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Posts Tagged ‘laura michelle kelly’

South Pacific

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreographed by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

July 8, 2013

southpacific

It’s a tropical atmosphere at the Muny this week, and that’s not just because of the weather.  South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical about an island Naval base in World War II, is being produced this year by the same team that produced The King and I last year, including director Rob Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins and leading lady Laura Michelle Kelly. Like The King and I, this show addresses issues of cross-cultural relationships and overcoming prejudice, but South Pacific is more of an overt romance that also deals with various situations of military life on a tropical island and the looming specter of war.  All of these themes are very well represented here, in a production that is both true to its classic origins and accessible to present-day audiences at the same time.

This is a story that centers around Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kelly), a Navy nurse who finds herself falling in love with the charming French planter Emile  de Becque (Ben Davis), who is harboring personal secrets that force Nellie to confront some rather unsavory attitudes within herself. Nellie’s story also coincides with that of Lt. Joe Cable (Josh Young), a young officer on a dangerous mission who also has to deal with his own inner conflict as he struggles with his feelings for Liat, the daughter of  the enterprising Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre).  It also deals with the lives of Navy Seabees, exemplified by Luther Billis (Tally Sessions) and his cronies, as they deal with their forced exile on the island away from the comforts of home and–for the most part–the company of women.  There are many classic songs that range from comic (“Honey Bun”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”) to romantic (“Some Enchanted Evening”), to joyous (“I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy”) to caustic (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”) to heartbreakingly regretful (“This Nearly Was Mine”).  It’s an oft-performed classic that’s been given new energy and immediacy in this production by use of simple but ideally suited design elements and with a no less than superb cast.

Kelly, as Nellie Forbush, shines with all the optimism, energy and stage presence needed for the role as exemplified especially in “Cockeyed Optimist” and “Wonderful Guy”, as well as an excellent voice. Despite a slightly uneven Southern accent, she expertly handles both the comic and dramatic aspects of the role, displaying both youthful exuberance and, when necessary, mature reflection such as in the moving reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening”, and her chemistry with Davis is wonderful.  Davis portrays the noble, haunted Emile with considerable charm and magnetism, and his voice on songs like “This Nearly Was Mine” is stunning.  He makes it very easy for the audience to believe why Nellie can fall in love with him in a matter of weeks.  Young, as the conflicted Marine Lt. Cable, displays warmth and cynicism equally well, and his scenes with Liat (Sumi Maida) are intense and compelling.  Ables Sayre, who played Bloody Mary in the celebrated Lincoln Center revival, brings her remarkable performance to the Muny stage, taking a character who could be played as one-dimensional and giving her a fully-realized portrayal–at turns comic, witty, sarcastic and scheming while demonstrating real concern for her daughter.  She brings life to songs like the dreamy “Bali Ha’i” and a surprising desperation to the seemingly upbeat “Happy Talk”.  Also giving a winning performance is Sessions as the endearingly conniving Seabee Luther Billis, and his performance of “Honey Bun” with Kelly is one of the comic highlights of the show.  There is also an excellent ensemble playing the various Navy men, Marines and nurses, with strong voices and a boatload of exuberant energy in the big production numbers.

Adding to the overall atmosphere of this production was the simple but ideally suited set, designed by Michael Schweikardt, consisting primarily of a single revolving set piece with additional elements brought in for various scenes such as the Commanding Officer’s office, the stage for the unit’s Thankgiving revue and the Bali Ha’i set. All of these set pieces worked especially well in the outdoor setting of the Muny, with the real trees flanking the stage augmented by palm trees to suit the tropical location.  There were a few issues with sound, such as microphones cutting out and some crackling that I’ve heard in previous productions this season, but overall, the production achieved the desired effect of transporting the audience to another time and place, and enchantngly so.

This production seems to have been influenced a lot by the Tony-winning Lincoln Center revival, with its simple but elegant set and emphasis on some of the darker aspects of the show as well as the fully realized portrayal of the romance and de-cartoonization of some of the more comic characters (most notably Billis and Bloody Mary).  Overall, this production was a thoroughly engaging presentation that brought a much-honored classic to modern audiences in a thoroughly winning and accessible way.  It’s a demonstration of all that the Muny is capable of and a truly stunning evening of theatre.

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The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

August 6, 2012

The King and I is the classic musical loosely based on the  true story of Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly),  a widowed English schoolteacher who  was hired to teach the children of the King of Siam (Kevin Gray) in the 1860s.   As the story is presented here, the King wants to “modernize” his country’s ways so as to have better diplomatic relations with Western countries and not get taken over by the British Empire, but he and Anna clash over cultural differences and issues like polygamy, use of authority and roles of women in society.  Over the course of the show, both Anna and the King learn to appreciate and respect one another in a gradually developing bond of real affection.  It’s a show that has been produced many times around the world, and the Muny delivers a thoroughly believable, strong production to finish off their truly wonderful 2012 season.

Personally, as a follower of the London theatre scene, it was great for me to hear that a bona fide West End star, Laura Michelle Kelly, was going to be playing Anna in this production. I had only seen some (excellent) promotional clips of her as Mary Poppins, but many of my UK friends spoke highly of her, so I was looking forward to seeing her in this production. I can happily say now that she more than lived up to the hype. Kelly is wonderful in this role. She possesses a strong, clear, powerful voice and plays Anna as strong and compassionate, and her stubbornness is a match to the King’s. Kelly is younger than the usual casting for this role but, at 31, is roughly the same age as the real Anna when she first came to Siam, and she brings a youthful energy to the role that is balanced by just the right amount of authority.  She shines in songs like “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” in which she indulges in an imaginary rant towards the King, as well as in gentler, moments like “Hello, Young Lovers” and especially its more melancholy reprise in the second act.  “Getting to Know You” is also a highlight, as Kelly is able to display a great sense of rapport with the children in her charge.

Kevin Gray as the King has a commanding presence. From his very first appearance onstage, just from the way he is standing, it’s obvious that he is King even though the emphasis of his portrayal is on his self- doubt as exemplified in his excellent song “Is a Puzzlement”.   Gray is at his best in his scenes with Kelly, where their mutual stubbornness comes into the forefront and the energy is palpable.  I like how the affection that builds between Anna and the King is not portrayed as a straightforward romance, as playing it as a romance would make this delightfully complex relationship too simple.  The truth is that these two, in this situation, would never have been able to have a true romance so rather than dwelling on what might have been, we are treated to what is actually there, which is a growing sense of mutual admiration with a hint of attraction that shows up in moments like the delightful “Shall We Dance”.  This is many-faceted relationship, also exemplified by the verbal sparring in “Song of the King”, and it is well-played by both Kelly and Gray.

The rest of the players in this production are excellent as well. Stephanie Park and Joshua Dela Cruz are convincing as the star-crossed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, and their second act duet “I Have Dreamed” is a stand-out moment in the show. Park also excellently narrates the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and makes the parallels in that story with what is going on in her character’s own life readily apparent.  Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, also puts in a strong performance as somewhat of an emotional anchor in the story, especially in her beautifully sung number “Something Wonderful”.  There is also a great children’s ensemble, and the young actors playing Anna’s son Louis (Matt Johnson) and Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Nick Boivin) do a fine job as well.

In addition to the strong performances, this is a great looking show as well, with richly detailed period costumes, and sets that appropriately fill the large Muny stage and set the atmosphere for the show, such as the simple and elegant columned throne room of the King.  The dance numbers such as “Shall We Dance” and the visually striking ballet sequence are very well executed, and lend to the overall charm of the production.

This thoroughly entertaining production closes out a game-changing 2012 season for the Muny.  It’s  hands-down the best season I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been attending. This season also bodes well for future seasons of the Muny.  Past seasons have been more erratic, but this one was consistent and raised the level of performance at the venue.  I look forward to seeing what they do next season.

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