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Paint Your Wagon
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
New Book by Jon Marans
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 27, 2019

Mamie Parris, Matt Bogart
Photo: The Muny

Paint Your Wagon is a show with a complicated history, but a wonderful Lerner and Loewe score with several memorable songs. Now, as the penultimate production of its 101st season, The Muny has given this show a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, with a brand new book, a revised song list, and a new story with elements of the original, all performed by an especially strong cast and with remarkable production values.

The source material is tricky. Paint Your Wagon is a show that is known these days more for a few of the songs than the plot. The 1969 film is remembered somewhat, but that’s often seen as more of a novelty, and the original stage version isn’t remembered much at all, but both versions have those songs by a legendary musical theatre writing team, and some memorable characters, so this new version has playwright Jon Marans re-imagining some of the basic plot elements and essentially creating a new story. It’s still focused on the mid-18th Century California Gold Rush, but bringing more characters into the plot and emphasizing the international draw of that event. The show makes excellent use of Caite Hevner’s video design, and begins with projections of vintage newspaper ads in various languages, leading into the opening “I’m On My Way” number in which a variety of characters from around the world head west in search of gold, adventure, and a measure of freedom. Among these characters include the widowed former tavernkeeper Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart), who has sent his daughter Jennifer (Maya Keleher) off to college and has set out on his own. There’s also Cayla Woodling (Mamie Parris), who travels with her brutal husband Craig (Michael James Reed); half-brothers Jake (Preston Truman Boyd), and the enslaved Wesley (Allan K. Washington); free black businessman H. Ford (Rodney Hicks), who seeks to help Wesley obtain his freedom; the Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte Thornton), who flees the potato famine in hopes of making some money to send to his wife and child back home; and Chinese brothers Ming Li (Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), who often clash over their different goals and views of American culture. The wandering Ben soon meets up with Mexican-American Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), who becomes his business partner. That’s just the set-up. There’s a lot that happens in this play, as the characters arrive at a mining settlement known as No Name City and begin to see their fortunes in the mines, as well as forming friendships, romances, rivalries, and dreams for the future. There are a lot of subplots, and it takes a while for the various threads to be tied together, with a decidedly serious turn in the second act that happens a little late and isn’t built up as well as it could be, but for the most part it’s an intriguing, engaging story, with some memorable characters and situations.

The glorious songs are there, too, with some lush arrangements by Ian Eisendrath, Jason DeBord, and Albert Evans and an excellent Muny Orchestra conducted by Music Director Sinai Tabak. There are a few new songs, or at least new to this show, with one (“What Do Other Folk Do?”) being strikingly similar to a song (“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”) from another Lerner and Loewe classic, Camelot. The plots could stand to be tightened and streamlined here and there, and some of the character motivations and arcs (especially Ben’s and William’s) need to be made more clear, but generally this new story works, with humor, poignancy, and some important themes including acceptance, personal responsibility, the dangers of materialism and greed, and more.

The Old West setting is well-realized on the vast Muny stage by means of Michael Schweikardt’s expansive, versatile set that uses the turntable well and consists of several detailed set pieces. The costumes by Amy Clark are vibrant and detailed, as well. There’s also stunning lighting by John Lasiter that helps set and maintain the tone of the show through its various transitions. The sound design, by John Shivers and David Patridge, is fine as well, although there were some noticeable issues with feedback and malfunctioning microphones on opening night. I’m hoping these issues will be smoothed out as the show continues its run. The staging is lively, with some remarkable choreography especially in the ensemble production numbers. There are also some fun bits of Muny spectacle that work especially well on this huge stage–such as the use of real Clydesdale carriage horses in a key number at the beginning of Act 2.

The cast is large, with quite a few named characters that it takes a while to keep track of them all, although the performers are universally excellent, with some particularly strong singing. Bogart as Ben makes a strong impression on stage with an authoritative and mostly amiable presence, with a powerful voice to match. He’s well-matched by Parris as the mistreated but determined Cayla, and their story develops well. Lopez-Cepero is also impressive and in excellent voice as Armando, who has some memorable scenes and duets with the powerfully-voiced Keleher as Jennifer. Other standouts include Thornton as the increasingly desperate and conflicted William; Ku and Lee as the the close-knit but frequently at odds Li brothers: and Hicks and Washington as H. Ford and Wesley, who form a strong bond as friends and allies against the stubbornly possessive and increasingly menacing Jake, also impressively played by Boyd. There’s a strong ensemble to back the leads, as well, from miners to tavern dancers, all singing and dancing with energy and style, bringing new life to a classic score and a newly revitalized story.

Overall, I would say that the Muny’s Paint Your Wagon is an entertaining success, although it could still use some work in terms of plotting and character motivations. There’s definitely some gold here, but there’s still some more mining to be done. Still, it’s an impressive debut of this new version, for the most part, and it fills up that colossal Muny stage with drama, humor, and a great deal of energy. It’s another good example of the Muny’s occasional role as an incubator of new shows, or revamped versions of older shows that are being given a new life for today’s audiences.

Cast of Paint Your Wagon
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Paint Your Wagon in Forest Park until August 2, 2019

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Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 9, 2018

Nicolas Dromard, Keith Hines, Mark Ballas, Bobby Conte Thornton Photo: The Muny

The Muny has, over the course of its storied 100 year history, hosted several memorable concerts in addition to its traditional lineup of musical theatre and (originally) operetta. It’s been a while since the venue has hosted a rock concert, but its latest musical production, Jersey Boys, has the feel of a concert much of the time. Still, although it’s a “jukebox” show, it also has a strong book, telling the true story of a well-known American band with great production values and a stellar cast.

The story focuses on the legendary pop-rock group The Four Seasons. It’s a well-structured plot, narrated at turns by all four original members of the group: guitarist Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Dromard), keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bobby Conte Thornton), bassist Nick Massi (Keith Hines), and lead vocalist Frankie Valli (Mark Ballas). As the title suggests, the story begins in a close-knit neighborhood in New Jersey, as a group of young, ambitious guys form friendships and a band, sometimes get in trouble with the law, navigate family struggles and romantic entanglements and eventually work their way up to the top of the charts as a world-famous band. The approach here doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the story or the people involved, the personality conflicts, trials and tribulations as well as some of the more problematic aspects of the times. The tag-team narrative approach serves the story well, as each “Season” gets to have his say, using the group’s impressive repertoire of classic hits to help advance the story as well as entertain in concert-style, complete with a thoroughly appreciative, enthusiastic audience. Iconic songs like “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “December 1963 (Oh, What a NIght)”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, and “Working My Way Back to You” are represented well, with top-notch production values and a great, enthusiastic cast.

The Muny stage is great setting for this show. I’d seen the Broadway staging before on tour at the Fox, and that was great, but here, in the show’s regional world premiere, the staging and styling have been created specifically for the Muny. With a versatile multi-level platform set by Paul Tate dePoo III, the concert style is served well, as are the storytelling moments. There’s also dynamic lighting by Rob Denton and striking, effective video design by Matthew Young, along with some dazzling, colorful period-specific costumes by Andrea Lauer. The staging is energetic and well-paced, with great dance moves choreographed by director Josh Rhodes, and those great, memorable songs well-played by the excellent Muny orchestra led by music director Rick Bertone.

The Four Seasons are ideally cast here, with Dromard, Hines, Thornton, and Ballas recreating that distinctive sound credibly and impressively. They all sound great, with Ballas particularly standing out vocally, displaying Valli’s remarkable range and stage presence well. Dromard’s cocky, controlling DeVito is a standout as well, as are Hines’s quirky, enigmatic Massi and Thornton’s more quiet but ambitious and determined Gaudio. The relationships and group chemistry are believable, as well, and there are some especially great musical moments as the group develops their signature sound. There are also standout performances from Nicholas Rodriguez as music producer Bob Crewe, and Ben Nordstrom in various roles. There’s a strong, energetic ensemble, as well, each playing various roles and supporting the group in enthusiastic dance numbers. The look, sound, and style of the Four Seasons and their era–particularly in the 1960s–is well-represented in this excellent production.

Jersey Boys is grittier at times than what may be thought of as the “usual” Muny show. It has a sharp, well-structured book that makes it one of the best “jukebox” musicals that’s been produced, and of course, there are all those memorable hit songs. This is a big, flashy show with a good deal of substance along with the glitz, and the Muny has produced it about as well as I could imagine. It’s an excellent, complex and fascinating musical tribute.

Cast of Jersey Boys Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jersey Boys in Forest Park until July 16, 2018

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Young Frankenstein
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 13, 2016

Cast of Young Frankenstein Photo: The Muny

Cast of Young Frankenstein
Photo: The Muny

“Fun” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about the Muny’s latest production of Young Frankenstein. Based on the classic Mel Brooks movie, this production sends up and pays homage to old-time horror films in general and the Frankenstein story in particular, with great production values and a lot of energy and humor. The well-chosen cast members seem to be having the time of their lives on stage, and that energy translates well for the audience.

Although this show is essentially the film on stage with songs added, the story is expanded upon slightly as well, and the jokes are plentiful, with an emphasis on innuendo and some physical comedy. The show has also amped up the “song and dance” elements, making the most of the musical comedy genre. The story’s central figure is Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Robert Petkoff), grandson of the infamous monster-creating Victor Frankenstein, who has recently died, leaving his Transylvanian estate to his grandson. The younger Frankenstein is a respectable scientist, insisting on pronouncing his last name “Frahnk–en-steen” so as to distance himself from a troubling family legacy. Frederick boards a ship overseas, bidding farewell to his physically averse fiancee Elizabeth (Jennifer Cody), and finally arriving in Transylvania, where he meets his assistants Igor (Steve Rosen) and Inga (Stephanie Gibson) and the mysterious housekeeper Frau Blucher (Vicki Lewis), whose name is always accompanied by the sound of horses neighing, as in the film. Although Frederick initially resists, he’s soon drawn to “Join the Family Business” (according to the song) and revisit his grandfather’s experiments with reanimating the dead. It’s an exaggerated “dark and stormy night” type of atmosphere throughout, as the suspicious villagers seek to find out Frederick’s plans, and Frederick hopes to bring to life a creature with intelligence and heart along with his giant stature and brute strength.

As a show, this production is carried by the strength of its cast and seemingly boundless energy. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time on stage, and it shows. Although some jokes occasionally fall flat, and a few of the songs are essentially just extended gags, this production simply works. The casting is excellent, from Petkoff’s overly determined Frederick, to Rosen’s delightfully goofy Igor who interacts delightfully with his fellow actors and with the audience, to Timothy Hughes’s charming, tap-dancing Creature, to Lewis’s melodramatic Frau Blucher (cue horse sounds), to the excellent comic performances of Frederick’s competing love interests, Gibson as the enthusiastic Inga, and Cody as the overbearing Elizabeth. There’s a strong ensemble, as well, serving the production well during the group numbers, such as the Act 1 ending “Transylvania Mania” and the inventively choreographed large-scale tap performance of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, the only song in the production that wasn’t written by Brooks, used here ostensibly because it was in the film. Here, it’s been hammed up delightfully, filling the huge Muny stage and providing one of the highlights of this production.

The set and special effects add much to the spirit of this production. Paul Tate dePoo III’s set provides the ideal backdrop for the action, with a suitably creepy castle that rotates to display Frankenstein’s laboratory, using the Muny’s turntable to excellent effect. The costumes, originally designed by William Ivey Long with additional design and coodination by Tracy Christensen, appropriately suggest those of the film while being ideally augmented for the stage. The movie was filmed in black and white, but this production is in full color, evoking the gloominess of the Transylvania setting with excellent effect. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Denton and creative video design by Matthew Young.

This isn’t an all-ages show, really. In keeping with the raunchy, innuendo-laden tone of the original film, this production is more suited for adults and older teens than for children. Young Frankenstein at the Muny is an energetic, joke-filled, hilariously hammy production. One of the best things about it is that the cast members seem to be having just as much fun presenting the show as the audience is watching it.

Timothy Hughes, Robert Petkoff Photo: The Muny

Timothy Hughes, Robert Petkoff
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Young Frankenstein in Forest Park until July 19th, 2016.

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