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Posts Tagged ‘John Tartaglia’

Matilda
Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Orchestrations and Additional Music by Chris Nightingale
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
August 5, 2019

Mattea Conforti (center), Laura Michelle Kelly (right) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The final show in the Muny’s 101st season is a production of one my favorite 21st Century musicals, which is being billed as Roald Dahl’s Matilda. That’s accurate, since it’s a much lauded, award-winning adaptation of Dahl’s modern classic book. Still, this production might also accurately be described as “Mary Engelbreit’s Matilda” in terms of its overall look and style. That look is entirely intentional on the Muny’s part, and St. Louis’s own Engelbreit has worked with the designers to develop its theme. It’s also a resounding success, not just visually but in the entire production itself, which manages to fit the show into Engelbreit’s style while also preserving the overall tone of Dahl’s work and that of the original creators of the musical. It’s visually stunning, certainly, but it’s also a triumph of music, performance, and overall whimsical energy.

Also the source material was adapted into a popular film in 1996, although the musical is directly based on the book rather than the film. The tone is bold, whimsical, and in keeping with Dahl’s usual style, focuses on darker themes while also showing good characters along with the bad. The intelligent, talented Matilda Wormwood (Mattea Conforti) is born into a family who not only doesn’t appreciate her talents and interests–her self-centered, materialistic parents (Josh Grisetti and Ann Harada) actively discourage and disparage them, spending most of their time on their own pursuits and doting on their older child Michael (Trevor Michael Schmidt), who seems to spend most his time watching TV, playing video games, and repeating his parents’ words. The five-year-old Matilda takes refuge in reading books far beyond her grade level, and telling stories to the encouraging librarian Mrs. Phelps (Darlesia Cearcy). When Matilda starts school, she goes to the imposing Crunchem Hall, presided over by the imperious, vindictive headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Beth Malone). Matilda does manage to make friends, gaining influence despite Miss Trunchbull’s efforts to undermine her, and develops a bond with her kind but insecure teacher Miss Honey (Laura Michelle Kelly), who also lives in fear of Miss Trunchbull but is determined to help Matilda. Meanwhile, Matilda continues to tell her stories to Mrs. Phelps, and this tale–concerning an Escapologist (Colby Dezelick) and an Acrobat (Gabi Stapula) who fall in love and get married–ends up tying in to the rest of the story in a surprising manner.

The tone is somewhat dark throughout much of the show, with a brilliant book by Dennis Kelly and the clever, ingenious lyrics by composer Tim Minchin, focusing on themes of bullying vs. acceptance, selfishness vs. kindness, and independence vs. coerced conformity, centering on the singular figure of one bold, unconventional girl and her influence on the world around her, as well as on the trials, disappointments, aspirations, and joys of childhood and the influence of people’s childhood experiences and environment on the adults they become.

It’s a remarkable show in its own right, but this production is not like you may have seen it before. In contrast to the Muny’s earlier (and excellent) staging of Kinky Boots, which was essentially a re-creation of the Broadway production, this Matilda looks very different to its London and Broadway productions, although it retains much of the tone and general movement style, reflected in John Tartaglia’s direction and Beth Crandall’s superb choreography.  The look and style are inspired by Engelbreit, who was in the audience on opening night. It’s a vividly realized vision, with versatile sets by Paige Hathaway, colorful costumes by Leon Dobkowski, dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and clever video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, all working together to achieve a world very much in keeping with both Dahl’s tone and Engelbreit’s visual work. It works very well for this show, which also features an excellent Muny Orchestra led by music director Michael Horsley, giving energetic life to Minchin’s wonderful score.

The cast here is also stellar, led by the fantastically talented young Conforti as the brave, precocious Matilda. Having played the role on Broadway, Conforti has the presence and energy of a seasoned performer, bringing a straightforward boldness and an excellent voice to the part. Malone, as the crass, vicious Trunchbull, is also a standout with an imposing presence and great vocals on songs like “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion”. She’s also the first woman I’ve seen play the role, which has been more often played by a man. Other standouts include the always excellent Kelly as a particularly sympathetic Miss Honey, Grisetti as the gleefully smarmy Mr. Wormwood, Harada as self-absorbed Mrs. Wormwood, and Sean Ewing in a hilariously physical performance as Mrs. Wormwood’s ballroom dance partner, Rudolpho. There are also some strong performances from the show’s child performers, especially Owen Hanford as the determined Bruce Bogtrotter, and Ella Grace Roberts as Matilda’s self-appointed best friend, Lavender. The ensemble is impressive, as well, particularly the youth ensemble, who perform with much energy and attitude on group numbers like “School Song”, “When I Grow Up”, and the artfully confrontational “Revolting Children”. The dancing is energetic and precise, as is the staging, in keeping with the style of the show, and the result is energetic, engaging, and supremely entertaining.

This is a Matilda like I’ve never seen it before, even though I had seen the production once in London and once on tour here in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre. With a first-rate cast and a superb sense of style inspired by the work of Mary Engelbreit, this show is sure to engage hearts and minds. It’s a wonderful way to conclude the excellent, newly energized 101st season at the Muny.

Beth Malone (center) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Matilda in Forest Park until August 11, 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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The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
With Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Background Music by Herbert Stothart
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 13, 2016

Nicholas Rodriguez, Kevin Cahoon, Danielle Bowen, Rich Pisarkiewicz, Stephen Wallem Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriguez, Kevin Cahoon, Danielle Bowen, Rich Pisarkiewicz, Stephen Wallem
Photo: The Muny

It’s June in St. Louis, and that means it’s time for the Muny again. It’s the 98th season for the illustrious venue, and first on the schedule this year is one of its most popular shows, The Wizard of Oz. Based largely on the classic 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s story, the Muny’s latest production is a crowd-pleasing production with all the expected elements. Directed by Muny veteran John Tartaglia and featuring a well-selected cast and the Muny’s Youth Ensemble, it’s a big production that fills the large stage well.

I probably don’t need to explain the plot. It’s The Wizard of Oz, one of the best-known stories in American culture, and well-known around the world. Most people associate the story with the Judy Garland film, and the Muny’s production, with the exception of a few added musical and dance sequences, is essentially the film on stage. The familiar characters are all here, including Kansas farm girl Dorothy (Danielle Bowen) and her little dog Toto (Dusty, who is a scene-stealer), who lives on a farm with her Aunt Em (Lynn Humphrey) and Uncle Henry (Rich Pisarkiewicz). Then, there’s the tornado which takes Dorothy and Toto to the land of Oz, where they are sent by Glinda the Good Witch (Leah Berry) to meet the Wizard of Oz (PJ Benjamin) in hopes of returning home to Kansas. Of course she meets the Scarecrow (Kevin Cahoon), Tin Man (Nicholas Rodriguez), and Cowardly Lion (Stephen Wallem), who join her on her quest while they all seek to avoid the Wicked Witch of the West (Peggy Roeder), who covets the precious Ruby Slippers that Dorothy wears. Everything is here, from the famous songs to the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, and the familiar theme that “there’s no place like home”.

This is an entertaining production, with a good cast, from Bowen’s Garland-esque Dorothy to Roeder’s more comically villainous interpretation of the Wicked Witch and Benjamin’s charming humbug of a Wizard. Dorothy’s trio of friends are also well-played, with Wallem’s particularly energetic rendition of the Lion being the real standout. Berry is also fine as Glinda, and Humphrey and Pisarkiewicz are a suitably kind and caring Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. There’s also an excellent ensemble, especially in the dance sequences representing the cyclone, and the Poppies sequence, and in the Munchkinland and Emerald City scenes. A song that was cut from the film, “The Jitterbug”, is the real musical highlight, performed with energy and style by Bowen, Cahoon, Rodriguez, Wallem, and company, dynamically choreographed by Ralph Perkins.

This is a colorful production, utilizing the film-inspired convention of presenting the Kansas sequences in sepia tones and then going to a full spectrum of colors once Dorothy arrives in Oz. Robert Mark Morgan’s versatile set and Leon Dobkowski’s detailed costumes are all suitably colorful. There’s also strikingly effective lighting by John Lasiter, and good use of video designed by Nathan W. Scheur. The microphones, particularly for the Scarecrow, were inconsistent and sometimes produced a hollow, distant sound, but otherwise the technical aspects of this production work well. Magic and wonder are what theatregoers expect with this show, and for the most part, this production gives them that.

The Wizard of Oz at the  Muny is just what audiences would expect, and it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. While it is essentially a staged production of the film for the most part, the performers are well-cast, the songs are well-sung, the the familiar story is well-told. While I personally tend to prefer productions that aren’t quite as close reproductions of the film, this is certainly entertaining and it’s a fun season opener. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the Muny has in store this summer.

Cast of The Wizard of Oz Photo: The Muny

Cast of The Wizard of Oz
Photo: The Muny

 The Muny’s production of The Wizard of Oz runs until June 22, 2016.

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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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