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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson, Originally conceived by Judy Craymer
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 25, 2018

Dan’yelle Williamson, Corinne Melançon, Dana Winkle
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

When someone says the phrase “jukebox musical”, the first example that comes to mind for a lot of people is Mamma Mia! Featuring the songs of Swedish supergroup ABBA, a large cast of characters, and a sunny, summery setting, this isn’t a deep show but it’s still a lot of fun. Now STAGES St. Louis is staging a production that emhpasizes the “fun”, and the infectious score, with a light, summery atmosphere that works well in the middle of July in St. Louis.

The story of Mamma Mia! is only a small part of its appeal. It’s actually kind of a goofy story, but the show doesn’t claim to be anything deep or challenging. It’s just a celebration of family, friendship, and most of all, ABBA music. The classic hits are all here, from the energetic title tune to iconic disco-era hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me”, and many more. The story follows young Sophie Sheridan (Summerisa Bell Stevens) as she prepares for her wedding at a small Greek Island resort owned by her mother, former singer Donna (Corinne Melançon). Neither Donna nor Sophie’s fiance Sky (David Sajewich) know that Sophie has found Donna’s diary from years ago that reveals the identities of three men who could possibly be Sophie’s biological father. Now, Sophie has invited all three of them–American architect Sam (Gregg Goodbroad), British banker Harry (David Schmittou), and Australian writer Bill (Steve Isom)–to her wedding. Also in town for the festivities are Donna’s longtime friends and former bandmates Tanya (Dana Winkle) and Rosie (Dan’yelle Williamson), who reminisce about their days as Donna and the Dynamos and get involved in the pre-wedding shenanigans that ensue when all three men turn up to Donna’s surprise, and dismay.  The plot is kind of thin, but it provides a suitable backdrop for the obvious centerpiece of the show, which is the music and the big, cleverly and sometimes hilariously staged production numbers. It’s a sweet show with a message of love and family acceptance, with some amusing character moments, but the real star of the show is ABBA.

The casting here is strong, for the most part. Everyone is obviously having a great time, and the energy is fun and infectious. Melançon and Stevens display a strong, believable mother-daughter relationship as Donna and Sophie, and they sing well, although some of the songs don’t seem to naturally fit Melançon’s voice. She’s at her best in the slower songs, with the poignant “Slipping Through My Fingers” and the emotional “The Winner Takes It All” as highlights. Stevens also has strong chemistry with Sajewich’s devoted Sky and with all three potential “dads”, who are all strong as well. Other standouts include Winkle and Williamson, who display great stage presence, excellent comic timing, and powerful vocals. There’s also a strong ensemble that brings a lot of energy to the bigger musical numbers as well, performing Tony Gonzalez’s whimsical, inventive choreography with style.

Visually, the show looks great. James Wolk’s mult-level set adapts the island resort setting well for STAGES’s space. There are also excellent, colorful costumes by Brad Musgrove that help to capture the spirit of the show, including the glitzy disco-inspired jumpsuits and more. There’s also great atmospheric lighting by Sean M. Savoie.

Overall, this production of Mamma Mia! is a fun, spirited staging that definitely pleased the enthusiastic opening night audience. It’s one of those shows that’s essentially about enjoying the music and performances and not thinking too much about the plot. At STAGES, there’s a good cast, great production values, and above all, a whole lot of fun.

Corinne Melançon, Summerisa Bell Stevens
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Mamma Mia! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 19, 2018

 

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I Do! I Do!
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Hamilton
STAGES St. Louis
June 6 and 7, 2018

Corrine Melançon, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is kicking off their new season with one production that’s also, in a way, two. A classic two-person musical tracing the history of a marriage, I DO! I DO! is doing something slightly different this year, in that it has not one cast, but two. On alternating days, audiences can see the “Purple Cast” or the “Red Cast”. The show itself is entertaining with a slight, somehwhat problematic book and a strong, memorable score, ultimately serving as an excellent showcase for the performers in both casts, each bringing their unique talents and chemistry to this production.

The story is essentially “marriage in a nutshell”–a look at a 50 year marriage that tries to do a little too much and is somewhat dated in its portrayal (even as a period piece), although it has its strong moments, particularly in the songs. Following the story of Agnes and Michael from their wedding day until the day they move out their house, the story touches on a lot of familiar marriage tropes–the honeymoon stage, new parenthood, disillusionment, temptations to infidelity, midlife crises, growing old together, and more. It’s a fun show, for the most part, with catchy songs and some insightful moments and a genuinely touching finale, but the show also tries to cover too many issues sometimes, to the point where they are only given cursory and/or stereotypical treatment, and conflicts get brought up and resolved much too easily, especially at the end of Act 1. Still, the second act works a lot better, although it’s also filled with its share of cliches. For the most part, though, this is just a fun show, here as a showase for its performers and to highlight some memorable songs from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

Essentially, the biggest strength of a show like this is in casting, and this production boasts not one, but two excellent pairs in the leads. Both casts feature one local performer and one New York-based performer, and both casts bring different strengths and insights into the material. The “Purple Cast”–Corrine Melançon as Agnes and Steve Isom as Michael–and the “Red Cast”–Kari Ely and David Schmittou–are excellent in their own ways, with some moments standing out more with one cast, and some with the other. Both Michaels, Isom and Schmittou, have excellent stage presence and carry off the “song-and-dance” aspects of the role well, with Schmittou displaying especially strong chemistry with Ely in the “older” scenes in Act 2, and Isom standing out more in the “gleefully self-important” and smarmy moments for the character, such as Act 1’s “A Well-Known Fact”.  The biggest contrast is in the portrayers of Agnes, with Melançon the more polished singer and dancer, shining in moments like Act 1’s “Flaming Agnes”, and Ely bringing a more reflective portrayal, making Agnes’s journey through midlife self-doubt in Act 2–embodied in the song “What Is a Woman” and the scenes that follow–especially convincing. Both couples portray convincing chemistry, portraying the aging of the characters through the years well, and both do the best they can to make the somewhat clunky resolution to Act 1 work, with the “Purple Cast” doing a slightly more convincing job, but really, that scene is the script’s problem and no matter how great the performers are, it’s still kind of hard to believe. The strength here in general is in the connection between Agnes and Michael as a couple, and both pairs portray that well in their own unique ways.

The technical aspects here are simple but well-done, although with at least one confusing costume choice. Michael Hamilton’s direction and choreography are energetic and well-paced, and James Wolk’s set–which is essentially just a few furniture pieces and a bed that slides on and offstage as needed–is simple and effective, and Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is also excellent. Brad Musgrove’s costumes are, for the most part, meticulously detailed and period-accurate covering the first 50 years of the 20th century, although Agnes’s costume and wig in the first part of Act 2 look more like something out of the 1970s than the 1920s. Still, for the most part the production values are strong, as is usual for STAGES. I also like the idea–apparently used in all productions of this show–of the performers’ applying their own age makeup on stage to prepare for the show’s conclusion.

I DO! I DO! is a fun musical comedy look at a marriage. It’s not particularly deep or profound, although it has some poignant moments, but mostly, it’s just fun, and an excellent showcase for its stars. At STAGES, there are four stars being showcased, and I’m glad to have seen both casts. It’s an entertaining show no matter which cast you see.

Kari Ely, David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting I DO! I DO! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 1, 2018

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South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Ellen Isom
STAGES St. Louis
September 13, 2017

Leah Berry, Michael Halling
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is an undisputed musical theatre classic. It’s been performed at all levels, from Broadway to regional theatre to community theatre, many times since it first debuted in 1949. I know it fairly well, as I’ve seen several different productions and filmed versions. Now, STAGES St. Louis is closing out its 2017 season with this historic show, bringing it to the stage with a fine cast and striking production values that keep the story fresh and timely even though it’s inextricably tied to a specific time and place.

This is a World War II story, set on a tropical island where a US Navy unit is stationed. Nellie Forbush (Leah Berry) is a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who has found herself falling in love with the older, sophisticated French planter Emile DeBecque (Michael Halling), who has lived on the island for many years but harbors some secrets from his past. As Nellie finds out more about Emile, she is forced to confront her own ingrained prejudices. There’s also Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Hydzik), newly assigned to the island on a secret mission that involves Emile. Lt. Cable becomes fascinated with the nearby island of Bali Ha’i following the suggestions of Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Joanne Javien), who introduces Cable to her daughter, Liat (Sydney Jones) with hopes that he will marry her. Meanwhile, the Seabees led by Luther Billis (Mark DiConzo) try to make the most of their time on the island and yearn for the company of women. There’s romance, intrigue, comedy, and heartrending drama, as well as the important underlying message of confronting personal and systemic racism and prejudice. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s memorable score features classics such as the upbeat “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, and “Honey Bun”, as well as the romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” and the pointed “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.

The roles here are played well. Berry’s Nellie is appropriately perky and likable, and her chemistry with Halling’s suave Emile is strong. She is generally better with the lighter moments than the more serious ones, though. Halling is charming and especially strong acting-wise, although his voice isn’t quite as powerful as other Emiles I’ve seen, particularly on his key number “This Nearly Was Mine”. Hydzik is fine as the conflicted cable, with a strong voice and good chemistry with the excellent Jones as Liat. Javien is a particularly strong Bloody Mary, as well. DiConzo as Billis is also memorable, and there’s a strong ensemble for support, particularly in the form of the male chorus of Seabees. The group numbers such as “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” are especially strong here.

The overall 1940’s World War II atmosphere is well maintained in this production, with striking visuals provided by set designer James Wolk and lighting designer Sean M. Savoie. Garth Dunbar’s costumes are also excellent, lending an extra air of authenticity to the proceedings. This is a smaller-scale production compared to the last one I saw (at the Muny), and that helps to provide a more intimate atmosphere to the show’s more serious moments as well as a genuine sense of camaraderie to the Thanksgiving concert sequence in Act 2.

STAGES has done well by this celebrated musical. With a good cast and energetic staging, as well as that classic score, and a message that resonates today as much as it did years ago, this is a production that’s well worth seeing. It’s a good way to close out an excellent season at STAGES.

Joanne Javien, Matthew Hydzik and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting South Pacific at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 8, 2017.

 

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9 to 5
Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton, Book by Patricia Resnick
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
July 26, 2017

Summerisa Bell Stevens, Corinne Melançon, Laura E. Taylor
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

9 to 5 was a hit movie as well as a hit song for Dolly Parton in 1980. The musical based on the film wasn’t exactly a smash hit on Broadway, but it won a few awards and afforded Parton the opportunity to write a whole musical score. Now STAGES St. Louis has brought it here, and it’s definitely a crowd-pleaser. With a strong cast, especially in the three leading roles, and excellent production values, the show serves as an homage to the film as as well as a look back at office culture in the early 198os, as well as featuring some issues that continue to be relevant in 2017.

It’s been a while since I saw the film, but from what I can remember, this musical seems to be a fairly faithful representation, with the addition of a love interest for one character who I didn’t think had one in the movie. Still, the main story is the same, with secretaries at a company called Consolidated being terrorized by their sexist, arrogant boss, Franklin Hart (Joe Cassidy). Veteran secretary and aspiring manager Violet Newstead (Corinne Melançon), self-professed “Backwoods Barbie” Doralee Rhodes (Summerisa Bell Stevens), and the timid, recently divorced newcomer Judy Bernly (Laura E. Taylor) form a bond over their mutual frustration with Hart’s mistreatment.  There are some interesting supporting characters and small subplots, but the main focus, as in the film, is primarily on the central trio, and on the experiences of women in the corporate environment in the early 1980s. Incorporating elements of broad comedy and fantasy, the musical provides a showcase for Parton’s score as well as the talented cast.

Star casting isn’t the draw at STAGES at it was for the film and, to a degree, the musical in its Broadway run. In fact, the roles of Violet and Judy aren’t as inextricably tied to their film portrayals, although the role of Doralee (Parton’s role in the film) is, for the most part. Still, it’s a funny show that requires three memorable leading players, as well as a host of quirky supporting roles.  Melançon is appropriately authoritive and sympathetic as Violet; Taylor brings warmth and energy to the role of the naive Judy, along with an excellent singing voice; and Stevens, in the “Dolly” role as Doralee, displays particularly strong vocals and good comic timing. All three display strong friendship chemistry as well. There are also some memorable “villain” roles, with Cassidy as a suitably self-absorbed Hart and Kari Ely as his devoted and love-struck assistant Roz. There’s a great ensemble, as well, and the production numbers from the famous title song to the fantasy sequences to the upbeat “Change It” are performed with verve and style.

Visually, this production has done a good job of bringing the early 1980s to the stage. James Wolk’s set is evocative and colorful, as are Brad Musgrove’s costumes. There’s also impressive lighting work by Sean M. Savoie that provides atmosphere for the fantasy sequences in particular.

Overall, while I’m not entirely convinced the film needed to be turned into a musical, 9 to 5 at STAGES is an entertaining production. It’s also a story that’s still timely in many ways. Overall, it’s a fun show, and for the most part, as an office comedy, it works.

“Kari Ely, Joe Cassidy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting 9 to 5 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 20, 2017.

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Sister Act
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 14, 2016

The Cast of Sister Act Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

I think everyone immediately thinks of Whoopi Goldberg when they hear the title Sister Act.  The 1992 film was a big hit, followed by a 1993 sequel and a subsequent musical adaptation in London and on Broadway, co-produced by Goldberg. The musical, however, has been substantially re-tooled to have a different setting and musical style than the film, and as the final production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2016 season, it’s not quite as memorable as the movie, but it’s still an entertaining show.

The writers were wise to re-tool the show, in sense. The story is so associated with Goldberg and her unique talents that adapting the show basically required making the central character Deloris Van Cartier (played here by Dan’yelle Williamson) more distinct from Goldberg’s characterization. The show has also been re-imagined and re-set so it now takes place in late 1970’s Philadelphia, casting Deloris as an aspiring disco diva instead of a Motown-inspired Reno lounge performer as in the film. The classic hits used in the film aren’t here either, replaced with new songs by Alan Menken (of Disney fame) and Glenn Slater. The style is a blend of disco and traditional musical theatre songs, with occasional elements of Gospel. The story is also made a little more personal, giving Deloris a backstory of having gone to high school with police officer Eddie Souther (Curtis Wiley), who arranges for Deloris to go into hiding at Queen of Angels convent after having witnessed her nightclub-promoter/crime boss boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Kent Overshown) committing a murder.  The story then follows a similar pattern to the movie, as the newly christened “Sister Mary Clarence” struggles to adapt to her new environment at the convent, much to the consternation of the strict but caring Mother Superior (Corinne Melançon), and to the fascination of the other nuns who just want to make friends, including the ever-cheerful Sister Mary Patrick (Sarah Michelle Cuc), the shy novice Sister Mary Robert (Leah Berry), and the feisty Sister Mary Lazarus (Michele Burdette Elmore).  Together, Deloris and the sisters embark on a journey that takes them, their choir, and the convent, to new levels of understanding and notoriety. The basic story of the film is followed, with some changes in the tone and a slightly modified conclusion.

The 1970’s setting works reasonably well, and the disco songs are catchy, particularly the group songs with the nuns such as “Raise Your Voice”, the reprise of Deloris’s original disco anthem “Take Me to Heaven”, and especially the joyous “Sunday Morning Fever”.  For the most part, however, I preferred the songs in the film.  The comedy elements of the show work well enough, with some of the jokes falling flat but most of them working. Curtis Jackson’s three henchmen, T.J. (Kevin Curtis), Pablo (Keith Boyer), and Joey (Myles McHale) are funny but a little overly silly, and Curtis is more of a one-dimensional villain, although Overshown makes the most of the role. Still, it’s a fun show, and Wiley’s Eddie is believably sympathetic and has good chemistry with Williamson’s Deloris. The real stars of the show, though, are of course Deloris and the nuns, and this production has cast them all extremely well.

Williamson brings a convincing mixture of toughness and vulnerability to the role of Deloris, and she has a great voice and strong stage presence. She carries off the songs very well, and her developing rapport with the sisters is affectingly believable. Melançon, as the Mother Superior, has just the right blend of authority and compassion, as well, and she has some excellent musical moments with “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer”. The main supporting nuns are all standouts, as well, with Cuc’s bubbly enthusiasm,  Berry’s earnest sincerity, and Elmore’s snarky energy all contributing to the overall sense of camaraderie of the nuns, and the infectious energy of the show.  Steve Isom is also memorable as the benevolent Monsignor O’Hara, who becomes an enthusiastic supporter of the Deloris and her “new” choir. The lead performers are also backed by a strong ensemble, filling out the bigger musical numbers with appropriate style and attitude.

The staging is strong, as well, with vibrant choreography by Stephen Bourneuf. James Wolk’s set is colorful and versatile, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes appropriately evoke the disco era, with just the right over-the-top glitter and glitz when it’s needed. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also contributes to the overall disco mood of the piece, and the sense of fun is well achieved and maintained.

Ultimately, there really isn’t a whole lot of depth to this Sister Act. The story is a little contrived, but what’s there is a lot of fun.  A show like this is more about the characters than the story, and the characters are cast well, led by the excellent Williamson and Melançon. It’s a big, bold, glittery disco tale of sisterhood in various forms, and it’s a fine conclusion to the season at STAGES.

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan'yelle Williamson Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan’yelle Williamson
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Sister Act is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 9, 2016.

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The Drowsy Chaperone
Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2016

David Schmittou Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Drowsy Chaperone is apparently one of the most popular shows that STAGES St. Louis has produced. I didn’t see their last production, in 2009, nor had I seen any production of the show prior to this latest staging, although now I certainly can see the appeal. This is a tribute not only to “classic” 1920’s musicals, but to the whole concept of musical theatre in general. At STAGES, it’s a well-cast, richly produced, energetic and fun production that’s sure to entertain.

The show is a twist on the concept of the “play within a play”, as a protagonist and musical theatre aficionado identified only as Man in Chair (David Schmittou) introduces the audience to one of his favorite (fictional) musicals from 1928, called The Drowsy Chaperone. Man in Chair is a veritable fountain of information about this show, including anecdotes about the production and biographical information about the original cast members. As he plays the record, the show comes to life in his apartment, and what we see is broad, satirized representation of a typical 1920’s musical, complete with broad humor, a relatively thin plot, stereotyped characterizations, and lots of big, glitzy production numbers. The story follows the wedding plans of Broadway starlet Janet Van De Graaff (Laura E. Taylor) to a man she only recently met, Robert Martin (Andrew Fitch). Her boss, Feldzieg (Steve Isom) wants to keep her from getting married so she won’t leave his show, and ditzy chorus girl Kitty (Dana Winkle) hopes he will consider her as a replacement. There’s also the title character, the Chaperone (Corinne Melancthon), who is “drowsy” because she is constantly drinking, although she tries her best to offer sage advice to Janet. Other characters include would-be Latin lover Aldopho (Edward Juvier), who’s hired by Feldzeig to seduce Janet; the enthusiastic and slightly silly party host Mrs. Tottendale (Kari Ely) and her faithful butler and assistant known only as Underling (John Flack); and the optimistic Best Man, George (Con O’Shea-Creal), for whom tap dancing is the best solution to any problem.  It’s a big cast and a convoluted, extremely self-aware plot, as Man in Chair gets involved in the proceedings and expounds on his own philosophy of life and the purpose and importance of musical theatre.

This is an extremely clever show that both criticizes and celebrates old-style musical theatre, as well as presenting a sympathetic narrator in the person of Man in Chair, who is expertly and wittily portrayed by the superb David Schmittou. His winning performance is the centerpiece of this show as he becomes the point of interaction between the audience and the characters in the play-within-a-play. The rest of the cast is extremely strong as well, with standouts being Melancon as the hilariously “drowsy” Chaperone, Taylor as the glamorously goofy Janet, and Ely and Flack as the hilarious team of Mrs. Tottendale and Underling. Ryan Alexander Jacobs and Austin Glen Jacobs are also a lot of fun as a pair of comically overplayed gangsters. Juvier as Aldopho gives a winning comic performance as well, and Fitch and O’Shea-Creal show off their impressive tap dancing skills as Robert and George. The entire cast is excellent and full of energy as well, highlighting stand-out production numbers like “Fancy Dress”, “Show Off”, “Toledo Surprise”, and “I Do I Do In the Sky”, which also features a strong vocal performance by Kendra Lynn Lucas as Trix the Aviatrix.

The technical aspects of this production are stunning, as well. James Wolk’s set is marvelously versatile, transforming from Man in Chair’s modest apartment to various locations in the play-within-a-play with seamless precision. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also helps to maintain the whimsical tone of the show, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes are sensational. From Man in Chair’s comfy sweater vest to the more colorful period dresses and suits, and the glitzy glamour of the ensemble in the production numbers, the costumes are a real highlight of the show. The whole tone of 1920’s-meets-present-day is wonderfully achieved in this expertly crafted production.

I’m glad this production at STAGES has served as my introduction to The Drowsy Chaperone. Such a cleverly written, funny and heartwarming musical deserves a first-rate production like this one. It’s truly spectacular, with a fantastic finale. It’s a highlight of the summer theatre season in St. Louis.

Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 21, 2016.

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