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Anything Goes
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, and Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 22, 2015

Cast of Anything Goes Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Anything Goes
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

In a way, Anything Goes could well be called one of the orginal “jukebox musicals”. It’s been performed in various versions for decades, with many lyric, song, and book changes, and the plot, while entertaining, is fairly slight. The show exists, essentially, to be a showcase for the songs of celebrated 20th Century composer and lyricist Cole Porter. It’s a lively show with lots of silly comedy and spectacular dancing, and it’s currently being performed in top-notch fashion at STAGES St. Louis.

The story is somewhat silly, but entertaining nonetheless. It follows nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Julie Cardia) and friends on an ocean liner traveling between New York and London in the 1930s. Reno’s got something of a crush on her old friend, the handsome stockbroker Billy Crocker (Brent Michael DiRoma), but Billy’s newly smitten with young debutante Hope Harcourt (Heidi Giberson), who is sailing on the cruise with her mother (Kari Ely) with the aim of marrying rich English nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Dan Fenaughty). Meanwhile, gangster Moonface Martin (Bob Amaral), “Public Enemy #13”, is on the run from the law, and boards the ship in preacher’s disguise, bringing his friend Erma (Laura E. Taylor) along.  What ensues is a comedy of love triangles and quadrangles, as well as mistaken identity, gambling, singing and a whole lot of dancing.

The plot isn’t really one that bears a lot of scrutiny. It’s really just a platform for the songs and some some hilariously goofy comedy. Despite the various script updates over the years, the show does still come across as slightly dated, and there are some unfortunate stereotypes that are played for laughs. Still, for the most part it’s a fun show, and the real focus is on those lovely Cole Porter songs and Stephen Bourneuf’s spectacular choreography and excellent ensemble dancing.

This is a very ensemble-dependent show, considering all the stylish dance-numbers and intricately performed choreography. The ensemble sparkles on on numbers like the tap-dance heavy “Anything Goes” and the truly showstopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” led by the big-voiced Cardia as Reno.  Cardia also displays a strong sense of comedy, working well opposite both the charming DiRoma as Billy, the hilariously shady Amaral as Mooonface, and the delightfully goofy and thoroughly winning Fenaughty as Lord Evelyn.  All of these performers show great comedy skills and excellent voices, especially DiRoma, who also shares delightful chemistry with Giberson, who is also in excellent voice as Hope.  There are also fun comic performances from the always excellent Reichert as Billy’s nearsighted boss Elisha Whitney, and Kari Ely as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt.  Flack as the Captain, Brennan Caldwell as the Ship’s Purser, and Taylor as Erma also give memorable performances. It’s a very strong cast, from the leads to the ensemble, working together to bring life to the classic Porter score and a great deal of laughs to the audience.

The set, designed by James Wolk, is striking, colorful and versatile, creating a vibrant 1930’s atmosphere. There are also some marvelously detailed and stylish costumes by Brad Musgrove. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is effective and atmospheric, as well.

Ultimately, the point of Anything Goes is to entertain, and the production at STAGES does that well.  It’s a big, bold, stylish and energetic production that splendidly showcases the marvelous score and choreography. It’s also hilariously funny, with a decidedly silly sense of humor.  Despite a few drawbacks in the script, this is about as ideal a production of this show as I can imagine.

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Lousi

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Lousi

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Anything Goes is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 16th, 2015.

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Assassins
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Suki Peters
The November Theater Company
September 26, 2014

Cast of Assassins Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Cast of Assassins
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

Presidential assassins seem like strange subjects for a musical, as individuals or as a group, but Stephen Sondheim is known for his unusual concepts. Sondheim’s darkly satiric Assassins is a bold choice for the brand new November Theater Company as their first entry into the St. Louis theatre scene, and it’s proven to have been a successful one.  With a strong cast full of local talent, strong direction and a consistent visual theme, this production makes for a memorable debut performance from this new company.

Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have chosen to handle their subject matter in a starkly satirical manner. The satire is broad and dark, with a rougues’ gallery of Presidential assassins and attempted assassins presented as patrons of an old-fashioned carnival, where the Proprieter (Jon Hey) is handing out guns and issuing a challenge–who wants to kill a President?  A wide range of infamous historical figures take up the challenge and enter the “shooting gallery”, with successful attempts being greeted with a large graphic that reads “Winner!”  We are introduced to a range of characters, from household names to historical footnotes, as each gets their story told with varying degrees of embellishment. There is a whole lot of dramatic license here, as characters who never could have met are portrayed as interacting and, in one case–that of would-be Gerald Ford assassins Sara Jane Moore (Jessica Townes) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Jennifer Theby Quinn)–shown as actually working together when in fact their attempts were unrelated. All the historical license is done in the name of satire, and for the most part, it works. There’s also the Balladeer (Charlie Barron), who provides additional commentary on the lives of some of the characters and narrates some of the action, directly challenging the motives of John Wilkes Boooth (Mike Amoroso) and others. With all the characters being rather broadly portrayed, the musical gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of these people and the circumstances that drove them individually to choose such a drastic and terrible act.

Overall, I would say this show is an examination and a satire, but it is in no way a glorification of the assassins or the acts portrayed here.  The assassins are displayed with their most obvious flaws on clear display–from egotism to varying degrees of fanaticism and delusion–although there is also some thought-provoking commentary about the ever-elusive “American Dream”.  The dreadful impact of these acts on the general public is shown with much clarity especially in the show’s penultimate number–the deeply effective “Something Just Broke”, in which various ensemble members recount stories of everyday people and how they were effected by the Kennedy assassination and others.

The cast here is large and, for the most part, ideal, with strong singing and acting. Actually, although there are some great musical moments, some of the most memorable scenes are the non-singing ones, such as attempted Nixon assassin Sam Byck’s (Patrick Blindauer) bitterly comic monologues in which he recounts his disillusionment with life in tape-recorded letters to luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself.  Blindauer is a strong presence as the embittered, Santa suit-clad Byck, with excellent comic timing and a great deal of attitude.  Also strong are the scenes between Townes as the scatterbrained Moore and Theby Quinn as enthralled Charles Manson devotee Fromme, with very strong comic performances from both. Theby Quinn also has a memorable moment in her duet with Nate Cummings as a particularly nerdy, simpering Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley. Both performers shine singing Sondheim’s jarringly ironic “Unworthy of Your Love”–a beautifully melodic tune with disturbing lyrics about romantic obsession and the extreme lengths it drives some people to.  Other strong performances come from Barron, with his strong tenor voice, as the Balladeer; Nick Kelly as the the disillusioned and disturbed McKinley assassin Leon Czoglosz; Patrick Kelly as the gleefully fanatical and vainglorious Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau;  Amoroso as the theatrical, egotistical Booth, who becomes something of a ringleader for the assassins; and Hey, bringing attitude and presence to the role of Proprietor.

Visually, this production is consistent and striking, with Jason Townes’ multilevel set, Bob Singleton’s projections, Russell waning’s lighting design setting the mood, along with the excellent character-specific costumes by Meredith LaBounty.  There were some noticeable issues with sound on opening night, though, from failed microphones to feedback, although these were relatively minor and I’m sure they will be dealt with as the production continues.  Overall, the old-time carnival atmosphere is maintained with admirable detail, with a memorable shift in mood and focus in the climactic scene late in Act 2, achieved with a very simple scene adjustment.

As both a major Sondheim fan and a Presidential history buff, I was particularly interested in seeing this production. Although I had heard the original cast recording, I had never actually seen Assassins on stage before, and I’m glad that I got to see such a strong production. The tone of this show ranges from the ridiculously comic to the frighteningly disturbing, and director Suki Peters and her top-notch cast have presented the material in a memorable and proficient way.  It’s compelling, challenging theatre from an extremely promising new company.

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

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