many, following the adventures of the tough but vulnerable title character (Peyton Ella), an 11-year-old girl who has grown up in an orphanage run by the domineering Miss Hannigan (Jennifer Simard), whose imperious, harsh treatment of Annie and her friends drives the orphans to frustration and near-despair. Annie, who still dreams of being reunited with her parents, refuses to give up hope. Meanwhile, wealthy industrialist Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Sieber) tasks his assistant, Grace Farrell (Britney Coleman), with finding an orphan to invite to spend two weeks in luxury at his mansion over the Christmas season. The bitter, jealous Miss Hannigan schemes with her shady brother, Rooster (Jon Rua) and Rooster’s ditzy girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Holly Ann Butler) to get back at Annie and swindle Warbucks out of thousands of dollars. Also, it’s the 1930s, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (John Scherer) is trying to figure out what to do about that. The shows mixture of realism, comedy, and optimism in the midst of uncertainy is a large part of its enduring appeal. It’s got some moments that could be seen as cheesy, but its core is sincerity and heart.

This is the Muny, so it’s fairly easy to assume that there’s going to be a large cast to fill up that great big stage. This production has excellent leads, backed by a strong ensemble, even if there are somewhat jarring moments, such as when Annie and the six “main” orphans (Ana Mc Alister as Molly, Samantha Iken as Pepper, Trenay LaBelle as Duffy, Amanda Willingham as July, Madeline Domain as Tessie, and Ella Grace Roberts as Kate) are about to sing “Hard Knock Life”, only to be suddenly joined by about 30 more orphans who just seem to appear instantly from the wings. The energy takes a while to build in the first act, but by the time Annie arrives at Warbucks’ mansion, the show has found its groove and the momentum only builds from there, highlighted by sparkling production numbers such as “NYC” and the truly delightful “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”. Peyton Ella, as Annie, has an impressive voice and great stage presence, delivering the iconic “Tomorrow” with power, and she has great chemistry with the other orphans and with Sieber, who is in excellent form as Warbucks. There are also strong performances by Coleman as the kind Grace, Rua as the scheming Rooster, Simard as the delightfully hammy Miss Hannigan, and a memorable moment for Abigail Isom in the featured solo as the “Star-to-Be” in the “NYC” number. Scherer as FDR is memorable, as well, along with a large ensemble of adults and kids. There are also a few scene-stealing moments from Sunny, the adorable terrier who plays Sandy, a stray dog that Annie befriends and then makes various appearances throughout the production.

In terms of production values, the show looks great, for the most part. There is some issue with wigs–Annie’s is somewhat distracting at times, and Warbucks’ skull cap is obvious. Still, those are minor issues when the rest of the production works so well, from Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, to Leon Dobkowski’s colorful period-specific costumes, to Nathan W. Scheuer’s striking lighting, to Rob Denton’s vibrant video design. The Muny Orchestra is in excellent form as well, performing that classic score with style.

So, whether this would be the first time you’ve ever seen Annie or the fiftieth, or any number in between, the Muny’s production is likely to please. It’s a big, vibrant produciton that communicates the enduring spirit of a show that’s become such a legendary classic over the past 40 years. When I recently re-discovered that old LP of the cast album, my son noted the tagline–“A New Musical”, thinking that sounded strange for a show that premiered more than 20 years before he was born. Still, even though it’s not exactly new anymore, the show’s vibrancy and hopeful spirit remain timeless, and the Muny’s production is fresh and full of energy. It’s a fun show, and I’m glad I’ve finally had the chance to see it. It’s definitely worth checking out, no matter how old or young you may be.

Peyton Ella, Jennifer Simard, Britney Coleman Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Annie in Forest Park until July 25, 2018

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 21, 2016

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers Photo: The Muny

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers
Photo: The Muny

It’s a good week for the Muny to be staging Mamma Mia! The show, set on a Greek island, is a quintessential summer show, and I’m sure the cast members appreciate being able to dress for the warm weather. This is the first production of this popular show at the Muny, and with its excellent production values, great cast, fun if slightly silly story and lots and lots of ABBA music, it’s a rousing success.

Not being the biggest fan of the whole concept of the “jukebox musical”, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Mamma Mia! the first time I saw it on stage. The movie is also a lot of fun, but I prefer the stage show and its whole sunny atmosphere, and the way it incorporates the songs of popular Swedish disco supergroup ABBA into the story. It’s not a particularly deep or profound show, but it’s a lot of fun, focusing on Donna Sheridan (Julia Murney)–the former lead singer of a disco trio–and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Brittany Zeinstra). When the soon-to-be-married Sophie finds her mother’s diary and discovers that she has three possible fathers, she invites all three to the wedding without telling Donna, which causes all sorts of drama. The “dads” are three very different men–American architect Sam (Justin Guarini), who may still be in love with Donna; Australian adventurer and writer Bill (Mike McGowan), who enjoys his carefree single life; and slightly stuffy Englishman and former “headbanger” Harry (Ben Nordstrom). Donna’s friends and former bandmates Tanya (Jenny Powers) and Rosie (Ann Harada) also arrive for the wedding and get involved in the various shenanigans that ensue. It’s something of a goofy plot that doesn’t bear a lot of scrutiny if you examine it closely, but that doesn’t really matter in this case,  because it’s such a fun show that it’s easy to suspend disbelief for a little while.

The highlights of this show include the ABBA songs and the great cast. In terms of the music, all the well-known hits are here, including “Dancing Queen”, “Take a Chance On Me”, “The Winner Takes it All”, the title song and more. As for the performers, the cast is extremely well-chosen, led by the dynamic, sympathetic, big-voiced performance of Murney as Donna, and by the excellent Zeinstra as the persistent, optimistic Sophie. Powers and Harada provide excellent comic support as Tanya and Rosie, as well. Harada’s duet with McGowan on “Take a Chance On Me” is a hilarious moment. The men are well-cast, as well,  with Guarini in excellent voice as Sam, Nordstrom charming as Harry, and McGowan energetic and amiable as Bill. Jason Gotay as Sophie’s fiance Sky, and Alexander Aguilar and Wonza Johnson as his buddies Pepper and Eddie, also give good performances. The leads are backed by a strong ensemble, as well, which is great considering all the big, energetic production numbers there are in this show.

 The sunny atmosphere is reflected in the excellent unit set, designed by Tim Mackabee, that represents the Taverna that Donna operates. The Muny’s turntable is also put to good use. The costumes by Leon Dobkowski set the mood well, with colorful summer outfits,  swim suits, and  flashy disco outfits for Donna and the Dynamos. There’s also great use of video, designed by Greg Emetaz, that is incorporated well into the delivery of some of the songs, particularly Harry and Donna’s duet, “Our Last Summer”.  There’s also great lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer that helps to maintain the festive mood of the show.

I’m not sure how many times I can use the word “fun” in one review, but that’s really the best word to describe this show. Mamma Mia! isn’t a deep, thought-provoking type of show, although there are some truly poignant moments, such as the use of the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” as Donna is helping Sophie prepare for the wedding. Still, this show is about energy, style, ABBA music, and lots of fun, and this production at the Muny delivers all that, from the hopeful beginning to the memorable “mega-mix”style curtain call. The only small criticism I have is that sometimes the Muny’s enormous stage seems too big for this show in its more serious moments, although the music and energy eventually makes the show seem big enough. If you’re looking for a funny, summery, tuneful show with loads of hit songs, Mamma Mia! surely won’t disappoint.

Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo: The Muny

Mamma Mia! is being presented by the Muny in Forest Park until July 28, 2016.

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Hairspray
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Dan Knechtges and Jessica Hartman
The Muny
June 23, 2015

Bryan Batt, Ryann Redmond, CHarlotte Maltby Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Bryan Batt, Ryann Redmond, CHarlotte Maltby
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Welcome to Tracy Turnblad’s Baltimore! Hairspray, the second production in the Muny’s 2015 summer season, has been brought to life with style and humor on stage in Forest Park. With a strong cast and stylish, evocative production values, this is a fun show with an important message and lots of heart.

Based on John Waters’ original 1988 film, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy (Ryann Redmond), a perky teenager in 1962 Baltimore. Tracy’s immediate ambition is to dance on a local hit TV show, The Corny Collins Show, which she watches every day after school with her geeky best friend Penny Pingleton (Charlotte Maltby)  She lives with her loving goofball father Wilbur (Lara Teeter), who runs a joke shop, and her reclusive seamstress mother, Edna (Bryan Batt) who, like Tracy, is overweight but lacks Tracy’s self-confidence. When Tracy gets a chance to audition for the show, her ambition is initially thwarted by the show’s villainous producer, Velma Von Tussle (Heather Ayers), whose aim to to further the celebrity chances of her selfish daughter Amber (Taylor Louderman), who’s popular on the show but isn’t a great dancer. Tracy is also attracted to the show’s teen heartthrob, Link Larkin (John Battagliese), who is ostensibly dating Amber.  When Tracy is sent to detention at school, however, she gains a new reason for getting on the show. She meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Gerald Caesar), a talented African-American dancer who features once a month on the show’s “Negro Day”, which is hosted by his mother,  Motormoth Maybelle (Liz Mikel), who owns a local record store. After befriending Seaweed and his family and friends, Tracy makes it her goal to integrate the Corny Collins Show so all the dancers, black and white, can dance together. Meanwhile, her mother Edna is brought along on her own journey to regain her sense of self-worth, supporting her daughter’s cause. Along the way, romantic entanglements, trouble with the law, and the schemes of the self-serving Von Tussles complicate the proceedings.

I haven’t seen the original film, but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to enjoy this immensely entertaining show. Tracy is an extremely likable character, as are her family and friends. The villains are a bit cartoonish, but that’s kind of the style of this show. It’s a show that sheds light on some of the more unsavory aspects of this country’s history, with a message that is still relevant today, but the overall emphasis is on hope, as Tracy and her friends fight for the cause of integrating the show and don’t back down. Everything is big, bright and full of energy, and although the story and its ultimate conclusion are fairly predictable, the show communicates its message of acceptance with heart, infectious energy, and the great 60’s styled songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with modern musical theatre classics such as “Good Morning Baltimore”, “Welcome to the 60s”, “I Can Hear the Bells” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.

The Muny’s production has assembled an excellent cast to tell this story. Redmond, as Tracy, has just the right amount of bubbly energy and charm, along with a strong singing voice and good dance ability. She’s thoroughly believable as a dreamer who goes after her dreams, bringing her family and friends along on her mission. Equally engaging is Batt, best known from TV’s Mad Men, as Tracy’s mother, Edna. He admirably doesn’t overplay the role, but brings verve, substance and heart to Edna and displaying excellent on stage chemistry with both Redmond as Tracy and Teeter as the sweetly goofy Wilbur. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me” is a sweet highlight of the show. There’s also excellent support from Maltby, a scene-stealer as the quirky Penny, and Caesar as the charming Seaweed, who is a terrific dancer. Mikel as Motormouth Maybelle also turns in a memorable performance, particularly in the second act delivering the powerful song “I Know Where I’ve Been”, and young Kennedy Holmes is delightful as Seaweed’s little sister and fellow dancer, Little Inez. Battagliese gives an amiable performance as Link, as well,  the show’s villains, Ayers and Louderman, are appropriately villainous, and Christopher J. Hanke is suitably suave as TV host Collins.

 Visually, this show is a nostalgic treat. With a vibrant color scheme of bright pinks, bold greens, oranges, and blues, costume designer Leon Dobkowski (basing his designs on the orginals by William Ivey Long) has brought an appealing 60s atmosphere to the show, featuring some eye-catching outfits for the dancers, Tracy and Edna particularly. Robert Mark Morgan’s set is whimsical and evocative, featuring a giant TV set as the centerpiece, and live video (designed by Matthew Young) during the Collins Show segments. It’s a stylish, visually pleasing production that reflects the energy of the show itself.

 Although I had seen the 2007 filmed version of the musical, I had never seen Hairspray on stage before. I think the Muny’s production is an ideal introduction to the show. Tracy Turnblad is a young girl with a dream and with aspirations to change the world, starting with Baltimore. The Muny has brought us into Tracy’s world with humor, drama, music and style.

 

 

Cast of Hairspray Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Cast of Hairspray
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny 

 Hairspray runs at the Muny until June 30th, 2015.

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