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Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
by James M. Barrie, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Sammy Cahn,
Moose Charlap, Betty Comden, Larry Gelbart, Morton Gould, Adolph Green,
Oscar Hammerstein II, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Laurents, Carolyn Leigh,
Stephen Longstreet, Hugh Martin, Jerome Robbins, Richard Rodgers,
Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Stein, Jule Styne
Directed by Cynthia Onrubia
Additional Choreography by Harrison Beal, Dan Knechtges, Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 11, 2018

Cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s 100th season is finally here, and it’s opening in grand style with a show that’s really several shows in one. The 1989 Tony Winner for Best Musical, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway pays tribute to a prolific director-choreographer from the Golden Age of Broadway in a production that, even though it has “Broadway” in the title, seems almost tailor-made for the Muny.

The Muny has traditionally been about big, large-cast musicals with spectacle and style, and that’s here in abundance with Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. It’s the first regional production of the show ever, apparently, and although it’s not exactly the same as the 1989 version, most of the songs are here, highlighting Robbins’ illustrious career and featuring some iconic numbers from classic shows, as well as some numbers from lesser-known shows. From On the Town, HIgh Button Shoes and Billion Dollar Baby to West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, and Fiddler On the Roof, this show has a little bit of everything, dance-wise, from dramatic, ballet-influenced numbers, to jazz, to slapstick comedy, and more, staged with the usual big, bold, high-energy stage-filling style of the Muny.

There isn’t really a story here. It’s a revue, essentially, with Rob McClure as “The Setter” introducing the scenes. McClure, a Muny veteran and favorite performer, also plays several memorable roles in the production, including two roles from HIgh Button Shoes and the role of Tevye alongside Maggie Lakis as Golde in the excellent Fiddler sequence that features “Tradition”, “Tevye’s Dream”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, and the always thrilling wedding dance. There are many excellent moments here. In fact, there are so many highlights, it’s not easy to name them all. Among the standout routines is a thrilling rendition of “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan starring Sarah Marie Jenkins as a vibrant Peter Pan, along with Elizabeth Teeter as Wendy, Gabriel Cytron as Michael, and Cole Joyce as John. This sequence is particularly dazzling, with excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. and great use of the Muny’s electronic scenery wall. The ensemble is the star here, really, with energetic dancing from the more dramatic West Side Story moments to the high comedy of the “On a Sunday By the Sea” number from High Button Shoes. Another memorable sequence is the truly stunning dance number “Mr. Monotony” featuring powerful vocals from Muny veteran Jenny Powers and astounding dancing from Sean Rozanski, Alexa De Barr, and Garen Scribner, who also all turn in strong performances in the West Side Story sequence as Bernardo, Maria, and Tony respectively, alongside the equally excellent Davis Wayne as Riff and Tanairi Vazquez as Anita, along with an athletic, energetic ensemble of Jets and Sharks. There is so much here to see and enjoy, with Robbins’ routines recreated with an authentic look and feel, to the point where it seems for some moments as if the audience has traveled in time.

The production values here are also first-rate, with a stylish, colorful and versatile set by Paige Hathaway and remarkably authentic costume design by Robin L. McGee. There’s also excellent lighting design from John Lasiter, lending atmosphere and changing tones and moods to the various production numbers. There’s also great video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and wonderful music from the always excellent Muny Orchestra.

This is an old-school musical revue with lots of energy and a big cast to fill out the enormous Muny stage. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a collection of numbers that serves as an ideal first show for the Muny’s 100th season. It’s a retrospective, but also a celebration of musical theatre’s past as the Muny prepares to move into the future. It’s a dazzling start to a long-awaited season in Forest Park.

West Side Story Dancers
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in Forest Park until June 17, 2018.

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Zorba
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2017

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Margeau Steinau, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Kent Coffel Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

One of the key lines from the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba is sung near the beginning of the show–“life is what you do when you’re waiting to die”. Currently on stage at New Line Theatre, Zorba shows its audience life in all its beauty and brutality.  At New Line, it’s presented with the usual strong cast and excellent singing, bringing this sometimes challenging show to vibrant life.

Zorba is an entertaining show, but it can also be kind of stark and brutal. It follows two central characters. The young, scholarly Nikos (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), is full of idealism as he heads to a small Greek town to manage a mine he has inherited.  He meets the show’s title character, the older, boisterous Zorba (Kent Coffel) in a bar and brings him along to help him run the mine. This begins a relationship in which the younger Nikos is taught the realities of life and the more world-wise Zorba teaches as well as learning a thing or two. It’s structured as a “story within a story” that starts in the bar, narrated by a figure identified as Leader (Lindsey Jones), who reappears at various times throughout the course of the show. Through the course of the story, Nikos and Zorba encounter the local villagers and enter into complicated relationships with local women both dealing with loneliness in their own ways. There’s the older Madame Hortense (Margeau Steinau), who has had an eventful life and a string of short-lived relationships, who enters into something of a combative relationship with Zorba. There’s also the Widow (Ann Hier), who is ostracized by the local villagers, idealized by an infatuated young man (Evan Fornachon) whom she ignores, and who experiences a halting but powerful attraction to Nikos. The story is told with humor, drama, and occasionally a kind of harshness that seems flippant at times, although the music is strong and the characters lively and memorable. Like life, there are moments of beauty as well as of tragedy, although sometimes it seems as if the tragedy isn’t given the weight it should have.

This is a Kander and Ebb show, and as such the music is excellent. From the opening  “Life Is” to that song’s reprise that ends the show, there are many memorable songs, from Zorba’s rousing “The First Time” to his anthemic “I Am Free”, to Madame Hortense’s poignant “Only Love” and “Happy Birthday”. It’s a good script as well, for the most part, but at New Line it’s the performances that make the show, and especially those of the leads. Coffel is an ideal Zorba, with energy and charisma and wit, bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage with charm and veracity. There’s also Dowdy-Windsor as an especially sympathetic Nikos, and his scenes with Coffel are a real highlight of the show. Steinau is also a particular standout as the determined, lovestruck Madame Hortense, and Hier makes the most of the somewhat underwritten role of the Widow. Jones has a strong voice and presence as the Leader, as well, and Fornachon makes a sensitive impression as Pavli, the young man who is infatuated with the Widow.  These players are backed up by a cohesive ensemble, as well, although sometimes there can be a lack of energy in the more dramatic ensemble scenes. Overall, however it’s a strong cast, highlighted by the first-rate singing that New Line is known for.

Technically, the show is in good hands as well. Rob Lippert’s lighting and colorful set with pillars and a vivid Greek-village backdrop help to set the mood and tone of the show well, along with Sarah Porter’s excellent costumes. There’s also a superb band conducted by Sarah Nelson, doing justice to Kander and Ebb’s excellent score.  Michelle Sauer’s choreography is full of energy and true to the music and style of the show, well executed by the strong ensemble.

Zorba is a well-known story, as it was a book and a celebrated film before it was a musical. The musical, however, is my introduction to the story. Although its philosophy does seem to veer towards the harsh at times, it’s also a celebration of the beauty and messiness of life itself. At New Line, this show is brought to the stage with energy, intelligence, and an especially strong cast in the leading roles. It’s definitely a show worth seeing.

zorba2

Lindsey Jones (center) and Company Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

 New Line Theatre is presenting Zorba at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2017.

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Fiddler On the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Stages St. Louis
September 10, 2014

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

Fiddler on the Roof is a much-performed musical theatre classic. In fact, it’s been performed so many times at so many levels (amateur, regional, school, etc.) that it’s the one show I’ve seen the most productions of. And then there’s the film, which I’ve seen several times, and the Original Broadway Cast recording, which I grew up listening to.  Seeing a show that many times is great if you like the show (and I do), but it’s also easy to get complacent and just think “oh, it’s Fiddler” and have to make an extra effort to pay attention during performances unless there’s something great or distinctive enough  to make it stand out. Fortunately, the season closing production at Stages St. Louis is one of those presentations that makes watching an age-old much-seen favorite seem fresh and vibrant enough that I can easily watch it not out of effort or obligation, but out of sheer joy.

The story of this show is well known, recounting the trials, tribulations and traditions of Tevye (Bruce Sabath), a poor Jewish milkman in a small village in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century.  With political tensions rising in the world around his village, and with new customs and ideas gradually entering their previously isolated society, Tevye is forced to consider his own ways and the reasons behind them.  The opening number “Tradition” sets the scene, although gradually and surely, things happen that make Tevye think about his own ideals and what it means to reconcile the old ways and the newer ways.  Primarily, these changes are presented in the courtship stories of Tevye’s daughters. While Tevye and his wife Golde (Kari Ely) have five daughters, the three oldest are of marriageable age, and Yente the matchmaker (Rechel Coloff) is determined to find them husbands, although the daughters have their own ideas that are increasingly challenging to the old system.  First there’s Tzeitel (Stephanie Lynne Mason), who would rather marry her childhood sweetheart Motel the tailor (Nick Orfanella) than the older, wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf (Christopher Limber).  Mostly, the stories unfold one at a time, with daughters Hodel (Julie Hanson) and Chava (Carissa Massaro) presenting Tevye with their own, increasingly challenging choices of suitors, and while Tevye deals with what those marriages mean to his own life and his own relationships with his family, his village and his faith, the turmoil in the outside world and the tensions between the Jewish and non-Jewish villagers in his own town gradually simmer and threaten to ultimately boil over.

This is a production that is full of life in all its aspects, portrayed with a great deal of energy and a degree of realism in the performances that sets it apart from some previous productions I’ve seen. I’ve noticed that with this show, there is a tendency among some of the actors to overplay their roles just a little bit, and sometimes a lot in the case of some characters, but it’s refreshing to see that nobody does that it this production.  The characters are all very believable and not over-the-top, led by Sabath as a particularly charming, down-to-earth Tevye.  With a strong stage presence, clear voice, and witty line delivery, his Tevye is a distinctly compassionate, thoughtful man, and his concern for his daughters is very relatable. He works very well with Ely as the dutiful, constantly concerned Golde, who also manages to bring an earthy realism to her role. They are a well-matched pair, bringing energy to their banter throughout the show and real warmth and heart to their sweet duet “Do You Love Me” in the second act.  The daughters and their suitors are also very well-cast, especially Mason as the more practical older daughter, Tzeitel, and the lanky Orfanella as the earnest, sweetly awkward Motel. “Miracle of Miracles” is a delight, as is their wedding, which is also a standout moment for the entire cast.  Especially in the after-wedding dancing–first the famous and still captivating “Bottle Dance”, and then the increasingly palpable joy and energy as the townspeople join in dancing together. For the first time in seeing this show, I felt like I was at a real wedding, and that’s wonderful. It also made the drama to follow all the more poignant.  Other strong performances include those of Coloff as the gossipy Yente and Limber as the butcher Lazar Wolf.  It’s a very strong ensemble, with great dancing all around, especially in the aforementioned wedding and in “To Life”. It’s a smaller ensemble than I’ve seen before in Fiddler, although for the most part, that only serves to make this production more accessible and less obviously “showy”, except for the opening “Tradition” number, which does seem a bit cluttered.

The technical aspects of this show are top-notch, as well, starting with the richly detailed set by James Wolk that evokes the work of painter Marc Chagall–whose painting, “The Fiddler”, inspired the show’s title.  The costumes by Lou Bird are also extremely detailed and appropriate, if possibly a little too “clean” looking for some characters (like the neighborhood beggar).  With strong, atmospheric lighting by Matthew McCarthy and the vibrant Jerome Robbins choreography re-created by Gary John Larosa, this show is as appealing visually as it is dramatically. It’s all unmistakably Fiddler, but given an air of immediacy by director Michael Hamilton and this great cast, with a few new approaches to characterization and staging that give it a distinctive character that allows it to stand out from the crowd of previous productions of this show that I have seen.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic show that, when produced well, can be timeless as well as timely. Its themes of family, faith and tradition vs. change are both specific and universal, and it also provides a fascinating perspective on an earlier time and place in history. This production is to be especially commended for its vibrancy and approachability in addition to its excellent production values. It’s a fitting and memorable closer to Stages’s excellent 2014 season.

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely  Photo by Peter Wochniak Stages St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

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