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Posts Tagged ‘mike dowdy-windsor’

Head Over Heels
Songs by The Go-Go’s
Based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and Original Book by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder, Music Arranged by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2020

Michelle Sauer, Sara Rae Womack, Alyssa Wolf, Grace Langford
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre continues its tradition of offbeat hits with its latest production of Head Over Heels. Essentially a “jukebox musical” featuring music by pop group The Go-Go’s, this show show incorporates its musical catalog in a clever, crowd-pleasing way that’s more about telling a whimsical story inspired by classic literature and an ancient Greek setting than being a simple tribute to its musical source. It also provides a great opportunity for an excellent cast to showcase their talents as well as a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The plot can get convoluted at times, as a lot is going on here, but it’s a lot of fun, and the occasional confusion is part of the enjoyment. At first, in the kingdom of Arcadia, there are a lot of conflicting goals and motives. The King, Basilius (Zachary Allen Farmer) and Queen, Gynecia (Carrie Wenos Priesmeyer) have two daughters with romantic dilemmas. Younger daughter Philoclea (Melissa Felps) is in love with a rustic shepherd, Musidorus (Clayton Humburg), of whom her father does not approve. Meanwhile, the King is doubling his efforts to find an acceptable suitor for his elder daughter Pamela (Grace Langford), who isn’t interested in any of the men presented, and initially seems to be more in love with herself than anyone else. When the King and his attendant Dametas (Aaron Allen) go to visit the mysterious Oracle Pythio (Tiélere Cheatem), the oracle tells them of a four-fold prophecy which will lead to Arcadia’s losing its “Beat”. The king, determined to foil the prophecy, takes his people on a seemingly aimless journey, where eventually truths are revealed, lies are exposed, and there are a lot of whimsical twists and turns involving the King, Queen, Princesses, the Oracle, Dametas and his daughter, Pamela’s handmaid Mopsa (Jaclyn Amber), and more. 

Don’t think you have to be a fan of the Go-Go’s to enjoy this show. The group has always been more on the periphery of my musical interests, and I wasn’t extremely familiar with their songs beyond their bigger radio hits. Still, this show uses the songs well, and in a setting that might not seem an obvious one for these tunes. Everything from the rousing opening number “We Got the Beat” to other hits such as “Vacation”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is used in an inventive way that contributes to the story. Especially notable is the fun, cleverly staged “Mad About You”, sung by Musidorus and a chorus of puppet sheep, staged in a hilarious, energetic way that makes it a highlight of the production. There is a message here, of accepting and encouraging change and not being bound to tradition simply for tradition’s sake, as well as some perspectives on challenging traditional gender norms and stereotypes, and everything is integrated into the story so that it fits the characters and situations well. Most of all, though, it’s a fun show with a lot of broad comedy and catchy, well-utilized pop tunes that serve the setting surprisingly well, even with the dialogue that’s more Elizabethan-sounding for the most part.

As is to be expected at New Line, the casting is strong, and the singing is especially impressive. Everyone from the leads to the ensemble puts in a winning, energetic performance, with standouts being Langford and Felps as the sisters who are at once different and not-so-different;  Humburg as the lovesick Musidorus, who through the course of the story has to change his appearance in a way that drives a lot of the plot; and Amber as the loyal, determined Mopsa, who both challenges and inspires Pamela. Farmer and Priesmeyer are excellent as the King and Queen, as well, as is Cheatem in a dynamic performance as the oracle Pythio. The chemistry among all the couples is strong, as well, as is the spirit and enthusiasm of the ensemble. There’s some especially clever staging here by directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, along with a great band led by music director Nicolas Valdez.

The presentation here is colorful and whimsical, with Rob Lippert’s classically inspired set serving as an ideal backdrop for the action. There are also bright, striking costumes by Courtney Gibson and Sarah Porter that add to the overall tone of the show nicely. Also lending to the overall atmosphere is Kenneth Zinkl’s dazzling lighting. Overall, the look and feel of this production is in keeping with the catchy, bright pop score and the general comic tone that blends the classical and the modern in a cleverly inventive way.

Head Over Heels is another example of one of those shows that seems to fit better in a smaller setting like New Line than on Broadway. Staged at New Line’s home base, the Marcelle Theatre, this show makes the most of the space and the closeness to the audience, who are seated on either side of the performance area here. It’s a fun, colorful, energetic and thoroughly winning production that marks another success for New Line Theatre.

Clayton Humburg and Cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Head Over Heels at the Marcelle Theatre until March 28, 2020

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Cry-Baby
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger
Based on the Film Written and Directed by John Waters
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer
New Line Theatre
September 27, 2019

Caleb Miofsky, Grace Langford
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is opening a new season with an old favorite. Their previous production of Cry-Baby was apparently extremely well-received, so now the company has brought it back for a rousing, fun new production. It’s one of those shows that seems made for this company, and the excellent cast of veteran New Liners and talented newcomers makes the most of every moment.

This show, based on a John Waters film that I also hadn’t seen, isn’t quite as simple as it might first appear. The tone is upbeat and rocking, for the most part, although the underlying message is more serious. The characters are deliberately cartoonish and placed into “types”, all in service to the idea that appearances can be deceiving, and strictly enforced social roles can’t (and shouldn’t) substitute for genuine integrity. The setting is 1954 Baltimore, and the conflict is on between the accepted “clean and decent” young people, the Squares, and their parents and respected elders, and the countercultural Drapes (basically greasers), who like loud music, defy accepted social norms, and are looked down upon by the Squares and their supporters. The focus is on a Romeo and Juliet-like “first sight” attraction between baton-twirling Square Allison Vernon Williams (Grace Langford) and “bad-boy” aspiring rock ‘n roller Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Caleb Miofsky), who is derided for his background by the Squares led by Baldwin Blandish (Jake Blonstein), who is also interested in Allison and who leads a sweater-clad vocal group called The Whiffles (Stephen Henley, Ian McCreary, Christopher Strawhun). Cry-Baby sings regular gigs at a local establishment favored by the Drapes called Turkey Hill, hosted by his friend and aspiring DJ Dupree W. Dupree (Marshall Jennings), and backed by a trio of outspoken, also socially outcast Drapes Pepper Walker (Reagan Deschaine), Wanda Woodward, and Mona “Hatchet-Face” Malronorowski (Sarah Gene Dowling). When Allison’s interest in Cry-Baby becomes obvious and she accepts Cry-Baby’s invitation to join him at Turkey Hill, this upsets the vengeful Baldwin as well as the obsessive Lenora Frigid (Aj Surrell), who is fixated on Cry-Baby and determined to make him notice her. Then there’s the issue of Cry-Baby’s tragic backstory, which causes conflict not only for him, but also for Allison’s socialite grandmother, Cordelia Vernon-Williams (Margeau Steinau), who may know more about what happened than she lets on.

As I’ve already stated, this is a fun show, with a bright, energetic score that’s heavily influenced by early 50s rock and pop, and this production gets that sound just right, not only by means of the excellent singing that’s come to be a given at New Line, but also by the also predictably superb New Line Band, led by Nicolas Valdez, who shares credit as music director of the show with Marc Vincent. It’s also almost impossibly energetic in terms of tone, and some serious topics are covered throughout the course of the sometimes deceptively bouncy score and characterization. As mentioned in the Director’s Notes in the program, it’s essentially about irony, in situation and tone. There are some deep messages thrown in there that (deliberately) clash with the oh-so-hyper-positive tone–issues of questioning social norms and oppressive societies, of the inevitability of social and cultural change, of generation gaps, and more. That’s all there, but the upbeat energy is also infectious even when you know how the story is going to turn out, and what’s going to happen in the larger society after the show’s time period ends.

The cast here is wonderful, led by a star-in-the-making performance from high school senior Miofsky as Cry-Baby. As the frequently misunderstood but still upbeat, kind, well-meaning would-be rock star, Miofsky has it all–the voice, the personality, the stage presence, and the chemistry with his co-stars, especially the equally excellent New Line veteran Langford as the perky but conflicted Allison. She also has a great voice. There are also strong comic performances from Blonstein as the increasingly vengeful, insistently “squeaky clean” Baldwin, Dowling as the confrontational “Hatchet-Face”, and the hilariously off-kilter Surrell as the Lenora. There are also strong performances from Jennings, in great voice as Dupree, and Steinau as the increasingly conflicted “pillar of the community” Mrs. Vernon Williams. There’s a strong ensemble all-around, with excellent singing, energetic dancing choreographed by Michelle Sauer, and cohesive ensemble chemistry that helps to tell the story well.

The production values here are great, too. The time, place, and tone of the show are well-represented in Rob Lippert’s eye-catching set and Colene and Evan Fornachon’s cool, colorful costumes. There’s also excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl and sound design by Ryan Day.

Overall, this is a great looking and sounding show with a satirically upbeat 50s flavor and broadly comic tone. With some truly great performances and a memorable score, Cry-Baby is a hit. It’s another example of a show that works better at New Line than it probably would (and did) on Broadway. It’s also (if I haven’t mentioned this before) a whole lot of fun!

Cast of Cry-Baby
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Cry-Baby at the Marcelle Theatre until October 19, 2019

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Be More Chill
Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis
Book by Joe Tracz, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor and Scott Miller
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
June 1, 2019

Cast of Be More Chill
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

I brought my son with me to see Be More Chill at New Line Theatre. It’s not the first show I’ve brought him to, or even the first New Line show, but this time, the reason was a little different. This is a show that I’ve seen highly polarizing reactions to, largely on generational lines, so I thought my 19-year-old son might offer a younger perspective that would be helpful. Watching the show together–and talking about it afterwards–was a valuable experience, although from both of our perspectives, the show wasn’t particularly polarizing since we were largely in agreement. For the most part, this is an entertaining show with the great cast, production values, and musicality that I’ve come to expect from New Line. It offers a fun take on old themes, although aside from the packaging there isn’t much “new” about it.

Be More Chill itself has been something of a sensation in its pre-Broadway incarnations, and its current Broadway run is a reflection of that popularity. It has obviously struck a chord with its audiences, and New Line’s production is about as well-presented as I could imagine, although as a show I see it as essentially derivative and–like a lot of the other popular “teen” stories–not particularly reflective of my high school experience (or my son’s 30 years later). There are definitely relatable aspects, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before, and better. Still, it may not be revolutionary, but it’s a fun show, with some memorable songs and characters, including protagonist Jeremy (Jayde Mitchell), his longsuffering best friend Michael (Kevin Corpuz), bullying popular kid Rich (Evan Fornachon), and Jeremy’s crush, theatre geek Christine (Grace Langford), who develops an interest in Rich’s buddy Jake (Ian McCreary), who used to date popular girl Chloe (Laura Renfro). Everyone’s life is eventually affected when Rich tells Jeremy about a secret technological advance that can help him be “cool” and get whatever he wants, including Christine. The “Squip”–a microchip that is swallowed as a pill and activated by Mountain Dew–manifests itself to Jeremy in a form (played by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) that resembles Laurence Fishburne from The Matrix and grows more commanding and demanding as the story plays out.

This story is one that’s been told many times before in various forms. It’s a high school “outsider strives to be popular and learns the price of conformity” tale that represents high school in a way that hasn’t changed much since the teen comedy-dramas that were so popular when I was a teenager in the 1980s, except for changes in clothing and music styles and pop culture references. In fact, the themes go back even further than the 1980s, to the 1950s and possibly even earlier than that. One thing this show does well, though, is recognize its influences and celebrate them, from nods to Bye Bye Birdie and other pop culture phenomena through the ages, to those various teen movies that paint high school as a struggle between cliques and outsiders. It also features a Faustian angle and a sci-fi twist that calls to mind a gentler Little Shop of Horrors and directly references another iconic influence, The Matrix.

The staging at New Line is eye-catching, with a versatile, colorful set and excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Lippert. Sarah Porter’s costumes are also memorable, reflecting the various personalities of the characters and sci-fi angle as well. There’s also an excellent New Line Band conducted by keyboardist Marc Vincent and strong musical direction by Nicolas Valdez. The choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack is lively and energetic as well, reflecting the pop-rock based score well.

The performances here are the show’s strongest asset, with Mitchell and Corpuz making a believable team as Jeremy and Michael. Corpuz is especially notable for his sympathetic portrayal as Michael questions Jeremy’s treatment as Jeremy falls more and more under the influence of the Squip. Corpuz also gets the show’s most famous song, the catchy, angsty “Michael in the Bathroom” and he makes the most of it, with a dynamic, excellently sung performance. Dowdy-Windsor is also a standout as the stylish, demanding Squip, and Zachary Allen Farmer impresses in several roles, including an apathetic drama teacher and, especially, as Jeremy’s Dad, who has his musical moment with the show’s funniest song, “The Pants Song”. There are also memorable performances from Fornachon as the conflicted Rich, Langford as the earnest Christine, Renfro as “mean girl” Chloe and Melissa Felps as Chloe’s neglected friend Brooke, who develops an interest in Jeremy. It’s a strong, cohesive cast with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and, as is usual for New Line, especially strong singing.

Be More Chill may not be the best “teen” show I’ve seen, but as staged at New Line, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also a great show for people of different generations to watch together, and talk about. It became the catalyst for some meaningful conversations between me and my son. Also, since this is such a highly talked-about show, this production gives St. Louisans an ideal opportunity to see what so many people are talking about. Considering New Line’s size and scale, it may even be a better venue than Broadway for this particular show. It’s a memorable way to close another excellent season at New Line.

Special thanks to my son, John Kenyon, for thoughtful conversations that contributed to this review.

Jayde Mitchell, Kevin Corpuz
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Be More Chill at the Marcelle Theatre until June 22, 2019

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La Cage aux Folles
Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sarah Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 16, 2019

Zachary Allen Farmer, Robert Doyle
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre has staged another remarkable production with their rendition of the modern classic musical La Cage aux Folles. As often happens at New Line, this production distills the essence of the show and brings out its human drama, emphasizing character and relationships, along with the excellent singing that I’ve come to expect from this company. In addition, it’s also sparkly and dazzling, with a strong ensemble and a truly stunning performance from one of New Line’s most recognizable players.

This production is also my introduction to this show, in terms of seeing it live. I’d heard the score many times, and seen clips of televised performances of some of the songs, but I’d never seen a production of the show before until now. I did know the story, though. It focuses on performers in a drag show at a nightclub in Saint-Tropez, France. Georges (Robert Doyle) is the MC of the show, and his longtime partner Albin (Zachary Allen Farmer) is the star of the show, performing as “Zaza” and backed by Les Cagelles (Jake Blonstein, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg, and Ian McCreary). Offstage, Georges and Albin live in an apartment over the club, and are attended by the enthusiastic butler/maid Jacob (Tiélere Cheatem), who is also an aspiring drag performer who wants to be in the show. Georges has a son, Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz), whom Georges and Albin have raised together. Now, Jean-Michel has returned with announcement–he’s engaged, and his fiancée, Anne (Zora Vredeveld) is the daughter of a prominent ultra-conservative political candidate, and he’s invited her parents (Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini) to meet his parents, but with a twist that leads to much examination of relationships, identity, and the sense of belonging for Albin, Georges, Jean-Michel and eventually most of the cast. This version is based on the most recent London and Broadway revivals, with a smaller cast than the original Broadway production, but with the catchy, memorable Jerry Herman score intact, as well as Harvey Fierstein’s insightful book and the memorable lead characters.

Casting-wise, this production shines, and particularly as a showcase for one of New Line’s most prolific performers. Thinking of all the shows I’ve seen at New Line since the first one I saw (Next to Normal) in 2013, it’s easier for me to count the shows Zachary Allen Farmer hasn’t performed in than the ones in which he has appeared. Still, seeing him here as Albin/Zaza is something of a revelation. Farmer is always excellent, but he’s especially so here, bringing out a depth and richness to both his acting and his always remarkable vocals on songs like the title number and especially the fiery “I Am What I Am” and the catchy “The Best of Times”.  Also, as with the best of performers, he brings a sheer level of stage presence that not only lights up the stage, but energizes everyone around him. A particular beneficiary of this energizing is Doyle as Georges, who starts off slowly but gets better and better as the show goes along, especially in his scenes with Farmer. The two have a strong, believable chemistry that lends poignancy to their characters’ relationship as a couple, exemplified in Georges’s ballad “Song of the Sand” and its duet reprise. Also standing out is Cheatem is a delightfully scene-stealing performance as the stylishly determined Jacob. There’s also strong support from Lindsey Jones as Georges and Albin’s friend, the vivacious restaurateur Jacqueline, and by Corpuz, who gives a strong performance as Jean-Michel, who also has convincing chemistry with Vredeveld as the sweet but little-seen Anne. Coffel and Bollini are also memorable in dual roles as two very different couples–the supportive, friendly Renauds and the more severe Dindons. There’s also excellent support from Joel Hackbarth as the club’s stage manager Francis and memorable, energetic singing and dancing from les Cagelles.

Visually, this show is striking, with a bold, flashy and very pink set by Rob Lippert, who also designed the excellent lighting. Sarah Porter deserves special mention for her spectacular costumes, from the sparkling Cagelles outfits to Jacob’s memorable attire, to Albin/Zaza’s array of eye-ctaching ensembles, many of which have a mid-80s vibe. There’s also an excellent New Line Band conducted by Music Director and pianist Nicolas Valdez, and vibrant choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, performed with flair by the cast.

This is a show I’d heard a lot about, and I knew some of the songs well, but I hadn’t seen it on stage until New Line brought it to the stage with its usual insightful, inventive style. This is a fun show with a lot of flash, but it’s also a very human show, with poignancy and wit and charm. It’s another winning production from New Line.

Cast of La Cage Aux Folles
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting La Cage au Folles at the Marcelle Theatre until March 23, 2019

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The Zombies of Penzance
Book and Lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and Scott Miller, Music by Arthur Sullivan and John Gerdes
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 28, 2018

Sean Michael, Dominc Dowdy-Windsor
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s Gilbert and Sullivan with Zombies! That’s the easy way to describe New Line’s latest production, opening the company’s new season at the Marcelle Theatre. The Zombies of Penzance is essentially that, but it’s also another example of the excellent casting and top-notch singing that’s come to be expected from New Line. It’s also a whole lot of fun to watch, but especially so if you you like zombie stories, Gilbert and Sullivan, or both.

Now, I have to start this out by saying that zombie stories are not something that generally appeal to me. I know they are immensely popular at present, but they (along with another popular genre, vampire stories) are not “my thing”, for the most part. Still, this is a fun concept, and although I’m not a Gilbert and Sullivan expert either, I am familiar with their music to a certain degree, although (now including this one) the only live versions I’ve seen based on this show’s source, The Pirates of Penzance, have been parodies or comic “re-imaginings”. As a re-imagining, The Zombies of Penzance is an especially clever one. Presented with the “backstory” of having been a long-lost “original” manuscript from Gilbert and Sullivan that predates Pirates, the show ends up being a prime example of what New Line does best. The story essentially takes the Pirates template and changes it around somewhat. Presented on an old-fashioned Victorian proscenium-style stage surmounted by framed photos of Queen Victoria and zombie movie icon George S. Romero, the story follows the idealistic, newly zombified Frederic (Sean Michael) who becomes torn in his loyalties between his fellow zombies led by the enthusiastic Zombie King (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) and his old loyalties to society, along with a new attraction to Mabel (Melissa Felps) the eagerly enthusiastic young daughter of famous and somewhat reclusive zombie killer Major-General Stanley (Zachary Allen Farmer). Stanley, for his part, boasts of his illustrious career in the hilariously re-written “Modern Era Zombie KIller’, and expreses his desire to protect established society and the lives and repuations of Mabel and his other daughters.  (Christina Rios as Edith, Kimi Short as Isabel, and Lindsey Jones as Kate, along with Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak, and Sarah Porter). The zombies continue to be zombies, and as the daughters’ fascination with them grows, so does Frederic’s conflict.

Various issues are dealt with here, especially in terms of challenging religiously defined social norms, essentially in a metaphorical sense that the script itself calls out several times, in a conceit that at times can come across as self-congratulatory. Still, the concept is interesting and the script is hilarious, with lots of witty references to the zombie genre and Romero’s works in particuar, and the lyrical re-writes to the well-known songs are excellently done, sung remarkably well by the New Line cast. Songs like “Poor Walking Dead” “Hail, Zombies!” and more generate a lot of well-earned laughs. The cast is truly wonderful, as well, led by a sincere, gloriously sung performance by Michael as the conflicted Frederic. Dowdy-Windsor displays strong stage presence and an equally strong voice as the Zombie King, also, and Felps displays impressive vocal ability and an energetic characterization as Mabel. There’s also a memorable, delightfully hammy performance by Farmer as Major-General Stanley, and much energy, enthusiasm, and excellent singing from the entire ensemble of Daughters and Zombies.

In terms of production values, this show is a stunner, with that inventively detailed period-styled set designed by Rob Lippert. Much credit goes as well to the team of set contructors, artists and painters including Richard Brown, Paul Troyke, Patrick Donnigan, Melanie Kozak, Kate Wilkerson, Nick Brunstein, Judy Brunstein, Grace Brunstein, Kathleen Dwyer, Tamar Crump, Karla Suazo, and Gary Karasek.  The whimsical, detailed costumes by Sarah Porter also add to the overall mood and atmosphere. There’s also excellent lighting work from Kenneth Zinkl and sound by Ryan Day, and a first-rate New Line Band led by musical director Nicolas Valdez.

It’s a a seriously fun show, no matter what you may think of Zombie stories, but if you love them, I think you’ll especially love The Zombies of Penzance. In terms of humor and sheer musicality, it’s remarkable. Ultimately, though, this show is a witty, hilarious show that has a lot of fun with its concept and features first-rate, enthusiastic cast. It’s not “traditional” Gilbert and Sullivan, but that’s really the point. It’s another excellent, thought-provoking show from New Line.

Zachary Alan Farmer (Center) and Daughters
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting The Zombies of Penzance at the Marcelle Theatre until October 20, 2018.

 

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Yeast Nation
Lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis
Music by Mark Hollmann, Book by Greg Kotis
Orchestrations by John Gerdes
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 2, 2018

Cast of Yeast Nation
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is closing out its latest season with a quirky show that’s right up their alley in terms of style and approach, although at its heart it’s both new and old at the same time. Yeast Nation is a fun, funny show with a theme that’s novel and a message that’s more timeless. At New Line, it’s given a production that emphasizes the comedy, musicality, and most of all, the heart of the story.

This show, set up as something of a Greek tragedy with a chorus and archetypal characters and situations, has kind of a goofy-sounding premise, and the directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have embraced the overall silliness of the theme by going all-out in terms of visuals, vocals, and performance. Basically, it’s about yeasts–more specifically, a colony of yeasts that live on the earth billions of years ago. Still, although these characters are yeasts, the situations presented here are very human. The power struggles between young and old, progress and conformity, individual goals vs. those of the group, are all familiar, told in a framework that gives the story an air of mythology. Most of the yeasts here are named Jan, with adjectives highlighting their personality or position in the group. Jan-the-Unnamed (Sarah Gene Dowling) essentially narrates the story, leading a chorus of yeasts throughout the production, telling a tale of change, resistance to change, and, of course, love, as the colony’s longtime leader, Jan-the-Elder (Zachary Allen Farmer), advised by his counselor Jan-the-Wise (Micheal Lowe)  strives to keep order and “stasis” in the community, as resources are scarce and strict rules are maintained in order to preserve the colony’s supply of the salts that they need to eat to survive. When one yeast breaks the rules and is bascially executed (“popped”), his daughter Jan-the-Sweet (Larissa White) is left to grieve and question the strictness and purpose of the rules. Also challenging the status quo is the Elder’s first son, Jan-the-Second-Oldest (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), who is also sweet on Sweet and wants to help her, as well as the rest of the colony, by breaking the rules and “rising” to the top of the ocean in search of other sources of food. Meanwhile, Second’s sister Jan-the-Sly (Grace Langford) thirsts for power and teams up with Wise (who is also enamored with Sweet) in order to enforce the old rules of stasis and gain control of the colony in place of her ailing father. There’s a lot of intrigue, plotting, and aspiring, and its all presented in a heightened style that ultimately feeds the overall broad comic tone of the show, communicating a message that isn’t really new, even though it’s told in a clever, compelling way.

The musical elements, as is usual for New Line, are top-notch. There’s a great band led by music director Sarah Nelson, playing the show’s generally upbeat score with style. The singing is great, with everyone in excellent voice and Dowling and the chorus having some standout moments, especially on the show’s catchiest number “Love Equals Pain” in Act 2. White and Dowdy-Windsor also have some strong vocal moments, and they display a believable, sweet chemistry in their scenes together, and Farmer as usual has a strong presence and impressive vocals. Langford and Lowe bring a lot of gleeful energy to their villainous roles, and there are also memorable performances from Jennelle Gilreath as the conflicted, determined Jan-the-Famished, Colin Dowd as Jan-the-Youngest, and Lex Ronan as an enigmatic (and initially cute) new addition known as the New One. The whole ensemble works together well, bringing a great deal of energy to this seriously funny saga.

Visually, Yeast Nation makes a strong impression as well, with a set and lighting by Rob Lippert, costumes by Sarah Porter, and an overall style that’s reminiscent of an undersea-set Saturday morning cartoon. In fact, the overall theming and sense of style here, from the direction to the technical elements to the sheer energy of the cast, is a key element of this production’s success. This is a show that I hadn’t seen or heard before–which is another strength of New Line in that they give exposure to some more obscure musicals, and that’s a very good thing. Overall, I think this production is a lot of fun, and another example of the strength and ingenuity of New Line Theatre.

Larissa White, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Yeast Nation at the Marcelle Theatre until June 23, 2018.

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Anything Goes
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 2, 2018

Sarah Gene Dowling, Evan Fornachon, Aaron Allen
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Anything Goes is Anything Goes no matter who produces it, right? Well, maybe not. New Line Theatre, known for its productions of edgier and lesser known shows, has taken this classic, “fun” show and given it a presentation that’s in several ways different than what’s come to be expected as usual. There’s an emphasis on satire and less of an emphasis on dance than other productions I’ve seen, but still, it’s Anything Goes, and the overall effect is energetic, smart, and very very funny.

This is a version of the show I haven’t seen on stage before. Most more recent regional productions, and also the 2011 Broadway revival, have been based on the 1987 revival script of the show. For this production, directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor are using the 1962 script of the show, which has the same basic characters and plot as the later revival, but with some differences in specifics and in the songs featured, and also in the prominence of some characters. While evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Sarah Porter) is still a major focus, as is Billy Crocker (Evan Fornachon), the overworked stockbroker in love with young debutante Hope Harcourt (Eileen Engel), and “Public Enemy #13” Moonface Martin (Aaron Allen), but that focus is shifted a little, and through a combination of the different script and New Line’s intuitive directing, we get to see a somewhat different look at these characters, as well as others such as Hope’s seemingly stuffy English fiance, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Zachary Allen Farmer), and Moonface’s partner-in-crime, the brash, flirtatious Bonnie (Sarah Gene Dowling), who was renamed “Erma” in the 1987 version. The focus on dance isn’t quite a prominent here either, but what’s there is still spectacular, along with the ever-present broad, sketch-style comedy, which is perhaps even apparent so than in the other version. Here at New Line, what we get to see is a sharp, witty, tuneful, and well-cast production that’s a delight from start to finish.

New Line artistic director and Anything Goes co-director Scott Miller mentions in his director’s notes in the program the timeliness of this show. Many of the themes, he notes, are just as prominent today as they were in the 1930s, when this show was orginally written, and the time period in which it sill takes place. The show at New Line isn’t as big as other productions I’ve seen, but, especially in terms of costumes (designed by Colene Fornachon and Sarah Porter), it’s as glam and glitzy as anyone would expect. With the sumptuous evening gowns, dapper suits, and varous nautical and gangster attire, the spirit of the 1930s has been brought to the stage well. Rob Lippert’s excellent unit set, representing the luxury ocean liner on which the action takes place, is also on point, as is his equally effective lighting. There’s also great work from the excellent New Line band, doing justice to the marvelous Cole Porter score and outfitted in sailor hats in accordance with the theme of the show, ably led by Music Director and “captain” Nicolas Valdez.

The cast here is a treat, led by the always excellent Porter as the brassy, bold, and also surprisingly vulnerable Reno Sweeney, with standout moments such as the solo “I Get a Kick Out of You”, production numbers “Anything Goes” and “Bow, Gabriel, Blow”, and a fun bit of harmonizing with co-stars Fornachon and Allen in “Friendship”. Her scenes with the wonderful Farmer as the initially jaded, bewildered, and ultimately endearing Sir Evelyn are especially engaging. There’s also top-notch work from Dowling in a scene-stealing performance as Bonnie, and from Allen in an impressive comic term as Moonface, the small-time crook who wishes he were big-time. Fornachon and Engel make a good pair as Billy and Hope, as well, with great duets on “It’s De-Lovely” and “All Through the Night”. Reno is well-supported by her “Angels” Purity (Michelle Sauer), Chastity (Larissa White), Charity (Alyssa Wolf), and Virtue (Sara Rae Womack), and there are also hilarious supporting performances from Kimmie Kidd-Booker as Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt, and Jeffrey M. Wright as Billy’s on-again, off-again boss, Elisha J. Whitney. There’s also a strong ensemble in support. The usually excellent New Line singing is there, of course, joined by impressive, energetic dancing as well.

This is a slightly different Anything Goes than you may be used to, but that’s a good thing. It’s a fresh look at an older show, with a bright, memorable score of hits by a legendary composer, as well as delightful moments of broad comedy and some pointed satirical touches. And the cast is great, as well. It might not be the type of show one might expect from New Line, but the level of excellence is certainly on par with New Line’s best. It’s refreshing, bold, and lots of fun.

Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer, Eileen Engel
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Anything Goes at the Marcelle Theatre until March 24, 2018.

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Lizzie
Music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt
Lyrics and original concept by Steven Cheslik-deMeyere and Tim Maner
Book and Additional Music by Tim Maner
Additional Lyrics and Orchestrations by Alan Stevens Hewett
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 29, 2017

Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Marcy Wiegert
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Lizzie Borden murder case is still infamous even 125 years after the event. It’s been the frequent subject of books, documentaries, and dramatizations on stage and screen. This year, New Line Theatre is opening their new season with another look at this infamous story, with a highly personal approach and a bold new soundtrack. Lizzie is a musical that takes the story “out of time” in a sense, with it’s high-powered rock score and minimal staging at once appealing to modern audiences and adding a new dimension to the legend that has developed around the actual event.  With New Line’s excellent cast and production values, this show makes an intense impression.

This story isn’t new, but this approach certainly is, although the premise is somewhat similar to other dramatizations in presenting the idea of why Lizzie (Anna Skidis Vargas) would actually commit the murders of her father and stepmother, for which she was tried and acquitted. The show is presented in almost a concert format, with minimal staging and the characters outfitted in Sarah Porter’s colorful, stylized, modern punk-rock inspired costumes. The story is both told in-time and taken out of time by means of this format, with the result of making it a focused, highly personal drama. Lizzie is joined on stage by her older sister Emma (Marcy Wiegert), the family’s maid Bridget Sullivan (Kimi Short), and next-door neighbor Alice Russell (Larissa White), as they sing of their troubled lives in the “House of Borden”, with imperious father Andrew and highly disliked stepmother Abby. What emerges is a picture of a troubled family, and a lonely Lizzie who isn’t given a lot of options in life. The restrictive roles of women at the time are also presented as a factor, which makes the rebel-rock approach all the more effectively jarring. The show has its loud moments and quiet interludes, humanizing these characters that have been almost flattened by history and showing poignancy in the relationships between Lizzie and Emma, and also a particular attachment between Lizzie and Alice, as well as showing alienation from various characters–the sisters from their parents, and Bridget’s from the family for whom she works and who don’t even call her by the right name (calling her “Maggie” instead–the name of a previous maid).

What’s given here is a concert of relationships, finely crafted, shockingly portrayed, and effectively humanized, played with energy, grit, and magnetism by the first-rate New Line cast, led by Vargas as the alternately fragile and fierce Lizzie. She’s in great voice, as well, as are the rest of the performers here, and there are some strong musical moments from the opening “Forty Whacks” to ominous “The House of Borden” to the driving “Sweet Little Sister”, to the poignant, hymnlike “Watchmen for the Morning”, which features the particularly affecting harmonies of Vargas and Wiegert. Wiegert as the bold, protective Emma, White as the more gentle, longing Alice, and Short as the overworked, weary but strong-willed Bridget are all excellent, with strong voices and excellent chemistry. It’s a strong showing for all of them, and they sell this story for all its complex, emotional worth.

There are strong production values here, as well, from Porter’s aforementioned costumes to Rob Lippert’s starkly minimal set and stunning, concert-like lighting. There’s also a top-notch band conducted by music director Sarah Nelson. All these elements work together in achieving a consistent look, sound and vision for this unconventional presentation of a reasonably well-known story.

This is one of those shows that takes the audience by surprise in a way. You think you know what you’re getting–the Lizzie Borden story with rock music–and that is what New Line presents, but there is a lot more to it than that simple premise describes. The format here is a particular strength in that it takes subject matter that’s been talked about and presented in many different ways before and brings it to the audience in a way that at once sets it apart and makes it more accessible. This Lizzie is loud, but it’s also incisive. The story is old, but it’s also new. It’s a story that’s been told, but not in this way. It’s New Line at its bold, brash, thought-provoking best.

Larissa White, Anna Skidis Vargas
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Lizzie at the Marcelle Theatre until October 21, 2017.

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Sweet Smell of Success
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Book by John Guare
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 3, 2017

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer, Matt Pentecost
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s a somewhat obscure musical that had a short run on Broadway, won a few awards and received a mixed critical reception, and it’s based on a movie that’s well-regarded by critics but isn’t exactly a household name. I hadn’t seen the film before seeing New Line’s newest production of Sweet Smell of Success, although I had heard of the film and the musical. Oddly, I don’t think familiarity with the source material matters much in terms of enjoying this show, even though its subject matter revolves heavily around the concept of success, notoriety, and the sheer level of power that can come from being a household name. This is the kind of show that New Line does especially well–a show that might have been too “small” in a sense for Broadway. It’s the kind of show where an intimate presentation in a venue like New Line’s Marcelle Theatre can be ideal, to scale this story down to its most important elements–the characters, the raw emotions, and the key concepts at play in this seedy, sultry, and sometimes downright scary morality tale that focuses on the down side of the quest for fame.

The story takes the audience to New York City in the 1950’s, to a world in which gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Zachary Allen Farmer) exerts his influence through his nationally syndicated and widely read newspaper column. As the ensemble asserts in the opening number, making it into “The Column” is essential for achieving that elusive measure of success for the small nightclubs that host celebrity sightings, the up-and-coming actors and musicians who are looking for their big breaks, and even the press agents who work tirelessly to get their clients mentioned by J.J. One of these press agents is Sidney (Matt Pentecost), who makes call after unheeded call to J. J.’s secretary Madge (Kimi Short) in hopes of getting his only client, the small but ambitious Club Voodoo, a mention. Sidney’s luck doesn’t improve until a chance meeting at the club with an aspiring young actress who turns out to be J.J.’s sister, Susan (Ann Hier), who is indulging in a secret romantic relationship with struggling jazz musician Dallas (Sean Michael). When J. J. himself walks into the club looking for Susan, Sydney tries to help her by pretending to be her friend, and ends up getting J.J.’s notice, which begins Sidney’s  ascent up the ladder to success, at the increasing expense of his own scruples. As J.J.’s true character is revealed, along with his creepy obsession with and sense of control over Susan, Sidney is caught between his desire for celebrity and influence under J.J.’s tutelage and his genuine fondness for Susan and desire to help her. The problem Sidney finds is essentially, how does a person hold onto his own soul after he sells it in the name of success? The consequences turn out to be messy for some, and tragic for others.

The setting and overall atmosphere of this production is masterfully achieved by virtue of strong production values and an ideal setting. As excellent as New Line’s shows have been since moving to the Marcelle, I think this production has been most successful at making the most of this venue.  The small, intimate atmosphere and the meticulously crafted set by Rob Lippert create the ideal mood for this jazzy, dark, and challenging piece of theatre. Lippert’s excellent lighting also contributes to the Noir-ish atmosphere, as do Sarah Porter’s stylish and detailed period costumes. The pacing is strong here, as well, with the mood being tense when it needs to be, and even downright brutal and bleak when necessary as well. There are also some much-needed moments of humor in the midst of the tension, though, and these are also handled well by way of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s astute direction and the extremely strong cast that the directors have assembled, as well as the excellent band led by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter, bringing the show’s jazz-influenced score to life with a bold attitude and style.

The focus of much of this play is on the figures of J.J. and Sidney, and both parts are cast well with veteran New Liners. Farmer brings a sense of self-assured determination and a steely resolve to the role of the domineering J.J., as well as a wry sense of humor and a strong voice. His status as the influential power player is unquestioned. Pentecost brings a sense of weary charm to Sidney that makes the viewer want to sympathize with him to a point. His scenes with Farmer and with Hier are particularly memorable. Hier, in the difficult role of the conflicted, dominated Susan, shines as well, bringing a quiet strength to the role that makes itself more clear as the show goes on. Michael, as Susan’s principled secret boyfriend Dallas, is also excellent, displaying a strong tenor voice on “I Cannot Hear the City” and “One Track Mind”. His chemistry with Hier is credible, as well. There’s also a standout performance from New Line veteran Sarah Porter, making an impression is the small but important role of Sidney’s girlfriend, waitress and aspiring actress Rita, who gets the show’s single best solo musical moment with “Rita’s Tune”. Kent Coffel as corrupt police Lt. Kello, Jason Blackburn as rival gossip columnist Otis Elwell, and Short as J.J.’s no-nonsense secretary Madge lend excellent support as well, as does the show’s cohesive ensemble, playing a range of New Yorkers and contributing to memorable musical numbers like the intro and the energetic, sharp and chilling “Dirt”.

This is a challenging, incisive story with an incisive message, richly drawn characters, and even more richly drawn settings. It’s an homage to Film Noir, tied to its time in one way, but surprisingly timeless in another, since the modes of communication and the names may change over the years, but human nature hasn’t changed, and neither have the temptations that come with the thirst for knowledge, influence, and especially power and control. Sweet Smell of Success isn’t always sweet, but at New Line and with this cast and creative team, it’s certainly a success.

Cast of Sweet Smell of Success
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Sweet Smell of Success at the Marcelle Theatre until June 24, 2017.

 

 

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Zorba
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2017

zorba1

Margeau Steinau, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Kent Coffel Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

One of the key lines from the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba is sung near the beginning of the show–“life is what you do when you’re waiting to die”. Currently on stage at New Line Theatre, Zorba shows its audience life in all its beauty and brutality.  At New Line, it’s presented with the usual strong cast and excellent singing, bringing this sometimes challenging show to vibrant life.

Zorba is an entertaining show, but it can also be kind of stark and brutal. It follows two central characters. The young, scholarly Nikos (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), is full of idealism as he heads to a small Greek town to manage a mine he has inherited.  He meets the show’s title character, the older, boisterous Zorba (Kent Coffel) in a bar and brings him along to help him run the mine. This begins a relationship in which the younger Nikos is taught the realities of life and the more world-wise Zorba teaches as well as learning a thing or two. It’s structured as a “story within a story” that starts in the bar, narrated by a figure identified as Leader (Lindsey Jones), who reappears at various times throughout the course of the show. Through the course of the story, Nikos and Zorba encounter the local villagers and enter into complicated relationships with local women both dealing with loneliness in their own ways. There’s the older Madame Hortense (Margeau Steinau), who has had an eventful life and a string of short-lived relationships, who enters into something of a combative relationship with Zorba. There’s also the Widow (Ann Hier), who is ostracized by the local villagers, idealized by an infatuated young man (Evan Fornachon) whom she ignores, and who experiences a halting but powerful attraction to Nikos. The story is told with humor, drama, and occasionally a kind of harshness that seems flippant at times, although the music is strong and the characters lively and memorable. Like life, there are moments of beauty as well as of tragedy, although sometimes it seems as if the tragedy isn’t given the weight it should have.

This is a Kander and Ebb show, and as such the music is excellent. From the opening  “Life Is” to that song’s reprise that ends the show, there are many memorable songs, from Zorba’s rousing “The First Time” to his anthemic “I Am Free”, to Madame Hortense’s poignant “Only Love” and “Happy Birthday”. It’s a good script as well, for the most part, but at New Line it’s the performances that make the show, and especially those of the leads. Coffel is an ideal Zorba, with energy and charisma and wit, bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage with charm and veracity. There’s also Dowdy-Windsor as an especially sympathetic Nikos, and his scenes with Coffel are a real highlight of the show. Steinau is also a particular standout as the determined, lovestruck Madame Hortense, and Hier makes the most of the somewhat underwritten role of the Widow. Jones has a strong voice and presence as the Leader, as well, and Fornachon makes a sensitive impression as Pavli, the young man who is infatuated with the Widow.  These players are backed up by a cohesive ensemble, as well, although sometimes there can be a lack of energy in the more dramatic ensemble scenes. Overall, however it’s a strong cast, highlighted by the first-rate singing that New Line is known for.

Technically, the show is in good hands as well. Rob Lippert’s lighting and colorful set with pillars and a vivid Greek-village backdrop help to set the mood and tone of the show well, along with Sarah Porter’s excellent costumes. There’s also a superb band conducted by Sarah Nelson, doing justice to Kander and Ebb’s excellent score.  Michelle Sauer’s choreography is full of energy and true to the music and style of the show, well executed by the strong ensemble.

Zorba is a well-known story, as it was a book and a celebrated film before it was a musical. The musical, however, is my introduction to the story. Although its philosophy does seem to veer towards the harsh at times, it’s also a celebration of the beauty and messiness of life itself. At New Line, this show is brought to the stage with energy, intelligence, and an especially strong cast in the leading roles. It’s definitely a show worth seeing.

zorba2

Lindsey Jones (center) and Company Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

 New Line Theatre is presenting Zorba at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2017.

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