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The Robber Bridegroom
Book and Lyrics by Alfred Uhry, Music by Robert Waldman
Adapted From the Novella by Eudora Welty
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 2, 2018

Phil Leveling (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest musical production is a reflection of the sense of theatrical excellence that has come to characterize this company. The Robber Bridegroom is an offbeat, folktale-style musical with a bluegrass score, larger-than-life characters and a great bluegrass score.  It’s also a whole lot of fun.

The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1975, has a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and excellent, bluegrass-style music by Robert Waldman, played here by a top-notch band conducted by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The band members dress in costume and process in with the rest of the cast at the beginning of the show, remaining onstage throughout the performance and adding an old-fashioned, energetic spirit to the production, along with the superb cast, who are all in excellent form. The story is told in “storyteller” style and opens with a square dance, as the various characters introduce themselves and the premise is set up. In 18th Century Mississippi, Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling), while traveling, saves the rich planter Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey M Wright) from a murder attempt by notorious robber Little Harp (Logan Willmore)–whose “partner in crime” is the head of his brother, Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), that Little Harp carries around in a trunk. The grateful Musgrove invites Jamie to visit him at his plantation, with the aim of setting Lockhart up with his daughter Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), who is mistreated by her greedy, ambitious stepmother Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling). The lonely Rosamund wanders in the woods and meets the notorius Bandit of the Woods, she doesn’t know is Jamie in disguise, and Salome enlists the not-too-bright Goat (Bryce Miller) to get rid of Rosamund, although that proves to be more difficult than Salome had imagined.

This is a show with which I hadn’t been familiar before, and I had only heard one of the songs out of context. Reading the plot synopsis, and the fairly dark nature of some of the plot points, made me go into this expecting it to be much more in the vein of something like Sweeney Todd. The approach here, though, is much different. For the most part, this is an upbeat musical, full of broad, sketch-like comedy, a rousing score, and no real “cautionary” lessons. It just presents the characters and situations in all their over-the-top, sometimes ridiculous glory and lets the audience, and the cast, enjoy the ride. It’s told in the form of a folk legend, or “tall tale”, with even the more implausible aspects of the plot (a disembodied head that talks, for instance) told in a straightforward, humorous manner. The bluegrass score adds to the overall “folk tale” atmosphere, and there are some memorable songs here, from the fast-moving “Once Upon the Natchez Trace”  and “Two Heads” to the haunting “Deeper in the Wood” to the lullabye-like “Sleepy Man” and more.

The general tone is upbeat and energetic, with broad characterizations that provide excellent opportunities for the excellent cast to shine. The larger-than-life characters are well-represented here, with Dowling’s angry, vengeful Salome, Willmore’s eagerly villainous Little Harp and O’Brien’s equally villainous but restrained (in a box) Big Harp, and Miller’s gleeful, physically agile but easily duped Goat as major standouts. Leveling as the charismatic but duplicitous Jamie, and especially Schmid in a superb comic turn as the determined, slightly goofy Rosamund lead the show well, displaying lively chemistry in their scenes together. The entire ensemble is excellent, as well, with lots of energy keeping the fast-paced show running smoothly and with much hilarity. The singing is also great, from the leads as well as the ensemble, with some strong harmonies in the group numbers.

The staging here is paced well, with a kind of exaggerated, not-too-serious tone that’s appropriate for this type of “tall tale”. Director Justin Been has also designed the versatile set, consisting of a tent-like backdrop, the main stage area decorated by period-era accessories such as crates and barrels, and a set of raised platforms to add visual interest. There’s also excellent lighting from Tyler Duenow, as well as colorful, detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and bright, energetic choreography by Mike Hodges.

This show is so much more fun than I had expected. It’s silly, that’s for sure, but it’s the kind of show that revels in its silliness, which makes it even more entertaining. The Robber Bridegroom isn’t a show I had known much about before, but now I’m glad Stray Dog has introduced me to it. It’s a real treat.

Dawn Schmid (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Robber Bridegroom at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 18, 2018.

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Ragtime, the Musical
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 3, 2017

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

“Ambitious” is a good word to describe Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Ragtime, just thinking about it. SDT isn’t a huge company, and their venue, the Tower Grove Abbey, isn’t that big either, but Ragtime is a big musical, in terms of casting, technical demands, and overall scope. This is one of those situations that might make someone wonder if a production like this would even work. Fortunately, however, this production does work, extremely well.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, heavily plotted novel, the musical Ragtime is grand in scope, examining life in New York City and its suburbs in the early 20th Century, and the major societal changes that were going on during that time. There’s a lot of story here, and the writers deserve credit for fitting all the plots into a coherent and fascinating musical. Real historical figures such as Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro), Harry Houdini (Joseph Gutowski), J.P. Morgan (Gerry Love), Henry Ford (Jason Meyers), Evelyn Nesbit (Angela Bubash), and Booker T. Washington (Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.) appear in the show interacting with the fictional characters and helping to set the scene and paint a picture of the times. The three main plots involve characters from different backgrounds living in a world of class and racial tensions, systemic racism and discrimination, as well as the rise of immigration, changes in technology and societal expectations, and more.  There’s an upper-class family in the rich, and very white, suburb of New Rochelle, featuring a somewhat obtuse but world exploring Father (Phil Leveling), a cynical Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi), a pampered Mother (Kay Love) who is learning that the world isn’t as simple as she had thought, and the Little Boy, Edgar (Joe Webb).  Against the expectations of society, Mother takes in a young black woman, Sarah (Evan Addams) and her newborn son. The child’s father is ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones), who wants to marry Sarah and has big dreams for their future as a family. There’s also Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), a Jewish immigrant artist from Latvia who arrives in New York with his daughter (Avery Smith) looking to make a new life in America. This is only the beginning, though. Complications occur for everyone involved, as Mother starts to see her values conflicting with those of her husband, Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee) looks for a purpose in life, Coalhouse is bullied and harassed by the local fire chief (also Lavazzi) and his cronies who don’t like the idea of a black man with a fancy new car spending so much time in New Rochelle, and Tateh’s efforts to provide for his daughter take him from the streets of New York to Boston and beyond. Hopes and dreams are confronted with harsh reality, cruelty, and injustice, and life changes significantly for everyone involved.

This isn’t an easy story to describe without taking too much time and spoiling too much, but all the plots are woven together expertly, and the tension builds throughout the first act and explodes in the second. This is an intensely challenging, moving, and thought-provoking work, and SDT has staged it as well as I could imagine. The singing is first-rate, from the leads to the large and impressive ensemble. From the very first moment of the show, the ensemble and the music set the mood, along with the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The music is a mixture of traditional Broadway and turn of the 20th Century styles including, as is to be expected from the title of the play, a major ragtime influence.  The time and place are evoked well through means of David Blake’s expansive, multi-level set with platforms, staircases, and the look of steel-beam construction from the era. There are also meticulously detailed period costumes by Eileen Engel, and dramatic lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps transport the audience to this specific era and place in history. The only small issue I have with this production is that Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby (played by a doll) never actually ages despite the fact that several years go by in the course of the story.

The cast here is simply remarkable, with not a weak link among them. Everyone is ideally cast, and the character relationships are well-established and believable, with excellent chemistry in the ensemble and among the leads. Jones and Addams especially display a strong connection as Coalhouse and Sarah, with powerful voices as well. Their hopeful duet “Wheels of a Dream” in Act 1 is a particular highlight. Jones is also especially adept at portraying Coalhouse’s journey throughout the story, as the character goes through a great deal of profound changes. Also strong are Kay Love, in a thoughtful, reflective and beautifully sung turn as Mother; Wright, determined and engaging as Tateh; and Bee as a particularly earnest and determined Younger Brother. There are also some memorable performances from Lavazzi in two distinct roles–the jaded Grandpa and the bigoted, bullying fire chief–as well as Bubash as the perky singer and actress Evelyn Nesbit, who is the center of a national scandal; Kyro as the insistent activist Emma Goldman; and young Webb and Smith as the Little Boy and the Little Girl. Everyone is excellent, though. If I named all the strong performances, I would be listing the whole cast, because everyone is just that good. This is a show that demands a lot from its cast in terms of vocals, acting, and overall energy, and this cast delivers all that and more, from the very first note to the stirring Act 1 finale “Till We Reach That Day” to the Epilogue that ends the show.

I’m fairly sure this is the biggest show Stray Dog has ever done, and it’s simply stunning. The pacing is just right as well, not too rushed and not too slow. The moments of emotional resonance are given just the right amount of time, and all the players work together with precision and strength. It’s a profoundly moving portrait of a pivotal time in American history, but it also has a lot to say for today’s times as well. This is a truly brilliant production.

Kay Love, Evan Addams
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Ragtime at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 19, 2017.

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Bat Boy: The Musical
Story and Book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 5, 2016

Corey Fraine, Angela Bubash, Dawn Schmid, Patrick Kelly Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Corey Fraine, Angela Bubash, Dawn Schmid, Patrick Kelly
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

Based on a story from an infamous tabloid, Bat Boy: The Musical is the darkly comic tale of a misfit child hidden away in a cave, and what happens when he’s discovered by the world around him. It’s a musical that started out off-Broadway and has become a modern cult classic, and it’s now on stage at Stray Dog Theatre. It’s the final show in STD’s current season, and it’s a well-cast, impressively staged production.

Stylistically, the show has essentially a sensationalist air, in the spirit of an over-the-top tabloid story like the one on which this is based. The influence of old-style “B” sci-fi movies is also apparent. Except for the main leads, most of the cast members play multiple roles of various ages and genders as needed. The title character (Corey Fraine) is originally found in a cave as two brothers and a sister (Michael A. Wells, Sara Rae Womack, and Lindsey Jones) are exploring. The initially wild “Bat Boy” quickly bites the sister, scaring the three siblings and sending their town into a panic of suspicion. The Sheriff (Josh Douglas) decides to take Bat Boy to the local veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Parker (Patrick Kelly), so the doctor can decide what to do, although he’s not home and his wife Meredith (Dawn Schmid) and daughter Shelley (Angela Bubash) meet Bat Boy first, and Meredith insists on taking the boy in and giving him a loving home, eventually persuading her reluctant husband to go along with her plan. Bat Boy is soon re-christened “Edgar” and, under the instruction of Meredith, Shelley, and Thomas, quickly reveals his intelligent and sensitive nature, although the townspeople still believe him to be a monster. Then there’s the matter of Thomas, who grows jealous of his wife’s attentions toward Edgar. As the townspeople gear up for a big tent revival meeting held by a visiting superstar evangelist (also Wells), Edgar and the various Parkers have dreams, concerns, and dilemmas to deal with.

The show has the exaggerated tone of tabloid television, with lots of comedy although there is also a tendency toward melodrama. The plot gets more and more sensationalized as it goes on, with elements of horror, forbidden love, “mad scientists”, religious themes involving conservative Christianity as well as ancient Greek mythology, and more thrown in for good measure. The “message” starts out being one of the need for acceptance and understanding of differences, but the themes get a little confused as the sci-fi horror elements are further developed. The music is a mixture of modern styles, with some memorable production numbers and ballads. The slightly over-exaggerated tone of most of the production is also portrayed well by means of Mike Hodges’s stylized choreography and Cara Hoppes McCulley’s colorful costumes, all staged on Robert J. Lippert’s detailed, evocative set.

The cast here is well-chosen and full of energy. Fraine as Edgar the Bat Boy gives a strong, sympathetic performance, with a strong voice and dynamic physicality. He’s well-matched by Bubash’s feisty Shelley and Schmid’s determined, slightly mysterious Meredith. Kelly is also excellent as the increasingly conflicted Thomas, and all four leads are in excellent voice. The rest of the ensemble, all playing multiple roles, is excellent as well, helping to maintain the comically melodramatic tone of the show.

Bat Boy’s  story may be on the ridiculous side, but it’s the kind of show that revels in its ridiculousness. With memorable characters, humor, and memorable music, it’s an entertaining and crowd-pleasing tale, very well told by this excellent cast and technical crew. It’s another memorable musical production from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of Bat Boy: The Musical Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of Bat Boy: The Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Bat Boy: The Musical at Tower Grove Abbey until August 20, 2016.

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