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The Full Monty
Book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 9, 2015

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty is the closing production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2015 season. I had never seen this show before, or the film on which it is based. For the most part, I find it a pleasant surprise.  Everyone knows it as that show about male strippers, but even more than that it’s a celebration of friendship, family, and determination. With a strong, likable cast and the impressive production values that STAGES is known for, this proves to be an entertaining, worthwhile production.

Adapted from the popular British film, the musical version of The Full Monty moves the setting from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York in the late 1990’s. The story follows Jerry Lukowski (Brent Michael Diroma) and his best friend Dave Bukatinsky (Todd A. Horman), who have lost their jobs when a local steel mill shut down. Jerry, a divorced father of 14-year-old Nathan (Cole Hoefferle), needs a job so he can keep up child support payments and maintain joint custody of his son. Dave has self-image issues based on being out of a job and being overweight, causing him to neglect his loving wife Georgie (Lindsie Vanwinkle). After noticing the popularity of a local “women only” strip club, Jerry gets the idea to form a group to perform a one-night-only act in order to make the money he needs. Along the way, they meet other down-on-their-luck guys, like the fastidious Harold (James Ludwig), who takes dance classes with his materialistic but loving wife Vicki (Julie Cardia) and agrees to become their choreographer. There’s also Noah “Horse” Simmons (Milton Craig Neal), who is older and has a bad hip, but is a great dancer, although he struggles with public perceptions demonstrated in his song “Big Black Man.” Rounding out the group are the shy young Malcolm (Erik Keiser), who lives with his elderly mother and struggles to find a purpose in life, and the amiable and charming but not too bright Ethan (Adam Shonkwiler), who forms a close bond with Malcolm. A lot happens through the course of this show, with the grand finale strip performance being the ultimate goal, although what’s really important is the relationships–friendships and romances–that are formed and rebuilt.

For the most part, this is a highly entertaining show. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of “empowerment through stripping”, but that’s not all this show is about. It’s about friends and family, and honesty and integrity. It’s populated with likable characters, although there are some stereotypes that can be uncomfortable, and most of the songs are not particularly memorable, with some truly clunky lyrics. The closing number “Let It Go” (no, not that one) is catchy enough, though, and there’s a memorable moment for Keiser and Shonkwiler in “You Walk With Me”, although none of these songs is likely to become a classic. Still, there’s great dancing, choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf, and some truly poignant moments as well some excellent comedy.

The heart of this show is its characters, and the actors are well-cast.  Diroma makes a convincing down-on-his-luck Jerry, although at times he seems a little too clean-cut for the role. He’s got a strong voice and good stage presence, though, and great chemistry with the rest of the group of guys, especially Horman’s glum but sweet Dave.  The real standouts in the cast for me, though, are Ludwig and Cardia as Harold and Vicki, a loving couple who have to deal with a secret that threatens their relationship. The energy and affection between these two is heartwarming. There’s also local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as the group’s feisty, no-nonsense self-appointed pianist, Jeanette. Neal as Horse shows off great dance and comic ability, and Keiser is particularly winning as the initially depressed Malcolm. Shonkwiler as Ethan gives a strong performance as well, particularly in his scenes with Keiser.

In terms of production values, this show delivers what STAGES is known for–excellence and professionalism. The set, by James Wolk, is appropriately evocative of a working class Buffalo environment. The costumes, by Garth Dunbar, are suitably late 90’s styled, colorful, and character-appropriate. There’s also outstanding lighting, designed by Matthew McCarthy, that lends gritty realism to some scenes and showbiz glitz to the strip club scenes.

Although I have some issues with the writing of this show, for the most part it does what it intends to do: entertain. With a very strong cast of characters and top-notch production values, The Full Monty is a crowd pleasing closer to STAGES’ season. It’s a fun show with a lot of heart.

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty from STAGES St. Louis runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 4, 2015

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Anything Goes
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, and Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 22, 2015

Cast of Anything Goes Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Anything Goes
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

In a way, Anything Goes could well be called one of the orginal “jukebox musicals”. It’s been performed in various versions for decades, with many lyric, song, and book changes, and the plot, while entertaining, is fairly slight. The show exists, essentially, to be a showcase for the songs of celebrated 20th Century composer and lyricist Cole Porter. It’s a lively show with lots of silly comedy and spectacular dancing, and it’s currently being performed in top-notch fashion at STAGES St. Louis.

The story is somewhat silly, but entertaining nonetheless. It follows nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Julie Cardia) and friends on an ocean liner traveling between New York and London in the 1930s. Reno’s got something of a crush on her old friend, the handsome stockbroker Billy Crocker (Brent Michael DiRoma), but Billy’s newly smitten with young debutante Hope Harcourt (Heidi Giberson), who is sailing on the cruise with her mother (Kari Ely) with the aim of marrying rich English nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Dan Fenaughty). Meanwhile, gangster Moonface Martin (Bob Amaral), “Public Enemy #13”, is on the run from the law, and boards the ship in preacher’s disguise, bringing his friend Erma (Laura E. Taylor) along.  What ensues is a comedy of love triangles and quadrangles, as well as mistaken identity, gambling, singing and a whole lot of dancing.

The plot isn’t really one that bears a lot of scrutiny. It’s really just a platform for the songs and some some hilariously goofy comedy. Despite the various script updates over the years, the show does still come across as slightly dated, and there are some unfortunate stereotypes that are played for laughs. Still, for the most part it’s a fun show, and the real focus is on those lovely Cole Porter songs and Stephen Bourneuf’s spectacular choreography and excellent ensemble dancing.

This is a very ensemble-dependent show, considering all the stylish dance-numbers and intricately performed choreography. The ensemble sparkles on on numbers like the tap-dance heavy “Anything Goes” and the truly showstopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” led by the big-voiced Cardia as Reno.  Cardia also displays a strong sense of comedy, working well opposite both the charming DiRoma as Billy, the hilariously shady Amaral as Mooonface, and the delightfully goofy and thoroughly winning Fenaughty as Lord Evelyn.  All of these performers show great comedy skills and excellent voices, especially DiRoma, who also shares delightful chemistry with Giberson, who is also in excellent voice as Hope.  There are also fun comic performances from the always excellent Reichert as Billy’s nearsighted boss Elisha Whitney, and Kari Ely as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt.  Flack as the Captain, Brennan Caldwell as the Ship’s Purser, and Taylor as Erma also give memorable performances. It’s a very strong cast, from the leads to the ensemble, working together to bring life to the classic Porter score and a great deal of laughs to the audience.

The set, designed by James Wolk, is striking, colorful and versatile, creating a vibrant 1930’s atmosphere. There are also some marvelously detailed and stylish costumes by Brad Musgrove. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is effective and atmospheric, as well.

Ultimately, the point of Anything Goes is to entertain, and the production at STAGES does that well.  It’s a big, bold, stylish and energetic production that splendidly showcases the marvelous score and choreography. It’s also hilariously funny, with a decidedly silly sense of humor.  Despite a few drawbacks in the script, this is about as ideal a production of this show as I can imagine.

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Lousi

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Lousi

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Anything Goes is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 16th, 2015.

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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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How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 23, 2014

Ben Nordstrom and cast Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Ben Nordstrom and cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a classic satire of corporate culture that debuted on Broadway in 1961 and has enjoyed two successful major revivals, most recently in 2011 starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. It’s one of those shows that, even with its well-known songs and celebrated reputation, needs just the right cast, pacing and direction to work well. STAGES St. Louis in their impeccably cast production has achieved just the right balance of sharp satire, comic timing and colorful staging to make for a wildly entertaining and truly memorable evening of theatre.

Since this is a show that is very much tied to the era in which it was written, this production wisely keeps the period setting intact.  This is a world in which big business is dominated by ambitious men, with young window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (Ben Nordstrom) being perhaps the most ambitious of all. Armed with a seemingly omniscient “how-to” manual (narrated authoritatively by George Spelvin), Finch embarks on his quest to rise in the corporate ranks at the World Wide Wicket corporation.  Along the way up the executive ladder, Finch meets a variety of business-world characters such as the bumbling boss J.B. Biggley (Whit Reichart), the boss’s outrageously scheming nephew Bud Frump (Joseph Medeiros), the archetypal ditzy blonde secretary (and Biggley’s mistress) Hedy LaRue (Heather Ayers), and a host of others ranging from ambitious backbiting executives to world-weary secretaries to unambitious worker bees, in a large, dehumanizing company setting. Finch also meets Rosemary Pilkington (Betsy DeLellio), a young secretary whose ambitious are more personal than corporate, and who is continually frustrated by Finch’s single-minded aspirations despite her own stated life’s goal to be a neglected executive’s wife.  Finch’s successes are not without their complications, although he always seems to find a way to turn situations to his advantage, with hilarious results.

While some of the situations portrayed in this show are still relevant today, others (such as the very strictly defined gender roles) are very specific to the show’s era, so an early 1960’s look and sensibility are required for this production, as is a very sharp sense of pacing.  The jokes are fast-moving and the humor is witty and sharp, with a large ensemble and many stage-filling production numbers that require precise choreography. Fortunately, this production strikes just the right tone, and the pacing is crisp and vibrant, as evidenced by such fantastic ensemble numbers as “Coffee Break”, “The Company Way” and the show-stopping “Brotherhood of Man”.  The dancing is very strong and cohesive, and every ensemble member is in excellent form, performing with energy, enthusiasm and style.  The physical look of the production is striking as well, with a great atmospheric set by James Wolk and colorful lighting effects designed by Matthew McCarthy. The costumes, designed by Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird, are well-suited to the characters and, for the most part, evocative of the period. Chairman of the Board Wally Womper (Bill Bateman) looks more like he belongs in 1978 than 1961, and a few of the secretaries’ outfits appear more 1980’s than 1960’s, but for the most part, the look is distinctly appropriate, especially with Finch’s increasingly colorful suits and Biggley’s outrageous argyle golf ensemble.

This production’s strongest point is its universally wonderful cast, led by the appropriately charismatic Nordstrom as Finch. This is a difficult role because Finch is so boldly ambitious, it takes just the right combination of charm and audacity to make the audience cheer for him despite some of his clearly unscrupulous actions. Nordstrom has a winning smile, a strong voice, and great “buddy” chemistry with Reichart as Biggley, as evidenced in the outstanding “Old Ivy” number in the first act. Nordstrom also displays a strong romantic spark with the equally excellent DeLellio as the perky Rosemary, especially in their truly wonderful, sweetly goofy duet, titled “Rosemary” at the end of Act 1. Also notable is the delightfully oily performance of Medeiros as the spiteful, simpering Bud Frump. Medeiros is a master of physical comedy, bringing a gleeful energy to his every move and expression, and he threatens to steal every scene he’s in.  Also giving memorable performances are Claire Neumann as Rosemary’s friend, the secretary Smitty; Ayers, slightly channeling  Judy Holliday as Hedy LaRue; Bateman, hilarious in a dual role as Womper and as the determinedly un-ambitious mail room chief Twimble; and Johmaalya Adelekan as Biggley’s no-nonsense secretary Miss Jones, displaying a strong voice in the 1995 revival’s arrangement of “Brotherhood of Man” which includes jazz scatting and gospel influences. This is an impressive cast of strong character performances as well as charming leads who bring out all the satirical elements of the clever script while remaining eminently watchable and making every scene a comic delight.

This is a deceptively difficult show to produce. All the right elements need to be there–a dynamic and likable Finch, a strong supporting cast, spot-on comic timing and the right balance of satire and heart. This production has all those elements in abundance, as well as that extra undefinable “something special” that distinguishes a truly great production from simply a good one. How To Succeed… at STAGES is distinctively entertaining and uproariously funny from start to finish.  If the goal, like that of the protagonist Finch, is success, this production achieves that goal with flying colors.  It’s well worth the journey to Kirkwood to see this fantastic show.

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom  Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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