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Gypsy
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
July 27, 2018

Cast of Gypsy Photo: The Muny

It makes sense that the Muny would be staging Gypsy in its historic 100th season, considering the show’s reputation as an iconic American classic. It’s a show that’s been lauded for its strong book, its memorable score, and its well-realized characters, and particularly for the role of Rose–a part that has been played by many legendary performers over the years from Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury to Patti Lupone and Imelda Staunton. It’s also been filmed three times, and although I had seen two of those three filmings, I had never seen the show onstage in its entirety before, having been part of a group trip to a community theatre production when I was a teenager that was lesss than great, although I was struck by the excellent songs and intriguing story. Although I had wanted to stay, I was outvoted and my group left that production at intermission, so I only got to see half of it. Now, the Muny is presenting this show and I’m happy, not just because I finally get to see the whole show on stage, but also because it’s such a wonderful production, staged with such precision, attention to detail, stunning production values and a superb cast lead by Broadway and Muny veteran Beth Leavel.

This show is a fictionalized account based on the memoirs of famous mid-20th Century stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee isn’t the main character here, although she is important, and the story does show how Louise (Julia Knitel, with Elise Edwards as the younger “Baby Louise”) eventually became Gypsy Rose Lee. The primary focus, though, is on her mother, Rose (Leavel), a determined “stage mother” who once had hopes of stardom for herself but eventually pours all her energy into her daughters’ success in Vaudeville, and particularly her younger daughter, June, first as the headlining child performer “Baby June” (Amelie Lock) and later as the teenage “Dainty June” (Hayley Podschun). As Rose promotes the act in various venues on the West Coast, she eventually meets Herbie (Adam Heller) an agent-turned-candy salesman who is attracted to Rose, and whom she persuades to represent June’s act. While Herbie hopes to marry Rose, she strings him along, also neglecting Louise in her focus on the “star” of the act, June, and both sisters feel the pressure of having grown up on the road. Rose’s indomitable drive alienates and intimidates a lot of people, but the act is sucessful for a time, although not without consequences, as key figures in her life eventually are driven away. Although the story is well-known, I won’t give away too much, other than the obvious fact of who Louise eventually becomes. How she gets there, though, is a pivotal part of the drama and her relationship with her domineering mother.

Rose herself is a formidable character, a challenging role that’s considered one of the most sought-after roles in musical theatre. She’s complex and forceful, and not always likable, although a strong performer can make her watchable and even sympathetic in crucial moments. Here, Leavel takes the role and fills that colossal Muny stage with her powerful voice and memorable presence. She has her over-the-top moments, as is expected for the character, but she also portrays the characters humanity and desperate need for validation with clarity. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are intense, but she also displays an easy chemistry with Heller’s supremely likable and dependable Herbie in songs like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”. Her last scene with the grown-up Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee is especially poignant. Knitel, for her part, is excellent as Louise, showing a truly credible personal journey as she grows from insecure teenager to world-class burlesque performer in the course of the show. There are also stand-out performances from Podschun as the outwardly perky but increasingly exasperated June, by Drew Redington in a dazzlingly danced turn as chorus boy and aspiring song-and-dance man Tulsa, and especially by Jennifer Cody, Ellen Harvey, and Ann Harada as the trio of strippers who explain the secrets of their success to Louise in the show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number. The whole cast is excellent here, from the leads to the ensemble, with some cast members playing a few different roles and everyone in excellent form in singing, dancing, and acting.

One of valuable lessons I learned from that half-production I saw years ago is that pacing in this show is crucial. This is a show that, as great as it is, depends a lot on timing and energy. Director Rob Ruggiero has staged this show at just the right pace, so it’s not too slow but still takes the time to tell the story well. At the Muny, the lavish production values also help, with and excellent versatile set designed by Luke Cantarella that makes great use of the Muny’s turntable and authentically recreates the look and atmosphere of Vaudeville theatres and Depression-era America. There are also excellent costumes by Amy Clark, striking lighting by John Lasiter, and impressive use of video, designed by Nathan W. Scheuer.

This is a show that demands a great production, and the Muny has delivered that here. Anchored by the excellent performances of Leavel and her co-stars, this is a Gypsy production that’s worth seeing and remembering. It’s a magnificent production.

Adam Heller, Beth Leavel, Julia Knitel Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Gypsy in Forest Park until August 2, 2018

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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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Funny Girl
Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Choreographed by Zachary Stefaniak
Stray Dog Theatre
July 24, 2014

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Funny Girl is one of those unusual shows in that it’s about a real person who was very famous at one time, although its first association in most people’s minds is with the actress who originated the role, in the Broadway production and later in the hugely popular film.  For the general public, this show is about Barbra Streisand much more than it is about Fanny Brice.  The difficulty with that situation is that there’s only one Barbra Streisand, and any actress who plays this role with Streisand too much in mind is inevitably going to look like a pale imitation. The best thing that theatre companies can do, then, when producing this show is try to forget about Streisand entirely and put the focus on the person whose story the show tells–early 20th Century singer and comedienne Brice. With the right performer in the role, playing Brice rather than Streisand-as-Brice, this can be a highly successful show, and Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production at least has that one point in its favor. With Lindsey Jones in a strong-voiced, sympathetic, very un-Streisand characterization, this show manages to entertain despite its noticeable flaws.

Another issue with productions of this play is that the film is much more well-known than the stage version, and there were many modifications made for the movie including adding several songs that Brice actually sang.  The show’s music is all original, and the story is told in more of a traditional musical format and with more subplots than the film, in which the focus was turned even more toward Fanny’s relationship with gambler Nick Arnstein (played here by Jeffrey M. Wright).  That plot is still a major feature of this production as it’s told in flashback format, as the older, now-famous Fanny Brice remembers her rise to fame and the people who helped her achieve that fame, such as her mother (Laura Kyro) and her family friends from her old New York neighborhood and her early days on the Vaudeville circuit, including dancer Eddie Ryan (Zach Wachter).  Eventually, Fanny is noticed by famous Broadway produced Florenz Ziegfeld (Michael Monsey), who signs her to star in his famous Follies.  As Fanny becomes increasingly well-known, her romance with Arnstein develops gradually, eventually leading to much tension and drama as these two very different people try to maintain a relationship in the midst of the challenges of Fanny’s career and Nick’s own personal ambitions.  It’s a somewhat disjointed script, as the story keeps jumping back to the “old neighborhood” when it probably should keep the focus on Fanny, although there are some entertaining moments with Mrs. Brice and her poker playing friends.

Despite some problematic casting in other roles in this production, Jones herself shines as Fanny Brice.  Although she doesn’t physically resemble the real Brice very much (but then, neither did Streisand), she actually sings more in the style of Brice than Streisand did, and her voice is strong and clear.  It’s not a perfect performance, in that Jones does seem to take a little while to find her energy, but when she does find it (about halfway through Act 1), she owns the stage.  On iconic songs like “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and, especially, “People”, Jones sings with heart and personality.  She displays a good sense of comic timing in the more humorous numbers, as well, and leads production numbers like “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” with authority despite the lack of cohesion in the ensemble that supports her. She portrays Fanny’s maturing and growth in confidence as a performer well, as well as her frustration with her increasing personal difficulties. Jones is really the star of this production, with some excellent support by Kyro as Mrs. Brice, who shows a great deal of stage presence, comic ability and a strong voice, and especially by Wachter as Eddie, who commands the stage with charm and excellent tap-dancing skills. In fact, Wachter’s solo version of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”–which is supposed to be a rehearsal–is actually more captivating than the “finished” ensemble performance that immediately follows it. These three performers, along with several of the female ensemble members, give the most engaging performances in the show, but the most of the male ensemble is noticeably weaker, and Monsey as Ziegfeld lacks the engaging personality and authority that the role requires while sporting a distractingly obvious fake mustache.  Wright, as Arnstein, gives a fine performance for the most part, although he doesn’t quite project the right air of suave confidence early on, and his chemistry with Jones is awkward at best, with the one exception of their very last scene together, which is poignant and  believable but also not really enough to make up for their earlier lack of connection.

Another uneven aspect of this production is its visual presentation and its pacing, particularly in the production numbers.  The grand Ziegfeld Follies staircase is there, and it looks great, as does most of Robert J. Lippert’s set, which fits well on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, although the costumes, designed by director Gary F. Bell, are hit-or-miss in terms of period detail, with some of the female ensemble members rehearsing in outfits that look much more of this century than of the last.  The Follies sequences, despite the nice-looking set, simply are not grand enough, and the ensemble lacks cohesion  in the production numbers until Jones shows up and brings up the energy level.  There are also some issues with volume, in that there were moments of dialogue that were difficult to hear.  Stray Dog’s productions have impressed me a great deal in the past, especially their spectacular Cabaret earlier this year, but this one is surprising in its inconsistency, even there there is a lot to enjoy about the production as well and I hope the ensemble’s energy and presence will improve  as the show continues to run.

Ultimately, this show is about Fanny Brice, and a winning performance in that role makes the show worthwhile even if the rest of the production is flawed.  Plain and simple, Lindsey Jones is the main reason to see this show.  With excellent support from Wachter and Kyro, Jones overcomes the shortcomings of the script and an occasionally uneven supporting cast to present a memorable, appealing performance as Fanny Brice.  It’s definitely a characterization worth seeing.

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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